Westborough Center Pastimes – January 21, 2022

Ebenezer Parkman Project: New Insights into Rural Life in Colonial New England

Westborough is the single best town for studying rural life in colonial New England. How can I make such a claim? After all, many rural New England towns have maintained their historical records to the same degree that Westborough has (although many have not). So what makes Westborough so uniquely positioned for historical study of this place and era? The answer lies with Westborough’s first minister, Rev. Ebenezer Parkman.

Rev. Parkman became Westborough’s minister in 1724 and served in that position until his death in 1782. Few towns enjoyed such continuity in a position that was so central to town life during this period. But Rev. Parkman’s importance to history goes beyond his long tenure as minister, because throughout the time he served he compulsively kept a detailed diary of his activities, of his interactions with people in town, and of important events, including those of the American Revolution.

Add to the mix that Rev. Parkman also maintained the church records for Westborough in similar meticulous fashion (many ministers recorded only cursory information about church meetings, if at all). When taken together—Westborough’s town records, Westborough’s church records, and the Parkman diary—no other rural New England town is as well documented as Westborough during this time. In short, these records provide unprecedented insight into the life of New Englanders during this formative time in our country’s history.

Recognizing the importance of Rev. Parkman to the study of early American history, I started working with two other scholars on making the minister’s writings more accessible and putting them in historical context. The result is the Ebenezer Parkman Project, a unique collaboration between a public library, professional scholars, and prominent local institutions, such as the American Antiquarian Society, the Colonial Society of Massachusetts, and the Congregational Library & Archives.

Prof. Ross W. Beales, Jr. (Professor Emeritus, College of the Holy Cross) provides much of the scholarly work that appears on the EPP website, including a complete transcription of the Parkman diary and scholarly profiles of individuals who lived in town during the eighteenth century. Dr. James F. Cooper works with our institutional partners to facilitate the digitization of original records, and I organize and maintain the website that contains all of this research material.

I recently finished redesigning the Ebenezer Parkman Project website to improve navigation and give its overall appearance a more uniform look, and I have posted Prof. Beales’s most recent work on Rev. Parkman. Some of these new additions include:

One of the more consequential projects that Prof. Beales has been working on is assessing the accuracy of the ubiquitous Vital Records to 1850 that have been published for most towns in Massachusetts. By combing through all of the Parkman diary and other Westborough records, Prof. Beales has uncovered many more references to deaths than appear in the official records for Westborough, including four of Rev. Parkman’s own children. Some of the deaths that did not make it into official records include people with disabilities, enslaved individuals, interracial married couples, soldiers, strangers and newcomers to town, and others where the reasons for not recording their deaths are not clear. You can read Prof. Beales’s article, “Counting Deaths in Eighteenth-Century Westborough”, about his work on this subject and view his tables of unaccounted deaths in Westborough on the EPP website.

Why is this work on reassessing vital statistics so important? Because many demographic studies of colonial life over the years have solely relied on analyzing the official records in the Vital Records to 1850 publishing project. Prof. Beales shows that these records are woefully incomplete. If official records are the only sources used to study colonial demographics, the result will be a skewed picture of colonial life that privileges more established people and leaves out those belonging to more marginal groups of society.

When the three of us started the project, we had a vision of re-creating life in eighteenth-century Westborough through a virtual, digital form. We aim to use this technology to create a picture of town life that is so granular that it shows the everyday challenges that people faced, the tensions that emerged in their interactions, and their reactions to events that, with our benefit of hindsight, would profoundly change their lives. With all of these recent updates and our continual work on the Ebenezer Parkman Project our vision is coming closer to becoming a reality.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

Note: The authors of the two books listed above both use the Ebenezer Parkman Project and Westborough town records in their scholarship.

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A colonial wedding, the marriage of Dr. Francis Le Baron and Mary Wilder, Plymouth, 1695 by Frederick Dielman, 1898 (Library of Congress)

Take the Marriages by Day of the Week “Quiz”

Are you married or have ever attended a wedding? If so, do you remember the day of the week in which it took place? Most likely, the event happened on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday.

No, I’m not a mind reader, but as Prof. Ross W. Beales, Jr. points out, “Many events that involve choice do not happen in a random manner.” Take his Marriages by Day of the Week “Quiz” to find out what he means by this statement.

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Are We in for a Harsh Winter?

It’s the beginning of the year, so many of us pick up a copy of the Old Farmer’s Almanac to learn the dates of upcoming full moons and other astrological events, pick up some gardening tips and folk wisdom, and find out if we are going to experience a harsh winter.

Others of us may instead rely on Wooly Bears to predict the upcoming winter weather. Wooly Bears? In one of her “Nature Note’s” for the month of January, Annie Reid explains the signs that people look for in wooly bear caterpillars to predict the upcoming winter weather.

Still others think that those of us who rely on such weather prognostication sources are a bit nutty. Personally, I’m happy to consult either source—as long as it accurately predicts a mild winter!

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Look What I Found!

While working on a research question about a Westborough soldier who served in the American Civil War, I discovered that the library owns a signature of Ulysses S. Grant!

The signature appears in a volume of autographs of people who served in the Civil War that was donated to the library in January 1909 by the Westborough chapter of the Grand Army of the Republic. I knew that we owned the volume; I just never looked closely enough at the signatures to recognize that the first one was Grant’s, which goes to show that there is a lot to discover in front of our face. We just have to look!

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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.

