Paving Over History

Memorial stone erected by the Leominster Historical Society in 1912 to commemorate the location of Leominster's first burial ground.

Memorial stone commemorating the location of Leominster’s first and now extinct burial ground.

Last September my quest to find the graves of my 5th great grandfather Jonathan Willson, his wife Hepzebah Wilder and their son Caleb brought me to the corner of Route 13 and Day Street in Leominster.  I could barely look up at the cars racing past me as I aimed my camera at a tiny marker erected in 1912 by the Leominster Historical Society . . . it was the only peaceful space in this  traffic-laden neighborhood, and the only indication of Leominster’s first and now extinct burial ground. This was one of the more crushing genealogical discoveries I had ever made: my Revolutionary family was buried somewhere in the middle of route 13.

The brief entry from the book

The brief entry from the book “Inscriptions From Burial Grounds of Nashaway Towns” that describes the fate of Leominster’s first burial ground.

Since that day a thought has plagued me: at what point does the preservation of history become a burden?  How much do we hold on to, and how much should we release to be reshaped in the current of time?

View from the attic of the Oaks

View from the attic of the Oaks

That thought was with me last week on a beautiful May morning as I prowled through the attic of the Colonel Timothy Bigelow Chapter house of the Daughters of the American Revolution . . . more simply and affectionately known as “The Oaks.”  I pressed against the glass and looked out over Frederick Paine’s lost garden,  and through the trees I could just barely see the cars zipping by on I-290.  A lot of history has been seen from the windows of this 241 year old house, I mused.

As I stepped away from the window I tripped over an old bedsheet.  I knelt down to examine the dusty offender and unfurled a hand stitched quilt that had been rolled up underneath.  This doesn’t belong up here.  I carried the forgotten beauty down to the bedroom and carefully laid it out on the bed.  Who made it?  How old was it?  And why had it been relinquished to the attic?  The thought about “at what point does the preservation of history become a burden” continued to blare in my head.   Was this really an historic treasure, or was it just some dusty old quilt that had simply become too old for anyone to know the difference of when to hold on and when to let go?

Handstitched quilt . . . old treasure or just old?

Handstitched quilt . . . old treasure or just old?

I left the bedroom and wandered into the office. Focus.  You’re supposed to be tidying up the office today, not dredging through the attic. I sat on the floor and plunked a stack of old papers in my lap.  I never quite know what I am looking for when I enter the office, but the most appropriate things always seems to find me. Sure enough, not more than a few minutes had passed when I read the most startling letter:

A plea from 1957 to save the historic Oaks from the path of Interstate 290.

A plea from 1957 to save the historic Oaks from the path of Interstate 290.

The letter was  nearly sixty years old but still it made my heart pound.  I couldn’t believe it.  Were they talking about Interstate 290?  A six lane highway through the OAKS?!

A little further investigation revealed two newspaper clippings and a poem about the Oaks’ impending demise via eminent domain:

Letter to the Editor dated September 26, 1957 calling attention to the plight of the historic Oaks.

Letter to the Editor dated September 26, 1957 calling attention to the plight of the historic Oaks.

Newspaper article editorial from September 27, 1957 regarding the threat the Worcester Expressway project posed to the Oaks.

Newspaper article editorial from September 27, 1957 regarding the threat the Worcester Expressway project posed to the Oaks.

Poem written by Col. Timothy Bigelow chapter member Ethel St. John in 1957.

Poem written by Col. Timothy Bigelow chapter member Ethel St. John in 1957.

Obviously the Oaks did not get wiped out at the age of 183 since she just passed her 241st birthday, but there was no further indication in that pile of ephemera as to why the house had been spared, why the entire neighborhood had been spared at the expense of another.

I went back upstairs and looked out at 290 which was almost lost through the trees but so ominously close.  I was grateful for what had been saved, but somber for what had been lost.  How do we decide what to hold onto and what to let go?  My beloved Revolutionary Oaks could have ended up being reshaped in the current of time . . . but instead someone else’s history had been paved over.

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