Recent Belmont Historical Society Programs

May 17, 2017
Belmont Historical Society Annual Meeting

The agenda for this meeting included: (1) election of officers and directors for 2017-2018, (2) award of Historic House Plaques, (3) presentation of the David R. Johnson Historic Preservation Award, and (4) recollections on historic preservation by Roger Webb. Click here to see the complete streaming video of that meeting, including the featured presentation. Roger Webb is a distinguished historic preservationist who shared recollections from his more than 50-year career in preservation projects in Belmont, Cambridge, Boston, and New Bedford. His most notable projects include the conversion and reuse of the old Boston City Hall and the restoration of the Faneuil Hall Marketplace in downtown Boston. Roger was the founder and is the Chairman Emeritus of the Architectural Heritage Foundation (AHF) based in Boston. Click here to learn more about his career and the awards for his historic preservation work.

 April 9, 2017
Dining Out in Boston: A Historic Look at Restaurants and Menus

Over the years, Boston has been one of America’s leading laboratories of urban culture, including restaurants, and Boston history provides valuable insights into American food ways. James O’Connell’s fascinating look at more than two centuries of culinary trends in Boston restaurants presents a rich and hitherto unexplored side to the city’s past. His recent book Dining Out in Boston shows that the city was a pioneer in elaborate hotel dining, oyster houses, French cuisine, student hangouts, ice cream parlors, the twentieth-century revival of traditional New England dishes, and contemporary locavore and trendy foodie culture. Click here to see the complete streaming video of that presentation.

March 5, 2017
Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse

Eric Jay Dolin, the author of many popular books about a wide range of historical topics who lives in Marblehead, Massachusetts, discussed his most recent book Brilliant Beacons: A History of the American Lighthouse published in 2016. Dolin’s illustrated presentation traced the evolution of America’s lighthouse system from the beginning of the eighteenth century until the present day. Click here to see the complete streaming video of that presentation.

 February 19, 2017
The History of the Hill-Richardson Families in Belmont

Lifelong Belmont resident, conservationist, and historical preservationist Lydia Phippen Ogilby and Viktoria Haase, Curator of the Belmont Historical Society’s Claflin Room collection and Editor of the Society’s newsletter, presented an illustrated talk about the Hill-Richardson families, among the earliest families in Belmont. Click here to see the complete streaming video of that meeting.

May 18, 2016
Belmont Historical Society Annual Meeting

The agenda for the Society’s 2016 annual meeting was:

Election of officers and directors
Presentation of the 2016 David R. Johnson Historic Preservation Awards
Presentation of the latest set of Historic House Plaques
Highlights of Richard B. Betts’ collection of Belmont memorabilia and personal reminiscences of Richard’s life

Click here to see the complete streaming video of the annual meeting.

April 12, 2016
“One Woman, One Vote: The New Woman and the New Century”
Barbara Berenson, author and attorney

Barbara Berenson spoke on the topic One Woman, One Vote: The New Woman and the New Century, drawing upon her research for a forthcoming book about the woman suffrage movement in Massachusetts. This lecture was presented as part of the “One Book One Belmont” program organized by the Belmont Public Library with the Belmont Historical Society as a co-sponsor. Anita Diamant’s best-selling novel The Boston Girl was selected as the featured title for One Book One Belmont 2016, the library’s sixth town-wide reading program. The Boston Girl explores the environment and experiences of women immigrants in Boston during the early part of the 20th century, with woman suffrage as one of the major changes. Click here to see a complete streaming video of Barbara Berenson’s lecture.

February 17, 2016
“The Race Underground: 
Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway”
Doug Most, author and journalist

Construction of the first section of the Red Line subway in 1895 along Tremont Street beside the Boston Common. (Photograph from the Boston Carmen's Union, Local 589)

Construction of the first section of the Red Line subway in 1895 along Tremont Street beside the Boston Common. (Photograph from Boston Carmen’s Union, Local 589)

The introduction to Doug Most’s latest book The Race Underground describes the motivation, challenges, and obstacles to the 19th century “Big Dig”, the construction of Boston’s first-in-the-United-States subway:

Book Cover: The Race Underground"“In the second half of the nineteenth century, the horse-pulled streetcar, clip-clopping along at five miles per hour and filled with an unbearable stench, slowly began to cripple two great American cities. In Boston and New York, there were too many people and no safe, fast, reliable way for them to move from one neighborhood to the next. In the summer heat, carriages inched forward until the animals reared up their legs in frustration, and police had to come out swinging their clubs to restore peace. During the winter it was no better. Horses struggled to get their footing in the snow and ice and were driven to exhaustion or sometimes death. When a solution finally emerged – a subway – it was rejected time and again, either by corrupt politicians, selfish businessmen, or terrified citizens. ‘A menace to the health of the public’, a man of the times said. A newspaper article went even further, describing a subway ride like ‘living in a tomb’. ”

To see a streaming video of Doug Most’s fascinating talk, click here.

