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Revisiting a piece of Shirley history:

Part one of a three-part story

By Dina Samfield


SHIRLEY — Before Shirley became home to a major prison complex, the 900-acre former Shirley Shaker Village property that MCI-Shirley-Medium and the Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center rest on was the site of one of the state’s five major reform schools.

The first state-sponsored reform school for boys, the Lyman School in Westborough, opened in 1847. The first public training school for girls at Lancaster followed in 1854.

Over the decades, three additional state institutions were constructed, including the one in Shirley. Prior to the reform school movement, facilities for the punishment and detainment of juveniles consisted mainly of jails and prisons.

In 1908, the Shirley Shaker Village was purchased by the state of Massachusetts as the site for the Massachusetts Industrial School for Boys, a training school for delinquent boys between the ages of 15 and 18. The school opened in 1909, and was entirely filled to capacity with 100 boys in just over four months.

Within a year-and-a-half, two new dormitories, with a capacity of 30 boys each, were under construction, and one of the original Shaker buildings was being remodeled to accommodate 25 more, soon giving the school a capacity of 185 boys. By 1911, the institution had nearly 300 inmates.

Local resident Patricia Wood, who grew up at the school from 1952 to 1971, recently made it her mission to research the facility, which was open from 1909 to 1972, for an exhibit now on display at the Shirley Historical Society.

Titled “Managing Delinquent Boys,” the exhibit includes photos, artifacts and news articles about the school collected by Wood and museum curator Meredith Marcinkewicz.

At the exhibit’s recent opening, Wood explained that her father, Michael O’Malley, was a juvenile supervisor who worked with the boys on outside projects on the grounds, and for a few years at Leominster State Forest. Her mother, Esther, worked at the central building, first as a matron and then as a secretary. Her family lived in a house just across from the school ballfield.

Wood said that each inmate was assigned to one of what eventually became nine cottages on the grounds, each with a housemother and housefather. The school, she explained, was designed to give the boys an education, and to teach them manners and a trade.

Among the trades offered were tailoring, painting, farming, poultry and stock, teaming, grading, machine shop, masonry, electrical, forestry, printing, automotive, general housekeeping, shoe repairing, blacksmithing, barbering, carpentry, cooking and nursing.

Despite decades of documented brutality and mismanagement, she said, reform schools were long viewed as essential in protecting society from “wayward and delinquent youth.”

According to early annual reports by the school’s trustees, many of its inmates had been sent there for being “stubborn children,” while others were committed for breaking-and-entering, being under the influence of liquor, being “inferior mentally,” and for vagrancy and assault.

Paul Dickhaut, one of the school’s last superintendents, said of the boys incarcerated in the institution, “They came from poor families. That’s why these places were invented.”

“Christmas just came and went for them,” he said, noting that they were too poor to have received holiday gifts. For many years, while the boys were committed as inmates in Shirley, Cardinal Richard Cushing, the Archbishop of Boston, would give each boy a box containing a handkerchief.

“The Catholic cemetery in the (Shirley) village has the graves of three boys that were never claimed,” he added.

Ray Farrar, an instructor in the school’s electrical shop from 1960 to 1972, said that some of the boys ran away or committed crimes so that they would not have to go back to an abusive home when their incarceration ended.

He said that the boys were treated well, but admitted to having played a few pranks on them. Once, he said, he had the carpentry shop make a layered cake out of wood, which he had his wife beautifully cover with icing. Knowing that the boys were often hungry, he served them the “cake.”

Joe Landry shared that his father, Athanace Landry, who also taught in the electrical shop, would occasionally hook up a wire to a bench to give an inmate a surprise electrical jolt.

Although some of the treatment of the boys, particularly that of solitary confinement in Cottage 9, may be considered cruel, there is also ample testimony on display throughout the exhibit that were it not for the school, some young men may have never found a way out of poverty and abuse at home.

“After I left Shirley, I got my state barber apprentice license and then got a job in a barber shop,” reads testimony from one former inmate.

“That may have been a reform school, but the staff were caring and considerate. I am grateful, sincerely grateful,” reads another quote by a former inmate, who became a school principal.

At the other end of the spectrum reads testimony from yet another inmate: “I remember a cottage master had a huge key ring; he would swing and hit you hard if you got out of line.”

Next Week: Part 2: Life in Reform School.

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