The Academy: Old Fairhaven’s Civic Center

NO, IT'S NOT THE OLD HIGH SCHOOL. Yes, it’s the oldest building owned and managed by the Town of Fairhaven. No, it’s not standing where it was built originally. Yes, it still is opened to the public, but rather infrequently. It is the old Fairhaven Academy building, that yellow, Federal style school building which stands on the west lawn of Fairhaven High School. Let us take a peek at this venerable structure’s story by looking back to times gone by. We’ll begin in the year it was built, 1798.

In 1798, the United States was barely high school age. The new Federal Government had been operating under the Constitution for less than ten years. John Adams, our second president, had been in office for just one year. It was time to put colonial life and the American Revolution behind us and to begin looking ahead to our future.

The Academy originally stood on the west side of Main Street south of where Huttleston Avenue is today. In this photo the first Fairhaven High School can be seen in the background on the north side of Huttleston Avenue.
The Town of New Bedford, including present-day Acushnet and Fairhaven, was still a youth as well, having been set off from Dartmouth in 1787. While Acushnet village was long established, the villages of Oxford and Fairhaven on the eastern side of the river were relatively immature. There was a wharf at Oxford and two at Fairhaven. A mill powered by the tide had been built on the Herring River in 1792. The Second Church of Christ had been put up in 1794, at the corner of “Eastermost street and the road leading into the village” (Main and Center streets). In 1795, Main Street, connecting the two villages, was laid out. A bridge across the Acushnet River was under construction, but was not yet open to travel. Aside from the growing shipping and whaling industries at the waterfront villages, the town was predominantly agricultural, with large widely scattered farms occupying most of the land. Most residents were prospering nicely.

It was in this social and economic climate that a group of fourteen men gathered in April of 1798 with the object of building a private school to advance young people to a higher level of learning. This group of subscribers, each to own an equal portion of the cost, was made up of John Alden, Isaac Shearman, Levi Jenne, Noah Stoddard, Nichols Stoddard, Killey Eldredge, Thomas Delano, Jethro Allen, Joseph Bates, Robert Bennet, Reuben Jenne, Nicholas Taber, Luther Wilson and Benjamin Lincoln.

They were among the most prominent men in the villages of Fairhaven and Oxford—merchants, civic leaders, churchmen. Shearman had just finished serving four years as a selectman of the town and, with Alden, Allen and Bates, had signed the original covenant of the Second Church of Christ. Three of the men had served on the committee to build the church. Killey Eldredge would serve as a selectman in 1800-02 and again in 1810. Levi Jenne would become Fairhaven’s first town clerk and would also serve as a selectman. Captain Noah Stoddard, a zealous patriot and Revolutionary privateer who had fought at Bunker Hill, would be the primary proprietor of Union Wharf and would be vocal in the move to split Fairhaven from New Bedford. Bennet and Reuben Jenne were heavily involved in the shipping trade and building in Oxford. (Bennet’s mansion, still standing at 199 Main Street, was most likely the largest home in town when it was built in 1810.)

While the religious convictions of each of the Academy’s subscribers is not completely known, a number of them were involved in the building and operation of the Congregational Church, the minister of which was the young Rev. Isaiah Weston, a 1793 graduate of Brown University. That Rev. Weston was an influence in the building of the Academy is undeniable. The record of the first meeting to build the school notes that the Academy’s design would be “agreeable to the plan exhibited by the Rev. Mr. I. Weston.”
One classroom in the Academy remains today.

That plan was for a building “fifty feet and half by twenty-four feet and half, two-story high.” The subscribers later agreed to pay Robert Bennet $1,400 to build the school. In August 1799, Bennet was given $96 more “for the additional expense of building the tower to the Academy,” which apparently hadn’t been in the original sketch. At the same time it was voted to purchase lumber to build a fence and outhouses, purchase a bell and hire a painter. Robert Bennet and Noah Stoddard were assigned the task of hiring instructors.

The New Bedford Academy’s original location was on the west side of Main Street halfway between the villages of Fairhaven and Oxford—just south of what is today a small veteran’s park at the southwest corner of Main Street and Huttleston Avenue. Its location is pinpointed in an Evening Standard newspaper article, dated 1896, which says, the north side of it stands about three feet on the line of land recently acquired by Mr. Rogers for a park plot at the eastern approach [of the new Fairhaven-New Bedford Bridge].

The first floor of the Academy had two classrooms. The boys’ class was on the west side of the central corridor, the girls’ on the east. Each room had a small fireplace at one end and tiers of desks and benches arranged in three rows on each side of an aisle. Each classroom was meant to hold forty-eight students. A desk for the teacher was on a raised platform to one side of the fireplace. The plaster walls were whitewashed to reflect as much natural light as possible.

The second story of the building was one large meeting hall with a seating capacity of about two-hundred persons. A raised platform was centered against the south wall. The seats were arranged to face that direction.

Typical of the Federal style of architecture, the Academy was simple, symmetrical and dignified looking.

The Academy was first opened for classes on May 1, 1800. The boys’ instructor was Galen Hix and the girls’ was Sally Cady. (Hix owned and occupied the home at 147 Main Street, built in 1799 by Reuben Jenne. Ironically, it is now the house next door to the north of the Academy in its modern location.) For close to forty years classes were held there, under a number of different instructors. The curriculum generally included studies in English, French, Greek, Latin, mathematics, music and drawing, “together with other branches of study usually taught in Academies.” One advertisement from 1837 notes that “particular attention will be given to the culture of the moral character.” Near the beginning of the school’s existence, this well-rounded education cost $2 per quarter.

