Roger Fenn (age 82) and Eleanor Fenn (age 80)

25 Church Green

Interviewed February 14, 1977

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer

Roger relates his memories of Concord life when he came to the town in 1915.

Click here for audio in .mp3 format

Fenn, RogerPeople have always been anxious to keep the old flavor of the historic town as it always was. An example of this is obvious when a wealthy individual from the middle west came to town and proposed that he should be allowed to replace all the ancient buildings along the Milldam and make the town look newly built but in the style of the colonial period, perhaps similar to Williamsburg, Virginia. People wanted the town as it always had been; they wouldn't hear of changing Main Street.

People also protested against the introduction of gas to the town by the Boston company. A man who had a house on one of the nearby streets cooked his food on a kerosene stove, which was a little outdated in the 1930's, protested against gas coming to Concord by saying, "Oh, no, you won't put gas in this house; you could wake up some morning and find yourself electrocuted."

You find some of that same feeling in town now. New people move into the town from the cities because they like the flavor of Concord, the historic atmosphere and they settle down into it, and then when someone wants to make a change, they are the first ones to protest against anything.

During my teaching years at the Middlesex School, the pupil-teacher relationship was informal, friendly, and natural. We were very much like a large family. The teachers were practically all men and the students were all boys. We all lived in the dorms together--about 25 boys with one married teacher and his family living at one end of the building and one unmarried teacher with his room in the same area as the students. We all took cold showers in the morning before breakfast and bedtime was usually 10:00. The boys liked to play pranks on the teachers, not vicious pranks such as you read about in "The Old Days of the Rugby", but they were ingenuous.

One instance involved the school tower clock, which struck thirteen one night at midnight. I thought that was unusual but I decided I had miscounted. But when I asked the others teachers the next day, they heard it strike thirteen also. So the next night we all listened carefully and again at midnight it struck thirteen. This required an investigation and that disclosed that the bell had several spots or marks on one side of it, the side closest to the third story window of the boys' end of the dormitory. So this suggested looking in that boy's room while he was at class, and a rifle was found with a silencer on it that he used to pull the trigger just at the last stroke of midnight.

I was very proud of my dormitory because during the study period after dinner, my boys were always in their rooms studying not like the other teachers who had complained they couldn't keep their boys in their rooms. But I discovered one evening as I was walking to the building a wire coming out the window of one of the boy's rooms. I traced it along the building to the boardwalk that we walked across to get to the building and found it connected to two pieces of metal. I found that when I walked across the boardwalk and put pressure on it, the two pieces of metal touched. With the help of the assistant housemaster, we discovered when the two pieces of metal touched they set off a buzzer in the hall. So my boys would be roughhousing instead of studying and when I walked across the boardwalk, the buzzer signaled them to dash to their rooms and pretend to study.

I put a piece of cardboard between the two pieces of metal that said "April Fool", which deadened the buzzer, and the next day I walked right into the building across the boardwalk into the howling mob roughhousing in the hall. They all ran into their studys and I said nothing. I tried to scowl without smiling and went on to my room. They got the point.

The relationship between the teachers and students was very friendly; we could have our punishment when necessary but it was usually done in a very good spirit.

Eleanor Fenn relates her early memories of Middlesex School.

I first came to Middlesex School about a year before Mr. Fenn as the daughter of the headmaster and I were very best friends, and I would come out and spend weekends here. It was good fun. Middlesex School tried to be a good neighbor of the town. Mr. Winsor, the headmaster, told the boys and his family that it was not the practice to play tennis in Concord on Sunday. But he told his daughter and I we could play tennis while the boys were in chapel but not to play on a court near the road in case anyone was going by and would see us playing.

Mr. Winsor was a very fine headmaster and educator. He believed in letting the masters educate themselves as well as the boys. You were told what to do within the school year, and you were expected to accomplish that but you could enrich that with your own education and the broadness of your own views. That was a very fine way to learn to teach. That was something we tried to continue at the Fenn School.

The Fenn's legacy to Concord is the Fenn School. Mr. Fenn relates the school's creation and it's early days of educating boys.

I had been teaching almost fourteen years excluding two years for World War I at Middlesex School, getting my experience there. I was ready and anxious to run a school of my own.

