On the Boston Public Library’s north façade, an inscription reads, “The Commonwealth requires the education of the people as the safeguard of order and liberty.” It’s an idea that Bostonians have evidently taken to heart. After all, with more than 150,000 young men and women enrolled in its many prestigious universities, Boston reigns as one of the biggest college towns in the nation; its population supposedly plummets by nearly a quarter during lazy summers when students head home. Plus, the area is home to a tiny institution known as Harvard College, which, as the oldest (probably) and most renowned (definitely) higher education establishment in the U.S., has done nothing but bolster Boston’s longstanding love affair with academia.
It may seem implausible, but the city’s inclination to educate its youth has reached as far as its harbor islands. While several of these spots have accommodated schools of various kinds over the years, no Boston Harbor landmass has enjoyed as intimate or as notable a relationship with education as Thompson Island. This little known citadel of cultivation first began as a hunting and fishing ground, renowned especially for its abundance of flora and fauna. Within years, however, Thompson Island had established its first education institution along its shores. After a group of wealthy philanthropists became concerned about the welfare of the city’s boys, the Boston Farm School arrived on the scene in 1833, seeking to impart agricultural and vocational skills to these city youths. (Given that it was a nice enough gesture, we won’t harp too much on the fact that no girls were allowed.)
Soon thereafter, the Boston Farm School merged with the city’s Asylum for Indigent Boys, and the much larger group then stayed on the island for extensive periods of time. The school, of which there are still remnants today, required that its pupils balance their studies with farm work and play, which sounds like a pretty good deal to us. The boys of the Farm School boys planted a variety of trees—including oak, maple, apple, and pear trees—during their time on the Thompson, ultimately contributing to the island’s presently mature woodlands. The students even built their own houses, which, by the way, would never happen nowadays. Although these schoolboys undoubtedly received excellent academic and practical education, they were technically wards of the institution until they reached twenty-one years of age; additionally, they were only allowed to visit home for two weeks total during the summer.
Today, Thompson Island is home to a more relaxed program that still strives to challenge students in a number of ways. The Thompson Island Outward Bound Education Center, which surprisingly serves more than 5,000 students and adults each year, provides phenomenal-sounding outdoor programs, including camping, search-and-rescue activities, and climbing walls, amongst other things. These activities would be difficult to conduct elsewhere. While the land is mostly reserved for students, the public is also able to access Thompson by ferry on Saturdays and Sundays throughout the summer, during which the island is worth a visit. Since Thompson is one of the largest islands in the harbor, you could easily spend a day or two traversing its terrain.
For more on the stories behind the city’s sanctuaries, pick up a copy of Discovering the Boston Harbor Islands by Christopher Klein, or check out last week’s blog. To help you explore the islands on the go, download our free smartphone app. Anchors away!