Westborough Center Pastimes – December 17, 2021

First Christmas Eve – A Vision of the Future, from Puck magazine, 1896 (Library of Congress)

The Importance of Ritual

We are deep into the holiday season, and as we continue to plan our parties and family gatherings, purchase gifts to exchange with loved ones, and bake and cook special food, I have been reflecting on the importance of ritual and its role in making this time of season so special.

We normally associate ritual with religion and with good reason. Religion codifies practically every action that takes place in its name. Those who regularly attend religious services know exactly what to expect. The posted symbols and the acts that take place during religious ceremonies have been carefully thought out and developed over time, and the stability that they provide in the midst of a chaotic world can lend comfort to those who attend them.

But ritual has an important role to play in other institutions, both formal and informal. We have rituals in government, such as standing up when a judge enters the room or the administration of an oath of office when someone new takes over a position of power. Some rituals are daily, such as eating meals together around a dinner table at the end of the day. We enact ritual when we attend the theater by dressing up, sitting quietly in the audience when the lights go down, and clapping for the performers at the end of the performance in appreciation.

Family gatherings, especially over the holidays, are also coded with ritual. We often ask, “What does your family do for the holidays?” because we automatically assume that annual patterns govern our celebrations. Jokes about overeating at Thanksgiving and enduring tasteless jokes from an inappropriate uncle are cliché precisely because we all experience and engage in such behaviors, even though we belong to different families.

Why is ritual so ubiquitous? It must play an important role in our human existence, otherwise we would approach each day as if it is completely new and not try to connect one with any other. I have already touched on some reasons for why we engage in ritual, but here are three more, which, not surprisingly, all interrelate.

Rituals serve as markers of time. Ritual is defined as actions that are repeatedly performed in a precise manner. Every year, some households put out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and wake up early in the morning to open the presents he has left under the tree. In the moment, the ritualistic similarities to past years stand out, but ironically, these similarities give us a base to remember important differences over time, such as the year when Santa brought exactly the present that was requested or when a special ornament was added to the annual tree trimming. My wife seems to be able to remember every outfit she wore at past Thanksgiving gatherings, but she’d have a harder time doing so for a random day of the year.

Rituals also help us measure our lives as we move through time: putting out milk and cookies for Santa with giddy excitement eventually becomes putting them out with a knowing wink in an act of adolescent nostalgia—and finally becomes eating the milk and cookies (or simply putting them back in their containers after the kids have gone to bed). The new roles that ritual assigns to us as we step aside to allow a new generation to take over a role that we have outgrown helps us both to define and accept our aging process.

Rituals help us to see and enact our social natures. Participation in rituals connects us to a social reality that is greater than ourselves. We can take comfort in knowing that we are a part of a larger picture, that the space we inhabit in it is important, and that we are not alone. Today we live in a society that places high value on the individual, but that value also means that each of us bears an awful lot of pressure and expectations to realize our potential as human beings on our own. Ritual is a means of connecting with other people who are going through the exact same experiences that we are, realizing that we are not alone on our journey, and finding support when we need it.

Rituals help us through moments of profound transition. Why do graduates all dress in ridiculous gowns and wear caps with odd squares on their heads during graduation ceremonies? Graduation is a joyful yet scary time for graduating seniors. These spring ceremonies celebrate accomplishing a tough goal, but they also mark a scary new beginning when new goals will need to be established—although this time without nearly the same structural support. Dressing in the same odd costume takes all of the individuals who have pursued myriad subjects of study during their college years and symbolically places them into the same category, that of graduating senior. What they are wearing creates solidarity and reinforces the knowledge that all of them are facing a similar moment of transition, even though they will soon go off to pursue different kinds of lives.

As you engage in the rituals of this holiday season, I wish you joy as you use these rituals to reflect back on years past, to appreciate the present moment with a greater sense of purpose, and to anticipate the wonderful moments that the future has in store for you.

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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Project Empire Article

An article I recently wrote for the British online magazine, New Politic, is now available online. The article, “The Criminal Origins of the United States of America,” is about British convict transportation to America, which took place between the years 1718 and 1775, and is the subject of a book I wrote in 2011 on the subject called, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America.

The article is part of New Politic’s Project Empire series, which explores “Britain’s colonial acts abroad and the people over whom the British empire ruled.” The series contains articles covering Britain, Asia, Africa, America, Australasia, and the Middle East.

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Westborough Nature in December

How long will the mild weather last? But even if the weather turns cold and snowy, just bundle up and explore Westborough nature with Annie Reid’s “Nature Notes” for the month of December: https://westboroughlandtrust.org/nn/nnindex?order=month#December. According to Reid, December marks the beginning of deer watching season!

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Westborough Center Pastimes – November 19, 2021

Material Memories

In a devastating scene in John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath, the Joad family, after losing their farm to a bank during the Great Depression, must make decisions about what they can fit into the truck that will take them from their home in Oklahoma to California. The truck does not have nearly enough room to take all of their belongings, so they must make painful decisions about what must be left behind:

The women sat among the doomed things, turning them over and looking past them and back. This book. My father had it. He liked a book. Pilgrim’s Progress. Used to read it. Got his name in it. And his pipe—still smells rank. And this picture—an angel. I looked at that before the fust three come—didn’t seem to do much good. Think we could get this china dog in? Aunt Sadie brought it from the St. Louis Fair. See? Wrote right on it. No, I guess not. Here’s a letter my brother wrote the day before he died. Here’s an old-time hat. These feathers—never got to use them. No, there isn’t room.

