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Historic documents show debate over town buildings runs deep in Walpole

January 20, 2013

Armed with a newly-released facilities study from the Maguire Group that recommends more than $85 million in new town facilities and renovations in existing facilities, Walpole town officials are hoping they can convince voters to support debt exclusion overrides for more town construction projects in the coming years.

It will be an uphill climb – since 2006, Walpole voters have shown a strong aversion to municipal construction projects by rejecting three different overrides for new town buildings. Voters approved a fourth override, in 2009 for a new library, by only eight votes – hardly a voter mandate for new buildings.

But Walpole town officials might take solace in knowing that their forefathers in town government shared many of the same frustrations in their efforts to get voter approval for new town facilities.

Documents recently re-discovered by Walpole Historical Commission Chairman Michael Amaral show that more than a century ago, voters were divided about how much to spend on the construction of a new Town Hall – today the police station.

The town’s conflict over that building draws humorous parallels to the strife that rages in Walpole today over town buildings, showing that spirited debates over town buildings are nothing new in Walpole.

The old Town Hall was constructed in 1881, and converted into a police station in the early 1980s. It is one of only two local buildings, beside the Deacon Willard Lewis House, that is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and it is one of the community’s most prominent and well-known local landmarks.

Before its construction, Walpole didn’t really have a town government office. Government was so small that no offices were needed. Town meetings were generally held in local houses or at local churches if additional space was needed. According to historical reports, the first annual town meeting in Walpole was held on March 8, 1725, about four months after Walpole was incorporated, in Joshua Clap’s house.

When Walpole was established in December 1724, the Massachusetts General Court required that the town build a “suitable house for the public worship of God” and hire a minister within 18 months. Long before the days of a separation of church and state, this meeting house, built in Walpole Center where the town common is today, hosted town meetings in addition to religious services.

It was in that building, in August 1774 shortly before the outbreak of the American Revolution, that Walpole residents held a Town Meeting in direct defiance of the British Crown shortly before the outbreak of the American Revolution.

In 1781, the meeting house was apparently too small for the growing town and was torn down. It was replaced with a new building in the same location that was 60 feet long and 40 feet wide.

During the second half of the 1800s, it became clear that Walpole would need a new Town Hall, (referred to in many towns at that time as a “town house”), for large meetings and also for a new library.

Just as modern day Walpole Selectmen have done to explore the town’s facilities needs, a facilities committee was put together.

A local newspaper article from an unidentified newspaper found in a scrapbook discovered by Amaral at the Historical Society reported that in 1880, “a committee of three were chosen by the Farmers’ Club to visit different towns and examine recently erected town houses, and see if one could be found that would do to copy from and supply the wants of our people, not only in size and convenience, but also in expense.”

That committee expressed a “particular interest” in the brick town house in Uxbridge, Mass, which had been completed in 1879.

“The whole expense of completion, ready for occupancy, of the building alone was thirteen thousand dollars. It was larger than we needed; had a cupola and spire, which cost five thousand dollars, an expensive driveway that we could dispense with,” read the newspaper account.

As of 2013, the Uxbridge Town Hall that the Walpole Farmers’ Club facilities committee had taken such an interest in is still used for municipal business and it is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Considering that Uxbridge had built their Town Hall at a relatively low price, “a very large part of the people of the town expressed a desire that a town house should be built at an expense not to exceed the sum of fifteen or sixteen thousand dollars,” the newspaper article reported.

Long before Proposition 2.5 debt exclusion overrides, in which residents must vote on tax hikes for new buildings, Walpole had Open Town Meetings – open to all registered voters – that made the final decision on spending money on new buildings.

Town Meeting voted on Mar. 1, 1880 to have the Moderator appoint another committee of six people to “to solicit plans, specifications, and bids” for a new Town House. The committee was tasked with determining a suitable location and an appropriate cost, and was given $500 to do its work.

On April 12, 1880, the six-person committee, chaired by George Craig, “reported a plan, with specifications and bids, that would cost the town twenty-five thousand dollars.”

