I thought perhaps you would like a bit of good news for a change.
Just before the COVID crisis hit, the Board of the Southborough Historical Society purchased and donated to the town a 12′ tall Princeton elm. It was planted in the field beside the museum (with the kind assistance of DPW head Karen Galligan) to replace one of the huge sugar maples that recently failed. This new variety has been field tested over the last few decades and has proven resistant to the Dutch elm disease. With any luck, this tree will shortly grow into a sizable specimen, giving shade to grateful future generations. To our knowledge, it is the first new elm planted along the roadways of Southborough in half a century.
And also, we are delighted to announce that the first crop of our new Lyscom apple trees will be available for sale shortly. (You’ll perhaps remember that the Lyscom originated here in the 1730s) Again, thanks to Karen, grafts from the sole surviving tree were taken several years ago, and 15 or so are now ready to find new homes. More on that soon.
Among the Fay correspondence the Society is publishing for the first time ever this winter, we found a remarkable letter that chronicles the almost superhuman effort it took to travel by land before the railroad system linked the continent in the 1860s and 70s. Although not stated in the account, it seems fairly clear that Fay took on this arduous 1836 journey from Boston to St. Louis to act as a business agent, looking for profitable investment opportunities for wealthy Boston clients.
In this first installment, our hero Colonel Francis B. Fay, late of Southborough, finds himself ill-housed, ill-used, battered about, and eventually, submerged in Lake Erie….
On board the steamboat Dayton, on the Ohio River between Mariette Ohio and Pittsburgh
November 2nd 1836
The time passing rather tedious—being penned up in a steamboat for 8 or 10 days without any relief, I made up my mind to give you a little history of my journey and adventures, although it is not very easy to write on a steamboat constantly shaking and trembling under the tremendous power of the engine and you may find some difficulty in deciphering all the [illegible} of the scroll.
I left Boston, as you know, September 12 at 1 PM and arrived at Providence at 4. [Presumably by the brand-new Boston and Providence Railroad, just finished the year before]. Went on board steamboat Massachusetts, had fog all the way through the [Long Island] sound which retarded out passage, arrived at New York the 13th at 7 AM, too late for the morning boat up the North [Hudson] River. Stayed in New York till five PM, took a boat for Albany and arrived there 6 AM; left there and arrived at Utica at 1 PM. 482 miles in 48 hours from home, having stopped 8 hours in Utica and 2 in Albany.
[This was breath-taking speed for 1836 and would have been a thing of wonder. Compare this to daily sums later in the letter.]
I there took a canal boat for Syracuse—61 miles where we arrived at 6 AM on the 15th. We there left the canal and took stage for Canandaigua passing through Auburn, Waterloo, and Geneva, and other beautiful towns to arrive at Canandaigua. Quarreled the stage agent for imposition, [unclear what this means, though presumably a disagreement about the fare] left that route and took the stage for Rochester and from there took stage for Buffalo through Lenox and Batavia, the last notorious for the scene of the Morgan abduction.
[Fay’s reference to the “Morgan abduction” refers to one William Morgan, a resident of Batavia, New York, whose disappearance and presumed murder in 1826 ignited a powerful movement against the Freemasons, a fraternal society that had become influential in the United States. After Morgan announced his intention to publish a book exposing Freemasonry’s secrets, he was arrested on trumped-up charges. He disappeared soon after, and was believed to have been kidnapped and killed by Masons from western New York. The allegations surrounding Morgan’s disappearance and presumed death sparked a public outcry.]
