Town Tales

Town histories are wonderful books. All of the local towns have such books, most of which were written around 1900.

Local towns were approaching a 150th anniversary by that time. Residents felt they had a history to record, and that it should be written down while there were still people around who remembered the old days.

Most of them were written, at least in part, by a minister. Ministers, of course, have certain biases, and there are incidents and attitudes they left out.

There is another problem with most of the old histories. Lyndeborough’s, for instance, written in 1905, doesn’t include anything that was current at the time. After all, that wasn’t history, and everybody knew about what was taking place at the time.

It also leaves out the various controversies of the day, those clashes that still rankled, such as the political fight over the use of town money for the building of Citizens’ Hall.

The old histories do include a marvelous genealogy. Populations were small, and most families had been in the area for several generations. A great deal can be learned from them that is left out of the general history.

Many, if not most, of the local towns updated their histories about 50 years ago. These, too, are great books.

Lyndeborough’s second history was written in 1956, and it presents another problem: It covers only what was current at the time. Anything that had vanished during the previous 50 years isn’t in either history.

I am currently part of a committee working on the update of Lyndeborough’s history. We have discovered, in order to present a full picture, that we have to go back to about 1880 and fill in all of the gaps.

And there are a lot of them. The railroad was an important part of the town’s history. Only the problems with its incorporation are mentioned in 1905, and by 1956, it was no longer operating. Who were the station masters? Why was a new station built and then torn down after World War II? Local lore says a resident wished to buy it, but was refused.

Agriculture isn’t mentioned, either. In 1905, everyone was a farmer of some sort. In 1955, almost no one was. What about the blueberry industry that shipped hundreds of quarts of Rose Mountain berries to Boston? Our commercial apple producers?

And the hop industry prior to the Civil War – hops were a cash crop and were shipped to the Boston breweries. Is their exclusion a bias on the part of the minister author, or had that, too, vanished by 1900 and simply wasn’t relevant? I have old hop vines on some of my stone walls.

In the 1980s, the writer of the history of a neighboring town commented, “If you want to stay in town, be careful what you write.” That is probably true unless the author is very thick skinned. There is a certain amount of dirty laundry out there.

And the sponsor of another town history – the one paying for it – objected when the researcher found that some cherished town stories simply weren’t true. He wanted the story kept as it was.

Members of the committee that wrote our 1955 history spent many hours reading the back issues of The Cabinet. They enjoyed the papers, but they left out all of the “good stuff,” because, as one member said, “We can’t print that.”

Which leads me to my own dilemma. One of my parts of the research is to read all of those papers beginning in 1956. I am finding it fascinating, both because it recalls events and people I knew and remember (but had forgotten just when it happened), and organizing it into a narrative. The telling of the town history, what the people did, is, to me, the function of a town history, not whitewashing.

But how much do I include? Some of it is easy – town celebrations, fires, presentations of the Boston Post cane, deaths of officials, new fire trucks (that still won’t fit into the old fire station), the ongoing study committees of various things that haven’t yet made a decision. But we have had some major controversies, too, in the Police Department, in the town office, with residents who felt themselves outside of zoning regulations.

Some events are easy to skip – the whole thing blew over in a few weeks and was mostly forgotten. Who recalls the body found buried on Old Temple Road? No one from around here was involved.

And there have been tragedies. How much detail should be included?

But some quite minor events still linger. There is still some resentment over the state deciding, in 2004, to blast apart the huge glacial erratic on Route 31. The resulting much smaller boulder is still there, and the sight distance wasn’t improved. It was, we said, a town landmark and great for giving directions – turn left after the big rock, first right after the rock. …

I happen to like glacial erratics. But how much is my interest influencing what I choose to include?

Several of us started talking about updating the history several years ago, and actually began writing it last year. It will be at least another year before we have a first draft. That’s plenty of time, maybe, to decide what we will do and how we can do it. And, of course, find a way to pay for publication. Town meetings voted funds for the previous books.

In the meantime, my newspaper reading is up to 2005. Only another 10 years to go. Who remembers what I’ll come across?