But, in a situation that might sound all too familiar to 21st century Walpole Selectmen, the high cost of the plan was not well-received, and the committee was quickly discharged.

It was replaced by a new committee of six members, chaired by F.W. Bird. The new committee was asked to come up with a plan for a new Town House that would not cost more than $15,000.

Even though Craig’s committee had seen their proposal rejected, the committee still felt that their plan was best for the town, and returned at the June 7, 1880 Town Meeting, when Bird was to present his plans, to see if they could get their proposal approved for $5,000 less than their original plans.

According to a newspaper report, Craig’s committee “came again with all force, June 7th, and in consideration of the great fall in the price of the materials for construction, etc., etc., strenuously by a minority report, urged the adoption of the former plans and specifications, asking that the sum of twenty thousand dollars be appropriated for the same,” according to a newspaper article.

Craig’s $20,000 plan was designed by J. Williams Beal. The less-expensive plan presented by F.W. Bird’s committee was designed by Thomas Silloway.

Craig’s presentation of his proposal generated intense controversy in a way rarely seen at Town Meetings in Walpole today.

“[Craig’s committee] came thoroughly organized, and their report was made with ability; but their mouthpiece chosen to carry out their motion to adjourn in case they failed to carry their point exhibited a good deal more brass than brains,” a newspaper article reported.

“His manner and language would have done very good credit to a town meeting in Texas, where pistols and bowie knives are brought into requisition. His motion to adjourn (which is always in order, and not debatable) not being instantly recognized, as he wished, stepped forward and with clenched fist and uproarious language, brought that fist down upon the table in front of the moderator. An officer standing near told him he had no right to speak to the moderator in that manner. His reply to the officer was ‘You are a g—d d—d old fool.’ The penalty for swearing is clearly defined by the law. If there is no penalty for such language and manner to an officer, the reflection upon himself will probably injure him more than it will the officer.”

Documents and newspaper articles show that the debate at Town Meeting centered around what material to build the new Town Hall with – brick or wood. Brick cost more, while wood was cheaper. F.W. Bird’s “conservative party” favored the cheaper option with wood.

Neither the Craig plan nor the Bird plan were able to muster the necessary votes to pass at the June 7 meeting, but the town agreed to purchase the E.D. Clap lot at the corner of Main and Stone Street to site the new Town Hall. They postponed discussion about the actual construction of the building until June 28, 1880.

Bird distributed a mailing to all residents on June 22, 1880, urging them to support his proposal at the June 28 meeting:

To the Voters and Tax-Payers of Walpole.

You are again called to a Town-Meeting to act upon a plan for a Town-House which you have twice rejected. You are asked not only to adopt this twice-rejected plan, but to commit the building recommended by that plan to the committee who reported it, who were ashamed to say they approved of it, and yet now have the impudence to ask the town to adopt a plan substantially the same. They have called this meeting in the busiest week of the year – a time when they know the farmers of the town will be in the midst of their haying, and when they hope that that large class of our tax-payers who reside mostly in the outskirts will be unwilling to leave their work. It is important that this vexed question be settled; and to this end it is essential that the next meeting should be a full one, and should make a decision by such a majority that there shall be no appeal.
The reckless course pursued by the leaders of what is called the Beale plan shows that they mean to “rule or ruin” – that they mean to force their plan upon the town, or to prevent the town’s adopting any. Believing as we do that a town-house can be built with all the conveniences desirable for town purposes, which shall be at the same time an elegant structure, an ornament to the centre of the town, and which will in the end cost at least from five to eight thousand dollars less than the “Beale” plan, we appeal to the voters and taxpayers of the town to attend town-meeting next Monday, to insist upon knowing all the facts in the case, and then render their verdict.
The issue before the town is simply this: 1st. Shall we build a town-house with ample and convenient accommodations for all town purposes, which, besides that, shall be a substantial and elegant structure which will be an ornament to the centre village: or, 2d, Shall we build, practically, two town-houses; one adapted to town-purposes; and the other, a smaller hall for concerts, caucusses, theatricals, etc., at an additional cost of at least five thousand dollars. Our people in the outskirts are willing, as I believe, to be taxed for a building of the class first above-named, without insisting upon any particular plan or material; but we ought not to be taxed for the extra cost of other rooms and superfluous ornamentation for the gratification of residents in the immediate vicinity. If the residents in the centre want to put this extra cost into a building for rooms, etc., let them put their hands in their pockets and pay for them, and I will join them, but I will not vote to tax the outskirts for the extravagant cost of a building which they will not enter more than three or four times in a year.