 

November 22, 2015
“Boston and the Civil War: Hub of the Second Revolution”
Barbara Berenson, author and attorney

Boston Civil WarBarbara Berenson’s recent book Boston and the Civil War begins with the following overview: “Most people know that the American Revolution began in Boston when a group of radical activists protested British governance of the colonies. But many people don’t know that the nation’s Civil War – the war that ended slavery – also began in Boston. Led by agitator and publisher William Lloyd Garrison, a group of radical abolitionists protested against Southern slavery and Northern acquiescence in the South’s ‘peculiar institution’. Guided by the example of Revolutionary-era Patriots who persuasively argued for independence while organizing dramatic protests such as the Boston Tea Party, Boston’s black and white activists organized an unrelenting campaign against slavery and racism. . . After Northerners elected Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860, eleven Southern states seceded from the Union. When Lincoln went to war to restore the Union, Boston’s abolitionists tirelessly campaigned for expanding the aims of the war to include the permanent elimination of slavery. They led a Second American Revolution intended to force the nation to live up to the promises of liberty and equality contained in the Declaration of Independence.”

To see a streaming video of Barbara Berenson’s illustrated talk, click here.

 October 22, 2015
“Massachusetts’ Role in the 19th Century China Trade”
Doug Stewart, Ipswich writer

Trade with China was an important part of the Massachusetts economy in the mid-1800's. This image shows the port of Canton around 1852. © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

Trade with China was an important part of the Massachusetts economy in the mid-1800’s. This image shows the port of Canton around 1852. © Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts

To see a streaming video of Doug Stewart’s illustrated talk, click here.


To see summaries of some of our older programs, just scroll down this page. If you want to go directly to a specific program, just click on that program’s link from the following list:

5/20/15   Belmont Historical Society’s 2015 Annual Meeting and Historic House Program

4/15/15    Frederick Law Olmsted: Passages in the Life of an Unpractical Man

3/18/15    The Yankee Division in the Great War

2/25/15    The History of McLean Hospital

12/14/14   Holiday Music

11/12/14   Stealing Rembrandts

10/26/14  The Belmont Uplands: A History of the Changing Use of Land and Water

9/17/14     Francis Cabot Lowell: The Man Who Launched America’s Industrial Revolution

5/14/14     Belmont Historical Society’s 2014 Annual Meeting and Historic House Plaque Program

3/19/14     Belmont and The Development Of Metropolitan Boston

2/23/14     Lexington Historical Society Colonial Singers

12/18/13   Four Centuries of Christmas in New England

11/20/13  The Caning: How An Assault On The Floor Of The U.S. Senate Drove America To Civil War

10/23/13  Tour Of Mount Auburn Cemetery

 

The History of McLean Hospital
February 25, 2015


This program was dedicated to the memory of Anne Claflin Allen, longtime supporter and member of the Board of Directors of the Belmont Historical Society, who died on February 20, 2015.

Alan Bragg traced the 200 year history of the McLean Hospital

Alan Bragg traced the 200 year history of the hospital


Terry A. Bragg, Archivist of the McLean Hospital in Belmont since 1981, presented an illustrated lecture tracing the remarkable history of this world-famous hospital. From its start in 1818, McLean Hospital followed the principles of “moral treatment” for the mentally ill, both in the choice of the beautiful country site on which it is now located and in the care delivered to its patients. This was in distinct contrast to the prevailing practices at the time. Patients with mental illness were most often hidden and housed in jails, almshouses, and private homes. If they existed at all, dedicated facilities for the mentally ill provided little care and few activities. The “treatment” frequently consisted of physical coercion, including chains, to restrain the patients. The concept of “moral treatment” for mental illness began to emerge at the beginning of the 1800’s. The key concepts of this revolution were a compassionate staff, the limitation of restraints as much as possible, and providing occupations and diversions for the patients in a country environment. With this new approach, the construction and maintenance of psychiatric care institutions began to play an increasingly important role in the treatment of the mentally ill, and McLean Hospital was among the leaders in the transformation.

