Westborough Center Pastimes – May 19, 2023

Plymouth, Massachusetts, harbor showing extensive Native American settlement (a sketch by Samuel de Champlain from his voyage of 1606)

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.

Land and Disease

When the Pilgrims landed in North America in 1620, Native Americans and Europeans had already been in contact with one another for over a century, so by the time the English started moving from sporadic coastal areas into the interior of New England, Indigenous cultures had already been disrupted by European contact, most notably, by infectious diseases for which they had no biological immunity.

I began my last newsletter pointing out how much we have to rely on European accounts when trying to piece together the history of Native Americans before European arrival. But extrapolating this history is even more complicated. The impact of disease on Indigenous life and culture was so fast and so profound that even if early European accounts of their encounters with Native Americans were entirely accurate, the life they would be describing would already have been distorted from what it was truly like before Columbus’s arrival.

When the English and the French first began landing on the coasts of eastern Canada, Maine, and nearby islands in the sixteenth century, their encounters with Native populations soon resulted in deadly epidemics that had a possible overall mortality rate as high as 80 percent. The period after 1600 was particularly fatal, when European families with children, who were more likely to carry “childhood” diseases, began settling in eastern North America. Between 1616 and 1618, an epidemic or series of epidemics along the southern New England coast killed perhaps 75 percent of the coastal Algonquin population.

No doubt, this rapid decline in the Indigenous population when combined with the increasing influx of European settlers together made navigating these new circumstances by Native Americans even more challenging—and frightful. Demographic collapse upended social status systems within villages and between tribes. It shattered families, who were then forced to recombine and reinvent themselves in order to survive. It forced Native Americans to abandon old means of feeding and supporting themselves and adopt new economic practices, such as participation in the fur trade. New alliances, and new antagonisms, were created among Indigenous people as a result of this depopulation, which made it difficult to create a united front when facing their new neighbors from overseas. The scarcest resource for Native Americans, in other words, had become their own people. These circumstances were all at play in the abduction of the Rice Boys here in Westborough, which we will look at in more detail later on in this series. Nonetheless, Native Americans continually demonstrated endurance and perseverance in their attempts to preserve their spirit and build back what they used to have in the midst of these unprecedented conditions.

By 1670, New England colonists numbered over 50,000 and outnumbered the local Indigenous population three to one. As we have already noted in the previous newsletter, this depopulation made it easier for Europeans to justify taking Indian lands by interpreting the abandoned villages and fields as a sign from God that they were destined to take over and (re)populate the land. Even more, New England towns repeatedly sprung up on the very sites of these empty villages, as Europeans took advantage of land that Native Americans had already prepped to accommodate housing. The land itself even began to change as a result of Indian depopulation. Native Americans regularly conducted annual burnings to clear land so that they could continue to plant their crops. But with these burnings no longer taking place, the grass that stood in these open fields when the Pilgrims arrived in 1620 was already taken over by forest by the time the Puritans arrived to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630.

In and around Westborough, the Nipmucs also experienced plague in 1633, but it would be another twenty years before Europeans began to encroach on their land, since land grants and settlements did not start in east central Worcester County until 1654. Through this time, Nipmuc leaders seemed to have charted a middle course in dealing with the English that delayed either accepting English presence or driving them out. This more peaceful approach, though, may have sealed their fate. In the 1640s, if the Nipmucs had united with other tribes, they together probably would have had enough numbers to overwhelm the English and drive them out of the nascent colony. And despite their plagues, the Nipmucs still had the numbers to contribute more warriors than any other local tribe to King Philip’s forces during the war that was named after him. But their peaceful delay meant that by the time King Philip’s War started in 1675, the Massachusetts Bay Colony had grown so big in size and sophistication, and was able to play the various tribes off one another, that the Europeans were able to secure a permanent advantage.

