The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 1, 1999


The Carlisle Oral History Project and Its Mission

While Carlisle grapples with sidewalks, conservation clusters, cell towers and other indications of 1990s growth, the town's origins as a tiny farm community over a century ago seem ever more distant. To ensure that the town's past will not be buried along with its agricultural land, the Carlisle Oral History Project has taped interviews with long-time residents who were once a vital part of the farm community. The videotapes, audiocassettes and transcripts are part of the Gleason Library's collection (see sidebar).

Guy Clark's large red barn on Concord Road is a familiar landmark in town, but did you know that he was born in the "borning room" of that farmhouse 97 years ago? The Swanson land on Curve Street is under development now, but did you know that Beulah Swanson's husband John operated an innovative and successful poultry business on that land? Inga MacRae's home on South Street welcomes visitors with a cheerful sign in Norwegian, but did you know about the large and influential Scandinavian population in Carlisle in the early 1900s? Only two weeks ago, Great Brook Farm State Park celebrated its 25th anniversary, but did you know that the farm now operated by the Duffys once belonged to Farnham and Susan Smith and was one of the largest dairy farms in New England?

Guy Clark, Beulah Swanson, Inga MacCrae and Susan Smith all shared their memories of long-ago Carlisle with the Carlisle Oral History Project, as did Anna P. Johnson, Helen Wilkie, Pagey Elliott and Al Peckham. In doing so, each offered glimpses of daily life in a small, neighborly community and put a human face on town history, complementing Ruth Wilkins' invaluable, but entirely factual, book, Carlisle: Its History and Heritage.

Oral histories are interviews of individuals who offer their own perspectives on their lives and their experiences. The interviews can stand alone or be woven into an historical tapestry of an event, a social or political movement, a family, or a town like Carlisle. Typically, these are the stories of ordinary people who might not write an autobiography but whose voices can contribute to the shared history of a family or a community or an institution. Oral history gives us Guy Clark's stories of growing up on the farm, delivered in his unique cadence and illuminated by his sweet smile. It gives us Beulah Swanson, reaching back in time to share her stories of farm life as the young wife of an up-and-coming poultry farmer, and preserves Helen Wilkie's memories of growing up in Carlisle and watching it change. Mrs. Swanson and Mrs. Wilkie have died, but their stories live on for us and generations to follow.

The Carlisle Oral History Project was begun in 1982 by the Carlisle League of Women Voters and Gleason Library. In 1986, the Mosquito took it over under the direction of Bonnie Miskolczy. Its mission statement read:

Carlisle's long-time residents share

with its many newcomers a common wish to establish ties with this place's past. An oral history collection provides a tangible instrument for increasing our awareness of what and why Carlisle is today. It creates a basis for further local newspaper spotlight articles; it becomes a source for school programs and for town celebrations. In many ways it can project that strong sense of the past that guides us on our way to the future.

At that time, and through the early 1990s, audio tapes were made of Carlisle residentsHerb Bates, Father Byrne, Anna Johnson, Cal Adrian, Jim Davis and Don Lapham, among others. Today, the project is sponsored by the Mosquito and the Carlisle Historical Society and is led by Ellen Miller.

The project's recent missionto document Carlisle as a farm communityincluded the fall 1997 exhibit, "Carlisle's Legacy," which centered on local photographer Edmund French and his evocative images of everyday life in the early 1900s. Supported by the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, the Carlisle Cultural Council, the Mosquito, and the Carlisle Historical Society, the exhibit was displayed in the Town Hall shortly after the building opened and also traveled to the Carlisle School. It is now in storage, awaiting a permanent home.

The farm phase of the Carlisle Oral History Project has ended now. The project next focuses on the 1960s influx of residents who guided the town's transition from a small agricultural community of 1,000 to a suburban population of 4,000 twenty years later. In his interview with Marilyn Harte, Al Peckham, a selectman in the early 1970s, describes the town's growing pains and sets the stage for future interviews, now being planned.

The Carlisle Oral History Project welcomes help from residents with videotaping, interviewing or transcribing skills and is always receptive to suggestions on Carlisleans to interview. Please contact Ellen Miller at 287-4776 or

1999 The Carlisle Mosquito