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Westborough Center Pastimes – January 20, 2023

Ice Age Animals – Cleveland Museum of Natural History

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Hunter-Gathering, the End of the Ice Age, and the Nipmucs

You most likely have seen at least one reality television show where people are dumped in the middle of the wilderness and then try to survive for a period of time. Survivor, my personal favorite, has been on T.V. the longest, but others include Alone, Man vs. Wild (and other shows starring Bear Grylls), and the embarrassing Naked and Afraid, where strangers are paired up and have to battle the elements without wearing any clothing. Most people on these shows do not last more than a few weeks in such conditions, even if they are wearing clothes.

This survival genre first began with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), an early novel that tells the story of a man who finds himself shipwrecked alone on an uninhabited island and slowly builds the rudimentary foundations of civil society. All of these narratives highlight the struggle of the protagonists in their fight against nature and in doing so valorize the more comfortable lifestyle that modern life affords us. While we watch or read, we believe that we are gaining insight into what it must have been like to be a hunter-gatherer, where starvation is a constant threat, and we thank our lucky stars that we do not have to live that way.

Except that this characterization of what it must be like to live as hunter-gatherers is entirely false and misleading.

The narratives I cite above all tend to focus on what hunter-gatherers lack, as opposed to what they have or had. One key element that is missing is a functional society where people work together to provide food, shelter, and other necessities for the group as a whole. Another is hundreds, if not thousands, of years of knowledge—knowledge gained through careful observation, experimentation, and ingenuity—about how the environment around them works and how it can best support subsistence. Yet another missing element are the sets of behaviors and belief systems that reinforce this knowledge about the environment and facilitate its passing down to future generations.

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Starting around 8,000 BC, the giant mammals that inhabited North America during the Ice Age—which included mammoths, mastodons, ground sloths, and giant beavers—began to die out. For many hundreds of years, indigenous people had been hunting these huge food sources using a combination of spears and fire. Some scientists say that environmental changes taking place not only led to the melting of the massive glaciers that covered much of the continent but also resulted in the extinction of over three dozen species of these giant animals. People kept hunting these animals throughout this period—with evidence of overhunting and leaving whole carcasses to rot—so other scientists say that humans caused the extinction, if not helped bring the process to a faster conclusion. Even though the warming of the climate was potentially catastrophic to these animals, it also led to diversification both of the natural environment and, consequently, of the diets of Native Americans going forward.

After having lived on the land for over 10,000 years, Native Americans living just before European contact were aware of almost every detail and facet of their environment. Much like today, they sought ways to utilize the entire landscape available to them to support their existence—the difference being that our present economic system is geared towards a single endpoint, i.e., money, whereas theirs was focused on long-term subsistence.

If you are a hunter and gatherer, the best strategy is to seek out diversified food sources; that way, if one resource falls short one year, a greater supply of another resource can offset the impact of the other. Such a strategy means moving around the landscape to locations where resources are readily available at different times of the year. (People with a more sedentary lifestyle tend to specialize in a narrower range of food resources, and so they require different technologies both to grow their food sources and to bring resources that they do not have in their immediate surroundings to them.)

The Nipmuc, or “fresh water people,” were hunter-gatherers who inhabited the interior of Massachusetts (including Westborough), as well as parts of Rhode Island and Connecticut. They lived in scattered villages in wetus, structures that could easily be moved to other encampments when the cycle of the season demanded it. When we talk about Native American history today, we tend to focus on tribes and confederacies, but these villages—which were tied together by kinship ties, trade alliances, and common enemies—formed the true centers of activity and interaction with the environment. Unlike villages today, these villages were not geographically fixed and were continually moved to places where the Nipmuc believed they could find the greatest number of natural food supplies.

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I began this essay discussing the misnomers that we normally hold about the life of hunter-gatherers and how they are perpetuated in reality shows and other narratives involving “primal” survival scenarios. But there is one misnomer that I have not yet covered. All of these narratives involve intense struggle, starvation, and seemingly endless amounts of work. But numerous anthropological studies of the lifestyles of hunter-gatherers show that they enjoy far more leisure time, more diverse diets, and in many ways a more comfortable existence than what we in Western society do. We pay a heavy cost to support our more sedentary lifestyle, which today includes long work hours, heavy commutes, and a more isolated existence. We will explore this facet of Native American life a bit more in the next newsletter, when we take a closer look at village life of the Nipmucs.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

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Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller, ca. 1910

Who Was Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller?

