By Elsa Hornfischer
In the early afternoon on June 6th, 2014, I headed up the grassy slope leading to the front door of one of Framingham’s priceless architectural treasures – the Old Academy building along Framingham Centre Common. To me, this stone and pillared Greek revival building adds a traditional and timeless elegance, but also hints at Early American Folk Art.
Built in 1837, the Old Academy is one of three town-owned buildings under the watchful eye and loving care of Framingham History Center staff and volunteers. (The others are Village Hall built in 1834 and Old Edgell Library built in 1872.)
As I opened the door, I knew that another fascinating three-hour stint as one of a long list of the Framingham History Center’s volunteer docents had begun. Spending time in this old building filled with Framingham memorabilia both during and before Framingham was incorporated, reveals so many fascinating stories of the past. This, for me, is pure pleasure. There is also something timeless and comforting about old buildings and artifacts in an age of iPhones, texts, laptops, Facebook, and space travel in the hometown of Christa McAuliffe – not that there is anything wrong with them…
The Old Academy room – once a classroom – reflects a comforting, quiet elegance, dimmed by window shades to keep the sun from damaging the museum’s collection. Large Colonial period portraits of Framingham’s earliest residents, line one wall. Display cases hold early documents, costumes, toys, early posters, furniture, tools, and more. An old dollhouse perches on a table and scattered throughout are pieces of furniture hand crafted by Wallace Nutting, Framingham resident and one of New England’s first photographers. A massive Old Academy teacher’s desk nestles along the blackboard followed by smaller well-worn student desks.. There’s a dignity to this place and its contents in the dim gentile lighting of mid-day.
Executive Director Annie Murphy, in an email, told me earlier that she had something extra fun for me to do when I arrived at my duties as docent. Soon Curator Dana Dauterman-Ricciardi arrived sporting a smile and carrying a large drawer of documents – quite an understatement. It turns out that the drawer held by Dana had resided for an untold number of years in the Tree Warden’s office. It was a very large, old, and dusty, drawer filled with blueprints and documents of many different sizes. The box overflowed with various shades of faded and yellowed paper along with some that managed to keep their white color – each rolled up – many were ripped or held together with tape. Most, in their rolled state, appeared as if they could never be unrolled again, ever. I quickly sensed a challenge.
Dana set the box down on a small table, handed me a lined form, and asked me to record the date each blueprint was surveyed, who did the survey, the year it was done, and anything else that might appear unusual. Curious, I bid Dana goodbye and began my work.
I learned very quickly that I had to be very gentle with the old yellowed white paper that had apparently been rolled tightly and did not like to be straightened out. Other blueprints were ripped, faded, or taped. A reason to be careful became immediately clear: the papers hadn’t apparently been touched, rolled out, or read for a very, very long time. Each time a blueprint even moved, a cloud of dust hovered low above the box and settled on my clothes and hands. I barely noticed. I was soon transported to other times and other places in a time of lanterns, horses, dirt roads, and Franklin Stones. The only thing that seemed familiar were a few of the names of landowners and surveyors – names that appear today on some of the street signs in 21st Century Framingham.
Two hours passed… Dust lightly covered the table upon which I worked – my hands sported shades of grey. The old drawer even appeared brittle – much like the blueprints within – and as the afternoon light changed direction, shadows lengthened, but time for me stood still. Most of the documents had been surveyed – some described community parks, lots for sale, donated properties, property deeded in wills, or indicated the placement of landscaping in a park. Two hours went by and soon I was close to the end of the blueprint collection.
Then, one of the last documents – and one of the largest – got my immediate attention. It was rolled tightly, like the others, but larger – 18 inches long. Slowly and very gently, I unrolled it – only to have it roll back – seemingly on springs. Several more gentle tries yielded an almost opened map. I held two sides down with heavy books and soon got lost in the handwritten year listed in black ink before me at the top of the document:
The survey appeared to be of the Natick, Sherborn, and Framingham area. The date was followed by a long paragraph in written in black ink that was somewhat difficult to translate… By then, Curator Dana Dauterman-Ricciardi returned to the news of this newly discovered artifact. She later explained that the map, presented to the Massachusetts legislature in 1696, documents a well known scam of the 1690’s.
Samuel Howe had obtained permission from the Natick Praying Indians to sell 200 acres of their land – only to have Samuel Gookin assist him in selling a grand total of 1700 acres.
Attorney Thomas Sawin, whose house still stands on South Street in Natick, brought a lawsuit on behalf of the Natick Praying Indians to the legislature, along with the map. The legal settlement in favor or the Praying Indians had an immediate impact on where the boundary between Natick and Framingham would finally be…
The Scam of the 1690’s, described by former Framingham Town Historian Stephen Herring in his book about Framingham, is now supported, not only by the story and a changed boundary between Natick and Framingham, but also by this 318 year old map – the oldest in the Framingham History Center’s collection.
My thoughts as I continue to volunteer?
• I suspect I might have interested you, dear reader, in getting involved with the Framingham History Center. If so, call as soon as you can. There’s a lot more fun to be had.
• None of us REALLY knows just what we will find in the closets of the Old Academy, Village Hall, Edgell Library, Town Tree Warden’s office, town-owned building, or even in the closets of our own homes. Keep volunteering with friends, keep up the search, and have fun… One just never knows what one may find.
• At the very least, we all may learn the history behind today’s street names – a reminder of those who lived, loved, learned, worked, volunteered, and grew with the Town of Framingham.
• And last, I often suspect that the real political process involves getting involved right here in our own town of Framingham, Massachusetts.