Concord, Massachusetts, less than twenty miles northwest of Boston, is justifiably one of the most famous towns in the United States, if not in the world. It is rare when circumstances align themselves and historical forces converge in a small town to create an event of exceptional historical importance, but just that has occurred on numerous occasions in the long history of Concord. Residents of the town saw at close range the political revolution that founded the country and then the cultural revolution in the decades prior to and immediately following the Civil War that played a large role in defining the sort of country the United States would be. Concord—famous as the ultimate destination of Paul Revere on his midnight ride in April 1775 and as the geographical home of New England transcendentalism—is the ideal American town, more actual than Colonial Williamsburg or Disney's "Main Street, USA" but also subject to a similar sort of nostalgia about small-town life and the quaintness of America's rural past.
PURITANS AND REVOLUTIONARIES: CONCORD'S FOREGROUND
For centuries before the arrival of Europeans, the area known as Concord, but called "Musketaquid" ("marsh-grass river") by the Native Americans, was a prime fishing and hunting ground of the Massachusetts tribe of Algonquins who lived there. It is the place where the Sudbury and Assabet rivers converge to form the Concord River. In the early seventeenth century, the Indians who had prospered for so long in a place rich in fish and wildlife were reduced to a remnant band by low birthrates and disease, especially a devastating outbreak of smallpox in 1633.
Enter Simon Willard (1605–1676), a former soldier and businessman from Kent, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in May 1634, settled in Cambridge, and probably spent a good portion of his first year exploring the land to the west of the settlements of Cambridge and Watertown, then the edge of the "civilized" part of the colony. Perhaps he saw in the land some of the qualities that had sustained the Native Americans for so long, but whatever it was that motivated him—and no doubt profit was not too far from the top of the list—Willard approached several wealthy investors to join him, and with them he petitioned the General Court for a new town. The Court granted the petitioners six square miles of land on 3 September 1635.
One of the investors called upon by Simon Willard was the Puritan minister Peter Bulkeley (1583–1659), a wealthy and well-connected graduate of St. John's College, Cambridge, and minister of the parish church in Odell, Bedfordshire. Bulkeley emigrated in 1635, as did the Reverend John Jones (c. 1593-c.1665), also a Cambridge graduate and non-conformist minister from Abbots Ripton, Hants, England. The two ministers joined with Willard in his petition. Newly arrived in a colony wracked by various controversies, including the banishment of Roger Williams (c. 1603–1683) to Rhode Island in the winter of 1635–1636, they were inspired to give the town the hopeful name of Concord. Later, Bulkeley's descendant, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882), would prize the non-conformist origins of the town, the first in the colony established above the tidewater, and he would state with some pride that the Puritan history of Concord could be distinguished from that of other settlements by the absence of witch trials, ghost sightings, and the whipping of Quakers through the streets.
During the 1770s Concord became the focal point for a great deal of Revolutionary activity. The town, in voting on 26 September 1774 to raise one or more companies of militia to "Stand at a minutes warning in Case of an alarm," would claim to be the first to use the word "minute" in describing these militiamen. Concord was also the meeting place of the first and second Provincial Congresses from the fall of 1774 through the spring of 1775. These congresses ordered the purchase of supplies that were subsequently stored in the town. The British commander, General Thomas Gage (1721–1787), dispatched troops on 18 April 1775 to confiscate those supplies and arrest patriot leaders. Informing the countryside, and particularly the rebel stronghold of Concord, became the goal of William Dawes (1745–1799) and Paul Revere (1735–1818), who rode from Boston to warn of the advancing British troops. All of this is memorably versified in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's (1807–1882) poem "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere," published in Tales of a Wayside Inn in 1863. The opening shot of the battle that ensued on 19 April 1775 between Minute Men and British troops at the North Bridge, on Concord's outskirts, was immortalized by Emerson in his 1837 poem "Concord Hymn" as "the shot heard round the world." In 1904 the novelist Henry James (1843–1882) pronounced the fighting at the North Bridge on that day to be "the hinge . . . on which the large revolving future was to turn" (quoted in Wheeler, p. 131).
