In the News

Plenty to Be Thankful For! Our Annual Appeal

Dear Friends of the Society,

As the holidays draw near, almost inevitably I find myself re-watching Irving Berlin’s Holiday Inn, starring Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. If you haven’t seen this 1942 classic, or haven’t seen it in a long time, you really should. Not only are Bing and Fred in their prime, but it’s also the film that launched the timeless carol “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” There’s nothing like Der Bingle boo-boo-booing his way through that soulful song, tree aglow and fire crackling in the hearth. There’s another tune, too, which I particularly like, though it’s far less known: “I’ve Got Plenty to be Thankful For.” And with only a slight change in the pronoun from “I” to “We,” this catchy melody could be the Historical Society’s anthem for 2017, for indeed we at the Society have so much to be thankful for! For example, over the past year:

• the Museum building reopened to the public after four months of flood remediation.
• work on rehousing and re-cataloguing the collections began in earnest.
• our brand-new website launched, continually updated with new material.
• our digitization program commenced, with hundreds of new images now available online.
• the voice of the Society began to be heard in real-time preservation advocacy for Southborough.
• our membership doubled, and we successfully competed for and won several funding grants designed to help stabilize our collections and expand the Society’s outreach.

Now, however, 2018 dawns and work begins in earnest: over half our paper collection is still not properly housed; thousands of historic photographs remain to be documented and digitized; and the renovated museum space is just yearning for new exhibits, all of which have to be researched, designed and constructed. Plus, we are determined in 2018 to expand our educational outreach to the Southborough Schools — as a start, this past September we hosted a specially designed afternoon for all seven of Southborough’s 3rd-grade classrooms, an event which received highly enthusiastic reviews from students, parents and teachers alike.

So, this is where you come in. For the second year in a row, we’ve received a 10K grant from the Southborough Community Fund designed in part as a challenge grant to spur outside giving. In essence, every dollar you contribute to the Southborough Historical Society before the end of the year is doubled in effectiveness. I so hope you’ll be able to help us. If you do, we promise to keep the chorus going, making sure we preserve the best of Southborough’s past for its future.

Michael Weishan, President

You donate safely and easily on line by clicking the button below.




Or, by check to the Southborough Historical Society, 25 Common Street, Southborough, Massachusetts  01772

The Southborough Historical Society is a 501(c)3 public charity and your donations are deductible to the extent allowed by law.

Board of Selectmen Deals Major Blow to Historic Preservation in Southborough

The Moses and Elizabeth Fay House at 135 Deerfoot is now threatened with demolition.

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.

Candidates Preservation Forum: November 2017

Dear Friends,

As you know, we have a special election tomorrow for Selectman, and as is now our custom, the Southborough Historical Society asks the candidates questions relevant to historical preservation in Southborough.  Two responded: Sam Stivers and Doriann Jasinski.

NB: Tomorrow’s voting is at Trottier gym only.


Responses from Sam Stivers:

What is your position on the 61A parcel on Deerfoot Road? Should the voters be allowed to decide whether or not to acquire the parcel at town meeting?
Yes.

Would you support placing the decision on acquiring all future 61A parcels automatically in front of the voters?

I support the preservation of open space in the Town. I believe that there should be a process for consideration of all Chapter 61 parcels (including not just 61A parcels) when the Town has the option to exercise a Right of First Refusal (ROFR). This process could include the Open Space Preservation Commission (OSPC), the Planning Board, the Conservation Commission, the Historical Commission and other Town committees with interests related to this issue, to assess the value of such parcels and determine if the limited resources available for such purchases are aligned with the Town’s prioritization of available properties. In fact, such a process is in the final development stage by the “Chapter 61 Working Group”, and I support this. I do not support “automatic” Town Meeting consideration of purchase of such parcels, as the new Chapter 61 process will provide broadly based expert input to determine which possible acquisitions should go to the voters. Additionally, I support the preservation of open space in the Town via methods other than Chapter 61 ROFR—such as outright purchase of development rights as we did for the Chestnut Hill Farm. The challenge is to find ways to fund these acquisitions.