The land on Monument Street of approximately 5 1/2 acres became available and looked like a super site for an elementary school. So we bought it after investigating the situation only one weekend, and started in September, 1928, to prepare for the school opening in September, 1929. All the preparation had to be done while I was still teaching science classes at Middlesex School and acting as business manager at the same time. William F. Kussin designed the building as he had experience with colonial architecture. His design involved renovating the farmhouse and the stable behind the house. There were also some chicken houses on the farm.

We also had to get together our board of trustees because this was not a school run for profit but run by a board of trustees therefore tax exempt. We also had to interest people in Concord to send their boys to our school because there were public schools in Concord. But there were not the opportunities for the younger boys, which I feel is almost more important than for the older boys. Opportunities that a private school could afford and the public schools could not. Those opportunities include the presence of an all man faculty who would have friendly relations with the boys as well as high standards for the boys. Men who could coach them in athletics in the afternoons and teach them the great games which the high school boys always had in Concord, but the younger grammar school boys could never get. All the games are great character-building sports, teach sportsmanship, and make them better athletes when they are at high school level.

Also we were very anxious to have small classes where the teacher could have friendly, easy relations with the student and adjust the teaching to each student and that student's needs. You can't do that in a big class, which may be 30 students in the public school, and that's too many for one man to give much individual attention. The ideal number of students for each class would be 10 or 12 boys.

We put them around a table in the room each on individual chairs, not benches, so that they could have a discussion with the teacher rather than have the teacher stand up in front and teach, propound a few principles, and have them hopefully remember some of it. We wanted a give-and-take between the student and teacher. We wanted the student to work out in his own mind the answers to questions that would naturally come to him in the subjects being taught and get his own education.

It was up to the student to do the studying, to do the thinking, and learn how to prepare lessons at home in the evening. It was much the same for the schoolboy as the adult in Concord in 1775, when he left his plow and stood up on the bridge over the Concord River and faced the British troops and was willing to fight the British Army in order to have the privilege and the opportunity to run his own government as a free citizen. Running the government was really up to him and his responsibility. And so at our school getting an education was up to the boy. We picked the motto, "sua sponte", which is the Latin phrase for "on his own responsibility", and that is also written on the Minuteman statue at the North Bridge.

Our first academic year was in 1929 and the depression hit soon after and that was quite a surprise. We had thought that the time was right for a school that people would be willing to pay $400 a year tuition. We opened with 53 boys as students. We had all through the years about 1/3 of our students as day boys from Concord, and 1/3 as day boys commuting from neighboring towns, and after the first few years we had 1/3 as boarding students. The tuition was $1250 a year for room and board for seven days a week.

Everything went smoothly for the first two or three weeks and then in early October the stock market crashed and the big depression was upon us. We never knew what a serious situation it was; we were so busy and involved running the school that we just took it all in our stride. We went through the year wondering how we were going to come out financially, the trustees wondering more than we did.

The parents were, and always have been, extremely loyal to us; they understood the situation very well. When graduation time in June, 1930 came, the trustees were asking me how much they were going to have to chip in to get us through the summer. But I could tell them that they didn't have to chip in anything that parents had paid their tuition bills promptly, and the budget we had set up in September would get us through the summer in the black.

The Concord Social Circle is a group that was the outgrowth of the old committee of public safety in the Revolutionary War days. It was started in 1782 and was composed largely of the influential men in the town, who had been the leaders of the revolutionary movement in the town. They met on Tuesday evenings every two weeks through most of the academic year. It was an informal organization with only one officer, the secretary-treasurer. The president or chairman was simply the host of that evening's dinner. They had refreshments served at 6:00 in the evening which was followed by dinner, and then the disseminating of useful information was almost always about town affairs.

It has been remarkably steady with the same routine ever since 1782. There still are 25 men who are residents of Concord and still men who are for the most part very active in the government of the town. It has no actual influence in town affairs and it takes no part in town government. But, it is a useful organization to have, with most of the men on town committees, to keep the town running smoothly with a homogeneous government.

The practice was started in the middle of the 19th century of writing a memoir about each member of the circle that had died. Shortly after his death, some member of the circle was appointed to write the memoir of the deceased. Those have been published in six volumes in the 100 years. These have been carefully preserved by the circle and have been placed in the Concord Free Public Library where they can be referred to by historians.

