Westborough Center Pastimes – September 16, 2022

Westborough’s Second Meeting House

The Inspired Origins of the New England Town Meeting

On Monday, October 17, Westborough will go to Town Meeting to decide some important issues, not least is the fate of the proposed renovation of the Westborough Public Library. As we engage, debatably, in one of the most democratic forms of governance ever to be invented—where we as individual voters have a direct, vocal say in decisions affecting our town—we may want to thank Native Americans for inspiring it.

Many European colonists came to North America to escape the oppressive rule of their government back in the “Old World,” but that does not mean that they arrived with the intention of creating an egalitarian state. In 1630, John Winthrop led seven hundred people across the Atlantic—the largest group of colonists to come to America to date—to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony. His vision was to create “a citty upon a hill,” where the Puritans that he led would live according to the strict principles of their God. But that did not mean that everyone would have an equal role to play in this new society. Winthrop writes,

GOD ALMIGHTY in his most holy and wise providence, hath soe disposed of the condition of’ mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poore, some high and eminent in power and dignitie; others mean and in submission.

Winthrop’s vision for his new society contrasted sharply with how the Native people he encountered here organized theirs. Native Americans enjoyed a level of personal autonomy and individual freedom that was unknown, and indeed practically unthinkable, to Europeans at the time. Paul Le Jeune, a Jesuit missionary, remarked in 1637, “There is nothing so difficult to control as the tribes of America. All these barbarians have the law of wild assess—they are born, live, and die in a liberty without restraint; they do not know what is meant by bridle and bit.” To this Jesuit’s mind, humans need limits on their behavior and must follow the rule of God’s law; that Native people enjoyed so much individual freedom meant to him that they were little more than wild animals.

Along with individual liberty, Indigenous people highly prized social equality, and these attitudes informed the way that they governed themselves. When the Five Nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) came together to form an alliance, they created rules to govern themselves, rules that became known as the Great Law of Peace. In order to minimize any differences among the tribes—rich-poor, small-large, etc.—they mandated that all decisions that came out of this league had to be unanimous. This need to reach consensus also meant that each member who attended these councils felt intense pressure not to disrupt proceedings or impede progress with frivolous objections. Imagine if at Town Meeting we all had to agree unanimously on issues rather than vote Yea or Nay!

The rules spelled out in the Great Law of Peace were just as concerned with setting limits on the great council’s powers as they were in granting them, which has echoes in our own governmental system of checks and balances. Even more, the organization of the Five Nations had strong feminist principles, where women—who owned title to all the land and its produce and who served as clan heads—chose the men who served as sachems, or war chiefs. Even though these two social domains were distinctly separated along gender lines, one was not subordinate to the other. The female-led clan councils set the agenda for the meetings of the Five Nations, and the men could not discuss or consider any matter that was not sent to them by the women. Furthermore, the women could vote down any decision made by the male leaders and demand that the issue be reconsidered.

European and Indigenous people interacted more with one another than we tend to think, at least early on. Of course, that would be the case! We are curious, social creatures. The large presence of both people meant that knowledge and ideas easily moved back and forth between them, and sometimes this exchange resulted in people physically “switching sides.” Even though many Europeans came overseas to convert Indigenous people to their “more cultured” ways, the opposite often happened: many colonial settlers crossed the cultural divide to join Native Americans, even under the threat of punishment. Rarely did the reverse occur. The pull of liberty and freedom is strong!

Winthrop’s ideal of creating a society that adhered to religious-inspired authority went against any notion of democratic self-rule among his people. But it turns out that the Puritans he led had other ideas: they ended up inventing the ultra-democratic New England Town Meeting, where all voters could directly participate in their own governance rather than having laws dictated to them from above. This political system sounds a lot more like those practiced by Native Americans than by one that was divinely ordained by an authoritarian God, so it is quite possible, if not likely, that the Puritans borrowed at least some of their ideas about how to organize themselves democratically from their Native American neighbors.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

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Attend Westborough’s Town Meeting

Now that you have learned about some of the historical origins of the New England Town Meeting, make sure to attend Westborough’s next Town Meeting!

Westborough’s Fall Town Meeting will be held on Monday, October 17 at 7:00 p.m. at the Westborough High School. At this meeting the town will be making decisions about the Library Renovation Project and whether or not to change the Town Seal. All registered voters can participate.

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New Exhibit: The Library’s Story (Plus Add Your Story to the Westborough Archive)

Stop by the Westborough Center to see The Library’s Story – A Westborough Public Library Exhibit. This exhibit explores the history of the Westborough Public Library, which goes back to 1773, and how the library has served as an integral hub to the Westborough community throughout its history. The exhibit starts in the Westborough Center and then continues in and around the rest of the library. The exhibit is also available online.

And once you have learned about “The Library’s Story” tell us yours! We are starting a new annual feature called, “Your Westborough Story.” This year, share your thoughts and memories by answering the question: “Why did you move to Westborough?” (and if you never left Westborough, tell us why you have stayed!). Click on the link to tell your story or stop by the Westborough Center and fill out a paper form. Your contribution will go into the Westborough Archive and become a part of Westborough history!

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Upcoming History Events

The Fall has brought with it a host of history-related programs. Make sure to add them to your calendars.