How can we live without our lives? How will we know it’s us without our past? No. Leave it. Burn it.

The scene not only raises the importance of memory and its role in family history, but it also shows how much of our memory is tied up in physical objects. For the women sorting through the belongings, the book Pilgrim’s Progress is not an allegorical story about a character traveling through life but rather is a book that invokes memories of their father, who owned and cherished it. The china dog raises memories of a family member who once had the good fortune to visit a world’s fair and thus represents a modicum of success for the family, no matter how humble. Some of the objects, like the angel, hold painful memories.

The objects testify and serve as proof that such events in the past actually took place. Even more, the objects store these memories and hold them for the next time an eye lands on them or a hand pulls them out of a box. But once they go up in smoke, what happens to the memories?

We tend to think of memory as purely a mental exercise, but many of our memories are embedded in physical objects. Look around a room in your house and focus on a particular object. It’s nearly impossible to look at that object and not have the memory of how you acquired it, how long it has sat there, or why it was placed there in the first place come to mind. We surround ourselves with objects we acquired at various points in our lives because they help us remember those moments, moments that have passed us by and can never be recovered except in our memories.

Industrialization in the nineteenth century led to an explosion of mass-produced objects that quickly populated our houses. When we think of a classic Victorian interior, the room is dark and packed with furniture and decorative items. Today, our rush into the digital age and greater environmental awareness has led to devaluing physical objects in favor of virtual ones. But what happens to the memories of our lives when they lie buried behind a computer screen in places we may never visit again? And if we lose easy access to our memories, how accurate will the narratives that we necessarily create about our lives truly be?

In having to burn and leave behind items from their past, the Joad family realizes that they are losing more than the objects themselves. They are losing their family history and the ability to tell those stories. And that’s what makes the scene so devastating.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading (and Viewing):

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Native Americans in the Parkman Diary

Lately, I have been busy refreshing the Ebenezer Parkman Project website by making it easier to navigate and adding new content created by Prof. Ross W. Beales, Jr., an expert on Parkman and Westborough during the colonial period. The website has received national attention and is the best source for studying colonial life in a rural New England town.

Some of the additions I have recently added include a series of entries in Parkman’s diary where he talks about Native Americans. November is National Native American Heritage Month, so it is the perfect time to start exploring how Westborough’s early colonists thought about and interacted with the native people who also lived in the area.

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Westborough Nature in November

Connect with nature in Westborough with Annie Reid’s “Nature Notes” for the month of November in hand: https://westboroughlandtrust.org/nn/nnindex?order=month#November.

And especially celebrate the season with her article on turkeys!

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Westborough Historical Society’s Annual Holiday Bazaar

Every year the Westborough Historical Society holds a Holiday Bazaar at the Sibley House on 13 Parkman Street. This year, the sale is taking place on Saturday, December 4 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. The sale includes antiques, knick-knacks, and other fun items. Stop by and see if you can find that special gift for someone that can’t be found in a big box store!

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – October 15, 2021

A squirrel and my dog playing, “How close can I get?”

Squirrels

We liken our backyard deck to a treehouse, because it sits atop a walk-out basement and overlooks a wooded hill in such a way that the deck is positioned right at the canopy level of the trees. From this vantage point, I can watch the squirrels and marvel at their ability to jump from branch to branch, and consequently from tree to tree, laugh as they chase each other around, and admire their work ethic as they gather nuts for the winter. As the leaves fall from the trees, my view of their antics gets better and better.

This year has been great for squirrel-watching. Five baby squirrels appeared in the spring and captivated the attention of me and my dog, who would patiently sit and observe their activity. Their favorite game was to climb down the tree bit by bit while my dog watched trying to determine the exact distance they could go before she would finally chase them back up the tree. The chain-linked fence that separated the two made the game pretty safe, though, and I can’t recall a time when my dog actually ran after them. She was much more interested in enjoying their company than in chasing them away.

In some years, the squirrels would make only a brief appearance, and I would fret that they may never return, that is, until I realized that their residency is tied to the production of the walnut tree that hangs over our deck and rains nuts down upon us. Nut production has been prolific this year, so I have been enjoying a lot of squirrel activity even though it comes with occasionally being startled by the loud banging of the nuts as they fall on our deck and furniture, and possibly my head.

Squirrels are highly adaptable. They are able to live comfortably on the margins of urban and natural environments, which is why they were one of the few “wild animals” I saw when I was growing up on the south side of Chicago. Although, there were also lightning bugs. After eating dinner in the summer, we would often go out to the backyard and try to catch the lightning bugs in the palms of our hands as the dusk turned into night. If we were ambitious, we would punch holes in the top of a jar and collect them until we were finally called inside to get ready for bed and had to let them all go. Then one year, the lightning bugs stopped appearing.

I’m not a big science fiction fan, but I did recently watch all of the Planet of the Apes movies in order for the first time. Whether such stories take place in the future, or in a galaxy far, far away, in every case, human beings remain the constant. Change happens around them, but they all pretty much look and act like we do today. The stories never seem to consider that as the environment changes, we as a species would also likely change. Maybe such an attitude stems from a justified confidence in our ability to use our intelligence to manipulate our environment to suit our productive needs, as has been the case up until this point in our specie’s history—but perhaps it is this very intelligence that will doom us into making short-term productive decisions that will ultimately lead to our demise, rather than long-term ones that will extend the life of our species.

