A Look at Lyman School for Boys from the Turnpike 1885-1972

My mother, upon hearing the fire whistle blow, would immediately clear the clothes line so that a suspected Lyman escapee wouldn’t be tempted with taking a change of clothes from our line.


This presentation is only a small portion of the history of Lyman School and does not include the many pictures and captions of the Lyman School buildings and grounds and in no way reflects the thousands of stories needed to be told. It does not expose in detail the inner workings of a failed system of reform and rehabilitation. It does not investigate the boy’s interactions with their house mates, the adult caretakers, the masters and matrons, the farmers and teachers nor those most responsible for its failure: the politicians, board of trustees, the courts, the health agencies and the educators. There were no advocates, no shining knight to rescue the Lyman Boys. They were victims not only of their life situation but also of a noncaring society and a totally incompetent reform movement. The unedited document of A Look at Lyman School from the Turnpike is available at the Westborough Public Library, History Room, the Westborough Historical Commission Office and the Westborough Historical Society located at the Sibley House on May 15. 


When the decision was finally made to abandon the Reform School at the Peters Farm and to locate a new facility, the legislature had only to look across Chauncy Pond to find a satisfactory location. Westborough met the minimal requirements: available land, the Boston and Albany Railroad was two miles south and the old Worcester Turnpike would be the primary access road to the site. The location further maintained the earlier philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind.” It was far enough from Boston so an escapee would not easily find his way home. The new site was the former homestead of the town’s first minister and was known as Powder Hill.   

The location at the top of Powder Hill held panoramic views of central Massachusetts in all directions. Looking to the east, were the Chauncy Lakes, the towers of the old reform school and beyond. Mount Wachusett and the New Hampshire mountains loomed in the north. The Assabet River Valley and Boston Hill to the west and one mile to the south, the village of Westborough where the church spires were the highest structures in the area.

Powder Hill had been established as pasture land for livestock farming from the time of Reverend Parkman. Throughout the next 150 years, the property had a number of owners all of whom raised livestock. When the property was bought in 1885, it belonged to Bela J. Stone as the Linden Wood Milk and Fancy Stock Farm, 80 acres of pasture land where prized Ayshire cattle were raised. This homestead became the new center of the Lyman School campus.

The main entrance to the site was from the Turnpike where the former Willow Park Seminary was located. The ancient road of the original center of town ran behind the Seminary, through the area and intersected with the road to Northborough. To the north and east was undeveloped state-owned land. However, the state would eventually purchase all the abutting farm properties that would later become part of the 700 acres of state-owned property.

Upon the construction of the first building, the purchase and renovations of three existing properties, the school was opened. However, throughout Lyman’s existence, there was never a long-term building plan. The site was developed on an as needed basis, after the fact. As soon as a new building was constructed and opened, it would be filled to capacity. Without realistic enrollment requirements, superintendents from the very beginning were requesting the basic necessities needed to effectively operate an institution of this size. The Lyman School for Boys opened in 1885.

                                    Lyman School for Boys


The nation’s first attempt at establishing a juvenile reform facility was built at the Peters Farm on the hill overlooking Lake Chauncy in 1846. It was called the State Reform School for Boys at Westborough. It was built in Westborough; far enough from Boston so as not to be seen and so runaways could not find their way back. The adage “out of sight, out of mind” was coined to describe the institution. It was based on the congregate or centralized system of incarceration, the same as the adult prisons.

Unfortunately, for those boys committed, the facility was not a school nor did it reform. It was in fact an extension of the adult prison system for male adolescents and children. It was in all aspects nothing more than a dumping ground for society’s youthful misfits. The institution accepted boys from age seven to 17, whether homeless or a horse thief, truant or sexual predator, for stubbornness or stealing grapes and the mentally challenged. The boys were mostly from single-parent homes, if they had any at all, were first-generation born in America and from the inner cities.

In 1884 after 12 years of riots, arson, mass runaways, brutality and a non-existent record of preventing recidivism, a reform movement took control of the program and abandoned the congregate system of the juvenile jails. During that time period, over 6,000 men/boys passed through the doors of the institution. During the transition from the congregate system to the cottage system, the best boys 15 and younger remained at the Peters Farm Reform School while the more aggressive and dangerous boys were sent to the newly opened Concord Reformatory and elsewhere.

