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Town History

“Few towns within the same radius from Boston have land of as good quality …  a greater variety of trees, a unique character and beauty, a lake of excellent quality, and a landscape … surpassed in none of the towns of the region.”  So wrote the Rev. Henry J. Richardson, pastor of the First Parish in Lincoln, in 1877. Visitors would find little change in the town that Richardson described nearly 140 years ago.

Located only 15 miles from Boston, Lincoln retains the look and character of a rural New England town.  It respects its history, preserves its rural character, educates its children, engages its citizenry, welcomes diversity in its built environment, and encourages open-mindedness and individual growth of its people.

The Colonial Period

In the early seventeenth century the Massachusetts Bay Company, a British trading company, issued land in coastal areas to wealthy Puritans, whose sons and grandsons soon moved inland to establish farms.

In Colonial times towns were central villages surrounded by farms and forests. Some people living in the area that would become Lincoln felt they lived too far from their meetinghouse to get to worship or take part in civic affairs, grumbling about the roads, or disliking their church ministry. They wanted their own meetinghouse. 

Residents of eastern Concord, along with parts of Lexington and Weston, petitioned the Court in 1734 to create a separate town. The Court refused.  After they failed again the next year, the Court agreed in 1746 to the formation of a “Second Precinct of Concord, Lexington, and Weston”.

While its new meetinghouse rose in 1747 on land donated by Edward Flint, the precinct craved still more self-governance.  Roads remained a problem, neighboring towns refusing to help build new roads or improve existing ones.  In 1754 the Court approved the incorporation of the Town of Lincoln. Influential resident Judge Chambers Russell named the town after his ancestral home in Lincolnshire, England.

On April 26, 1754, Lincoln held its first Town Meeting.  Voters chose five Selectmen to oversee a community of nearly 700 people (28 of whom were slaves).  New roads (Bedford, Sandy Pond, Lincoln, Weston, and Lexington) soon radiated from town center.

Before the Revolutionary War, Lincoln was primarily a farming community. Other industries included craftsmen, spinners, weavers, tanners, and cobblers.

The Revolutionary War

The Colonies writhed under Colonial rule.  On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere was headed to Concord, where a large cache of military arms and ammunition was stored, but was captured in Lincoln by a British patrol. As the Redcoats marched along the battle road on the 19th, over 100 Lincoln minute men and militia rallied, the first companies from the surrounding towns to reach Concord. They participated in the fight at the North Bridge. With the “shot heard round the world”, the American Revolution began.

Over 200 Lincoln residents served in the Revolutionary War.  Lincoln men joined General Washington at Dorchester Heights, White Plains, Trenton, Brandywine and Valley Forge; other Lincoln men saw action at Saratoga in 1777, Monmouth and Rhode Island in 1778 and Yorktown in 1781.  Lincoln’s highest-ranking officer in the Revolutionary War was Brigadier General Eleazor Brooks, who, after opposing the town’s 1754 incorporation, became a Selectman and one of its most influential citizens.

From the Revolution to the Civil War

Lincoln prospered during the next thirty years. By 1800 its population of farmers, tradesmen, and small manufacturers, reached 756. However, the War of 1812 created an embargo curtailing trade through New England’s seaports. This increased the demand for new and better roads and more wagons and coaches to move people and goods.  Lincoln’s craftsmen, especially wheelwrights and blacksmiths, positively responded.

The years leading to the Civil War brought momentous change.  In 1803, a turnpike was laid down between Concord and Cambridge, today’s Route 2.  In 1844, an event regarded as Lincoln’s most momentous since the battle of April 19, 1775, the railroad connected Lincoln with Boston, resulting in a rise in the number of new residents from the city and an increase in land values. Remaining farmlands began to break up, to be divided into house lots.

In 1830 the town decided to separate “church and state.”   It would no longer pay its minister from town funds, reserving its meetinghouse for civic business. A Unitarian sect elected to build its own “meeting house”, the present White Church, in 1842.  (St. Anne’s Episcopal Church followed in 1873 and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in 1904.)

A separate Town House, now the Old Town Hall, rose in 1848, supplanted in 1892 by Bemis Hall. A gift from wealthy town resident George Bemis, it became Lincoln’s “New Town Hall”, sporting an auditorium and even a jail.

