A History of Independence

An illustrated image of the Slater Building and the first Tirrell Building

Private endowment and independent governance have attracted outstanding leaders to serve and steward this extraordinary institution throughout its 163 years. Such longevity is a testament to the success of the model. Private endowment and independent governance are the essence of NFA's strength. They are so intertwined that only the story of the Academy’s origin enlightens their force.

In many ways, the Academy began with the offhand remark of a Norwich citizen fed up with the continual political wrangling about governance and finance of the city's schools.

John Breed, the son of the second mayor of the city, was a hardware merchant in Norwich. Breed had himself served as mayor of the city 1840-1842 and was re-elected in 1845. He diligently attended all public meetings. In 1850, a series of crowded, contentious, noisy debates had been held in the Town Hall before opponents managed to indefinitely postpone any action about a public high school for the area's young people.

Earlier that night, Reverend John Putnam Gulliver, a member of the school committee, had delivered a passionate appeal supporting educational reform. Defeated and discouraged, Breed remarked to Gulliver on his way out of the hall. He commented that if ever there would be a high school in Norwich, he would favor an independently governed, privately endowed school, rather than one managed by "such assemblages" characterized by political and financial wrangling. He mentioned, in fact, that he would contribute money to found such a school.

Breed's remark initiated Gulliver's quest to found an independently governed, privately endowed, school – Norwich Free Academy.

For two years Gulliver mulled over Breed's words. He studied similar schools in nearby Colchester and Newburyport, Massachusetts. By 1854, Gulliver had begun laying the groundwork for a very successful and long-lasting paradigm of support. He solicited funds from people he knew would be interested in investing in the future of the community – to found and endow an institution that would educate the region's youth, free from the challenges and pressures of political forces and governmental purse strings. In 15 months, Gulliver had procured the money from 35 individuals, who pledged amounts varying from $500 to $7,500 (about $14,500 to over $215,000 in today's dollars).

On May 5, 1854, Gulliver and the 35 Corporators filed a petition with the State of Connecticut for an official Act of Incorporation founding Norwich Free Academy. Among the 36 names listed on the legal document establishing and endowing the independent Academy was John Breed.

Within months, as plans to build the school began, it became evident that the original amount would not offset expenditures. Original Corporators then contributed an additional $4,500 and other citizens contributed $5,500.

In less than two years, the original 11-room Norwich Free Academy Building, designed by Norwich architect Evan Burdick, was built. The Academy opened with three teachers and 80 students, both male and female; in 1858, NFA's first two students graduated.

Since the beginning, loyal Academy alumni have followed the generosity of the original founders. Over the years, contributions of time, talent, and treasure have reached far into the future to sustain independence and endowment, provide an affordable high school choice to the region, and maintain a dependable community-based mission. To this day, this support transforms an ordinary high school education into an extraordinary NFA experience.

In today's competitive high school marketplace of southeastern Connecticut, the Academy, in the innovative spirit of Breed's remark 163 years ago, offers unparalleled choices and opportunities to students in eight surrounding communities.

Those first 36 Corporators invested in the future. Their support was an act of faith, but it was driven by confidence. Confidence that, free from contentious political forces, their independently governed school would return students to their communities educated people of character prepared to participate in the future.