This 1893 etching shows the new McLean Hospital's Belmont campus. The surrounding streets (Trapelo Road, Mill Street, Concord Avenue, and Pleasant Street) are highlighted. Some of the original buildings are still standing.

This 1893 etching shows the new McLean Hospital’s Belmont campus. The surrounding streets (Trapelo Road, Mill Street, Concord Avenue, and Pleasant Street) are highlighted. Some of the original buildings are still standing.

The McLean Asylum for the Insane originally opened in Charlestown in 1818. It was named for John McLean, a Boston merchant who was an early major benefactor. The hospital outgrew its original facilities and location by the latter part of the 19th century and moved to a new purpose-built complex on 107 acres in Belmont by the late 1800’s. By then the name had changed from the “McLean Asylum” to the current “McLean Hospital”. Since the 19th century, McLean Hospital has attempted to integrate the benefits of both basic and clinical research into educational programs and clinical care. Today, McLean Hospital is providing care for more patients and families than ever before. It has eight locations throughout Eastern Massachusetts, sees more than 6,000 admissions annually, and maintains one of the largest psychiatric neuroscience research programs in the world.

Ellen Schreiber(left) and Diane Miller, co-chairs of the Friends of Joey's Park, present a scrapbook for the Claflin Room's collection

Ellen Schreiber(left) and Diane Miller, co-chairs of the Friends of Joey’s Park, present a scrapbook for the Claflin Room’s historical collection

Before the start of the February 25th program on the history of the McLean Hospital, representatives from the Friends of Joey’s Park made a presentation to the Belmont Historical Society. The Friends of Joey’s Park is a grass-roots organization in Belmont dedicated to the reconstruction of Joey’s Park, a playground built 25 years ago on the grounds of the Winn Brook School. The organization presented the Society with a scrapbook of pictures that document the work of the hundreds of people who came together to rebuild this community resource. That scrapbook will be a valuable addition to the Belmont memorabilia and archives in the Society’s Claflin Room.

You may watch a video of the February 25th program, including both the lecture on the history of the McLean Hospital and the presentation of the Joey’s Park scrapbook. The video was produced by the Belmont Media Center.

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Holiday Music
December 14, 2014

 

Vanessa Schukis entertained with holiday songs

Live music and holiday decorations filled the Assembly Room on December 14th

AudienceThe Belmont Historical Society’s 2014 holiday program featured Vanessa Schukis, a mezzo-soprano and pianist who performed seasonal carols and also pieces from the 1500’s/1600’s on the flute. Ms. Schukis teaches voice and is on the faculty of the Powers Music School in Belmont. She has had a multi-faceted career as a character mezzo, actress, choreographer, stage director, vocal coach, educator, and administrator.

Vanessa led a holiday sing-along to conclude her performance

A holiday sing-along concluded the program

Vanessa has been a soloist/section leader for the historic Old North Church in Boston’s North End for 26 years and a soloist/cantor for 15 years at St. Paul’s church in Wellesley. She continues to perform in theater, opera, and concert engagements throughout the United States. Here in Red Sox Nation, she has sung the National Anthem and “God Bless America” at a Boston Red Sox game. Vanessa has been a member of the guest faculty at the New England Conservatory and a visiting faculty member at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge.

A special treat was the surprise appearance of the Belmont Historical Society Percussion Quartet with Lois Farrell (left), the Society's Vice President, and Emilio Mauro Jr. (right), the Society's President

A special treat was the surprise appearance of the Belmont Historical Society Rhythm Quartet with Lois Farrell (left), the Society’s Vice President, and Emilio Mauro Jr. (right), the Society’s President

Joe Cornish made the Historic House Plaque presentations on behalf of the Society

Joe Cornish made the Historic House Plaque presentations on behalf of the Society

Ian Watson accepts the Historic House Plaque for the Widow Brown's Cottage on Clark Street

Ian Watson accepts the Historic House Plaque for the Widow Brown Cottage on Clark Street

Prior to the musical program, the Belmont Historical Society recognized a set of historic Belmont homes by distributing historic house plaques. These plaques are awarded bi-annually at the Society’s annual meeting in May and at the holiday program in December. The plaques recognize properties in the town that meet criteria for historic significance and historic preservation. Click here for more information and an application for the next round of awards.

