Friday, November 23, 2007
Martha Wilkins: Carlisle's unique historian
There's a treasure at the Gleason Public Library. In the reference section on the bottom shelf
Her works are beyond value for Carlisle: those who gave her their stories and photos are now gone. Her hundreds of neat, handwritten pages contain not only facts about the old houses, but also intimate details about the early owners of those homes and their ancestors. Her writing "voice" is polite and supportive, humorous but not mocking. She was living day to day with the people she was writing about, and used a delicate, generous hand to record their histories. She was welcomed into other peoples' lives and listened to family stories, enjoying respect and love from many in Carlisle. Wilkins must have been a strong yet caring person to withstand all the difficulties in her life: constant moves, wars, family crises.
Early years before Carlisle
Martha Adelia Fifield was born in Methuen, Mass., on April 20, 1879, to Roscoe Alonzo Fifield, a Methuen firefighter, and Lucelia Elizabeth Chapman. Her fascination with family history would begin and end with her own ancestors,
As a child, Wilkins wrote, she spent many summers in the Sunday River area of Maine. "After Roscoe [her father] became of age, he left Riley Plantation [now part of Newry, N.H.], married and had a home of his own in Methuen, Mass., but every year, he and his family went back to the old home to see his people, as long as they lived. For the first thirty years of my life I was there for a day to two months each summer."
Wilkins attended Methuen High School, Cannon Commercial College in Lawrence, and graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art. She met her husband, Benson Perley Wilkins, in Methuen, where his father was a minister. After he graduated from Boston University in 1901 in liberal arts and theology, he and Martha Fifield were married in Methuen and honeymooned at her beloved Riley Plantation. Their daughter, Doris Fifield Wilkins, was born on August 24, 1902; they had no other children.
Reverend Wilkins joined the New Hampshire Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, and after becoming an elder, served as minister in a number of parishes in New England. By 1913 Benson was the minister at the Keene Valley (N.Y.) Congregational Church in the eastern Adirondacks.
In February 1916, Reverend Wilkins became ill. "Rev. B. P. Wilkins preached at the
In 1916 the Wilkinses bought a Revolutionary-style house at 245 Rockland Road in Carlisle, about a mile from the town center. The house had an impressive history but was in poor condition. John Jacobs had built it in 1783, and the family resided there for 60 years. The last John Jacobs had no children, so the house was sold by auction in 1876 to the Hodgemans. After they died, it was sold to Captain H. W. Wilson "in order to secure the woodlots," relates historian Sidney Bull in his book, History of the Town of Carlisle. Wilson rarely lived at the house, which was rapidly falling into disrepair. In 1911 Wilson sold the house, barn and a portion of the land to the Lassens from Cambridge, who tried to run a chicken farm. Four years later they sold the property to the Wilkinses. Bull commented, "Once more the home lot became something more than a pasture."
The Wilkinses had a "warm welcome" to Carlisle: "The day the household goods arrived from Keene Valley, N.Y., a woodland fire swept over a large territory in back of the house and, with a high wind blowing, destruction seem imminent," Wilkins noted with humor. "A large crowd of men controlled it eventually after burning many cords of wood."
They named their house "Rockland," after the road, but they were later forced to drop the name because their mail was constantly redirected to Rockland, Massachusetts. Still, Wilkins was thrilled with the house and wrote that her house was, "facing south and after a century and a half seems well able to weather the gales or absorb the sun for years to come." Before she left Carlisle, she wrote, "After sharing our knowledge and interest in the early Carlisle history and the families I have returned to this old Jacobs house again and again. Joys, sorrows, fun, work, sickness, health, hardships, and inspirations have all been experienced within its walls and for 25 years it has been for me a very precious home."
The minister's wife
As a minister's wife, Wilkins was involved with the "doings" of Carlisle. Their home must have been a welcoming environment, for her friend, Mrs. Lucy Davis, crafted this acrostic poem:
Cheerful sunny ways
And dreams of bygone days
Not but peace shall enter here
Delights untouched by doubt or fear
Doris, their daughter, who appeared in photos with groups of teenagers at church events, attended Concord High School for three years, and the Tilton Seminary (now the Tilton School) in Tilton, N.H., for her last year. She was an occupational therapist, working at various area hospitals and mental institutions.
Volunteering during WWI
The Carlisle community joined together for war relief activities during WWI. Martha organized
After three years of improving health, Reverend Wilkins took the position of pastor at the Carlisle Congregational Church in 1919. He held the position until May of 1920, when again his health weakened. Although he was ill, he continued to officiate at marriages as a "Minister of the Gospel" through 1930, as noted in the Carlisle Town Reports.
Wilkins was keen on improving the Town Green and in March of 1925, "several trees and shrubs were set out on the Common under the direction of Mrs. Benson P. Wilkins," according to Ruth Chamberlin Wilkins; she mapped the location and type of each tree, now included in her 25 volumes.