MAKING MUCH OF HIS OWN PLACE: EMERSON AND CONCORD
One of those who stood with Major Buttrick and the other Concord Minute Men on 19 April 1775 was their chaplain, the Reverend William Emerson, the grandfather of Ralph Waldo Emerson. William Emerson preached a commemorative sermon on the first anniversary of the battle of Concord and subsequently died from fever in Rutland, Vermont, on his way home from Fort Ticonderoga in 1776. In 1831 his grandsons Ralph Waldo Emerson and Charles Chauncy Emerson attempted without success to locate their grandfather's grave, although there is an impressive brick marker on an empty grave in Concord's Hill Burial Ground. The Emerson family was also related to Peter Bulkeley through the marriage of Joseph Emerson, a baker from Mendon, Massachusetts, to Peter's granddaughter, Elizabeth Bulkeley. So Ralph Waldo Emerson, born in Boston, had a deep ancestral connection to Concord, and while growing up, he often traveled to the village to visit at the Old Manse with his grandmother, Phebe Bliss Emerson, who had married her late husband's successor in the Concord pulpit, Dr. Ezra Ripley. It is really because of Ralph Waldo Emerson's fame as a writer, lecturer, thinker, and reformer, and the attention he brought to the place he thought of as his ancestral home, that the village became a cultural mecca in the nineteenth century. Concord remains a place of spiritual and cultural pilgrimage.
Emerson, whose father, William, had been an influential minister of the First Church (Unitarian) in Boston, and who held the prestigious pulpit of the Second Church himself from 1829 to 1832, was thrown into a spiritual and vocational crisis by a series of events that began with the death of his young wife, Ellen Tucker Emerson, in February 1831. This soon led to his resignation from the Second Church and a trip to western Europe to, in part, work out his crisis of vocation. When he returned from Europe, declaring on the ship back that his goal in life was to be naturalist, Emerson began to make plans to move his mother and himself to Concord. Perhaps his search for a useable past in his ancestral home and his move there in October 1834 were part of his vocational crisis. In any case, the move to Concord seemed to contribute to Emerson's successful transition to a life as a lecturer, writer, and public intellectual.
In 1837 Ralph Waldo Emerson's step-grandfather, Dr. Ezra Ripley, gave a small piece of land adjacent to his home, the Concord manse (Hawthorne would later dub it the "Old Manse"), on the condition that the donated land be fenced with heavy stone and that a monument commemorating the battle at the North Bridge on 19 April 1775 be erected by 4 July 1837. On the latter date a celebration was held at the site, featuring the dedication of the commemorative stone obelisk, a speech by the local congressman, Samuel Hoar, and lines "by a citizen of Concord," that is, Ralph Waldo Emerson, sung to the tune of "Old Hundred" by those assembled. Emerson later titled these lines "Concord Hymn." To commemorate the centennial of the battle, the town commissioned one of its own, the young and inexperienced sculptor Daniel Chester French, only twenty-five at the time, to create a statue of the Minute Man. French, now best known as the sculptor of the monumental statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. (completed in 1919), was favored by Emerson to be the sculptor for the Minute Man monument. When the Minute Man was unveiled on 19 April 1875, the first stanza of Emerson's hymn, with its famous line characterizing the Americans' first shot as "the shot heard round the world," was engraved on its base.
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
Their flag to April's breeze unfurled,
Here once the embattled farmers stood
And fired the shot heard round the world.
The foe long since in silence slept;
Alike the conqueror silent sleeps;
And Time the ruined bridge has swept
Down the dark stream which seaward creeps.
On this green bank, by this soft stream,
We set to-day a votive stone;
That memory may their deed redeem,
When, like our sires, our sons are gone.
Spirit, that made those heroes dare
To die, and leave their children free,
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
The shaft we raise to them and thee.
Emerson, Complete Works 9:158–159.
