Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the Life of a Town (Chapter 2)

Chapter 2

Joanna Gleason’s Gift

The Committee to oversee the erection of a monument to honor the memory of Sudbury’s Revolutionary War soldiers found itself in a bind that would become quite familiar to future generations of town officials. After consultations with well-known architect Mr. A.F. Haynes, it had approved a $2,000 monument of the best Quincy granite, only to discover that there was only $1,500 in funds available to pay for it.

Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Nahum Goodnow of South Sudbury was particularly embarrassed. On June 17, 1895, his board had gratefully accepted the generous gift of $500 from Joanna Gleason, “the same to be expended by the town in the erection of a monument to the memory of the soldiers of the town of Sudbury in the Revolutionary War; provided, however, that the same amount, or a greater one, be expended by the town in the erection of the same monument within one year from the acceptance of this offer.” (Signed) Joanna Gleason.

The Special Town Meeting called on that date not only passed a resolution accepting the gift, but pledged $1,000 of town funds to allow the project to go forward. A committee consisting of Selectmen Goodnow, Waldo L. Stone, and Samuel Underwood, together with Town Clerk Jonas S. Hunt, and George E. Harrington was chosen to select a site and design and supervise the construction of the monument.

A small, rocky lot near the entrance to Mount Pleasant Cemetery, controlled by the First Parish Church, was selected. The church gave its blessing in writing, and, after reviewing a large number of designs, the committee commissioned A.F. Haynes to create a work to its specifications. The only problem that remained was to find the remaining $500 to complete the project. Hunt, the Clerk of the Committee, takes up the story during his remarks at the dedication ceremony on June 17, 1896:

“Just at this time, however, a second communication was received from Mrs. Gleason, accompanied by an additional gift of five hundred dollars, which, of course, relieved the committee at once. Whether Mrs. Gleason had learned of the dilemma of the committee or preferred to share the expense equally with the town, I am not able to say.”

The chances are that Mrs. Gleason wanted to assure that a proper memorial to Sudbury’s Revolutionary soldiers was erected. The communication accompanying her second donation specified that the structure was to be rendered “one of more artistic and heroic proportions.” Her grandfather, Captain Timothy Adams, helped defend Bunker Hill and her father, Major Jonas Parker, defended Fort Warren in Boston Harbor against the British during the War of 1812 and joined Daniel Webster and the Marquis de LaFayette at the laying of the Bunker Hill Monument cornerstone, June 17, 1825.

“Being myself the granddaughter of a Soldier of the Revolution, who was one of the earliest in service of his country, and who kept the field as long as his bodily strength allowed, I have an especial personal reason for desiring to perpetuate the memory of all those patriots who, like him, risked everything for the cause of freedom,” she wrote in her letter expressing regrets that she would be unable to attend the dedication ceremonies.

“As a resident of this good old town of Sudbury, I remember that her sons did their full duty in the great war for independence from that first memorable day at Concord until the last British soldier quitted the soil of America,” she recalled. ” My ancestor, from the town of my birth [Carlisle] and your ancestors, from the town where I have lived for so many years, alike in patriotism and courage, stood together at Bunker Hill one hundred and twenty one years ago, and it is their deeds and their devotion that you will commemorate upon the anniversary of that day and that the statue you will then unveil will always keep fresh in the memories of Sudbury’s children to the latest time.”

With all financial obstacles removed, the site was cleared and graded and crews from Badger Brothers of West Quincy began the work of erecting the monument itself, a Quincy granite pedestal surmounted by a heroic-proportioned figure of a Revolutionary soldier carved in Westerly, Rhode Island, granite. The monument stands seventeen feet high and weighs more than 19 tons.