The struggle over control of the land, which ultimately led to the creation of the United States, rightfully receives the bulk of our attention when looking at the history of European settlement in the Americas. The basic framework of this history also conveniently makes for gripping Western movies, if the popularity of this genre starting in the 1950’s is any indication. But when we flatten the Native-colonist narrative into a simple one of “Cowboys and Indians” with a constant fight for territory and control of the land, we lose sight that at least here in New England, Native Americans and European settlers lived together for hundreds of years—and still do to this day. How these two groups lived side-by-side will now be the focus of the rest of this series.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Works Consulted:

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A New Major Resource for Westborough Historians and Genealogists

A new resource for Westborough historians and genealogists has just been made available by Prof. Ross W. Beales, Jr. on the Westborough library’s Ebenezer Parkman Project website. “Reconstitution Data for Westborough Families” now appears on the Westborough and Its People during Parkman’s Time web page, which already offers a bevy of historical information about early Westborough residents.

In this new resource, Beales has gathered together information about people who lived in Westborough in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries from a variety of sources: published vital records of Westborough and other towns; Ebenezer Parkman’s and Breck Parkman’s diaries; the Westborough church records; genealogies; town histories; probate records; newspapers; and data from the websites of and The document itself is still in process, and Beales warns that there are elements in it that may need correction. Even so, it presents a fascinating picture of Westborough society during this early time in our town’s history.

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New Mini-Exhibit: The Bay State Abrasive Company

Check out the new exhibit in the display case outside of the Westborough Center on the history of the Bay State Abrasive Product Company, which used to be located where the Bay State Commons is today. The company made grinding wheels and other abrasives for the automotive, steel, aerospace, and metalworking industries and for decades served as the largest employer in town, at one point employing over 1,100 people.

The display features newsletters and pictures of the factory and its employees that show how important this business was to the life of our town.

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May Nature Notes

My dog Sadie loves to run after her toy opossum after my wife throws it for her, but rather than retrieve it, she will prance around and taunt Martha with her prize in an attempt to get her to chase her and take it back. I’m just glad it isn’t a real opossum!—although it sure does look like the one in the picture that Garry Kessler took for one of Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for the month of May, where you can read all about real opossums and other natural phenomena that appear during this lovely month!

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Learn About Population Growth Over Time in New England’s Cities

What can a visualization of population growth tell us about different moments in New England’s economic geography? Watch a dynamic chart that shows how the populations of the largest cities and towns in Massachusetts and their ranking orders have changed over time, and then read about what it all means in the Boston Public Library’s Leventhal Map and Education Center’s web article, “Growing New England’s Cities.”

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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 – April 21, 2023

The Landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Mass. Dec. 22nd 1620 (Currier & Ives, 1876) – Note the presence of the Native American on the left, which is not factual.

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.

First Contact and Population

When discussing Native American history, both before and soon after European arrival in North America, we need to note an irony: in order to piece together the history of Native Americans before European contact, we need to rely on European sources after contact.

Native Americans did not have written language, and consequently they did not have recorded history in the way that Europeans did. Instead, their histories were handed down orally, and as such they were intertwined in their mythologies and belief systems—much like early Greek history was at one point handed down orally: think The Iliad and The Odyssey and their mix of history and mythology. By the way, Homer’s two epics about the historical Trojan War (which took place in the 13th century B.C.) were captured in print in the 8th century B.C., right around the time that the Greeks (re)invented their writing system. Eventually, the Greeks also invented history as we conceive of it today, with Herodotus being considered the first historian, followed soon after by Thucydides. This Western concept of history requires written language, so that we can describe and record events, reflect on and attempt to verify them, and construct a narrative of those events that itself is constantly open to reevaluation and revision.

With the absence of a written language, our knowledge of early Native American history, then, is essentially dependent on two major sources. One is archaeology—a practice of ascertaining how people lived during times of prehistory that was invented much later in time in the eighteenth century. The second source is documents about Native American life that were written around the time of contact and were created by Europeans and written for European consumption back home. Naturally, these early records and descriptions of Native American life have a heavy European bias, and so we need to “read between the lines” of these early accounts to try to arrive at a better and more truthful understanding of Native Americans both before and around this time of early contact.

Some of these early works include accounts by French Jesuit missionaries, records of negotiations between Native and European imperial governments in Albany, and documents relating to the praying towns in Massachusetts first led by John Eliot. Historian Daniel K. Richter contends, “Read carefully, each [of these bodies of records] in its very different way reveals Indian people trying to adapt traditional ideals of human relationships based on reciprocity and mutual respect to a situation in which Europeans were becoming a dominant force in eastern North America.” The implication here is that we need to be just as, if not more, attentive to the Native American perspective when reading these documents if we are to ascertain properly their motives and positions when interacting with Europeans.

