"Most of the choir being directly connected with the family, the music was in charge of a quartette
Details described for the funeral service of William Bowles Willard on February 25, 1891
"The church organ has been tuned
and put through repair."
Quote in a published account of Charlotte Whitman Willard's marriage in Still River on June 23, 1892.
Above: 252 Still River Road
This was William Bowles Willard's farm.
He sold it to his sons, Luther and Abel,
in 1860. It is now owned by the
Saint Benedict Center.
Below: 216 & 218 Still River Road
Bowles Willard moved to the house on the right in 1860, but later exchanged it for the church Parsonage on the left which had been the original Meetinghouse for the Baptist Society. He moved to this location when the new church was built in 1832. It burned in 1910 and the present home of Willard's descendents was built on the property.
Still River Baptist Society
The above quotes from historical accounts relate the importance of a choir and its organ, placing them at the forefront of life’s most memorable occasions. The choir belonged to the Still River Baptist Society. The organ had been a gift to that society two decades earlier and for anyone familiar with the history of Still River, it is not surprising that this pair was held in such high esteem. Throughout the 19th century, the Still River Baptist Society was a guiding force for much of its surrounding community and at the heart of the Society was the cherished sound of its choir and organ.
In 1732, the town of Harvard began, like all towns of that era, as a single religious congregation. According to historian Henry Nourse, sympathy to Baptist doctrine may have begun well before this time, with Henry Willard and his sons, the first settlers of Still River. In his 1894 book, History of the Town of Harvard, Nourse describes the tolerance within Harvard’s first church towards those who embraced the Baptist creed, “There was certainly no very uncharitable feeling in the first Harvard church towards the believers in that creed.” The differences in theology within that first church were able to coexist for nearly half a century.
On June 27, 1776, with the spirit of independence in the air, Dr. Isaiah Parker and 13 other members of the community sought an independence of their own, associating themselves as a new church. Membership grew over the next 20 years to almost 200 members. Around 1782, they purchased a 30-year-old Leominster meetinghouse and moved it to property the group had acquired in Still River.
Over the next century, the Harvard Baptist Society, eventually known as the Still River Baptist Society, flourished, serving as Mother Church to offspring societies in up to nine neighboring towns. A new Meetinghouse was built in 1832 to accommodate the growing membership and the old Meetinghouse was moved across the street and converted into a parsonage.
In 1870, when William Bowles Willard donated a pipe organ to the Society, it was a thriving organization with many members like Willard, who were well-respected and influential citizens of the community. The Meetinghouse had been enlarged in 1867 and would be enlarged again in 1902.
By 1940, much had changed in Harvard and in the world at large. The Baptist community was still active but its numbers and support were greatly reduced. In 1966, they combined with the Congregational Church in Harvard – from which they had severed themselves 190 years before – and sold their Meetinghouse to the Harvard Historical Society for $1,000.
The Willard Family
In 1870, William Bowles Willard (1801-1891), lifelong
resident of Still River, donated a pipe organ to the
Still River Baptist Society. With that gift, he helped to
enrich the community that surrounded him. Willard’s
roots to this community were stronger than those of a
single man. The seed had been planted and nurtured
by five generations of Willards that preceded him.
Major Simon Willard (1605-1676) was the first of his
prolific new-world genealogical tree, emigrating to the
colonies from Kent, England, around 1634. He married
three times and fathered 17 children. He is a key
historical figure in Massachusetts, considered
instrumental in the founding of Concord and many
surrounding towns. The town fathers of Lancaster
invited him to take up residence there, which he did in
1660. In 1672, he moved to Groton. The mansion he
built there, at his Nonacoicus farm, was destroyed in
1676, when Nipmuc warriors raided Groton. He served
as the chief military officer for Middlesex County and, according to historian Henry Nourse, “if the vote by which he was year after year elected Assistant may testify, the most popular magistrate in the colony.” At the outbreak of King Philip’s war, the Major, then 70 years of age, took command of the Middlesex soldiers.