Study after study has shown that taxes on single family homes don’t cover their cost to the Town, and each new build actually contributes to higher rates for everyone. Given that, what would you propose to limit further development and increase the quality of life for current residents?

The Advisory Committee did such a study several years ago, confirming that additional residential development likely results in a net cost to the Town. Because development is largely controlled by the Town’s zoning bylaws (managed by the Planning Board), modification of the development process is something that starts with the Planning Board. I support a Planning Board initiative to update the zoning bylaws, which can address growth and other issues. The Selectmen can collaborate with the Planning Board on such an initiative. However, I do not support outright restricting or limiting development. We need to find a balance between preserving what we value in Town – open space and historic resources – while allowing appropriate new development for both residential and commercial uses at a scale and rate that the Town can support. Our Master Plan can provide guidance relative to these questions, and our Master Plan should be revisited and updated as necessary.

Additionally, the Selectmen can help manage the Town’s exposure to “unfriendly” 40B housing projects by smart planning to meet our Housing Plan objectives. Using funds in the Housing Trust Fund and CPA housing reserve accounts (which currently total over a half-million dollars) we can work with developers and/or nonprofits to create “neighborhood friendly” small-scale 40B housing projects so we can meet our housing obligations through a process the Town controls, instead of reacting to developer proposals.

If the majority of home-owners in a particular area of Town favored the creation of an historic district, would this have your support?

I support this concept. I would need to see the specific details before I can support a particular proposal. I strongly favor preserving the Town’s historical qualities that make us uniquely Southborough. That identity adds value to our homes, our community and our businesses.

What other ideas do you have to promote and protect the historic nature of Southborough?

As a Selectmen I will support the Historical Commission and the Planning Board as they develop a plan for historic preservation and priorities.


What plans might you suggest to revitalize the Main Street area economically and aesthetically once the road improvements are done?

The Town could consider creating a zoning overlay district to permit mixed-use structures in the downtown area. This could provide additional commercial/professional space as well as residential use. A key issue related to this process is transportation and parking. If we want to have more businesses and residential development in the downtown area we must consider parking. Towns with vibrant downtowns typically have municipal parking capacity out of the public view but within easy walking distance to downtown businesses. We need to address this issue as part of downtown development.

The Selectmen can also work with the Economic Development Committee to leverage the downtown development work they are doing. 

Finally, with St. Mark’s School becoming an owner (through the Golf Course land arrangement) of property with frontage on Main Street, planning and coordination with St. Mark’s development plan is desirable.

If plans were developed for a cultural corridor linking the Library, the Old Burial Ground, the Museum, the Town House, St Marks church and the cemetery, would you be generally supportive of such an idea?

I support of this concept. I would need to see the specific details of such a proposal before I can support a particular proposal.

The office of selectman is a low-paid, demanding, and time-consuming position, which often requires attendance not only at selectmen’s meetings, but also at meetings of other boards and committees. Recently, it has been noticed that a certain member of the Board has had an unusually high absentee rate, which obviously is not ideal. Are there any factors that would limit your commitment of time and energy to the Board of Selectmen?

No. My record of attendance at over 100 Town committee meetings each year demonstrates my commitment to devote the time necessary to fulfill my Town obligations. I will continue to devote the time to meet my responsibilities as a Selectman.

 

Responses from Doriann Jasinski:

What is your position on the 61A parcel on Deerfoot Road? Should the voters be allowed to decide whether to acquire the parcel at town meeting?

My position on the Deerfoot property is simply this: the voters should decide whether they want to purchase the property.  I would also hope that the voters take into thoughtful consideration how the neighbors feel about the purchase by the Town.

Would you support placing the decision on acquiring all future 61A parcels automatically in front of voters?

I don’t believe that placing any restriction on future 61A properties is a good idea. I do believe that the taxpayers have the right to vote on whether they want to assume the tax liability for the purchases. The value of all 61A properties are not the same and need to be looked at on an individual basis.