The first fruit of this transition was the address Emerson delivered and subsequently published on the history of Concord, "A Historical Discourse, Delivered to the Citizens of Concord, 12th September, 1835." The occasion of that address was an opportunity for Emerson to merge personal history with the history of the town, thus creating an identification between himself and his ancestral home that exists to this day. Moreover, the address allowed Emerson, at the outset of his career as a public intellectual, to define an ideal of action based on principle that he recognized in those involved in what he called those "two great epochs of public principle, the Planting and the Revolution of the colony" ("Historical Discourse at Concord," p. 85). The speech may also have been Emerson's first reading of national history, and perhaps by implication all history, in terms of the individual, a theme that Emerson would work and rework throughout his career.
The importance of Concord as a sort of symbolic base for Emerson's identity is hinted at in his correspondence with Lydia Jackson, the young woman from Plymouth, Massachusetts, whom he planned to marry in September 1835. Less than a year after moving to Concord, Emerson wrote to Lydia regarding her preference to live in Plymouth, close to her own family and friends, after their nuptials. He argued that his removal from Concord "would cripple me of some important resources," and later, in a journal entry, he associated his ancestral home with the resources that inspired the great poets of history: "Make much of your own place. The stars & celestial awning that overhang our simple Concord walks & discourses are as brave as those that were visible to Coleridge as he talked or Dryden or Ben Jonson & Shakspear or Chaucer & Petrarch & Boccac[c]io when they met" (Journals and Miscellaneous Notebooks 5:83).
Emerson did make much of his own place. In the months after his move to Concord he and his mother lived as guests of his grandparents at the Old Manse, but his proposal to Lydia Jackson and the new circumstances it presented required new accommodations, so he bought a house built by Charles Coolidge in 1828 where the Cambridge Turnpike branched off from the Lexington Road, less than half a mile from the town center. The Emersons sometimes called it the Coolidge House or Coolidge Castle. There Emerson entertained the great and near-great, raised a family, dutifully kept his journal and wrote his books, and there he returned after all of the speaking tours that saw him deliver approximately fifteen hundred lectures from the 1830s until 1881. Concord itself provided plenty of opportunity for Emerson's talents as a lecturer. The Concord Lyceum, founded in 1828 as an outgrowth of the Concord Academy's Friday declamations, hosted ninety-eight lectures by Emerson alone and nineteen more by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862). Among those who also lectured there were the Harvard scientist Louis Agassiz; members of Emerson's transcendentalist circle, including Orestes Brownson, Theodore Parker, and Jones Very; and authors such as Richard Henry Dana Jr., Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell.
Emerson universalized the town, making it more important as symbol than as specific place, but Thoreau believed that the particulars of the place mattered, and by writing about Concord as a particular place he universalized it for the world in ways that Emerson could not. Thoreau may have had even more claim to an identification with Concord than his benefactor, one-time mentor, and sometime friend Emerson did; he was the only "Concord writer" who was actually a native of the town. He was born there on 12 July 1817 and was educated first in Concord's public schools and then, beginning in 1828, at the prestigious Concord Academy. This was a financial sacrifice for his father, who supported the family with a Concord-based pencil-making business. The town school committee subsequently hired Thoreau to teach in the public school when he graduated from Harvard in 1837. When he resigned from that position later that year, he and his brother John opened a private school in the vacant Concord Academy building that operated until John's sudden death from tetanus in 1842.
Thoreau rarely left the Concord area during his short life. In the spring of 1843, Emerson arranged for Thoreau to live with his brother William Emerson on Staten Island and tutor his children, an experiment that lasted just six months because of Thoreau's chronic homesickness. His subsequent trips away from home—the most extended were to Canada and then, near the end of his life, to Minnesota—were comparatively much shorter. Thoreau's parochial preference for Concord and his unquestionable identification with it caused Emerson to complain of his lack of cosmopolitanism in his 1862 eulogy and to suggest that Thoreau might have had difficulty with those whose views he found unacceptable because they were not born in Concord but had the "unspeakable misfortune to be born in London, or Paris, or Rome."
Perhaps Thoreau's attachment to his hometown was in part the result of his intimate knowledge of it, which was only enhanced by his work as a surveyor in the area. While keeping school in 1840 he purchased surveying equipment in order to make lessons in mathematics more practical for his students, but eventually surveying became a relatively steady source of income for him.