Work was completed in plenty of time for the committee to organize dedication ceremonies on Bunker Hill Day, 1896, with more than a thousand people on hand to hear an oration by the Honorable John L. Bates of Boston and addresses by President of the Day Homer Rogers, Jonas Hunt, Town Historian Alfred Salerno Hudson and others. Miss Mary Edith Goodnow, daughter of Nahum Goodnow, who later became Mary Goodnow Cutler of East Sudbury, and Miss Alice Esther Bent, both descendants of Revolutionary War soldiers, unveiled the monument.

The monument was far from being the first example of Joanna Gleason’s largesse to her adopted town. Born in Carlisle in 1819, she attended Carlisle and Concord public schools as well as Lexington, Billerica and Westford Academies. She went on to teach in Concord and Billerica schools and was very proud of a teacher’s certificate dated April 30, 1836, which was signed by Ralph Waldo Emerson, at that time Chairman of the Concord School Committee.

She married John Gleason on April 11, 1858, and the couple soon developed a reputation for providing financial support for various institutions not only in Sudbury, but in Concord and Carlisle as well. A year after her husband died in 1879, she slipped on some ice and injured a hip that required the use of a crutch the rest of her life. She still managed to make frequent trips to Boston on the train to see to her financial affairs. In 1890, a heavy piece of metal fell on her foot and for the last seven years of her life she was bedridden with bone cancer.

Although Mrs. Gleason did not make a habit of calling on the needy, her aid was rarely sought in vain, and her private deeds of charity accomplished as much good as did her public donations. “Few really understood her,” said the Sudbury correspondent for the Lowell Weekly Journal. “While a natural dignity was hers, no pride ever defaced it. She was endowed with a keen insight, a clear judgement, was quick to read character, and keen to see and distrust anything false. She showed not by words, but by her daily life that she felt that her powers, advantages and possessions were only trusts committed to her keeping, of which she must one day give an account.”

Mrs. Gleason may well have been aware that the day of reckoning was not very far off when she set a deadline of June 17, 1896 for the completion of the work. She was unable to attend the dedication ceremonies on that date and died on October 16, 1896.

“She loved life and leaves saddened hearts behind her,” read the obituary in the Lowell Weekly Journal. “We can all echo the lines inscribed on her monument: “A blessing’s gone, a noble form is riven. To darken this cold earth and gladden heaven.”

Even with her life slowly slipping away, Joanna Gleason managed time for one last act of generosity. Upon hearing that funds were needed to complete landscaping at the Memorial, she donated another $100 to the town.

Less than a month after the dedication, Samuel B. Rogers, perhaps inspired by the Revolutionary War Memorial, donated $2,000 for a Civil War memorial statue in South Sudbury with the proviso that the statue be dedicated on Memorial Day, 1897 and that the expense of the foundation and dedication not be appropriated by the town. The site selected was in front of the recently-enlarged Goodnow Library.

Not long after the Civil War Monument’s dedication, “Reno,” a correspondent for the Lowell Weekly Journal voiced his approval.

“Let the added glories of the town in the shape of new monuments be associated with the high art of modern embellishment and let the grounds around them be laid out and cared for with an aesthetic taste that is in accord with these beautiful memorials, but let the objects of a century back remind one of their day and its customs and people; and although the rank grass does flourish in its wildness about the moss-grown tombstones and although the ground may be uplifted and thrown askew by the frosts of successive years, these may only serve to give interest to the stranger who strolls about Sudbury to find in it some vestiges of a town of the long ago…”

“Reno” would be pleased to know that strangers still stroll about Sudbury and soak in the Town’s history, but today they not only come from the neighboring communities, but from all over the world. Thanks to the generosity of Joanna Gleason and Samuel B. Rogers, the bravery of the sons and daughters of Sudbury will never be forgotten.

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from Sudbury, 1890-1989, 100 years in the life of a Town, a 256-page sequel to A.S. Hudson’s History of Sudbury. Autographed copies are available from Porcupine Enterprises, 106 Woodside Road, Sudbury, MA 01776. Hardbound presentation copies are $26.25 including tax plus $3.20 postage. Trade paperbacks are $12.60 including tax plus $3.20 postage.