“Stories in Stone: Explore Our Graven Images,” Sunday, September 25, at 1:30 p.m. in Memorial Cemetery. Discover the secrets told by the Puritan gravestones in Memorial Cemetery (next to Forbes Building on West Main Street). Join local historian Kris Allen as she wanders through and talks about Westborough’s first burial ground, which was founded in 1704 when 5-year-old Nahor Rice was buried there. Learn how carved gravestones constitute the earliest form of Puritan folk art, their fascinating symbolism, the history of our first and most prominent settlers buried in the cemetery, plus the benefits of the Community Preservation Act for this historical gem. This program is hosted by the Unitarian-Universalist Congregational Society of Westborough (UUCSW) and is free.

“A Stroll Down Memory Lane,” Monday, October 3 at 7:00 p.m. in the Westborough Public Library. Town Moderator John Arnold will lead a panel of long-time residents and graduates of Westborough High School in years past who will respond to questions such as, “When you were young, who served the best soda in town?” or “Where did you take your first date?” Get a sense of what Westborough was like in the past through the experiences of your neighbors! This event is sponsored by the Westborough Historical Society and is free and open to the public.  For more information, contact Kris Allen at krisallen2@verizon.net.

“The Truth Behind the Tales: The Nipmuc Presence in Westborough, MA,” Monday, November 7 at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom. Cheryll Toney Holley, Leader of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band in Grafton will talk about Nipmuc tribal oral history, especially Westborough’s Nipmuc stories, and will uncover the historic basis and Nipmuc perspectives behind each story. Free registration through Zoom will be announced at a later date.

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Photographs from the Westborough Archive Featured on RI PBS

Rhode Island PBS Weekly recently ran a story on the Boston Strangler that featured photographs from the Westborough Archives. The story is about Albert DeSalvo, who attended the Lyman School for Boys here in Westborough before eventually becoming known as the Boston Strangler.

You can view the story here, and if you simply want to jump to the photographs they used from the WPL’s Robert Cleaves Collection of Lyman School Records, they appear at 3:26 and 3:58, although the story is so interesting that you will want to watch the whole twelve minutes of it. The reporter featured in the story discovered a group of archival records created by two Harvard professors, Sheldon and Eleanor Glueck, who tracked Lyman School students as part of their study of juvenile delinquency and resulted in their book, Delinquents in the Making. The WPL owns a copy of their book as part of its Lyman School archival collections. Stop by the Westborough Center to see it if you are interested.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – August 19, 2022

Film still from “Citizen Kane.”

Ironies of History and Collecting

We often bemoan change. We mourn when an old building is torn down and replaced with a new one. We pause and reflect when we learn that the last person who lived through an important event passes away, and with that passing any living memory of that event. And we may feel frustration when a common symbol, one that we may even have taken for granted, is replaced with another.

But the irony is that if we don’t have change, then we don’t have history. If our lives don’t evolve in some way, then we don’t have a story to tell. And if we don’t recognize that we could lose something in the future, then we are less likely to appreciate that something now.

We mourn the loss of objects that we consider “historical” mainly because their demise often means losing the stories and memories that are attached to them. Objects can evoke memories—“I remember when we used to use this [fill in the blank] when I was a kid”—so when we no longer have access to those objects we also lose the mechanism that triggers such memories. Such objects may contain information that can teach us something about our lives that we have yet to process and understand, and their loss can impede or prevent us from learning something important about ourselves in the future. And these objects serve as evidence that can verify the truth of the stories that we tell and with their disappearance the stories attached to them can over time morph into the category of myth.

So why don’t we just keep everything? That way, we would ensure that all our memories and stories have the best chance of survival.

Of course, not only is saving everything impractical, doing so wouldn’t achieve our intended end. We would need an enormous amount of physical space to house everything, and such a space would need to be specially climate controlled to keep it all preserved. The storage space would also require some kind of mechanism to keep it all organized, so that people can easily gain access to the items they want to see. But as the collection continues to grow, so does the complexity of the organizational control mechanism. Eventually, such a collection becomes so large that it becomes nearly impossible to figure out where to start one’s research, and we lose the ability to identify the stories that truly matter because they are buried among all the others that have less significance. [The movie Citizen Kane illustrates this insight in its dramatic ending scene when those in charge of Charles Foster Kane’s estate are trying to make sense of the vast collection of objects he has acquired throughout his life (see the image above) and end up burning the object that supposedly provides a crucial key to understanding who he truly was.]

Librarians, archivists, and museum curators think about these issues all the time. We cannot keep everything, which means that we have to make decisions about what to save and what to leave exposed to the sands of time. These are weighty decisions, because what we decide to keep or throw away will determine the kinds of stories that we can tell about ourselves in the future.

How do we make these decisions? For contemporary materials, we try to imagine what it would be like to be a researcher, say, one hundred years from now: what would that person want to know about the time we live in today? We look for items that offer the best insight into our present-day reality. We try to build on the collections that we already have, so that people can better trace the specific themes embodied in those collections in more depth and over a greater period of time (and leave other themes to other institutions that are better situated to collect those materials). For older materials, we look for items that enhance or shed a different light on our understanding of an historical period. These are just some of the ways we decide what to keep and what not to keep.

