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There are few towns in America with such a world-renowned confluence of history and ideas as Concord, Massachusetts.
For over 10,000 years, Native Americans had used the rivers in the place they called Musketaquid for transportation and as a rich source of food. Here there were fish-filled rivers, woods teeming with beaver and game, fertile soil, and natural meadow lands. For the same reasons, English settlers also selected the site for a town. Located 18 miles west-northwest of Boston, the town of Concord was incorporated in 1635 as the first inland settlement in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Concord is perhaps best known as the site of the first organized armed resistance to the British rule. In 1775 the town was a well-established, prosperous farming community, a busy hub of trade and a thriving regional center with ready access to Boston along the Bay Road. On April 19, 1775, British soldiers marched out to Concord to destroy the arms, ammunition and other provisions which the colonials had stored here. At the North Bridge in Concord, the command was given to return fire: with the “shot heard round the world,” the American Revolution had begun. After the war ended, Concord continued to grow as a busy commercial, civic and institutional town center. Near the meetinghouse and two burial grounds, schools, taverns and stores mingled with the courthouse, jail, and other county buildings, and with many small craftsmen’s shops that housed clockmakers, cabinetmakers, hatters, blacksmiths, and pencil makers who manufactured items for local sale and for export. In 1828, a group of local businessmen began replacing the small shops with brick and wood-frame business blocks. This was the beginning of a true “downtown” of substantial commercial structures, many of which still survive.
In the middle decades of the 19th century Concord was again a center of revolution, this time in the realm of ideas and literature. In 1834, Ralph Waldo Emerson moved to Concord, the town where his grandfather had served as minister at the time of the Revolution. Emerson’s stature as the most influential American writer, thinker, poet, and philosopher of the mid-19th century drew other intellectuals to the town during America’s literary renaissance. Henry D. Thoreau, who was born in Concord, is best known as the author of Walden, universally acknowledged to be one of the great books of American literature, and “Civil Disobedience,” one of the most influential essays in the worldwide democratic tradition. Thoreau’s name has become almost synonymous with two themes: the love of nature, and uncompromising ethical values. Louisa May Alcott, author of Little Women, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, author of The Scarlet Letter, also both lived in Concord and their homes, along with Emerson’s, are open to the public today.
During the 1850s Concord was a center of anti-slavery activity and was a stop on the underground railroad for slaves escaping to freedom. In the west end of town an 1808 cotton spinning mill on the Assabet River expanded through the Civil War as the Damon Manufacturing Company. Also in the west part of town, a small hamlet begun around a pail factory in the 1850s grew into the major secondary village of Concord Junction after the Framingham & Lowell Railroad was extended north to the Fitchburg line in 1871-72. Over the next two decades, with the establishment of the State Prison in 1878, West Concord rapidly developed as the most populous section of town.
Paralleling the industrial and institutional expansion at West Concord, the community as a whole was developing a reputation as a progressive agricultural center. The Middlesex Agricultural Society began holding its annual cattle shows in Concord in 1820, with indoor agricultural exhibits and competitions in the county courthouse. Concord farmers were among the regular prizewinners, including Ephraim Bull, who developed the Concord Grape. Simon Brown, editor of the influential New England Farmer and at one time Lieutenant Governor of Massachusetts, operated a model farm overlooking the Concord River from 1848 to 1873. Through the 19th century, outlying farms prospered, with dairying and market-gardening, including the growing of strawberries and asparagus, becoming important specialties. Farming in Concord was transformed by 1900 thanks to the efforts of a new generation of land owners who had emigrated from Ireland, Italy, Scandinavia, and Canada. Farms remain a vital asset in Concord today.
Concord’s population more than doubled between 1940 and 1980. Today, nearly 17,000 people live in Concord, a major Boston suburb. Many have chosen to live here for its historical significance, excellent educational and cultural institutions, proximity to Boston, and rural beauty. In spite of dramatic changes to Concord’s landscape, economy, and composition, Concord maintains a strong sense of its own history. The town’s inhabitants continue to preserve and adapt Concord’s heritage for succeeding generations.
Prepared by the Concord Museum, based on the Museum’s “Why Concord?” history galleries, with additional information drawn from the Town of Concord’s Reconnaissance Report of 2007. Image of Main Street in Concord by Eric Roth.