Every now and then an interesting Southborough history piece comes up at auction, and one has recently appeared for sale. It is a letter from 19-year-old Private George Nichols to his family in Southborough, dated 30 August 1861. George never made it home. After seeing service throughout 1862, he died of disease and was initially buried at the Military Asylum Hospital in DC. Later, his body was transferred back home to Southborough. You can read more about the letter HERE.
The cost of the letter is $75.
Who among you might like to bring George’s letter back to Southborough once and for all?
Here’s a new discovery, fresh from our photo files: a previously unpublished picture of Fayville Village Hall. This marvelous structure, the only example of the popular Dutch Colonial Revival style in Southborough, was built in 1911 to give the population of Fayville a venue for meetings, dances, lectures and other social functions. In an era when it took a half-hour to saddle up a horse to ride to the center of Southborough, this was a big deal. The hall proved a popular gathering spot for generations, but fell into gradual disuse as social norms changed . Underutilized, the building was tagged many times by the selectmen for potential sale. However, the community resisted, fearful that the building would be town down. The 2016 Town Meeting finally granted permission to the selectmen to sell the hall, but only after the Historical Commission demanded and won hard-fought promises from all concerned that the building would only be sold to a buyer interested in adaptive reuse, and that the exterior facade would be preserved and restored as part of the renovation process. Currently, the Town is seeking requests for redevelopment proposals. One likely outcome is several units of senior housing.
In the picture above you can see the building in all its glory, sometime in the 1930s. Note the entrance portal with its beautiful columns and pediment (only a portion of which survives today and is to be restored) and the distinctive heart-shaped cutouts in the shutters (also currently largely missing) — a deliberate look-back to Colonial-era designs. In the days before air conditioning, these shutters provided critical cooling by blocking out intense sunlight, while the small heart-shaped cut-outs insured that even when closed the rooms weren’t totally dark and unventilated. Notice too the elaborate cast-iron horse trough out front — could it be that this long-removed masterpiece still lingers in the hall basement or some other Town storage facility? Stranger things have happened. Regardless, the active preservation efforts by the Southborough Historical Commission and the Society regarding the Fayville Village Hall showcase the best of what adaptive reuse is all about, and clearly demonstrate the value that our current residents place on preserving the architectural fabric of historic Southborough.
Of course it’s never over til it’s over, so rest assured we will continue to monitor Fayville Hall’s progress, and report back as the next stage in the life of this remarkable building commences.
As we’ve been sorting through the Society’s collections, duplicates keep appearing again and again, and one of most notorious repeat offenders was the map above, an 1831 version drawn by Southborough’s own Larkin Newton, whose mathematical schoolbooks are coincidentally part of our holdings. But the funny thing was, all the examples I found were poor photo-copies. So into the recycling here, into the recycling there. But where, oh where was the original? As the end of the bulk sorting loomed, I became a bit panicked. Had we lost an 1831 map somewhere amidst the hundreds of cardboard boxes?
It turns out we had not, because we never had the original in the first place. (Whew!) In fact, the map forms part of the Massachusetts State Archives, and our bad copies were just that, copies. However the folks in Boston were kind enough to supply a digital version, which we have substantially cleaned up and enhanced for your viewing. For the very first time it is presented here, online.
Of the many fascinating things about this map, the tree indications are perhaps the most strange to modern eyes. Living in today’s Southborough crowded with woods and houses, it seems almost impossible to imagine the vast open spaces that this map indicates, but open they were. By the 1830s, Massachusetts had been largely deforested through settlement and agriculture, and trees for timber and heating were becoming increasingly hard to find. Thus, the wooded crests of the hills shown on the map were carefully tended as woodlots, and wood ashes, critical to the soap-making process, were a highly guarded commodity. According to this map, you could have stood in front of Pilgrim Church (or better yet, climbed its steeple) and seen for miles around. And it’s true, as this very early (1850s) photograph attests:
If you’ve ever been in the southern part of England and looked down from those gentle hills upon the magical patchwork of villages and farms, then you know what Southborough of the period must have been like, and why it was called “the most English of all New England towns.”
