The town of Holbrook, one of only six communities in the country incorporated on the leap day of a leap year, will celebrate that unique distinction today at a party marking 34 leap years since its official birth on Feb. 29, 1872.
The celebration is set for 3 p.m. at the Dalton Club and will feature a catered dinner complete with birthday cake and entertainment by home-grown performers. Sure to be retold at today’s festivities is the colorful tale of the town’s march to incorporation.
The story dates to the middle of the 19th century, when the 7.3 square miles that is now Holbrook was East Randolph. The village was geographically separated from Randolph proper by a river, and as its population grew, it became increasingly self-sustaining. By the mid-1800s, East Randolph boasted a parish church, post office, and a lively industry in shoe manufacturing. Rail lines snaked through the village.
“East Randolph had seven dairies, doctors, blacksmiths, lawyers, and all the things a town needs to support itself,’’ said Holbrook Historical Society chairwoman Edna Bowers. “By 1870, East Randolph became pretty much financially sustainable without Randolph.’’
A quarrel in 1868 over proposed renovations to Randolph’s town hall triggered East Randolph’s effort to incorporate as a separate town. Its residents believed the town hall upgrades were unnecessary and would increase taxes while providing them with little benefit. Despite their protests, Town Meeting approved the expenditure.
“The East Randolph residents became so angry they stormed the town hall,’’ Bowers said, adding political differences in early America often led to physical confrontation. “Of course, they were ultimately defeated.’’
The dispute, however, was enough to bolster the movement to split from Randolph. Wealthy East Randolph businessman Elisha Niles Holbrook promised $50,000 in seed money to the new town if state legislators approved incorporation.
The Legislature granted the petition for incorporation on Feb. 29, 1872, despite vehement protests from a Randolph contingency, who realized the town stood to lose significant tax dollars. Holbrook died three weeks before the town’s incorporation.
“It was kind of sad, but the money he promised was already put aside,’’ Bowers said. Residents then named the town Holbrook in memory of their benefactor.
“The $50,000 built a grand Italianate town hall with turrets, a library, and paid off debt owed on the Randolph schools,’’ Bowers said. “Today, it’s inconceivable that $50,000 could go so far.’’
The ornate town hall burned down four years later, but a new Victorian-style building quickly replaced it and is still used today.
Residents have not always celebrated Holbrook’s leap year incorporation. The tradition began four years after the centennial celebration stirred up a great deal of interest and pride in local history. During that centennial year in 1972, Holbrook established its first Historical Commission and Historical Society.
History buffs organized the first leap year observance in 1976. “We just thought it would be fun to have a leap year birthday, and it’s really gotten to be big for a small town,’’ Bowers said.
In keeping with tradition, local talent will provide today’s entertainment, with performances by the high school chorus and local dance troupe, along with a recitation of anecdotes rooted in Holbrook history by Selectman Brinsley Fuller.
“They will be old Holbrook stories I got from a binder of reminiscences,’’ Fuller said. “They’re both funny and not funny.’’
Alumni from Sumner High School, Holbrook’s first high school, are expected to perform a rendition of the old school song. Since Sumner has been closed for about 50 years, alumni will be in their late 60s and older, but their numbers are believed to remain strong.
Of particular interest is a promised sneak peek at The Company Theatre’s upcoming performance of “Paragon Park,’’ a musical co-written by Holbrook native son Michael Hammond.
“A lot of those who come are people who have moved away, but who were active in town,’’ said Shirley Austin, Holbrook’s former longtime town clerk and a member of the leap year birthday planning committee. “It’s like a big family party. People are anxious to see old friends. Most remain very Holbrook-oriented, and their heart and soul is the love of the town.’’
Now that more than a century has passed, hard feelings no longer linger between Randolph and Holbrook. In fact, the historical societies from the two towns were scheduled to toast their respective incorporations at a joint celebration last night “in the neutral territory of Avon,’’ as Randolph historian Henry Cooke put it.
“The title of this [celebration] is ‘Two Towns, One Birthday Party,’ ’’ wrote Cooke in a letter to Randolph Historical Society members. “The working title of this was to have been ‘All Is Forgiven,’ but in the end and in the spirit of 1868, no one could agree as to who should be forgiving and who should be forgiven.’’
According to Austin, about 150 are expected to attend this afternoon’s leap year bash.
Christine Legere can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.