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Stealing Rembrandts
November 12, 2014

The Gardner Museum's Dutch Room still displays empty frames where Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" and "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" once hung.

The Gardner Museum’s Dutch Room still displays empty frames where Rembrandt’s “A Lady and Gentleman in Black” and “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” once hung.

On the night of March 18, 1990, a pair of thieves disguised as Boston police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and roamed the Museum’s galleries, stealing 13 works of art including Rembrandt’s “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee” and “A Lady and Gentleman in Black”. This was the largest and most notorious art theft in history and remains unsolved to this day. On November 12th, Anthony Amore, Director of Security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where he also serves as chief investigator working to recover the stolen works taken in the infamous 1990 heist, presented an illustrated lecture describing the reality of art crimes as contrasted with the glamorized version frequently presented in movies. He described in fascinating detail three of history’s most significant art thefts – all of which occurred here in Massachusetts (at the Worcester Art Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston), and all involved the theft of Rembrandt masterpieces. Anthony described the sorts of people who steal art masterpieces, why they do it, and what becomes of the art.  Art theft is a $6-$8 billion dollar problem worldwide. You can watch the complete lecture on video courtesy of the Belmont Media Center.

Prior to his work with the Gardner Museum, Anthony Amore was senior Homeland Security official in Massachusetts and was the FAA’s lead special agent responding to the terrorist attack attempted by Richard Reid, the so-called “Shoe bomber”. Anthony also provides security analysis for Fox 25 News in Boston. He is the author of the Wall Street Journal bestseller Stealing Rembrandts, and his upcoming  book The Art of the Con will be published in 2015.  Return to top of page.

Anthony Amore explaining the world of art theft in his lecture "Stealing Rembrandts"

Anthony Amore explaining the world of art theft in his lecture “Stealing Rembrandts”

 

The Belmont Uplands: A History of the Changing Use of Land and Water
October 26, 2014

Walkway entering the Silver Maple Forest, a short distance from busy highways (Routes 2, 3, and 16) and the MBTA Alewife Station

Walkway entering the Silver Maple Forest, a short distance from busy highways (Routes 2, 3, and 16) and the MBTA Alewife Station

On Sunday afternoon, October 26th, Anne-Marie Lambert presented an illustrated lecture on the Belmont Uplands, a 15 acre tract of land at the northeast corner of Belmont bordering Cambridge and Arlington. This area was once surrounded by the “Great Swamp” and includes the “Silver Maple Forest”, a unique and fragile urban wildlife habitat.  The forest and surrounding wetlands serve as natural sponges for a region already prone to flooding. This scenic area along the edges of Little Pond and the Little River is home to a diverse species of 45 breeding birds and 20 mammals which rely on the forest as well as the surrounding wetlands for survival. The transition of the Belmont Uplands from marshland to farmland to forest to suburban development tells a fascinating local story of the changing boundaries between nature and man, and between land and water.

Anne-Marie examined the history of these 15 acres through its current surroundings: a glacial kettle pond; a large channel dug in 1909 to drain the Great Swamp; a state reservation claimed by eminent domain when Frederick Law Olmsted’s firm was promoting landscaped public parks; a highway widened in 1967 as a Cold War evacuation route; and a modern office park. The history of the Uplands includes Native American fish weirs for alewife, railroad spurs for the ice houses, the award-winning Heustis Farm, numerous pollution challenges, a homeless population, and, most recently, a remarkable collection of native wildlife. As demands for both human and wildlife habitat rise, and as climate change threatens, the story is not over.