If squirrels possessed language, they would most likely join me in chuckling about our tendency to assume that human beings will continue to be around for as far as our historical eye can see. After all, our track record as a species is rather short. Whereas squirrels have been around for 36 million years, human beings have been around for a measly 200,000 years, and civilization as we experience it is only 6,000 years old. My money for longevity is on the squirrels.

I feel lucky to live in a town that takes open space and the preservation of our natural surroundings seriously. When I try to identify the folkways, the social and cultural practices, and the attitudes towards life that make Westborough unique, attention to the intricacies of our environment is one that jumps out. Like the squirrels, we live on the margins of urban and rural/natural environments in our state. Let’s continue to make sure that we keep tending to our existence as carefully as the squirrels do theirs.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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File written by SlideShow v2.1.26 by Garry Kessler.

Westborough Nature in October

Learn about Clouded Sulphur Butterflies in Annie Reid’s Nature Notes article, scan her monthly index for October to read about other natural events that tend to occur this month, and then head out to the meadows and trails to see what you can find with your new knowledge!

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Westborough Historical Society Program

In the first capital case in the United States, Bathsheba Spooner became the first woman to be executed in America after she was convicted in 1778 of plotting the murder of her husband, Joshua Spooner, in Brookfield, MA. Her teenage lover and two other accomplices were also convicted.

Learn more about this case and Worcester’s pivotal role in the American Revolutionary War on Monday, October 25 at 6 p.m. at the Tatnuck Bookseller when Worcester native and professional musician Andrew Noone discusses his new book, Bathsheba Spooner: A Revolutionary Murder Conspiracy. The program is free and open to the public. The Tatnuck Bookseller is located at 18 Lyman St. in Westborough.

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New Exhibit Format

Stop by the Westborough Center and check out the condensed and newly formatted exhibit, “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough.” You can also experience the exhibit online.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – September 17, 2021

Community, Memory, Stories

Workers from the J. R. Cooper Co., a leather works, in front of the factory on Beach St., ca. 1880-1899.
Hanging Out around the Rotary, by Brandin Tumeinski, 2018

“When a community loses its memory, its members no longer know one another. How can they know one another if they have forgotten or have never learned one another’s stories? If they do not know one another’s stories, how can they know whether or not to trust one another? People who do not trust one another do not help one another, and moreover they fear one another.”

–Wendell Berry, “The Work of Local Culture” in What Are People For?

In my last two newsletters, I have been reflecting on why Maureen Amyot, the WPL library director, and I selected the name “Westborough Center for History and Culture” for the library’s local history department (August 20) and outlined some of the activities that happens in it (September 3). But a title and a list of programs does not get to the heart of why such a department is necessary. Wendell Berry can help us with this question.

Three words pop out when I read Berry’s quotation above: community, memory, stories. Together, these words could form a tagline for what the Westborough Center is all about and why it is important. Let’s find out why.

Westborough has always had a strong community even though the town and its area have experienced momentous changes over the years. Economically, it was a place for hunting and foraging by indigenous people and then became a farming community starting with an influx of Europeans mainly from the British Isles. In the nineteenth century, our town became an industrial center, which brought even more Europeans from more diverse countries to our area to work in the factories and lay down railroad tracks. Today, multinational corporations located in and around the town draw people from all over the world, most notably from South Asia. All of these changes have shaped our history and our community.

With so much change, how have we remained such a strong community through each iteration? One might think that such constant change—both economically and demographically—would create disorientation and keep people from ever truly getting to know one another. And to be sure, these various changes did involve struggle for the people who for a time were perceived as “outsiders.” But a strong element of Westborough culture is its history. Our town historical records are basically complete, which means that throughout this time the people of Westborough have always seen them as being important and necessary to save and preserve. That’s not necessarily the case in other Massachusetts towns. We have an active historical society that goes back to 1889. And the celebration of the town’s 300th anniversary in 2017 involved hundreds of events throughout the year and drew thousands of people to its parade.

We often think of history in terms of preserving an unchanging past, but really, a true love of history entails an acknowledgment and embrace of change, because without change we have no history. So history brings us to the second important word in Berry’s quotation: memory. Historical records hold the memory of what we once were as a community and offer us the chance to gain better clarity into what we are today. When we remember the people who lived in our town, what they did, and how they lived, we really never leave them behind, no matter how much change takes place. And if we remember them, then we are likely to be remembered as well. Memory, or history, is the glue that keeps a community together and makes it strong.

And now we arrive at the third word: stories. We experience memory and keep it alive by telling and listening to stories, and then by retelling and passing along those stories again. The Westborough Center has lots of tools for learning about, telling, and sharing stories about Westborough, our community, and its past. The historical records in the Westborough Center’s archive hold infinite stories just waiting to be unsealed and discovered by researchers. Programs sponsored by the Westborough Center often create records that capture how we live today, so that the people of tomorrow can tell stories about us. And the Westborough Center itself tells stories, through exhibits, sponsored lectures, and this newsletter.

The history of our town belongs to all of us, because we are all a part of its history. We all have memories of living here and have stories to tell each other about doing so. And the more stories we tell about ourselves, to paraphrase Wendell Berry, the more we learn from each other, the more we trust each other, the more we help each other, the less we fear of one another, and the stronger our community becomes. And that is why the Westborough Center for History and Culture is so important.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

I am always looking for new ways to talk about and better understand Westborough. Do you have a story that you want to discover and/or tell to the people of Westborough? Stop by or drop me a note at avaver@cwmars.org.

