2 towns claim Mary's Little Lamb Author: Two New England town's claim to be the birthplace of the person who wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Both may be sheepish. If two historians are correct, the poem is of British ancestry.

Sun Journal

August 26, 1998|By Linda Matchan | Linda Matchan,BOSTON GLOBE

STERLING, MASS. — Mary had a little lamb;

Its fleece was white as snow;

But just who Mary really was,

The world may never know. STERLING, Mass. -- It may not be the most weighty debate, but the question of who wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb" is consuming the folks in two small New England towns.

A century and three-quarters after the poem was published (give or take a few years, depending on which version of the story you believe), residents of Sterling, Mass., and Newport, N.H., are still arguing over ownership of the famous little ditty about a faithful lamb and an unwelcoming schoolteacher.

The debate gets wild and woolly. Sterling (north of Worcester, population 6,935) claims the poem was written by a schoolboy who witnessed an incident involving a girl named Mary Sawyer. Newport (in the southwest corner of the state, population 6,110) insists it was written by a prominent writer and editor who lived there.

Proponents from both factions have produced what they say is definitive evidence for their case. Insults have been exchanged, allegations of plagiarism and lying have been tossed about. No one is backing down; in both towns, being known as the birthplace of the poem is a primary draw for tourists.

"I've seen people go livid over this," says Lee Swanson, a Sudbury, Mass., historian with an interest in Sterling history. "They actually get red in the face."

Most recently, passions have flared over the formation of the nonprofit Mary's Little Lamb Association, a preservation group of 12 Sterling residents who hope to parlay the Mary's-lamb connection into a campaign to raise at least a quarter-million dollars to restore a farmhouse said to have belonged to the original Mary and make it a historical site.

"Everybody, including both sets of my grandparents, knew" that the poem is part of Sterling history, says Diane Melone, a sixth-generation descendant of Mary Sawyer. Denying it is "like living in Gettysburg and saying the Battle of Gettysburg didn't happen there." She has never been to Newport to hear their side of things. "I'd probably get murdered," says the Sterling resident.

According to Sterling's official account of the matter, "The True Story of Mary and Her Little Lamb," the Mary of the poem was a girl named Mary Sawyer born in 1806 in Sterling. One day in 1815 her devoted lamb followed her to school and up the classroom aisle when she was asked to recite a lesson. The teacher, alas, "turned it out," as the poem would have it.

The incident so amused and inspired a boy named John Roulstone, who happened to be visiting the classroom that day, that he dashed off the first three stanzas of "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Since then, the booklet states, three other stanzas have been added.

The proof?

"I don't have just one thing I wave under people's noses," says Melone, who with her sister owns the Sawyer homestead. Evidence, she says, includes the fact that car magnate Henry Ford "believed it totally." Ford, who once owned the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, purchased the framework of the original schoolhouse in 1927 and had it moved to the inn, where it still stands.

Plus, Mary Sawyer herself said Roulstone wrote it. The Historical Society archives contain a copy of an 1879 letter written by Sawyer in which she described the incident and confirmed Roulstone's authorship.

Today, Sterling promotes itself as the home of Mary and her lamb. A small bronze lamb statue stands in tribute on the town common. A plaque in front of Mary Sawyer's house identifies it as "the house of Mary Elizabeth Sawyer, who was made famous by the poem 'Mary Had a Little Lamb.' " The Sterling Historical Society sells Mary's-lamb T-shirts and note cards and fuzzy lamb statuettes.

"Mary wasn't your simple country bumpkin," insists David Gibbs, Mary's Little Lamb Association board member who would like to see the Sawyer homestead listed on the National Register of Historic Places. "She went on to become matron of McLean Hospital. I believe if there is such credibility to the New Hampshire story, Henry Ford would have gone to Newport to obtain a schoolhouse."

Newport's claim

In Newport, they are equally certain: Every word of the poem was written by Newport native Sarah Josepha Hale.

Easily Newport's most distinguished citizen, Hale was from 1837 to 1877 editor of the publication called Godey's Lady's Book. She wrote 20 books and hundreds of poems. She also is credited with successfully campaigning for Thanksgiving Day as national holiday and for pushing the completion of the Bunker ** Hill monument.

The proof that she wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"? It was published in 1830 under her name, in a collection called "Poems for Our Children," says Andrea Thorpe, director of the Richards Free Library in Newport, and chief proponent of the pro-Hale side of the lamb debate.

Most important, Hale said she wrote it, in a signed statement that appeared in the Boston Transcript in 1889, written by her son on her behalf shortly before she died.

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