Westborough Center Pastimes – June 18, 2021

Charley Williams and Granddaughter, age 94

Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project

By the time you read this newsletter, Juneteenth—a day that commemorates the end of slavery in the United States after the American Civil War—will be designated a national holiday (or will be soon). No matter the timing, Massachusetts already passed legislation to make Juneteenth an official state holiday, so the Westborough Public Library will be closed on Saturday, June 19.

As I think about the legacy of slavery and its history in our country, I can’t help but recount my experience of discovering the existence of slave narratives that were gathered together as part of the Federal Writers’ Project. New to the position as Humanities Librarian at Brandeis University, I was working in the stacks and familiarizing myself with the U.S. history collection when I came upon them. I was in awe that they existed and grateful that someone somewhere had the foresight to conduct these interview and capture this information before the memories disappeared with their owners.

The Federal Writers’ Project, part of the larger Works Progress Administration (WPA) that Franklin D. Roosevelt set up during the Great Depression, was designed to employ people who worked in the humanities. Other projects that fell under the WPA included ones for art, music, theater, and public works. Every time I encounter a building, public park, or artwork that was funded through the WPA, I am always blown away by the quality and ingenuity of the endeavor, which was why I was particularly excited when I found Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, 1936-1938.

The project was enormous. Over 2,300 first-hand accounts of slavery were collected along with more than 500 photographs. Today, the entire collection has been digitized and is available through the Library of Congress. The best way to approach this vast collection is through the “Articles and Essays” part of the website, which highlights just a handful of the people who were interviewed. A word of warning: a lot of the content, unsurprisingly, is difficult to take.

The collection is not without controversy. For years, the interviews were ignored by historians. Some of the reasons for this neglect stemmed from criticism that those still alive in the 1930’s were only children when slavery ended and so had unreliable memories. Others complained that despite the vast scope of the project, it included only 2% of the formerly enslaved population alive at the time and did not constitute an accurate “sample size.”

These reasons for neglect are pretty weak, but even though the collection is now firmly on the radar screen of historians, there is still reason to approach the collection with a certain amount of healthy skepticism. While some interviewers were African-American, the vast majority were white southerners, some of whom were descendants of slave holders and still others had ancestors who had enslaved the very people they were interviewing. Historical records are rarely straight-forward, which is why they require interpretation, interpretation that itself changes over time. You can read more about the Born in Slavery collection and the struggle to interpret it in an excellent article by Clint Smith in the March 2021 issue of The Atlantic.

In the end, the collection stands as testimony to the devastating effects of slavery on people and on our country. The economic, political, and social impact of slavery is so pervasive that it is impossible to untangle it from our national narrative in an attempt to create a “sanitized” version that we can all feel good about. Better to face up to its history, recognize the troubling contradictions that it created for our country both then and even now, and all work together to realize the ideals that we have so far failed to live up to but nonetheless form a common goal that will benefit us all.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Recommended Reading:

* * *

Coming Soon!

We are putting the finishing touches on installing a new exhibit here at the library, just in time for our post-pandemic opening. At some point next week, “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough” will be displayed in the Westborough Center and on the main floor of the library.

The exhibit compares two different approaches practiced in Westborough to address the needs of children facing social challenges. 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. By comparing these two approaches towards child welfare, we gain a window into how conceptions of childhood changed historically over this period of time.

* * *

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 – June 4, 2021

Charles M. Fay – Personal War Sketch, 1890

The Discovery of Charles M. Fay

The most exciting element of my job is Discovery. Every time I think that I have unearthed every possible historical record hidden away in our library, another one shows up. Such a discovery happened about two years ago when Cliff Rose, our Library Custodian, found tucked away in the basement of the library a large volume of Personal War Sketches put together in 1890 by the Arthur G. Biscoe Post No. 80 (Westborough) of the Grand Army of the Republic. The volume contains hand-written, first-hand accounts of soldier experiences in the American Civil War. What a gold mine!

In my last Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter, I wrote about the search for Herbert O. Smith, a Westborough soldier who died in the notorious Andersonville Prison in the Civil War. During that search, I made another discovery: Charles M. Fay, who was the only Westborough soldier who spent time in Andersonville and survived. Even more, Fay left an account of his experiences in the Personal War Sketches volume. I couldn’t fit his narrative in the last newsletter, so I am reproducing it in this one. While reading, keep an eye out for Herbert O. Smith, who also makes an appearance in Fay’s personal sketch.

First, some background on Charles M. Fay. He was born April 16, 1844 in Montague, MA in Franklin County. He enlisted to fight in the Civil War in July, 1861 at the age of seventeen and joined the Company K, 13th Reg. Massachusetts Volunteers. He participated in battles at Cedar Mountain, 2nd Bull Run, South Mountain, Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, Wilderness, and Spotsylvania Court House. He was wounded at Harper’s Ferry, Gettysbury, and Harrisburg and was confined in a hospital in Baltimore, MD when he was captured by the Confederacy.

Fay wrote the following account on December 29, 1890.

At the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, I was captured with our Captain and Lieut. and fifty men. I had already nearly served out my term of enlistment, there being less than two months more. As prisoners we were marched almost the entire night following our capture without rations, our guards also sharing our deprivations. Upon reaching Richmond we put up at Hotel Libby where we remained ten days, our bill of fare consisting daily of a small piece of corn bread, bacon and a spoonful of rice boiled. During our stay there we were all searched for valuables and unless one was very expert in secreting them he was sure to find himself stripped of everything which could in any way serve our captors.

At the expiration of the ten days we were started off in search of another boarding place. From Richmond we rode eight days and seven nights, to Andersonville, short of rations all the time. At Charlottesville we were transferred from one road to another causing a delay of two or three hours which were seized upon by such as had aught to purchase with to supply the craving for something to eat. Lieut. Dramwell handed me a $5 bill to buy him provisions with. I succeeded in obtaining some biscuit from a woman, six of which the Lieut. gave me for my trouble. These made one good square meal. Then we were packed into cars, the one I took passage in containing eighty five men. Upon reaching Augusta, we were unloaded and turned into a yard surrounded by sheds, for the night. While there I sold a pair of boots for $45. Confederate money to a “Johnnie” for which I had paid John M. Hill, a Westboro boy $2. I handed a $10. bill through the gate to a boy and requested him to buy me some bread and a little soap. He returned me six pieces of gingerbread and a small bit of soap. Gingerbread $1. each and $4. for soap. Upon reaching Andersonville, the following day, hungry and thirsty, we were introduced to the keeper, Capt. Wirz, who messed us into companies of ninety. Threatened me with a “ball and chain” if I did not “stand up in line.” As we looked over into the stockade and realized in some small degree the suffering and misery before us, our feelings can be better imagined than described. Are we asked to forget? Forgive! we may, but forget! never! From the ninety I was in twenty nine died inside of three months. Have heard it said that “there were rations enough issued for all but that the strong overpowered the weak,” but I deny the assertion. I have often scraped the hot sand to one side to make my bed(?) endurable. The death rate was from 120 to 135 daily, through the summer months. I helped carry out and bury Herbert O. Smith, a Westboro boy, and brought home to his father T. A. Smith letters written by him while in prison together with other mementoes. I messed with Charles Carter, Minot Adams, George Chickering and Irving Walker, all Westboro boys who afterward died in prison at Florence, S.C. Frank Kemp and Walter Ward, also from Westboro, were paroled but both died on the way home. An attempt to portray the amount of suffering and agony our poor boys endured, while in those horrible pens would be futile. For a very commendable and, as far as possible, truthful recital, I most respectfully recommend a perusal of the “Soldier’s Story” by Warren Lee Goss, a member of the 2nd. Mass. Reg. of Heavy Artillery.