Arrived at Buffalo on Saturday noon Sept 17th and remained there over Sunday and Monday. At 10 AM started in the steamboat General Porter up Lake Erie. Went for 45 miles, [before we] struck a rock near Dunkirk and stove a hole through her bottom, ran her into the harbor where she sank a few feet from the wharf with 3 feet of water in her cabin, and 700 passengers on board, men, women and children of all sorts of sizes, ages, conditions making one little world by ourselves. What may seem incredible too is that boats leave daily from Buffalo with an average of 700 or 800 passengers, mostly immigrants moving to the west. Here we were—700 of us—shipwrecked in a little village of some 30 to 50 houses. Our company consisted of 7 men on shore while the others got out our baggage near up the wharf. [We] chartered a wagon to carry us 3 miles to the stage road at Fredonia. We got there and chartered the only stage there for $20 to take us to Erie PA—50 miles. Before our stage was ready, swarms of passengers arrived from the boat wanting conveyance but they arrived “just in season to be too late.” We went on to Erie and from there by stage to Cleveland Ohio, about 110 miles. We there got on board the steamboat Thomas Jefferson and arrived at Detroit Michigan in about 24 hours. We there breakfasted and took another boat, came back down the Detroit River across the westerly shore of Lake Erie to Toledo at the mouth of the Maumee River. Again took a steamboat and went 8 miles up the Maumee to Perrysburg, the head of navigation on that river. This was Friday evening.
On Saturday we purchased horses, saddles, bridles, portmanteaus, leggings etc and on Sunday at 2 PM commenced our tour up the Maumee River through the woods on horseback to Fort Defiance at the conjunction of the St. Josephs River and the Auglaize River, whose junction forms the Maumee. We made 18 miles and put up at a house (a tavern it could not be called) kept by a man, half-French, half-Indian. We had a comical supper and were put to bed in a chamber— 8 beds, or more properly, substitutes for beds, where we stowed away, 18 of us men women and children, windows with more than half the glass out, and we had to put in our hats and coats to fill in the gaps. The next day we reached Ft. Defiance after a 38 miles ride through mud & ravines almost perpendicular—down and up through mud sloughs, fording rivers, etc. etc.
There is a little village at Defiance and a tolerable tavern where we fared comfortably. Fort Defiance is well named, it’s situation is most commanding being directly up the point where the two rivers meet, with the guns so arranged as to point down the Maumee and up the St. Joseph and Auglaize, with a high embankement and a deep ditch in the rear from river to river. I think troops stationed there might well defy an enemy. The village is situated directly in the rear of the fort and is very pleasant.
In leaving Ft. Defiance we commenced a journey of 50 miles through the forest where there was no road but for a path for man and horse through swamps [and] deep ravines. We would descend 50-75 feet almost perpendicular, the horses sometimes sliding from top to bottom unable to keep a foothold. At the bottom there were mud sloughs and water up to our horses bellies and immediately afterwards we would ascend almost perpendicular, obliged to hold onto the horses’ manes and let our horse keep prone step to step and with the greatest effort reach the top. The first night we put up at a log cabin of two rooms (about half a dozen of which were all the inhabitants there were between Ft Defiance and Ft Wayne—50 miles)
We had a supper I believe such as never before ate—meat that had been cooked some 8 or 10 times and fish which was not cooked without salt or butter. We were sent to bed under the roof (if roof it might be called) by a flight of stairs outside with no door and the logs so far apart that it appeared more of a cob house than a dwelling, stowed in with corn, oats, boxes, herbs, etc with 4 (what were called) beds. We stayed there till morning during a raging[?] night and had the same provision for breakfast and it was again set before 5 others travelers who came up just as we left.
The next day we passed Fort Wayne, a small little town, and commenced descending the Wabash River on a tow path of the Wabash Canal. That night we put up at a log house and had a splendid entertainment [the word here means “food and lodging”] as good as could be had in Boston. The next night we put up at another log house and fared comfortably. The owner was formerly from Massachusetts.
The next day we came to Logansport, a fine town in Indiana at the junction of the Wabash and Eel Rivers. In the meantime, I saw plenty of Indians and among them the head chief of the Miami Tribe who dresses and appears like a gentleman. He is said to be the richest man in Indiana, supposed to be worth $400,000. There was a collection of 11,000 Indians near Logansport to receive their pensions from government. But a quarrel ensued between them, and the whites and the militia [were] call out and two or three [Indians] killed before order was restored. We saw the troops just returning as we entered Logansport.
We left Logansport in the afternoon and went 6 miles to a small tavern on the banks of the Wabash and here my scene of troubles began….
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!
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.
It is with tremendous sadness that we announce the passing of Kate Matison, a longtime member of the Southborough Historical Society, the Southborough Historical Commission, and one of our most civic-minded citizens.
