Our History

Have you ever wondered when and why the Townsend Historical Society formed? Many people ask what our origins are. To answer this question, we need to turn back to the nineteenth century. Townsend was a different place. The Fessenden Cooperage was working at full capacity and was the largest employer. The Spaulding leather board mill was brand new. Roads were dirt. Long-distance travel was made by carriage or railroad. Telephones were a new invention, replacing long-established telegraph lines. Correspondence, no matter what the subject, was often handwritten or typed. Its destination could be distant or as local as your next-door neighbor. Some of these reminders of days gone by survived the test of time. Books, letters, and photographs provide answers to this mystery. Browsing our vault, and its many holdings, the fascinating story of our origins comes into focus.

Townsend’s first historian was West Village resident Ithamar Bard Sawtelle (1814-1905). In 1878, he completed the first compilation of our past in The History of the Town of Townsend, Middlesex County, Massachusetts: from the Grant of Hathorn’s Farm, 1676-1878. This bicentennial memorial recorded much about the developing town. History was disappearing as our town industrialized following the Civil War. In his introduction, Sawtelle lamented that “the history of Townsend should have been written long ago, before the third generation from the fathers passed away. Many things, of great interest, can never be known which might have been learned if a timely effort had been made. Even tradition seems to have died out. The farms, on our hill-sides, once occupied by large families, the sons and daughters of which filled the schoolhouses, and wended their way to one common place of worship, on the Sabbath, are now in the hands of strangers. The history of the earliest settlers of this town can never be written satisfactorily. It is impossible to point out the exact location where many of them ‘broke the wilderness; and built their cabins.” His book also set the stage for future efforts by noting we should to “preserve the memory of local events and enterprises; to record the manners and customs, sacrifices and toils of the fathers; to gather from old records and family traditions all important facts which the county or state historians have omitted.” In short, we needed to be able to record what makes Townsend unique from the rest of north-central Massachusetts before it is lost to the ages.

While his book captured and published large amounts of information, Sawtelle’s effort to continue recording history quickly fell flat. Records are eerily silent for the next two decades. An attempt to rekindle the flame began in earnest in the spring of 1896. He wrote a short, two-page letter to Anson D. Fessenden, urging the formation of a new historical organization. Anson Darwin Fessenden (1839-1907) was the son of a cooper, Civil War veteran, and heavily involved in civic affairs. He had just completed improvements to the town common, erected Squannacook Hall and gifted Memorial and Town Hall to the inhabitants. Sawtelle now implored Fessenden to turn his attention backward for the sake of preservation. This was no small undertaking. B&A.D. Fessenden Co. was a nationally important cooperage that was growing in size and strength. Spread thin, Fessenden would have to concentrate on civics or this new club-like undertaking. Members were sparse among competing fraternal organizations, such as the masons and elks. Still, Sawtelle felt confident that a national nostalgic look backward would lead to success of the endeavor. We had just celebrated anniversary of Columbus coming to America. The general mood was favorable. In his own words, “any person, who takes no pride in his ancestry, or pleasure in a recurrence to his childhood home or the school boy spot, is animus to some of the greatest mental enjoyment which are in store for humanity.” Fessenden accepted the challenge and a few weeks later, a meeting was held above Squannacook Hall to debate the merits of forming this new organization.

The earliest record book is #1, a large book dated April 4, 1894. Just beyond its front cover are neatly written meeting minutes from a gathering on March 6. A “characteristic” letter from Townsend historian, I.B. Sawtelle prompted the attendees to consider the “organization of a town historical society.” Ultimately, this would be the first meeting of the future Townsend Historical Society. After much debate, a vote was taken to organize a “Chartered Society.” Anson D. Fessenden was elected Chairman, Eli C. Tuttle as Secretary and Albert S. Howard, Rev. C. H. Rowley, Mrs. Abby Kilbourn, Eugene R. Kilborn and Charles Names were selected as the first administration. They voted to form a committee to draft the organization’s bylaws and adjourned shortly thereafter. The atmosphere must have been electric with a general feeling of excitement for this new undertaking. Although there is no evidence, I could imagine Sawtelle praised Fessenden for his leadership and willingness to see this effort to fruition.

