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.
In preparation for expanding the Native American presence at the Museum, I’ve been reading a wonderful book IndianNew 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.
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 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…
Watch the 1868 Southborough fire engine, the Falcon, strut her stuff, with the help of enthusiastic Heritage Day volunteers. Fortunately our services weren’t required professionally, because we soon discovered pumping is hard work!
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.
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.)