Unfortunately, due to poor planning and developer-biased zoning, most of these wonderful agricultural vistas were largely lost by the 1980s, and the incredible reforestation that has occurred has closed in the remainder. But there are still a few places you can catch a hint of these once glorious views, at the Breakneck Hill and Chestnut Hill Farm Conservation lands, for example. And if these inspire you — and how can they not — we hope you will stand with the Southborough Historical Society as well as the Historical Commission as we work to ensure that all remaining agricultural parcels that come out of 61A protection get a Town Meeting vote before being sold. We just lost another 30-acre parcel this past winter as 135 Deerfoot was sold to developer Brendan Homes, which has since applied for permission to demolish the historic 1870 house and barn. Result: more houses, more traffic, higher taxes, another lost vista.
As I write this, half the Town is still without power after last night’s 15″ dump of the wettest snow I have ever seen. Trees are down everywhere, and the cleanup will take weeks. Last night I listened in horror as major specimen trees in my garden, including several of those I planted here 25 years ago, collapsed amidst bursts of snow thunder and lightening.
Let’s all agree that it wasn’t a fun night.
However, we have seen worse. Take for example the picture above. This is probably the most damaging ice storm ever to hit the region, November 29th, 1921. This is the view from the center of 85 looking down Cordaville Road towards the south. To the right, you can just see the house at 3 Cordaville Road, which still stands. The first Woodward school would arise to the left in another 30 years.
We at the Society are privileged to house 10 historical images of this incredible storm, which reside safe and sound in our archives, despite the current weather!
From all of us at the Historical Society, our best wishes to you and yours for a safe and speedy recovery!
As I hinted last time, the basement hasn’t finished yielding up its social history treasures, for along with the Franklin Institute minutes, two weeks ago we also rediscovered the accounts of the Young Mens Lyceum. As a document of social history, it is impossible to underestimate the value of this remarkable record.
The Lyceum was a debating society, much like the earlier Franklin Institute. But this time, the notation covers the years between 1840-1861, perhaps one of the most turbulent periods in United States history, often referred to as the “Silver Age.” For in addition to the much debated Mexican-American War, our expanding nation was dealing with the growth of industrialization, a rapid rise in immigration, and the slow fragmentation of the Union over the issue of slavery. You might think that the inhabitants of agrarian Southborough would have worried more about the local weather than the political clouds in Washington, but thanks to this record, we now know that wasn’t at all the case.
Here’s a look at some of the debate topics, with a bit of historical context added in, to give you a better understanding of just how up-to-the-moment our citizenry was:
29 November 1842: Which is the most beneficial to the United States: commerce or agriculture? (Voted 6 to 2 for commerce)
This is a very interesting result for what was then entirely agricultural Southborough, and shows that the rising tides of industrialization were beginning to spread out along the lines of the new railroad. Within the next decade, in fact, Southborough would have its first large-scale mill at Cordaville.
21 March 1843: Have females the right to active part in public affairs? (Voted yes) The Lyceum, unlike the Franklin Institute, also seems to have had a female “editress,” whose job appears to have been gathering news-bits of the day for presentation to the members.
22 February 1844: Is it right or expedient to prosecute vendors of spirituous liquors? (Voted 5 to 4 yes.) Massachusetts was technically dry during this period, but sellers of hard liquor weren’t hard to find, and the close vote is indicative of the popular stance — publicly opposed but privately for. The state would try various solutions until eventually agreeing to license liquor vendors in the 1870s. Southborough remained officially dry even longer, and our thirsty citizens needed to cross the river to Hopkinton, where those in search of liquor, cards and other pleasures could find several famed houses of mixed repute.
