Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Cambridge Annual Archives Crawl: Day 1

Genealogists love archives, and this week is a sort of mini-tour of genealogy heaven in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The fourth annual Cambridge Open Archives, aka the Cambridge Archives Crawl, will visit twelve archives in four evenings, and I’m going to three of those. This year’s theme is “Famous and Infamous,” and you can learn a little more about the event at Please visit each organization’s website for more information about their collections, research hours, and procedures.

The Cambridge Historical Commission

Many of the archives we’ll be visiting are not set up for large groups, so we’re broken down into three groups of about ten people. Each group starts at one of the three archives for the evening, and we each move on to another archive at one-hour intervals. My group began at the Cambridge Historical Commission, located next to City Hall on the edge of Central Square.

The theme “Famous and Infamous” lends itself well to highlighting individuals, but the Historical Commission focuses more on architectural history. So the folks here drew on a scrapbook in their collection of a late-19th /early-20th century sergeant of the Liquor Squad, and used it to spark a history lesson of the pre-Prohibition “no license” (= no alcohol) movement in Cambridge. Locations and photos of taverns (a popular spot was just inside the Cambridge town line next to a dry town), owners of taverns, the sentiment behind the “no license” push (possibly veiled anti-immigrant feelings as the composition of neighborhoods rapidly changed), and an annual newspaper devoted to the topic (Frozen Truth) were all woven into the discussion. Our small group included a couple of people who were deeply knowledgeable about Cambridge history, and they saw the local anti-alcohol issues of the time as leading into the later development of what comprises “good government” in Cambridge.

I was hoping to get an overview of what archival materials the Historical Commission holds, but they didn’t explicitly cover that.

What I’d come back for: Hard to say without checking their website. Offhand, I think I probably wouldn’t come back for genealogical research unless I were researching a Cambridge resident and wanted to draw in very detailed information about his home and neighborhood. (Something that’s always nice to do, but there’s that little issue of time!)

The Cambridge Room, Cambridge Public Library

Second stop: the Cambridge Public Library Archives and Special Collections. This is in a brand-new light-filled and spacious space, and now has a full-time (and enthusiastic) archivist. Because both the facility and archivist are relatively new, the collection is still being processed and described; the archivist is quite excited about the collections she is finding.

The archivist had a number of items on display for us. Lucius Paige wrote a definitive history of Cambridge in the late 1800s, and his papers make up one of the many collections here; part of his manuscript was on the table for us to look at. Paige was a long-time city clerk and a minister, so he knew everyone; he spent years extracting information about Cambridge and its residents from various records, and those research notes are in his papers also. One of the other tour members mentioned that the full text of his Cambridge history is available on Google Books, but that its index is not.

A few late-18th century letters were available (in clear protective sleeves) for us to examine. My favorite was a letter from one man (“Mr. A,” let’s call him) to Mr. B, politely informing him that B Jr. had gotten A’s daughter pregnant. He mentioned that the bearer of this hand-delivered letter was his (A’s) son-in-law. One wonders about that son-in-law—was he a banker who held B’s mortgage? a thick-necked low-browed knuckle-dragging hulk, just a tad intimidating? a young minister? or simply someone who was very adept at resolving delicate situations?

What I’d come back for
: I’m somewhat tempted to return and finish reading that letter, and then see if I can find out how the story ends! But more seriously, I’ll come back here for any Cambridge resident I’m researching—or at least check the collection information online and send an email to the archivist to find out what might be available for my target timeframe and social group. I should go back once just to scan the stacks in that room and make note of some of the books that I might want to use as reference in the future.

Cambridge Department of Public Works

I was looking forward to this stop, because I wasn’t sure what to expect. The DPW is in a modern building, and we spent our time in the basement where records are stored. I was surprised (happily so) to find that half of the records area is climate-controlled. Records here go back to about 1850, although the weather reports date back to 1814.

The records are about what you’d expect to find—information about sewer lines and other such things. One of the surprises was how beautiful and detailed the old hand-drawn engineering designs are; a large sketch detailing a footing and support for an arch was on display for us to admire. Records are not limited to geographic Cambridge; the 1934 example illustrating this concerned a piggery in Lincoln and Waltham located on the drainage area of the Cambridge Water Supply. Local folk who are familiar with the location of the Cambridge reservoir at route 128 on the Waltham/Lincoln line can envision how this might be an issue!

The record set that most interested me were two small field books, now scanned and available at the DPW as downloads to a thumb drive (but not online). The first is titled simply F.B. 1, 1868-1935, and is the less interesting of the two for any genealogical purposes. There are some sketches pertinent to certain neighborhoods, and a fair amount of measurements concerning water—soundings in the Charles river; and tables of time, velocity, and flow of the Vine Brook in Bedford (again, outside of Cambridge). I found F.B. 2, Claims + Accident Reconstructions, 1889-1937 much more interesting. Each page contains a detailed sketch of the location of an accident, with names (sometimes) and dates. One page illustrates the precise situation of a sidewalk on November 9, 1898, where   “[a] man fell and hurt his knee last night”; details include “bricks sink where shaded,” “this end filled with dirt,” and the depth of an apparent hole (the small writing on the photocopy we were given is somewhat difficult to read; the original, and presumably the scan, is larger and clearer). Another page, dated October 3, 1906, concerns an incident where “[a] horse fell from bridge to top of cars” (presumably train cars), and notes “picture taken.” I’ll bet this sad accident made the news! I’d come back to this booklet if I had a family story of an accident in Cambridge, especially if seemed likely to lead to a lawsuit.

What I’d come back for
: Again, I’d probably come back here only for house and neighborhood background information, such as when certain city services came to the neighborhood or street where someone lived. The historical weather information intrigues me; if I wanted information regarding a storm or drought that affected my family being researched, I’d keep these records in mind.

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