The Heustis farm in 1910

The Heustis farm in 1910

Three generations of the direct descendants of Warren Heustis attended the Belmont Historical Society's program on October 26. From left to right, Andre Pare, Nancy (Heustis) Pare, Carol Heustis, and Emilio E. Mauro, Jr, the president of the Belmont Historical Society

Three generations of the direct descendants of Warren Heustis attended the Belmont Historical Society’s program on October 26. From left to right, Andre Pare, Nancy (Heustis) Pare, Carol Heustis, and Emilio E. Mauro, Jr, the president of the Belmont Historical Society

Although farms began to appear in other parts of Belmont in the 1600’s, the area surrounded by the Great Swamp was considered useless until the mid-1800’s. In 1845 Warren Heustis and his new bride Lucy were given 13 acres of land in what is now the Uplands by Lucy’s father, a member of one of the earliest settlers in Belmont. The Heustis farm grew and thrived as the railroads expanded and immigrant labor became increasingly available. That particular farm remained in the Heustis family until 1948 when it was sold. By then it was the next-to-last farm in Belmont, and in 1953 it was sold again, this time to the Arthur D. Little Company which built its Acorn Park facility on the land. A highlight of the Sunday afternoon presentation was the fact that three generations of the direct descendants of the Warren Heustis who established the original farm in 1845 attended the program.

Anne-Marie Lambert, a recipient of a Belmont Historical Preservation Award in 2014

Anne-Marie Lambert

Anne-Marie Lambert is on the board of the Belmont Citizens Forum and is co-founder of the Belmont Stormwater Working Group. She leads “Little River Nature History Walks” on the Alewife Reservation bordering the Belmont Uplands and has written many articles about the property for the Belmont Citizens Forum newsletter.  Ms. Lambert is a recipient of the Belmont Historical Society’s 2014 David R. Johnson Preservation Award for her ongoing work in educating the Belmont community and promoting planning and policies for preservation and environmental quality. She is a Belmont Town Meeting Member and has been a resident of Belmont for 20 years. You can watch Anne-Marie’s complete lecture on video courtesy of the Belmont Media Center.

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Francis Cabot Lowell: The Man Who Launched
America’s Industrial Revolution
September 17, 2014

Francis Cabot Lowell BookThe Belmont Historical Society opened its fall season with an illustrated lecture on “Francis Cabot Lowell: The Man Who Launched America’s Industrial Revolution” presented by author Chaim M. (“Mike”) Rosenberg, a retired Boston psychiatrist and local history enthusiast who has written several books on America’s industrial age. Francis Cabot Lowell was born in Newburyport and educated at Phillips Academy and Harvard College. After Lowell and his family toured Great Britain in the early 1800’s and saw the tremendous changes brought about by the industrial revolution made possible by   waterpower, he returned to Boston and brought the industrial revolution to Waltham. That site for Lowell’s first mill, only a few miles from Belmont, was chosen because the waters of the Charles River provided power to run the mill machinery. This development marked the beginning of the shift in the Boston area’s commercial foundation from the export/import trade to a manufacturing center.  Lowell’s associates later expanded his factory model to the Merrimack River and built America’s first industrial city, named Lowell in his honor. You can watch Mike Rosenberg’s interesting lecture on video courtesy of the Belmont Media Center.

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Belmont Historical Society’s Annual Meeting
Recognition Of Belmont’s Historic Homes
May 14, 2014

The final meeting of the 2013-2014 year was the Belmont Historical Society’s annual meeting that included the election of Officers and Directors for 2014-2015. In addition, the winners of the David R. Johnson Preservation Awards for 2014 were announced. The featured presentation was given by Joe Cornish who described the Society’s newly-launched Historic House Plaque Program. Joe explained the process of how property owners may obtain plaques along with tips for researching the history of historic properties in town. Joe is a past president of the Belmont Historical Society, serves on the society’s board as the Wellington Station Master, and is co-chair of the Belmont Historic District Commission. Joe is also the president of the New England Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians and has been employed by Historic New England since 1998 where he oversees the organization’s preservation easement program. You can watch the entire proceedings on video courtesy of the Belmont Media Center.

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Belmont And The Development Of Metropolitan Boston
March 19, 2014

O'Connell1

On March 19th members and friends of the Belmont Historical Society gathered in the Assembly Room of the Belmont Memorial Library to enjoy a presentation by James O’Connell featuring the growth and development of the suburbs around Boston. Mr. O’Connell, who created the methodology to research how places are developed, began by stating that while Boston is a city that can trace its suburban growth back to the 1800’s,  currently there are 101 cities and towns inside Route 495 with a total population of approximately 4 million O'Connell Book Coverpeople. His book entitled The Hub’s Metropolis: Greater Boston’s Development from Railroad Suburbs to Smart Growth, traces this history from traditional town centers with greens to today’s trends in urbanization. The lecture, like his book, focused on several different but distinct time periods including; “Country Estates” in the 1820’s, “Railroad Suburbs” in the 1840’s, “Street Car and Parkway Suburbs” through the 1940’s, as well as continuing influences leading up to the new urbanization of the  21st century.