23 September 1844: Can abolitionists consistently vote for Henry Clay? (Voted 2-6 against) 1844 was a presidential election year, and Henry Clay, the Whig candidate, was running against Democrat James Polk. Polk, from Tennessee, was a slave owner. Clay, from Kentucky, had also owned slaves, but was considered “soft” on slavery as he decried the institution and favored gradual emancipation and repatriation of slaves to Africa — a view shared at the time by Abraham Lincoln. Southborough, however, was a hotbed of abolitionists, and true to their convictions, the Lyceum members could not bring themselves to support Clay, despite his carrying the rest of the state.
24 December 1844: Are rewards of merit conducive to the best interests of our common schools? (Voted 4-5 against) Corporal punishment was still a favored means of discipline in our schools in 1844. This practice would change markedly over the next twenty years, as Southborough formed a school committee and introduced semi-permanent female teachers, as opposed to the previous system of interim male tutors. Note, too, the date: 24 December. Christmas as a major holiday was still decades away, to be popularized by Queen Victoria’s German consort, Prince Albert.
3 March 1847: Ought the so-called free states remain in the Union? (Voted not to remain.) A very hot topic, this question was debated again on October, 6th, 13th and 20th. The vote taken on the 20th, 9-1 to remain in the union, reversed the previous opinion. Still not settled, the question was taken up once more, on November 16th and 22nd, this time the results being far closer, 8 to 6 to remain. This back-and-forth is truly fascinating, as it reveals that Southerners weren’t the only ones contemplating secession — something that’s never mentioned in our history texts — and that the residents of Southborough were more or less divided on the question. Imagine if the North had seceded and left the South to its own devices! Alternate historians have speculated that lacking the industrialized north, the Southern states would have looked to the Caribbean and Central America for resource markets, extending slavery throughout the region. A very different world indeed….
4 November 1848: Can a true patriot vote for Cass or Taylor for President at the coming election?
1848 was another presidential election year, and this time the candidates were even less palatable to the Lyceum members. Taylor, though nominated by the Whigs as the hero of the Mexican-American War, shared none of their values. Cass, a Southern Democrat, (though he was born in New Hampshire) was equally unacceptable. That left former president Martin Van Buren, who
ran as an independent. The record of the Lyceum says it all: “The question was discussed for an hour and half but with little earnestness owing to the fact that there being no one to oppose from principle, and it was then decided 4-1 in the negative.” This result should give some heart to modern day residents: it appears that the 2016 election wasn’t the first where voters went to the polls holding their noses.
24 January 1849: Which contains the greater evidence of a supreme being, nature or the bible? (Voted Nature 5-1) Given the Pilgrim founding of Southborough, this is another really interesting result, as you might have expected more traditional religious views, but it seems that our Lyceum members shared more than a little streak of transcendentalism.
28 February 1850: Which has been treated worse, the Indians or the Negros? (Voted 7-1 for the Indians)
20 February 1850: Is it probable that the country will be benefited on the whole by the discovery of gold in California? (5 to 4 against) Southborough wasn’t immune to the call of California gold, and the Society possesses a fascinating series of letters from a former resident who left to try his luck — but that’s a story for another day.
23 February 1850: Which is worst, the slanderer or the thief? (Voted 4 to 2 for the slanderer)
16 October 1850: Ought Massachusetts sustain the Fugitive Slave Bill? (Decided unanimously against) The Fugitive Slave Act, part of Henry Clay’s Great Compromise of 1850, allowed anyone suspected of being a fugitive slave to be arrested on merely the claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership. The law was widely despised and resisted in the North, as the residents of Southborough clearly reveal here.
31 March 1852: Is a monarchical or republican form of government better adapted to the promotion of the arts and sciences? (Voted 3-10 for the republic)
Great Britain has just hosted the Crystal Palace Exhibition showcasing British industry and arts, and this question is undoubtedly the result of some nationalistic chaffing. Americans would have to wait until the Centennial Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 to see something similar.