On Monday, February 6, 2023 at 7 p.m., the Westborough Historical Society will celebrate Black History Month with a program titled, “Who Was Dr. Solomon Carter Fuller?” As the first Black psychiatrist in the U.S., Fuller worked at the Westborough State Hospital from 1899 to 1933 where he did ground-breaking research in Alzheimer’s Disease and other mental diseases. This program will be presented by Dr. Edith Jolin of the Boston University School of Medicine.

This Historical Society program is free on Zoom. Click here to register for the program in advance: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZAkceqqqTsuG9EvyPX-N5iEVm3X0orI06Wy.

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A photograph taken by Nancy Engberg for the WPL’s Millennium Project in 2000.

Check Out the Photography of Nancy Engberg

You probably recognize Nancy Engberg. She was a member of the library staff for 26 years before she retired in October of 2022. But did you know that she is also an accomplished photographer?

Visit the Westborough Public Library to see a collection of photographs Nancy has taken over the years. Together they demonstrate her innovative experimentation with photography, including her use of infrared photography, pinhole cameras, oil paint on printed works, and even toy cameras. She produced all of her photographs in her own darkroom. This exhibit will be displayed on the main floor of the library over the next two months, so make sure to stop by to see it.

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Esther Forbes at her typewriter

Learn About Five Famous Women of Westborough

After checking out the photography of Nancy Engberg, take a look at the display case outside of the Westborough Center and learn about five famous women, a display inspired by Kristina Nilson Allen’s recent talk on this topic for the Westborough Historical Society. You can also learn more about these women in Allen’s online exhibit, Famous Women of Westborough Across the Centuries, which includes a link to a recording of her talk.

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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.

Famous Women of Westborough Across the Centuries

by Local Historian Kristina Nilson Allen

Note: The following group of essays is taken from Kristina Nilson Allen’s Westborough Historical Society program held on January 9, 2023. You can view her talk here: http://westboroughtv.org/famous-women-of-westborough-across-the-centuries-with-kris-allen/.

Across the centuries, these five women broke barriers to pave the way for Westborough women today:

  • 1700s – Betsy Fay Whitney
  • 1800s – Annie Fales
  • 1900s – Esther Forbes and Bee Warburton
  • 2000s – Nikki Stone

Betsy Fay Whitney (1867-1972), Entrepreneur

Homestead of Betsy Fay Whitney, 36 Eli Whitney Street
The doorstep to the Whitney house on 36 Eli Whitney St.
Straw hat materials

Betsy Fay earned her dowry by starting a straw hat business. Later, her son Eli (future inventor of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts manufacturing) aided her by making long hair pins and a head mold.

A straw hat on the head mold that Eli Whitney, Jr. made for his mother

In the 1880s, Westborough’s straw hat business became the largest in the world.

The National Straw Works
The gravesite of Betsy Fay Whitney

Annie Elizabeth Fales (1867-1972), Westborough School Teacher

Annie Fales

Annie Elizabeth Fales (1867-1972)  was born in Walpole on July 17, 1867, and moved to Westborough at age 7. She was an 1885 graduate of Westborough High School and went on to earn her teaching credentials at Worcester Normal School (now Worcester State University).

 

After graduating in 1887, she taught in Upton a short time and then returned to Westborough. Annie Fales lived most of her life at 58 West Main Street, across from the Library.  Her home was filled with the aroma of homemade cookies and baked beans, which she shared with neighbors. Active in the community, Annie Fales was a member of the Women’s Club, Garden Club, Historical Society, and the Round Table.

Annie Fales’s home on West Main Street

Her first hometown assignment in 1892 was teaching in the one-room District 8 School House near Lake Chauncy. Miss Fales taught grades 5 through 8, and when the Eli Whitney School opened on Grove Street in 1902, she was named its principal. A lifelong love of music motivated her to take voice lessons in Boston, and she learned to play several instruments. She was a soloist in the Unitarian Church choir, as well as the organist.  Many special events at the High School were enlivened by Miss Fales’s piano accompaniment.

At age 95, she shared her philosophy of teaching: “Patience, a sense of humor, and a real love of children—that makes a good teacher.”

