Essay adapted from a section of the Concord Free Public Library's online exhibition Emerson in Concord


In the 1830s, Concord was an agricultural town with a vigorous commercial, political, intellectual, and social life of its own.  It teemed with skilled craftsmen (hatters, clockmakers, and cabinetmakers among them), with general stores, shops, and taverns, with blacksmiths, millers, lawyers, and a variety of other merchants and service providers.  The Middlesex Mutual Fire Insurance Company (established in 1826) was located here, as were the Concord Bank (1832) and (from 1835) the Middlesex Institution for Savings.

Textile manufacturer Calvin Damon purchased a West Concord cotton mill in 1834, ran it profitably, and at his death in 1854 passed it on to his son Edward.  In 1819, David Loring set up a lead pipe factory on Nashoba Brook in West Concord, later adding a sheet metal works.  In the 1850s, Loring's facilities were bought by Ralph Warner, who converted them into a pail factory.  There were several small-scale pencil factories, including those of the Munroe and Thoreau families.  Pratt's Powder Mills opened on the Concord/Acton line in 1835.

Beginning in the 1820s, the downtown Mill Dam area was completely overhauled.  The Concord Mill Dam Company—a real estate development corporation—bought up property in the center of Concord, drained the millpond (created in the seventeenth century by damming the Mill Brook to power Peter Bulkeley's town mill), took down some of the old buildings, renovated others, and put up new structures that were offered for sale or rent.  The Mill Dam Company was responsible for the construction of the pillared Concord Bank building (now 46/48 Main Street).

As host to the courts of Middlesex County from the late seventeenth century, Concord drew visitors from a wide area for court business.  The Middlesex Hotel on Monument Square was filled to capacity at such times, vendors sold food from booths, and something of a carnival atmosphere reigned.  The removal of the courts to Lowell and Cambridge in the late 1840s and in 1867 (respectively) diminished the political importance of the town within Massachusetts, and halted the regular influx of outsiders seeking local accommodations during court sessions.

Concord offered its residents a number of intellectual and cultural outlets.  The Concord Social Library was formed in 1821, the Concord Lyceum in 1828.  Newspaper publication began in 1816, when Bettis and Peters produced the first issue of the Middlesex Gazette.  For a  time, the town had two competing papers, one—the Yeoman's Gazette—with a distinctly Whig slant, the other—the Concord Freeman—Democratic.  There were singing schools and a Mozart Society (founded in 1832).  The Concord Academy was founded in 1822, providing a private alternative to public education.

People here socialized at parties, quilting bees, dances and balls, suppers, club and organizational activities, and public celebrations.  Membership in the Social Circle in Concord brought a small, select group of men together on a regular basis.  And, as suggested by Henry Thoreau's nicknaming the Concord Female Charitable Society the "chattables," charitable and reform meetings encouraged social interaction as well as philanthropy.

Between 1830 and the Civil War, the population of Concord remained relatively steady (growing modestly from 2,021 residents to 2,246), but its composition started to change.  The immigrant Irish came to build the Fitchburg Railroad in the 1840s and stayed on as day laborers, domestics, and—eventually—farmers.  Later in the century, other ethnic groups contributed to the mix of Yankee and new blood.

The orthodox Trinitarian Congregational Church broke off from the Unitarian First Parish in 1826, and other denominations established themselves.  The First Universalist Society was gathered in 1838 and built a meetinghouse on Monument Square in 1841.  The first Catholic Mass was celebrated in Concord in 1844.  Regular Catholic services were conducted beginning in the 1850s.  In 1863, the former Universalist meetinghouse became St. Bernard's Church.

With the opening of the Fitchburg Railroad in 1844, Concord lost its commercial self-containment, and farming changed tremendously.  The west was explored and developed, reducing New England's agricultural importance and draining manpower from the region.  The railroad opened up new markets and allowed easy transportation of products—particularly wood—that were difficult to haul in quantity by wagon, or too perishable or delicate for traditional modes of transportation.  New crops edged out the old staples and new techniques and tools were introduced.  Farming developed into a specialty rather than a fact of every man's life.  Only those farmers who had some capital to invest in their operations and who were able and willing to adjust to changing market demands prospered.  Moreover, hired hands increasingly replaced family help.

In the mid-nineteenth century, there was heavy demand for wood for both personal and commercial use.  There were woodlots all over Concord, including the area around Walden Pond.  Some Concordians—Abel Moore and John Hosmer, for example—made good money in the wood business.  Henry Thoreau, a proficient surveyor, worked for hire preparing plans of a number of local woodlots.  Intensive cutting of wood radically reduced the forested portion of the town and resulted in an open landscape.

During the 1830s, some Concordians looked beyond the boundaries of their tightly knit community at the divisive issue of southern slavery, which increasingly entered into town dialogue.  From the 1830s through the Civil War, the organized efforts of a relatively small number of committed abolitionists persisted despite the initial indifference and even scorn of some of their fellow citizens.  Ultimately, the concerted activism of local people—ordinary citizens as well as those who commanded name recognition beyond the town, humble as well as affluent, women as well as men—combined with similar efforts in cities and towns across the northeast to bring the nation to Civil War and emancipation.

2. Concord Center, 1860s. Early photographic print. CFPL Photofile.

3. H.F. Walling. "Concord Village" inset, Map of the Town of Concord, Middlesex County, Mass.  Surveyed by Authority of the Town (Boston: H.F. Walling, 1852). CFPL Map Collection.


Copyright 2013, Concord Free Public Library. No part of this exhibit—text or image—may be reproduced without permission of the Library.

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