Local History Makes Good-sometimes


This is far from all, when one considers the specialized activities of the Peabody Museum of Salem (founded in 1799; maritime and natural history), the Robert S. Peabody Foundation for Archaeology (American Indian) and the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, the Merrimack Valley Textile Museum in North Andover, and the reconstruction of a seventeenth-century ironworks in Saugus, now maintained by the National Park Service. In addition, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities maintains three historic houses each in Ipswich and Newbury, two in Danvers, one each in Gloucester, Rowley, and Saugus, and the Rocky Hill Meeting House of 1785 in Amesbury. The Trustees of Reservations (which antedate the National Trust in Great Britain) preserve not only great tracts of land but houses in Ipswich and North Andover, while the birthplace of the poet John Grcenleaf Whittier in Haverhill and his home in Amesbury are exhibited by separate charitable corporations organized for that express purpose. Indeed, the multiplicity of historical organizations within this small area reminds me of nothing so much as Augustus de Morgan’s inelegant jingle:


Great fleas have little fleas upon their hacks to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum. …

Essex County, Massachusetts, is an extreme case, but throughout the United States there are more local historical societies than anyone can accurately count. The American Association for State and Local History, founded in 1940 in the hope of tying some of this diffuse activity together, a decade ago sent questionnaires to approximately 1,700 local historical societies across the country. From the replies of the 565 who troubled to answer, as well as from 120 personal visits, Dr. Richmond D. Williams, who conducted this survey, drew various conclusions. Among them was the saddening discovery of a twenty-year “life cycle” for birth and death. Of the 1,343 societies listed in the association’s 1944 directory, 502 seemed to have died by the 1961 revision. The answer is not hard to find. Frequently, in New England at least, a single determined lady, who might pull poison ivy from colonial gravestones with her own hands until the town authorities were shamed into taking better care of a seventeenth-century cemetery, would badger her neighbors into the preservation of a local building and thus initiate both a society and a collection. But if she and her coadjutors failed to recruit adequate younger successors, the society might well die with them, leaving a house in poor repair, with a plow, a wing chair, a flax spinning wheel, a luster tea set, somebody’s wedding dress, a tin oven, and other objects too good to throw away jumbled together in its rooms.

The restoration of Williamsburg, Virginia, begun in 1927 through the extraordinary generosity of the late John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who before his death in 1960 had given some 68.5 million dollars to the project, produced a unique example of le temps perdu sous cloche . As the intention was to turn back the clock and return the town to its appearance as a colonial capital, some six hundred nineteenth- and twentieth-century buildings were eventually torn down or moved outside the restoration area; eighty-five surviving eighteenth-century buildings were restored to their original appearance; while the Capitol, Governor’s Palace, and the Raleigh Tavern, which had disappeared, were meticulously reconstructed. Today Williamsburg is a museum piece, an eighteenthcentury fantasy in which the more pleasing aspects of colonial life are evoked (with the omission of smells, flies, pigs, dirt, and slave quarters), sheltered from the outside world (figuratively if not literally) by a vast glass case. In her recent New Lives , New Landscapes , Nan Fairbrother classified amenity and preservation societies in three progressive states, as Reversers, Shunters, and Translators. Reversers are simple: they want to put the clock back. They would like us all to live happily in a beautiful pre-industrial world, despite the fact that no one would now tolerate the pre-industrial life.

Williamsburg is the most brilliant and most extensive example in the United States of Reversers at work.