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A Century of History


On June 11, 1914, a group of 6 men and 3 women met at the Hingham Town Offices for the inaugural meeting of the Hingham Historical Society. Clarence H. Knowlton, William W. Lunt, Henry W. Cushing, Walter C. Shute, Susan Barker Willard, Edith Andrew, Oscar W. Stringer, Elizabeth L. Crosby, and Allen P. Soule were riding the tide of a national “Colonial Revival” movement, which had begun in the last years of the 19th century and reached a peak in the 1920s.

The first meeting focused on legalities. Bylaws were read and adopted and officers and directors elected. John Davis Long, former Governor of Massachusetts, representative in Congress, and Secretary of the Navy, was voted our first President. Boston lawyer Charles B. Barnes was the first vice-president. Thereafter, on June 25, 1914, “[t]he first regular meeting” of the Hingham Historical Society was convened, again at the Town Office Building, “the President, Hon. John D. Long, presiding.” The first gifts to the Society were recorded at this meeting. “Miss Edith Andrew presented many articles used in colonial days,” and “Miss Susan B. Willard . . . presented the Society with an ancient riding belt and commission belonging to her ancestors, Colonel Samuel and Major John Thaxter.” Ms. Willard also offered a building site for a “contemplated fire proof building for headquarters and museum.”

Our archives were born at the Society’s third meeting, held in November 1914, when a committee was appointed “to procure a trunk to contain the Society’s papers and obtain from the Selectmen permission to place same in the town vault.” Documents flowed in, including Governor Long’s gift of “autographs of the members of Congress,” “valuable deeds, commissions, and various other papers from Mrs. Maria W. Fearing, and back copies of the Hingham Gazette, given by Society Vice President Charles B. Barnes. The newspapers were presented at the December 1914 meeting, and the minutes report that “extracts . . . were read by the President, which caused much merriment and comment.”

Susan Barker Willard and a newly formed “House Committee” started to focus on a home for our Society and the many artifacts being donated. At the December 1914 meeting, it was voted, at Ms. Willard’s suggestion, “that post cards, representing the Old Garrison House be placed on sale, the proceeds to go towards the creation of a Building Fund.” Records do not reflect how many postcards were sold, but in 1919, Wilmon Brewer shortcut the process by offering the “Old Ordinary” to the Society, as a memorial to his father, Francis W. Brewer.

President Long died in the summer of 1915, having missed the first Annual Meeting in June of that year. He was succeeded by Charles B. Barnes, who then served as President of the Society for more than 10 years. (Barnes had also succeeded Long as Moderator of Hingham’s Town Meeting in 1907, and he served in that office until 1929. When Susan Barker Willard died in 1925, she willed to the Society her 17th century home on lower Main Street, Roseneath Cottage, together with its furnishings, a significant portion of which continue on display at the Old Ordinary.

In its early days, the Hingham Historical Society’s focus extended beyond our rich local history, as members celebrated their love of history in general. Two early gifts to our Society were a mortar and pestle of lignum vitae said to have come over on the Mayflower and a framed copy of the earliest known signature of William Shakespeare.  Historical Society meetings typically featured a lecture or presentation and these, too, were sometimes Hingham-related but often not. At our first “regular meeting,” we hosted Dean George Hodges of the Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, whose topic was “The Hanging of Mary Dyer.” Meeting minutes note that this “most interesting paper . . . was much enjoyed, it being regretted,” however, “that his audience was not larger.” After the paper was delivered, however, the focus returned to the local, as “an informal discussion among the members brought out some forgotten facts regarding witchcraft in Hingham.” The speaker at our Society’s first Annual Meeting, in June 1915, was Brooks Adams, author, historian, brother of Henry Adams–and President of the Quincy Historical Society.  His address on “the relation of the past to the present democracy” was deemed “lucid and entertaining,” although it does not appear that his views were uniformly popular: “in the discussion following, the speakers did not altogether agree on some of his address.”

Other meetings featured local talent, speaking on subjects of purely local interest, including Mr. Samuel A. Cushing on “The Cushings of Rocky Nook,” Mr. Walter B. Foster on “Old Local Names,” Mrs. Henry W. Cushing “the old Cushing houses,” and Thomas L. Sprague on “Hosea Sprague and Sprague’s Chronicles,” an early Hingham newspaper. Mr. Clarence Knowlton gave a well-received tribute to local scientists Isaac Sprague, Charles J. Sprague, Thomas T. Bouve, and John Lewis Russell. Some early papers were published as monographs, including Orin Brewster Sears’ The Old Salt Works (1916), about Hingham’s early salt industry, and Hingham High School (1918), by Principal Emeritus Jacob O. Sanborn.

Thevariety of activities during our Society’s first years, including fashion shows (“Fashions of Two Centuries” produced by the ubiquitous Susan Barker Willard at Loring Hall in 1916) and antiques exhibitions (“Old Sheffield and Silver Plate” to which the women of the Andrew and Barnes families contributed substantial specimens in 1919), was extraordinary. The talent, intellectual curiosity and sheer energy of our predecessors in the Hingham Historical Society should be an inspiration to us all.