Writing history, one chapter at a time
By Ulrika G. Gerth/ ugerth@cnc.com
Friday, February 24, 2006 - Updated: 12:52 PM EST

They have set their goal high: Write the best local history that has ever been written.

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. Currier’s 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 people’s 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 it’s more than that, like people in the factories and the new life they brought. I’m interested in the complete history, not just what’s 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 they’ve heard stories about the South End, derogatory ones, but they’re not true at all ... It wasn’t 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.

"We’re 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. "We’re 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, I’m trying to decide whether to include that tidbit or not," he said.

(This article replicated online with permission of the Newburyport Current.)
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