Special note: in response to my last newsletter, Leslie Leslie, Curator of Collections at the Westborough Historical Society, posted on Facebook an image and transcription of a letter written by Herbert O. Smith to his father, which, given the account above, was most likely brought back to Westborough by Charles M. Fay after his stay in prison.

Fay died on August 24, 1905 and is buried in Pine Grove Cemetery.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Obituary – Charles M. Fay, Westborough Chronicle, August 26, 1905.

Recommended Reading:

* * *

Coming Soon!

We are putting the finishing touches on installing a new exhibit here at the library, just in time for our post-pandemic opening. Within the next couple weeks, “Changing Pictures of Childhood: A Comparative History of Child Welfare in Westborough” will be displayed in the Westborough Center and on the main floor of the library. The exhibit compares two different approaches toward addressing the needs of children facing severe social challenges that were practiced in Westborough at different points in time.

Pauper apprenticeship—where poor children were bound by contract to work as a servant in another family’s home—was commonly used in Massachusetts and other colonies during the colonial period and in the early years of the United States. The exhibit focuses on two children who were indentured as servants in Westborough: Stephen Pratt in 1794 and Patience Miller 1804.

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 at the school during the years 1905-1912 illustrate the lives of the boys during this time, roughly one hundred years after Pratt and Miller were bound out to local families. By comparing these two approaches towards child welfare, we gain a window into how conceptions of childhood changed historically over this period of time.

* * *

Spring Bazaar and Yard Sale

Treasures galore! The Westborough Historical Society is holding their Spring Bazaar and Yard Sale on Saturday, June 5 from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Stop by the Sibley House at 13 Parkman Street (down from the library) to find and purchase jewelry, toys, housewares, collectibles, china, prints, and more! All proceeds benefit the Westborough Historical Society.

* * *

The Westborough Public Library is revising its strategic plan for 2021-2023. Help us out by taking this short survey and giving us your feedback: http://tinyurl.com/wplsurvey2021.

Your input will help us plan future services, classes and events. The deadline for completion is June 30, 2021

* * *

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 – May 21, 2021

The Search for Herbert O. Smith: A Memorial Day Remembrance

Several months ago, I received an e-mail from a Westborough resident and avid reader of the Westborough Center Pastimes newsletter:

Dear Dr Vaver,

I so very much enjoy all your essays. You might already be aware of this, but a Westborough resident, Herbert Smith, died at Andersonville. He is buried at Pine Grove. Not sure if anything might be written about Westborough during the Civil War. Perhaps to coincide with Memorial Day?

I look forward to your next piece.

Thank you


Janet included the above image of a gravestone, which most likely prompted her to write her e-mail to me.

I thanked her and filed her e-mail away along with a note to revisit it around Memorial Day. That day has finally arrived.


When people introduce me to others and want to include what I do as a profession, they often mistakenly call me “Westborough’s Town Historian” or “the Local Historian who works at the library.” I think the confusion gets caught up in the fact that Westborough’s interest in its own history is so deep that we have lots of organizations in town with similar sounding names and lots of people working at them: the Westborough Historical Society, the Westborough Historical Commission, the Westborough Center for History and Culture. It’s all admittedly confusing. The fact is that we are surrounded by so much history in Westborough that the organizational waters that chronicle it are a bit muddy. What a great problem for a town to have!

But in my capacity at the library, I am a librarian, not an historian. Sure, I consider myself to be a cultural historian as well as a librarian by training, but I have not devoted as much time to researching Westborough history in as much depth as other true town historians have—such as Kristina Nilson Allen, Phil Kittredge, Glenn Parker, or Leslie Leslie. My job as the local history librarian is to point people to the resources that can help them research and learn about Westborough and its history, and in doing so I certainly learn a lot about Westborough history along the way. That’s what makes my job so fun! And that’s why I love  receiving e-mails with questions like the one Janet sent me.


So who is Herbert O. Smith?

After consulting histories about American Civil War regiments from Massachusetts, military and genealogical databases, books about Westborough history, historical Westborough newspapers, and more, here’s what I could find.

Herbert O. Smith was born in Gloucester, MA on July 23, 1837 (other records claim 1838 as his birth date or are even less precise). At the time of his enlistment on March 31, 1864, he is described as having a light complexion, gray eyes, and brown hair and stood 5 ft, 11 inches tall. He was unmarried and a farmer by profession. Smith was mustered on April 6, 1864 in Company K of the 57th Infantry, the company where most Westborough enlistments ended up during the war.

Smith’s time in the army did not last long. He was wounded in the face at the battle of Wilderness, VA on May 6, 1864 and then was taken prisoner at North Anna on May 24, 1864 and sent to the notorious Andersonville Prison in Georgia. Over the 14 months while the prison was in operation, Andersonville held 45,000 Union prisoners, of which nearly 13,000 died of “disease, poor sanitation, malnutrition, overcrowding, or exposure.”

Smith wasn’t the only Westborough soldier to experience the horrors of Andersonville. Others included Minot C. Adams, William H. Blake, Charles S. Carter, Charles M. Fay, Francis E. Kemp, Irving E. Walker, and possibly John Copeland. There may have been others.

Herbert O. Smith died in the Andersonville Prison of chronic diarrhea on August 27, 28, or 29 (depending on the source) in 1864. He was either 26 or 27 years old at the time. He is not, however, buried in Westborough, but lies instead in a mass burial trench in the Andersonville National Cemetery in Section E, Site 7158, along with William H. Blake, who is in Section H, Site 10753.

Map of the Andersonville National Cemetery.

In 1868, shortly after the war ended, Westborough arranged to erect a monument with the names of “soldiers from this town, who fell in the late war.” All of the names of the soldiers that I list in this article–with the exception of Charles M. Fay (more on him in the next newsletter)–appear on this monument, which to this day stands behind the fountain in the downtown cemetery on West Main Street. Whether or not you are able to attend this year’s Memorial Day ceremonies, take some time over the next week or so to visit the monument, read the soldier’s names, and think about how they willingly sacrificed themselves for our country.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

The Saturday Evening Chronotype, April 25, 1868, p. 3.