The Annie E. Fales Elementary School on Eli Whitney Street

On December 2, 1963, the first Annie E. Fales Elementary School opened on Eli Whitney Street. A newly constructed, environmentally progressive Fales School opened on November 15, 2021 with 381 students, grades K-3.  Both schools honor Annie Fales, who dedicated her life to teaching for more than a half-century in Westborough

She retired in 1937 and lived to be 104. Annie Fales died on March 3, 1972, and her memory is honored in the elementary school that bears her name. Over the span of her career, Annie Fales molded the lives of more than 1,000 Westborough students.

Esther Louise Forbes (June 28, 1891-August 12, 1967), Author

Birthplace of Esther Forbes at 39 Church St.

Esther Louise Forbes was born in Westborough at 39 Church St., home of her parents, Judge William Trowbridge Forbes and Harriet Merrifield Forbes.  Esther attended the elite Bancroft School in Worcester and later graduated in 1912 from Bradford Academy, a junior college in Haverhill.

Always interested in literature and writing, Esther published her first short story, “Breakneck Hill” in 1915. It won the O.Henry Prize as one of the year’s best short stories.

Esther Forbes at her typewriter

Esther’s reputation as a fine new author grew rapidly. Her first novel, O Genteel Lady, published in 1926, was selected for the newly created Book of the Month Club. Esther specialized in writing a series of historical novels, all set in New England with courageous female heroines. Over her career, she wrote 11 books:  8 historical novels, one biography, and two pictorial essays.

Esther’s novels claimed critical attention.  The 1928 A Mirror for Witches chronicled the life of Dilby, a young woman destroyed by ignorance and prejudice during the Salem witch trials. It was adapted for the stage, including a ballet in 1952 and an opera titled Dilby’s Doll in 1976.  She received the 1947 MGM Novel Award for The Running of the Tide.

Esther Forbes was also a serious intellectual historian. She eventually lived in Worcester with her mother, the noted historian Harriet Merrifield Forbes, who had written a history of Westborough titled The Hundredth Town in 1889.

Harriet Forbes and her daughter worked as a team. Harriet did much of the historical research for Esther’s books at the prestigious American Antiquarian Society. Esther went on to win the 1943 Pulitzer Prize for History for her definitive biography, Paul Revere and the World He Lived In.

The novel that Esther is most known for, however, is the young adult fiction, Johnny Tremain: Boston in Revolt, set during the American Revolution. Johnny Tremain, an apprentice to a Bostonian silversmith, witnesses the conflict between the Patriots and the Tories, as well as the battles of Lexington and Concord.

Still treasured as a classic, Johnny Tremain won the Newbery Medal in 1944 for its major contribution to children’s literature. It was even made into a Disney movie.

In 1960 for her contribution to the arts, Esther Forbes was elected as a Fellow of the Academy of Arts and Sciences and became the first woman to be elected to the American Antiquarian Society.

Esther Forbes died at age 76 and is buried in the Forbes family plot in Westborough’s Pine Grove Cemetery. Her papers and manuscripts were donated to Clark University, and the royalties from her work were donated to the American Antiquarian Society.

Beatrice A.Warburton (1903-1996), Iris Hybridizer

Bee Warburton

Bee Warburton, the internationally renowned iris hybridizer, majored in chemistry at Barnard College in the 1920s, where she planned to become a doctor. Tragedy struck when her father died unexpectedly when she was a sophomore, so Bee dropped out of college to help her six siblings with family finances. Despite this adversity, Bee never lost her desire to learn through research, conducting experiments, and writing about her findings.

After Bee married Frank Warburton, an MIT graduate, the couple settled in 1948 on the East Main Street farm of Frank’s father, who was a successful chicken farmer, where Mugford’s Florist Shop stands today.

Bee decided she would try her hand at gardening with help from her husband. When she couldn’t locate the dwarf iris she desired, Bee’s scientific training kicked in. She adamantly refused to give up. She decided to hybridize her own iris and to become an expert in iris genetics.

Through meticulous work with a tweezers and magnifying glass, Bee became adept at transferring pollen from one iris to another to create a different breed of iris.

Irises

One of her successful early experiments resulted in a chrome yellow dwarf iris that she registered as “Brassie” in 1957. Another early success was the “Blue Denim” iris. Over the next 38 years, she continued to hybridize dwarf irises and later in the 1970s tall bearded Siberian irises.

