Town History

The 1600’s

The geographic area that is now Carlisle was once part of four surrounding towns: Acton, Billerica, Chelmsford and Concord. Carlisle’s earliest inhabitants were Native Americans – the Musketaquid Indians who lived in this area for many thousands of years before the diseases brought by European settlers greatly reduced their numbers.

James Adams, from Carlisle, England, was reputedly the first English settler in what is now Carlisle. Other early families living here were the Blood brothers, James and Robert, who gave the name “Blood’s Farms” to the area. Robert Blood married Elizabeth Willard, daughter of Simon Willard, one of the founders of the town of Concord. A fragment of Elizabeth’s wedding dress survives in the historical collections.

The familiar names of Heald and Parlin appear as well in the seventeenth century. Another early settler, John Barrett, established a fulling mill near Great Brook in 1691.

The 1700’s

The First District of Carlisle was established in 1754 and lasted for two years. It was comprised of 6600 acres and 60 families. The Second District of Carlisle was formed in 1780. A year later, in 1781 Carlisle’s first “settled” minister, Rev. Paul Litchfield, began his 46-year ministry here.

A number of Carlisle men responded to the call to arms on the morning of April 19, 1775. We are told that Timothy Wilkins beat his drum and John Kemp sounded his horn that morning. The Carlisle Minutemen were distinguished by the sprig of pine they wore in their hats! Today they are remembered every Patriot’s Day when many Carlisle families walk through Estabrook Woods to Concord’s Old North Bridge for early morning

Carlisle has always had an appreciation for learning and for its books. As early as 1797 the First Library Society was formed in town.

The 1800’s

Carlisle was incorporated as a town in 1805. A number of people influenced its growth and development during the nineteenth century. Dr. Austin Marsh is remembered as one of the first doctors in town. The copper mine was productive from 1840 to 1850. A number of tradesmen operated thriving businesses, including James Kemp, a blacksmith, and Elmon Rose, who ran a hoop mill.

The Civil War figured importantly in the lives of Carlisle residents. Thirteen Carlisle men were killed or died as a result of fighting for the Union cause. Many other “native sons” fought. At home, the women gathered to roll bandages and prepare supplies for the soldiers. There are a number of artifacts in the historical collections from this time period. A folder of information exists on Clara Barton, known to Carlisle’s Elizabeth Robbins Berry.

The 1800’s saw the expansion of schools in town and in 1896 the opening of Gleason Public Library. Reverend Moses Patten’s wife, Lydia, was important in the efforts to form a library. Money for project came from Joanna Gleason, for whom the building was named. The first town librarian was Mary A. Green, who conveniently lived right across the street!

The 1900’s

The “modern” era began with the coming of electricity to Carlisle in 1911. Carlisle’s current conservation efforts may be traced to the early 1900’s when conservation of trees was deemed important. Of particular concern were the white pines known as the Carlisle Pines. In 1922 the town forest was established.

Carlisle was primarily a farming and dairy-farming community. The Carlisle Grange played an important role during the early years of the twentieth century. Everyone loved celebrations, and the tradition of Old Home Day began in 1912!

Twenty Carlisle men served in World War I, including Oscar E. Pedersen. Pamela S. Ouelette served as an army nurse. The townspeople loyally supported the war effort with five Liberty Loan drives. Again, during World War II Carlisle residents worked long and hard to support the Allied cause. As early as March 1941 the town had an organized defense organization, reportedly the first town in Massachusetts to have one! Carlisle lost one resident in both the Second World War and the Vietnam War.

The familiar traffic circle in the center of town dates to 1946. In 1967 the Historic District was established and the modern Carlisle Minutemen were formed. The last quarter of the twentieth century saw expansion of town services, conservation efforts and growth of the population.

Historical information from Carlisle: Its History and Heritage by Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins

A Treasure Trove of Lore About Carlisle:

For a small town that didn’t exist for the first two hundred years that the area was settled, Carlisle has an unusually rich collection of historical information. There are four significant sources, all available at the Gleason Library.

The earliest is the History of the Town of Carlisle, Massachusetts, 1754-1920 by Sidney A. Bull (printed in 1920). Mr. Bull was a prominent citizen of the Town, serving at different times as selectman, auditor, tax collector, library trustee, postmaster, and proprietor of the Town’s only store. Thus his history is full of detail, especially in his biographies of certain families including his own. It is a meticulous work, reflecting the personality of its author, who evidently took all of his undertakings very seriously as revealed from the tone of his writing.

The next history of the Town to appear was called Old Houses and Old Families of Carlisle, Mass. It comprises 25 (!) loose-leaf binders compiled by Martha Fifield Wilkins and donated to the Gleason Library in 1941. The entire collection has been copied in digital form and is now available online at the Library’s site. During the 1930s, Ms. Wilkins, wife of a minister of the Carlisle Congregational Church, took as her starting point Carlisle houses built before 1830. For each she traced the histories of the families that had occupied them since earliest times. Not only do we have her handwritten compositions but also 495 photographs of houses and people, newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia from the last two centuries. It is a rich and warm account of local history, including colorful descriptions of events and traditions, and interesting tales and anecdotes.

In 1974 Donald A. Lapham, a lifelong resident of the Town, published a small book called Carlisle Composite Community: Historical Facts concerning the Settlers in Present Carlisle, Massachusetts, in the Colonial Period. His point with this ponderous title was that in colonial times Carlisle did not exist – it was only created later when surrounding towns agreed what had formerly been a district of Concord could be incorporated as a separate town. Mr. Lapham’s book contains a most informative map showing the home sites of many (he does not assert all) of the early settlers. He traces ownership of the lots indicating the succession of owners as they evolved over the decades.

Not long afterward, in 1976, the year of America’s bicentennial celebration, Ruth Chamberlain Wilkins, another lifelong resident, completed Carlisle: Its History and Heritage, which was published by the Carlisle Historical Society. (The book was revised and republished in 2002.) It surveys Town history from early settlements until the mid-1970s, including Town government, its economy, religion, community institutions, involvement in the Revolution, Civil War and the World Wars. Spanning such a long period, the book makes vivid the Town’s transition from a farming community to the thriving suburb we have today.

Finally, there is Images of America: Carlisle, compiled by the Carlisle Historical Society for the series published by Arcadia Publishing Company. 2005. It is chiefly a book of photographs from the Society and from the Library as well as private collections, and it recounts Carlisle’s history with the vividness that only images can carry.

That our little town should have so compendious a set of resources about its history is testament to the affection that residents felt and feel for the Town. All of them are available at the Library, and the last two are available for sale at the Historical Society.

Resources for Further Reference:

Learn more about the history of the area at  Concord Museum which has a number of items from Carlisle in its collections.

For information on the Carlisle of today, visit the Carlisle website.

Good references on Carlisle’s history include:

  • Carlisle: Its History and Heritage by Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins
  • Carlisle, Composite Community by Donald Lapham
  • History of the Town of Carlisle by Sidney Bull
  • Carlisle by Carlisle Historical Society
  • Original notebooks on town houses and families compiled by Mrs. Benson Wilkins contain detailed genealogical information and wonderful photographs. These are available at the Gleason Public Library.


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