Located in Middlesex County about 50 miles north of Boston and only a town or two from the New Hampshire border, Shirley is governed by Open Town Meeting and a three-member Select Board. The town offers modern amenities and a slice of quiet, small town life, with rural ambience, a sense of civic pride and volunteer spirit among residents and well-preserved historic roots. The town has a full compliment of municipal services courtesy of the town’s police, fire and highway departments.
Shirley’s small but friendly business community has growth potential. A new regional school system shared with the neighboring Town of Ayer officially launched in 2011. Other perks include reasonably-priced homes, convenient commuter rail service via the train station in Shirley Village and highway access via Route 2A and nearby Route 2.
Settled in 1720 and incorporated in 1753, Shirley was named for a former governor. Some names in town are those of founding families and many handsome historic homes still stand, particularly in the picture-perfect Town Center, where the gracious white spire of Shirley’s Historic Meetinghouse rises high above the trees. The original section of the First Parish Meetinghouse was erected in 1773 and formerly housed religious congregations. More than a cherished landmark and charming timepiece today, the Historic Meetinghouse is lovingly preserved by a private group and hosts a variety of cultural and community events, some of which help pay for its maintenance.
Shirley’s population as of the 2010 Federal Census was 7,211, swelled some by the populations of two state prisons. Tucked away in a remote section of town, the sprawling MCI Shirley and Sousa Baranowski grounds include the site of a former Shaker village whose spiritual name was Pleasant Garden. The Shakers were a religious sect that thrived during the late 19th and early 20th century. Noted for their industry and celibate, communal lifestyle, there were several Shaker villages in New England, including Harvard, Lancaster and Shirley.
The Shirley Shaker Meeting House was built in 1793 by architect Moses Johnson and held its first service the same year. The building was later relocated to the Hancock Shaker Village in Pittsfield, Mass. The Shirley Shaker community was one of the sect’s smallest. Its highest membership was 150 in the 1840s.By the late 1880’s, there were only about 15 people left, including the last Shirley Elder, John Whiteley, after whom the town’s war memorial park is named. His death in 1905 signaled the closing of the village. Sister Annie Belle Tuttle was one of the last Shirley Shakers. At age 20, she was most likely the caretaker of several young girls and apparently enjoyed her life. “There is no place like Shirley,” she wrote. Many modern-day Shirley residents might echo that sentiment.