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I hope that you have found my explorations of Native American life before European contact over the last several months to be as compelling as I have found them to be. But now we are to the point in my investigation where things become really interesting, because we get to see what happened when two entirely different cultures, European and Native American, came into contact and how their differences informed their relations with one another.

When Columbus landed in what is now the Bahamas in 1492, or when Vikings established a small colony in Newfoundland in 1021—pick whichever narrative you prefer—and first encountered the Indigenous people living there, the meeting marked the full circling of the globe by human beings. This odyssey first started in Africa 60,000 years ago when human beings fanned upward and out of Africa, encountered Neanderthals, who had separated from our common human lineages 500,000 years ago, and then moved east across Asia and west across Europe until each genetically identical strand finally met up in eastern North America. Talk about an epic journey!

We will never know exact statistics, but the population of the area of North America east of the Mississippi at the time of Columbus’s arrival may have been more than 2 million Native people. These numbers soon shrank rapidly due to the diseases that European explorers and settlers brought with them and to which Native Americans had no immunity. As for the number of Europeans, by as late as 1700 their total population only amounted to around 250,000, and they were mainly confined to the coasts along the Atlantic seaboard. By 1750, however, a decisive shift had taken place, where European populations and their enslaved African workforce exploded to 1.25 million people while the Native population shrank to 250,000. By the time of the American Revolution—more than 280 years after Columbus’s landing—the number of European and African Americans finally brought the population of this eastern part of the continent back to where it was before at 2 million.

In 1600, just before the Pilgrims’ arrival, the total Indian population of New England was between 70,000 and 100,000. But when the Mayflower landed in Plymouth in 1620, a recent outbreak of disease had killed nearly ninety percent of the Wampanoags who were living there. The tired and hungry colonists were overjoyed to discover a vacant Native village and interpreted the cleared land as a reward for their biblical exodus. While exploring the village, they discovered, and promptly took, a deposit of corn that the Wampanoags had hidden away for themselves. For Native Americans who lived in southern New England, grain made up one-half to two-thirds of their diet, and it could be stored during the winter months so as to stave off starvation and be used in the spring as seed. In taking this stash of corn, then, the Pilgrim’s first decisive—and foretelling—action upon landing in North America was an act of theft.

When Europeans first entered North America, there was no part of the continent that was not inhabited and ruled by a sovereign Indian regime. The notion of “unsettled wilderness” that was ripe for the taking was a convenient myth first created by the Pilgrims. This myth helped them justify to themselves the taking of the Native American village and its land and ever since has informed the view of many historians interested in justifying European expansion on the North American continent. More recent historical evidence, however, does not support this notion of free and uninhabited open space.

If disease had not ravaged the Wampanoags before the arrival of the Mayflower, the Pilgrims’ landing would certainly have played out a lot differently. Next month, we are going to take a closer look at how the spread of disease among Native Americans impacted other elements of first contact between the Indigenous and European peoples.

—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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New Native American Resource

To accompany my Westborough History Connections series, “A Meeting of Two Cultures: Native Americans and Early European Settlers in Westborough,” I have created a new bibliography: Native American Resources in the Westborough Public Library.

This bibliography lists primary and secondary sources relating to Native American history in both Westborough and New England, so if you are interested in learning more about the issues and ideas that I have been exploring in my series, this list of resources is a great place to start.

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A Major Parkman Publishing Announcement

I am just about to finish reading Culture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop by Martin Puchner. In his book, Puchner argues that culture by definition is created through sharing and incorporating information both from the past and from other cultures that are not our own. While making this argument, he describes the many ways that knowledge is passed down to future generations and influences other cultures—from monuments, to oral story-telling practices, to writing on papyrus, to libraries and archives, etc. But he also shows how precarious all of these information transmission systems really are and how easily systems that we often take for granted can easily disappear. Central to this transmission of information is the humanities, which is the prime driver of knowledge and human civilization.

To this end, the Westborough Public Library is an important transmitter of knowledge and information, not only to our community but to the world. One of the library’s initiatives that I have written extensively about is the Ebenezer Parkman Project (EPP), which makes available both the works of Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, Westborough’s first minister, and related Westborough town records. Taken together, these documents provide the fullest picture of colonial life in a rural, New England community that is available anywhere. Now, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts (CSM) will be formerly publishing much of the EPP material on their website. My co-directors of the EPP—Prof. Ross W. Beales and Dr. James F. Cooper—and I have already started working with the CSM on converting and organizing this content for publication.

