Digitized Town Reports Open A Window To Harwich’s Past

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Local History

An illustration of the new Muddy Creek Bridge from the 1894 town report.

HARWICH They might seem like a repository of dry information, but annual town reports can shed light on a community’s values, its problems and its strengths. Now, thanks to a program of the Boston Public Library, many of Harwich’s old town reports are now just a click away.

Through a portal known as Digital Commonwealth, and at no expense to the town, the reports back to 1866 have been scanned and can be viewed both at the library and online through the “eLibrary” link at www.BrooksFreeLibrary.org.

Along with containing an endless supply of interesting statistics, and reports offer insight into life in Harwich in the past. In 1897, the year Harwich adopted its town seal, there were 47 deaths recorded. Some of the causes listed were “spasm of heart,” “vital degeneration” and “shock by falling.” Only four people died of “old age,” and one young man died of suicide by shooting at age 17. There were 42 births recorded in 1897, four more than the previous year.

“Twenty-six female and 16 male children are embraced in the number recorded,” the town clerk wrote.

The 1894 Harwich Town Report included an update on an important public works project, the earthen dike across the mouth of Muddy Creek. The report even included a drawing showing the tall structure over the title “The New Wading-place Bridge.”

Pages and pages of the older town reports are devoted to documenting two key cost centers: the cost of caring for the destitute and the expense of maintaining roads. An entry in 1896 illuminates the town’s struggle to have a state highway extended in town. The state’s highway commission “had verbally promised the Selectmen of Harwich that if an appropriation of $1 million was made for State Highways in 1896, the claims of the Town of Harwich for at least one mile of State Road, including the bridge at West Harwich known as Job’s Bridge, would be considered.” But the state didn’t make good on that promise, and the town protested strenuously. A state official told the town that “we are not looking for any mile of road with a bridge in it.”

In 1897, the town recorded 37 men who were qualified jurors. Nearly a dozen were cranberry growers; others were merchants, masons, carpenters and painters, along with a sailmaker and a retired seaman. The total real estate tax valuation recorded for all properties in Harwich that year was just over $1.1 million. The tax rate was $14.50, far higher than today’s rate, though individual property valuations were correspondingly low.

Few remarkable crimes were reported though the years, and the town was without an organized police department for many years. In 1965, Chief John Raneo reported 24 cases of speeding and 23 larcenies, far and away the most frequent crimes. There were single instances of many crimes, from passing a school bus and possession of burglary tools to one recorded simply as “illegitimate child.”

The town reports record the town’s struggle with racism. The birth roll in 1917 lists 37 children born in town, a list long enough to be printed on two pages. The second page lists children under the heading, “Portuguese.”

The birth roll from 1917 is on two pages, with “Portuguese” births listed second.

The birth roll from 1917 is on two pages, with “Portuguese” births listed second.

Seven years later, school officials included in their report an argument in favor of building a consolidated grade school to replace the schoolhouses found in the town’s villages. Some objected to the cost of the school, and others raised the problem of “foreigners.”

“Some object to the proposition of the investigating committee because it permits of no race segregation. They know of course that segregation can be accomplished only by evading the statute law. Yet they earnestly desire to do this very thing and thus by example have the school teach contempt for law when it should be the first to teach respect for the established law of the land,” the report reads. Instead, the author advocates for a graded school system with divisions based on students’ abilities.

“Many other places have this same problem and have been able to solve it only by the graded school. Why not profit by their experience and do likewise? Do we refuse to build roads because a despised minority race will use them? Do we refuse to let a light and power company come into our town because it may sell its service to some of these people?” the report reads. “Not at all, because their improved homes would mean more revenue for the public treasury. Did you ever think that a modern graded school might create a desire in these people for improved home conditions and thus give us more property from which to collect taxes?”

In 1917, the year the U.S. joined the Great War, Harwich had 344 students of school age. The school department employed 25 people, and at the high school, the agricultural department saw a surge of activity, as Superintendent L.G. Williams reported.

“War has lifted Agriculture during the last year to its rightful place in the order of world industries. More people realize than perhaps ever before that the strength of a nation is largely dependent upon the condition of its Agriculture,” he wrote. Students were encouraged to plant home gardens and parents were required to sign cards to agree to the assignment. “The main purpose of this was to encourage parents to co-operate with their children in garden making,” Williams wrote.

That year, Dr. H.D. Handy, the school physician, reported that students that year had better teeth, fewer nose and throat conditions, and generally good growth and development.

“Hardly ever, nowadays, do we have called to our attention any of the lively hair and scalp troubles that once existed,” he wrote.