Do you have a question about Westborough history? Do you want to experience the thrill of the discovery process as you piece together nuggets of information that reveal the history of a person, place, or thing? Then stop by the Westborough Center or drop me an e-mail just like Janet did at avaver@cwmars.org.  

Suggested Reading:

And keep reading this newsletter to learn even more about the Andersonville Prison . . .

* * *

Ken Gloss

Westborough Historical Society/Westborough Public Library Virtual Presentation by Rare Book Specialist Ken Gloss

Kenneth Gloss, proprietor of the internationally known Brattle Book Shop in Boston’s Downtown Crossing section, will present “The Adventure of Book Collecting” via Zoom on Monday, May 24, 7:00 pm, for the Westborough Historical Society and Westborough Public Library, Westborough, MA. Ken will discuss the value of old and rare books.

Ken, a rare book specialist and appraiser who is frequently seen on national TV, will talk in part about the history of his historic bookshop (www.brattlebookshop.com/about), which goes back to circa 1825. He is a second-generation owner.

Ken will talk about and show some of his favorite finds and describe some of the joys of the “hunt,” as well as explain what makes a book go up in value. He has many fascinating anecdotes to share as well as guidelines for what to look for when starting a collection. There is also a Q&A session at the conclusion of his talk. Following the talk and question-and-answer session, Ken will offer free verbal appraisals of books.

Participants must register in advance at https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZUofu2rqzguGNAS0be1515oAklELeV3y5be.

Those who wish to have materials appraised should submit photos with (if available) a brief description of each item plus a mobile contact number before Friday, May 21, to info@brattlebookshop.com.  During the program, Mr. Gloss will select items to appraise that illustrate important characteristics and will appraise all others privately.

This program is co-sponsored by both the Westborough Historical Society and the Westborough Public Library’s Westborough Center for History and Culture.

* * *

Books donated to soldiers, 1941 (Westborough Public Library)

Book Donation Day and Friends Book Sale

Need to make room for the new collection of books you will be inspired to create from attending Ken Gloss’s lecture? The Friends of the Westborough Public Library will be holding a Book Donation Day on Friday, May 21 from 10-2 at the Parkman Street entrance.

Going forward, the Friends will not have “ongoing” book donations but will be holding periodic Donation Days a couple weeks in advance of their book sales.

Upcoming book sales will be on the second Saturday of each month from 10-3 on the lawn in front of the library.

* * *

Detail from: George Carleton, Map of Andersonville, Sumter Co., Georgia (1865).

Found! The Andersonville Prison Map

From the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library:

Retired National Park Service Archeologist Guy Prentice recently discovered the Leventhal Map & Education Center’s copy of George W. Carleton’s 1865 map of the Andersonville prison, a notorious Confederate camp where thousands of Union prisoners of war died. Dr. Prentice has spent multiple field seasons doing archeology at Andersonville National Historic Site, and coauthored numerous reports on the archeology of the site over more than three decades.

In a guest article, Prentice describes how locating this map in our collections helped to unlock a mystery about the trial of one of the most controversial figures in Civil War history. Read the full account of his search for the Civil war map here.

* * *

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 – May 7, 2021

A bridled and blinkered horse standing hitched to its cart, by Henry Walter, 22 January 1822. (Wellcome Library, London, http://wellcomeimages.org)

Thought Experiment

Let’s perform a thought experiment.*

The year is 1570. We meet a delivery man resting on the side of the road and ask him some questions about his job and his life. We discover that he makes his deliveries—maybe some apples grown by a farmer outside a nearby town—using a horse-drawn cart combined with quite a bit of walking. When he cooks his dinner, he does so over a fire. And when he needs to relieve himself, he uses a hole in the ground.

Now, after making so many deliveries, our resting delivery man falls asleep and does not wake up until two hundred years later in 1770. What is his life like now? Well, he still makes his delivery of locally grown apples using a horse-drawn cart and walks a lot. He still cooks his dinner over a fire. And he still relieves himself in a hole in the ground.

Hervey A Gilmore – ca. 1880 (Westborough Public Library)

The same grind ends up with similar results: he falls asleep again for another one hundred years and wakes up in 1870. Now what is his life like? Well, it’s pretty much the same. He still uses a horse-drawn cart to deliver his locally grown apples. He still walks a lot. He continues to cook his meals over a fire. And he still relieves himself in a hole in the ground.

Our delivery man falls asleep once more, but this time, because he has had so much sleep he wakes up in 1940, only seventy years later. Now what is his life like? Well, he no longer makes his deliveries using a horse and cart, but does so with a truck run by an internal combustion engine. He delivers goods from all over the world, and those goods have been brought to him for distribution by airplanes, boats, railroads, and other modes of transportation. His deliveries are probably coordinated by telephone. Both he and the people who buy his goods now cook their food in kitchens equipped with ovens, stoves, and other appliances that make food preparation easier. And houses now include indoor plumbing, so our delivery man no longer has to use a hole in the ground.

And we haven’t even gotten to his trip to New York City where he encounters buildings that are seventy to a hundred stories tall, including the Empire State Building.

The profound changes that I just described all came about from the Industrial Revolution. Today, we are experiencing even more social change and disruption due to digital technology and increased globalization. What happens if our delivery driver fell asleep yet again in 1940 and woke up today?

Our delivery man would most likely wake up to find himself being a UPS or Amazon delivery driver—and he now has female colleagues! His deliveries are governed by complex supply chains, which are created and run by digital technology. And these supply chains are global, which is why I can order a Norwegian scarf from Norway for my wife for Christmas and have it delivered to my door within two days. Whereas dominant work modes were still physical in 1940, now they are mental. Communication is practically seamless, so people can live in different parts of the world and continue to communicate with people at “home.” Even more, think how fast we were able to adapt this communication system to allow us to work from home once the pandemic hit! It turns out that many of us are no longer even necessarily tied to a specific workplace anymore.

And we haven’t even got to how social media and our lives on the Internet have disrupted the way we interact with one another.

Change is all around us and now seems to be a regular part of our lives. Such change affects how we think about ourselves, our place in the world, and our place in history. Will we ever again experience a time when we can fall asleep for hundreds of years, wake up, and immediately recognize the way that people are generally living as similar to when we fell asleep? Or are we facing a world where we must continually evaluate and redefine our identities, in the same way that our delivery man had to when he woke up in 1940?

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

What will our lives look like if, after the twists and turns we have experienced over the last hundred years or so, we ever do find ourselves back on a straight stretch of history? Share your thoughts in the Comments section.