 Study after study has shown that taxes on single family homes don’t cover their cost to the Town and each new build contributes to higher taxes for everyone. Given that, what would you propose to limit further development and increase the quality of life for current residents?

I would not limit development for several reasons.  First, development helps us meet our future needs as a community. It provides jobs which help boost our economy.  Property owners have the right to develop their land as they wish, providing they follow our town by-laws.  I am against taking away property owner rights or stopping development.

Southborough loves its Open Space. One way to increase the quality of life for current residents is to value our Open Space.  Communities need open space to provide passive recreational areas such as walking trails.  I am in favor of protecting our Open Space and purchasing more as time goes on to help enhance the charm and character of our Town.  Our Open Space Commission is a very productive group of individuals who have a prioritized list of parcels for future purchases which would enhance our community.

If the majority of home owners in a particular area of town favored the creation of an historic district, would this have your support?

I would absolutely be in favor in the creation of a historic district in our Town.

What other ideas do you have to promote and protect the historic nature of Southborough?

First, I believe we need to educate the residents about the rich history of our Town.  Many people don’t know the history of Southborough.  When we were considering the details of the Burnett House purchase, that is when the history was given.  I would suggest having an annual town wide get together to promote the rich history of Southborough.  Having interactive games and maybe have the children do a play of some sort would make it fun for people of all ages to attend.

What plans might you suggest to revitalize the Main Street area economically and aesthetically once the road improvements are done?

We do need to revitalize our downtown to help promote business for the existing businesses there.  The Economic Development Committee just completed a survey to ask people what they wanted in their downtown area.  The results are detailed as listed below:

90% want more restaurants; 67% want more retail shops.  Aesthetics are important and the Downtown “feel” is essential.  Historic buildings, signage and markers are highly valued.  People want more “public spaces”.

Personally, I would agree that all the above are important and needs a closer look at how to get this done without a major impact on all our taxes.  Better landscaping, benches, adding flowers and containers with plantings is also an idea to add charm to the downtown.  The Southborough Gardeners may be able to help with this idea.

If plans were developed for a cultural corridor linking the Library, the Old Burial Ground, the Museum, the Town House, St Marks Church and the Cemetery, would you be generally supportive of such an idea?

Yes, I would be supportive of that idea.  The area is such an important piece of “Southborough Charm” which we all love and appreciate.

The Office of Selectmen is a low-paid, demanding and time-consuming position, which often requires attendance not only at Selectmen’s meetings, but also at meetings of other boards and committees. Recently, it has been noticed that a certain member of the Board has had an unusually high absentee rate, which obviously is not ideal.  Are there any factors that would limit your commitment of time and energy to the Board of Selectmen?

I have both the time and the energy to get the job done.  I can’t speak for other members of the Board, but I personally have attended the Selectmen’s meetings, a few Conservation, Planning Board, Zoning Board, Personnel Board, Personnel Board Working Group, Public Safety Building, Golf meetings (just to name a few!)

There are no factors which limit my commitment to getting the job done.

On the Indian Trail, Literally

Indian Trails of the 17th and 18th centuries

In preparation for expanding the Native American presence at the Museum, I’ve been reading a wonderful book Indian New England before the Mayflower and I came across a very interesting map: “A compilation of certain recorded northern New England Indian trails and villages of the 17th and 18th centuries.” Something about this looked really familiar, so using one of the online map overlay services, I decided to place the Indian trail map over the modern road grid in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.

Wow!

Now I have long known that Main Street and Cordaville Roads in Southborough follow Indian trails, but I didn’t realize so did most of our existing major highways. It’s like the Roman roads in Italy!

