history, one chapter at a time
By Ulrika G. Gerth/ email@example.com
Friday, February 24, 2006 - Updated: 12:52 PM EST
have set their goal high: Write the best local history that has ever
Such an undertaking requires more than listing dates and recounting
important events of movers and shakers. The Historical Society of Old
Newbury with the help of a group of residents is well on its way to
composing two volumes of Newburyport 20th century history that encompasses
almost every imaginable aspect of life in the Clipper City.
"Most of all it has to be accurate," said Tom Horth, who is
writing the chapters on transportation and the South End. "But
it also has to be readable. Most books are one or the other. We want
to make it a book that people will actually pick up and read."
Jean Doyle hatched the idea a few years ago. A retired high school history
teacher and Newburyport native, she wished to fill in a blank spot in
local history writing - immigration - but the project quickly swelled,
and now 15 residents make up the History Project Committee with Doyle
and Curator Jay Williamson at the helm.
Immigration, it turned out, was not the only topic that no one had cared
to cover over the past century. Although early Newburyport history is
well documented by celebrities such as Caleb Cushing, E. Vale Smith
and John J. Curriers classic four-volume "Ould Newbury Historical
and Biographical Sketches," the history of the 20th century is
buried in yellowing records and, most of all, in peoples minds.
Doyle knew time was of the essence to capture the stories of elderly
residents before they passed away. Since fact gathering began two years
ago, she has interviewed more than 100 residents who emigrated from
impoverished countries such as Ireland, Poland and Russia for the hope
of a better life in the United States. Doyle is also in charge of the
chronology to give readers an overview of events divided into political,
economic and social categories.
"All history is important," Doyle said. "Often we like
to focus on the days of glory, but its more than that, like people
in the factories and the new life they brought. Im interested
in the complete history, not just whats nice."
The participants have their own specialty. Former Art Association board
member Marge Motes is documenting the establishment of playgrounds and
proliferation of parks, from only four in 1900 to 23 today. Retired
high school English teacher Barbara Merritt recently submitted 62-handwritten
pages on World War II after her computer broke. And John Woods, who
is researching the history of banking, said a look at street names around
town gives a good indication of who ruled the financial institutions.
Besides taking a detailed look at transportation - from bicycles and
buggies to airplanes and cars - Horth is interviewing residents about
life in the South End. Although largely ignored by historians, the neighborhood
is in his view one of the most interesting parts of the city. Purchase
Street, for example, was a shopping strip with storefronts and a trolley
scrambling by. That era of rails is now barely noticeable underneath
the cracked asphalt.
"People looked out for each other," said Doyle, who grew up
on Purchase Street. "When people come from out of town theyve
heard stories about the South End, derogatory ones, but theyre
not true at all ... It wasnt that bad."
Whit Kimball, whose family has lived in Newburyport for generations,
is a living resource for the group, as is the laborious research by
former resident Ron Irving, who spent the past 15 years reviewing local
newspaper articles on microfilm. Irving gleaned excerpts from every
day between 1900 and 2000, resulting in 18,000 typed pages that have
now been transferred to a CD Rom, searchable by years and categories.
The first volume could be on the shelf next year, but as both volumes
will be released together, the completion date is uncertain. The committee
is looking for an author who can weave all the pieces together and give
them one voice. Hiring an author in addition to printing two 300-page
volumes with photos will require substantial fund-raising.
"Were probably looking at a $100,000 to $150,000 project,"
said Williamson, who received the estimate from a publishing company
that has produced a book for the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. "Were
talking with them right now to put together promotion materials. We
need to get the community excited and generate support."
In the meantime, the group is trying to boil down the information into
digestible chapters. Even minute details have to be considered.
"Lime Street used to be called Slime Street,"
Doyle said, giving Horth something to think about.
"Yes, Im trying to decide whether to include that tidbit
or not," he said.