*I am paraphrasing this thought experiment from an interview I heard a few years ago with Robert J. Gordon on a Planet Money episode on NPR: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/529178937.

Suggested Reading:

* * *

The Antiques Roadshow is coming to Westborough for book lovers!

Well, close enough. On Monday, May 24, 7:00 – 8:30 p.m., Ken Gloss of the famous Brattle Book Shop in Boston will present, “The Adventure of Book Collecting,” via Zoom. Gloss will discuss book collecting—what makes a book valuable and which authors to look for.  A frequent guest appraiser on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, he will describe the joys of the “hunt,” plus guidelines for starting a collection.

If you would like Gloss to appraise one of your books, please submit a photo and description of the book plus your mobile number before Friday, May 21, to info@brattlebookshop.com. During the program, Mr. Gloss will select books to appraise that illustrate important characteristics and will appraise all others privately.

You must register in advance for this meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZUofu2rqzguGNAS0be1515oAklELeV3y5be.

This program is co-sponsored by both the Westborough Historical Society and the Westborough Public Library Center for History and Culture.

* * *

The Westborough Public Library is revising its strategic plan for 2021-2023. Help us out by taking this short survey and giving us your feedback: http://tinyurl.com/wplsurvey2021. Your input will help us plan future services, classes and events.

* * *

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 – April 16, 2021


The Meaning of Life

In a past newsletter, I posed three BIG questions that I believe we should periodically ask ourselves over the course of our lives, and I have been addressing each one in a series of newsletters.

This issue brings us to the final—and perhaps most profound and potentially vexing—question: What is the Meaning of Life?

Several years ago, my family and I were eating dinner when one of my teenage daughters casually asked out-of-the-blue, “What’s the meaning of life?” Conversations about history, art, and culture were fairly normal at our dinner table—not surprising given the father!—but rarely did we venture into such big philosophical territory. So I amazed myself when I immediately blurted out an answer that I have yet to be able to discredit.

Now before I reveal what I said, I should provide the caveat that I realize there are many ways to answer the question of the Meaning of Life. Mine is one of them. And I am not even going to argue that what I am about to propose is the most important or best way to answer the question. But here it goes.

What I said to my daughter at that moment is that the Meaning of Life comes from how we participate in the flow of history. Some of us serve in town government (like maybe a library) or are members of a civic organization—like the Rotary Club or the Garden Club—just like other people who have lived in towns both now and before us. Some of us work at, or even own, a business in town, and in doing so we join the many people who have done the same. Others of us commute into Boston or Worcester or some other city. Some of us belong to successive generations who have lived in Westborough, while others of us have moved into town to raise our kids and put them through a good school—and then plan to put out a “for sale” sign on the front lawn as soon as they go off to college. In each case, as we live out our lives we join a pattern of existence that comes together to form our collective history.

Here is how powerful this insight is: our participation in this flow of history is not voluntary. We play our role and create meaning from this participation no matter how we live out our lives, whether we are conscious of doing so or not.

And to show you how strong the patterns of history are, even my “original” insight into how our participation in history forms a basis for understanding the Meaning of Life turns out to be not so original after all. I later discovered that over two thousand years ago, Cicero mused, “For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?” Rats! I thought I was the one who had finally cracked the Meaning of Life code!

Now you may say, “Ha! What if I decide to withdraw from society and ‘disappear’? Then I will no longer be participating in the flow of history.” To which I will respond, “Yes, but in doing so you are still leaving a mark on society by virtue of your absence. And besides, you will be joining a long list of people from the past who have tried to do just what you are proposing, Henry David Thoreau being just one example of someone who famously dabbled in living as a hermit.”

This view on the Meaning of Life can also account for profound social change. Many people who lived in Westborough used to work in bustling factories in the middle of town. Most of those factories are long gone. But their absence today does not counter the fact of their previous existence, and the people who worked in those factories long ago continue to bequeath meaning to us today by virtue of their participation during an important moment in our town’s history. As proof, we have photographs and other documents that record and capture this history of a time that now seems so foreign to us. These photographs and records also teach us that we have the power to shape our own history by actively documenting and preserving evidence of our lives today, and by doing so, we are at the same time fortifying meaning both for ourselves and for others.

When I first proposed my three BIG questions at the beginning of this series, I said not to worry, I would eventually return to local history despite the elevated nature of my questions. And here we are: The humble practice of local history is nothing less than the practice of maintaining and making available tools for gaining a fuller understanding of the meaning of our individual lives. And the records that we capture and preserve today will in the future give generations the ability to reflect on their own Meaning of Life by allowing them to see how and where they fit into the flow of history.

How do you derive meaning in your life? Share your own philosophy in the Comments section.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

* * *

The Westborough Center is open again for research! . . . along with the expansion of WPL hours and services.

Now that the WPL is open more hours and is lifting its time limit for being in the building on Tuesday (4/20/2021), the Westborough Center is once again able to accommodate people looking to use its local history print collections.

As always, appointments to use the collections are encouraged in order to give me time to gather needed research materials before a visit (e-mail Anthony Vaver at avaver@cwmars.org or call 508-871-5284). At present, researchers using print materials will be set up in an isolated part of the main room, and once the local history librarian is fully vaccinated in mid-May, they will be given a choice of using materials inside the Westborough Center instead. In general, there will be added study tables and study carrels (all socially distanced) in the WPL starting on Tuesday.

I am currently working on a new main exhibit in the Westborough Center, which is why the walls will temporarily be so bare, but I hope to have it up by the time the WPL fully reopens in May or June.

We’re getting there . . .

* * *

Join the Westborough Historical Society on Monday, April 26 at 7 p.m. on Zoom for “The Legacy of Birding in Westborough.”

In these times of COVID, bird-watching in the serenity of nature has become a popular pastime. Edward Howe Forbush (1858-1929) lived in Westborough, became the state ornithologist in 1908, and was a founder of the Massachusetts Audubon Society. The Westborough Library’s case of taxidermied birds is a product of his expertise at age 18. Society President Kathy Cavaliere will reveal the fascinating career of Edward Forbush.

Continuing that bird-watching legacy, Wheaton Biology Professor Scott Shumway of Westborough Community Land Trust (WCLT) and local ornithologist Sean Williams, Visiting Assistant Professor at Holy Cross, will also describe different habitats and their favorite sites for birdwatching in Westborough.

This program is co-sponsored by the Westborough Community Land Trust and the Westborough Historical Society.

Register in advance for this meeting: https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZAqceGrrDopHtMFiPixkVRU1lArtXW7AC27

* * *

Unpacking books in the new library addition, December 26, 1980.

The first Friends of the Library Book Sale of 2021 will be on Saturday, May 1 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. on the front and side lawn of the library. Books, CDs, DVDs, and other items will be available. All adult books and merchandise are $1 each, and all children’s items are 50 cents!! Cash and checks accepted. Masks are required and please follow social distance recommendations. (Rain date is May 8.)