Change happens. But if we don’t experience change, it’s a sign that we have become ossified, whether as a country, as a community, or as an individual. At the same time, we do not want to forget the past, because it provides insight into the trajectory of what we were then, what we are now, and what we want to be in the future. History—which we tend to think of in static terms due to an event’s fixed place in the past and our inclinations to preserve items tied to that event—ironically doesn’t exist without change and at times the destruction of the past to make way for the new. And collecting to understand the past ironically requires letting go of elements of the past. Librarians, archivists, and museum curators must work with these ironies every day.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

As librarians and archivists, we try our best to define the collecting parameters for our collections in documents called Collection Development Policy Statements. These statements outline the kinds of materials we are interested in collecting and help us rule out those that fall outside of the themes that make sense for us to collect.

You can read the Collection Policy Statements for both the Westborough Public Library and the Westborough Center on the library’s website: https://www.westboroughlibrary.org/about/policies-procedures/. Look for the “Collection Development Policy” and “Westborough Center Collection Development Policy Statement” in the drop-down menus.

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Learn About Our Library’s History at the Upcoming Library Open House

“Great Libraries BUILD Great Communities” is the theme of this year’s Library Open House on Friday, September 9 from 5:00-7:00 p.m. To show how this theme plays out here in Westborough, we will be highlighting the history of the Westborough Public Library. Start in the Westborough Center to learn how the library’s roots go back to the eighteenth century, then roam around the library to see how the various roles that the library has played in the past continue to be central elements of our library today. There will even be a chance for you to become a part of Westborough history by adding your story to the Westborough Archive!

In addition to history, there will games, artists, free food, and more, so make sure to stop by this popular annual community event.

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Photo by Garry Kessler.

 Nature Notes: August

Westborough is being invaded! Are aliens from another planet taking over our town? No, just Purple Loosestrife from Europe. Learn how this invasive species is competing with indigenous cattails and about other natural wonders here in Westborough in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for August.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – July 15, 2022

Columbus landing on Hispaniola, Dec. 6, 1492; greeted by Arawak Indians – ca. 1594 (Library of Congress)

The Documentation of Westborough History

I often assert that Westborough is the best town for studying rural life in eighteenth-century New England. Why? Because Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, who served as Westborough’s first minister from 1724 until his death in 1782, kept a detailed diary of his life and interactions with people in town throughout that time. And when we combine the information in his diary with his thorough church records and Westborough’s near-complete town records, no other rural New England town offers the depth of documentation that we do during this time period.

But documentation of Westborough’s other historical periods isn’t too shabby either. As a bustling industrial town in the nineteenth century, Westborough attracted numerous photographers to its downtown, who naturally turned their cameras to the streets and buildings when they weren’t aimed at families seeking family portraits. The library has a collection of newspapers that go back to 1849, and even though we have occasional gaps, the long run of the Westborough Chronotype from 1871 to 1965 ensures that these gaps are relatively minimal. And we have a complete run of the Bay State Abrasive Products company newsletter, among other resources in our library, not to mention the great historical collections in the Westborough Historical Society and the Westborough Historical Commission.

But what if this deep documentation of our town’s history didn’t exist? How would we figure out how the people of Westborough lived back in history and how their lives changed over time?

Lately, I have been reading histories of indigenous people in the Americas before and during the first moments of contact with Europeans, because if we truly want to understand why you and I live in Westborough today, we need to learn how and why people came to inhabit this area in the first place. But the problem in researching this information is that the native people who first lived here during that time did not have a form of writing, so we have no documentation about what they ate for dinner, what they thought about their neighbors, or what major events affected their lives.

Until relatively recently, the only way we could learn about the lives of the people who lived here before European contact was from accounts written by the first Europeans who saw them. As Charles C. Mann, the author of the book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus, puts it, “Paradoxically, [my] book about life before Columbus spends more than a little time discussing life after Columbus” (xi), because that is when we have the very first written documentation of the lives of indigenous people who actually lived before Columbus landed. Of course, the challenge in using these records for historical purposes is that the accounts are from a decidedly European perspective, so we have to read between the lines and look closely at how these chroniclers describe both the life and the reaction of native peoples to their sudden presence.

With this insight in mind, I decided to look at how some of Westborough’s early histories, which mainly date from the 1890’s, portray Native American life. What can we learn from these resources about the lives of the people who first inhabited the land where we live now, keeping in mind, of course, their limitations and European perspective? In months to come, I will have more to say about what I discovered, but if you want to take a look and see what you can conclude from these histories yourself, the bibliography at the end of this article contains links to the ones I have consulted so far.

Today, as Mann goes on to point out, new disciplines and new technologies can add to and give us a better understanding of the historical period before European contact beyond these early histories. They include, “Demography, climatology, epidemiology, economics, botany, and palynology (pollen analysis); molecular and evolutionary biology; carbon-14 dating, ice-core sampling, satellite photography, and soil assays; genetic microsatellite analysis and virtual 3-D fly-throughs” (17). All of these methods are radically changing our understanding of pre-Columbian America.

While looking for early Westborough histories on the reference shelves in the Westborough Center, I also came across a book by Curtiss R. Hoffman called People of the Fresh Water Lake: A Prehistory of Westborough, Massachusetts. The book is an archaeological survey of “the lifeways of the prehistoric peoples of the town of Westborough, Massachusetts over the past 9000 years” (back cover). Hoffmann published his book in 1990, and in the Introduction he claims, “Writing the prehistory of a town is not nearly as simple a task [as writing a history based on historical records and previous histories], and this is undoubtedly one reason why it has never before been attempted in Massachusetts, or, to my knowledge, anywhere else in New England.”