The most famous incidents of Thoreau's life, and the writings associated with them, are, like the man himself, inextricably linked to Concord. In March 1845 Thoreau's friend and fellow Concord resident William Ellery Channing II (1817–1901), known as Ellery Channing, wrote to Thoreau from New York City to suggest that he build himself a hut at Walden Pond on the outskirts of Concord and begin the process of devouring himself alive. Since Emerson had, just the preceding fall, bought a number of acres on the shores of the sixty-one-acre pond for a wood-lot, and since it would be some time before the largely denuded acreage, heavily cut by a previous owner, would serve its intended purpose for Emerson, he allowed Thoreau to squat there. Thoreau began almost immediately to prepare the house site, built his famous hut for the grand sum of $28.50, and moved there on 4 July 1845. He lived there rather famously on twenty-seven cents a week until 6 September 1847, leaving to take up residence in Emerson's house in the village, while his benefactor was off on an extended European lecture tour. While at the pond Thoreau finished his first book, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1849); took his first trip to the wilderness of Maine, climbed Mt. Katahdin, and wrote an essay about it; and wrote much of the first draft of his most famous book, Walden, which was eventually published in 1854. Walden is a book that identifies the most rewarding way to live with a space beyond the village limits of Concord; in his short chapter on "The Village" he depicts the town as the site of a kind of torture, a place from which to escape to the vastness and freedom of the woods. A much more positive view of the village and its material development can be found in the writings of one of Thoreau's Concord contemporaries, Edward Jarvis (1803–1884). Robert A. Gross has identified Jarvis's Traditions and Reminiscences of Concord as "a massive refutation of Walden's jeremiad on the division of labor and its dehumanization of Thoreau's townsmen" ("The Most Estimable Place," p. 6).
In July 1846, while living at the pond, Thoreau was arrested on the main street of Concord by the town tax collector, constable, and jailer, Sam Staples. Staples apparently asked Thoreau when he would pay his poll tax and even offered to pay it for him. Thoreau, however, said that he did not plan to pay it as a matter of principle, not wishing to support a government that condoned slavery, and he was led off to the jail. Late that evening, while Thoreau languished, drinking the hot chocolate provided by Staples, someone paid his tax very much against his desires and, by the next afternoon, he was off to the Concord countryside to pick huckleberries. Thoreau later delivered a two-part lecture on the incident at the Concord Lyceum, which was subsequently published as "Resistance to Civil Government" in 1849. Perhaps better known by the title it was given after Thoreau's death, "Civil Disobedience," this essay that one might say originated in the Concord jail has had a profound impact on national and world history through its influence on Mohandas K. Gandhi (1869–1948), who led the movement to free India from British colonial rule, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968), the leader of the movement for civil rights for African Americans. As for Thoreau's "persecutor," apparently arresting the town troublemaker had no negative effect on Sam Staples, who was so popular with his fellow Concordians that he was elected to the state legislature in 1847.
Of course, the origins of "Civil Disobedience" also point up the importance of reform in nineteenth-century Concord. Thoreau himself is thought to have provided sanctuary for escaped slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. His mother and sisters, along with female members of the Emerson and Alcott households, among many others, were prominent in the Concord Female Antislavery Society, one of the most active such societies. The militant abolitionist John Brown (1800–1859) visited Concord twice. In March 1857 he met with Emerson, Thoreau, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn (1831–1917), and Ellery Channing. During a lecture at the Concord Town Hall, Brown showed a Bowie knife he had taken from a Missouri border ruffian. He returned to Concord in May 1859, just five months before his ill-fated raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. Thoreau spoke in Brown's defense at a public meeting that he called on 30 October 1859 at Town Hall, ringing the bell himself when the town's selectmen refused to announce the meeting, and on 2 December 1859, the day Brown was hanged, Thoreau conducted a memorial service for Brown in Concord. To suggest that Thoreau was taking a chance with his advocacy for Brown, and to show that Concord was not the safe haven it might appear to us to have been, deputies of the U.S. Senate were dispatched there in April 1860 to arrest Sanborn and take him to Washington, D.C., where he, as one of Brown's confidantes, would be required to testify. A crowd that included Emerson and other prominent citizens of the town physically stopped the marshals from taking Sanborn. The next day a favorable court decision relieved Sanborn from being compelled to testify.