Donations will be accepted curbside at the Parkman Street entrance on Saturday, April 17 from 10 a.m. to noon.  Please drive up and there will be people to help remove donations from your car. Masks are required.

* * *

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 – April 2, 2021

(Library of Congress)

To Be Human, Part II

In a past newsletter, I posed three questions that I believe we should periodically ask ourselves over the course of our lives.

This issue continues the list of activities I posted in my last issue that help answer the second question: How can we fully experience what it means to be human?

  • Learn to play a musical instrument. Okay, it turns out that Neanderthals also played musical instruments 60,000 years ago, but human beings have been playing music for most if not all of our history as well. Musical instruments often have steep learning curves, especially at the beginning, but once you get over the first hump and start producing more pleasant sounds, that achievement and each subsequent one gives you a chance to marvel at our human ability to learn and process something new. And if you can’t play an instrument, then sing. If you can’t sing, then dance (which also involves music and the body). And if you can’t dance, well, then, I can’t help you. Okay, then at least LISTEN to music and clap along.

Suggested Reading: How Music Works by David Byrne. The leader of the Talking Heads is not only a musician. He thinks deeply about music and life. This book will give you a whole new perspective on music, its history, and its important role in societies.

  • Learn to cook. We all have to eat, so why not work on perfecting what’s on your plate before you put in your mouth? We cook our food, as opposed to eating it raw, because doing so allows us to consume more easily the number of calories we need to feed our big, energy-consuming brains. And if you cook the food you have grown in your garden (see the first part of this list), then you are really getting to know what it is to be human.

Suggested Reading: Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat. Nosrat argues that by mastering these four elements you can elevate your cooking and even confidently walk into a grocery store without a recipe and cook up something delicious. It sure worked for me!

  • Take a hike and connect with nature. Actually, there are lots of ways to convene with nature besides hiking. But as you walk through the woods or look up in the sky at night, gather your questions and then turn to science to see how our collective wisdom and intellectual perseverance has made it possible to provide answers. After all, science is ultimately our most accomplished method for solving deep questions about the world around us.

Suggested Reading: The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors by David George Haskell. Haskell repeatedly visited a dozen trees around the world to examine how they are connected to their environment, even when that environment is dominated by people.

  • Engage in politics. Human beings are social animals, and we hold the ability to organize and change how we want to live together by instituting laws and social rules. Luckily, we in live in a democracy here in Westborough, so if we believe that the society in which we are living is not perfect, we can at least have our say about how it should be designed and try to persuade others to make change along with us. Such a luxury rarely comes around during the course of world history, so take advantage of our current system of government and get involved.

Suggested Reading: The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson. The two authors delve into the nature of liberty and explain why so few people have ever experienced it over the course of history.

  • Teach. We as human beings have created civilization, and enjoy the physical comforts that we do, by effectively passing along the knowledge we accumulate to others. Beyond not having to start from scratch each time, the beneficiaries of our knowledge can then build upon what we have already learned and achieve even greater heights. You don’t have to become a formal teacher, but you can become more mindful about identifying your skills and passing them along to someone else. Such knowledge transfer can happen in the family, at work, among friends, in formal settings—practically anywhere. Be generous with your knowledge, because others were necessarily generous in sharing theirs with you.

Suggested Reading: The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks. In the chapter, “The Creative Self,” Sacks counterintuitively focuses on the value that imitation and mimicry essentially plays for creative people. Even more, the book itself is a self-reflection on Sack’s own reliance on, and dialogue with, his scientific and creative heroes from the past.

That’s my list. I admit, it’s by no means exhaustive. How did I come up with the items on it? Well, one of the ways was by strolling up and down the book aisles of the Westborough Public Library looking for human-based topics and activities. (By the way, did you know that the library recently reorganized its nonfiction section to make it easier to browse by subject? Stop by and check it out!) The lesson here is that libraries partly exist to help us in our quest to engage in activities that express our humanness. Museums are also great places to explore and experience our humanness.

Each activity that I list above and in my last newsletter offers many ways to approach and practice our humanness. We can plant various foods in our garden and cook all kinds of dishes and cuisines; practice religion and spirituality in lots of different ways; exercise our bodies through a variety of movements; and adopt different political models for organizing our societies. When these forms of human activity begin to form distinct patterns within a specific group of people, a culture emerges. Cultures, then, are different ways to express and practice our humanness, which is why I love exploring and learning about them. When we are attuned to the varieties of cultures in the world, we are better able to see the endless possibilities for fully feeling and experiencing what it means to be human.

Did I miss anything on my list? Share it in the comment section.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Finally, we will tackle my third and final question in the next issue: What is the meaning of life?

* * *

In my last newsletter I showcased books in the Westborough Center Circulating Collection about the stone walls of New England. Here are a couple books to help you identify hiking trails where you may come across those stone walls (not that you need to look hard) and other historical features of our area of the world.

* * *

Calling all chefs/foodies ages 6 to 10 & a parent/caregiver: Join our town’s historic farm for Veg Out @ Nourse Farm [Online Program], THURSDAY, APRIL 22 or FRIDAY, APRIL 23 , 3:30—4:30 PM.

The culinary crew from Veg Out @ Nourse Farm is offering a fun, interactive, and delicious food experience. They’ll explore the connection between food, nutrition, and eating through a food-themed story and a plant-based recipe.

Registration required (Thursday registration / Friday registration).  An ingredients list will be emailed the week before. The program will be the same on both days, so please only sign up for one of the two sessions.

* * *

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 – March 19, 2021

(Library of Congress)

To Be Human

In a past newsletter, I posed three questions that I believe we should ask ourselves throughout the course of our lives. In this issue, I am going to address the second of the three questions: How can we fully experience what it means to be human?

Human beings are amazing creatures. We are clever and resourceful. We are so social that we are cultural. We alone are able to debate the extent to which we are different from other animals. And within a short period of time we have learned how to control and manipulate our environment to such a degree that we now have the ability to wipe out our very existence from the face of the planet, and in a variety of ways, no less.

Human beings are incredibly special, so it makes sense that we want to engage in activities at which we happen to excel. To do so, as I briefly argued in my last newsletter, is a crucial component to living a Good Life. Here is a list of activities that, for the most part, are special to humans, and by engaging in them, I would argue, allow us to feel and enjoy our humanness.

  • Engage in literacy. Of course a librarian would start with this one! Human beings learned to write 5,500 years ago and communicated through speech well before then. The ability to read and write is a major driver of civilization, because it allows us to store and pass along complex thoughts and ideas more easily through time and space. So write a short story, compose your memoirs, or at least pick up a book, or a magazine, or a newspaper, or a website, and read!