Among those appointed to visit and inspect the school over the years were Capt. Samuel Borden, upon whose land the building sat; Warren Delano, great-grandfather of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt; Ezekiel Sawin, president of both of the town’s banks; and whaling merchant and ship owner Nathan Church, “the wealthiest man in town.”

Schooling was only half of the Academy’s function in town, though. The second floor hall played an important role as a meeting place for civic, religious and social functions.

As early as 1806, the proprietors were renting the hall for assemblies for $3 to $5 per night. When the War of 1812 loomed and Fairhaven and New Bedford were divided over their support for the war, rallies were held at the Academy by “friends of the present administration, the adherents to the good cause of Republicanism, who British gold cannot corrupt, nor old Tories affright, who are willing to aid the government of their country in a firm and vigorous defense of national honor and dignity.” When war was actually declared, Joseph Gleason Jr., Captain, advertised in the local newspaper, “The inhabitants of the southerly part of Fairhaven are requested to meet at the Academy in Fairhaven Village on Saturday, the 8th day of August next [1812], . . .for the purpose of forming volunteer companies to repel invasion, and support the laws of the Country.” Militia units also drilled on the lawn of the Academy throughout the war.

In 1815, the Academy’s operators gave Joseph Bates Sr. the “whole care and superintendence” of the school. The following year, it was voted to allow the upstairs hall to be rented for religious meetings at a rate of $2 a meeting, provided the minister was someone of good character. On November 30, 1820, Rev. Moses Howe wrote in his diary, “In the afternoon we had a meeting at the Academy, in Fairhaven, where a Christian Church was formed consisting of forty-five members who agreed to take the Bible as their only rule of faith and duty. . . .” This faithful body, which later evolved into the Unitarian Church, held services in the Academy until 1832, when Joseph Bates Jr., Warren Delano and others built the Washington Street Christian Meeting House.

In 1831, it was voted to rent the Academy hall for Town Meetings, which were held there from 1832 until 1843. Town Meetings at the Academy, however, bothered residents of the northern part of the town—present-day Acushnet. Consequently, a Town House was built further north, near Main and Hawthorne streets, where Town Meeting was held from 1844 to 1858 when the building was destroyed by a fire of suspicious origin. The following year, a petition was put forth for the separation of Acushnet as a separate town.

During the early 1840s the use of the Academy building as a school came to an end. There were public district schools by this time as well as a number of competing private schools, such as the Union Seminary in Acushnet, Rev. William Gould’s school, Lewis Bartlett’s Academy and others. In 1841, the proprietors put the Fairhaven Academy up for sale by auction. All interest in it was bought by Samuel Borden, who owned virtually all of the land between Bridge Street and Elm Avenue on both sides of Main Street. One story suggests that old Captain Borden had grown tired of the noise and commotion associated with the Academy. Borden’s home, later owned by his grandson Hon. John A. Hawes, was next south of the building.

It was Hawes who brought activity back to the building in the 1870s. John A. Hawes, a lawyer, state senator and the first commodore of the New Bedford Yacht Club, also fancied himself as a patron of the arts.  He refurbished the old Academy’s second floor, dividing it into two rooms. The larger east room was set up as a music hall, with a grand piano, a custom-made pipe organ and seating for an audience of  about one-hundred and twenty-five. The pipe and reed organ was built by George Woods & Co. of Cambridgeport. It was advertised as “the only instrument of its kind in this section of the state.” The walls of the music hall were elaborately frescoed with handsome symbolic figures, adding to the sophisticated ambiance of Mr. Hawes’ auditorium.

The smaller west room was outfitted as a billiard parlor—no doubt for the better cultivated members of the billiard playing crowd.

Following the death of John Hawes in 1883, the Academy fell into disuse. For years it was simply a large storage building on the Hawes estate, holding some of the family’s cast-off furniture and belongings. Nearly one-hundred years after it had been built, the fate of the old place was in question because the eastern end of the new Fairhaven-New Bedford Bridge would connect with Huttleston Avenue instead of Bridge Street as the old bridge had. The Academy sat only a bit to the south of the bridge’s path.

Henry Huttleston Rogers assured the Academy would be saved. In 1907, the year after the new high school was completed, Rogers had the venerable building moved to a new foundation at its present location. On December 13, 1907, Rogers deeded the Fairhaven High School property, including the old Academy, to the Town of Fairhaven. It was then placed in the care of the Fairhaven Improvement Association.

Within a few years, the Academy Building became the home of the newly formed Fairhaven Colonial Club. The group, originally formed with a mission to preserve the town’s historical artifacts, raised $1,600 to refurbish the building for its use. The members soon filled it with a collection of items, some of which dated to the 1770s. Although a part of that collection was later moved into the Coggeshall Memorial House on Cherry Street, the Colonial Club was responsible for the care, heating and insurance of the building until 1975. At that time, Town Meeting passed an article to transfer responsibility of the Academy back to the town. It has been overseen by the Fairhaven Historical Commission since that time.

In October of 1992, following a fundraising effort to help restore the Academy and rebuild its cupola, the building was opened as the Museum of Fairhaven History by the Fairhaven Historical Society, Inc., a non-profit organization separate from the town's Historical Commission. The society has opened the building to the public periodically, continuing its service into the twenty-first century.

In November of 2012, the Fairhaven Office of Tourism was relocated to the Academy Building. The town's Visitors Center is now on the first floor of the building. The museum and visitors center are currently open forty hours a week year round.


© COPYRIGHT 2001, 2011, 2013, 2015, 2022 by Christopher J. Richard. All rights reserved.