Westborough Center Pastimes – June 17, 2022

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

We Are More American Than We Think

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

E pluribus unum (“Out of many, one”)

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Read All About Westborough

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

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Nature Notes: June

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

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

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Westborough Center Pastimes – May 20, 2022

Permaculture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Lake Chauncy Pavilion (ca. 1910)

Featured Images: Lake Chauncy

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

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

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

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Nature Notes: May

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

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

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Westborough Center Pastimes – April 22, 2022

Diorama at the American Museum of Natural History

Rewriting History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Reading:

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Nature Notes: Signs of Spring

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

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Mapping Social Justice in the Environment

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

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

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Westborough Center Pastimes – March 18, 2022

Two Simple Questions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Selected Reading:

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Westborough History on Facebook

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

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

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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 – February 18, 2022

Thinking Historically Is Hard to Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Selected Reading:

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Esther Forbes, ca. 1894

Harriet Merrifield Forbes Photo Album

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

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

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

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

Industrial History of New England

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

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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 – 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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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/.