The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, November 26, 2004


Carlisle Historical Society celebrates the past

On the evening of May 3, 1933, a small group of interested townspeople gathered at the old Brick School House and began the business of organizing the Carlisle Historical Society. There were thirty-four charter members. In lieu of dues (50 cents), members could donate an item of historical interest. Residents whose families had lived in town for generations joined with relative newcomers to establish an institution with the following mission:

To gather historical material, to disseminate historical and educational information, and to transmit to future generations all possible memorials of past and present times.

This mission is as relevant today as it was over seventy years ago, and continues to inspire those with an interest in Carlisle's history.

Librarian Mary Green (circa 1900-1910) on the third floor of the Gleason Public Library, now the Hollis Room, where artifacts were on display. (Courtesy photo)

Preserving and interpreting Carlisle's history

For over seven decades the Carlisle Historical Society has collected, preserved, and interpreted Carlisle's history. Work done in the early years served as a foundation for future efforts, one of the most important being the establishment of a system for accessioning and cataloguing objects and documents donated to the Society. Recorded in the original accession books, in flowing cursive script, is a careful accounting of objects in the collection:

161 Piece of darned net lace, made by Mrs. Joanna Parker Gleason (presently on exhibit at Heald House.)

175 G.A.R. Belt, formerly owned by Charles Forbush, a Grand Army Soldier. Made of webbing with steel buckle.

331 Two butter stamps, for decorating home-made butter. Donated by Mr. Thomas A. Green.

401 Child's cotton dress, and pair of shoes, once worn by John William Heald, born May 6, 1849.

These and hundreds of other artifacts made up the core of the collection, which was housed on the third floor of the Gleason Public Library along with the Library's historical collection. Today the collection contains over 1,700 items and the Society actively continues to collect objects that were made or used in Carlisle, the most recent addition being the Robbins family letters.

In 1945, a symbolic move took place as the title of historian-librarian passed from Martha F. Wilkins to Ruth C. Wilkins (no relation). As Martha F. Wilkins's lasting contribution to the town's history, the twenty-five-volume Old Houses and Families of Carlisle (1941) would be complemented later by Ruth C. Wilkins's Carlisle, Its History and Heritage (1975), it is fitting that both women served as historians.

The 1950s were perhaps the Society's quietest decade, but work continued and interest remained high. Though Martha F. Wilkins moved away, Jim Davis and Donald Lapham came on board and contributed their organizational and historical skills. The subjects addressed in Don Lapham's talks given at this time would serve as material for his book, Carlisle, Composite Community, published in 1970.

Activities increase in the '60s

There was a marked increase in the Society's activities beginning in 1960. New ideas abounded, ideas that brought Carlisle's history out of dusty cabinets and into the life of the town. Projects included assessing the condition of old graves and making provisions for their repair, as well as transcribing into type the handwritten volumes of the Wilkins Notebooks. In 1966 member Jim Davis organized the Estabrook Trail walk and was joined by two hundred like-minded folks who hiked from the flagpole in Carlisle center to Concord on Patriots' Day morning. In 1967 Mary Sleeper organized the first of what would become a new era of Old Home Days, reviving a tradition that began in 1912.

The 1970s brought a resurgence of interest in local history in Carlisle and across the country. With the U.S. Bicentennial celebration on the horizon, a new round of projects began. The Society conducted a survey to identify the homes of Carlisle Minute Men, but also included other homes and sites of historical interest. At the same time, the Carlisle American Revolution Bicentennial Commission reprinted Sidney Bull's History of the Town of Carlisle, originally published in 1920. In 1975, the Society was incorporated as a private, non-profit organization. It was at this time that Ruth C. Wilkins wrote her history of the town, which was published in 1975 as the Carlisle Historical Society's Bicentennial project.

During the 1980s and '90s the Society continued to interpret Carlisle's history through house tours, lectures, and its annual Holiday Open House.

New headquarters on Concord Street

An earlier generous bequest from Ruth C. Wilkins made it possible for the Society to purchase the Captain Samuel Heald House at 698 Concord Street in 2001 for use as a headquarters. Owning the house made possible space for the object collections as well as an archives. Stored and exhibited there are collections that include Dr. Austin Marsh's medical instruments, farm implements from the Clark family, and domestic objects belonging to many generations of the Green family. In addition, there are ceramics, furniture, photographs, portraits, textiles, scrapbooks, and family papers that tell the story of Carlisle's history.

In 1998, with the assistance of a Tufts Museum Studies intern, the Society began a formal inventory of both the Library (Town) and Society's collections and designed a database to hold relevant information. With the renovations to Gleason Library, space had to be found for both the Society's and Town's collections. From Spring 1999 to Fall 2001, the Historical Society paid for offsite storage of these two collections.

A series of grants, beginning with the Documentary Heritage Grant of 2000-01, funded a survey of Carlisle's historical materials as well as re-organization of the Society's archives. Grants from BayState Historical League and the Carlisle Cultural Council funded research and programs relating to the Wilkins papers and the many photographs in the collections. Several volunteers, including mother-daughter teams from the National Charity League, are carrying out discrete special projects. As a result, Carlisle's history is being rediscovered and made accessible to researchers and history buffs.

The Heald house and barn

This month, the Historical Society Board members begin meeting to formulate a long-range strategic plan. Part of that plan will be the future use of the Heald House barn which is currently undergoing repairs. A new roof and cupola were completed this past summer, and the Society hopes to contract for siding repairs and painting in the near future.

The Society continually tries to find ways to connect Carlisleans of today with their predecessors. Throughout the year, programs and tours are offered, including special activities for the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. During the upcoming bicentennial celebration of the Town's incorporation, the Historical Society will have artifacts and documents on view at the library. As a special memento for the town's "birthday," the Society has commissioned an ornament of the Town Seal. These are available at both Ferns and Carlisle Antiques, with part of the proceeds going to the Bicentennial Committee and the rest supporting the work of the Society.

It is the aim of the Historical Society to "celebrate" the past through providing proper care for the often fragile documents and objects which comprise its collection and through engaging the public through exhibits, programs, and tours. The Board welcomes suggestions for future programs as it seeks to expand its audiences across generations.

For more information about the Society, to join as a member or contribute in any other way, please contact Charlie Forsberg, president, at 1-978-369-3577, or any member of the executive board.

2004 The Carlisle Mosquito