Simon Willard’s fourth son, Henry (1655-1701), settled on his father’s land in Still River around 1687. According to a 1692 listing of Lancaster garrisons, he and his sons were a part of the eighth Lancaster garrison. Henry had nine sons, most of whom remained in the Harvard and Lancaster areas. Henry’s mother, Mary Dunster, was the third wife of Simon Willard and niece to Henry Dunster, the first president of Harvard College, who was forced to relinquish that position due to the openness of his sympathy to Baptist doctrine. Through this connection, according to Henry Nourse in History of the Town of Harvard, “It is alleged, and it is not an unreasonable supposition that Henry Willard and his sons, the first settlers at Still River, imbibed Baptist theological views from his mother” .
The Willard Family was well
represented in the early days of the
Harvard Baptist Society and remained
active and influential over the years.
Each new generation brought
marriages to other prominent local
families and by 1891, the fact that
most of the choir was connected
with the family of William Bowles
Willard is understandable, for at
that time, it seems that a good number
of the families in and around Still
River had some connection to the
Willard family tree.
William Bowles Willard, a direct
descendant of Major Simon Willard,
was born in 1802. In 1832 he married
Abiah Woods Harrod (1802-1862),
daughter of Captain Noah and
Eusebia (Kendall) Harrod. Their
union was a prime example of the
intertwining of prominent Harvard
families. They had seven children
together, six of whom lived to adulthood.
After Abiah’s death, William married
Mrs. Maria (Paige) Gibson in 1863.
She died four months later, and in 1864
he married Esther D. Metcalf.
William’s mother, Eleanor Bowles, had
been the sole surviving member of a
large Harvard family. Her father,
Deacon William Bowles, her mother,
and 13 siblings all died of consumption.
William’s father, Abel Willard, was great
grandson to Henry Willard.
If sympathy to Baptist doctrine did,
in fact, begin with Henry Willard,
his great-great grandson carried on the
family tradition with honor. Bowles,
as he was commonly called, or Uncle
Bowles by those more familiar, was a
pillar to the Still River Baptist Society,
serving as its Clerk for 57 years. He was
a successful farmer in Still River and, having ample means, was a generous benefactor for the Society and its missions. He contributed money to pay a large portion of the annual running expenses, helped to fund repairs, renovations, and additions to the church. He also contributed generously to charitable societies of his denomination, especially those connected with educating freed slaves in the South. The pipe organ he donated was a valued and significant gift. The organ was built by George Stevens, a master craftsman and respected Boston organ builder.
Prior to this time, the beloved choir had been accompanied by a small organ in the balcony choir loft, whose sound would have paled in comparison to the grand, richly toned pipe organs that had been installed in other local churches. Installing the massive organ, however, required major alterations to the rear of the church and the loss of a great window that overlooked the valley. It is possible, if not probable, that Bowles Willard funded these alterations as well. The fact that Bowles and the Society were willing to go to such great lengths and expense speaks, once again, to the importance placed on the choir.
Its dedication was noted in the Saturday, March 18, 1870, edition of the Clinton Courant, “The ‘seraphine’ in the Baptist church of Still River has at last given way to a modern Organ, generously given the society by Wm. B. Willard, Esq. Its value is estimated at some $1200 or $1400. It was to be dedicated last (Friday) evening by an Organ concert. Rev. Wm. Leach is acting pastor of the church.” With its dedication, the organ became officially woven into the fabric of the Still River Baptist community. At Sunday services, it provided the solemn melodies of worship and reflection. On occasions such as the marriage of Charlotte Willard, it sounded the sweet melodies of joy, hope, and new beginnings. On more somber occasions, such the funeral of William Bowles Willard himself, it sounded the bittersweet melodies of grief, sorrow, and loss.
Bowles Willard helped to support the Baptist Society even after his death, bequeathing them a healthy sum of $1,000. His widow, Esther, left another $500.
The Willard story is ongoing. Descendents of William Bowles Willard are present and prominent members of our community still, as are members of the Harrod family. The descendents of Major Simon Willard are spread throughout the country and are so numerous as to have their own Willard Family Association.