The next meeting was held on April 4, 1896 and was relatively short. Draft bylaws were read and approved by the members. Edward F. Spaulding and Clarence Stickney, along with E. K. Kilbourn were appointed as a Committee to canvas the town for new members. This meeting was then adjourned until the following week. All three were well connected among the working class and could reach the masses. Edward Franklin Spaulding (1848-1927) was a miller by trade and operated the Grist Mill in Townsend Harbor (and now owned by the Townsend Historical Society). This, the Cooperage and a new leather board mill erected in 1894 in the wake of a devastating fire, was owned by his brothers Jonas (1833-1900) and Waldo ( – ). Clarence Stickney (1849-1915) owned and operated a mill on the opposite end of town. Located on Willard Brook, his finished goods included egg crates, coopering supplies, barrels, lumber, and furniture. He served as chairman of the board of assessors, a selectman, overseer of the poor, representative to the general court and finally as town clerk. Last but certainly not least, Eugene Randall Kilbourn (1846-1901) was a former selectman and lived in center village. Covering all three hamlets, the committee could attract new members under a common cause. 

The third gathering showed great promise for the fledgling affiliation. By April 11, 1896, there were thirty-five members, and the following officers and committees were formed:

President – Anson D. Fessenden
1st Vice President – Clarence Stickney
2nd Vice President – Edward F. Spaulding
Secretary – Eli C. Tuttle
Treasurer – Albert S, Howard
Historian – Eli C. Tuttle
Curator – E. Alonzo Blood

The following committees were also formed

Membership – Mrs. Abby Kilborn
Civil historian – Charles Worcester
Ecclesiastical History – Rev. Charles H. Rowley
War History – Anson D. Fessenden and Eugene R. Kilborn
Educational History – Eugene R, Kilborn
Historical Relics – Mr. Ammie Fessenden
Current Events – Mr. Maria S. Tuttle
Geology and Biography – Oliver Proctor.

The second large book in the vault is undated, unnumbered, and was singed by fire, so only a few pages were used. Records shows that a meeting was held on November 14, 1896 in order to “Constitute a Corporation” to be known as “The Townsend Historical Society.” At this meeting, the unofficial bylaws were updated and adopted. A Board of Directors was appointed and sworn in consisting of Messers Fessenden, Stickney, Tuttle, Howard, Spaulding and Blood. The meeting was then adjourned. One week later, the organization was registered with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Townsend Historical Society officially came into existence on November 20, 1896.

Coming full circle, “The First Annual Meeting” was held on January 26, 1897. A committee was formed to confer with the Town Selectmen and the Town Clerk on the Town Report. It seemed that the reports were faulty and lacking detail and not very efficient. Several members gave their opinions on this and consensus was also mentioned at the meeting. Despite this minor problem, the Society pushed forward. Records only exist for one additional meeting, which took place on April 24, 1897. S. A. Pratt, the Superintendent of Schools for the District, Townsend, Pepperell, and Ashby, was elected to the membership. While no other records exist for early meeting minutes until 1929, we do know the Society and its membership was active. One of the first activities included raising money for a monument on Meeting House Hill (then known as Mount Gracie). Young children donated pennies while more substantial efforts were undertaken by teachers, school officials, and the Society’s membership. The granite marker was completed by William E. Sherwin at a cost of $151.70. The original bill, completed in neat writing, indicated it was paid in full.

No other records of early meetings, but the Society was doubtless active. Several notices for meetings appeared in the Fitchburg Sentinel until 1903. We have numerous old artifacts that were stored in Memorial Hall or people’s homes. Beginning during the Great Depression, new members once again started to record minutes. The first is dated October 18, 1932. Shortly after that, we found a semi-permanent home in Hart Memorial Library where we maintained a local history room. The last minutes extend through January 20, 1965. There is a lot of information concerning meetings in the interval. This includes the war efforts, a list of Townsend Soldiers, the acceptance of donations, public presentations and more. It also leads up to the revitalization efforts which were undertaken five years later and which many longtime supporters will recall. There will be more to come in the future. Check back soon!