Bee Warburton registered and introduced to the world over 100 unique irises by crossing different colors, shapes, sizes, and petal details. On a quarter of an acre, plots of parent plants and seedlings stretched out beside the long Warburton driveway. By the late 1980s, there were 4,000 irises growing in her Westborough fields.

Bee’s irises won accolades all over the world. She was awarded the American Iris Society’s Hybridizer’s Medal seven times and the AIS Distinguished Service Medal in 1972. Over the years, Bee enjoyed hosting iris auctions that attracted iris experts to her rainbow-hued fields. The proceeds from these auctions were donated to the Massachusetts Iris Society.

Bee may have made an even greater contribution to iris gardeners by her writing, editing, and publishing about iris genetics. She wrote articles for the New York Times and for international iris journals. For 20 years she served as editor of the iris publication, The Medianite, and appeared on the 2007 cover of its 50th Anniversary issue.  One of her most  important accomplishments was her editing of the classic, The World of Irises (1979), which is in its third printing today.

To this day, Bee Warburton irises are grown in Europe, Asia, and Africa. It is believed that the majority of dwarf irises around the globe share some DNA with Bee Warburton’s irises.

Bee has remained an icon in the international circle of iris hybridizers long after she died in January 1996 at age 92. The greenhouse at Westborough High School was named for her in 2002.

Bee Warburton

Bee Warburton was known for being kind, witty, generous, and most of all, persistent. She didn’t sell her irises, but delighted in giving them away. Bee Warburton’s colorful legacy, born in Westborough, continues to bloom each spring the world over and in our local gardens.

Nikki Stone (1971 –     ), Olympic Gold Medalist

Nikki Stone in the air

Westborough native, Nikki Stone, won the Olympic Gold medal in aerial skiing at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.

Over her skiing career from 1995 on, Nikki was awarded 35 World Cup medals, 11 World Cup titles, two Aerial World Cup titles, and four National titles. In addition, Nikki was the first inverted aerialist skier ever to become the Overall Freestyle World Cup Champion in 1998.

Nikki Stone grew up in Westborough and early on began to practice gymnastics. When she was five, after seeing teen gymnast Nadia Comaneci win Olympic gold in 1976, Nikki declared that she, too, was going to win a medal at the Olympics someday.

Always the daredevil, at home Nikki practiced flips from heights and landing on a mattress. She loved being airborne. Nikki also enjoyed recreational skiing, so when she saw aerial acrobatics at 18, she realized that aerial skiing was the perfect blend between gymnastics and skiing.

After graduating from Westborough High in 1989, Nikki went on to study at Union College in New York. She then earned a master’s degree in Sports Psychology–graduating summa cum laude–from the University of Utah. In 1994 Nikki settled in Park City, Utah, where she trained seriously for the Olympics in inverted aerial skiing, where competitors ski onto a ten-foot snow jump at 40 mph, flip or twist to a height of 50 feet, and then land on a 45-degree hill.

Four years later at Nagano, Nikki performed a single twisting, triple somersault perfectly, jumping as high as a four-story building, to place first in aerial skiing. With that performance, Nikki Stone became the first American ever to win the Olympic gold medal in  inverted aerial skiing.

After Nikki became an Olympic gold champion, Westborough held a Homecoming Parade for her on March 21, 1998, and proclaimed “Nikki Stone Day” to show its hometown pride in this indominable golden athlete.

Nikki Stone with Kristina Nilson Allen on “Nikki Stone Day”

Winning the Olympics generated a lot of interest in her success, so Nikki was engaged to speak all over the country. Nikki discovered that much of what she learned from sports translated directly into the business world. Today, she speaks to nonprofits and corporations to encourage their employees to achieve their best, take risks, and overcome difficulty. An award-winning motivational speaker, Nikki draws on her own experience of triumphing over adversity.

Her inspirational story: After winning 48 World Cup medals in aerial skiing, Nikki sustained an inoperable back injury. Ten doctors said she would never ski again. Eighteen months of training and rehab later, Nikki was competing in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Through pure determination and courage, she won the gold.

Display at the Westborough High School

In 2003, Nikki was inducted into the National Ski Hall of Fame. Her book, When Turtles Fly: Secrets of Successful People Who Know How to Stick Their Necks Out, was an Amazon bestseller in 2010 after Nikki introduced it on The Today Show.