Recommended Reading:

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Last Call

“Changing Pictures of Childhood,” the current exhibit at the Westborough Public Library, will be taken down for a new exhibit at the end of this month (September). The exhibit has received a lot of attention lately in the local press, so if you want to see and experience the full exhibit, you need to do so within the next couple weeks.

The exhibit will continue to be available indefinitely online, and a truncated version will be available in the Westborough Center once the major exhibit is taken down.

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National Voter Registration Day

The Westborough Center is a strong supporter of civic engagement. With this year being an off-election year, you may be surprised that nonetheless this year’s National Voter Registration Day is coming up on Tuesday, September 28.

Even though Westborough is not going to the polls this fall, voter registration also gives you the chance to participate in Town Meetings, where important decisions about our town are made. You can register to vote or check your registration status at the Town Clerk’s Office or do both online at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s Voter Resources page.

You can learn more about National Voter Registration Day through this link.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – September 3, 2021

What’s In a Name? Part II

In my last newsletter, I parsed out the name of the Westborough Center for History and Culture and explained why we selected it, so perhaps a review of how well the title reflects what happens behind its glass windows is in order.

As a Center, the program is designed to support the interests of people who wish to engage in activities relating to Westborough’s history and culture. How has this aim manifested itself so far? We started a Photographer-in-Residence program both to support the work of talented photographers in town and to add the documentation of life in Westborough that they create to the archives. We sponsored Architectural Walking Tours given by R. Chris Noonan and Luanne Crosby and worked with them to produce supporting documentation that shows Westborough’s architectural history. We also worked with two girl scouts, Emily Bartee and Kayla Niece, on a Silver Award project to create a self-guided architecture tour of Westborough’s downtown.

We have also partnered with people in town to publish and make available important records, documents, and histories relating to Westborough. We worked with the Town Clerk’s office to digitize all of our town records up until 1930 through the Digital Commonwealth, which includes the town’s handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence. We also helped Kristina Nilson Allen digitize her seminal history of Westborough, On the Beaten Path: Westborough, Massachusetts, so that anyone with access to the Internet can now read it for free. And we have created a website, the Ebenezer Parkman Project, by working with two other scholars, Ross W. Beales and James F. Cooper, to make the entire diary of Ebenezer Parkman, Westborough’s first minister, available in one place and searchable for the first time. Overall, the website provides unprecedented access to a large number of historical records that make Westborough the best place to study colonial life in a rural New England town.

History, of course, plays a central role in the Westborough Center’s activity, so we have made the records that document the town’s history more accessible to everyone. Historical records that were hidden away, unorganized, and, as a consequence, generally inaccessible have now been boxed up, cataloged, and made discoverable through the Westborough Archive Catalog. People seeking information about a topic relating to Westborough can start here and identify collections that can help with their research. Some of the more important collections have been digitized and are available online at the Digital Commonwealth or in the Westborough Digital Repository. Westborough’s historical newspapers have also been digitized, so that sitting in front of a microfilm machine to read them is now in the past. And all of these resources and more are available through the Westborough Archive website.

And finally, what about Culture? We regularly create exhibits and online publications that try to place Westborough’s local history into a broader cultural context. Our current exhibit, Changing Pictures of Childhood, connects local practices relating to child welfare to changing notions of childhood itself through history. Years ago, we published a series of blog articles under the title, “How Does History Connect Westborough and India?,” and we worked with Westborough TV and the Westborough Cricket Club to film an in-person program on An Introduction to the Game of Cricket. We also explored Westborough’s folk tales through another program and then published them online as another blog series.

Unfortunately, many of these activities have been curtailed due to the pandemic, but our sincere hope is that we can get many of them up and running again in the near future. So if you have any interest in exploring Westborough’s history and culture, or perhaps even working with us to create an exhibit, a program, or an article to share your local knowledge with the community, we are here to help.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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Photograph by Gary Kessler.

One of the strengths of Westborough is its green spaces. Are you curious about the wild plants and animals you might see locally in September? Check out the Westborough Community Land Trust’s online monthly Nature Notes index for September, written by Annie Reid. All of the listed articles for the month continue to be relevant today!

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With its focus on history, culture, and knowledge, the Smithsonian Institution serves as a model of inspiration for the Westborough Center. In many ways, we try to replicate the spirit of inquiry that it represents and to use its leadership to explore themes that affect us at a more local level here in Westborough.

This summer, the Smithsonian Institution has launched an institution-wide initiative, Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past, to explore the history and legacy of race and racism in the United States and across the globe. The initiative will include a series of integrated events across the U.S., including conferences, town halls, and pop-up events. The hope is to spark conversations in a safe space among people who may normally never interact with one another about a topic that can admittedly become uncomfortable. The first forum on Race, Health, and Wealth was held just over a week ago, and it can now be viewed online.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – August 20, 2021

What’s In a Name?

When I got the chance to rebrand the Westborough Room several years ago, I wanted to find a name that better captured my vision for how Westborough’s rich historical resources could be used. Library Director Maureen Amyot and I together settled on “The Westborough Center for History and Culture.” Why did we choose this name?