Education of its children has always been a high priority in Lincoln.  Early on, 3 one-room elementary schools were located in various sections of town, and in 1856 the town welcomed its first high schoolers.  By 1860 education topped Lincoln’s budget:  $800 for roads, $550 for support of the poor, $675 for other expenses, and $1,050 for its schools.

From the Civil War to 1900 

In 1860, the town strongly endorsed the candidacy of Abraham Lincoln.  Unlike the Revolution, the Civil War had relatively little effect on the town.  Required to provide a specific quota of manpower to the war, Lincoln sent 71 men off to battle, early on paying a bounty of $200 to each volunteer. 

Far-reaching social/cultural and technical events marked the period between the Civil War and the turn of the century.  Eliza Farrar gave her private book collection to the town in 1870, launching Lincoln’s public library system.  Town resident George Tarbell donated the distinctive red-brick library building, designed by prestigious Boston architect William G. Preston, in 1884.

Kerosene-filled lamps first illuminated Lincoln’s gravel streets in 1893, with electrification arriving 20 years later.  Lincoln’s first fire department was formed in 1893 with two new hose carriages. In 5 years Lincoln would see telephone service.

Progress brought struggles and setbacks. By the 1880s, Lincoln was absorbing students from several nationalities, most notably the Irish. Soon the town could no longer handle a growing number of high schoolers, sending them off to Concord and Weston.  Cambridge dug its enormous Hobbs Brook Reservoir, displacing large amounts of east Lincoln property.

Lincoln in the Early Twentieth Century

By 1900 Lincoln‘s population had reached 1,000, and increased industrialization was threatening the town’s rural character.  Most of Lincoln’s old businesses were gone. The automobile created new demands on roads and land use.  Residents continued to believe that Lincoln was still a quiet country town, while some still shook their heads: “Lincoln [is] the future ‘West End’ of Boston.”

World War I created shortages of food and critical items. The Great Depression’s effect on Lincoln was relatively minor compared to the nation as a whole.

Between the two world wars, Lincoln felt the need for strong action to protect its increasingly imperiled rural character. Zoning laws for residential lot sizes went into effect in 1929 and, 7 years later, one-acre zoning (In 1955 Lincoln became the first Massachusetts town to adopt two-acre residential zoning.)  The old Cambridge Turnpike was paved, facilitating commuting to and from the Boston/Cambridge area.

As Lincoln came to grips with land use, its built environment continued to flourish. Country estates and summer places were constructed, several later becoming home to organizations such as the Massachusetts Audubon Society and the Carroll School.  Three structures of exemplary architecture have become museums: the Codman House, built in 1741, the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, and the Gropius House.

Mid-Twentieth Century to the Present

The postwar economic boom brought new pressures. In the mid-1950s Route 128‘s circumferential highway was completed around Boston, skirting the edge of Lincoln. Subdivisions grew in response to commuter traffic.  An important example of this development is Brown’s Wood, a planned community of 23 contemporary houses built in the early 1950s.

The town formed regulatory organizations and town boards to oversee planning and zoning in order to shape its growth and development.  Lincoln has kept suburban sprawl at bay through innovative zoning and honored its commitment to diversity in housing. It strengthened its rich farming heritage and demonstrated its keen interest in conservation by setting aside large parcels of land for conservation and open space.  Lincoln has preserved 42% of its acreage through various conservation programs.

As the town’s population grew, the need for additional schools became obvious. Between 1949 and 1964, 3 new elementary schools were built, and Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, the first regional high school in the Commonwealth, opened its doors in 1956.

Well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, with a population of approximately 6000, Lincoln manages change while preserving its essence.  Lincoln takes pride in its rural, agricultural character, its small town heritage, its open space, and its historical legacy.  It is committed to:

-          Achieving a balance between preserving these values while providing for citizens’ safety and convenience;

-          Fostering economic, racial/ethnic, and age diversity among its citizenry through its educational, housing, and other public policy;

-          Excellence in its public educational system;

-          The Town Meeting form of government and the traditions of civic leadership and volunteer public service.