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A Brief history of the Society

By William B. Holmes
Mr. President, Guests and Members of the Somerville Historical Society:—

As upon all such occasions as this, it becomes the duty of those who still control its destiny to give an account of such events as have taken place in the past history of our Society, that duty has been assigned to me, but as the principal part of the time will be devoted this evening to the other speakers I will make only a brief outline.

As you are well aware, we have reached to-day our tenth milestone, and though ten years seem but a day when we look back on time, that short period marks many an important and pleasant period in any society.

Pursuant to a call made by circular June 17, 1897, by the late John S. Hayes, Esq., fifteen prominent citizens of Somerville met at the Public Library on the evening of June 29, 1897, and [76] a temporary organization was then made by the choice of John S. Hayes as chairman and Dr. E. C. Booth as secretary. After remarks made by those present and letters read from prominent citizens approving the movement, it was then and there voted ‘that it is the sense of this meeting that an historical society be formed, and that a committee be appointed to formulate a plan of organization and prepare a set of by-laws and present them for approval,’ which was done in the following October, 1897 (ten years ago to-night), and one hundred and thirty-five persons paid and signed the by-laws.

Hon. George A. Bruce was elected first president, together with an efficient council, and re-elected in April following, it being our first annual meeting, though he resigned August 24, 1898, while in office. All this was called a voluntary organization, and so it was voted in regular meeting assembled that the necessary steps be taken to incorporate this body under the laws of Massachusetts; the papers were prepared and signed, and sent to the Secretary of State, and so on the third day of November, 1898, which was one year later, certain subscribers met for the purpose of reorganizing under the state charter which had been granted, and then and there adopted by-laws and elected officers for the ensuing year. Charles D. Elliot was elected president; since then we have had John F. Aver for four years and the present incumbent, Frank M. Hawes, for two years.

Step by step this little plant grew, fostered by material which very few communities are blessed with, but the leading spirit did not live long to, see the results. John S. Hayes, our first chairman and founder, died March 7, 1898, during the first year of its existence.

The first literary treat given under the auspices of the Society was by Dr. John Fiske, of Cambridge, celebrated the world over in his department. It was given in Unitarian Hall on a Sunday evening before a large audience. His subject was ‘General Lee of Revolutionary Fame,’ whose headquarters during the siege of Boston in 1775 were in the old house on Sycamore Street, where we held our meetings for some few years.

December, 1898, there was held in Union Hall, Union [77] Square, an Historical Festival, continuing for one week, depicting various historic events in the life of our city and country, and which for its kind has never been equaled in this vicinity, and will long be remembered by those who attended. Since then the committee on essays has furnished for us at stated intervals each season a series of topics by persons celebrated in historical research, touching, not only upon every detail of value to our own city, but upon subjects interesting to the lover and student of bygone days, most all of which have been published in the Society's organ, called Historic Leaves. The first number was issued early in 1902, and although published at considerable expense to us, it has been steadfastly continued until the present day, in the belief that without such an organ there would be no permanent record of the Society's work. It may not be appreciated fully in our day, but in time to come many of its subjects will be of inestimable value, like the ‘Minutes of the Stamp Act,’ which could not be found, and were given up as destroyed, until some person eager for research discovered them in an old leaky garret in Baltimore and brought them to light, to the great assistance of history, and so I am in hopes that our efforts will be appreciated in time.

We read in our histories and school books, and hear from speakers in the pulpit and rostrum, about Concord, Lexington, and Bunker Hill, and these names are familiar to almost every child in America, but if in the future our own city receives its just deserts, Somerville will be coupled with them, for would you believe it, we have right here about us just as many sites of celebrated events.

On December 12, 1898, the Society met at the historic Tufts House (General Lee's old headquarters) for the first time, in the shape of a house-warming, having leased the same and furnished it with gifts received from the various members, and there our meetings were regularly held until May 1, 1905, when for various reasons it was deemed advisable to return to our apartments in the Public Library, where we have been ever since.

In 1899 a committee on Historic Sites was appointed, and through their efforts an appropriation was made by the city council, and certain tablets have been erected commemorating [78] localities and events in the early history of our city, and placed thereon, to the great interest of visitors and others.

Our membership is now near 200, comprising most of our leading people in education and public concern, and were we so fortunate as to be able to have a home of our own, where we could display our various historic gifts made to us by our people. we would no doubt become soon a celebrated landmark to both old and young, and a power among our celebrated institutions, and we live in hopes that we may yet receive from some patriotic and philanthropic person sufficient funds to realize a structure, or else money which will be a nucleus for a building fund, devoted to history, and where the sons and daughters of Revolutionary heroes may also find a home. What better building could be erected in our midst?

Like all organizations, death has entered into our midst, taking away some helpful workers. None will be more missed than our first vice-president, Luther B. Pillsbury, who died in 1905, and who was ever constant and interested in the growth of our Society. Also Mrs. Martha Perry Lowe, President Capen, of Tufts College, Quincy A. Vinal, and a few others. Having now covered the principal part of our doings the past ten years, we are working for still better results in the next decade to come.

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