Wakefield 150

14Apr17

Not very many people realize it yet, but 2018 is shaping up as a pretty significant year around here.

If the first thought that popped into your head was that retail sales of weed will be legal in Massachusetts starting in July 2018, it might be time to put down the bong and pick up the job listings.

No, I’m talking about something even more important than that, if you can believe it. It’s also something more local.

The year 2018 marks our 150th birthday as the Town of Wakefield. It’s because of what happened nearly a century and a half ago in 1868 that the address on your checks reads “Wakefield” and not “South Reading.”

It may seem early to be talking about 2018, but if the town is going to do anything to commemorate this auspicious occasion, now is the time to start thinking about it.

Some might not think that this is an anniversary worthy of much fanfare, but the citizens of Wakefield in 1868 would beg to differ. They thought that the birth of Wakefield, Massachusetts was a very big deal.

They decided to combine the celebration of their newfound independent identity as the Town of Wakefield with that of the anniversary of America’s independence on July 4. So they held what was described in the understated prose of the time as “a day of general festivity and enjoyment” with “appropriate public ceremonies.”

In 21st century parlance, they threw a huge party.

And at least one local resident thinks we should do the same for the 150th Anniversary. I tend to agree.

Local author and historian Bob McLaughlin is the first to admit that even he didn’t make the 150th anniversary connection until he was contacted by Jeff Wakefield, the great-grandson of Cyrus Wakefield II, nephew and namesake of the Cyrus for whom the town is named. Cyrus II ran the Wakefield family business empire following the death of his uncle in 1873.

McLaughlin had gotten to know Jeff Wakefield years earlier while doing historical research on the old Wakefield rattan factories.

Jeff Wakefield lives in Canada and recently contacted McLaughlin pointing out that next year marks 150 years since Wakefield became Wakefield.

For those not familiar with the story, here’s the condensed version of why and how it is that you live in a town called Wakefield instead of South Reading.

In the mid-1860s, two separate town committees were appointed in South Reading. One committee was tasked with deciding between two projects: the erection of a soldiers’ monument or building a Town Hall. The second committee was charged with looking into changing the name of the town.

The first committee decided on the Town Hall option, for several reasons. According to the committee’s report, they decided that a new Town Hall would be “more useful, sentimental and historic than a simple granite or marble monument.”

But more importantly, it would also be cheaper for the town, especially in light of the offer they had received of “a lot of land and a cash contribution of $30,000 – $35,000, for a new Town House.”

That offer came from Cyrus Wakefield, one of the town’s most prominent – and richest – citizens. Cyrus made his fortune in the rattan business. He was the world’s largest manufacturer at the time of rattan products. The Wakefield Rattan Company’s factories were located on Water Street, on the present location of Shaw’s supermarket. The company employed half the town.

Meanwhile, the name-change committee understood that the people of South Reading wanted a separate identity, apart from Reading and North Reading. It bothered them that outsiders tended to assume that all three communities were part of the same town, leading to “constant inconvenience.”

One can only imagine.

“We are old enough and large enough,” the committee boldly asserted, “to have an identity as an active and independent town.”

Considering the generous offer just received from Cyrus Wakefield, the name-change committee’s recommendation was an easy one: change the name of the town from South Reading to Wakefield. Town Meeting agreed and it was so voted.

And thanks to Cyrus Wakefield’s largesse, the town built a grand and ornate Town Hall that stood at Main and Water streets until 1958.

The Governor signed off on the name change on Feb. 25, 1868, but the change didn’t officially go into effect until June 13.

Considering that the town celebrated its name change with a huge celebration on July 4, 1868, it seems only fitting that the town should hold another big celebration 150 years later to the day – on July 4, 2018.

What could be a more perfect theme for the 2018 Independence Day Parade and the entire town-wide celebration than Wakefield’s 150th Anniversary? Making it part of the July 4 celebration would also make a lot more sense than throwing a huge and costly separate event as was done in 1994 for the 350th anniversary.

In 1994, when we were celebrating the 350th Anniversary of the town, we had to share it with Reading because at the founding, we were one town. The 150th next year will belong to Wakefield alone. And remember, back in 1868 that was exactly the reason that the citizens of South Reading wanted to change the town’s name. They were tired of being lumped in with Reading and North Reading.

Jeff Wakefield has indicated that he would make every effort to come here and join the local 150th Anniversary festivities. Maybe Jeff could even do a reading from the Bandstand of Cyrus Wakefield’s original 1868 speech accepting the honor of the town taking his name.

So, why would someone who not only lives outside of the town but outside of the country want to come to our town’s 150th birthday party?

“Of course, people might wonder why I would care,” Jeff Wakefield acknowledges, “but it is very cool having a connection to the town’s name and history, despite not living there.”

As McLaughlin points out, we tore down Cyrus Wakefield’s mansion on Main Street to build a high School. We tore down his Town Hall in 1958 for a parking lot. Then we tore down his factories on Water Street for a supermarket. All that’s left of Cyrus today is his name on the town.

The least we can do is celebrate that – in a BIG way.

[This column originally appeared in the April 13, 2017 Wakefield Daily Item.]

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