“One of the most rewarding times for me,” confides Nikki, “is when someone comes up to me after a speech and tells me that they are going to change their life because of something I said. To have an impact like that on someone is awe-inspiring.”

Nikki Stone has made a career of being awe-inspiring—first on ski jumps and now behind the podium.

From business to athletics, from  science to the arts, these women pioneers have been role models for Westborough women today.

 

 

Westborough Center Pastimes – December 16, 2022

This essay is part of a Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Geography, Geology, and Early Human Presence in Westborough

Eighteen thousand years ago, Westborough sat under a sheet of ice that was a mile and a half high.

In fact, at that time much of the North American continent sat under glaciers that were formed during the last ice age, which started 2.5 million years ago. The ice prevented human beings (who emerged from Africa 300,00 years ago) from entering the Western Hemisphere. Only in 11,000 BC, when enough of the ice caps had melted after the earth had begun to warm up, were groups of people able to migrate through the Bering Strait (between current day Russia and Alaska) and into North America. Lately, this narrative has been complicated a bit after human presence has been detected both in southern Chile going back to 16,500 BC and in the American Southwest dating back 23,000 years. These earlier people most likely traveled down the Pacific Rim’s “kelp highway” that ran along the western coasts of the Americas.

The Western Hemisphere, unlike the Eastern, has a pronounced north-south orientation, so people spreading throughout the Americas had to learn how to live in or travel through numerous climates and ecologies. Such conditions promoted a broad range of human diversity and resilience throughout the continents. By 10,000 BC, people appeared in every part of the Western Hemisphere.

As the ice retreated in Westborough, a huge lake, Lake Assabet, came to cover the entire town except for a few of the area’s highest points. Eventually, the lake separated into three parts: the SuAsCo Reservoir (Mill Pond), Chancy Lake and Crane Swamp, and Cedar Swamp. Around 9,000 years ago, vegetation and animal life returned to Westborough and made it possible for human beings to occupy Worcester County.

Westborough is lucky to have had Curtiss R. Hoffman, an archaeologist and Professor of Anthropology at Bridgewater State College, devote so much time digging around and studying our town’s prehistory. At the time he wrote his book, People of the Fresh Water Lake: A Prehistory of Westborough, Massachusetts, 73 prehistoric sites had been found in Westborough, making it, in his words, “one of the best-known prehistoric areas in Massachusetts.” Hoffman’s work challenges the common belief that the interior of Massachusetts was sparsely populated during prehistoric times. We will see later in this series how and why this misguided belief came to be.

The earliest evidence of human beings within the borders of Westborough are projectile points that were made during the Paleo-Indian period, 9,000-12,000 years ago. At least one of the points was made with stone not normally found in Westborough, which indicates travel and perhaps trade throughout New England. The Paleo-Indians who originally owned the points were possibly hunting megafauna, like mastodons and other large game, in the swampy western section of Westborough and probably only came to the area sporadically as they followed the flow of rivers.

People started to occupy the area of Westborough more regularly 4,000-6,000 years ago when the climate had finally stabilized and now resembled our current environmental conditions. Westborough has significantly more archaeological sites from this period than any other, which indicates that these years marked a time of peak human population during the town’s prehistoric era. Indeed, such was the case not just in New England but in the entire Eastern Woodlands, due to the diverse environmental resources that had begun to appear. People learned to take advantage of these resources and thrived, so their populations grew and spread throughout the area.

The best places for hunter-gatherers to live are in ecotones, regions where two or more environmental types meet. New England enjoys a high degree of environmental diversity due to its complex patchwork of ecological niches, so it has a high number of ecotones. Westborough sits in one because it is on the edge of the Worcester Plateau and is connected to three river systems: the Sudbury, the Assabet, and the Mill River (a tributary of the Blackstone). Even more, Westborough has ten sub-areas with differing environmental characteristics. All of these sub-areas were likely used by hunter-gatherers for some purpose or another throughout the prehistory of Westborough. Next month, we are going to take a closer look at the life of hunter-gatherers and specifically the Nipmucs, the Native Americans who inhabited Westborough and its surrounding area during this early time.