I have yet to read Hoffman’s book, but a quick search for similar books seems to verify that his claim that his is the only attempt to write about the prehistory of a New England town still holds true. Once again, Westborough may very well be the best town to study life in a rural New England town, only this time before European contact and before our town was even a town.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Building the new library addition, brick by brick, Spring 1980.

We Got the Grant for Our Library Renovation!

On July 7, 2022 the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners awarded $9.4 million to the Westborough Public Library to put towards its library renovation. Final approval for the project will go to Town Meeting this fall.

This building project is extremely important to the Westborough Center for History and Culture, because it will help us to continue to collect and save Westborough’s historical records and documents for years to come. (Did you read the article above about documentation and the difficulty of piecing together history without it?) Right now, we have basically run out of room to house our important historical records in the current library structure. The library renovation will allow us both to house current and future collections in updated, climate-controlled conditions and to communicate their significance through display, exhibits, and programming.

I urge you to learn more about this building project. Attend the Public Forum for the Library Building Project on Tuesday, July 19 at 7 p.m. at the library or visit the Building Project website.

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Image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, with images of galaxies seen for the very first time (NASA)

How Local Is Local?

You can ponder this question as you view the latest images from NASA’s newly deployed James Webb Space Telescope. The new telescope will enable astronomers to look further back in time and space than they ever have before, practically back to the universe’s first origins 13.8 billion years ago. One image already gives us a view of light emanating from distant galaxies that is 13.1 billion years old (and consequently 13.1 billion light years away). Suddenly, even World History seems very local!

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Baltimore oriole (Garry Kessler)

Nature Notes: July

The Boston Red Sox are a dreadful 0-9 in series against American League East teams this year. But let’s not hold their poor performance against the Baltimore orioles that make hanging nests around this time in our area. Learn more about how to spot these special nests and other natural wonders in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for July.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – June 17, 2022

America, from “Europa, Asia, America, Africa” (Library of Congress, n.d.)

We Are More American Than We Think

Liberté, égalité, fraternité (“Liberty, equality, fraternity”)

E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”)

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

These famous mottos from France and the United States succinctly embody and convey our idea of democracy. They all came out of revolutions—the French Revolution of 1789 and the American Revolution of 1776—that overturned long-held European beliefs about social order and placed political power in the hands of the people as opposed to monarchs and heredity.

The very idea that people could determine their own fate and take responsibility for installing their own form of government is traditionally associated with the Enlightenment, a period when a group of French and British writers in the late-seventeenth and eighteenth centuries began to challenge political orthodoxy and philosophize about new ways to think about what it means to be human. These ideas turned out to be so powerful that they continue to set the standard for how we measure political systems and social life today. The United States was the first Western country to manifest Enlightenment thought into a working political system, with France following close behind, so many of these ideas are closely associated with America. Even so, we generally do not recognize how truly American the origin of these ideas are.

Ideas about liberty, social equality, and the ability of people to self-determine their common future together did not simply spring out of the heads of philosophers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, John Locke, and David Hume—and just happened to do so all at roughly the same time. If they did, the authorities most likely would have quickly recognized their radical nature and put down the individuals who came up with them. Instead, these ideas circulated widely in European salons, coffee houses, and staged debates over a long period of time. And the true origins of these ideas go back even further in time, to when Europeans first came into contact with the indigenous people who populated what we now call America.

This convincing claim is made at the beginning of David Graeber’s and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity, a mammoth book that seeks to reframe the standard narrative about humanity’s political origins. This standard narrative generally traces civilization back to our supposed evolution from hunting and gathering to farming and agricultural, which in turn supported the growth of complex cities. The two authors question the use of many of the terms in this narrative—such as evolution, complexity, and the linking of agriculture to the growth of cities—and they show how this overarching narrative tends to infantilize early people, people who in reality were fully-developed human beings just like ourselves. Once we abandon the storyline that agriculture was a necessary pre-condition for the development of cities and civilization, we begin to see the true complexity of early political systems. These systems not only took on many different forms over time—as if humanity has been engaged in one political experiment after another—but in some cases the forms changed from season to season within a given year, with a strong, centralized rule during parts of the year when it was needed and a decentralized one at others.

Back in the seventeenth century, French Jesuit missionaries had long conversations and debates with indigenous Americans about their differing worldviews, and the accounts of these conversations became bestsellers back in Europe (and were later read by Enlightenment thinkers). Europe’s highly stratified social hierarchy was so rooted in the minds of the Jesuit missionaries that concepts of liberty, freedom, and equality expressed by indigenous Americans were completely new to them and considered dangerous. In the debates, the Jesuits did not question that these native people generally lived in freer societies—they clearly did—but they did question whether such freedom and individual liberty was desirable. From these debates emerged the indigenous critique of European culture, a critique that not only influenced Enlightenment thought but was a precondition for such thinking even to take place. In other words, fundamental concepts of Enlightenment thought, concepts that we take for granted today, did not exist in Europe until European contact with indigenous Americans.

