History of Harvard

1950 – 2000
Written by Dr. Jeffrey Harris

During it first fifty years of the 20th century, Harvard was a busy, productive, agricultural community. In the early 20’s, Still River depot shipped more milk to market than any other Massachusetts town. In 1942, there were reported fifty-five commercial orchards shipping more apples than any other town in the state, but only three commercial orchards were active fifteen years later. Watts Dairy started in 1937 and closed in 1987. The population for the past five decades: 1950 – 1,315; 1960 – 1,840;  1970 – 2,962; 1980 – 4,301; 1990 – 5,011; and 2000 – 5,300. Thirty roads have been built since 1955.

The new Route 2 came through in 1950 and with it, the change to a residential community started.  Route 495 developed in 1960. The changes were recognized and initial response was the acceptance in 1952 of state enabling legislation and the election of a planning board. It gained experience, ability, and a series of long-term members with good institutional memories permitted the development of sound protective bylaws. The poor soils have also limited housing development.

In 1960 The Bromfield School (now Old Bromfield) had 100 students in 4 grades receiving a high school education. The town recognized this could not continue. The State Department of Education pushed hard for the town to join a regional school system. The town divided on what was the best option. At Annual Town Meeting the town voted to stay local  to maintain local control. 1962 saw a new Bromfield with a Gymnasium that from then on was also used for Town Meetings. Harvard became one of the five smallest school districts in Massachusetts.

Again in 1962, the town accepted a state enabling legislation so that gave the Selectmen authorization to appoint a Conservation Commission that would protect ground water and preserve open spaces. In 1973, the non-profit Conservation Trust was formed to raise money to help the Conservation Commission in its work by being able to move rapidly to purchase land and then sell it to the commission when the commission received funds from town meeting. The trust has expanded its mission by managing property at Great Elm and the old inn on the common, and is now planning elderly housing.

Bare Hill Pond by 1960 was so infested the aquatic mil-foil weed, that from the shore out to a depth of 10 feet it was dangerous for young children to swim. The use of a canoe, rowboat, sailboat or small outboard was a waste of time in the weed-infested areas. After much consultation, investigation and state permission, the careful periodic use of herbicides saved the pond for 20 years. The Park and Recreation Commission has provided a waterfront program year of treatment that has taught hundreds of children to swim. Herbicides were abandoned in 1980, and there has been a weed re-growth that has not quite reached 1960 conditions.

Harvard is governed by open town meeting and a Board of Selectmen. This form of government is found only in New England and goes back to the formation of the first town in the 1600’s. The sense of responsibility to the community was born and continues. The understanding “You owe the town more than your taxes” was well accepted.

The first woman was elected selectman in 1980. The Town Administrator was appointed in 1988. The Finance Director position was created by legislation in 1993 and 1997. The Board of Selectmen was increased from three to five in 1992.

Including Selectmen there are 50 elected officials and 271 officials are appointed by the selectmen to a variety of boards, committees and commissions. The school district is the fifth smallest in the state and was able to lead on the MCAS required exams for the past two years. The number of committees and groups that support both government and town life is too long for this necessarily brief report. There seems to be a group that fills most problems. The Conservation Trust has worked with the Conservation Commission. The PTA and Harvard Schools Trust have supported the schools. Harvard Help has permitted elderly to continue life in their own homes. The Substance Abuse Prevention Task Force has been instrumental in obtaining an independent counselor for students and residents. The Fourth of July Committee has made this holiday an event and last year was able to provide fireworks for the first time. The town band continues enthusiastically. Three churches are well supported. The Harvard Athletic Association provides children team sports experience. In a few years, the Harvard Park and Track Committee will be able to provide more athletic activities. League of Women Voters is fifty years old. The Historical  Society is 100 years and the Women's Club is almost 100. In the 1970s Harvard Help started, a group of volunteers, who provide age limited and others disabled transportation for shopping and physician visits. This has permitted many to stay in their homes in Harvard.

Fort Devens was an army post from 1917 until it closed in 1992. The north post is about six square miles. Of those six miles, over four square miles are part of Harvard’s twenty-five point seven miles. Devens is now operated by a state agency, Mass Development. It aims to develop the north post for new business and to provide affordable and market rate housing. The involved towns of Harvard, Ayer, Shirley and Lancaster relate to state agencies through the Joint Boards of Selectmen. There are a number of town committees appointed by the Selectmen to help sort out and deal with Mass-Development. The inter-modal transport area has given us trucks and trains we have not previously experienced. Housing development at Devens remains an unsolved situation at present. It has not been decided where the Devens children will go to school. If they come to the Harvard School system now, the new school we are about to build will start to be overcrowded in a little over five years. Devens will remain an ongoing town issue for forty years or more, some officials estimate.

The past fifty years have been remarkable. Our town has changed completely from a small agricultural, rural community to what real estate people refer to as upscale, rural, and residential. In spite of this drastic change, the town has held onto the expressed value of community responsibility, of doing more than paying taxes. Some feel this value of community responsibility is being undermined by demands for privacy and social changes of career aspirations of husbands and wives. If there is a loss of volunteers for elected and appointed office there may be a change in what we call community.