THE EMERSONIAN CIRCLE
Emerson's presence in Concord from 1834 onward and his increasing fame drew many people to the town. Amos Bronson Alcott (1799–1888) enjoyed the friendship and moral support (and sometimes the financial aid) of Emerson from their initial meeting in the summer of 1835. Alcott moved to Concord with his wife and three daughters after a number of failed attempts to keep experimental schools in Connecticut, Philadelphia, and Boston. His plan was to support his family through farming, but Alcott was never really able to provide sufficiently for his household. That task eventually fell to his daughter Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) once her own career as a writer and editor of children's literature, author of anonymous blood-and-thunder tales for the pulp magazines, and writer of best-sellers like Little Women (1868–1869) began to take off. The Alcotts lived at "Hillside" (Hawthorne later renamed it "The Wayside")—bought for them by the family of Alcott's wife, Abba May, and kept in her name to protect it and the family's welfare from Alcott's many creditors—from 1845 until 1852. From 1858 until 1877, the family lived at Orchard House. It was there that Louisa May Alcott wrote Little Women, and it was there, in 1879, that her father, prompted by a visit from William Torrey Harris (1835–1909), editor of the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, founded the Concord School of Philosophy, devoted to discussion of transcendental philosophy, when he sponsored a five-week session of conversations at Orchard House. A second session of the school was held at the Hillside Chapel, next to Alcott's home. The fourth session in 1882 was momentous because it followed the death of Emerson by only a few months and marked the last time Alcott himself would lecture, since he suffered a paralytic stroke only a few months after the session. A total of nine sessions of the school were held between 1879 and the year of Alcott's death, 1888.
Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–1864) bought what he called the Wayside from the Alcotts in 1852. He lived there briefly with his family before leaving for an extended stay in Europe from 1853 until 1860. From 1860 until Hawthorne's death, the Hawthorne family lived in Concord, next-door neighbors to the Alcotts. But Hawthorne's initial stay in Concord had come much earlier. After he and Sophia Peabody (1809–1871) were married at the bookstore of Sophia's sister, the editor and transcendentalist Elizabeth Palmer Peabody (1804–1894), in Boston on 9 July 1842, they drove the same day to Concord to begin what would be a happy three years' residence at the Old Manse. When Emerson lived there in 1834 and 1835, he finished the first draft of his first book, Nature (1836), in the upstairs study. Hawthorne, who was actually the first to call the house the "Old Manse," meaning a minister's home, wrote a great deal about the house and surrounding countryside in his journals and in the collection of stories, Mosses from an Old Manse, which he published in 1846. The Manse may be the only place in the United States, or perhaps anywhere, where two different writers penned part of their literary masterpieces in the same room.
