By Jon Bishop
HARVARD — Did you think this is the first time Harvard has had a debate about town hall?
Well, if so, then you’d be wrong.
Let’s take a trip back to 1807, when the town first began exploring the use of a building for Town Hall. In his History of the Town of Harvard Massachusetts 1732-1893, Henry S. Nourse recounts that, in April of that year, a committee considered the question and then changed its mind.
“The report of the committee was probably adverse, as no further action in the matter is recorded, and the town-meetings continued to be held in the meeting-house as they had been from the first,” he wrote.
But it didn’t go away. The idea came up again in 1827, “perhaps stirred by some natural objections on the part of the first parish to submit their place of worship to the defilement and injury incident to its frequent use by mixed and sometimes disorderly assemblies,” Nourse wrote.
So it went to Town Meeting, which decided that there needed to be a special committee to examine the possibility of a town hall. Nourse wrote that “a plan was at once presented for a new building for the town’s use, forty-four by thirty-four feet, estimated to cost seven hundred dollars, but the whole subject was dismissed at the time.”
Town Meeting in May of 1828 “voted to proceed with the erection of a town house at once,” Nourse wrote.
It went up on the northeastern part of the town common.
In 1854, Nourse wrote, “selectmen were instructed to buy a safe wherein to bestow the town records.” But there was also an issue of space, apparently, because there was a vote to appoint a committee of two to “examine the books and papers in the Town Clerk’s office, and put all that are valuable in a proper condition, and destroy all that are worthless.”
This, wrote Nourse, was “a short-sighted and reprehensible act, which may account for the fact that no files of papers relating to the conduct of the town’s affairs in the early period of its history are now to be found.”
That goes for documents detailing “the participation of Harvard citizens in the French and Indian and Revolutionary wars,” too, Nourse wrote.
It was quiet for a bit, but then the desire for another town hall started to grow, and continued. Nourse wrote that “the suggestion that a new and much more capacious building for pubic meetings should take the place of the old one, excited the determined opposition of all the conservatives in the town.”
Harvard’s debt at that time was about $11,000, Nourse wrote, which caused people to argue that a new town hall should be delayed.
It all came to a head at the March of 1870 Town Meeting.
After what Nourse called a “spirited discussion,” 94 people voted in favor of a new town hall and 94 voted against it. It went to a second day — a “wrangle,” in Nourse’s terminology — and it ended in a vote of 107 affirmatives and 100 negatives.
They appropriated $10,000 and selected plans, Nourse wrote, but the location “became a source of bitter contention, and was changed by town vote again and again, before the present site was adopted.”
The first meeting in the new and current town hall was in April of 1872.
So not much in Harvard or even in New England town affairs — whether regarding town halls or Town Meetings — has changed.
Except, of course, for the prices.
Copies of Nourse’s book can be found in the Sears Room of the Harvard Public Library.
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