When we talk about Westborough history, it is important to put the timelines of the people who lived here in perspective. I am necessarily compressing thousands of years of human existence and experience into a single blog post because we are talking about prehistory, a time when we lack written records and need to rely mainly on archaeology to fill in the gaps. People of European descent have occupied Westborough for roughly 350 years, less than four percent of the entire time that human beings have inhabited the land here if we use 9,000 years ago as a starting point. Our own sense of history is necessarily distorted, mainly because the records and documents that were created within that 350-year time range provide a more complete picture of life during this time period, whereas for the 8,650 years that preceded it, we lack such documentation.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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Kristina Nilson Allen and Nikki Stone

Famous Women in Westborough History

Westborough women have been ingenious, powerful pioneers since the town began. Learn about their trials and triumphs in the Historical Society’s program, “Famous Women of Westborough across the Centuries,” on Monday, January 9, 2023 at 7 p.m.

This program will feature entrepreneur Betsy Fay (1700s), beloved teacher Annie Fales (1800s), prize-winning author Esther Forbes and horticulturist Bee Warburton (1900s), and Gold Medal Olympian Nikki Stone (2000s). Presented by historian Kristina Nilson Allen, this free event will be held in the Meeting Room of the Westborough Public Library.

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Learn about Westborough’s New Monument

Westborough has a brand-new monument in Minuteman Park along the Westborough Reservoir on Upton Road. Thanks to the tireless efforts of David Nourse, the monument replaces the old one and greatly expands the list of participants from Westborough who responded to the call to alarm at Lexington on April 19, 1775, the event that popularly marks the beginning of the American Revolution.

The reports and documents that were created and used to reassess the old monument are now available online: https://www.westborougharchive.org/minuteman-park-monument-2022/. Together, they provide a deep look at this important moment in Westborough history, so check it out.

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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 – November 18, 2022

“First Landing of Christopher Columbus” by Frederick Kemmelmeyer (ca. 1800) – Which culture is being valorized in this painting?

This essay is part of a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.” Click here to start at the beginning of the series.

Some Preliminaries

Before I dive into the history of the meeting of Native Americans and European settlers in and around Westborough, I need to explain some terminology and my approach to this topic.

As I stated in the inaugural essay to this series, my goal is to bring more nuance and sophistication to the way we talk about the pre- and early history of Westborough. Rather than rely on tales involving Native Americans that have questionable origins as a go-to means for acknowledging the presence of Indigenous people here in Westborough before European arrival, I have instead been seeking out sources that treat this history in more serious ways.

I am not an expert in this history. In this series, I will merely be reporting my findings after researching and thinking about this topic for many months. My hope is that my essays move us towards being able to talk about Native Americans in more human, three-dimensional terms by recognizing their cultural sophistication as well as their faults and contradictions. The same goes for the European settlers. Human beings are complicated creatures, and our history should reflect this fact.

One of the many things I have learned while researching this topic is how much the systems of thought that privilege colonial settlement continue to shape thinking about this early history. Some of these effects are easy to spot—the cartoonish “cowboys and Indians” framework in old movies easily comes to mind—but many of them are nuanced and require rigorous self-reflection to identify them. Over and over again while talking with people who are more knowledgeable about this topic than I am, they would point out how I would at times easily fall into implicitly valorizing European culture over that of Native American, oftentimes simply in the way that I phrased my point. I may inadvertently display similar biases in this series of essays, and I apologize in advance if I do. I am happy to own up to these moments, though, because they demonstrate how deeply embedded in history we all are, and I would rather risk displaying my own ignorance than not address this important period of Westborough history. My intentions in exploring this topic are sincere, but I am also human and thus susceptible to contradiction and to the thought systems that have been handed down to me through history.

Up until this point, I have mainly used “Native American” as the term to identify the ancestry of people who lived here in North America prior to European settlement. Not surprisingly, use of this term and others (“Indigenous people,” “American Indians,” “Natives,” etc.) can be controversial. Many people with indigenous ancestry prefer “Indian”; others have other preferences. People often disagree with one another when selecting terminology to identify them as a group, and Native Americans are no different. The Nipmucs, however, are the people who inhabited the area in and around Westborough before and after European settlement, so I will use their tribal name when I am specifically referring to them. I will be using “Native American” and other generic terms interchangeably when speaking about Indigenous people more broadly and in comparison with Europeans or when I cannot identify a certain practice as being specifically Nipmuc.

