Friday, January 11, 2002
Carlisle's past on paper
Most of us have records, letters, journals and photo albums that, woven together, form the tapestry of our family history. Carlisle, too, has a history, but unlike family records and photos stored in our attics and closets, the town's history on paper has been kept in multiple locations around town and was largely invisible until this past year when echoes of Carlisle's past reverberated all over town.
Throughout 2001, a project called Finding Carlisle has been identifying and inventorying the town's archival collections. Supported by the Carlisle Historical Society under a Documentary Heritage Grant through the State Archives Program, Finding Carlisle has been under the capable direction of archival consultant Melissa Mannon. "Five organizations in town the library, Town Hall, the historical society, Great Brook Farm State Park and the churches all have archival collections," Mannon explains, "but some were unaware of similar collections in town. The goal of Finding Carlisle is to preserve and promote the various collections and eventually provide access to them." The archives reveal historical events that shaped the town. They document Carlisle's social, political and architectural history and shed light on the daily lives of residents as they faced the challenges of their day.
Mannon emphasizes the collaborative nature of the project, pointing to the commonality of the archives in town institutions and organizations. "The Wilkins papers, for example, came from multiple sources and it's not always clear where original materials should reside," she says. She applauds the supportive working relationships among all the groups despite the overlapping nature of the some of the collections.
In recent months, Mannon has been working out of an upstairs bedroom-now-office in the 200-year-old Captain Samuel Heald Homestead on Concord Street, now the home of the Carlisle Historical Society. Piles of papers and newspapers, cartons of historical artifacts, and neatly organized archival file boxes surround Mannon in this historic house that has witnessed so much Carlisle history. These materials, formerly housed in the library, belong to the Carlisle Historical Society and were in storage and inaccessible during the library's renovation. Last fall, the collection emerged from storage and took up residence at the Heald Homestead, where Mannon has been organizing the materials.
In a corner of the room, a carton of old photo albums stands open, awaiting Mannon's attention. A beautiful leather-covered album with ornate gold hinges lies on top. She opens it to reveal portraits of Wilkins family members, perfectly and neatly preserved within its rich cream-colored pages, staring unsmiling at us over the span of a century.
What are archives?
Mannon defines archival materials as original papers (documents, ledgers, and records), photographs, diaries and maps "items of permanent importance." She explains that "newspapers are not archival because the information is not original. The original records [births, deaths, marriages] are kept in the town collection." However, Mannon makes photocopies of relevant newspaper stories (because newsprint does not last) and files them for future access. Archival documents are not necessarily old documents, she points out. Archives are continually being developed: for example, bylaws for new organizations, town reports, town committee minutes, and fiscal records. In addition to identifying and inventorying the archives, Mannon is developing "finding aids," a descriptive index of all parts of the collections to facilitate access.
Each of the five collections contains unique and often remarkable items, Mannon reports. "The Great Brook Farm collection differs from all the others since it deals with the history of farming and agriculture in Massachusetts and is not specific to Carlisle." Of particular interest is documentation relating to Prospera, the prize-winning Holstein cow owned by Farnham Smith in the 1950s, when Great Brook Farm was called Fernhame. The collection also includes a complete history of the lands owned by Smith that became Great Brook Farm and its evolution as a state park.
Gleason Library is the repository of a rich collection of historical materials. Most notable are the 25 volumes of loose-leaf notebooks, handwritten by Martha Fifield Wilkins, and presented to the library in 1941. Mrs. Wilkins single-handedly and meticulously researched the history of Carlisle's older homes over a ten-year period. The notebooks contain 495 photographs, many of them rare, together with histories of Carlisle families, their genealogical charts, newspaper clippings, maps and poems. In her preface to the notebooks, Mrs. Wilkins wrote, "These histories are perhaps more actually stories which have been interwoven with family traditions, legends and events." This singular collection has many connections with others in town, since the Wilkins family features so prominently in Carlisle's history.
The Carlisle Historical Society's collection, too, is valuable and unique as a distinct repository of town history. Mannon pulls down one of several file boxes stored on a shelf. Inside, between sheets of special archival paper designed to preserve valuable papers, are the original letters of Carlisle resident Elizabeth Robbins Berry and her friend Clara Barton, the teacher-turned-nurse of Civil War fame. This collection, dating back to the 1870s, will be of interest to historians, biographers and the family of Clara Barton. In the future, a computerized database growing out of the Finding Carlisle project will publicize the existence of the correspondence in Carlisle.
Of all the archives, the town collection is the largest to be documented. Papers documenting the history of town government in Carlisle date back to the founding of the town in 1754; town reports, records of meetings, voters' rolls, selectmen's minutes, official family records, land transfers, and more, are stored in vaults and town offices. "There are, however, gaps in the historical documentation with some missing materials," Mannon observes. "We hope that as part of this project we'll locate what is missing if the materials still exist."
Mannon held workshops for Town Hall personnel and representatives of the other organizations responsible for their archives to instruct them on protecting and preserving their collections. In addition, she taught workshop participants about retention of archival documents as mandated by the state what must be kept and for how long.
The three Carlisle churches maintain valuable collections as well. "Three hundred years ago, churches collected taxes , not the town," Mannon says. "Where town records have gaps, church records can fill those gaps." The churches also have records of members, donations, ministers, photos, building campaigns and newsletters, all original material that complements other town collections.
Finding Carlisle exhibit
An exhibit on Finding Carlisle is currently on display in the Hollis Room on the third floor of Gleason Library. Designed and curated by reference librarian Conni Manoli-Skocay, it features highlights from the major town collections. Among the archival treasures on display is Hiram Blaisdell's letter of 1850 to his brother Isaac in Carlisle, relating some of his adventures in the California Gold Rush. Great Brook Farm's celebrity Holstein, Prospera, has her own display case, containing her photograph, one of her prize-winning ribbons and a promotional flyer. From the town clerk's office comes a register of women voters and their occupations from 1907 to 1960; a page lies open to the 1920s, when most of the occupations listed were "housewife." Representing the library in the exhibit is a ledger of residents who were members of a private library well before 1896 when the Gleason Free Public Library was opened.
"Carlisle's collections are in pretty good shape," Mannon concludes. Before her work on the project is done, she will write a report and make recommendations to the Carlisle Historical Society. The town has already acted on some of her recommendations for preserving documents and organizing individual collections. A key ingredient in document preservation is climate control and at present, the Gleason Library has the best system, thanks to the renovation. The Carlisle Historical Society will, in the near future, install air conditioning at the Heald Homestead to protect its holdings.
Although this initial phase of Finding Carlisle is winding down, much remains to be done. Publicizing and providing access to the collections, organizing individual collections, building a database, developing more detailed finding aids are all important steps toward enabling local archivists, museums, historical societies, genealogists, researchers and the general public to use the Carlisle collections.
Conni Manoli-Skocay is continuing Mannon's work at the library. She is organizing the library's extensive collection that includes town reports from 1853 to the present, military histories, town documents such as organizational bylaws and committees, and photographs in its formidable Wilkins collection. "This town is something special," she notes with enthusiasm, "because of people's interest in history and caring about the town." She also has high praise for the museum and library professionals within the Carlisle Historical Society. Museum professionals Sarah Brophy and Stephanie Upton and Gleason Library director Ellen Rauch all serve on the board of the historical society and are actively involved in Finding Carlisle. Under the leadership of Melissa Mannon, they and members of the other organizations have made a significant contribution to preserving Carlisle's rich history for us and for future generations lest, as the poet Shelley wrote, "the future dares forget the Past."
© 2002 The Carlisle Mosquito