by Kathy Meagher
The Mitchell Military Boys School was opened in Billerica in 1879 by Professor Moses C. Mitchell, an 1862 graduate of Waterville College, now Colby, in Waterville, Maine. Professor Mitchell had taught at a number of academies in Maine before becoming proprietor of a private boy’s school in Edgartown, MA. After eleven years on Martha’s Vineyard, he moved his school to its impressive location on the corner of Andover Road and Boston Road in Billerica. Initial enrollment was limited to twenty-four residential students but that number soon grew. Tuition was $400 per year at this time and thirty years later, in 1909, it was $600 plus approximately $75 in mandatory expenses. By 1929 the cost of the school had climbed to about $1300.
A fire on January 11, 1888 demolished this grand building. It started in the back and quickly spread, in spite of the town’s men’s best efforts. The people of the town understood that more than just a school was lost; more than forty boys, faculty and staff had lost their home. Neighbors were very generous and supportive, many opening their homes to the boys and faculty as living quarters. The town offered a variety of locations to use as classrooms. One week after the fire, the boys and faculty were settled in neighboring homes and classes resumed in the basement of the Unitarian Church until the close of that school year.
Professor M.C. Mitchell had previously bought a large tract of land on “the Bedford road” (Concord Road) just outside the town’s center. It was on this acreage that he rebuilt his school. This new location boasted handsome buildings and over 60 beautiful acres of gardens, riding trails and athletic fields. It is believed to have been a first in New England; a private property expressly planned and erected as a home school for boys. Other such schools utilized pre-existing buildings that were remodeled to act as schools. Due to a lot of drive and hard work, on October 8, 1888 the new term began at this glorious, new, fully modern, Mitchell Boys School.
The school’s motto was “A Wholesome School for Wholesome Boys.” Its curriculum was intensive and broad, preparing the boys for advancement to colleges such as MIT and Harvard. West Point or Annapolis was not the aim of the school. Military exercises were to imbue strong, well poised men, not necessarily soldiers. Academics included all of the mathematics, geography, politics, English grammar and literature, Latin, surveying, history- both ancient and modern, astronomy and all the sciences. Physical training and athletics were also an important part of the curriculum. The school had both indoor and outdoor gymnasiums and a variety of sporting fields. The basketball court was known to have had one of the finest floors in this part of the country. The boy’s sports teams competed against each other as well as other schools (Howe School among them) and organizations. There were riding stables and trails and the boys were instructed in military fashion. Military tactics were also part of the instruction. The school believed that military training imparted order, attention, obedience and high moral standards. To round out their education, the boys were taught etiquette, dancing and art.
Although the school was very prestigious with its students coming from only the best families in the state, country and world, it was very much part of the Billerica community. Community service and involvement were stressed. The boys attended local churches and participated in their many charitable events. They also enjoyed the many entertainments offered by the town, such as plays, musicals, or poetry readings. Students and teachers utilized the Bennett Library for both academics and pleasure. The school also opened its doors to the community. Sporting and athletic events often took place on the school’s beautiful fields and, for the daughters of the town, Friday night dances were held in the school’s gymnasium.
In the early morning hours of January 15, 1935, fire once again struck the school. Flames were high before Headmaster Alexander W. Mitchell, son of founder M. C. Mitchell, was aware of the fire. The call to the Billerica Fire Department came from authorities at the House of Correction who saw the flames in the night sky from more than three miles away. Firefighters from Lowell, Tewksbury and Bedford joined Billerica in the fight. However, in spite of all their efforts the fire was quickly out of control and the main school building and the gymnasium were lost. Although one firefighter from Bedford was injured due to a fall, none of the boys were injured. Utilizing other academic buildings, classes resumed that same morning.
The loss of the main hall and prized gymnasium were tragic to the school but for a while it persevered. In September of 1935 the school was incorporated with Alexander Mitchell being the Director and his son Donald C. Mitchell, Assistant Director. Through the late 1930s, riding became a main factor in the athletic program of the school. It’s well appointed riding ring became home to some of the area’s largest horse competitions and shows. School opened in September 1937 with the largest enrollment in four years but this was not to last. At the time of Alexander W. Mitchell’s death on January 15, 1941, enrollment was dwindling. By 1943 the school was closed and its property and equipment were being sold.
Today, there are few other reminders of this world renowned school. In 1948 it was proposed to the town to purchase the Mitchell athletic fields and, although most of the property has been developed into apartments and other residential neighborhoods, Lampson Field and Mitchell’s Pond still remain as open recreation space. The circular pyramidal stone pillars, with their once ivy covered archways, that graced the two driveway entrances to the school still stand on Concord Road. Moses Campbell Hall which, after the 1935 fire, became the main building of the school also remains and now houses Sweeney Funeral Home.