Cornelius Sweetser was born in Wakefield (then known as the first Parish of Reading) on April 16, 1808, and attended the district school until he went to work at the age of fifteen. At twenty, Sweetser started his own successful shoe and boot manufacturing business in Boston, which he eventually expanded to South Reading, Billerica and Lowell. He married Nancy Richardson of Billerica, but the couple had no children.
In 1846, the Sweetsers moved to Saco, Maine, to continue Sweetser's business pursuits. He became immersed in community affairs, and served as state legislature, town assessor and alderman, and county commissioner. In later years, Sweetser's business acumen and real estate investments combined to reap substantial profits. When Sweetser died in December 1881, he bequeathed to both Wakefield and Saco a substantial amount of money.
Among his many bequests to Wakefield, this generous man left $10,000 to the town to be held in trust to provide "such lectures as will tend to improve and elevate the public mind," and to pay the proceeds "to such charitable organizations...as the municipal officers...may designate to be distributed among the worthy poor..."
The Sweetser Lecture Series originally started in 1885. By a vote of Town Meeting of 1885, the Wakefield Selectmen became the administrators of the income and distribution of the net proceeds of the Sweetser Lecture Fund. The same vote authorized the Selectment (now Town Council) to appoint a committee to act in this matter for the Town. The Selectmen reestablished the Sweetser Lecture Advisory Committee and appointed Commitee members.