Robert Rantoul: ‘Usefulness in Humble Spheres’

Article by Kate Salandrea

Beverly’s Rantoul Street cuts a wide swath through the heart of downtown, a fitting tribute to its namesake, whose life and works have influenced the life of the city for over 200 years.  Robert Rantoul Sr., businessman, social reformer, city leader and lifelong member of FirstParishChurch in Beverly, was a dynamic force for social change and community service, as well as a keen observer and chronicler of his ideas, beliefs, accomplishments, and the times he lived in. 

During his lifetimeRantoultook on many roles in both his church and the city. For nearly 50 years he served First Parish Church as a deacon and as a member of the church’s Prudential Committee, which managed the finances and business of the church. He was Parish Clerk for 41 years, and served for a time as Sunday School superintendent. Within the larger community he servedBeverlyas a 35-year member of the School Committee; as Overseer of the Poor and a 50-year member of the Board of Overseers; as a justice of the peace; an acting trial justice; Commissioner of Highways, and a volunteer in the schools. Later in his life he was a supporter of the movement to establish a public high school inBeverly. 

Born inSalem in 1778,Rantoul was the eldest of the three children of Mary (Preston) Rantoul and Capt. Robert Rantoul, a native of Scotland who came toSalemas a young man. A sea captain, his ship was lost at sea in 1783 when Robert was 5 years old.Rantoul remained in school until he was 13 and was later apprenticed to a pharmacist.  In 1796, at the age of 18,Rantoulcame to Beverlyand opened his own pharmacy at the corner of Washington and Cabot Streets, eventually marrying and building a home on Washington Street. At the age of 46 he retired from active involvement in the business he founded to focus more fully on his reformist and public service work. The pharmacy remained in business until 1940, at the time the oldest operating drug store inNew England. 

Rantoul was largely self-educated and would today be called a “lifelong learner”. He was a passionate opponent of slavery and the death penalty, a supporter of the temperance movement and public education, and an advocate for public service. He published articles and lectured regularly at lyceums inBeverlyand elsewhere on subjects ranging from the above to economy, agriculture and politics.Rantoul valued highly the idea of a close-knit, united community. Over the years he viewed the growth of manufacturing and business in Beverlyas moving farther away from his ideal of a rural past.

We are fortunate thatRantoul was also a prodigious writer, keeping diaries and copies of his lectures, reports and letters, as they give us a unique perspective on his life’s work and the issues of his day.  For the ten years before his death in 1858, Rantoul worked on an autobiography using these materials, wishing to leave a legacy for his grandchildren. In his autobiography, he wrote, “I recommend it to my grandchildren to avail themselves of opportunities of public usefulness in humble spheres”, advising that those who “pass through life looking for opportunities to undertake great things” often don’t find them and would serve themselves and others well to “do the good which from time to time presented itself, heartily and truly, however small it might seem in the eyes of the unreflecting.”  Thorough his life’s work and example, Robert Rantoul, Sr. proved that usefulness to church and community could be found in both small and large endeavors, and that the satisfaction of devoting oneself to service to others can be an enduring legacy.

 

The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance of, and access to primary resource materials from, First Parish Church and the Beverly Historical Society, including The Bulletin of the Business History Society, June 1951, at Beverly Historical Society; “Rantoul Street”, by JRM, Beverly Historical Society paper; and “The Origins of Public High Schools” by Maris Vinovskis,Univ.ofWisconsinPress, 1985

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