22 December 1852:Should the annexation of Canada be encouraged? (8 to 6 for) There was serious discussion in both the US and Canada (especially Quebec) about annexing all or part of Canada to the US, which wasn’t as far fetched as it sounds to us today. The Dominion of Canada had yet to be formed, and many viewed the territories to the north as ripe for acquisition, as the Alaska Purchase would confirm in 1867.
27 December 1859: Is the reading of fiction beneficial to society? (Voted no) So much for Dickens! Interestingly, the Society, in conjunction with the Library, possesses the 1852 founding documentation (including book lists) for our Library, and its one of our future projects to study and digitize these records. It would be interesting to see exactly what books were considered “beneficial.”
3 January 1860: Is John Brown to be justified in his conduct at Harper’s Ferry? (Voted yes) The 1859 raid on Harper’s Ferry was an effort by abolitionist John Brown to initiate an armed slave revolt by taking over the United States arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. It was put down by the US Marines, and Brown, a long-time resident of Springfield Massachusetts, was tried and hung for treason. That the residents of Southborough would support this violent action is indicative of just how fiercely anti-slavery many of the Town residents had become.
24 January 1860. Is one nation justified in forcing civilization upon another? (Voted no)
An astoundingly modern view, given the nationalism of the Victorian age.
26 March 1861: Should foreign immigration be encouraged? (Voted 15-6 no) Hardly surprising in Southborough where the founding Yankees were beginning to feel the pressure of Irish immigration.
9 April 1861: The very last entry of this incredible record. The Civil War was about begin and soon many members would be putting courage to the same convictions they had earlier professed at the Lyceum.
“Owing to the small number present,” reads the record, “it was thought best to have no discussion. Voted to adjourn sine die.”
And thus the golden age of Southborough’s debating societies came to a muted end, drowned out by the drums of civil war.
Neither the Town, nor the Nation, would ever be quite the same again.
So yesterday, as I was moving a pile of boxes in the basement, still struggling to produce some semblance of order after our forced removal last year, I spied an uncatalogued carton labelled “School Papers.”
I eyed it dubiously, wondering if I should stop to look inside. It is SO easy to get sidetracked here for hours, and I was on a tight schedule.
But curiosity got the better of me, so I cleared off a spot on the basement table, and pulled up a chair. Amidst crumpled notices of 1950s Fay/Peter’s graduation exercises and an early brochure for Algonquin Regional, I pulled out two cloth bound-books, ledger shaped, roughly 6″ x 14″. At first I thought they were more store account-books (of which we have many) but then I opened one and began to read the flowing script on the front cover:
“The diffusion of moral intelligence and scientific research upon the exalted principles of Philanthropy is, or ought to be, the anxious desire of every heart devoted to wisdom…”
No ledger this!
Instead, as I read further (and became totally sidetracked as I had feared) it turned out to be the meeting record of a group formed on New Year’s Day, 1828: the Southborough Franklin Society, with the soon to be famous Col. Francis B. Fay (the future founder of our town library) its first president.
So what was the nature of this club? Intrigued, I continued reading the spidery cursive. HOLY SMOKES!! It was a debating society! Like Oxford, England, but here in Southborough!
It seems the the group assembled twice a month to debate a chosen topic. Members were assigned to argue for and against, and then after both sides had made their cases, the assembly voted yea or nay. On the page I’ve chosen to illustrate above, the question for January 18, 1829, was: “Is the intelligence of man superior to that of woman?”
Hmmm. We’ll get back to that in a moment, But first, why all these exclamation points in my description?
I cannot begin to describe to you what a valuable social history document this book is!!!!
Instead of just dry old financial figures, or land deeds, it contains the well reasoned thoughts and opinions of actual inhabitants of 1820s Southborough! And, as it turns out, these people were hugely sophisticated thinkers at a very cosmopolitan level — all the more surprising for a remote farming village that at the time that was a grueling day’s travel from anywhere of consequence.