Some examples from a cursory review:

Rt 1A its entire length
Rt 2 west of Worcester to the NY border
Rt 3 all the way to the Cape, and from Lowell to Nashua NH
Rt 6A entire length
Rts 7 and 8 (in western Mass) their entire length
Rt 10 from Vermont to Connecticut
Rt. 16 between Webster and Watertown
Rt 20 its entire length
Rt 30 most of its length
Rt 44 entire length
Rt 84 to Hartford and New York
Rt 91 through Springfield
Rt 95 all the way to NYC
Rts 110 and 117 majority of route
Rt 126/135­ between Hopkinton and Wayland

I am sure there are others. Take a minute and explore for yourself; just click on any map below to expand.  (Or, you can try the slider version of the map, HERE, using the slider in the upper right hand corner labeled “Indian Map” CAREFUL: IT GETS ADDICTIVE)

I suppose in many ways this should have been self-intuitive, as foot paths became cart-paths that became roads that became highways. But somehow, in our European bias, I think many of us (including me) always imagined the first Pilgrims hacking their way through virgin woodland, creating those paths. But the reality is that the Pilgrims and their successors had stepped into a land that had been tended, cultivated and very much altered by Native Americans for thousands of years. The cleared planting fields were already there, as were the fishing camps and weirs, the tended hunting grounds, even the settlement places. But most fatally for the Indian, the well marked land routes were there too, leading the Europeans ever westward with relative ease — to the eventual doom of their civilization.

Something to think about next time you are stuck in traffic…

Indian Trails with Modern Towns. The circles indicate documented Indian settlements
Indian Trails Superimposed on Modern Roadways
Modern Map

SOUTHBOROUGH HISTORICAL SOCIETY BRINGS A LITTLE HERITAGE BACK TO HERITAGE DAY

Southborough’s 1868 Fire Engine, the Falcon

More than a century ago, Southborough’s fires were fought by a handtub named the Falcon. A handtub is a hand pumped fire engine that shoots water over 200 feet — a major improvement over water tossed from a bucket! The Falcon was built in 1868, and purchased by the town of Southborough for $150 in 1896 after a series of deadly fires.

This coming Heritage Day, October 9th, residents will be able to see the Falcon in the parade, as well as watch a live demonstration — thanks to our firefighters — in front of the Southborough Historical Society Museum at noon. The Museum, which is half-way through its renewal process, will be open until 2, displaying its first two new exhibits in a decade: The Printed Word in Southborough: 1847 – the Present; and the 17th Century Sawin Family Papers 

Michael Weishan, current President of the Society, is working with board members to expand the Society’s mission and promote the educational and cultural value of the museum’s collection. “We have one of the most spectacular collections in the area, and it’s high time we put it to work showcasing the almost 4000 years of habitation in the place we now call Southborough.”

The Society invites all residents to stop by and watch the Falcon demonstration and learn something new about our town.

Find out more about Southborough’s history at www.southboroughhistory.org.

Why Preservation of Historic Open Space Pays, and Why Your Wallet Should Care

At the Southborough Selectmen’s meeting last night it was announced that ca. 1810 Moses and Elizabeth H Fay House at 135 Deerfoot Road had been sold, and that the Town of Southborough had the right of first refusal to buy the property and its 35 acres under a program commonly known as 61A. The program gives a tax break to the owners of agricultural properties as long as they are kept in production.  When the owner of a 61A property decides to sell, the municipality that has been granting the discounted tax rate is allowed first right of refusal. That time has now come for Southborough.

The Moses and Elizabeth Fay House at 135 Deerfoot Road, as pictured in the Historic Buildings Survey

First, a little bit about the history of the house and land. The property, commonly called “Cedar Acres” for the large grove of pines located near the house, has been a farm since the early 1800’s, perhaps even the late 1700s, though its first recorded date is 1831. Three generations of Fays, one of Southborough’s founding families, farmed the property throughout the 1800’s. In the 1920s, the property was bought by Elgin John Rowe, an advertiser, as a gentleman’s farm. It is Rowe who updated the facade of the house in the Colonial Revival Style so popular in that era. Of the many original farm outbuildings, only the mid-19th century wooden gable front barn remains, a remarkable survivor of our agricultural past. (You can read the full historical report on the property HERE.)

A typical Brendon Homes “community” from their website.

Last night we learned that the property has been purchased by a developer, Brendon Homes, who builds perfectly nice and entirely banal developments all over New England in a style that has come to be derisively called “Contractor Palladian” on account of its many odd-shaped intersecting gables that violate traditional building proportions.