COME ONE, COME ALL! and, above all, COME EARLY!

F.W. BIRD

East Walpole, June 22, 1880

Meanwhile, Craig wrote an impassioned plea of his own, urging residents to approve his proposal instead of Bird’s:

To whom it may concern. Residents of the town of Walpole.

In the transaction of business, public or private, an appeal to your passions is an insult to your intelligence. What more than this is is the peculiar address just issued to you by that incarnation of the “Rule or Ruin” principle, the Honorable F.W. Bird. It is an open secret among the friends and advocates of this gentleman, that he and his assistants propose to hold this town by the throat while they administer the nauseating dose prepared by the reverend and able Dr. Silloway, and that in the event of the town’s utter refusal to take the dose, why, they shall have no town-house.

As we have said, this document is peculiar in many respects; in the first place, it is assumed beyond a doubt to be an impertinence on the part of any free citizen of this town to move toward a mutual consultation in town meeting, without first having obtained the assent or permission of Hon. F.W. Bird and party; upon what ground this assumption is based, of course it is not our privilege to inquire.

The gentlemen with characteristic conscientiousness and care in the imputation of motives, accuses all who differ with him of being intentionally wicked in so far as the next town meeting is called at an accidentally busy season of the year. We wonder that he did not make us blameable for the exceptional heat of the season as it is really the cause which makes haying imperative now rather than two weeks hence as usual, and further he says, that they, his opponents hope that a large portion of the voters will be detained from the meeting while the fact is that we have openly and honorably made every effort to have all the voters present. Our one desire is that a full town meeting free from the trammels of chicanery and wire pulling, shall have the privilege of saying whether they will have a town house which they, rather than any one else, shall deem appropriate and acceptable; by their decision we are willing to abide.

But it is a matter of self respect to ourselves, as well as to all of the independent voters of the town, that we should be secured in our right to have a fair and deliberate expression of the opinion of the town, upon such questions as we may from time to time desire properly to put to it, without let or hindrance from any self appointed and impudently assumed authority.

This document further attempts to distort and misrepresent that gentlemanly delicacy with which the original committee abstained from officially recommending the plan of their own choice because of its unexpected cost, while they have personally endorsed it with an earnestness which is attested by their repeated and continuous efforts to get it fairly before the town.

Regardless of our various locations, we are all alike interested citizens of the whole town of Walpole, and we think that the number of person who are illiberal and narrow enough to allow themselves to be governed by sectional considerations is exceedingly small.

We are told that the one question before the town is, whether we shall build a town house deemed satisfactory by Hon. F.W. Bird, at a cost of $15,000, or whether we shall spend an additional $5,000 ina way that he does not deem necessary, although the additional facilities to be secured by this additional investment would be a largely remunerative investment, and, in fact, the only part of the investment which by direct return would secure any income to the town.

The question, as it really affects us is, whether we shall for ten consecutive years, submit to additional tax of $1.60 per thousand, and get a satisfactory and superior Town House, or whether we shall submit to a like additional tax of $1.20 per thousand, thereby saving (40c.) forty cents per thousand, but at the same time getting a decidedly unsatisfactory and inferior building.

The remarkable fairness of this document is evidenced by the fact, that it was cautiously issued at the last possible moment, so that the citizens might be led to act under an impulse of passion, rather than, having a possible reply, be able to get at the merits of the case.