Local trends here in Belmont seemed to follow this pattern as fashionable country estates like the 50-room mansion built by John Perkins Cushing were scattered between many large market gardens that dominated the landscape when the town began.  The Fitchburg Railroad, which extended its tracks through 1843, contributed to the increased growth of the farm community by making the area more accessible. Soon to follow was the street car line which opened with service from Waverley Square to Boston, creating new routes along the Trapelo Road corridor.

Mr. O’Connell explained that it was in the first few decades of the 20th century that Belmont experienced its most rapid growth spurt. The population in 1900 was 3,929; in 1920 it was 10,749; in 1940 it was 26,867; and in 1960 the population reached its peak at 28,715. Belmont responded to the increase by being the first town to adopt the Tenement Act in 1912, which restricted the construction of triple-decker buildings. This decision, as well as other local zoning bylaws implemented in the 1920’s, favored the plans of single family house construction and did much to influence the development of this town.

It is hard to say what Belmont will look like in the future as the increased demand for thousands of housing units to keep pace with growth continues in the area. However, Belmont may feel less of an impact because most would agree that this four and a half square miles of real estate was mostly built out by the 1940’s and its population peaked in the 1960’s. Still, the current proposed development model for Cushing Square, which favors greater density and the combination of residential and retail space, may succeed in establishing this new trend in our own backyards.

O'Connell4Following the presentation, James O’Connell was available to answer questions and to sign copies of his book. He is seen here (center) with Anne Marie Lambert and Emilio Mauro Jr., President of the Belmont Historical Society. Besides The Hub’s Metropolis, O’Connell has written four other books and many articles on urban planning and New England history. His other books include Becoming Cape Cod: Creating a Seaside Resort; The Pioneer Valley Reader; and The Inside Guide to Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. He is a Community Planner for the National Park Service, where he specializes in planning for historic sites and heritage areas.

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Lexington Historical Society Colonial Singers
February 23, 2014

The Colonial Singers from the Lexington Historical Society performing at the Belmont Memorial Library on February 23, 2014

The Colonial Singers from the Lexington Historical Society performing at the Belmont Memorial Library on February 23, 2014

On Sunday afternoon February 23rd, under the direction of Diane Taraz, a group of “colonists” gathered in the Assembly Room of the Belmont Memorial Library to perform more than a dozen songs that captured the history and reflected the culture and daily life of the 1700’s. These “colonists” were the Colonial Singers from the Lexington Historical Society, two men and a half-dozen women dressed in costumes of the period. The various musical selections included religious hymns, a call to meeting, a couple of folk songs, several “catches” (more commonly known as “rounds”), marching tunes, and a lively Celtic drinking song.  The selections included both songs popular with the colonists (patriots) and songs popular with the British.

Diane Taraz, Director of the Colonial Singers, displaying the dulcimer, one of the typical musical instruments used in the 1700's.

Diane Taraz, Director of the Colonial Singers, displaying the dulcimer, a typical musical instrument used in the 1700’s.

Before each selection was sung, the Director took a few moments to explain the origins and context of each song.  In the 1700’s, long before the invention of the phonograph, records, radio, television, CDs, mp3 players, and other technical marvels, the only music was live music which you either played yourself or listened to in a pub, meeting house, church, or similar venue. As is the case today, songs provided a way to comment upon the political, social, and cultural events of the day. Each song has a story about the source of its melody and the context that inspired the words. Popular melodies were re-used with new lyrics to create new songs. One example of this approach is the well-known “Yankee Doodle”. We think of this song today as a patriotic American tune. The music was actually borrowed from an earlier song titled “The Air From Who Knows Where”, and the lyrics were written by British soldiers to make fun of the American soldiers who took part in the French and Indian War and were considered incompetent by the superior British forces.

The instrument in the foreground is a bodhran, an ancient percussion instrument still widely used in Celtic music today.

The instrument in the foreground is a bodhran, an ancient percussion instrument still widely used in Celtic music today.