So let’s say, best case, the developer decides to preserve the historic structure on a tiny half acre or acre lot, and then do what they have done so many times in this area, which is to strand it among a sea of new single-family homes, the sole remaining testament to a once glorious agricultural past.  Now my understanding from last night’s meeting is that some of the acreage may be wet and unbuildable, so for argument’s sake, let’s discount 15 acres, and presume 20 new homes on these 35 acres, each home costing $750,000. At our current assessment rate of $16.32 per thousand, that generates a tax return to the Town of Southborough of $12,240. If the houses go for a million dollars each, that amount would be $16,320; a million and half; $24, 480. You get the picture.

Now what does it cost the Town of Southborough for each one of these houses? Well, according to the State of Massachusetts, a typical 3-4 bedroom home will have 1.9 school-age children in residence throughout the life of the home.  Here in Southborough, we spend $17,763.41 per student, per year. 

So if you do some simple math, it costs the Town $33,750.47 per year for those 1.9 students. This price tag does not include new buildings to accommodate more students, nor does it budget for the cost of increased fire, police or public service costs. The simple fact is that every new house built on this land will take money out of your wallet, my wallet, and the wallet of every other resident in Southborough, FOREVER, because you and I pay the difference between income and outlay. The developer builds, takes the profits, leaves town, and leaves US to foot the bill.

So what’s our recourse? Simple: the Town should exercise its right and buy the property for $1.9 million. That would cost us something as well, but with 20 homes costing us 34K or more a year (675K total per annum) the pay-back period is 2.8 years. That’s right folks. 2.8 years! After that, it’s 675K in savings per year, forever. Obviously the pay-back period changes depending on the cost of the home; it could be longer, it could be shorter — far shorter if some sort of massive cluster development is planned that floods our schools with new residents like the planned Park Central, which is a distinct possibility. By almost under any scenario, we win by exercising our 61A rights.

What would the Town do with the property? The simplest answer would be open space protection — this particular parcel has been flagged since at least the late 1990’s as critical wildlife habitat. (The house with 1 or 2 acres could be separated and sold as a private residence to recoup part of the cost.) Another option would be to use a small piece of the property (keeping the remainder as open space) to create affordable housing, something sorely lacking in Southborough. If there is no appetite for that, a further option would be to simply buy the property, place a conservation restriction on the land and a preservation restriction on the historic structures, and put the property back on the open market.  The resale value would be less than the acquisition cost, but again we would gain that money back almost immediately by preventing development.

The morale of the story here for Southborough, in fact, for any community in Massachusetts, is that our open space is more valuable to us when open, for host of reasons. This particular parcel even more so, as it is one of the last intact gentleman’s farms from an era when Southborough was a center for agricultural pursuits. (Southborough was, in fact, the second most productive agricultural town in Massachusetts.)  Let’s hope common sense prevails here, and we acquire this property within the 120 day window allowed by the 61A law. It’s a win for historic preservation, it’s a win for wildlife habitat and open space, it’s a win for the preserving the quality of life in Southborough, and most importantly, it’s a win for our wallets.

 

9/20/17: Editor’s Note: Due to an unintentional misstatement by one of the speakers at the Selectmen’s meeting, the Moses and Elizabeth Fay House property was described as 35 acres – 27 on the west side of Deerfoot Road, and 7 across, which we duly relayed. However, we were informed today by a member of the Open Space Committee that the actual figure is 20 acres on the west side, and  7 acres across the road, which has been verified by plot plan. Additionally, the wetland area seems far less than predicted, so increased development may be possible. For editorial integrity, I have not altered the original post.

 

 

A Leisurely Day in the Life of Southborough, May 1, 1897

(click to enlarge)

Working with a collection as rich and diverse as the Society’s has constant rewards. Take this letter for instance, written to Susie R. Ingalls, of Cambridge Massachusetts, by her daughter Mabel. It records an idyllic May Day long ago, in an age long past.