In fact, Graeber and Wengrow claim that if you and I, as Western thinkers, read the multi-volume accounts of these seventeenth-century debates today, the ideas of indigenous Americans, which include personal freedom, equality between the sexes, the importance of the environment, and even depth psychology, would be more familiar to us than those of the Europeans. Seventeenth-century Jesuits saw individual liberty—an idea that we, who live in a liberal democracy, now hold as a sacred value—as animalistic and a threat to social order, so perhaps contrary to our expectations they are the ones who would come off to us as alien creatures from another planet if we read the debates today.

France will soon be celebrating Bastille Day on July 14 and the United States the Fourth of July. But none of the events that these days commemorate would have taken place without exposure to the worldviews of Native American and their ideas about freedom, equality, and sovereignty. Our American idea of who we are as a country, it turns out, is more American than we even thought. Perhaps we need to take a closer look at the complex politics and social structures of indigenous Americans to understand who we truly are as a people and how we may want to move forward in the future.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Read All About Westborough

Want to know more about Westborough history? Read a book! You can find a list of books about Westborough on the Westborough Archive website, many of which are available online. They may not qualify as summer beach reading, but they can teach you more about your town and its history.

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Nature Notes: June

A rabbit recently ate the flowers off the perennials I newly planted this spring. But did an Eastern cottontail eat them or a New England cottontail? I don’t know, but Annie Reid’s article on cottontail rabbits may help me figure out the true culprit. You can learn the difference between these two kinds of rabbits and more about Westborough’s fauna and flora in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for June.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter? Then subscribe by e-mail and have the newsletter and other notices from the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library delivered directly to your e-mail inbox.

You can also read the current and past issues on the Web by clicking here.

Westborough Center Pastimes – May 20, 2022


Each year, I try to build my gardening skills by modestly improving my garden plot or by planting a new kind of vegetable. This spring I am upping my horticultural game by reading Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway. My aspirations, however, have a cost: my attempt to understand and incorporate the idea of permaculture into my gardening has come at the expense of my time normally spent reading historical and literary works.

Permaculture is an approach to gardening that tries to work with nature rather than against it. The goal is to create a local ecosystem where each element cooperatively contributes multiple functions to the whole. The result is a more diverse, more natural, more productive, and more beautiful garden. And once this garden system gets up and running, nature does most of the work required to sustain it—and will theoretically give me more time to read history and literature in my garden rather than working on it.

The more I learn about using sustainable and permaculture principles in my garden, the more I see how they can be applied to other settings and contexts. Here is a sampling of some permaculture principles, according to Hemenway:

  • Connect – create useful relationships and time-saving connections: “the number of connections among elements creates a healthy, diverse ecosystem, not the number of elements”
  • Each element performs multiple functions
  • Each function is supported by multiple elements
  • Use small-scale, intensive systems – “start at your doorstep with the smallest systems that will do the job and build on your successes”
  • Optimize edge – “the intersection of two environments [is] the most diverse place in a system [and] is where energy and materials accumulate”
  • Turn problems into solutions
  • Mistakes are tools for learning – “evaluate your trials. Making mistakes is a sign you’re trying to do things better. There is usually little penalty for mistakes if you learn from them.”

I now realize that I have been intuitively following many of these principles as I have been growing the Westborough Center. I prioritize creating programs that not only teach about Westborough’s history and culture but can also add something to our town’s historical record at the same time, such as the Photographer-in-Residence program. We are currently in the process of revamping this program for the fall, but the idea behind the original one will remain: tap into Westborough’s long history with photography, support the talent of local photographers, share their work with the community, and add their work to the archive so that future residents of Westborough can gain insight into how we live our lives today. All of these elements work together and strengthen one another, all while keeping an eye on the past, present, and future. (By the way, if you are interested in helping to design this new program, contact me.)

If I had to pick my favorite permaculture principle, it is “Optimize edge,” i.e., take advantage of the dynamism that is created when two environments meet one another. This border space is where creativity springs and where new possibilities emerge. Many local history programs enshrine the past, but such a learning environment inevitably becomes stagnant and slowly loses relevance to the present. History is much more exciting and interesting when it sits at the edge of both the past and the present. When we pay attention to this space, the questions we ask are more relevant, the inquiries are more engaging, and our understanding of the present and future becomes richer and more nuanced.

This edge also has big payoffs when it comes to cultural interaction. A couple years ago at one of the Arts in Common festivals here in town, I saw two musicians performing, one was playing a traditional Indian musical instrument and the other an electric guitar. They first played a classical Indian song, and the additional sound of the electric guitar took a song that was meant for a concert hall and made it appropriate for a festival setting. And when they flipped the script and the guitarist played a Bob Dylan song, the addition of the Indian instrument transformed the familiar tune into one that sounded entirely new. These two musicians were creating music together in the border space that normally separates their respective musical genres, and the crowd loved it. My hope is that Westborough can do more to cultivate and capture the energy that is created when different cultural environments like these meet one another. (Again, if you have an idea for such cultural engagement, contact me and let’s see what we can do.)