The importance of the Parkman and Westborough records will become even more apparent once they are published on the CSM website (we do not have a set publication date yet). But it is possible that the content of this project would never have made the light of day had it not been for the Westborough Public Library. Prof. Beales, whose scholarship forms the content of the project, recently admitted to me that if our other co-director and I had “not envisioned the EPP, most of what I’ve been doing would have ended up in a digital graveyard.” The Westborough Public Library provided Prof. Beales with the means to make his extensive scholarship on Parkman and Westborough available; otherwise, it would have sat on his computer and, at some point, probably disappeared. Now, with its publication through the CSM, this monumental project will find a long-lasting home where scholars and anyone else will freely be able to access and read it.

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A New COVID History Podcast

Mary Botticelli Christensen has been tirelessly collecting stories from Westborough residents about their experiences during the Coronavirus Pandemic. Now, in conjunction with Westborough TV, she has gathered them all together into an engaging podcast series called, When the Pandemic Came to Town: How a Small New England Town Survived with Resilience and Kindness. You can learn more about this project and access links to listen to the podcast on Amazon, Spotify, or Apple platforms by visiting this Westborough TV page: (BTW, I make an appearance in the first episode, if you are interested.)

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April Nature Notes

A section of my vegetable garden has been giving me disappointing results in recent years, probably due to insufficient sun, so I’m toying with the idea of turning this bed into a local plant and wildflower garden. Perfect timing, then, to read Annie Reid’s latest Nature Notes essay on whitlow grass and the first wildflowers of spring!

And you can read more of her essays about the natural goings-on on in Westborough during April here:

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Protecting Open Space in Westborough

Speaking of Westborough nature, next month’s Westborough Historical Society program will celebrate a quarter-century of preserving open space and creating trails by the Westborough Community Land Trust on Monday, May 8, at 7:00 on Zoom. WCLT leaders will describe the history of the organization and all that it has accomplished over these years.

This program is FREE, and you can register for it through this link:

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Travel Back in Time . . . By Unplugging

Even those of us who lived before the era of cell phones and computer screens have a hard time remembering what it was like to live without them. Now, for one week, you can return to those times (or, if you are younger than I am, get a feel for what life was like back then) by participating in Westborough Connects’ “Westborough Unplugs: Screen-Free Week” from April 30 to May 6.

To help us unplug for one week, Westborough Connects has a host of fun, computer-free, programs lined up to help get us through this admittedly difficult challenge, including a community bike ride, a “Book & Seek” here at the library, an exploration of Nourse farm, and a nature walk hosted by the Westborough Community Land Turst. Click here to find a complete list of events with links to more information, as well as details about their “Spring into Wellness” program on May 7.

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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.

Two Upcoming History Programs in April 2023

Eleanor Roosevelt–The First Lady of the World

On Monday, April 10th at 7:00 p.m. at the Willows, the Westborough Historical Society will present “Eleanor Roosevelt–The First Lady of the World.” The dynamic, beloved First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, will be brought to life by Sheryl Faye. This program is co-sponsored by The Willows of Westborough, 1 Lyman Street, and is supported in part by a grant from the Westborough Cultural Council, a local agency which is supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency. It is free and open to the public.

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“America in the Philippines”: An Historical Talk by Jennifer Hallock

On Thursday, April 13, 6:30—7:45 PM in the  Galfand Meeting Room, Westborough Public Library, Jennifer Hallock will present a historical talk on “America in the Philippines.”

Hotly contested stump speeches on transpacific trade, immigration, and national security are not new to American political discourse. Join historian, teacher, and author Jennifer Hallock to learn how our first experiment in overseas empire in the Philippines (1898-1946) launched the American Century and still shapes our country now. She will discuss this chapter of our shared history, and lead a Q&A on the effects we continue to see today.

Interested in a more high-level analysis? Read her article, “Army Trenches and School Benches: The Philippine-American War in the Sugar Sun Series.”   Copies of her books will also be available for sale and to be autographed at her talk.