In rethinking the purpose of the room, our first priority was to make the collections more accessible to the general public. All of us own the collections that are in our keep, so not only do people have a right to see, study, and enjoy them, they need to know that they have this right even though most of the materials sit behind locked doors for security reasons. As part of this effort, we instituted a digitization program. Digitizing our most important collections and items means that people can use them at any time and from practically anywhere. Plus, every time someone uses the digital copy, it saves the original from the necessary wear and tear that occurs whenever it is accessed in person. Digital copies are not replacements for the originals—physical copies have much longer shelf lives for a variety of reasons, which is why we continue to store and maintain them even after digitization—but they offer different ways to use the originals and help protect them over time.

The need to store our historical collections in special conditions is the main reason why we have a separate room in the library for them. These collections offer a means for learning about what Westborough was like in the past, for comparing what it was then with what it is now, and for assessing what we want our town to be in the future. Our addition of “Center” in the title for the space is meant to convey the idea that we, as residents, are all invested in the idea of what Westborough represents and that the library has a place devoted to exploring this idea. The room does not exist for a few select people to use and then tell us what the history of Westborough is all about. It is a place where different people can come together and utilize the stored resources in new and creative ways. The idea of the room being a Center was so central to our conception of it that we decided to use “Westborough Center” as the room’s nickname and URL (www.WestboroughCenter.com) in order to emphasize that it is a place where all are welcome to drop in and think more deeply about where we live.

The inclusion of  “History” in the title for the room was a no-brainer. Westborough loves its history, which makes my job incredibly easy. Much of what I do is met with enthusiasm, so I am continually inspired to find new ways to contextualize and make our town’s history even more accessible. Many of the people I meet in cultural and historical circles are amazed that a town of our size even has a local history librarian. The fact that we do is testament to the intense interest that residents have in our local history.

But we did not want to leave the impression that the historical records we keep are mere fossils from our past, that they have little relevance to our lives today, and that our lives today pale in comparison to those who lived in the distant past and so will be of little interest to those in the future. The study of our town’s past provides a better understanding of our present by helping us to self-reflect on who we are now. Through these reflections, we have an opportunity to represent ourselves to the future, to give those who succeed us a better understanding of who we think we are today. Doing so means actively creating records and collections that will be meaningful to the future, rather than passively relying on the important records we create to survive, emerge at some point, and somehow find their way into local history collections. That’s where the idea of adding “Culture” to the title came in.

The addition of “Culture” signals that as much as we enjoy exploring what Westborough was in the past, we also need to be invested in thinking about what Westborough is today and in ensuring that future residents have a means of exploring who we are and what we are all about. By fostering cultural activity in Westborough, creating records tied to that activity, and then adding those records to our collections, we are also participating in the process of creating history. “Culture” breathes life into our historical collections by creating continuities between our past, present, and future, and future generations will appreciate the breadcrumbs we left behind to help them carry out this very same process.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

The conclusion to the above essay begs the question, “What is Westborough culture?” What is unique about how we live our lives here in Westborough? Are there certain activities that stand out and encapsulate who we are?

Share your answers to these questions in the Comment section at the end of this newsletter or e-mail me at avaver@cwmars.org. If I get enough feedback, I will summarize the results in a future newsletter.

Recommended Reading:

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The Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library continues to do incredibly creative work with maps. The center recently published an article that challenges the utility of red-blue political maps based on geography and, using recent U.S. Census data, has created an interactive map that organizes congressional districts by various characteristics, such as median household income, percent with a college degree, and percent speaking only English. The results give us a more nuanced picture of the U.S. electorate.

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What am I reading right now? I generally read a variety of books from different genres at the same time, so that I can pick up the right book that strikes my mood at the moment—do I want to settle in and enjoy a story or pick up a pencil and dive into some serious nonfiction? The problem with my approach, though, is that it seems to take forever to get through my pile of “active” books.

One of the books I am currently reading is The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous, a New York Times notable book in 2020, by Joseph Henrich. As people who live in the contemporary Western World, we exhibit distinct psychological characteristics, such as individualism, self-obsession, nonconformity, and analytical thinking. We assume that all people hold similar values based on these characteristics and that people who do not are strange. But it turns out that we are the weird ones: these characteristics are highly unique when compared to populations that have inhabited the earth over a much broader span of history, and many populations continue to hold older, more “traditional” values that are different from ours today.

Henrich argues that prohibitions against certain kinship and marriage practices by the Roman Catholic Church over time led to changes in our very psychological makeup, towards a more individualistic sense of self and away from a self more embedded in relationships and social roles. Henrich’s argument is complicated, but he carefully takes us through his thinking as he creates psychological experiments and analyzes historical data. The descriptions of his process, though necessary, can sometimes create some rather dry reading, but if you stick with him, you will begin to question what you regard as perfectly normal and gain a more nuanced conception of human behavior across history.

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Westborough Center Pastimes – August 6, 2021

Down the Rabbit Hole of Local History

Local history librarians like me usually end up being both archivists and curators of the collections we oversee. In addition to organizing and servicing collections under our watch, we are tasked with making decisions about what items and collections to add. We make these decisions based on the context of existing collections (does the item or collection relate to others already in our possession?) and in anticipation of what we think people will want to use and see in the future. We are also charged with making the collections in our possession breathe by demonstrating their ability to add to our understanding of the world. We do so in the hope that others will follow our example and discover new ways to use and think about the collections under our care.