In my embrace of permaculture principles, my garden is becoming a metaphor for how to grow organizations, conceptualize cultural change, and think about how our town can become even better than it already is. So even though my hands are spending more time in the dirt nowadays than my eyes are in books, the topics of history, culture, and Westborough are still rattling around in my head.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Lake Chauncy Pavilion (ca. 1910)

Featured Images: Lake Chauncy

The Westborough Digital Repository is currently featuring images of Lake Chauncy. Many of us enjoy the beach, grounds, and hiking trails around Lake Chauncy but may not realize that in the early 1900’s, the area was home to Lake Chauncy Park, which drew people from all over Massachusetts.

The park was created by the Worcester Consolidated Railway Company as a way to increase its trolley business. The trolleys that connected Westborough to Boston transported throngs of visitors from the city to Lake Chauncy to enjoy dancing, picnicking, canoeing, bowling, and vaudeville shows. At the time, the park included a dance pavilion, restaurant, and a theater, and later a bowling alley and athletic fields were added. The fun all came to an end, however, when the dance pavilion, bowling alley, pool hall, and beer garden burned down in 1949.

Each time you visit the Westborough Digital Repository, you will see a rotating picture of Lake Chauncy featured on the front page, or you can see all of the photographs of Lake Chauncy in the database by clicking on the above picture of the Lake Chauncy Pavilion.

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Nature Notes: May

Flowers are in bloom, birds are singing, and critters are gearing up for summer, so it must be May. Read about all of them in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for May.

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Westborough Center Pastimes – April 22, 2022

Diorama at the American Museum of Natural History

Rewriting History

When people complain about “erasing” history, what they often mean is that the fixed historical frame of reference that they normally carry with them is being challenged. In these cases, history is not really being erased but is being rewritten to incorporate new evidence, previously neglected evidence, and the addition of new perspectives that shed even greater light on events of the past. (Note the emphasis on evidence here!) History is always being rewritten in this way.

Last month, I visited the American Museum of Natural History in New York City for the first time in years. One diorama caught my attention, because it illustrates the need to rewrite history and then goes about doing so in an intriguing way.

The diorama (see the picture above) appears in the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall and was created in 1939 to celebrate the Dutch ancestry of the Roosevelt family, who helped found the museum. The scene takes place on the southern tip of Manhattan and is meant to represent a diplomatic meeting in 1660 between Lenape leaders and the Dutch, the first Europeans to settle in this area of New York.

The display is problematic in its use of Native American stereotypes that commonly circulated at the time of its creation. Mind you, the diorama was created in consultation with some of the top historians in the country at the time. Today, the museum creatively takes these misrepresentations head on by adding glosses directly to the window of the diorama in order to highlight individual components of the display that are misleading and wrong. Here are some examples.

I can’t think of a better physical illustration of how and why history requires rewriting than in the way the original diorama and the glosses interact with one another here. In some cases, the distinctions being made are subtle; others, like the lack of clothing on the Lenape, are more blatant. Working together, these elements of the scene both valorize and validate the cultural and political power position of the Europeans. The glosses counteract this effect by pointing out the mechanisms that work to create this implicit assumption of cultural superiority.

Let’s imagine a diorama that incorporates the new evidence and different perspectives that the glosses highlight. We see a multicultural community, even at this early stage of European settlement in North America; women have a more prominent presence in the scene; and the Native Americans in the display are shown to have a cultural and political life that is just as rich and complex as the Europeans. With the addition of these elements, we not only end up with a diorama that represents better history, but this history is much more interesting.

Even more, the diorama raises more interesting questions. When I used to view similar displays as a kid, the question that would immediately come to mind is, “Aren’t the Indians cold walking around with hardly any clothes on?” In our new, hypothetical diorama, better questions emerge: If the Dutch control this area of New York, why are there non-Dutch people and how did they get there? Why are women present in the Native American diplomatic party and absent in the European one? What did the two sides talk about, and how did the Native Americans feel about a fort suddenly appearing on land they freely used to use? These questions, and the answers to them, lead to a more dynamic, more realistic, display of the historic meeting between two different cultures. We end up with a display that better illustrates the human drama of the situation, rather than a simplistic dramatization of the inevitable European conquest of an inferior culture that does not even know how to dress properly for the weather.

Today, the Lenape are located in Kansas, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Ontario, CN. Imagine being forced off our land here on the East coast and relocated to various parts of the Midwest by another group of people! Such a thought is not that difficult to imagine because we are witnessing first-hand something similar today in Ukraine. I think we can all agree that the human drama playing out there does not call for simplistic stereotypes of the Ukrainians, even though Putin is doing his best to employ them in order to justify the incursion. So if, it turns out, the way we have commonly represented history rests on simplistic stereotypes, we have a moral imperative to rewrite that history. The American Museum of Natural History recognized that the history it was presenting in the case above indeed needed to be rewritten. And the benefit to doing so is better, more accurate, and more interesting history!

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Nature Notes: Signs of Spring

You don’t need to travel to New York like I did to learn about natural history! All you have to do is read Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for April and then head outdoors to look for the early signs of spring here in Westborough.

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Mapping Social Justice in the Environment

The Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library has a new exhibit that you can visit both in-person and online that looks at questions of social justice and injustice that necessarily arise when we consider the environment and humanity’s place in it.

More or Less in Common: Environment and Justice in the Human Landscape presents posters, maps, and images of the American landscape to show how decisions about the environment often affect groups of people in different ways.

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Westborough Center Pastimes – March 18, 2022

Two Simple Questions?