Southborough  May 1, 1897

My dear Mamma

We arrived here Friday morning as half past eight after a very tiresome night. The boat arrived at New London at twelve o’clock but the train did not go until five minutes after four — arriving at Worcester at 6:55. We had no trouble at all changing cars as someone would show us right to the car even offering to carry our bundles.  I like it here very much. Mr. Burnett’s house is very much after the style of Mr. Beecher’s house at Peekskill. Auntie was very excited when we came, rushing to the door and losing her cap as I have often heard you tell of. Friday afternoon I went for a drive with Mary and Charlie Jimmerson and we were caught in a heavy thunder shower and the horse was afraid so we drove into a barn and stayed about an hour; we had a box of candy and had a real nice time. Mary’s father has given them a row boat which was a great surprise so we thought that would be an idea for a name, so it will be named “The Surprise.” We are going out in it every day and yesterday I tried rowing. Saturday afternoon Susie Sawin and her cousin George came; you  certainly would not take him for a teacher. He is an awful one to carry on — he plagues Auntie so gets she real angry in a good-natured way. He put the clock back and it got into about the shape our back parlor clock used to be and [he] did not get up until we were all through breakfast, so we put cayenne pepper in his oysters and coffee. Susie and Mary are both splendid, and so is Cousin Charlie’s wife; she looks young, not much over thirty, and goes around rowing and makes it just as pleasant as she can for everyone and she does not do any work except cooking; she calls Auntie “mother” and they all just love her. Last night we all went to an entertainment at the town hall. It was singers and a short play in which Mary was ‘Bridget’ and Mrs. Sawin took part. This is an awful place for clothes — the dog will run to meet us and jump up and get his dirty paws all over you. Alice stays at the mill all day and goes to ride with Harry a great deal. The Burnett’s were expecting the Vanderbilts but we did not see them come. Alice, Harry, Susie, Mary and I have just come home from church. George stayed home to shave. Alice and I sleep together in the front room. Mrs. Sawin is going to show us her room and all the things she got as presents. Auntie say she will be terribly disappointed if you do not come up and that we have to got to make a long visit at Riverside. She is going to give Alice money for a canary bird, and Susie Sawin has got a pair of shoes 4 1/2 and she wears a 5 so I guess that Auntie will send them to you. I guess I most close now as the table is set for dinner. So goodbye with much love to all, your loving daughter, Mabel

PS We are going to hang George a May basket tonight.

 

There are so many fascinating hints and clues about the times in this letter! The reference to taking the boat to New London, for instance, recalls an age when it was easier and far more comfortable to get to central Massachusetts from New York City by taking the night ferry than by taking the hodgepodge of competing rail lines. (The famed Boston consist of the 20th Century Limited wouldn’t arrive until 1902, for example.) And where precisely is Mabel staying? Obviously at one of the Burnett Houses, but which — the Burnett Mansion, or Edward Burnett’s house across Stony Brook?  That would tell us who Auntie is.

And then there is that fascinating reference to “Mr. Beecher’s House in Peekskill.” It turns out Henry Ward Beecher, the famous abolitionist, had a summer house in Peekskill, New York, which was a famous stop on the underground railroad. The house, which was described in a 2001 New York Times article when the building was proposed for a museum, still exists, though the museum project never went forward.  Take a look for yourself: it does rather look like a mini- Burnett mansion.

(NOTE 9.21/17  One of our board members, Deborah Costine, pointed out this probably wasn’t the house Mabel was referring too, but rather THIS ONE  which makes more sense, due to its country setting and resemblance to the now destroyed Edward Burnett House.)

The Sawin’s are now more of a known quantity, of course, since our recent discovery of their historic family documents.  But oysters for breakfast? It seems so: check out this recipe for Oysters a la Thorndike, listed in the 1896 edition of the Boston Cooking School Cookbook.

All in all, Mabel’s letter is wonderful reminder of an age long lost, when Southborough was not only a bucolic farming community, but also a summer retreat of the New York and Boston elite.

