In fiction I like a strong sense of place, where the environment has shaped people and their problems. Before I begin a story, I want to have a clear idea of the real place where I’m locating my characters. I may change the name, add buildings and roads, but I begin with something real.
For the stories set in central Massachusetts, I chose the town and surrounding area where my family lived for many years. This was a farm community that had once had an industrial base at the end of the nineteenth century. The mills, small compared to some in other area cities and towns, were small, and the empty brick buildings prone to decay, as well as fires. The village where my family lived is at the northern end of the town. I know the community fairly well, since I visited my family often, but I wanted a better sense of its history, the kind that comes from having grown up there. I listened to people’s stories, looked over historical maps, but the absolute best resource was something I came across by accident.
In 1923, the local Reunion Association authorized the publication of a history of the town, which appeared either in 1924 or soon thereafter, in a sturdy cloth-bound book. The history is interesting, but more interesting from my perspective are the notes. Someone took pen in hand and added names and comments on several of the homes and what happened to them. She (and I think it was a woman) added a few historical notes as well. There was apparently a toll on the road through the hamlet, and she’s marked that page and added dates.
Several buildings marked and annotated are no longer there, but the notes give me a good idea of what kind of tiny hamlet it was—more than homes and a church. The shoemaker’s shop is gone, but I know where it was, and the post office and store are also gone. A chapel was replaced by a library, and a small school disappeared. Not included in the book is the last business in town, a second-hand bookstore that closed down probably in the 1990s. The house is noted in the book, and I visited the bookstore, but now it is only a home.
The former bookstore was also the toll house. According to the writer, “The position of toll-taker was not free from danger, as some persons denied the right of the corporation to tax persons for the use of the highways and at times insisted on passing the barrier without payment of the customary toll. This led to bodily encounters which sometimes ended with the shedding of blood.”
The history is not without its odd characters. “Uncle” Calvin Mayo “insisted that Tully mountain was at one time located where the Lily pond now is, but that some great force of nature took it from there, turned it over and gave it its present location.” The note in the margin says “Can you beat this?” Another story concerns an old cannon that was hauled up a mountain to help the miners, and brought a quick end to their work and part of the mountain.
This little book is giving me more than I had expected. First is the history, some of which is obscure; second is the tone of the writer, Mrs. Ward, who graduated from the Salem Normal School and taught in Lynn, MA. And third is the writer or writers who added details on when a house was auctioned, and who lived in it more recently. One writer made several more personal notes, such as “We lived on this road.”
I’m not sure how much of this history will make it into the next Felicity O’Brien book, but it’s already giving me ideas for a few more stories. It also has me thinking about writing an historical mystery—with lots of humor.