Legislators also voted to abandon the existing buildings and convey the property to the newly established Westborough Insane Asylum and located the new juvenile facility to Powder Hill overlooking the Worcester Turnpike.  

Lyman School for Boys

The majority of boys adjudicated delinquent and committed to Lyman were mentally challenged, emotionally disturbed, school truants or stubborn and neglected children (status offences). These boys had been rejected by parents or state agencies and were mixed in with convicted delinquents who committed serious crimes. Boys were committed for a term of two months to five years. As the population of Lyman steadily grew, overcrowding was an ongoing issue that was addressed through legislative indifference.

The new facility opened in 1885 with 100 of the best boys ages ten to 15 transferred from the old Reform School while boys’ seven to ten were deflected to a new facility in Berlin. The new cottage plan provided for custodial and industrial training for delinquent boys. It was intended to resemble a family-style home as opposed to the centralized system of the adult prisons. Each cottage was overseen by a married couple, the master and matron who lived in separate quarters in the cottage, a teacher and a laundress. Each cottage was designed for 30 boys who were assigned by age and ability. The boys slept in open dormitories, ate their meals in the cottage dining room, played in the recreation room but prison lock stepped to their daily work assignments or extra curricular activities.

However, the new building design resembled those of the old Reform School and the daily routine of the boys, their diets, work hours, school hours and recreation time remained virtually the same as the Reform School. What did change were the boys’ living conditions with no walls or fences and no barred windows or doors. Lyman was an open campus. Although the newly-constructed three-story monolithic brick buildings resembled those of other state institutions, they were referred to as cottages, a misnomer.

Without having prior knowledge of the Reform School, the forerunner of the Lyman School, a casual visitor passing through the open campus would observe the finely landscaped lawns and decorative flower arrangements, the impressive brick architecture and clean white farm buildings. There were smooth roads and concrete sidewalks connecting all of the buildings. The campus had all the appearances of an open campus prep school. 

You may have even seen some of the boys marching to an activity or playing on the swings or merry-go-round. You may have been invited to swim in the indoor swimming pool or played basketball or baseball against the Lyman teams but you didn’t know who these boys were or why they were at Lyman. You were told that only “bad boys” went to the Lyman School.

During the next 70 years, the state purchased adjacent properties and approximately 700 acres of farm land on Powder Hill north of the Turnpike to the Assabet River, along Milk Street and north and east to Lake Chauncy and the former reform school which became the Westboro Insane Asylum.

Throughout its history, there was never a master building plan for Lyman. Although the legislature grudgingly approved funding for more cottages, acquired more farm land and increased the farm program to feed an expanding population, there was very little support for educational and vocational programs, which is what these boys desperately needed

The Great Depression had little impact on the legislature, which continued to fund additional building projects to support Lyman’s growing population. During the war years, boys enlisted in the armed forces. The academics program was discontinued for those boys who volunteered to keep the coal furnaces burning and work long hours at the farm and the dairy to keep food on the table. Needless to say, these boys never received any educational or vocational training.

Still, the bureaucrats, the courts, Department of Education and the Department of Mental Health never came to the aid of the Lyman Boys. In their eyes, Lyman was doing what no one else wanted to take responsibility for. As long as there weren’t any issues to discredit or embarrass the politicians, Lyman was left, isolated, to self destruct from the inside out.

 The Closing of Lyman School

When the United States was thrust into World War II, all the eligible Lyman boys and male staff were either drafted or enlisted. The staffing of Lyman was left up to the women employees and men too old to serve in the armed forces. Consequently classroom attendance was suspended during the war and every physically able boy worked the farm, tended to the boiler system shoveling coal 24/7, worked in the kitchen or shoveled snow during the winter months and landscaped in the summer.

After World War II, Lyman’s population became ethnically diversified. However unlike prior commitments, these boys were violent in nature, psychopathic, illiterate and generally un-incorrigible. As more social services became available at the gateway of the juvenile justice system, more of the younger less troubled boys were diverted away from Lyman. The 50s and 60s brought in street-hardened boys that were not only convicted delinquents but were involved in gangs, substance abuse and weapons.

