Center School has been standing as a beacon of education and, more recently, as support to seniors as the headquarters for the Mattapoisett Council on Aging. And lest we forget, it also houses the offices of the Recreation Department. Built in 1898 with funding by the well-known local philanthropist Henry Huttleston Rogers, Center School has been part of the fabric of life for hundreds of families for many decades.
As the epicenter for the Council on Aging (COA), the building, with is gleaming hardwood floors and soaring windows, has provided a place for senior citizens and their families to receive services – everything from exercise and movement classes, dental care, financial assistance, cultural and educational presentations, and, well, it’s a very long list indeed. Under the leadership of Director Jackie Coucci, the COA has been emerging as a vital resource with programs that continue to respond to the needs of aging residents.
As for the school’s benefactor, Rogers was a man who believed in helping others. And because he enjoyed massive wealth earned through hard work and opportunities only seen during the gilded age following the Civil War, Rogers had it to share.
Pondering all this during the winter of 2019 was Rachel McGourthy, a member of the COA Board of Trustees and Chairman of the board’s Marketing Committee. As she often passed the plaque that hangs on the wall behind the COA reception desk commemorating the gift that Rogers gave the community, she began to share her thoughts about finding new ways to reach out to the community, one with a growing senior population. The trustees began the hard work of planning a focused marketing campaign centered on Rogers.
Things solidified in McGourthy’s mind after she took a tour of Fairhaven High School, another of Rogers’ gifts, and heard a presentation given by tour guide Bob Foster. Foster’s wealth of information on the life of Rogers inspired McGourthy to ask if he could give a presentation in Mattapoisett about Rogers’ and Center School.
Coucci hit on the idea of holding an open house that would give the public the opportunity to learn more about the COA and also take a tour of the Center School’s three magnificently crafted floors with a peek at the Seth Thomas clock that resides in the clock tower annex.
Foster’s presentation on Rogers brought to life a man many had heard of but may not have known very well. He explained that Rogers was born and primarily raised in Fairhaven. However, after his father split from the Fairhaven Congregational Church, the family moved to Mattapoisett. Rogers was a person who forged strong friendships – lifelong friendships – and those relationships bonded him to his childhood home.
One friend can be credited with giving Rogers his big break that lead to his becoming one of the wealthiest men of his day. In 1859, Charles Ellis was in Titusville, Pennsylvania, once the wealthiest cities in America, when the first steam-driven engine powered a drill – an oil drill. Ellis invited Rogers, then in his early 20s, to join him. There was money to be made in oil.
However, these two young men wouldn’t go after oil as they had the insight to think about and develop ways to support the oil industry. They embarked on refining oil and transporting it. In the first year, the young entrepreneurs grossed and netted $30,000, a grand sum in in the 1860’s.
Rogers quickly earned tens of thousands of dollars. From humble beginnings as a grocery store clerk to a man willing to plunge into money-making industries, Rogers was on the move.
Eventually, Rogers’ fortune would rival those held by Rockefeller. Foster said, “He had a God-awful amount of money,” and he wanted to give back to the communities he loved, Fairhaven and Mattapoisett.
The list of buildings Rogers funded in Fairhaven is almost mind-numbing. There are nineteen in that seaside town and Mattapoisett has Center School. Oh, and let’s not forget fresh water. Rogers created a private water company co-opting freshwater resources from the Mattapoisett River, and some say in other communities, to ensure that Fairhaven residents would have clean water.
For the construction of his buildings, Rogers hired a virtually unknown architect, a self-taught genius as it turned out, named Charles Brigham. In his lifetime, Brigham would design all the Rogers buildings but one. Rogers would simply tell him what type of building he wanted, never speaking of budgets or cost estimates, simply expecting, and indeed receiving, excellence in the form of an exquisite finished product.
The Millicent Library with its breathtaking stained glass windows was erected in honor of Rogers’ daughter who died in early childhood. There is, of course, that bastion of education, the Fairhaven High School, along with Fairhaven Town Hall, a mansion near Fort Phoenix that had 85 rooms and separate wings for each child (no longer standing), a guest house located at 28 Fort Street, the Unitarian Church, and the parsonage, to name a few.
Because of his early connection to Mattapoisett and the urging of his wife, Rogers had the Center School built. It is the gift that keeps on giving.
Brigham should not be overlooked in the telling of Rogers’ building plans; he was after all the man who made it all happen so beautifully. His buildings beyond the immediate area include the first Boston Museum of Fine Art at Copley Square, First Church of Christ Scientist, and the New Bedford Institute for Savings. A google search of Brigham finds many Boston Back Bay homes credited to him and partnerships he formed. Foster said that there are 77 Brigham’s structures on the historic register.
At the conclusion of Foster’s presentation, the assembled viewed the mechanical workings of the Seth Thomas clock. There to answer questions about the clock was none other than the clock’s knight, or shall I say guardian, Ray Andrews. Andrews spearheaded the fundraising effort to return the clock back to working order. After a 14-month visit at the clock hospital, the gleaming gears may now be viewed as they turn in precision. Andrews said with a smile that in deference to the neighborhood, the clock does not chime throughout the night.
A wall in the annex area displays class photographs from some of the early days of the school. People enjoyed trying to find images of themselves or family and friends before adjourning to the rooms below for the grand finale – refreshments.
Foster’s tours of Fairhaven High School given during the month of July on Friday mornings starting at 10:00 am might be a good starting point for learning more about Rogers. You may also visit www.fairhaventours.com or www.millicentlibrary.org to learn more about the Rogers clan and their patriarch.
And last, but certainly not least, to find out more about the variety of services available at the Mattapoisett COA, visit www.mattapoisett.net/council-aging or stop by for a tour of the facility located in the historic Center School, entrance on Barstow Street, or call 508-758-4110 Monday through Friday between 8:00 am and 4:00 pm.
Mattapoisett Council on Aging
By Marilou Newell