When I look back on the exhibits that I have created over the years both here in Westborough and at other institutions, most of them were about subjects where I had little knowledge and only a tangential interest. In some cases, the idea for the exhibit was suggested to me by someone else, and I added my own spin once I started working on it. In others, the collection itself demanded to be featured in some kind of exhibit due to the quality of the items in it, the interest level on the part of the community, and its importance in relation to other collections. But in every case, what started out as a task ended up a passion as I continued going down the rabbit hole of the collection and its subject-matter.

Illustration by John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” 1865

A couple years ago, the Robert Cleaves Collection of Lyman School Records (LH.070) was donated to our library, and as soon as I opened the box and started going through its contents, I knew that I had to create an exhibit around it. The collection contains the first volume of meeting minutes for the Trustees of the Reform School—the first state-run reform school in the country and what later became the Lyman School for Boys (both iterations were based here in Westborough). The collection also has printed reports and promotional materials for the school and, most importantly, pictures of the boys taken between the years 1905-1912.

I was originally planning to create a small exhibit inside the Westborough Center using the collection, but when I told Lynne Soukup, the Assistant Library Director, about my plans, she excitedly offered the entire wall in the main room of the library to me. Give any academic like me space, and we are going to fill it! My exhibit project suddenly had the potential to become something much bigger and more significant.

When I started to think about expanding the scope of my exhibit, my first thought was to pair these materials with a collection of indentured servant contracts I had always wanted to feature in some way. Back in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, children who became wards of the town due to poverty or other circumstances were placed as servants in families who lived in and around Westborough. Such a practice was common in colonial America, and such agreements were governed by a written contract. Both these records and those of the Lyman School document two different approaches to helping children with similarly troubled backgrounds. What accounts for the difference? Why was the practice of pauper apprenticeship replaced with a more institutional approach to child welfare? And what do these differences tell us about how people thought about childhood itself?

In talking about my expanded ideas to Maureen Amyot, the Library Director, I speculated how the two approaches to child welfare could provide insight into how childhood was thought about at these two points in history. After all, any decision about how best to help a troubled child is necessarily informed by an idea of what constitutes a “normal” childhood. Maureen loved the idea and encouraged me to pursue it.

While researching the topic, I discovered how the concept of childhood itself went through substantial change in the nineteenth century. Indeed, ideas about childhood continue to evolve today, so that, from our perspective, the treatment of troubled children in early America and in the early twentieth century both seem cold-hearted at best. But in both cases more is going on than apparent cruelty: a different idea of what constitutes childhood is at play, so we need to think more about the historical context while assessing the successes and failures of the two approaches. We may still end up criticizing them, but we will better understand the motives behind the policies and better identify their true failings.

Needless to say, the more I dug into this topic, the more interesting I found it to be. I hope you take the time to visit the Westborough Public Library to explore “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough” or visit the online version through the link. The exhibit begins in the main room of the library and ends in the Westborough Center with a 26 minute movie that illustrates life at the Lyman School in 1946. And don’t miss the “exhibit extras” included in the display case outside of the Westborough Center. The physical exhibit will be on display until the end of September.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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On the Beaten Path Is Now Available Online!

On the Beaten Path, Kristina Nilson Allen’s history of Westborough, has been considered the standard history of our town since the time it was published in 1984, and now it is available online. The digitization of her book by the Internet Archive now gives unprecedented access to the wealth of information that Allen put together about our town.

The writing of town and county histories became popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Many of them were spearheaded by publishing companies who saw them as a way to capitalize on local pride of place. The companies enlisted local, amateur historians to write them, sought local business titans to fund the printing (in exchange for including their names in the town history), and in some cases used formulaic language and statistics to pad the content. Westborough published its own town history in 1891, The History of Westborough, Massachusetts by Heman DeForest and Edward Bates, which is also available online.

To capture the historic highlights, personalities, and development of “the Hundredth Town” for her book, Allen interviewed 65 residents who remembered Westborough from the early 1900’s on. Town officials supplied the background of their departments, while merchants and manufacturers told the story of Westborough’s economic growth. A new archeological study, completed by Prof. Curtiss Hoffman, filled in Westborough’s prehistory dating back 6,000 years.

The digital version of On the Beaten Path includes the ability to search the content of the book for keywords, download the text in multiple formats, and have the book read aloud for the visually impaired.

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The Westborough Archive Catalog Has a New Look

If you are interested in exploring the archival records of Westborough, the Westborough Archive Catalog is the place to search. And now it has a new interface that makes searching even easier. The catalog lists all of the collections housed in the Westborough Center and includes links to any online content or finding aid associated with the collection. Here’s your chance to experience real history and work with historical records like an historian!

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.

Special Newsletter Addition for July 16, 2021

Call for Letters of Interest to Serve on the Town Seal Review Committee

The original Westborough town seal as it appears on the 1913 Annual Town Report.
The new Westborough seal design, as it appears on the 250th anniversary Commemorative Booklet.

I was going to include this item in my last newsletter for July 16, 2021 but did not do so in the belief that the deadline for letters was due that day. That initial deadline, however, has been extended to July 23, 2021.

Town Moderator, John Arnold, is seeking letters of interest from people willing to serve on the Town Seal Review Committee. Voters at the last Town Meeting approved the establishment of the committee to review the history of our town seals, consider whether or not the town should adopt a new one, and solicit feedback from the community about such a decision.