Born in Australia in 1948, Kate and her husband Peter Quirk immigrated to the United States in 1988. They settled in Southborough in 1993 with their two sons.
An exceptionally skilled and enthusiastic photographer, Kate lived in London for a period and worked at the renowned Photographer’s Gallery.
Her interest in preservation sprang from her studies in art history, and she went on to combine talent as a photographer with her preservation studies, which eventually included two Masters degrees from Boston University. Kate spent countless hours meticulously photographing historical structures, often providing a complete record of buildings that were later demolished. She was actively engaged in the Vernacular Architecture Forum, and she implemented and moderated their widely followed Facebook page.
A life-time member of the SHS, Kate brought her boundless energy and commitment to the Southborough Historical Commission in 2007. It is impossible to overstate her impact on the Commission and the Town of Southborough. In 2012, she became the Vice Chair, and she held that position until she was unanimously voted Chair this past January to honor her decades-long commitment to preserving our shared past. Kate never recovered sufficiently to wield the actual gavel, but in truth she never had to—Kate had long ago commanded our respect through a staunch belief that there was indeed a right way and a wrong way, and that we owed it to our fellow citizens to follow the correct path.
It is extremely rare to find an individual who is willing to work tirelessly for the good of her community for so many years. Kate was that person in spades. We have no doubt that future residents of Southborough will benefit from her dedication as they experience the historical character of the adopted town Kate worked so arduously to preserve.
It is our hope that the public Kate Matison will be remembered as fondly as the charming Aussie we knew up close: dedicated, tireless, witty, wise, and, above all, a loyal friend.
She was truly one of a kind.
Fare thee well, dear Kate.
We will miss you.
The Southborough Historical Society will host a memorial reception honoring Kate in the spring. Details will be announced as soon as they are available.
We have also just received the news that former SHS Treasurer and renowned Town Moderator John Wilson died yesterday. We’ll be commemorating John in a separate post.
For the first posting of 2019, I thought it would be fun to share this newspaper clipping from a scrapbook once owned by Mrs. Arlene Morrison, who ran the general store in the Sealey Block on Main Street across from the old train station. (Older residents will remember the Gulf station on the corner of Main and Newton street that replaced the block. Both buildings are now gone.)
As you can see, the article reveals that the Flagg school, which is now home to the Southborough Historical Society, and where I now sit writing this, was scheduled to be torn down for timber— a fate suffered by all the other clapboard one-room school houses in town about the same time. What saved the building is unclear. But for whatever reason, calmer minds (or more than likely, continued economic downturn) saved the structure for us to enjoy today.
Which brings me to my main point. Every time we allow pieces of our historic fabric to be destroyed, it has a ripple effect of unintended consequences. In this case, a precious part of our educational history would have been lost forever, and the Museum would be homeless. Think about the other missing buildings mentioned here, and what they might have been: the Sealey block converted into retail and living space on Main Street; the old train station made into a great pub; the Cordaville mills as condo and restaurant space. Loss is just that, loss, especially when these wonderful old buildings are torn down just to sit as vacant lots or parking spaces.
Finally, a quick reminder to those of you who haven’t sent in order forms for our new book, Lost Southborough or haven’t mailed your year-end contribution to the Society. Please do! Or even easier, donate online! Contributions so far are lagging last year’s tally and we’ve way too much programmed this year to slow down now!
The Southborough Historical Society is pleased to announce a day-long program of activities to celebrate Southborough History on Heritage Day!
The new Mysteries of the Past Game: Correctly identify all seven antique objects and win! First Prize: a $250 Amazon Gift Card! Second and Third Prizes will also be awarded. Entry Forms are $5, one per person and will be available both on the field and at the Museum. Play starts at 9:00 AM and ends at 1:00 PM. Winners wills be announced at 2:00 PM.
A self-guided tour of the recently restored Old Burial Ground, entitled What Lies Beneath, revealing the fascinating history of Southborough’s buried past. Tour booklets will be available at the Southborough Historical Society booth and also at the Museum at 25 Common Street. Volunteers will be present in the Burial Ground throughout the morning and early afternoon.
Brand new exhibits at the Museum, highlighting Deerfoot Farms, Southborough and the Railroad, and the History of Fayville, among others.
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.
“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.