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The importance of Preserving early history.

by Hon. Mellen Chamberlain.
several things are essential to the accomplishment of this purpose. One of the most important is the systematic collection of historical material. I assume that the Medford Society is designed primarily for the collection and preservation of Medford history, of which few towns have one more creditable.

No one who has not undertaken to write the history of his own town can have an adequate sense of the difficulties to be encountered in such an undertaking. He first seeks all former attempts likely to aid him, whether in printed volumes, or in outlines of town history found in Thanksgiving sermons, Fourth of July orations, or occasional discourses. But in twenty-five years after such addresses were printed, he may seek long, far, and wide without finding a copy of either. I speak from experience.

Therefore any proposed collection should include not only all such discourses, but also town reports and directories. It is true that they are not interesting reading, and at the end of the year generally find their way to the fire-kindling box; but to the historian they are of inestimable value. [p. 21]

Of equal value are plans of roads,—public or private, —of bridges and of private estates. These last are of special interest. The history of Medford is largely the history of her eminent men, whose lives have contributed so much to the making of her history; and perhaps there is no stronger desire of their descendants, or of citizens generally, than that of going to the houses in which they lived and tracing the acres they cultivated. But in most cases these ancestral houses no longer exist, and the ancestral acres have been divided into several farms or cut up into house-lots. I hope that there are those among your members who will give special attention to marking the exact bounds of the old farms, and the sites of the buildings on them. These plans, of course, should be carefully preserved, and, if made, I venture the prediction that no part of your collection will be more assiduously examined, or with more grateful recognition of the value of the services of your society.

The local press is the receptacle of a vast amount of matter not only of present interest, but of great value to the future historian. Its issues will of course find a willingly accorded place in your rooms. I have been favorably impressed by a device of the late Dr. George H. Moore, a historical writer of great excellence, and librarian of the New York Historical Society. He collected not only one but two copies of local papers— one for binding and another for scrapping; and so that society has a series of newspaper scrap-books of the local press, covering many years, and containing in most convenient form for reference the matters which the historian seeks.

Some years ago a very intelligent citizen of a neighboring city, who had been long resident and participant in its affairs, from the time when it changed from an agricultural community into a prosperous town, ultimately to become a city, contributed to one of the papers a series of articles in which, with remarkable fulness and [p. 22] accuracy, he gave the sites of the residences of the principal citizens, so that they can now be exactly defined, although many of the buildings no longer exist; and what is of equal importance, the original conformation of the harbor shore, and the subsequent changes made by the cutting down of hills and casting them into the sea to the considerable extension of the city's territory. The paper long since ceased to be published, and it is doubtful if a bound copy of it is anywhere to be found; and these articles now are extant only in a single scrapped copy. They should go into a fireproof repository, and their present owner awaits the preparation of such a repository.

Now with regard to manuscripts. Doubtless many families in Medford have family papers of great historical value, which they would decline to part with, preferring to hand them down through successive generations of the family as heirlooms. This natural and commendable purpose might well be entertained but for two reasons. In England the law of entail which sends estates down through generations of a family, and the general existence of a fireproof room, render transmission reasonably practicable and safe; but with us the absence of both of these conditions makes it quite otherwise. Let me relate one or two cases which came within my own observation. In the State of Maine lived a man of high consideration in the period of the Revolution, and his papers were second in value to those of few others. As has so often happened, his family declined in fortune. I once visited the old family mansion, then in possession of a female descendant, to whom I suggested, with all possible delicacy, my wish to obtain, for historical purposes and at considerable cost, her ancestor's papers. My proposition was treated as insulting, and I went away. Not long after the lady died, and in less than six months after, her successor to the estate sold to a tin pedler, in exchange for some of his wares, the identical papers which I had [p. 23] been ready to acquire at their fair value. The pedler was not aware of their value except as rags, and carried them to the capital of a neighboring State, where by the merest accident they fell into appreciative hands and ultimately into mine, though sadly impaired in value by careless treatment.

Another case more important has come also within my observation. Some years ago, at the request of the city government of Chelsea, I undertook to write the history of Winnisimmet and Rumney Marsh, from the earliest times. My first inquiry was at the city hall for the old town files, and I was told that there was not even a scrap. Some hints were found in the colony records respecting two cases which proved to be of the highest interest and importance, but neither in the files nor elsewhere were there any papers, for the reason which will immediately appear. One of these cases was respecting the Capt. Robert Keayne estate in what is now Revere, and the other was that of Gov. Richard Bellingham's farms, which included the whole of the city of Chelsea. These cases raged in every court,— colonial, provincial, and State,—and the latter was in the English courts, and finally settled only at the end of one hundred and fourteen years from its beginning. Yet nobody knew anything about them save some vague statements found in the public records; and the reason was this: A Chelsea town clerk, who was also concerned in the later stages of the Bellingham case, on removing from Chelsea, near the close of the last century, carried with him into a remote country town not only all the Bellingham case papers, but also the greater part of the town files, both of which have been lately discovered in a very imperfect and dilapidated condition. The above cases are by no means isolated; on the contrary, they have been very common.

I will only add that doubtless Medford, like every ancient town, possesses many intelligent men and women who are competent to recall, investigate, and set down for preservation, local changes, biographical [p. 24] notices, genealogical notes, and other facts which will be otherwise irrecoverably lost, but which, if preserved, will be of great value to the future history of the town.

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