Westborough, of course, did not exist until 1717, so to talk about Native American history in the context of our town, as I am doing here, automatically privileges the European thought system over the Native one. The Nipmucs did not call this area Westborough nor did they define its borders; the English did. So we are left with a contradiction: to talk about Native American presence through the lens of Westborough local history works to continue the erasure of the former in the very name of the latter. That is, if we are interested in examining how the Nipmucs used the land in and around Westborough, we are stuck using a term that signifies ownership of the land as defined by Europeans rather than meeting the Nipmucs on their own terms, or somewhere, somehow, in the middle. As we will later discover, different philosophies and approaches to land use by these two cultures go to the heart of this contradiction.

And finally, whenever we as Americans discuss the history of Native American life and culture, politics quickly enters the picture given the horrendous treatment of Indigenous people by European settlers. Those events, and many of the belief systems that underlie them, continue to shape Native American politics today, land restitution and tribal sovereignty being two such issues. I will say up front that I have no dog in this fight and have no intention to advocate for one policy position over another in the current political spectrum. People are free to draw their own conclusions. My sole interest is to examine what happened when Native and European cultures encountered one another, and how this encounter play out in and around Westborough. In doing so, I hope to treat both cultures with respect, interrogate their motivations, and see how their differences played out historically.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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Hoccomocco Pond

“The Truth Behind the Tales: The Nipmuc Presence in Westborough”

Did you miss this excellent Westborough Historical Society program? If so, you are in luck, because it is now available to view on Westborough TV: https://westboroughtv.org/the-truth-behind-the-tales-the-nipmuc-presence-in-westborough/.

In her talk, Cheryll Toney Holley, Leader of the Hassanamisco Nipmuc Band in Grafton, discusses Nipmuc tribal oral history, especially Westborough’s Nipmuc stories, and uncovers the historical basis and Nipmuc perspectives behind each story.

Want to read other Nipmuc stories? Then check out Dawnland Voices: An Anthology of Indigenous Writing from New England, edited by Siobhan Senier and others. The anthology contains a whole section on Nipmuc stories. I also just placed an order for Drumming & Dreaming by Larry Spotted Crow Mann, which Holley mentioned in her talk. You can either put in an ILL request for it now or keep an eye out for the Westborough library’s copy to come in.

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Tell Us Your Westborough Story

We are starting a new annual feature that we will add content to the Westborough Archive called, “Your Westborough Story.” This year, share your thoughts and memories by answering the question: “What Brought You 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. It only takes a couple minutes, so do it now! You don’t even need to sign your name. Your contribution will go into the Westborough Archive and become a part of Westborough history.

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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 – October 21, 2022

The following essay inaugurates a new Westborough History Connections series called, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough.”

Seasonal Change and the Meeting of Two Cultures

The shocks of short-lived color in the trees, the sudden appearance of refreshingly cooler breezes, the noticeable decrease of sunlight in the evenings, and the quick rush to prepare for hibernation before winter truly sets in. Fall in New England makes me think about the rhythms of seasonal change more than any other season, perhaps because it is a brief, but decisive, end to the rich greenery that we have been enjoying for so long.

I grew up in the Midwest and have always seen seasonal change as an important marker of time. How odd it must be, I would wonder, to live in a place where the leaves on the trees did not turn color or where snow never hit the ground. How would people know that time is moving along if they didn’t have such annual markers to remind them? But then a friend from southern California once remarked to me while we were both graduate students on Long Island that, for her, the seasons in the Northeast made time stand still. The seasons created boxes of time, where behaviors during that particular time-span were repeated over and over again each year to the point where time never seems to move forward. (“Didn’t we just go apple-picking last year?”) She missed a lifestyle that is not regularly upended by seasonal change, where the ever-distant time horizon seems to open up endless opportunities.

In many ways, seasonal change makes New England, well, New England. Over the years, we have developed certain behaviors that track along with the changing environment in which we live. Today, we tend to think of such behaviors in semi-nostalgic terms. We engage in apple-picking, pumpkin carving, and “leaf-peeping” (a term that for some reason makes me slightly uncomfortable) more because they connect us to our environment and to our ideas of the past than out of necessity—and because they are fun. But if you are living off the land itself, tracking seasonal change and adapting behaviors accordingly becomes imperative.

In Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England, William Cronon nicely sums up this idea, an idea that becomes rather complicated once necessity enters the picture:

A central fact of temperate ecosystems like those of New England is their periodicity: they are tied to overlapping cycles of light and dark, high and low tides, waxing and waning moons, and especially the long and short days which mean hot and cold seasons. Each plant and animal species makes its adjustments to these various cycles, so that the flowing of sap in trees, the migration of birds, the spawning of fish, the rutting of deer, and the fruiting of plants all have their special times of the year. A plant that stores most of its food energy in its roots during the winter will transfer much of that energy first to its leaves and then to its seeds as the warmer months progress. Such patterns of energy concentration are crucial to any creature which seeks to eat that plant. Because animals, including people, feed on plants and other animals, the ways they obtain their food are largely determined by the cycles in which other species lead their lives. Just as a fox’s summer diet of fruit and insects shifts to rodents and birds during the winter, so too did the New England Indians seek to obtain their food wherever it was seasonally most concentrated in the New England ecosystem. Doing so required an intimate understanding of the habits and ecology of other species, and it was this knowledge that the English discovered they lacked (37).

When the English first arrived here in New England, they assumed that they could simply set up life as they knew it back in England; in other words, they brought with them the adaptations that they had developed over time in Europe and assumed that they would work here in North America. Their ideas about agriculture and food production were premised on changing the land to suit their own European diets and needs, rather than on taking advantage of the bounty that the environment naturally offered and adapting their behaviors to it. Native Americans had learned how to make nature work for them; their behaviors and lifestyles were designed over time to follow the rhythms of seasonal change. Their situation was not unique: it is how human beings have generally lived throughout our time here on earth, no matter where we happen to live. Such adaptations, however, take time.

I find the meeting of Native Americans and the English—two cultures with different sets of ideas about how to interact within the environment that they were given—to be fascinating. In this regard, Native Americans had the advantage over Europeans by having lived in North America over thousands of years. The English, however, were determined to imprint the structures they had developed in Europe onto the North American landscape. Doing so turned out to be more challenging than they had imagined. My friend from California discovered when she moved to the Northeast that she could not bring with her a notion that seems so basic as the experience of time; since I was from the Midwest, which has similar seasonal variation as the Northeast, I had an easier time adjusting to my new environment.

The organization of our material environment—both ecologically and the structures we create to function within that natural system—work to form our social behaviors. We cannot understand the meeting of Native Americans and Europeans without a knowledge of how each structured their material environment and how those structures created different social attitudes and behaviors. These two differing frameworks guided the actions and reactions of the respective groups here in New England as they struggled to find an equilibrium for living together over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Needless to say, they never found such an equilibrium, and we still feel the repercussions of that outcome today.

In upcoming newsletters, I am going to be exploring this meeting of two cultures, a meeting that created as much of a fundamental shift in how human beings populated North America as the seasonal turning point from Summer to Winter. My ultimate goal will be to bring more nuance and sophistication to our understanding of the early history of the area in and around Westborough.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

Click here to go to the next essay in the series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough”

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Downtown Architectural Walking Tour with Music

Sunday, October 30, 1:00 p.m. starting on West Main Street in front of Westborough TV by preservationist Chris Noonan, folk singer Luanne Crosby, and special guests. FREE.

This walk will cover culturally important and historic areas downtown—buildings, landscapes, structures, monuments, and cemeteries—that were planned, designed and/or constructed before 1970. Along the tour, the three basic categories of the Community Preservation Act (CPA)—affordable housing, historic preservation and open space/recreation—will be discussed and viewed from the public way. Site-specific potential projects will be visited using visioning techniques, where we will imagine what might be possible at each site. Various Town officials will share their expertise and experiences in the three areas along the route.

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Hoccomocco Pond

The Truth Behind the Tales – The Nipmuc Presence in Westborough.”

Monday, November 7 at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom.  Sponsored by the Westborough Historical Society.

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 on Zoom.

Please register using this link: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZMucOioqD4iG9QwD6l5GVSscMkAfgbi-tGG

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Tell Us Your Westborough Story

We are starting a new annual feature that we will add content to the Westborough Archive called, “Your Westborough Story.” This year, share your thoughts and memories by answering the question: “What Brought You 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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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 – 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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Westborough Center Pastimes – May 20, 2022

Permaculture

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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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.