Freedom Hall, Cotuit’s civic center, is 150 years old, and for all those years, it has been the heart of village life.. It was founded at the height of the national discord before the Civil War, in February 1860. Third party candidate Abraham Lincoln appealed for unity, but his election in November precipitated the Civil War. Cotuit was solidly behind the freedom for the slaves.

A meeting on Feb. 4, 1860 led by Selectman Charles C. Bearse, decided to “consider the expediency of building a public hall in this vicinity”, and set up committees to draw up a constitution and to plan building. Nine days later, a constitution was adopted for “a suitable place, free for all well disposed persons to assemble in, and hold meetings, Lectures, Parties, Assemblies, Levees, Lyceums etc.” It authorized $100 to buy Capt. Leander Nickerson’s lot north of the Union Church, and $1400 for a building 33′ x 40′ to be done by Oct. 1.

The two-story building was built in the Greek Revival style, a tribute to Athenian democracy. The design was probably by Charles Bearse, who had distinguished himself as housewright. James West, who had just built the huge three story Santuit House, is the likely builder. Costs were paid for by $5 shares, principally from whaling captains Seth Nickerson ($200), James Coon ($150), Bearse ($125), and summer residents Congressman Samuel Hooper and James Parker ($100 each).

Before the war ended, the stockholders declared the popular hall too small, but no expansion occurred for 25 years, with Mr. Bearse building a stage and curtain in 1868, the Masons fixing up the attic in 1870, a shed and ladies’ privy put out back in 1872, enlarging the platform in 1878. At last, in 1884 Mr. Bearse added 20 feet at the back, costing $1000. In 1899 Alex Nickerson enlarged the basement for a dining room, and the next year, a fire escape to was built from the Masons’ attic rooms. A new floor was laid in 1902, and the next year a furnace replaced the old iron stove.

Freedom Hall, often called “Cradle of Liberty”, was the birthplace of Cotuit’s associations: Santuit Lodge of Good Templars (1866), Mariner’s Lodge of Masons (1870), Cotuit Improvement Association. (1882), Cotuit Library (1885), Knights and Ladies of Honor lodge (1888), Sons of Temperance (1897), Knights of Pythias (1901).

The Cotuit Lyceum used the Hall regularly. Recalling the Greek educational forum of Aristotle, this institution pioneered in adult education. Its evening meetings opened with music and readings by local residents, and featured a debate on topics ranging from foreign policy to women’s virtues.

The most popular event at Freedom Hall was an “entertainment”, with vocal and instrumental music, readings of poetry, dramatic skits and farces by local talent. Balls and dances were held to the music of Prof. Elisha B. Fish, who rented the Hall for singing and dancing classes.

The national lecture circuit brought repeat performances by ventriloquists, slight of hand artists, comedians, minstrel shows, a blind signer, and of course, speakers on national issues and foreign lands.

Every Yuletide, there was a Christmas tree loaded with a present for every child, and sometimes for adults, followed by music and games.

Freedom Hall was used for business, too. There were often auctions of whole estates, or of household goods and apparel, and even of large ships like the “Essex”, whose shipowners met here.

This was also the village political center, where Democrats and Republicans met, caucuses were held to nominate men for vacant offices, and “indignation” meetings. In 1887 the town clerk registered new voters here, and the first local elections were held in 1895.

The neighboring Union Church used the Hall for services when the church was under repair, which resulted in its being the site of sermons by famous ministers such as Everett Hale and Phillips Brooks (1871). A three day regional Congregational church conference was held in 1884.

For a century and a half Freedom Hall has been the heart of Cotuit village life.

Published in The Barnstable Enterprise 30 March 2012.


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