Suggested Reading: Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer by Roy Peter Clark. Every good writer always looks for ways to improve. Clark offers practical advice that every writer can use in a non-threatening tone.

  • Exercise. When I learned years ago that our bodies were specially designed to run long distances, so that we could hunt down our prey by chasing it until it became exhausted, I decided to get back into running. After all, I figured, we should do what we’re designed to do. Now that I am creeping up in age, I no longer run, but I still go to the gym, which also has a long history that traces back at least to the Greeks (in fact, the word “gymnasium” itself derives from Greek).

Suggested Reading: The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Better by Gretchen Reynolds. I always enjoy reading Reynolds’s fitness column in the New York Times. Here, she discusses best practices for a variety of fitness goals.

  • Get a dog. – The relationship between dogs and humans is special—few species interact and rely on each other to the degree that we do. In fact, our relationship is so special that I would argue that getting a dog is important to experiencing what it means to be human. I hear you, cat people! But cats aren’t nearly as interested in us as we are in them. But if cats work for you, then go for it (or goats, or pigs, or hamsters, or fish . . .)! After all, animals have a lot to teach us about what it means to be human.

Suggested Reading: The Well-Adjusted Dog: Dr. Dodman’s Seven Steps to Lifelong Health and Happiness for Your Best Friend by Nicholas H. Dodman. Dodman is a local dog expert and is Professor Emeritus at the Tufts veterinary school. In his book, he covers the art, and science, of dog ownership.

  • Explore spirituality and religions besides your own. Human beings are storytellers, and religions are full of stories that are heavily embedded with meaning and that ultimately are meant to teach us what it means to be human. I, for one, enjoy reading mythology (after all, they once formed the basis of a past civilization’s religion) but all religions can give us clues into helping us figure out what is important in our human world (and, perhaps, in the world above and beyond). And if religion isn’t your thing, try philosophy!

Suggested Reading: Living with the Gods: On Beliefs and Peoples by Neil MacGregor. The former director of the British Museum surveys the variety of ways that people across the globe have imagined their place in the cosmic universe and what happens when they conflict with one another.

  • Start a garden. For better and for worse, human beings began to engage in agriculture around 10,000 years ago. While agriculture theoretically helped us better control our food supply, it also tied us to the land, lengthened the amount of time and effort we had to put in to securing our food, and created some severe consequences for our global environment. But now it’s a crucial part of who we are, so why not try growing some of your own food? Don’t have a green thumb? At least patronize one of our local farms or farmer’s markets.

Suggested Reading: Kitchen Gardening for Beginners: A Simple Guide to Growing Fruit and Vegetables by Simon Akeryod. There are any number of books about growing your own food, and some even show you how to do so without a yard. This book covers the basics without overwhelming the beginning gardener.

  • Create art and/or engage in a craft. Humans are creative in many ways, especially when it comes to working with our hands. Our ability to create something that has the power to move us or simply tickle our fancy out of essentially nothing is joyful and awe-inspiring. Don’t worry if your first attempt looks like Homer Simpson’s spice rack. Your next attempt will be much better.

Suggested Reading: A Craftsman’s Legacy: Why Working with Our Hands Gives Us Meaning by Eric Gorges. I love watching this series on PBS. This book goes into more detail about Eric Gorges’s philosophy and the importance of craft.

Yikes! I’ve run out of room, and I’m only half-way through my list! I guess human beings are much too complex and interesting to cover in one newsletter.

Next: Continue on to the next issue where I continue my list.

In the meantime, do you want to take a guess about what will appear on my list next time? Share your guesses in the comment section.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

* * *

Another great way to experience our humanness is to be kind to one another!

Join Westborough Connects for Spring Kindness Week (3/21-3/27). They will be kicking off the week on Sunday, March 21st at 1 p.m. with a virtual presentation by the Ben’s Bells. This inspirational program will focus on the importance of (and science behind) intentional kindness, and the role kindness plays in connecting communities. It is intended for all ages.

HERE is a link to register for the program. For those registered, Take-and-Spread Kindness Toolkits will be available to “grab and go” after the presentation to help spread kindness the rest of the week. Each day, celebrate with a different themed activity with Partners in Kindness (several businesses and organizations in town) who will be spreading and recognizing kindness in a variety of ways.

You can keep up to date on Spring Kindness Week events on the Westborough Connects website, their Facebook page, or by signing up to be on the Westborough Connects mailing list.

* * *

Now that the snow has melted for good (let’s hope!), a walk in the woods reveals like no other time of the year those mysterious stone walls that run throughout our New England countryside. Who put them there, and why? You can find answers to these questions and more in these books, which are available in the Westborough Center Circulating Collection outside the entrance to the Westborough Center inside the library.

* * *

Why is there a sleigh weathervane on Town Hall? Zoom into the Westborough Historical Society’s free program, “William Sibley (1821-1890): Citizen, Soldier, Sleighmaker,” on Monday, March 29, at 7:00 p.m. to find the answer.

Jim O’Connor chronicles the life of William Sibley, a Westborough sleighmaker, at a time of national crisis and dissension. A respected citizen, Sibley joined Westborough’s Company K when he accepted President Lincoln’s call for volunteers after the attack on Ft. Sumter and the succession of the Southern states. Upon his return from war, he became one of the leading sleigh manufacturers in Westborough in the 1850s. William Sibley built the 1844 Greek Revival home at 13 Parkman St., including his sleigh shop. The Sibley House is now the headquarters of the Westborough Historical Society.

Attendance is limited to 100 and requires registering in advance for this meeting:


After registering, you will receive a confirmation email containing a unique link to join the meeting.

* * *

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/. The newsletter is published every first and third Friday of the month.


Westborough Local History Pastimes – March 5, 2021

The Good Life

Mr. Curmudgeon: The Good Life

In my last newsletter, I posed three questions that I believe we should ask ourselves throughout the course of our lives. In this issue, I am going to address the first of the three questions: What does it mean to live a good life?

Media and popular culture work hard to convince us that the answer to this question lies in the amount of money we have, the number of possessions we own, the relative quality of those possessions (the more luxurious, the better!), and the number of extravagant experiences we can accumulate. Examples abound. My Lottery Dream Home, Bahama Beachfront, and other house hunting shows (my latest television obsession) all portray people searching for the perfect home that will set them up with a “happy-ever-after” lifestyle. Commercials show people living satisfying lives after having purchased a given product. And Social Media Influencers make it their “job” to live fabulous lives by traveling to expensive resorts, wearing fancy clothes, and using luxury products—and then try to convince us to follow their lead and purchase the same.

It’s not a surprise. Our capitalist system relies on us buying into the notion that we should always be striving to accumulate more and better things. The problem is that such goals rarely lead to personal fulfillment. Actually, the system is designed in precisely these terms: if, in the end, we remain personally unsatisfied after our recent purchase, then the solution obviously must reside in our next purchase.