Just read some of the debate topics:
Would an equal distribution of property have a tendency to increase the happiness of mankind? (Voted: yes)
Is a savage (Indian) or civilized life more happy? (Voted: civilized)
Would an increase on duties of domestic or foreign spirits have a tendency to avert the evils of intemperance? (Voted: yes; then the group voted to ban “ardent spirits” from their meetings, but then voted to hold their next meeting at Mr Winchesters tavern. Go figure!)
Do mankind ever perform an act of disinterested benevolence? (Voted: no)
Are mankind by nature more prone to vice than virtue? (Voted, after two two-hour meetings: vice)
Would a railroad passing through this town from Boston to Albany be advantageous to this vicinity? (A prescient majority delcared yes, but the railroad would be another 9 years in the future.)
Are mankind free agents? (Split vote.)
Are capital punishments right, just or salutary? (No decision)
Ought the dissection of human subjects be sanctioned by law? (Tabled after an hour-long discussion)
Would the abolishment of all laws for the collection of debts be salutary? (Voted: no)
Wow! Wow! WOW! This is the equivalent of receiving a time-warp message from an 1828 focus group!!!!
So enough exclamations: I’m sure you now share my excitement at finding such a rare piece of Southborough history. But to return to the beginning: what do you think was the answer to the first question, the one about the superiority of man or woman?
Well, it turns out the men of 1820s Southborough were truly savvy: having invited guests of the gentler sex to that particular meeting (not their normal practice), they very wisely opted to let the women present decide. Result?
“The women decided by ballot that the intelligence of woman is equal to that of man.”
You heard it here first: women equal to men, Southborough 1829!
The Southborough Historical Society is tremendously saddened to learn of the death of Paul Doucette earlier this week. Paul was a long time member of the Southborough Historical Society, having served on its Board of Directors for many years. Paul was especially interested in the history of the Burnett Family’s Deerfoot Farm, which at one time was the largest employer in Southborough. He wrote and published a history of both the Burnett family and Deerfoot Farm. In 2004 the society honored Paul by dedicating the Deerfoot Farm exhibit and Burnett family collection located at the Historical Society Museum to him. His vast knowledge of this part of Southborough’s history as well as his keen wit will be sorely missed.
Recently I set myself the task of rehousing and cataloging the Francis B. Fay papers in our collection. I’ll be telling you more about these documents another time, as Francis B. Fay was one of Southborough’s more remarkable native sons, who among other notable deeds donated the money to start our library, which for many decades bore his name. But, I digress… back to the papers.
Cataloguing is not exactly a mile-a-minute roller-coaster ride of fun. It can be tedious, because there is a lot of minutia involved, but it’s critical if we really intend to take effective stewardship of our Southborough history. Most of the Fay papers were pamphlets of one type or another — very early sermons (some dating back to 1820), political tracts, speeches, and various other bits and pieces saved during a productive life of public service spanning 7 decades. But tucked away in one of these pamphlets, carefully folded up but literally rotting away with age, was the auction notice you see above. These broadsheets were never intended to be preserved; they were printed on the cheapest of paper, and generally thrown away afterwards. But somehow this one survived, and despite its damaged state, caught my attention because of the line below “CONDITIONS OF SALE”:
“The property will be sold without reserve as the subscriber is about to leave for the seat of WAR.”
“The seat of WAR” Wow!
It’s not everyday you find a notice of someone auctioning their possessions in order to go fight in the Civil War. There are so many questions here. We know from the historical record that Marshall Whittemore lived on the corner of Boston Road and Framingham Road, in a Greek Revival cottage that is remarkably little changed. We know too he was married with children, and his profession was listed as farmer. So why was he selling his animals and farm equipment? To make provision for his family? How were they going to live while he was gone? What motivated him to enlist in the first place? He was not at all young — 41 — and the war had been raging for over two years. Something, though, prompted him to sell his precious goods the day after Christmas, and shortly thereafter, leave his home, wife, son, and daughter to fight for the Union.
Can you imagine how difficult that parting must have been? Heading off in a cold, dark December to god-knows-what fate?
