In the News

The Ghosts of Main Street

As more and more of the Society’s collections come online, we can begin to show you some pretty amazing things. Take for instance this 3-minute trip down Main Street, put together using just a few of the historic photos in our collections.  In this video, I wanted to showcase the losses our Main Street has suffered over the last century. Once a vibrant small-town commercial and residential area, disastrous demolitions and total lack of urban planning has resulted in a broken architectural fabric without cohesion or purpose. It’s not too late though: the planned reconstruction of Main Street, plus thoughtful architectural additions that respect the style and scale of the area, could yet return Main Street to a viable, pedestrian friendly destination—exactly the result an effective historic district could provide. It’s time to get serious about restoring Main Street—not just the roadway—but the useful vibrancy of this important part of our heritage. Who among us wouldn’t benefit from that?

This video, by the way, is meant to be a trial-of-concept for a new book we are contemplating, Lost Southborough, that would show you then-and-now views of many spots around Town. If we can get the project launched this fall and winter, it would be our first new book in 40 years.

In the meantime, enjoy!

 

#2 on the List of Endangered Buildings: Fayville Village Hall


“The idea that you maintain the building, I think the value is not in maintaining the building. If someone could buy it and build something there or even knock it down, then there is more value.”
Selectman Brian Shifrin

Given recent comments like the one above by members of the Board of Selectmen, it’s not surprising that Number 2 on the list of endangered buildings in Southborough is Fayville Village Hall, which voters approved for sale at Town Meeting—after the Board of Selectmen promised that preservation of the structure would be integral to the sale. We’ve written about the distinctive history of this 1911 building before, and it seems pretty clear that the majority of voters in Southborough wish the hall preserved.

Yet after much hard work by the Fayville Hall Disposition Committee that created a Request for Proposal (RFP) which stressed the need for affordable housing in Southborough and the desire to preserve the historic facade of the building, the RFP only received a single bid, for $5000, from a local developer.

How could this be, when the property is assessed for more than $300,000 dollars?

Well, part of it could be the apparent low regard certain members of the BOS seem to have for historic preservation, as witnessed by Mr.  Shifrin’s comment above, and various other BOS quips like: “Well, we received one bid. That’s one more than I thought we would,” which reveal a real disrespect for the hard work the Disposition Committee and many other people have already put into preserving this architectural gem.

Another obvious reason for the bidding failure was the advertising method used—or in this case, not used. A notice was placed in the Central Register as required by the State, but the only other notice was a tiny ad placed in the Metro-west Daily News for 10 days.  Now I ask you. If your were a town looking to sell a valuable piece of property at a profit, increase your affordable housing stock, and preserve an historic structure all at the same time, wouldn’t it behoove you to solicit bids directly from contractors that specialize in just this type of construction? Or at the very least, advertise in publications geared to the contracting trade? A 10-second google search revealed dozens of potential firms that do projects just like this every day, including one right down the Pike in Waltham.

Fortunately, the BOS refused the low-ball $5000 offer, and is planning to send the RFP out again. This time I would urge the BOS to put some real effort into the solicitation process, if for no other reason than maximizing the financial return for us ratepayers.  We need affordable housing in Southborough, the voters have clearly stated we want the Fayville Village Hall preserved, and it’s time to get the next chapter in this remarkable building’s history moving!

 

Editor’s Note: Our Endangered Building List consists of structures that are actively threatened with demolition, demolition by neglect, or by changing patterns of use that would harm their architectural integrity. Buildings are added to the list in the order proposed, and their numeration does not necessarily indicate ranking or perceived  level of threat.

 

Let’s Put Some Heritage Back in Heritage Day!

The program of activities from the first Heritage Day in 1967. (Click to view)

Everyone enjoys the Heritage Day parade and the vendors on St. Mark’s Field, but did you know that the first Heritage Day in 1967 featured dozens of cultural activities and exhibits? Long-time residents will remember that the first Historic Celebration Committee’s program featured a display of antique fire equipment, fire engine rides, Praying Indian’s exhibit, an essay contest, a poster contest, and more.

The Historical Society wants to create new events with a  focus on our town’s rich history to complement the existing day’s schedule. We are looking for volunteers to join the planning process, as well as to participate in running the activities on October 8.