Similarly, we are conditioned to believe that advances in technology and industrial production have vastly improved the quality of our lives over time, but before we accept this belief wholesale, we must pause. If we are all spending one to two hours a day commuting back and forth to work to maintain this “improved” lifestyle, is that a good life? Studies of happiness have shown that there is a strong inverse relationship to the amount of time one commutes and one’s overall well-being. (One of the few positive outcomes from the current pandemic may be the realization that the hamster wheels we had been running on are not as desirable, or as necessary, as we once thought.)

In fact, before we settle in to the idea that our enjoyment of advanced civilization offsets the relative misery of our working lifestyle, consider the following. Small-scale tribal societies, who normally rank as “primitive” by our economic and technological standards, enjoyed much more leisure time, lower stress, and greater personal connections within their communities than we do. One study shows that a member of the Ju/’hoansi “Bushmen” tribe, who lived an isolated existence in Namibia and Botswana up until the late 20th century, spent a total of 17 hours per week searching for food and another 20 hours on chores, whereas average full-time employees in the U.S. now spend 44 hours per week on work before they even get to domestic chores and childcare. The Ju/’hoansi enjoyed far more time than we do to lounge, gossip, dance, sing, and tell stories. Their lifestyle sounds a lot like the one that my television house hunters are seeking!

The supposed superiority of our Western lifestyle takes another blow when we consider American colonial history, where we can easily find cases of individual European settlers deciding to abandon their settlements and live instead with Native people. On the other hand, the opposite—Native people freely deciding to abandon their tribe and live among Europeans—is extremely rare in the historical record. Westborough’s story of the abduction of the Rice Boys in 1704 offers one case in point, with Silas and Timothy Rice preferring to stay with the tribe that abducted them rather than return to Westborough with their father when he finally located them.

Other people may find answers to living the good life simply in accumulating wealth, which brings with it security and stability. I have to admit that there is a lot of appeal to this approach, because I really value security and stability. But then I came across the following passage while recently reading The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky:

[E]very one strives to keep his individuality as apart as possible, wishes to secure the greatest possible fullness of life for himself; but meantime all his efforts result not in attaining fullness of life but self-destruction, for instead of self-realization he ends by arriving at complete solitude. . . . He heaps up riches by himself and thinks, ‘How strong I am now and how secure,’ and in his madness he does not understand that the more he heaps up, the more he sinks into self-destructive impotence. For he is accustomed to rely upon himself alone and to cut himself off from the whole; he has trained himself not to believe in the help of others, in men and in humanity, and only trembles for fear he should lose his money and the privileges that he has won for himself. Everywhere in these days men have, in their mockery, ceased to understand that the true security is to be found in social solidarity rather than in isolated individual effort. (2.6.2 d)

Hm, I never thought of wealth in that way.

My central aim here is not to argue the (de)merits of capitalism and technological development. Nor do I want to imply that economic comfort should not be part of what it means to live a good life. I only raise the above examples because of the easy hold they seem to have on all of us and to show how the seemingly simple question that I ask may be far more complicated—yet personally fulfilling—to answer than we may first think.

For me, my answer to the question, “What does it mean to live a good life?” lies in being able to explore and experience to the best of my ability the full extent of what it means to be human, which leads to our next question. . .

Next up: How can we fully experience what it means to be human?

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

What do you think makes up a “good life”? Share your thoughts in the Comment section.

Suggested Reading

* * *

Lyman School Baseball Team, ca. 1905-1912

The arrival of spring brings the arrival of baseball! Stop by the display case outside of the Westborough Center and check out the new exhibit, Westborough Baseball, to see the game through the eyes of Westborough history.

* * *

Historical church records can shed tremendous light on the lives of everyday people living in 17th– and 18th-century colonial America, and no town knows that more than Westborough. New England’s Hidden Histories, a project of the Congregational Library and Archives and a crucial partner in the Westborough Center’s Ebenezer Parkman Project website, seeks to digitize these historical records and make them freely available to the public.

Learn more about this exciting digitization project in the YouTube video, New England’s Hidden Histories: A Roundtable Discussion. James (Jeff) Cooper, the director of the project, and his guests talk about the challenges of hunting down, collecting, capturing, and storing these fragile records in digital form. Who knew that dusty church records could be so interesting?!

* * *

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 Local History Pastimes – February 19, 2021

Three BIG Questions

Unless we live in a large city, like Chicago or New York City, we tend to think about local history in small ways. The term “local” itself minimizes the apparent significance of the field through its implicit geographical comparison to larger histories, such as national or world histories. Yet, in a local history newsletter, no less, I am going to wax philosophical and encourage you to think big, really big. But don’t worry, I will circle back to local history eventually.

I have come to believe that we, as human beings, should be trying to answer three big questions throughout the course of our lives: 1) What does it mean to live a good life?; 2) How can we fully experience what it means to be human?; and 3) What is the meaning of life? I told you I was going big!

All three questions interrelate—although their subtle differences demand that each be tackled separately—and answers to one provides building blocks for answering the others. I am not going to pretend that I hold the key to answering them; besides, my answers will be different from yours, and the ones you develop will necessarily be deeply personal, unique, and subject to constant revision. Rather, I am more interested in arguing the value of asking each question and raising various ways to consider them.

In a society that increasingly demands quantifiable outcomes to justify our use of time and money on a given activity, the arts and humanities, with their more qualifiable outcomes, have become embattled fields over recent decades. Every year, arts and humanities organizations that rely on government funding must spend more and more of their valuable time justifying the value of their very existence, let alone maintaining the level of their budget lines (heaven forbid that they ask for an increase!). Humanities fields in universities are squeezed and eliminated, as students are encouraged to pursue more “practical” and high-paying majors, as though learning to live a quality life in the fullest sense of the term does not have any practical application. (By the way, studies have shown that while science and technology majors make more money right out of college, humanities majors out-earn them over time, because the latter are more likely to move into management positions later in life.)

And if my two chosen fields, English and history, think they have it bad, consider philosophy, which seems to remain the butt of everyone’s disciplinary joke. Yet, the fundamental questions about life that I pose above are taken directly from philosophy, and it turns out that these seemingly basic questions are extremely complicated to answer. Lucky for us, people way smarter than you and I (and most of humanity) have thought long and deeply about them and can provide guidance.