My practice of local history is guided by two questions: 1) Who are we?; and 2) Why do we live here?

I am sure that other people interested in local history may be guided by other questions—I’d love to learn what they are—but I have yet to add another one to my list of two. Perhaps it is because these two seemingly simple questions end up being quite complex once I start digging into them.

Let’s start with the first one, which tries to get at what makes Westborough unique or different from other towns. But the crux of the question lands on the last word: we. Who is this “we”? How do we define who belongs in this special “club,” and who gets to make the decisions about the qualifications? Local history is generally organized by city or town, although sometimes regions and even states can be considered “local” given the context of the discussion. So for my purposes, “Westborough” defines the domain of the collections and the research resources that I oversee as the Local History Librarian here in town.

But this domain of inquiry can be shown to be artificial simply based on history. When we go back in time to examine the history of local Native Americans, we have to change our terminology because they did not organize themselves and the land according to the European idea of “town.” Later, after Europeans imposed town borders on the land, the artificial nature of this domain of inquiry continues to be revealed by the number of times our town border changed over time. Before we became Westborough, we were a part of Marlborough. After we left that town, Northborough split from us. Over the years, parts of our borders with Shrewsbury, Grafton, and other towns have also shifted.

Once again, pay close attention to the “we” in the above paragraph. Are the people who live in Westborough that much different from the people who live or lived in surrounding towns? And isn’t it odd to be saying “we” when talking about the history of a town? Is this “we” being defined as those who are living or have lived at one time on land that now falls within Westborough’s borders? If so, do we consider the Native Americans who originally lived on this land part of this “we”? And what about people who at one point moved away from Westborough, do they still belong? Even more, what are the true connections between me and the people who used to live on this same land long ago when the life I live today is so completely different? Are the “we” of today part of the “we” of yesterday?

I grew up on the south side of Chicago and moved to Westborough in 2007. Am I any less a part of this “we” than people who can trace their ancestors back to earlier times in Westborough history? If so, who gets to decide that family lineage is an important factor in this definition of “we”?—not to mention that such a club would be quite small and that the Native American question would always loom close at hand if we did adopt such a standard!

I could go on, but we haven’t even gotten to the second question. In many ways, this one is more complicated than the first, although the two are related. We all think that the reasons we live in Westborough are relatively random: we moved here for a job, our family has “always” lived in town, we liked the schools, the real estate was cheaper (at least compared to other towns closer to Boston), etc. Yet, what we individually think and experience as being random is usually socially determined. We can identify social patterns that are often governed by economic, geographic, political, and even historical factors for why certain groups of people decided to live on the land we now call Westborough. Most likely, you fall into one of these groups. And these social patterns have everything to do with how we go about defining the “we” in “Who are we?”

Okay, after tearing apart the questions that first started this essay, let’s put the pieces back together again. Communities have history. And evolving, thriving, and vibrant communities attend to that history, because the people who live in these communities want to live in a place where people share and care about each other. We study history because we want to develop a stronger sense of “we.” Yes, I grew up on the south side of Chicago, yet because I study and am deeply involved in the history of Westborough, I truly feel like I am a part of the “we” of my town even though there are aspects of it that still at times seem foreign or make me uncomfortable. That’s okay. History at times involves conflict and tension as group members (re)work out who they are and who they want to be. But even if the questions “Who are we?” and “Why do we live here?” are difficult, if not impossible, to answer in any complete way, the search for the answers make us better and more united as a people. I encourage you to learn about the history of Westborough and, consequently, discover how you belong to and are important in defining this “we.”

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Selected Reading:

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Westborough History on Facebook

I’m not a big fan of Mark Zuckerberg, but there are so many wonderful and creative Facebook Groups that discuss Westborough history and its community that I just have to point them out. Here are some of my favorites (some of them are private groups, but I’m sure you can join if you have any connection to Westborough):

Did I miss any? Feel free to add any that I missed in the Comments section below. And don’t feel like you have to limit your suggestions to Facebook—I’m just more familiar with this particular social media platform.

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Historical Society Program: “Worcester’s Role in the American Revolution”


Below is a notice from the Westborough Historical Society about an upcoming program. Westborough also had an important role to play in the closing of the Worcester court house in 1774, so this program should also be highly relevant to our town.


Many students learned in elementary school that the American Revolution began in April 1775 at Lexington and Concord. There are others, however, who believe with good reason that the Revolution actually began the previous autumn in Worcester. Like every town in Massachusetts, Worcester had a Committee of Correspondence that led opposition to the British, but Worcester also had a radical group (the American Political Society) that pushed for Independence.

Please join us on March 7th, at 7pm, as Robert Stacy, Site Manager for Worcester’s Salisbury Mansion, describes some of the places associated with the beginnings of the American Revolution in Worcester. These include the homes of Stephen Salisbury and Isaiah Thomas, the Court House that the Worcester militias closed, and the taverns where the Patriots and Tories gathered. This program is free and open to the public on ZoomTo register, please use this link:   https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZwucumsqzwoE93CrvnmRHruXP7TFutax_u4

Westborough Center Pastimes – February 18, 2022

Thinking Historically Is Hard to Do

While talking with my two daughters, sometimes I feel like we come from entirely different worlds.