Controversy over the current town seal has centered on the depiction of a cotton gin that was invented and patented by Eli Whitney, a Westborough native, in 1793. The strain of cotton that was grown in the American South contained seeds that were extremely difficult to extract from the cotton balls. Whitney’s design made it much easier to separate the seeds, made growing cotton more profitable, and quickly turned the U.S. into a world leader in cotton production. But the invention was also responsible for the proliferation of slavery at a time when it was beginning to wane.

You can find information about how to serve on this committee here: https://www.town.westborough.ma.us/home/news/town-seal-review-committee-letters-interest-now-due-july-23-2021.

Westborough Center Pastimes – July 16, 2021

Parson Weems’ Fable, by Grant Wood (1939), depicting the story of George Washington cutting down a cherry tree as a boy.

National Narratives

I have lately been thinking about national narratives and their importance. National narratives give us a sense of purpose and unite us as we work together to reach common goals. But because such narratives are aspirational, they also easily spill into the realm of myth, which then creates problems in how we are supposed to interpret and learn from them.

Lately we are engaged in reevaluating our national narrative, which creates anxiety about who we are and what we are trying to accomplish as a country. In many ways, though, we as Americans are constantly engaged in reevaluating our national narrative. It’s one of our defining traits. Perhaps it is because we are still young in comparison to other “Old World” countries—although from an indigenous perspective, we are as old as anyone else. Perhaps it is because we were founded as a democratic nation, which creates an ever-shifting sense of perspective about who we are. Or perhaps it is because we are a land of immigrants, so we need to incorporate the new ideas and traditions that they bring with them into our own.

With these reflections in mind, I picked up These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore. She is one of the first historians in a while to tackle writing a national narrative for the U.S., and I was curious to see how this Harvard professor approached such a daunting task in our politically fraught times. The bookstore where I purchased her book also carried a new translation of The Aeneid by Vergil that I had been looking for, the latest in what seems like a recent series of classic works to be translated into English for the first time by women, so I bought that as well. (By the way, the perspective that women bring to these translations does make a difference, and I find the clarity of their prose to be a revelation.)

But what I did not realize until I returned home with the two books and compared them side-by-side is that they are both national narratives. Even more, Shadi Bartsch, the translator of The Aeneid, argues in her introduction that embedded in Vergil’s epic is a critique of such narratives as national myths. How does such a critique play out in both works?

When Vergil started writing, he was presumed to have set out to create a Roman epic that would both honor the emperor Augustus by tying his consolidation of the Roman Empire to an ancient past and sit alongside Homer’s Greek epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey (which, by the way, were written six to seven hundred years earlier). For his epic, Vergil uses the Trojan War from Homer’s works as context, but he connects Rome’s destiny to the fate of the Trojan warrior, Aeneas, who after losing the war must take his people on a quest to found what will eventually become a great empire.

Sounds great, except Vergil populates his text with elements of confusion and self-contradiction that end up complicating its status as a national narrative or myth. Aeneas is a problematic hero. We rarely see him act heroically, even though the text constantly refers to him in heroic terms. He lies, to the point where we question whether to believe any of the stories that he tells about himself. And the epic passes over what is clear in other ancient sources in which he appears: that Aeneas is a traitor. What Vergil seems to be arguing, Bartsch maintains, is that creating a collective memory in the form of a national narrative necessarily involves a collective forgetting (which leads us, by the way, back into the realm of myth).

But what happens when we start to remember—and what we remember starts chipping away at the foundation of what we thought was our collective memory? In some ways, Lepore’s approach to presenting our national narrative falls in line with Vergil. She points out the contradictions that are embodied in the three truths that sit at the foundation of our country: political equality, natural rights, and the sovereignty of the people. All three become problematic once we start examining them from the perspective of various people with different needs and histories—not to mention that action adhering to one truth can oftentimes violate the sanctity of another—which is why the designers of our government created a balanced system of competing branches and political forces.

National narratives are complicated. Do we want history (as an act of remembering) or do we want myth (as an act of forgetting)? If we want history, we have to accept the contradictions that necessarily come with it, and if we can’t accept this condition, then we run the risk of losing any chance at a cohesive identity by means of a national narrative. And if we want myth, then we have to be comfortable with the forgetting and potential lies that come with it, and if we aren’t comfortable with misinformation, then we run the risk of memory, truth, and history popping up at any time to reveal how flimsy our social cohesion really is.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

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New Exhibit!

The Westborough Center’s newest exhibit, “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough” is now on display in the Westborough Public Library through the end of September.

The exhibit compares two different approaches towards address the needs of children facing social challenges that were practiced in Westborough at different times. Pauper apprenticeship—where poor children were bound by contract to work as a servant in another family’s home—was used in Westborough during the colonial period and the early years of the United States. Westborough was also the site of the first publicly financed reform school for boys, which later became known as the Lyman School for Boys. Photographs taken during the years 1905-1912 illustrate the lives of the boys during this time, roughly one hundred years after pauper apprenticeship was the norm. By comparing these two approaches towards child welfare, we gain a window into how conceptions of childhood itself changed historically over this period of time.

The exhibit begins in the main room of the library on the first floor (over the computers) and continues into the Westborough Center. The exhibit is also enhanced by an online version. And don’t forget to take a look at the display case outside the Westborough Center, which contains a couple “exhibit extras.”

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Did you enjoy reading this Westborough Local History 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: https://www.westboroughcenter.org/subscribe-to-updates/.