Library trustee and Historical Society
In 1929 Wilkins became a library trustee of the Gleason Public Library, along with Mary A. Green and Ruth M. Robbins. She was eager to increase the library's collection of historical items. In 1930 the Division of Public Libraries suggested ways to celebrate the Massachusetts Tercentenary by displaying local history books and items. "The librarian complied with the suggestions," read the Town Report, "with a very explicit catalogue made by Mrs. B. P. Wilkins."
In 1933 the Carlisle Historical Society was established, with Wilkins as historian and librarian. She was now in her element, working as trustee for the library and helping to build the Historical Society; she also kept her involvement in the church: "Mrs. Benson P. Wilkins told the story of the Christmas travelers and also a story of the Christmas flowers, both of which were greatly enjoyed by the adults as well as the children" (Concord Journal, 1934). In 1935 the Carlisle Town Report notes: "During the year all of the articles in the Historical room belonging to the town have been rearranged and catalogued according to the card system." The cards and notebooks, with Wilkins's neat handwriting, sit today in a wooden box on the third floor of the library.
Wilkins had been curious about the lives of others and their homes since she was a child. In Sunday River Sketches she relates how, while visiting Riley Plantation, she and her brother would visit the neighbors, who would take them "on little walks around the farm." She listened carefully to stories told by her neighbors, and was able to recall much in her book. The Bethel Historical Society has a statement by her that begins: "My interest in our family history did not become an avocation until I was doing research on Carlisle (Mass.) families. As I visited local and state libraries I not only found Carlisle families, but much about my own. I then carried on these two interests simultaneously." She studied the Fifield family first, she explains, and then turned to her husband's branch of the Wilkins family. This was a way to involve him as well.
Continuing her interest in old buildings, Wilkins studied the history of Carlisle's Revolutionary Tavern, built in 1759, which once stood near present-day Stearns Street. The building was unused and in poor repair when in 1931 she tried to drum up interest in preserving it. But in an age of Temperance and the Depression, it was impossible to raise funds. Wilkins mourned the tavern's loss in 1935: "The old timbers are now gone, the bricks from the ovens and fireplaces lie in tumbled heaps, and the ruin is complete. Year by year nature with its lavish charity clothes the spot more thickly with a soft green mantle, and the Tavern is already but a memory."
Wilkins joined the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, and in 1932 published an article in the Society's booklet: "The Century-Old Houses of Carlisle, Massachusetts" by Mrs. Benson Perley Wilkins. A copy of this issue is in the reference section of the Gleason Public Library. This was the beginning of her unique and priceless research.
Between 1931 and 1941 Wilkins's interest in Carlisle's older houses and the families who lived there became almost a full-time occupation. She must have had a good relationship with the townspeople, because they shared details about family members, gave her tours of their homes, and helped identify past owners of the homes, whom she contacted by letter. She spent hours visiting libraries, checking marriage and death records, clipping articles from newspapers, taking photographs, contacting the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, reading Town Reports, and collecting old photographs from family members.
A priceless donation
Reverend Wilkins's health continued to decline, but he was still involved in the church. The Concord Journal reported on November 20, 1930, that "Rev. B. P. Wilkins spoke briefly but beautifully." According to Randall Bennett, he had gone through a religious crisis in his early years that, with his failing health, contributed to his unstable condition. Sometime around 1940, Reverend Wilkins required long-term nursing home care.
In 1941 Wilkins donated all her material on the history of old homes in Carlisle to the library. Librarian Orra H. Bearce said: "The outstanding event of the year was the presentation to the town of Carlisle through the library trustees of a set of twenty-five loose-leaf volumes on the Old Houses and Families of Carlisle, Massachusetts, by
Martha Fifield Wilkins. This is a rare and valuable gift. Mrs. Wilkins has gathered and arranged, over a period of ten years, various interesting facts unknown to most of us, bits of history and genealogy, and in each case given the source of her information. There are 495 photographs, some of which are quite rare. I hope the townspeople will spend many profitable hours with them."
By this time, with her husband in a nursing home, her good friend Mary A. Green very ill, and her daughter insisting that Wilkins move to her home in El Paso, Texas, she reluctantly prepared to leave Carlisle for the southwest.
In 1946 the mother and daughter traveled by cargo ship to Australia via the Panama Canal, and returned to live in Durham, N.H. They continued to share a home until 1960. Reverend Wilkins passed away in 1961 at the age of 82, and his wife died in 1963 at 87. Doris Wilkins, who never married, moved to Clearwater, Florida, and passed away in 2001 at the age of 99.
The Wilkins legacy
All of Wilkins's sources (notes, newspaper clippings, records of gravestones, pictures, postcards, and personal letters) are stored at the Carlisle Historical Society. She wrote this statement on April 19, 1941, when she donated her material: "It is my earnest hope that these pages and pictures may revive happy memories and also bring some bit of information and pleasure to those interested in their forbears who established homes in Carlisle a century or more ago. I do this in recognition of the courtesies, friendships, and associations which have made life fuller and happier during the quarter-century I have called Carlisle my home."
© 2007 The Carlisle Mosquito