Wakefield, Massachusetts:

A Brief History

The historic bandstand on Lake Quannapowitt, ca. 1900.

Document Donation Yields Surprising Treasure

Visit the website of the Wakefield Historical Commission and take an architectural tour of Wakefield's history.

Learn about the new Wakefield History book

Take A Tour of the Hartshorne House

A Brief History

The land we now know as Wakefield was first settled in 1638 by a small band of settlers from Lynn. The following year, they successfully petitioned the legislature for "an inland plantation," named Linn Village. In 1644, when seven families had settled and seven houses had been built, the Court ordered that the town might be incorporated. At that time, the village, located near the shores of the "Great Pond" (Lake Quannapowitt) took the name of Redding.

It was a community of farmers, taking advantage of the enormous flocks of wild pigeons, wild turkeys "exceeding fat, sweet and in abundance, fish in the rivers and ponds, grapes, blackberries, blueberries in great quantities."

By 1667, the community, including what is now known as Reading and North Reading, boasted 59 houses. A garrison house was built against Indian attacks in 1671. In 1686, the settlers bought their land from the Saugus Indians.

Hartshorne House, built c. 1681

The town sent its share of men to the Revolutionary War, but no battle was fought within her bounds. When the Declaration of Independence was first read publicly, it was unanimously voted to "adhere to its sentiments and stand by it to the last."

By the late 18th century, the town was essentially split into three separate and distinct parishes: the First Parish (Wakefield), the Second Parish (North Reading) and the Third Parish (Reading). Although the First Parish was the oldest section, and the largest, the combined votes of the other two parishes was greater. Consequently, the Federalist majority consistently outvoted the staunch Democratic Republicans in First Parish, effectively, as they thought, denying them representation in the legislature. As early as 1785, First Parish petitioned to be set off as a separate town. Issues came to a head just before the War of 1812, and the legislature finally granted their petition in 1811. The town of South Reading was formed in 1812.

South Reading was still a rural, isolated hamlet until the Boston and Maine Railroad came to town in 1845. The change it caused was dramatic, doubling the population from 1,600 to 3,200 in 15 years.


West Ward School, built 1847

The quick rail service gave new impetus to old businesses, like the shoe industry. New ones, like the ice industry, using ice harvested from the town's two lakes, were soon established. In 1851, Cyrus Wakefield came to town, establishing two new industries: the Boston and Maine Foundry Company and the phenomenally successful Wakefield rattan company, which popularized the use of wicker in the United States. (This company would later merge with the Heywood chair company, to become Heywood-Wakefield.) The success of these ventures changed the character of South Reading to a manufacturing center within a comfortable commuting distance of Boston. In 1868, after Cyrus Wakefield offered to build the town a new Town Hall, the town of South Reading voted to change its name to Wakefield, Massachusetts.

As Wakefield approached the twentieth century, it continued to grow and flourish. Two major boosts were given to the town's economy with the coming of the Miller Piano Factory and the Winship Boit Company (Harvard Knitting Mills) in 1889. Gas for lighting streets and houses was introduced by the Citizen's Gas Light Company in 1860; telephone service was achieved in 1894; water service in 1883. During the twentieth century, the suburban character of the town has become firmly established. The town's location on route 128 has recently attracted a proliferation of high tech industries. In 1994, the town celebrated its 350th anniversary celebration in a big way. Two of the events of the celebration, Midsummer Night and the Homecoming, have become established as annual Town Day celebrations.

Wakefield History provided by Nancy Bertrand, Wakefield Historical Commission

The history of Wakefield can be found in a hardbound, 400+ page book, published for the town's 350th anniversary in 1994. Copies of the book are available for purchase from Wakefield 350, a nonprofit organization for $40.00. To inquire about purchasing information, click here.

Is your home listed on the National Register of Historic Places? Click here to find out.

Has your home been researched as one of Wakefield's Significant Sites? Click here to find out.

Are you Researching the History of your Home? Click here for some tips on beginning your search.

Are you looking for information on Pleasure Island?

A History of Pleasure Island

the Pleasure Island Homepage


What's new with the preservation of the West Ward School? Click here for a site that will be updated with new developments.

The National Park Service has recently unveiled an internet travelogue: Places Where Women Made History. The itinerary highlights 74 historic properties in Massachusetts and New York that are listed in the National Park Service's National Register of Historic Places, America's official list of places important in our history and worthy of preservation. The itinerary also lists interactive maps, photographs, and descriptions of each place's significance in women's history. Click here to visit the site. Click here to visit Wakefield's Elizabeth Eaton Boit's link on that site.

Hidden Historical Treasures on Main Street? Click here to find out more about what the owner of Cravings found when he began restoration on one of his rental properties (now the Silver Clay Shop.)

Questions about the history of Wakefield? Click here.

Return to the Wakefield Homepage. Click here.

The Wakefield Historical Society, formed in 1890, holds a variety of public programs during the year and maintains a small museum to preserve artifacts from the past. A yearly membership is $15.00. (Wakefield Historical Society, P.O. Box 1902, Wakefield, MA 01880) For the Society's site and Annual Schedule, click here.

The Wakefield Historical Commission, a branch of town government, works to preserve and protect the town's history, especially its historic buildings and National Register sites. (Wakefield Historical Commission, Town Hall, Wakefield, MA 01880) Visit the Commission's site.

The West Ward School Association, formed in 1995, is working to restore the town's beloved "little red schoolhouse," a 2-room schoolhouse, built in 1847, in continuous operation until 1994. The goal is to establish a living history classroom inside the school. For information about the school or the Association, click the link above. For inquiries, click here.

The Hartshorne House Association, formed in 1930, maintains the town's oldest home, built circa 1681. The first floor of this charming home, located near Lake Quannapowitt, is available for rental for your historic events. Showers, parties and small wedding receptions are easily accommodated. (a maximum of 75 people can attend an indoor reception; the attractive Hartshorne House gardens can accommodate more.) For more information, call 781-245-3935. Tour the Hartshorne House and learn its history. Visit the Hartshorne House Association website.




Help Solve a 100 year old murder mystery.

Captain Thomas McKay of Wakefield (then South Reading) was murdered while in service in the Civil War. Now a webpage is seeking to solve the mystery of his death.

Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. (SPNEA)

Some historic images from Wakefield's past are shown at Hartshorne Insurance's site on this server.

Massachusetts Historical Society

Massachusetts Archives

Massachusetts Historical Commission

Peabody Essex Museum

Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities

Early America

American History Magazine

Boston Public Library

Wakefield Library

New England Historical Genealogical Society

Genealogy links

Return to the Wakefield Homepage.