Eleanor adds how women were involved with the Social Circle and other activities in Concord.

Fenn, EleanorWomen did not come to these meetings at all but we were asked to put on a good dinner. It was fun to do. I am sure it was a much more elaborate meal before we ever came on the scene. It was a sit-down, three-course meal in the last century but now it is more of a stand-up dinner because most houses do not seat 25 people for dinner.

About 100 years ago the wives of the Social Circle decided they didn't especially like to be left alone every other Tuesday evening so they set up the Ladies Tuesday Club. The members included Mrs. Alcott and Mrs. Emerson. It has always been a fun group to be a member of, and it is much bigger now and it is not all wives of the Social Circle. It is a group of women of varying ages, and we get together about five or six times a year. Going back a bit, we would get together and play some of the old-fashioned games like charades.

Other things that women have done in the town, of course, have always been the social service and charitable kinds of things such as working for Emerson Hospital or various rummage sales. Women took part in the school committee and now even more so on other town committees. I think I was the first woman on the Finance Committee.* My invitation to that was not too flattering. A few people had been pestering the Town Moderator, Hubert Wardwell, to put a woman on the Finance Committee. He didn't think it proper to have a woman on such a committee but pressure became great that he finally asked me. I had been president of the League of Women Voters and maybe he thought I was as harmless a woman they could think of but I was interested in town affairs. So one Sunday night Mr. Wardwell called me and asked me to be on the Finance Committee, and I said I would be honored. He said, "Well, they've been after me; they made me do it." My family's reaction was "What, Mother, you can't even balance your checkbook!"

I had been in on the founding of the League of Woman Voters back in about 1930. It was a lively group that started it. It got the reputation, and I think it was deserved then, as being a group of intellectuals who really probed into things. We did not try to go into all the issues that are in an election now but we specialized on some one thing and really delved into that. I think it has now become much more general, more relaxed in one way. When you go to their meetings before town meeting and discuss the town warrant or discuss an issue such as the Equal Rights Amendment or gun control, it is not a philosophic Phd. proposition, it is practical and useful to everybody, trying to get as much information as possible out to all the voters and not just to a select committee.

Some of the other things that people including women were involved in especially during World War II was coordinating the ration books for food, particularly for the Fenn School. We had to take the ration books of the boys who boarded and had their meals there to the ration board, and they issued us checks just like checks for money. Those checks were used to purchase food. There were red coupons and blue coupons, one was for sugar and one was for fats and oils and meats. It all was rather complicated but it worked well.

Other activities were recycling scrap metal and paper; collecting clothes for the refugees, "Bundles for Britain"; and making bandages and things for the Red Cross. A canteen committee would be at the train at 7:00 in the morning to give hot donuts, made by Mrs. Ballou, to the draftees going off to Ft. Devens.

In the late 1920's, I was on the committee at the time the Girl Scout House was remodeled. The Girl Scouts had been quite active for a number of years in town, and we decided they needed a place of their own to meet. The farm that was at that spot was not being used for much except a few chickens, and we thought we could buy the barn. The same architect that built the Fenn School, William Kussin, was engaged to make the barn over into the Scout House. He had great fun really maximizing the features he could save such as the hand hewn beams and the cupola. He made a beautiful job out of it.

Of course, we had to raise the money for the building. A friend offered $5,000 and we had to raise $10,000. The first people we looked to for help were the mothers of the scouts. I was a young bride then and one of the first mothers I went to was Mrs. Macone. She had one daughter who was a very active scout and then she had six sons. I called on her on a Monday morning and her house was spotless and she had a clothes line full of white shirts. She said she would be happy to ask for contributions on her street, Lang Street, because her last son was in first grade and she had extra time. I always remembered that if I thought I was too busy.

* [Editor's Note: Though Eleanor Fenn was one of the first women to serve on the Finance Committee with her appointment in 1956, town records show that Marion Miller had been appointed to the committee in 1933.]

Fenn Roger and Eleanor

Text mounted 19th September 2012; Images mounted 10th October 2012, Audio mounted 29th August 2015. RCWH.