Tabor Academy was founded by Mrs. Elizabeth Taber in 1876. It was a time, as Mrs. Taber was clearly aware, of great national events: the Centennial Celebration of the Declaration of Independence and the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, as well as the end of the presidency of Ulysses Grant. A decade out from the end of the Civil War, much of the country was in an optimistic mood. Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone in 1876; Thomas Edison was close to discovering the electric light. Custer would make his "last stand" in the summer. Harvard and Yale would play their first Thanksgiving football game in the fall.
Mrs. Taber had grown up in Marion, Massachusetts, and spent her childhood along the shores of Sippican Harbor. She married Stephen Taber, moved to New Bedford, and became the mother of three children. While her husband achieved considerable wealth as both a clock maker and whale ship investor, Mrs. Taber’s life was shadowed by sadness. She saw all three of her children die in infancy, and after the Civil War her husband died as well. For a period of time, Mrs. Taber apparently lived in solitude in a New Bedford mansion, but then, in her mid-eighties, she underwent a kind of epiphany. She determined to make her life count for something good, so she returned to the town of Marion to begin a decade-long transformation of the place of her birth. She committed her great material gain to good use. She caused to be built parks, a library, the town’s Music Hall, and, finally, Tabor Academy, which she named, as a kind of theological pun and to expand its meaning beyond herself, for Mt. Tabor in the Holy Land. She housed her Academy in two Victorian structures on the corner of Spring and Main Streets in Marion. She also had built a large home for herself and the family of her first Headmaster. And, through her will, she charged the school always to improve itself: “… the character of the school,” she wrote, “should be gradually elevated and its scope enlarged [to serve] youth of all portions of the country ….”
Tabor Academy served students from the Town of Marion and surrounding communities like Wareham, Rochester, and Mattapoisett, and from time to time a few young men boarded at the school. The majority of students were young women, however, and the school prospered and grew for about twenty years.
Then, a series of financial catastrophes swept the country, and Tabor Academy, along with many of the New England town academies, began to wobble. In 1916 there were fewer than a dozen students, and the trustees contemplated a sale of the property to the town as a site for the local high school. However, three trustees prevailed over this plan and that year hired a new Headmaster, Mr. Walter Lillard. Mr. Lillard brought a fresh vision to the school, seeing at once that moving Tabor from its “in town” location to the seaside would make it unique among New England schools. He quickly convinced the trustees of the vitality of his vision and worked over the next twenty years to move Tabor Academy toward the sea. By the mid-1930s, Mr. Lillard had effected a dramatic “trade” with the town of Marion, exchanging the then Town Hall (now the current site of the Academic Center) and a small plot of land on Front Street for the Academy’s larger land and buildings. He managed to acquire nearly a half mile of salt marsh and fields and a few old “summer cottages,” and thus, “Tabor Academy, the School by the Sea” had its second founding.
Quickly, under Mr. Lillard’s leadership, the school grew ten-fold, and by the time all of the operation of the school moved to its current location, Tabor’s reputation as a unique and extraordinary place had been secured. Over the last seventy years Tabor has developed its extraordinary philosophy, program, and facility founded on its deep connection with the natural world, the spiritual legacy of the sea around us, and the common humility and dedication that life by the sea inspires.