October 19, 1998 12:00 PM

A mid the weeds outside an empty, ramshackle 1750s house in Sterling, Mass., stands a sign identifying the place as the onetime home of Mary Sawyer—the Mary of “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Proudly, local residents have erected a statue of the lamb on the town common and, led by Sawyer’s distant cousin Diane Melone, are raising funds to restore the house as a museum.

Who could quarrel with that? How about the people of Newport, N.H.? Just as folks in Sterling believe that a youth named John Roulstone, inspired around 1817 by the sight of the lamb following Mary Sawyer into school, dashed off the poem, so does Newport insist that Sarah Josepha Hale, a local 19th-century editor, wrote it directly from her imagination. “I think our case is so strong,” says library director Andrea Thorpe, “that we don’t have to disprove Sterling’s claim.” While everyone agrees Hale was the first to publish the poem (in 1830), Roulstone partisans say that doesn’t prove authorship, gleefully pointing out that Hale included an adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer in the same collection.

Whatever the truth—which may never be known—the story has long been a precious bit of family lore for Melone, 44, a nurse. “It was always part of my life,” she says. As a child she and her mother would drop by for tea at the Sawyer homestead, then occupied by a cousin. One year she even dressed up in period costume, borrowed a lamb and played Mary atop a float in a town parade. “A lot of people didn’t know it was a real story,” she says. “They just thought it was a nursery rhyme.”

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