Under Pressure from Residents, St. Mark’s Withdraws Light Plans

I am extremely pleased to be able to share with you the news that the Planning Board has received a letter from St. Mark’s withdrawing their application to install night lighting on the historic Clark field.  The letter went on to state that St Mark’s would take a look at the project over the next several years with an eye to addressing residents concerns.  So for now, blessed darkness reigns, thanks again to citizenry advocacy. Next step, getting some hoods on the lights at Woodward and putting a “use only” policy in place that turns off the current automatic timer that illuminates the fields (at taxpayer expense) regardless of whether anyone actually IS on the field, and replacing it with a simple on off switch for use during official activities.

Congratulations to all the residents of Southborough on this one!

Two Victories, And a New Challenge—Clark Field at St. Mark’s Moves to Southborough’s Most Endangered List

We are deeeee-lighted to remove two buildings from Southborough’s Most Endangered List, Fayville Village Hall and the barn at 135 Deerfoot!

Fayville Village hall was purchased by Mr. John Delli Priscolli (who also bought and renovated 84 Main Street). He plans to preserve the facade, and renovate the interior as an antiques mart and auction house. This building had been subject to tremendous debate, with previous BOS members arguing that the town should simply sell the property and let the historic hall be torn down. Thanks to public pressure, and excellent work by members of the Southborough Historical Commission, a conservation plan was conceived, and now the Village Hall looks to be headed for another century of active use!

We are also delighted to announced that the barn at 135 Deerfoot Road has been carefully disassembled and is undergoing restoration in Vermont. There are some plans, yet to be confirmed, that it will reappear as part of Chestnut Hill farm. Regardless, it is not in a thousand splinters in some landfill, and that success can be entirely credited to you, my friends, members of the Southborough Historical Society! The Society kept up constant pressure on the developer to salvage the building, and at the very last minute, I was able to locate several parties interested in preserving the structure. Literally days before the lot was schedule to be cleared, they carefully labelled and stored every beam and rafter, so that this wonderful piece of Southborough’s rural history will live on. So if anyone tries to tell you that public advocacy for preservation doesn’t make a difference, you point them to this barn and advise them to think again.

Unfortunately, this good news is tempered by the arrival of bad. I’ll let my letter  to John Warren, the headmaster of St. Mark’s school, speak for itself:

It has come to the attention of the Southborough Historical Society that St. Mark’s has requested permission to install 70’ light pylons to illuminate the field directly behind the historic Burnett Burial Park* and the Southborough Museum. We are heartily opposed to this request and ask you to reconsider it. We have already seen the disastrous results of putting these monstrous light towers in front of the Woodward School: they make the area look like a K-Mart parking lot and completely destroy the approach to the historic town center. I highly doubt that is the effect you wish to create at bucolic St. Mark’s, especially as this field has huge historical significance: it is, in fact, the former colonial muster-grounds, where the militia practiced for over a hundred years, and where our valiant residents gathered before they marched off to fight the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

In addition, there is the environmental damage these lights cause. Let’s forget for a moment the tremendous carbon cost of installing and running night lighting. All over the world, night skies are disappearing, and a majority of the inhabitants of North America can no longer look up from their homes and see the stars. Additionally, this light pollution is adversely affecting numerous species already stressed by the climate crisis.

For hundreds of years, our children, and your students, have grown and matured into productive, hard-working citizens without the nebulous benefit of illuminated playing fields. Given there is no apparent advantage to the human species, and clearly documented harm to many other species caused by these installations—not to mention the aesthetic destruction to our town fabric—I would ask St Mark’s not to make the same mistake the residents of Southborough made in approving the lighting for these fields. Few of us had any idea how ugly and destructive they would be. And since we can’t undo our mistake, why not use our town fields for the occasional night game? I’m sure St Mark’s and the town could come to some agreement. But if, after weighing the environmental damage, you MUST light yet another a field, perhaps the one closest to your solar array and out of public view might be an option.

Thanking you in advance for your consideration,

Michael Weishan
President, Southborough Historical Society

Please consider writing Mr. Warren directly to express your concern at yet another attempt at destroying what remains of our downtown. Also, please comment  on My Southborough and help muster support to defeat this proposal. Finally, there will be meetings to determine the status of St Mark’s request on June 17 (ZBA, write here to express your objections to the chair) and June 22 at the Planning Board (write here for the same)

We’ve already seen how public advocacy for preservation works! Once more unto the breach, dear friends!

And thanks, as ever, for your continuing support.

 

* An earlier edition identified the Burnett Burial Park as St. Mark’s Cemetery. It is in fact the private cemetery of Joseph Burnett’s and his descendants.

Just Another Random Day in 1742


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.

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

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.

 

Your donations make discoveries like this possible. Please help support the Southborough Historical Society!