A lively catch from 1762 was sung with the explanation that these types of songs were very popular in the “Gentlemen’s Clubs” around London in that era. The verses sung in rounds included the line “light all your pipes up so we can see what we are drinking by the light of the weed”. An interesting set of lyrics was written by Dr. Joseph Warren who was Chair of the Committee of Safety and in 1770, long before the conflict with the British fully developed, wrote about a day in the future when America would be a land ruled by liberty. William Billings, a prolific hymn writer, composed a “Chester” (or melody) in 1778 to encourage the men in the Continental Army at a time when the battle for independence did not seem to be going very well. Its lyrics included the verses “God is on our side” and “the God of New England forever reigns!”. The newspapers of the day such as the Boston Newsletter were another inspiration for songs. The newspaper reported that the British intended to tax goods such as silk, ribbons, and satin. Consequently, a song was written titled “Young Ladies in Town” to encourage the girls to boycott the purchase of these kinds of goods and to buy linen garments made locally from homespun fabrics.

The British Troops who were quartered in Boston in the early 1770’s were increasingly harassed following the Boston Massacre and had to move from the city out to Castle Island for their own protection. They wrote a song in protest to threaten that they would return and burn down the town, kill John Hancock, and occupy Boston once again with additional reinforcements. This song became known as the “Castle Island Song” and the original broadside hangs today on the wall inside the Old State House in Boston. Several other war-themed songs were also performed including an allegory about the Boston Tea Party, a soldier of Scottish descent who asks a girl to marry him and become a “camp follower” roaming behind his regiment to help with his army duties, and another tale sung in “Soldier Will You Marry Me”? That story set to music tells of a poor continental commander who accepts the advances and the many gifts of a young lady in pursuit of his affection before he reveals that he has a wife and baby back home.

IMG_1050R2The festivities were concluded with a final song that repeated the verse “Good night and joy be with you all” which seemed a fitting way to end the educational and entertaining event.  This song, commonly known as “The Parting Glass”, dates back to the 1600’s and is still performed frequently today in Celtic music settings.

You can learn more about the Colonial Singers at their website.

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Four Centuries of Christmas in New England
December 18, 2013

On Wednesday evening, December 18th, Kenneth Turino from Historic New England presented a well-illustrated lecture about the evolution of the celebration of Christmas in New England from 1620 to the present day. The slide in this photograph shows early Christmas cards from the 19th century.

On Wednesday evening, December 18th, Kenneth Turino from Historic New England presented a well-illustrated lecture about the evolution of the celebration of Christmas in New England from 1620 to the present day. The slide in this photograph shows early Christmas cards from the 19th century.

Image courtesy of Historic New England

Image courtesy of Historic New England

Did you know that Christmas was not observed in any manner in Puritan New England in the 1600’s? In fact, any observance of Christmas in the colonies was outlawed in 1659. That prohibition was loosened slightly in 1681 as a result of the British Restoration.  The first observance of Christmas in Boston came in 1686, but Christmas Day was an ordinary workday in New England from the early 1600’s into the mid 1800’s.  It was not until 1856 that Christmas became a legal holiday in Massachusetts, after most other states had already taken that step.  The first Christmas trees appeared in the United States in communities of German immigrants in Pennsylvania in 1810. Christmas presents were originally not wrapped but were simply hung on the Christmas tree.  That practice continued into the late 1890’s.  These and many other fascinating aspects of the growth and changes in the observation of Christmas were described by Kenneth Turino, Manager of Community Engagement and Exhibitions at Historic New England. You can learn more about the evolution of Christmas celebrations and traditions at Historic New England’s website.

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The Caning: How An Assault On The Floor Of The
U.S. Senate Drove America To Civil War
November 20, 2013

Boston area historian and author Stephen Puleo captivated the audience at the Belmont Historical Society's program on November 20, 2013.

Boston area historian and author Stephen Puleo captivated the audience at the Belmont Historical Society’s program on November 20, 2013.

Stephen Puleo

Stephen Puleo

On Wednesday evening, November 20th, Boston area historian and author Stephen Puleo gave a dynamic presentation of the turbulent decade leading up to the Civil War which is the subject of his latest book “The Caning”. The book’s title comes from an unprecedented and savage attack on the floor of the U.S. Senate chamber on the afternoon of May 22, 1856. The pro-slavery Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina walked into the Senate Chamber in Washington and attacked the anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a walking cane.  Senator Sumner was severely wounded in this shocking assault which convinced each side in the slavery debate that their differences were irreconcilable.  The nation’s turmoil grew worse during the next five years until the Civil War broke out in 1861. While many people today may think that the current Congress in Washington is hopelessly dysfunctional, Puleo argues convincingly that extreme partisanship and the inability to compromise were even worse during the 1850’s.