Of course visitors like Margaret Fuller (1810–1850) and other transcendentalists were commonplace in Concord in the 1840s and 1850s. Ellery Channing, who was married to Fuller's sister, Ellen, lived in Concord for seven years, beginning in 1846, during which time he became Thoreau's walking companion and closest friend. After the death of his wife in September 1856, Channing moved back to Concord permanently. His poetry may best be characterized by Thoreau's pronouncement that he was "all genius, not talent." Channing's life, at the end, is oddly intertwined with that of another Concordian, Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, who in 1891 took in the elderly and indigent Channing as a houseguest in order to record and collect his reminiscences of Thoreau and Emerson. Sanborn had first visited Concord in 1854 as a Harvard student, when he came to call on Emerson. A few months later he moved to the town permanently after being invited to take over the school once kept by Henry and John Thoreau. Eventually Sanborn became a prominent editor and biographer of the transcendentalists, but he deserves as much or more notice for his work as a pioneer of social science. He established the first college course in social science at Cornell University, where he was a special lecturer from 1885 until 1888. He was also instrumental in getting Annie Sullivan (1866–1936), who later became famous as "the miracle worker" who taught Helen Keller (1880–1968), into the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
Given its geographical location and its important role in American culture, Concord has continued to be a place associated with genius and with controversy. Some of that controversy over proposed development in the area near Walden Pond is admirably reported in W. Barksdale Maynard's Walden Pond: A History. Concord also remains very much a place of pilgrimage. One such pilgrimage is described in John Hanson Mitchell's Walking toward Walden: A Pilgrimage in Search of Place (1995), the story of a fifteen-mile hike taken by Mitchell and two friends in October 1994 through the woods around Concord to Authors' Ridge in Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, where Thoreaus, Emersons, Hawthornes, and Alcotts are buried. The book is a meditation on history and change, the meaning of place, and the way in which these Concord writers continue to speak to us so long after they lived. It is a book that eloquently represents and explicitly states the meaning of Concord. Mitchell writes,
Concord is America's metaphor for itself, an epicenter, a quintessential place, a vision, a dream, an imaginary landscape in which ideas converge, and then break up and spread into the world beyond. To go there is to be swept into a vortex, to be part of a great circle of time in which past is present and present is future. (Pp. 6–7)
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Emerson, Edward Waldo. Emerson in Concord: A Memoir. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1889.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "A Historical Discourse, Delivered Before the Citizens of Concord, 12th September, 1835. On the Second Centennial Anniversary of the Incorporation of the Town." Concord: G. F. Bemis, 1835. Reprinted as "Historical Discourse at Concord," in Complete Works, 11:27–86.
Emerson, Ralph Waldo. The Journals and MiscellaneousNotebooks of Ralph Waldo Emerson. 16 vols. Edited by William H. Gilman, et al. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960–1982.
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Shattuck, Lemuel. A History of the Town of Concord:Middlesex County, Massachusetts, From Its Earliest Settlement to 1832. Boston: Russell, Odiorne, 1835.
Burkholder, Robert E. "Emerson and the West: Concord, the Historical Discourse, and Beyond." Nineteenth Century Studies 4 (1990): 93–103.
Concord Free Public Library. "'Earth's Eye': An Online Exhibition of Walden Pond Images." http://www.concordnet.org/library/scollect/Walden/Walden.htm.
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Concord Free Public Library. "Henry Thoreau Land and Property Sur veys." http://www.concordnet.org/library/scollect/Thoreau_surveys/Thoreau_surveys.htm.
Foster, David R. Thoreau's Country: Journey through aTransformed Landscape. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999.
Gross, Robert A. "Commemorating Concord." CommonPlace 4 (October 2003). Available at http://www.common-place.org/vol-04/no-01/gross/.
Gross, Robert A. The Minutemen and Their World. New York: Hill and Wang, 1976.
Gross, Robert A. "'The Most Estimable Place in All the World': A Debate on Progress in Nineteenth-Century Concord." In Studies in the American Renaissance, edited by Joel Myerson. Boston: Twayne, 1978.
Gross, Robert A. "Transcendentalism and Urbanism: Concord, Boston, and the Wider World." Journal of American Studies 18 (1984): 361–381.
Maynard, W. Barksdale. Walden Pond: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Mitchell, John Hanson. Walking towards Walden: APilgrimage in Search of Place. Reading, Mass.: Addison-Wesley, 1995.
Nadenicek, Daniel Joseph. "Sleepy Hollow Cemetery: Philosophy Made Substance." Emerson Society Papers 5 (spring 1994): 1–2, 8.
Neufeldt, Leonard N. "'The Fields of My Fathers' and Emerson's Literary Vocation." American Transcendental Quarterly, no. 31 (summer 1970): supplement, pp. 3–9.
Petrulionis, Sandra Harbert. "'Swelling That Great Tide of Humanity': The Concord, Massachusetts, Female AntiSlavery Society." New England Quarterly 74 (September 2001): 385–418.
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Robert E. Burkholder
"Concord, Massachusetts." American History Through Literature 1820-1870. . Encyclopedia.com. (June 20, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/concord-massachusetts
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