Judge Higley

Ashland has no shortage of notable people, past and present. What would the electric clock look like if not for Henry Warren? Would diabetes research and treatment be where it is today without the help of Dr. Priscilla White? For today’s luminaries, all one has to do is look at the Wall of Fame at Ashland High School. There are so many it would take a column all by itself. Perhaps in the coming months.

Today I would like to look back to the early 19th century. Prior to Ashland’s incorporation in 1846, Cedar Street was in Framingham. And on Cedar Street, closer to what today is East Union Street, is a house known as the Old Wenzel house. Many locals know it as the Bradstreet home, and it was built around 1760. It was also the home of George Trask Higley.

George Higley probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind while researching Ashland’s history, but his contributions both for the town of Ashland, and the county were considerable. However, most of this occurred after he graduated with honors from Amherst College in 1853, and taught school out west. He became ill while studying for the ministry in Chicago, and returned home to work on the family farm. In 1864, he and his brother Wakefield, enlisted in the cavalry during the Civil War. He became ill again, and with the loss of his brother to Typhoid, returned once again to his hometown.

Higley never fully recovered from his illness, but being a determined man, turned his efforts to studying law. He attended, and eventually graduated from Boston University Law School, passing the bar in 1872. George was also instrumental in the establishment of the public library. With a grant from the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, Higley was primarily responsible for what you see on Front Street today. He personally selected the books, and developed a card catalogue system. Today, his portrait, along with Carnegie, hangs on the wall of the library.

His efforts were not confined to the library. He spent 17 years on the School Committee, the Wildwood Cemetery Committee, and the high school building committee. He was the first president of the Ashland Historical Society, hosting the first meeting in his law office in 1909. Stone Park exists today largely from the efforts of Higley.

His historical knowledge was extensive and accurate. The publication “History of Middlesex County” by Samuel Drake (1880) uses material provided by Higley. Though I found it a bit dry, it is extremely detailed. It is a common reference, and often used by the members of the Historical Society.

As always, time marches on. After accepting an appointment as special justice of the First District Court of Southern Middlesex county, a position he held for 10 years, George Higley died on June 5, 1912 at his home on the corner of Alden and Central streets. The house, according to Ashland historian Kay Powers, is known as the Zetterman house.

His accomplishments were many. I wonder what Ashland would look like today if George hadn’t fallen ill and remained in Chicago? I guess there would be no Higley Road.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
September 2014