We are sincerely sorry to be obliged hastily to interfere with this eminently peculiar programme. It is with exceeding pleasure that we are able at least on one point to unite with the honorable writer in an earnest invitation to each and every voter in the town. “To come, and to come early”; but, in fairness we must add, that which he evidently did not care to emphasize, “that they should come prepared to act rationally and independently of any other influence whatever.”

June 28, 1880

The June 28 meeting, held in a local church, was an exciting affair, with “nearly all of the manufacturing establishments” closed in order to allow voters to attend, according to a newspaper report. Over 2/3 of the town’s voters attended, and “teams were used to convey voters to and from the outskirts.”

Samuel Allen was chosen as the Moderator.

“From the excited remarks it was impossible to tell which party had the largest number present. The ‘Bricks’ and ‘Cord-wood,’ as the two parties have been called, were each anxious to have their pet scheme triumphant,” a local newspaper article documented.

“One argument advanced in favor of the brick building was that it would be much more convenient to have the Public Library on the ground floor than on the second story, where it would necessarily be in the wooden building,” an article explained.

The voters decided to appropriate $1800 to purchase the land that had been previously designated for the new Town Hall at the corner of Main and Stone Streets. After that was decided, “came the tug of war upon the cost of the building.”

“Hon. F.W. Bird contrasted the valuation of this town with others in the country that are erecting halls, and he thought that was a fair criterion. He was willing to build a one-story structure, which would be ample. Dr. Stone, George Craig and others took an opposite view, and, during the discussion, many puns were interjected,” a newspaper article described.

“The conservative party were defeated, it being voted to build a town house by the plans of W.J. Beal, for $20,000, and the treasurer was authorized to borrow that sum, with the advice and consent of the selectmen, payable in not more than ten years, the sum to be raised by taxation. The plans of the hall provide for a two-story brick building, Gothic style, the lower floor to be subdivided into selectmen’s and other town officers’ rooms, library room, small hall.”

The final vote was 171 votes in favor of the more expensive Beal plan, made of brick, and 146 votes against. If about 25 citizens changed their vote, our town’s history would have been changed considerably – our current police station would be made of wood.

Despite the controversy, a newspaper report immediately after the vote suggested that the town quickly united behind the project once it was approved.

“The result was received with great enthusiasm, and immediately after the vote was declared there was a great scarcity of the supporters of the wooden building plan. Everybody was suddenly seized with the idea that the brick building was just what the town needed,” the article documented.

As with any major building project utilizing tax dollars, there were others in town who favored not constructing a new town hall at all. A newspaper report dismissed their concerns, saying “while the hall will cost more than many of those who voted for it could have wished, its erection seemed the only safe and satisfactory move to make against the old-fogy element that was opposed to any town hall whatever.”

Imagine if a local newspaper in Walpole today had referred to those opposed to a new police station or combined middle school, both recommended in the Maguire Group study, as “the old-fogy element”!

Construction of the new Town Hall began immediately, but in March 1881, Town Meeting appropriated $5000 to finish the project, meaning the total cost was actually about $25,000. On Sep. 9, 1881, the new Town Hall was dedicated and the first Town Meeting in that building was held on November 8, 1881.

Soon after it opened, a Boston Herald report called the building “one of the finest town halls in the commonwealth.”

It has stood the test of time over the years and should be preserved into the future. This building should not be torn down.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 9, 2017 8:30 PM

    It’s a good thing the town ultimately opted for the more expensive, brick and stone option for the new town hall: back in those days, before electricity was common, these town halls were typically lit with gas lights, kerosene and even candles, of course which contributed to many fires. In the later 1800s, there was a drive to make fire-proof public buildings, not only for safety but also to help preserve precious public records. Many older records have been lost over the years due to fire (though Dedham has early Walpole records from about 1680 to incorporation date in 1724), not all were duplicated and many were lost, with no replacement possible.

    Curious—what ever became of the old, 1781 town house that was located on Walpole common? My understanding is it stood for some time into the 1800s, but was gone by the 1880s. Does anyone have a more specific time frame?

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