Henry Ford certainly had a stake in making people believe he had found the school house. That belief was carefully marketed and he sold the idea that the Redstone School House in Sterling, one of the claimants to the lamb incident, got wide publicity on the matter. He became involved in 1926, locating the school, which at this time was being used for storage, purchased it, and had it moved to Sudbury on land he was developing into what he hoped would eventually become a model community. While his model community never fully developed as conflicts with the locals occurred, his legacy does continue on in the area.
The original story of Mary and her lamb has many versions. One of the most common involves Mary Sawyer attending the Redstone School in Sterling, Massachusetts. Even this version of the story has multiple variations and strong support for the differences depending on where you read. The main version does support Mary Sawyer as being the child in question. It also supports the published version as being written and published by Sarah Josepha Hale in 1830. While we can accurately document Sarah Hale publishing the poem, there continues to be a debate if she in fact was the first person to have written the words. That being said having a copy write does give her some standing in the debate.
There are claims that John Raulstone may have actually written the opening lines of the poem to comfort Mary Sawyer prior to his early demise. Again we have multiple versions of this story. Some say Sarah Hale finished and actually published the poem after his death, others deny she ever had any knowledge of his poem. Again there is no documentation to substantiate his role. We continue to be unsure of Sarah Hale’s originality in writing the poem, or that Mary Sawyer was the Mary in question. One of the few facts we can prove is that Sarah Hale had the poem published. We know local stories and legends, did lead to Mary Sawyer to be remembered as the Mary of the poem, even though there is no hard evidence that supports her claims. As with much of oral history, people passed it on, story and facts alike. The need to document specifics is not always as clear as we would like it to be when searching for the truth behind the tale.
Henry Ford, himself attempted to add some authority to the claims of the Sterling Mary Sawyer, by publishing his own book on the subject, The Story of Mary and Her Little Lamb and Ford Ideals. The teacher’s name, Polly Kimball was cited, the tragic story of John Roulstone, who died as a young man documented, all to make the story more real, to make the reader feel as if it must be true. After all we tend to trust what we read more than what we hear. However, in this case Ford has merely recorded the stories he heard, including no further evidence that proves the case of Mary Sawyer. While it demonstrates he is a loyal supporter of her cause, there is nothing here to definitely end the debate on the real Mary. Here we just see Ford’s attempt to use his power to end the argument and use the publicity to help in his own endeavors.
In his book he cites an equally undocumented source on the topic, Fannie Dickerson’s, Mary Had a Little Lamb; the Story of the Real Mary and the Real Lamb as Told by Mary Herself, published in 1902. While it makes for a great story, again it lacks any verifiable sources of information. There were in fact several Mary’s who claimed the honor of being the “real” Mary of Sarah Hale’s poem. Sarah Hale in fact never identified a specific Mary, or even if there was an actual Mary as the source or inspiration for the poem. However, none of the other Mary’s had the benefit of Henry Ford’s power and financial resources pushing their case forward to the American public long after they were concerned about the fate of lambs and the school they once attended. While Ford certainly made a strong publicity case for Mary Sawyer, if you search the Internet you will still find heated debates among surviving relatives and communities over who has the right to claim the lamb story. Ford never ended the debate, although he did make Sawyer’s claim stronger with his considerable efforts.
However, if you are interested in history, regardless of the authenticity of the Mary story, this sight is worth the visit. Henry Ford did not move this school to the site in Sudbury, Massachusetts, as a museum piece in honor of the previous mentioned Mary. The school had functioned as one room school house in Sterling from 1789 until 1856 when it was sold, abandoned from its original function, unaware of the debate that would years later emerge. When Ford brought the school to Sudbury, he wanted it to be a functional school for his workers, on the property he was hoping to develop in the area. In an unusual move, Ford got the Sudbury School department to accept the school into the school district, but he paid the costs associated with the school, a public but private enterprise. The school would ultimately house Ford workers and Sudbury residents. Even after Ford stopped paying the bills, classes continued at the school until 1951.
For people who are interested in seeing a traditional one room school house, the building is open mid May through mid October, Thursday-Sunday 11AM-5PM. The property is managed as part of the non-profit Wayside Inn Trust established by Henry Ford. While you can visit the Redstone School during its open hours, if you want to find out when it will be staffed with interpreters, it is best to call the Inn for details, 800/339-1776. You may also want to visit the other attractions located around the Redstone School and in Sudbury itself. For those who are interested in a historical tour, of Sudbury, the town has provided an on-line historical trail to follow that provides more information. http://www.sudbury.ma.us/trail/
In summary, we have no way of knowing if Sarah Josepha Hale wrote about Mary Sawyer of Sterling, Massachusetts fame. While Henry Ford and the local residents of both Sudbury and Sterling love the tradition, historical data is difficult to provide. However, do not let that dim your enjoyment of a trip to the area.
Dickerson, Fannie M. Mary Had a Little Lamb; the Story of the Real Mary and the Real Lamb as Told by Mary Herself. New York: Fredrick A. Stockes, 1902.
Ford, Henry. The Story of Mary and Her Little Lamb and the Ford Ideals. White Fish: Kessinger Publishing, 2005.
Garfield, Curtis F. and Alison R. Ridley. The Story of the Wayside Inn As Ancient Is This Hostelry. Sudbury: Porcupine Enterprises: 1988.