As the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Industrial School for Boys in Shirley approaches, a local historical group is planning an exhibition on the shuttered reform school and working to have its buildings added to the National Register of Historic Places.
But while some people think that the facility’s July 31 anniversary should be celebrated as a piece of history, others say the best thing about the school is that it is no longer open.
Norman Schell says if he hadn’t gone to the school he would have probably ended in some dead-end job for the rest of his life. A 65-year-old program director for a nonprofit organization, Schell looks back on the school as his escape from a troubled childhood. He recalls working in the wood shop, weeding asparagus, playing football, and loving the food – roasted potatoes, corn-starch pudding with fruit, and the best doughnuts he’s ever had.
Six months at the reform school in 1961 got him headed toward college and a successful life, he said.
“The path I was on before I was a ward of the state would have me pumping gas now,” Schell said. “But because I went to Shirley and a foster family took me in, I was really, really, fortunate.”
However, Jerome Miller, a former state Department of Youth Services commissioner, said the Industrial School for Boys was a “horrific place . . . held together by threatening, intimidating, and beating.” As head of DYS, he was responsible for closing down all of the state’s reform schools in the early 1970s.
Miller said boys at the school were punished for running away by having their ring fingers bent back and broken. The conditions were so bad, he said, police hated to return runaways there because they’d hear them screaming. In the school’s Cottage 9, where teenagers with disciplinary problems were held, the staff made them scrub floors with toothbrushes, he said, and the building’s third floor held “the tombs,” rooms without windows or toilets that runaways were thrown into naked as punishment.
“I doubt they’ll exhibit most of the stuff that went on there,” Miller said.
Meredith Marcinkewicz, curator of the Shirley Historical Society Museum, said the group’s exhibition slated to open this fall will tell all sides of the story.
“We would definitely have the pros and cons,” she said.
Marcinkewicz said the society hasn’t finalized the dates or the location of the display. Members are looking into cooperating on a special program with the state prison in Shirley, where the industrial school’s buildings are located. Some of the buildings are used to house minimum-security inmates, while others are used for programs, administrative offices, and staff training classes, said Diane Wiffin, spokeswoman for the state Correction Department.
Few of the people who worked at the school are still living.
Most phone calls to the homes of former staff were answered by wives who said their husbands had died years ago.
But ex-staff members like John Swanson, its superintendent when the school closed in 1972, and Ray Farrar, a former electrical instructor, defended the school. They said students were not beaten or abused. Swanson said police officers he knows regretted the shutdown because they no longer could warn youths that they would end up in Shirley if they didn’t behave.
“Everybody took an interest in the kids and their welfare,” Swanson said about the staff.
Farrar agreed. “It wasn’t as bad a picture as Jerome Miller painted it,” he said. “Personally I still think if they had that school running today, they’d have half as many prisoners as they have” in the state’s jails.
The reform school in Shirley, a rural area that had been a Shaker community in the 19th century, had an indoor swimming pool, a farm with a herd of cows, weekly movie nights, academic classes, and vocational workshops where the boys learned trades. There was a barbershop, a carpenter shop, a print shop, and a plumbing shop. But the most popular place was the auto repair shop, because all the boys wanted to learn how to fix cars, recalled Farrar, 83, who still lives in Shirley. He worked at the school from 1960 to 1972.
Farrar said the staff never hit the boys, but disciplined them by not letting them smoke tobacco.
“In those days, a boy got four cigarettes a day, and if he acted up, they took his cigarettes away,” Farrar said.
The rules were tighter in Cottage 9, where the boys couldn’t talk, let alone smoke, but “it wasn’t as bad as Jerome Miller tells you,” Farrar said. Although “the tombs” didn’t have toilets, “if you needed to go to the john, they took you to the john,” he said. One instructor did make the boys scrub the floor with toothbrushes, Farrar said, but added, “I won’t mention his name.”
Schell, the former student, said he heard stories about the toothbrush practice, but said “they do that in the Army; they do that in the Marines.” He never heard about returned escapees getting their fingers broken. “If that was happening, I certainly would have heard about it at the time,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing that would be through the population very quickly.”
Farrar recalled weekly compulsory trips to church for both inmates and staff. “If you didn’t want to go, you didn’t have a job,” he said.
He was so attached to the institution that when the school closed, he took down the green and white sign that pointed to the school at a nearby intersection and put it up on his wall.
When the Industrial School for Boys opened in 1909, its goal was to steer troubled youths away from crime by giving them the skills to earn a decent living.
According to the school’s first annual report from 1910 (now online as part of a document-access campaign by Google), in its first year the school had 97 students. They painted carriages, made horseshoes, and worked in the laundry, kitchen, and gardens. The school’s entire milk supply and much of the food was produced on site.
The following year’s report indicates that more than a quarter of the school’s residents had been sent there for being “stubborn children,” while others were committed for being “idle and disorderly,” stealing fruit, and drunkenness.
More serious offenses included larceny, breaking and entering, and assault and battery.
By the 1970s, some teenagers were placed in reform school for cutting classes, but the most common crime was car theft, recalls Swanson, 81, who started at the school in 1958.
The former principal confirmed that students were locked in the discipline cottage for misbehaving, and may have been put in isolation. But, he said, “that was necessary to get the message across.” He described it as a temporary measure, and said the students’ cases were checked on regularly.
On the positive side, boys played sports with other towns and received vocational training, Swanson said. “It was a great school and we were all crushed when they decided to close it.”
The school was shuttered as the state took another course in dealing with youthful offenders.
Jane Tewksbury, the current Department of Youth Services commissioner, said that about 200 youths are locked in single cells in secure facilities across the state. About 600 others are in group homes or 24-hour staffed facilities that they cannot leave without supervision.
“Research indicates that isolation and exclusion have less positive outcomes for juvenile offenders than trying to reintegrate them into school and work in the community,” Tewksbury said.
However, she noted, while some youths in the DYS system are enrolled in second-shift programs at regional vocational high schools, these programs have waiting lists.
“We don’t have as many placements as we would like.”