Why are these questions so important? Well, let’s look at the consequences of our recent neglect of the arts and humanities. We have technology companies founded by CEOs who may be brilliant with computers, but who generally failed to graduate from college and were never exposed to the arts and humanities in any deep and meaningful way. Is it any surprise that these CEOs now flounder while trying to make decisions about their companies and products, decisions that profoundly affect our society and the way we relate to one another? (I’m looking directly at you, Mark Zuckerberg—but he is not the only one.) We have influential people who manipulate history to justify their preconceived belief system rather than follow the facts to their logical, and sometimes contradictory, conclusions—and, perhaps worse, have people who actually believe them. And we have people who read and interpret art with the goal of dividing society, rather than see art as an ultimately safe space to explore new ideas and visions for our society, which we are then free to accept or reject.

I will address each of these three questions over the next three newsletters and in the process try to connect them to local history. I obviously will not have the space, nor the intellectual command, to consider the intricacies of each one in the way that philosophers have over millennia. The reading list below already suggests as much. But my ultimate goal is to help you consider your life in ways that can enhance and enrich your experience here on earth, which is the ultimate aim of the arts and humanities.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Next: What does it mean to live a good life?

Suggested Reading

* * *

Eli Whitney has been on the minds of a lot of people in Westborough, given the recent controversy about whether the cotton gin should be removed from the Town’s logo because of its connection with slavery. Now is your chance to learn more about him through the Westborough Historical Society.

This Monday, February 22, 2021 at 7:00 p.m. on Zoom, Cary Mulrain, former WHS president, will present “Eli Whitney, Father of American Mass Production. Westborough’s Eli Whitney (1765-1825) perfected the cotton gin to remove seeds from short-stem cotton and inadvertently increased the demand for slave labor on Southern plantations. He then went on to apply mass production to the manufacture of guns at the Whitney Arms Company in Hartford, CT.

Join Zoom Meeting

Meeting ID: 864 5136 6489
Passcode: 072932

Phone- Audio only:
+1 346 248 7799
Meeting ID: 864 5136 6489
Passcode: 072932

* * *

My mom was recently reading David McCullough’s The Pioneers: The Heroic Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West and came across a reference to Westborough in it. It turns out the wife of one of the book’s protagonists, Rufus Putnam, was Persis Rice (1737-1820), who was born and lived in Westborough before their marriage. You can learn more about her here: https://www.wikitree.com/wiki/Rice-2942.

Persis was a direct descendant of Thomas and Mary (King) Rice, the parents of four boys who were abducted by a group of Native Americans in 1704 and taken from Westborough to Canada to live with them. You can read what Rev. Ebenezer Parkman, our town’s first minister wrote about the episode (although Parkman was only a boy and did not live in Westborough at the time): https://archive.org/details/storyofriceboysc00park.

Thanks, Mom, for alerting us to our town’s reference in McCullough’s book!

* * *

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 Local History Pastimes – February 5, 2021

Amanda Gorman recites her inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb,” during the 59th Presidential Inauguration ceremony in Washington, Jan. 20, 2021. (DOD Photo)
Walt Whitman, age 35, from the frontispiece to “Leaves of Grass,” 1854.

Becoming America

There is nothing more American than to talk about who we are and what we want to be. People from other, older parts of the world do not experience the constant identity crisis that we do. After all, they live in cultures that have had the chance to coalesce over a much longer period of time. But Americans are always in search of the new, and attempts to pin down and define who we are always seems to disintegrate in the face of historical and cultural contradictions, which then starts the cycle of trying to define who we are all over again.

The American concern over who we are and what we want to be is partly the result of the unique history of where we live. When Europeans started to move to the Americas and inhabit the “New World,” they saw a land that offered new and endless opportunities (although, as we well know, this liberatory move also involved displacing and subjugating the people who lived here before them and set up one of America’s long-standing and defining contradictions). As a consequence, those of us who live in the Americas—and when I say “the Americas” I include both North and South due to our shared historical development and common cultural outlook—we focus more of our attention and efforts on creating the future than on preserving the past, and we work hard to realize our vision for what we believe will be a better society for us and for future generations. America and Americans, in short, are always in the process of Becoming.

Amanda Gorman captured the essence of these reflections in a much more articulate way in her electrifying poem, “The Hill We Climb,” which she read at the Presidential Inauguration Ceremonies on January 20, 2021. Gorman and her poem justifiably became the talk of the Inauguration, and there is no shortage of available commentary and analysis of her poem on the web and in the media. But as I listen to and read her words, the spirit of Walt Whitman flashes over me, especially his poem, “I Hear America Singing” (1860) from Leaves of Grass:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,

The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,

The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,

The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,

The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,

The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,

Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s poem lacks the verbal pyrotechnics that Gorman commands in hers, but both show how our shared sense of possibility can lead to unity. Whitman’s poem singles out the “songs” that each worker creates during the course of plying his or her trade. While all of them are hard at work trying to improve the lives of them, their families, and, consequently, of America, each one of them is unique and special, with “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” At night, the young ones abandon their daily differences to congregate and join together in “strong melodious songs.” But for the poet, the “varied carols I hear” of all of their work during the day come together to create the true song of America.

The work of being American is never finished, as much as we may want to reach that end goal and revel in our finished product. Our economic system values the latter, but our democratic system demands the former. This contradiction is also a part of what makes us who we are. We justifiably get frustrated when we seemingly fail to realize our individual political goals and desires over and over again. That’s the time, however, when we need to step back and recognize that even though we are all singing different songs, that the cacophony that we are creating is America and is the sound of our Becoming.

–Anthony Vaver, Local History Librarian

Suggested Resources

* * *

“Westboro, July 4, 1899” – Westoborough residents gathered in front of the Old Capt. John Maynard Home. The flag says, “Welcome Comrades.”
Demonstrating on the Rotary, 2018 (Photograph by Brandin Tumeinski)

Along with poetry, photographs have the power to help us visualize the Becoming of America. The Westborough Digital Repository has two collections that, when put side-by-side, illustrate the Becoming of America at our local level here in Westborough.

The Historical Photographs of Westborough collection covers Westborough’s early history and the Photographer-in-Residence collection of photographs by Brandin Tumeinski give a more recent look at Westborough becoming what it is today. Take some time to browse through both collections and think about where we have come, what we are now, and what we can be in the future.

* * *

In a past newsletter, I discussed the importance of building historical timelines in our mind while learning about history (although we also want to be careful not to fall into the trap of thinking that history is merely a set of dates and events!). Here are two more websites that can help us build our historical timelines, one more worldly and one more local.

  • The Museum of the World from the British Museum – This collaboration between the British Museum and the Google Arts and Culture Lab allows you to explore items from the museum’s collection and connect cultures and ideas through an interactive timeline. Click the “Launch Experiment” button to get started and enter a 3-D world of culture, time, and place (unfortunately, the website only works on desktop computers).
  • MassMoments a project of MassHumanities – This interactive timeline provides both a daily “This day in Massachusetts history” entry and a way to explore Massachusetts history chronologically through the years. You can also sign up to have Daily eMoments delivered every day to your e-mail address.

* * *

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/.