To learn more, and to register for the talk, visit

Westborough Center Pastimes – March 17, 2023

Algonquian Language map

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.

Connection in Native American Organization and Interaction

Connection lies at the center of Native American organization and interaction. Under their cosmogony, we are all connected to the spiritual world, which itself is intertwined with the natural world. Use of the natural world in turn forms the patterns of interaction needed within the village to support its subsistence, and these patterns of behavior within the village carries over into how the group relates to other villages, groups, and tribes. Let’s take a closer look at how all of these levels interact and connect with one another.

The Great Spirit gifts use of the land to Native Americans. From this beginning premise, land is something that cannot be owned, and the rights to use it is conferred on the group, not any individual. Significant landforms—mountains, lakes, swamps—are imbued with spiritual meanings given their connection to the Great Spirit. Tribal ancestors, who protect the tribe and who are buried in the land, additionally strengthen the connection to the land. Sachems, as leaders of the group, are vested with the responsibility of using the land wisely so as not to violate the gift of the Great Spirit, and with the help of the shaman, they worked to ensure the fertility and productivity of the land. Before Europeans took control of the land in the Americas, sachems were empowered to negotiate with other sachems over boundary disputes, but these disputes were not over ownership of the land but rather over usage rights of shared land. When we later turn to examining early contact with European settlers, understanding this relationship between Native Americans and the land will be crucial.

For Native Americans living in eastern North America, the universe was morally neutral, with potentially hostile or potentially friendly spiritual forces all around them. In this cosmology, some of these spiritual forces are human; most of them are other-than-human. Everyone—people, animals, and spirit forces—have to work together. Humans need to bond with one another in families, clans, and villages, and the individuals in them all need to work together and within nature for the greater good of the group. In order to live, animals and plants need to offer themselves voluntarily as food. And powerful forces like the sun or the wind need to be placated to work on everyone’s behalf. To make this entire interconnected system work, the exchange of goods and obligations among all of these entities needed to be reciprocal and carried out with respect, so ceremony was employed to ensure that it did.

People who lived from the Chesapeake, up the eastern coast, over present-day Canada, and back down to the Ohio River (forming a vast inverted U: see the map above) all spoke Algonquian languages (including the Nipmuc). These languages were more loosely connected than the Germanic and Romance language families in Europe, and each language had myriad dialects, because each community was fairly independent from the others. But that does not mean they were disconnected. The great river systems throughout this region enabled trade routes and communication channels that have existed for millennia. Neighboring peoples exchanged food, raw materials, tools, knowledge, and weapons. Long-distance trade tended to involve more exotic materials, such as marine shells and beads to make wampum.

Major disputes between groups were handled with highly structured diplomacy. The Iroquois, neighbors to the Algonquians, employed an elaborate nine-stage diplomatic process when handling major disputes. After initiating a formal invitation to meet, the visitors arrived at the site of the council in a ceremonial procession. Upon arrival, the host offered rest and comfort to the visitors, who are presumed to be tired after having conducted a long journey. The two sides exchanged “Three Bare Words” of condolence in order to clear any grief-inspired rage that could prevent clear communication, and then everyone rested at least one night. The next day, after performing a more extensive Condolence ceremony to cleanse the minds and wipe away any lingering ill feelings, the sides then recounted the history of the two peoples’ relationship with one another, their peaceful interactions, and the manners taught to them by their ancestors. After all of these preliminaries, the work of negotiating the treaty would begin to take place.

Chiefs of the Six Nations at Brantford, Canada, explaining their wampum belts to Horatio Hale September 14, 1871.

Through the course of the negotiation wampum was exchanged to give the words validity. Wampum was more than a valuable commodity. The carefully woven patterns of beads and shells served as mnemonic devices to help the negotiators remember the messages they were empowered to deliver by the group, and they served as reminders of promises made years before. One’s reputation, in essence, was embodied both in the beads and in their exchange, so when Europeans jokingly tell stories about how the island of Manhattan was “purchased” for a handful of trinkets, more was going on in the exchange, at least in the minds of the Native Americans, than the story normally reveals.