We are considering several ideas, including a tour of the newly restored Old Burial Ground, an Old Southborough General Store on the field, a tag sale at museum grounds, select pieces from SHS collection on display at a booth on field, a museum open house, and crafts for kids.
 
If you’re interested in helping out, please contact Michael Weishan or Rebecca Deans-Rowe at info@southboroughhistory.org

Southborough Historical Society Launches List of Endangered Historic Buildings

The barn at 135 Deerfoot Road

In keeping with its renewed mission of actively promoting historic preservation in Southborough, the Society today launches its list of historic structures that are threatened with demolition. Over the course of the next few weeks, we’ll be introducing you to various buildings around town,  explaining the factors that threaten them with destruction, and offering some suggestions for their preservation.

#1 The Barn at 135 Deerfoot Road

Number one on our list of endangered structures is the barn at 135 Deerfoot Road., which Brendon Homes purchased earlier this year as part of a 25-acre agricultural parcel, and then almost immediately applied to demolish. It is currently subject to the Demolition Delay By-law, though these protections will shortly expire. Some of you will remember my criticism of the Board of Selectmen for choosing not to place this agricultural parcel in front of Town Meeting to debate its acquisition and preservation—despite the recommendation to the contrary of every relevant Town committee and commission. And in fact, my comments turned out to be exactly on point. Instead of keeping the land out of development, the former farm will now be carved up into six housing lots,  the 1870s farmhouse will be destroyed, and more traffic and more school-age kids and more demands on our already overtaxed Town services will be a reality.

However, there is still hope for the magnificent barn.

This wonderful 19th century structure is in pristine shape. Made mostly of now-extinct American chestnut, the 3-story wooden barn is sound and almost entirely free of rot or pests.  Best of all, it is largely of mortise and tenon construction, meaning that it is put together with wooden pegs and fitted joints, much like Lincoln logs. This makes buildings like these very easy to disassemble and move—essentially you label the pieces and simply take them down in the reverse order they were put up.

Both the Historical Society and the Historical Commission have urged Brendon Homes to help move and preserve the structure, and there may be a glimmer of light here.  We have been investigating whether or not this magnificent barn might find a new home at Chestnut Hill Farm, where there is a need for  additional educational and meeting space.  What a fantastic act of civic responsibility it would be if Brendon Homes would subsidize the moving and preservation of this structure!


Let’s hope the agricultural gods hear our prayers, because it would be a crime to lose this very rare survivor of Southborough’s agricultural past.

 

Editor’s Note: Our Endangered Building List consists of structures that are actively threatened with demolition, demolition by neglect, or by changing patterns of use that would harm their architectural integrity. Buildings are added to the list in the order proposed, and their numeration does not necessarily indicate ranking or perceived  level of threat.

The Fighting Fourth

Dear Friends,

Today, on this our Independence Day, we are again reminded that it is often necessary to fight for what we believe in. Those of you who have been following the Historical Commission’s recent battles to slow the tide of development, prevent the destruction of Southborough’s historical fabric, and push back against blatant Board of Selectmen overreach, know that these efforts are not without cost. Still, failure to act means to surrender to the forces that threaten what remains of our shared heritage, and that is simply not an option. While the Southborough Historical Society still breathes, we will continue to support the efforts of the Historical Commission and historic preservation efforts generally, for we all benefit from tree-lined streets with storied homes, open land to walk and roam, uncongested roads and well-resourced schools—all outcomes that historic preservation can, and does, provide.

Among the many first-period documents the Society owns, perhaps the most famous is this original 1776 copy of the Declaration of Independence — a very visible reminder of what we stand to lose by not treasuring our past.

In fact, this fall, the Society intends to double-down on our efforts. Our collection preservation efforts proceed apace. There will be exciting new history programming for our elementary schools. Plans are afoot to put more heritage back in Heritage Day, as well as a Winter Speakers Series. New online genealogy tools are also in the works.