Fortunately, thanks to other records in our collection, we know that our story has a happy ending. Marshall Whittemore, now a private in a heavy artillery regiment, survived the disastrous battle of Newport Barracks where Union troops were overwhelmed 3-1 by Confederate forces. At the conclusion of hostilities, he was mustered out of the Army, returning to farm and family in Southborough where he lived peaceably for decades. He died in 1902 and is buried in the Rural Cemetery.
So the historical record is all neatly tucked up, but it leads to a final nagging question: why did Francis B. Fay decide to save this seemingly random broadsheet? Were the two men friends? Friends of friends? Distantly related? Or did Francis Fay simply admire the courage of a man who sold his most precious possessions, left his family, and headed off to war with the courage of his convictions. We’ll never know, but it’s something to remember as we fuss with ribbons and wrappings, fret over last-minute shopping, fume over holiday traffic, and worry endlessly about menus and decorations, that once upon a time, in a Southborough long, long ago, a certain courageous man named Marshall Whittemore gave up his home and hearth at Christmas, so that we of future generations could enjoy ours.
The more I get acquainted with the Society’s collection, the more astounded I become. Here in tiny little Southborough, we have a world-class collection of items! Take the above, for example. This wonderfully preserved tome contains the Massachusetts Charter of 1691 that formally established the Province of Massachusetts Bay. Issued during the reign of William III and Mary II, the charter defined the government of the colony, whose lands were drawn from those previously belonging to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Plymouth Colony, and portions of the Province of New York, and included all of present-day Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia! The book also contains all the subsequent laws governing the province up to the date of its publication, 1742 — which makes surprisingly fascinating reading, with all the little do’s and don’ts of life in Colonial Massachusetts.
My point in showing this to you today is to point that we have many volunteer opportunities that grant hands-on experience with incredibly historic material just like the charter. It’s a volunteer experience really unparalleled anywhere else, as most other institutions keep volunteers well away from the actual collections.
We are currently looking for volunteers to:
• help catalogue our book collection
• help organize and re-house our collection of objects
• help catalogue and re-house our paper and photo archives, and prepare this material for online presentation
No previous experience is necessary, other than a general knowledge of Mac operating systems, and a love of history. If you’re interested in helping out, let us know.
Despite recommendations to the contrary of every relevant board and commission — the Community Preservation Committee, the Historical Commission, the Open Space Committee, and the Planning Board (not to mention the Southborough Historical Society!) — the Southborough Board of Selectmen last night declined to allow Southborough voters the chance to decide whether to acquire the historic Moses and Elizabeth Fay House with its 27 acres in order to save it from demolition and development. The vote was 3-2, with Dan Kolenda, Brian Shea and Bonnie Phaneuf in the majority, and Lisa Braccio and Brian Shifrin dissenting.
Shame on Misters Kolenda, Shea and Ms Phaneuf!
Not only have these three decided of their own volition to doom one of the last remaining historic farm properties in town, but in a single vote they have raised our taxes, crowded our classrooms, and increased infrastructure congestion. If you are unclear why that’s the case, please read the full explanation here.
Otherwise, here’s the short review: Every new single-family home built on former agricultural land takes money right out of your pocket and degrades the quality of life in Southborough. It’s about time the voters, not three individuals, made those kind of decisions, particularly on 61A agricultural properties whose sellers have been receiving huge tax breaks for decades — funded by us, We-Who-Pay in Southborough.
We-Who-Pay need to make it clear to our Selectmen that we want to PRESERVE our historic structures and open spaces, not DESTROY them. At the very least, We-Who-Pay want a chance to decide their fate.
To that end, I think it’s time We-Who-Pay make ourselves heard.
First of all, please email the selectmen and tell them how disappointed you are with their decision. They need to hear from you, the voters.
Then, help us place a referendum on the upcoming April Town Meeting docket that makes it clear to the Selectmen how the people of Southborough feel about preserving our remaining open space and historic fabric.