This program was another in the Belmont Historical Society’s series commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.  As a matter of interest, Senator Charles Sumner is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery which was the venue for the Belmont Historical Society’s program in October (see below).

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Tour of Mount Auburn Cemetery
October 20, 2013

Members of the Belmont Historical Society and their guide during the tour of Mount Auburn Cemetery

Members of the Belmont Historical Society and their guide during the tour of Mount Auburn Cemetery

On a beautiful autumn afternoon, members and friends of the Belmont Historical Society met in front of Story Chapel at Mount Auburn Cemetery for a walking tour of one of the nation’s oldest and most beautifully landscaped cemetery/public parks.  In 1831, the Massachusetts Horticultural Society purchased 72 acres of mature woodland in Watertown and Cambridge for the creation of a “rural cemetery” and experimental garden.  Since its founding 182 years ago, Mount Auburn Cemetery has served the dual role of both an active cemetery and a “museum” preserving changing attitudes about death and changing tastes in architecture and landscape design.  Mount Auburn Cemetery was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003.

Steve Pinkerton, Belmont resident and Mount Auburn Cemetery volunteer, led the tour and shared his extensive knowledge of local history, general facts about the cemetery, details of native plantings, and fascinating stories about some of the people buried there.  The walk followed a route through a section of the grounds with beautiful vistas and historic plant and tree species in full fall color. Stops were made along the way to honor those whose “passage to the next world” began here.

Among the notable people whose graves we visited were:

The mausoleum of John Perkins Cushing whose country estate "Bellmont" gave the town its name. The mausoleum is currently under repair.

The mausoleum of John Perkins Cushing whose country estate “Bellmont” gave the town its name. The mausoleum is currently under repair.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow – famed writer and poet.

Mary Baker Eddy – the founder of the Religion of Christian Science and the Christian Science Monitor.

John Perkins Cushing – a wealthy China trade merchant whose 50-room mansion “Bellmont” provided the name for our “new town” when it finally won the battle for incorporation in 1859.

Thomas Handyside Perkins – (Cushing’s cousin) who competed against him in yacht races in Boston Harbor.

William P. Winchester – who purchased the naming rights for the nearby town of Winchester.

Harriet Hosmer and Winslow Homer – two well-known artists whose graves happen to be suitably situated near each other.  Winslow Homer, perhaps the better-known of the two, spent summers in Belmont during the 1850’s at the home of his uncle William Flagg Homer (see below).  A number of Winslow Homer’s famous paintings depict scenes at his uncle’s house and other locations in Belmont.

William Flagg Homer, uncle of Winslow Homer, whose historic house in Belmont is open to the public.

William Flagg Homer, uncle of Winslow Homer, whose historic house in Belmont is open to the public.

William Harnden – founder of the express business in America whose employees built him an elaborate monument to replace his original modest stone.

William Flagg Homer and Samuel Orlando Mead – two prominent businessmen who both married daughters of Colonel Jeduthan Wellington and built houses in Belmont.  The historic William Flagg Homer house in Belmont was built in 1853 and is now owned by the Belmont Woman’s Club and is open to the public.

Caroline Lamson Brown – Belmont resident and Titanic survivor who was the widow of publisher James Murray Brown.

Nathaniel Bowditch – the brilliant mathematician and scientist whose cast is on display as the first bronze statue in America and who is said to have at least 200 other descendants buried here.

Many other former residents of Belmont and surrounding towns are interred at Mount Auburn, and each has an interesting story.  The two hours that were spent on the tour seemed only a short introduction to the enormous history that this site has to offer.  Many of those who participated left inspired to return to explore further and discover the opportunities available through programs like this one that are offered year round by dedicated staff and volunteers who continue to make Mount Auburn Cemetery a popular destination.

Learn more about this unique and historic cemetery/park and plan your own visit.

Check out these fascinating facts.

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A scenic view of Mary Baker Eddy's grave and monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery

A scenic view of Mary Baker Eddy’s grave and monument at Mount Auburn Cemetery