But most importantly, rest assured that we will continue our active and vocal public advocacy for historic preservation in our Town,  reminding  the citizenry of Southborough—and especially our elected officials— that while we have lost much, we have much more left to lose. Over 65% of Southborough voters supported spending over a million dollars to save the Burnett House; over 65% supported the Demolition Delay By-Law; and an equal number supported the recent Adaptive Re-use By-Law for Historic Structures. It’s evident that rate-payers want, need, and require historic preservation in Southborough. For those who disagree, fair enough: Gloves on, and Queensberry Rules.

A Happy Fighting-Fourth to All!

Michael Weishan,
President, Southborough Historical Society

The International Exposition: Southborough, 1876

Looking around for ideas to help heal the national trauma that was the Civil War, Philadelphia Mayor Morton McMichael floated the idea that the United States Centennial in 1876 be celebrated with an exposition in Philadelphia.  Philadelphia, after all, was the birthplace of American democracy. What better place to showcase the modern nation the United States had become?

Others were not so sure. They doubted the funding could be raised; they worried that other countries might not attend; or that American exhibitions might compare poorly to those of other nations, especially the magical Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851.  Still, the idea gained traction, and with millions of dollars raised, and a 450-acre site set aside for the Exposition, the stage was set for an event the likes of which America had never seen. The undertaking was enormous: over 200 buildings were constructed on the grounds, including the Main Building, seen in the colored engraving above, which enclosed 2.5 acres, making it the largest building in the world.

The arm of the still incomplete Statue of Liberty on display. For 50 cents, visitors could climb to the top of the torch to view the grounds.

Other huge halls were devoted to developments in agriculture, horticulture, and machinery. Individual American states each built typical houses. 16 foreign countries built national pavilions.  There was even a Women’s Hall, which showcased advances in domestic technology.

In today’s video age where almost any image or information bit is available at a key-stoke, it’s hard to appreciate the effect that a fair of this scale had on the  public imagination. This was many Americans first introduction to electricity. Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone debuted here. As did the typewriter, Heinz Ketchup, and Hires root beer. In hindsight, there were a few advances that we could have done without, such as the introduction of kudzu to the US as a means of erosion control.

The German armaments manufacturer Krupps’ exhibit

Also present were many arms manufacturers, like Germany’s Krupps, that hinted at the world of mechanized warfare to come. But in general, the effect was dazzling, and marked the entry of the United States onto the modern world stage. Before the 6-month exhibition ended on November 10th, 1876, more than 10 million people had attended, or about a quarter of America’s then population of 40 million.

All fine and good, you may be thinking, but what’s this have to do with Southborough history?

Well, swept up by enthusiasm for the progress their country had achieved, and desirous not to be left out of the excitement, the students of Peter’s High School held an “International Exposition” of their own at the Town Hall on the day before the official Exposition closed in Philadelphia.

Unable to replicate the glories of the fair in exhibits, they instead chose to celebrate the event with song and words, with individual students portraying in verse the themes of the various halls and pavilions, others creating representations or tableaux vivants of the foreign countries that participated at Philadelphia. Tickets were 25 cents, no small amount in those days, and while no documentation exists describing the particulars of the show, it must have been charming, because even across 150 years,  the excitement these students evinced at the dawn of America’s second century  still echoes from this marvelous program—another of our recent discoveries from the basement

Unfortunately the 1970s remodeling of the Town Hall took out the large second floor stage, seating area and third floor balcony used for this celebration, but still it’s pleasant to remember an age when going to the Town Hall might mean something more than attending long public meetings or paying taxes.

If only!

To read more about the remarkable Centennial Exposition, click HERE

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Come Join Us for the SHS Annual Meeting: Monday 4 June

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The Board of the Southborough Historical Society will be meeting at the Archives & Museum Monday June 4 at 6:30 PM to plan our programming for the next year.  This will also function as the Society’s annual meeting. We’ll be reviewing progress over the past 12 months (considerable!),  outlining plans to develop new social initiatives for members, create new educational units for the schools, as well as elect Society officers.

Come engage in your history!

Would You Like to Donate A Civil-War Era Letter to the SHS?

Dear Friends,

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?

Fayville Village Hall

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.

A New Very Old Map

Click anywhere on the map to enlarge and explore.

 

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:

A view looking southeast from the steeple of Pilgrim church, 1850s

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.

When are we going to say: Enough is enough?