Such a difference may be understandable: they mainly grew up with digital technology forming the very basis of their social lives, whereas I grew up having to wait in line to use the one available phone in my home if I wanted to connect with a friend. But the difference between us goes beyond me not knowing the latest trending TikTok video, or emoji, or technology term. Their entire frame of reference to the world seems to be different than mine. And if this huge difference between us came about in less than one generation, how much difference must there be in the way we see the world now from those who lived in the past?!

Many people believe that the practice of history entails compiling lists of dates, lists of important people, and lists of important events and then tying the information in these lists together into some kind of cohesive story that accounts for as many of these facts as possible. Sure, history can be written in this way, but the result would be rather dull. (Unfortunately, many high school textbooks meet and never exceed this low bar!)

Simply knowing who wrote the Declaration of Independence, what it contained, and who signed it on July 4, 1776 is not interesting history. But the event itself raises all kinds of interesting questions: Why did Americans feel the need to make such a declaration? Who authorized this group of people to do so, and how did this authorization come about? Why was Thomas Jefferson enlisted to write it? What did the signers hope to accomplish? Did they reach consensus easily, or was deliberation on its contents fraught with tension? What was the source of any tensions? In order to answer these more interesting questions we need to go well beyond our simple lists of dates, people, and events.

But answering these kinds of questions is complicated. We need to seek out other kinds of evidence: diaries, letters, newspapers, etc. All of these resources involve different individuals with different backgrounds and agendas presenting their take on a given event. Historians then must sift through all of this evidence, make inferences, and come to some kind of conclusion as to what all of it means. Needless to say, their interpretations will necessarily be open to revision as new sources of evidence come to light and as new ways to consider all the evidence emerge. Suddenly, we do not seem to be in the realm of facts any more—at least not in the way that we thought about facts at the beginning of this process of practicing history.

What I have just described, however, is not even the reason why thinking historically is so hard to do. The greatest challenge to practicing history is our tendency to use the present as the natural anchor from which to see and judge the waves of history. To think historically, we need to lift this anchor and give ourselves the freedom to ride these waves and be open to trying to understand how people thought, perceived, and acted differently than we do now. To believe that all people throughout all of history are pretty much just like us—they only had to deal with a different set of facts—is to miss out on the entire point, and the joy, of doing history.

We think about the world differently than people from the past did. Many of the thoughts and ideas that we take for granted today were not available to those living in the past, so many of our contemporary thoughts were, well, unthinkable to them. At the same token, many of the thoughts that they had are in a way unthinkable to us, because they don’t make sense in the context of our modern world. I am reminded of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail of the peasants digging in the mud and discussing Marxist theory. What mainly makes the scene so funny, of course, is that such ideas would have been impossible for such peasants to think at the time.

If we truly want to understand the past, we have to do our best to place ourselves in the mindset of the people who lived during the given time and place that we are studying. It means immersing ourselves in the social and cultural artificats that these people left behind and then using them to try to think like they did. And it means giving up the notion that the people who lived before us are simply earlier versions of ourselves. And that’s hard to do!

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Selected Reading:

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Esther Forbes, ca. 1894

Harriet Merrifield Forbes Photo Album

I recently digitized a photo album of cyanotypes taken by Harriet Merrifield Forbes that belongs to the Westborough Historical Society, and you can now see them here: https://westboroughdigitalrepository.omeka.net/items/show/1133 (To see the photo album in order, scroll down to the bottom of the page of each image and click on “Next Item.”)

Forbes often wrote about Westborough history, most notably in her 1889 book, The Hundredth Town, Glimpses of Life in Westborough, 1717-1817. She took the cyanotypes sometime around 1894. A cyanotype is created through a photographic printing process that creates cyan-blue prints from photographic negatives. The advantage of such a process is that it is relatively easy to do and was a popular way to make prints around the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Recently, the practice of creating cyanotypes has seen a resurgence by artists interested in exploring what this process can do for their photography.

One of the images from the album is of a young Esther Forbes, who was born in Westborough and went on to win both the Pulitzer Prize for Paul Revere and the World He Lived In and a Newbery Award for Johnny Tremain: A Story of Boston in Revolt. But there are also many pictures in the album of buildings in and around Westborough.

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“Boott Cotton Mills, John Street at Merrimack River, Lowell, Middlesex County, MA” (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Industrial History of New England

The industrial history of New England is fascinating, and Westborough played a role in it during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. I recently discovered a relatively new website devoted to the topic: https://industrialhistorynewengland.org/. Right now, the site mainly lists museums and other historical sites where you can learn about this history. Put visiting one of them on your list of things to do as we slowly move into spring!

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Historical Society Program: “Made in Worcester” [Corrected Link]

Did you know that Worcester is often celebrated as the birthplace of shredded wheat, the envelope, Robert Goddard’s rockets, Harvey Ball’s Happy Face, and American romantic valentines?

On Monday, February 7 at 7pm, the Westborough Historical Society will present “Made in Worcester” with William Wallace. Wallace is the Director of the Worcester Historical Museum, and he will describe the creativity and enterprising spirit of Worcester natives whose inventions have changed our lives while sharing the truth about Worcester’s firsts, famous, and “also rans.” The program is free and open to the public on Zoom. To register, please use this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZ0kcOuurD0iGtTpChcK7KupczfpJdM9isZ1 [Updated on 2/7/2022].