In 1947, Legislative investigation of Lyman characterized the male faculty as misfits, malcontents and alcoholics who were appointed as political hacks. In the 1950s, Lyman experienced reform movements that would eventually lead to the closing of the facility. In 1950, 200 acres of farm land was sold to help finance the implementation of the 40-hour work week recently made law thus ending the full time cottage parents and the farm help that worked 60 to 70 hours a week. The money was necessary to hire more employees to staff the cottages 24/7. The trade unions further pressured the legislature to cease the use of boys in building maintenance and farm work. They made the point that the boys were nothing more than free child labor. In 1952, the Lyman Trustees were disbanded and the Division of Youth Services was created to manage the state’s juvenile delinquency program.

As a direct result of the boys’ ban from performing any form of routine maintenance, the older buildings fell into a state of neglect the farm lands went fallow, the hay fields uncut and the animals were eventually sold off. The boys were relegated to domestic chores that were eagerly volunteered for rather than spend their idle hours watching television. The boys were allowed to work as domestics in the cottages making beds and cleaning floors, as kitchen help and laundry workers. The boys in trust were allowed to work at landscaping and snow removal.

 In 1953, the Legislature discontinued the farming program and released three industrial arts instructors which in affect ended the only semblance of vocational training. However, they did continue with institutional maintenance funding on an emergency basis only, but they approved two new buildings, a central cafeteria and a school building.

This brick one-story school building, typical of the era, was built to accommodate the growing Lyman population. However, little thought or planning was done to make this an adequate learning facility. The classrooms would only accommodate 20 students and with a population in excess of 585, the new building was totally inadequate. Once again the legislature failed in their attempt to educate these boys.

By 1960, fewer than twenty five cottage staff per day were interacting in some way with the 590 boys at the school, leaving 155 employees on the Lyman payroll that had no daily contact at all with a boy. Still, every boy was required to attend school classes. However, there was no farm work, carpentry shop or vocational training. No extra curricular activities, for the most part the boys were confined to their cottages  

Then, in the mid 1960s, there was a national reform movement against incarcerating juveniles in institutions. In 1968, Massachusetts Governor John Volpe requested the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare to investigate Lyman and other state facilities. Their findings identified the Division of Youth Services as a scandalous neglect and mistreatment of children state wide. Lyman had become a dumping ground for political appointments and hacks and for hundreds of boys that were cast off as being lost souls of society.

In 1969, newly elected Governor Frank Sergeant terminated the commissioner of the Division of Youth Services and immediately hired another to deinstitutionalize the system. Dr. Jerome Miller, an assistant Professor of Psychology from Ohio State University was hired. Although Miller had little experience dealing with juveniles or for that matter a broken reform system, he did have extensive experience in conventional and non traditional treatment and counseling of adults. But as he would quickly learn, he was clearly out of his area of expertise. 

Also in 1969, several status offenses (stubborn child, truant & runaway) were stricken from the criminal laws and a new civil law (non-criminal) was enacted. CHINS or Child In Need of Services was instituted to deflect juveniles from the criminal justice system and remanded them to the Department of Social Services or Mental Health. But the system was already in total failure and spiraling out of control. Bureaucratic ineptness ruled, while the new self-serving commissioner attempted to make sweeping changes to the system without including or gaining the support of employees. The commissioner played out the blame game for the system’s failure in the Boston media and accused the Lyman superintendent of creating a hostile environment that allowed cottage masters to let the boys have their way and run at will. There was chaos in every level of the system.

In 1971, the remaining status offenders were removed from Lyman and returned to their relatives or placed in foster care while convicted juvenile delinquents from other closed facilities were moved into Lyman. Two girls cottages were opened at Lyman and, for a short time, the school was coed and the facility continued to spiral out of control. There were frequent runaways and numerous disturbances that required the intervention of the local police to support the staff with maintaining order. Then in January 1972, in a desperate attempt to take control, Miller executed a clandestine operation whereby student supporters from the University of Massachusetts appeared at Lyman and shuttled the remaining boys off the property to Amherst to become part of the new social reform movement. Lyman School for Boys was shuttered after 86 years of service. The employees that resided on the campus became jobless but remained caretakers of an empty facility.