Wabanaki Wampum Belts

During the negotiations, both sides were required to listen politely to the other side and not respond with anything of substance until the following day. Immediate replies were taken to mean that the speaker did not have the authority to speak on behalf of the group and that the proper wampum had not been prepared. Such exchanges could go on for days if not weeks. Negotiations mainly focused on compensating victims rather than punishing the perpetrator, whereas the reverse is true today. When a final outcome was agreed upon, the conference was concluded with a huge feast and an exchange of material gifts, such as food, cloth, tools, and weapons.

The effect of such elaborate ceremonial negotiations was to lower tensions, hear out everyone’s grievances, and empower the proper people to negotiate an acceptable solution to the problem. The negotiations took place in front of dozens if not hundreds of men, women, and children to give evidence that their representatives had broad political support. The people also served as witnesses to the continuity of these decisions to the past, to the need to remember the covenant that was just created, and to continue to live as good, peaceable neighbors. In other words, connection and harmonious balance were the primary concerns of all involved.

—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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Janet Parnes presents Dolley Madison

On Wednesday, March 29 at 6:30 p.m. in the Galfand Meeting Room at the Westborough Public Library, learn about one of our country’s transformative First Ladies when Janet Parnes presents “Quaker Girl Takes Washington’s Center Stage: The Influence of Dolley Madison.”

In her presentation, Parnes will take on the role of Dolley Madison, who softly stepped outside the social norms of Washington’s high society to establish new standards of decorum, introduce women into the politics of the day, and earn the respect of both military and civilian populations.

This free event is funded by the Westborough Cultural Council, and you can register for it here:

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Take a Westborough Architecture Tour (from the Warmth of Your Own Home)

As part of the 300th Anniversary celebration of Westborough in 2017, R. Chris Noonan and Luanne Crosby conducted a series of architecture tours around town and recorded them. With the help of Westborough TV, the two of them have now been working on editing the recordings and the second of these tours is now available online:

This tour centers around Cedar Swamp, which was filmed on a frigid winter day, and explores the pre-history, environmental protection, and importance of the area. The guest speaker on the tour is Michelle (Kamala) Gross, owner of Westborough Yoga and a trained archeologist who worked on this site back in the 80’s.

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Nature Notes

I recently attended the Worcester Art Museum’s annual “Flora in Winter” event where one of the floral displays used pussy willows. Seeing them reminded me how come spring when I was growing up, these twigs carrying hairy buds that felt as soft as cat’s fur always seemed to find their way into our house from the large, thriving bush in the corner of our backyard—one of the few plants we seemed to be able to grow successfully.

Learn more about pussy willows and other early signs of spring in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes for March:

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New Cabinets, New Look!

The Westborough Center has just added a new row of shelving to its room, which increases storage capacity for our town’s growing collection of historical records and documents.

You can learn more about the collections that are stored in the room by visiting the Westborough Archive catalog: If you spot anything that you would like to see in person, ask me or another librarian to pull it out for you. We are always happy to do so.

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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 – February 17, 2023

A recreation of a wetu.

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.

Seasonal Life in Nipmuc Villages and Westborough

Village life formed the center of social, economic, and political life of the Nipmuc, the Indian tribe that inhabited Westborough and its surrounding area. Unlike villages today, Nipmuc villages moved from place to place in order to exploit seasonal diversity of food sources. A few hundred people organized into extended kin networks lived in a village, and they all worked together to support the community.

The Nipmuc lived in structures consisting of wooden frames that were covered in grass mats or bark called wetus. These houses could be taken apart in a matter of a few hours, so that they could be transported to the next site where the village would settle. Depending on the season, they would also change shape: small houses for one or two families were prevalent in the summer, whereas longhouses that could house many families were common during the winter. If there were any additional food left over before a move, it could be stored in underground pit-barns, where it could be retrieved later if needed.

The Nipmuc tended to inhabit Westborough in the Fall and then move on to some other place or places during other times of the year. They were drawn to Westborough to take advantage of the area’s lakes and swamps. No evidence exists to indicate that the Nipmuc occupied Westborough during the winter, but it is possible that they may have settled here at different parts of the season during different times of prehistory. Places where seasonal camps in Westborough have been archaeologically excavated were likely visited repeatedly over a number of years by a fair number of people engaged in short-term foraging expeditions in nearby woods.

