A terse entry in Chief Seneca W. Hall’s police log for February 5, 1930, served notice as to what kind of decade the ’30s were going to be.
“3:15 p.m. The Town Hall was burned to the ground.”
The old wooden building, which had stood on land owned by the Unitarian Church since 1846, was quickly consumed by flames fanned by a brisk wind. The fire was discovered by several members of the Sudbury Women’s Club, including Mildred Davis Tallant, who were preparing for their monthly meeting.
“Mrs. Rogers was smoking in the dressing room when Esther Ellms came to the door and said ‘I think the hall is on fire.’ ” Mrs. Tallant recalled. “My sister, Ruth Eaton, was going to play the violin. She rushed up to the stairs to get it and just then the curtain came down in a sheet of flames.“
Firemen from Sudbury, Marlborough, Wayland and Longfellow’s Wayside Inn poured water on the flames and selectmen Harvey Fairbank and Aubrey Borden dashed into the smoke-filled building, snatched record books and relics and tossed them out an open window. Among the items saved were a colonial voting machine more than a century old and the town jury box from which the names of jurors to the Cambridge Court were drawn.
The fire evidently started in a defective chimney and efforts to extinguish it were hampered by sub-zero temperatures that froze water in the hose lines. For a time, it appeared that the Methodist and Unitarian churches nearby would be threatened. The loss was estimated at $75,000, only $7,000 of which was covered by insurance. Unlike the building that would soon replace it, the old town hall was made entirely of wood.
Town Clerk Frank F. Gerry, who was in Boston at the time of the fire, was correct in his prediction that the town vault would protect the ancient town records from the heat and flames, but Chief Hall had to guard them for two days and nights before the vault was cool enough to open safely.
One good thing was to come out of the fire. A little more than a year later, Sudbury appointed William “Ethan” Davison as the first chief of its full-fledged fire department, complete with two new trucks and a fire station under the new Town Hall. He commanded two officers, eighteen privates and four substitutes, but only one, Leo Quinn, was full-time. In addition to his fire-fighting duties, Quinn was the Town Hall janitor.
The fire left the town without a place to hold the annual March Town Meeting. The old Parmenter Store building, where once town meetings were convened on the second floor, had been purchased by Henry Ford and moved to the shores of Hager’s Pond in Marlborough, not too far from the Wayside Inn. The meeting was eventually held at the High School.
One of the first actions of that meeting was to appoint a committee to “consider the matter of location, design, and cost of a municipal building.” The committee was chaired by Selectman Harvey Fairbank and included Lydia G. Raymond, Temperance Oakes Guptill, Albert M. Beckwith, Henry E. Rice, Town Clerk Frank F. Gerry, Harland H. Rogers, Ralph H. Barton and Thomas Stevenson Bradlee, all distinguished citizens of the community.
After considering four possibilities, including the site of the old town hall and the lot recently vacated by the Parmenter General Store, the committee settled on a site across the road from the old hall which was then occupied by Joel Haynes’ barn. Haynes occupied the 12-acre farm which once had belonged to the Rev. Israel Loring, Sudbury’s first minister west of the river.
The town was able to secure the Haynes farm and buildings for $15,000, roughly the same amount of money that it would have cost to grade the alternate sites sufficiently to accommodate a building. Local architects Charles Way, Ralph Adams Cram and Joseph E. Chandler estimated that the building itself could be constructed for $65,000, increasing the entire cost of the project to $80,000.
The Committee’s goal was to propose a building that retained the charm of the old hall but with the conveniences and facilities that would serve the town well in the 20th Century and beyond: “That in design it be as near a reproduction of the old hall as is practicable and becoming; that the building provide an upper hall seating capacity of 500, together with a stage, offices for town officers, suitable vaults, fire engine room, a branch library room, a banquet hall to seat 260 people, adaptable to certain school activities not provided in their present building…“
The specifications called for dark red brick construction with the exception of the portico, front wall, cornices and gables which would be of wood painted white. Two vaults would be constructed to store town records and there would be space in the basement for three fire engines. The Loring Parsonage would be retained as a residence for the town hall janitor or a permanent call firefighter and the Haynes barn would be dismantled and rebuilt for the use of the town highway department on a remote corner of the property near the town pound. Way was commissioned to draw up plans and supervise the work. Perkins and Wells of Concord were the contractors.
The Committee, architect and builders did their job swiftly and well. On February 22, 1932, before a crowd that included nearly every resident of Sudbury and many former residents as well, Way turned over the keys to the new hall to Building Committee Chairman Fairbank as the 15 oldest residents looked on.
At the close of the exercises, a memorial box was placed in a stone outside the entrance to the building. The box contained the minutes of the meetings of the building committee, newspaper clippings from the Boston Globe and letters from President Herbert Hoover and Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers.
Among the group of oldest residents was Sarah Pratt, who delivered a history of the old town hall, Atherton W. Rogers, William E. Bills, (the town’s lone survivor of the Civil War), Susan Tourtelett, Elga A. Parmenter, Mrs. Frank Hadley, Caroline B. Way, Samuel Underwood, Sarah A. Hall, Charles Wright, Sylvester D. Perry, Emma A. Ellms, Almira Clark and Ellen Clark.
“The completion of this new hall presents a new problem,” said Fairbank in his acceptance speech. “The Selectmen will be called upon to make regulations governing the conduct of affairs which are to be held here. We shall attempt to make these rules stringent enough to preserve the beauty and condition of the hall, yet, at the same time, offer those who use it sufficient freedom and accommodations to carry out their activities successfully.“
Fairbank also accepted an American flag from Mrs. Carrie Haynes to fly over the hall. The flag had rested on the casket of her son who died while in the service of his country.
Even as the new hall was nearing completion, Selectmen Fairbank, Howard Goodnow and Borden turned their attention to more serious matters. Noting that there was more truth than poetry in Will Rogers’ adage that America was the first nation in the world to go to the poorhouse in an automobile, they challenged town employees to help reduce the escalating tax rate of $29 a thousand by accepting a ten percent pay cut.
Fairbank, a farmer himself, outlined what the depression was doing to the community: “Let us consider what the farmer receives for his goods. From a study of figures recently prepared by the Department of Agriculture we find that today’s farmer receives today only 70 percent as much for his products as he did during pre-war time (he was referring to WWI). This comparison of prices applies equally well to most of the basic raw materials sold in the country today.“
Fairbank then turned his attention to the public sector: “Another group of workers, and it’s a large group too, averaging about one in every eleven, which has been slow to accept an inevitable wage reduction is the army of government and municipal employees. Think of one out of every eleven of us working for the public being supported by taxation at the same rate of wage as in prosperous times, while the people who pay the taxes are receiving wages greatly reduced by the depression.
“Government employees and expenses are increasing every day, and the task of supporting them, which was a serious burden in times of prosperity, has now become intolerable.“
The School Committee did not agree, pointing out in its report that “Reckless economy may be more dangerous than reckless spending. The latter may increase taxes and should be avoided if possible, but the former cripples the rising generation and provides a weaker citizenship in the near future.“
The Committee grudgingly added that it had dispensed with special instructors in music, art, manual training and sewing in order to live within its greatly reduced appropriation. It also noted that the janitor had taken on the assignment of manual training instructor and that other teachers had increased their workloads.
Principal Alan Flynn pointed out one bright spot: “We have been fortunate in having a small turnover of teachers during the past three years. Our schools may no longer be termed a kindergarten for beginning teachers.“
Evidently, the town sided with the Selectmen. The 1932 tax rate dropped $2 to $27 a thousand and remained there for the next four years.
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.