 

 

SHS Announces the Discovery of Priceless 17th Century Documents

The Southborough Historical Society is absolutely thrilled to announce the discovery of 13 exceedingly rare early 17th-century documents relating to the Sawin family of Southborough. The items record, among other matters, the 1656 layout of the village of Praying Indians at Natick, the 1686 sale of 5 acres of land there for the construction of a mill by Thomas Sawin, and subsequent grants and transactions. These documents are critically important to our local area history, as they detail the early interactions between the newly arrived settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the native peoples of this region, the Nipmuc tribe. The Nipmuc, almost entirely forgotten today, had lived throughout central Massachusetts for thousands of years, including sites in Southborough. In fact, the basic layout of Southborough along the lines of Route 30 and Cordaville Road follows the fishing and hunting trails, farming fields and camps sites established by the Nipmuc people many centuries ago.

The 1659 deed laying out the grant of land to the Praying Indians of Natick

The Nipmuc initially welcomed the English to the area, believing there was “enough land for all.” However, tensions rose quickly, as English settlers began proselytize the natives, as well as impose their rigid system of land division on the formerly nomadic tribe. The English held the view that any “empty” land could be assigned to specific owners and enclosed for cattle and other grazing animals, while the itinerant Nipmuc felt that the land must remain open for the common good. Add to the mix the Europeans’ introduction of firearms and alcohol to the native peoples, and an already difficult situation became highly volatile. Our 1656 document is witness to this growing conflict, as it defines the borders of the Natick Village of “Praying Indians”— members of the Nipmuc tribe who had adopted Christianity and European ways —  while conveniently and simultaneously opening up surrounding areas for English settlement. Eventually there were a dozen or so of these Praying Indian villages, including at Marlborough, which led directly to the founding of Southborough. Needless to say, this quasi-coerced religious conversion and assignment to specific “villages” (which the white peoples would later term “reservations”) was resented by the majority of Nipmuc who remained faithful to their traditional ways. The inevitable conflict came in 1675, when the Nipmuc and their allies rose up against the English. The subsequent bloody conflict, essentially a battle fought to determine supremacy between two conflicting cultures, came to be called King Phillips War and marks the birth of one nation, and the death of another.

For the English, who were fighting for their vision of a Christianized New World, the war meant the loss of 1 out of every 10 military age men; 1000 civilian casualties; the complete destruction of 12 of the region’s towns; attacks on half the others; (including Marlborough and Sudbury) and damage to farms, mills and other property sufficient to set the colony’s economy back two decades. Fought entirely without English aid, King Philip’s War also marked the beginning of an American identity separate to that of Europe.

The 1685 deed to Thomas Sawin, sealed and signed by the four elders of the Natick Village.

For the Nipmuc and their regional allies, it meant not only the extermination of their way of life, but their virtual extinction.  Those who didn’t flee were slaughtered by the thousands, and at the end of the conflict the remaining native survivors of the area were rounded up by the English — including the Christianized Indians of Natick and the other Praying Towns — and interned on Deer Island in Boston Harbor where they were left to die of starvation and disease. Hundreds of others were sold into slavery. Eventually, a small number returned to their former homes to live under English rule, but the viability of their culture had been destroyed. Our 1685 document, the Thomas Sawin deed, is an extremely rare survivor of this postwar period, and gives a rare glimpse of what life was like at Natick ten years after King Phillip’s War. The diminished Nipmuc, who had since become accustomed to eating ground corn, were desirous of a mill in their village. So they invited Thomas Sawin, who had already built a mill at Sherbourne, to come live among them and set up a mill. Their offer was 50 acres of land on the stipulation that he and his heirs and assigns were to maintain the mill forever, and that there was to be no other corn-mill built in town without the consent of  Thomas Sawin, his heirs and assigns. Thomas Sawin kept his word, built the mill, and lived peaceably among the natives for the rest of his life, but even more importantly, he became an advocate for native rights at the Massachusetts General Court. This progressive stance would remain the hallmark of the Sawin family,  as we shall see.