Prehistoric people living during the Late Archaic period (4,000-6,000 years ago) mainly visited Charlestown Meadows in the western part of Westborough during the Fall, where they gathered hickory nuts, acorns, and hazelnuts, and then charred them in fires. These nuts could be stored and provided protein and fats during the winter. The Nipmuc also hunted deer and processed their kill by extracting marrow from the bones, curing the meat, and making deerskin clothing for the winter months. While in Westborough, they took advantage of its mineral resources to make stone tools and flakes. The time they spent in Westborough, though, was relatively short.

In general, food gathering resources within Westborough included hunting and trapping animals, such as rattlesnakes, deer, bear, turkey, and small mammals. Opportunities for gathering berries and nuts from hazel and oak trees were also available. Quartzite boulders could be used for tool-making. The lakes, ponds, and swamps in Westborough offered fish, waterfowl, turtles, and water snakes, and the shores of these waters provided edible greens and rich, deep soils that could have been used for farming.

Yes, farming. In my last entry to this series, I talked about some of the misnomers we hold about the life of hunter-gatherers, but I neglected to mention another one, that hunter-gatherers did not engage in horticulture. True, they did not farm the land in the way that Europeans did, with long rows of monoculture crops, but they did manipulate plants, usually within their natural environment, to shape food production to fit their needs better.

Three Sisters: corn, beans, and squash.

Grains, especially corn, may have made up one-half to two-thirds of the diets of Native Americans in southern New England. These crops could also be stored during the winter, which made starvation less likely. Corn is a difficult grain to grow–it requires constant weeding–which is why Native Americans raised other crops right alongside it to keep weeds at bay. Inter-planting beans (which grew up the stalks of the corn), squash, pumpkin, and tobacco among the corn prevented weeds from growing and lessened considerably the amount of labor needed to tend the crops. The result looked messy to the Europeans, who were used to planting monocultural fields, but the approach (which became known as the “Three Sisters” with the planting of corn, beans, and squash) yielded much more food per acre.

Women conducted most agricultural activities. They were also in charge of housing, owned most of the household goods, and made decisions about moving at appropriate times during the year. Men went out from these bases to hunt and fish. Food productivity reached its height in the fall months. During this time, women harvested their crops and gathered nuts and edible wild plants. Harvest festivals, where eating, dancing, and rituals took place, marked a celebration of the bounty. As part of the festivities, wealthy people gave away much of what they owned to increase their reputations, establish reciprocal relationships, and form allies and followers. (Note the entirely different attitude towards wealth here than in Western societies, where amassing capital in itself is the higher value and what one does with it is that person’s personal business.) At the end of harvest celebrations, the camps stored the harvested food and moved on to hunting grounds, where the men took over food production while the women butchered and processed the kill.

The activities of Nipmucs and other Native Americans were all focused on getting as much out of the land with as little labor as possible. In addition, each season brought different economic activity, which provided a greater variety of mental stimulation than perhaps our singularly focused jobs do today. If happiness comes from getting more from less labor, then Native Americans certainly tipped the scales in their favor.

—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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Take the Nature Notes Quiz!

Every year in January, Annie Reid and Garry Kessler create a Nature Notes quiz. The idea is to use the quiz as a memory-refresher for what we all might expect to see as we experience nature in Westborough throughout the year. You can take the quiz here:

And if you fail the quiz, like I did, don’t despair! Get out into the woods with February’s Nature Notes open on your phone to learn about our town’s flora and fauna and prepare for next year’s quiz. Or, if you prefer to lie around the house, check out the most recent Nature Notes article on Penicillium mold, which can be found in our ordinary refrigerators.

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All Aboard!

The building of the railroad in 1834 turned Westborough from a serene farm town into a bustling Industrial powerhouse, a transformation that continues to influence the character of our town today. Learn all about this transition on Monday, March 6, at 7:00 p.m. at the The Willows (1 Lyman Street) when the Westborough Historical Society presents a talk by historian Phil Kittredge called, “All Aboard! The Train and Industry Pull into Town.”

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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 – 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:

Special Note: To learn more about about Westborough’s pre-history (and the importance of Cedar Swamp), watch the second part of R. Chris Noonan and Luanne Crosby’s Architectural/Cultural Walking Tour #2: Archaeological Primer; Westborough’s Pre-History.

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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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:

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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:

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.


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: 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:

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:

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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!

* * *

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.