BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — BYFIELD — Students, faculty, alumni, parents and friends of The Governor’s Academy got a startling wake-up call, literally, yesterday at 8:11 a.m. when a detachment of Colonial reenacters let loose with a noisy three-salvo musket barrage to mark the beginning of Founder’s Day.
The Governor’s Academy is celebrating its 250th anniversary this weekend and for an institution that is considered the oldest boarding school in the country, nothing but a throwback to its 18th century beginnings would seem appropriate for the start of the festivities.
“The story of the academy’s beginnings is also a story of public education in Massachusetts,” Headmaster Peter Quimby said in his opening remarks before more than 500.
Quimby said there were only about 18 public schools in Massachusetts in 1763 when the academy started.
“Our school went through an era of difficult times (including the Revolutionary War), but prevailed to provide valuable educational opportunities that today prepare students for their college years and in their lives thereafter,” he said.
The colorful historical presentation in front of the historic Little Red Schoolhouse in which the academy got its start kicked off a full program of student-focused events, including historical discussions, alumni retrospectives, exhibits and a post-dinner concert that featured several graduates
Numerous references were made to the school’s relationship with the town of Newbury. As part of this recognition, welcoming remarks were made by Joe Story, a member of the class of 1967 who now serves as chairman of the Newbury Board of Selectmen.
“Things have changed greatly over the years, but the school remains an important resource for students and for the community,” Story said.
Many secondary schools take pride in their pasts, but few can point to the heritage that the academy can.
On March 1, 1763, at the bequest of Gov. William Dummer, the Dummer Charity School opened to educate young men in the Byfield area. Its first class numbered 28 local boys. Today, student enrollment stands at 405, school officials say.
Numerous speakers yesterday stressed that much has changed over the academy’s 250 years.
The Dummer Charity School became Dummer Academy, which became Governor Dummer Academy, which eventually transitioned to The Governor’s Academy in recent years.
As was the custom, the early curriculum focused primarily on the study of scripture, basic math and English and instruction in Latin, Greek and the classics.
The curriculum broadened over time as the requirements of college admission expanded. Although the academy initially operated in the one-room schoolhouse that was the focus of the morning’s welcoming ceremony, administrators had access to the grand mansion of the late governor.
That historic building remains a central fixture on the campus as the headmaster’s residence.
Over time, other structures have been built and the faculty and curriculum expanded so that by the time of the school’s centennial in 1863, the Dummer Academy had grown into a well-known, 19th century prep school that catered mostly to children from affluent families.
By the turn of the 20th century, however, the school had fallen on hard times, with enrollment and income down as the school struggled under the shadow of other New England prep schools that had grown to become more prestigious.
When Charles Ingham became headmaster in 1908, he launched an effort to revive the academy.
As a result, Dummer Academy became stabilized, and began to again thrive as a prep school that sent close to a third of its graduates to Ivy League colleges during that period. Upon Ingham’s retirement in 1930, Edward “Ted” Eames became headmaster, a post he held for 30 years.
Early in Eames’ tenure, the name of the school was changed to Governor Dummer Academy, a title it retained for decades.
But that name changed, too. Local observers of education might remember the debate when school leaders were considering dropping the Dummer from the name, with some complaining that it was dangerously close to the term “dumber.” It was said that students in distant locales were not attracted to this image.
In 2006, the name was changed to the present appellation.
In recent decades, the academy’s mission has extended from educating local boys to admitting students from many states and nations. A major change came in 1973 with the arrival of female students. Indeed, the school is offering numerous activities today to focus on the experience of female students at the school.
As much as speakers noted the changes that have occurred in the modern era, a key theme of the day was the venerable roots of the school.
This was amplified early, when His Majesty’s 10th Regiment (from Lexington) and the Glover’s 14th Continental Regiment (Marblehead) stood together at the Little Red Schoolhouse and started the weekend with a bang.
It was noted that here, the colonists outnumbered the Englishmen, a circumstance that one visitor remarked might have been helpful when the Revolutionary War came along a decade after the academy had started.