Notice of Moses Sawin’s Abolitionist Meeting at Southborough, published in The Liberator, 3 December 1847

So how did these remarkable documents wind up in Southborough? Well, long story short, the answer was the response to another epic battle in American history, the fight against slavery. Fast forward 148 years to 1833 where Moses Sawin is still running his grandfather Thomas’ mill at Natick:

To quote the 1876 History of Southborough by Dexter Newton:

“When the clarion notes of William Lloyd Garrison rang through the land calling the nation to repentance for supporting and main­taining chattel slavery, Mr. Moses Sawin did not hesitate to enlist in the great cause of humanity. He was convinced it was a sin against God and a crime against his brother man.

He had the courage to ask the members of the church to which he belonged to testify against the sin; when his request was rejected he refused to commune with them as a church of Christ, and when, for this refusal, they cast him out of the church, he exultantly quoted to them the words of Christ, viz.: “Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.” He was especially gratified that he had lived to see slavery entirely abolished; it was what he had long labored for and sought. But the crowning glory of his latter days was in hearing his former opponents acknowledge the righteousness of his cause, and labor earnestly with him in the overthrow of American slavery.”

So translated to the modern vernacular: Moses Sawin became such an vocal abolitionist that when his fellow Natick church members tired of him and tossed him out, he picked up stakes and moved to Southborough. As Newton relates:

Moses Sawin purchased the grist and saw-mill and a small lot of land situate one-half mile west of Town Hall, in Southborough, of Deacon Gabriel Parker, in 1833. The year following he bought of said Parker seven acres of land adjoining same, and on south side of Mill Pond, and built thereon a spacious dwelling-house, barn and other buildings. The estate is now owned and occupied by Charles B. Sawin, youngest of his three surviving sons. (The sawmill and house are long gone, but were located just south of the MDC damn on Deerfoot Road, which in many ways mimics the Sawin damn and mill pond of old.)

And then comes the kicker:

Said Moses Sawin possessed and carefully preserved through life the curious old deed, signed and sealed by the Indian chiefs of whom his said ancestor purchased the land. They are now in possession of said C. B. Sawin, at the old home-stead, where antiquarians and others interested in curious legal documents can examine them.

And thus, our amazing trove of documents!

 

The Sawin Mill at Southborough. It sat on Deerfoot road just south of the MDC dam.

 

The Sawin family remained active in Southborough right up until the 1960s, owning the still extant brick building on Boston Road, now home to Falconi Oil, which was once their feed store. They owned too a large house at 10 Latisquama Road. It seems that when the last Sawin descendants left Southborough sometime in the 70s, they donated their precious family papers to the Southborough Historical Society. The various documents had by then been bound into an innocuous leather volume appropriately labeled Sawin Family Documents, but without any text or explanation. As such, it was dutifully placed on a basement storage shelf, and promptly forgotten.  Then came the 2015 flood, and  these priceless documents narrowly missed inundation. Returned to the Museum from temporary storage this spring, it wasn’t until we began the arduous process of unpacking, rehousing and cataloguing the material did we discover the true value of what had been sitting on our shelves for 50 years. Today, the 13 documents have been carefully removed from their leather binding, which was showing signs of mold, carefully rehoused in archival envelopes, and stored in our new climate-controlled safe.

George Sawin, direct lineal descendant of Thomas and Moses Sawin, inspecting the documents in the newly re-opened Museum conference room

So what’s next? Well, first of all we will digitize these documents and share them with the world. We’ve already been in touch George Sawin, who leads the Sawin Family Association, who’s come to see documents at the Museum, and who, coincidentally, is spearheading the preservation of Thomas Sawin’s endangered 18th century homestead, which still graces the banks of the Charles River at Natick. Next, partially based on this amazing trove, we’ve applied for funding for a new traveling exhibit, “The Nipmuc, the English, and New England’s First Forgotten War” which will debut at the museum in the fall of 2018 and then travel to local area schools and institutions.

The importance of this find can’t be understated. The documents are of Smithsonian-level quality and importance, incredibly rare paper survivors from the earliest days of our nation. We are honored to be their conservators — which we can only do with your continued help and generous support.

 

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