Lyman School never achieved its lofty goals to provide for educational and industrial training for boys lost to an unforgiving society. Within five years of opening, it was clearly evident that the school would become nothing more than a juvenile work camp. The inability of the superintendents to implement and finance education and vocational training that would have helped a boy to reform, learn a trade or help in some way to rehabilitate him was never embraced by the legislature.

Today, Lyman’s sprawling farmlands have been sold off or conveyed to other state and local agencies. The remaining campus buildings that were not rehabilitated for use by other agencies were abandoned and left boarded up to endure the ravages of time and neglect until they collapse into their own foundations. When Lyman was closed, the school had 265 acres of land.             

After the closing of Lyman and the remaining juvenile jails in Massachusetts, the Division of Youth Services was again reorganized and the juvenile reform movement returned to the congregate system that was disbanded in 1885. Boys committed to DYS as repeat criminal offenders or dangerous felons were incarcerated in the same manner as the Reform School, in a segregated locked facility. This time the housing components were located throughout numerous communities in the state. The populations were much smaller and easier to control, feed, rehabilitate and educate. As opposed to the boys that were sentenced to Lyman as status offenders, boys committed to DYS are gang members, sex offenders, drug dealers and killers.   


Authors comment

Legislatures as well as influential politicians, educators and reform groups failed miserably with Lyman. But before Lyman closed, these same groups had the opportunity to transform Lyman School from a disaster to a success. If only they had reorganized Lyman as vocational trade school for trouble youths, this facility would have become a success rather than a miserable failure. Based on the vocational trade school philosophy, Lyman would still be in operation.


Author’s youthful experiences:

As a young boy growing up on East Main St. my mother, upon hearing the fire whistle blow, would immediately clear the clothes line so that a suspected Lyman escapee using the old trolley right of way as an escape route wouldn’t be tempted with taking a change of clothes from our line. I was also told that there was a $5 bounty paid for the capture and return of a runaway Lyman boy. I remember my father driving me thru the school on a number of occasions and threatened that if I didn’t behave that I would be living at the Lyman School. I never asked why the boys were there, I really didn’t want to know.

Later, when I was in the scouts, we were invited to use the Lyman pool, with two requirements, that peeing in the pool was prohibited and no swimsuits allowed…The End

Glenn R. Parker









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rev bob hughes January 13, 2013 at 03:16 PM
you have no idea how many frightened children went into lyman and came hardened criminals looking for payback on the society that sent them there.
rev bob hughes January 13, 2013 at 03:19 PM
finally, i keep a picture of the last cottage i was in at lyman on my wall in my office to this very day
jason carlson January 22, 2013 at 01:14 AM
Like the piece. i once lived in a home located behind the lyman school. it has been torn down. I remember the stories of that area and can't find info. I do know for fact that the house that was there had major paranormal activity. Anyone with info on that home located directly behind lyman on rt.9 side please email me at jasoncarlson99@yahoo.com Any help would be greatly appreciated
Richard B. Johnson February 27, 2013 at 01:41 PM
Anyone interested in the who/why/what/where of Lyman School should read my book available on-line at: http://www.abominablefirebug.com/
Joseph S. Fontaine February 02, 2014 at 05:19 PM
My dad, Stuart Fontaine, worked at Lyman School for 30 years in the '40s, '50s and '60s. I am sure there were many problems there, but there were also many boys who got help there. When I was young and through my teens I ate at the cafeteria and the food was excellent, better than at any of our local schools. We would always went to the fireworks show on the 4th of July which was the largest around. When the farm was in operation, the problems with discipline and violence, was very low. When the operation of the farm was terminated and the boys had more free time there were discipline problems according to my dad. Boys that went to Lyman School were not harden criminals, while my dad was there, there was a facility called Shirley(sic) where the real bad kids went. The boys had good food, good medical care and were not locked up in cell 24 hours per day. My dad worked for Dr. Mahoney as a male nurse in the '40s and '50s, then as a dietician in the '60s when he retired. The facility may not have been the best, but for many of the boys it was the best they had ever known. Joe Fontaine - Native of Northborough


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