Shirley Historical Society

Shirley Historical Society Our goals are to preserve books, photographs, papers, stories, and artifacts relating to the town of Shirley, Massachusetts. The Museum is open for visitors, volunteers, and researchers most Mondays and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m.

We are sometimes open on Thursdays and other days by appointment. We have new displays and programs every few months and lead tours of the Shirley Shaker Village site in the fall..

Mission: Our goals are to preserve books, photographs, papers, stories, and artifacts relating to the town of Shirley, Massachusetts.

Operating as usual

We wonder how much of the story of the first American Thanksgiving is based on fact and how much was fantasized over the...

We wonder how much of the story of the first American Thanksgiving is based on fact and how much was fantasized over the years, but we do have some facts to quote.

In the 17th century, at the beginnings of the Massachusetts Bay colony, there was a state-run church and that church often declared days of fasting and prayer and days of Thanksgiving when participation was expected from those in all plantations. Even during the years before, during, and after the Revolution, the state might declare such days.

November 5, 1639: “It was ordered, that the 28th day of this present month should bee kept a day of publike thanksgiving through the churches. Those churches that have kept a day already are left to their liberty.”

In Shirley, in November of 1773, James Parker noted in his diary, “Was Thanksgiving. Wee meet in New Meeting House the first Time mr. Whitney preached from Isaiah 56:1-2 Pretty full meeting I had nobody to sup with me but Ivory Wildes”
We assume that his wife and children were there also. He notes that they all went to visit and stay overnight at his in-laws house that evening.

Almost every year, Parker mentioned a day of thanksgiving in the fall. In 1785 it was on December 15th.

On October 3, 1789, George Washington issued a proclamation creating the first Thanksgiving Day designated by the national government of the United States of America, to be celebrated on Thursday, November 26, 1789.

That year, James Parker noted, “It was Thanksgiving through the union.”

In 1797 Parker says, “It was Thanksgiving through the state.”

In most of Parker’s Thanksgiving entries, he mentions who came for dinner and also often mentions that he went to meeting on that day.

On October 3, 1863, at the height of the Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Day proclamation encouraging Americans "in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens."

By then. Parker had died so we have no journal entries and we do not know how the holiday was celebrated in Shirley. For this year, we do know that many businesses will be closed for the holiday.

As for the Shirley Historical Society, we take this opportunity to express our thankfulness to all those who have supported our work through this difficult year and we wish you continued good health and happiness.

The attached illustration of a card in our collection is very old fashioned, but the sentiment is right up to date.

By 1830, Benjamin Hartwell Jr. had built a small house with a center chimney, two stories and two windows on two acres o...

By 1830, Benjamin Hartwell Jr. had built a small house with a center chimney, two stories and two windows on two acres on this corner of Center Road.
The Chaplin family lived here through the 1840’s and 50’s and may have been the ones to start adding on to the earlier structure.
Besides an enlarged house, by 1880, Russell Amber paid tax on a barn, a cow, a horse and a carriage on three acres.
In the early 20th century, Cynthia Lynch owned the property, with Helen Winslow (1851-1938) as her tenant.
Winslow had owned the house next door on Hazen Road and had made it famous in her book Peggy at Spinster Farm. It is said that her romanticizing of the country life in Shirley encouraged wealthy Bostonians to purchase other old Shirley homes for their summer cottages.
Helen M. Winslow served as State regent of the Massachusetts Daughters of the American Revolution, 1901–02. She served as treasurer of the New England Woman's Press Association, and was one of its six founders. She was also the founder of the Boston Authors’ Club; and served as vice-president of the Press League. Winslow lectured before many women's clubs and societies. She was a member of The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America, the Ex-Club of Boston, Pioneer Workers, the Lyceum Club of England, Professional Woman's Club, and Shirley’s Altrurian Club.
Although one of her best selling books was about cats, I feel that Winslow’s books about women taking leading roles in society were far ahead of their time and are still worth reading.
In the late 20th century, the same house was home to Joseph Steim and his family. “Seismology has come a long way from wobbly pens recording earthquakes as spikes on a roll of paper. Today's equipment, using technology designed by Dr. Joseph M. Steim '78 for his Harvard Ph.D. thesis, measures the motion of the earth as an electric signal which is recorded into a computer.” “When Steim's seismograph was installed at Caltech in 1988, it replaced something like over 40 specialized seismographs," according to Adam Dziewonski, professor of geophysics at Harvard.
Steim raised his family in Shirley while continuing to monitor earth movements both in Shirley and around the world.
Now the property is owned by Seth Wonkka, and his wife Amy who love their home in the countryside of Shirley.

Photos from Shirley Historical Society's post

Photos from Shirley Historical Society's post

Tales from the Common by Paul PrzybylaTHE AMERICAN CHESTNUTAn October 28, 1838 entry in the journal of the Harvard Shake...

Tales from the Common by Paul Przybyla


An October 28, 1838 entry in the journal of the Harvard Shakers recorded that a half bushel of chestnuts had been gathered from the woodlands that day. In The Shaker Cook Book by Caroline Piercy, she writes “chestnuts were used by the Shakers in many ways – in stuffings, plain roasted and made in sundry combinations with eggs, rice and mushrooms. After the first frost in the autumn, the Shaker children were up before dawn to gather the precious harvest before the squirrels garnered them”

Here is a Canterbury Shaker recipe for chestnut stuffing for the Thanksgiving turkey:
1 cup boiled mashed chestnuts, 1 cup mashed cooled sweet potato, 1 tablespoon butter,
2 tablespoons chopped cooked onion, 1 cup cream, salt and pepper to taste, 1 teaspoon powdered summer savory, 1 cup fine bread crumbs.
Mix the chestnuts, sweet potato, butter, onion, and cream together. Add seasonings.
When the turkey is half-roasted, put in the stuffing and baste until well done. Makes
4 cups, enough for a 10-12 pound turkey (The Shaker Cook Book, Caroline Piercy)

Today a cook would have to use the European chestnut, commonly referred to as an Italian chestnut in the supermarkets, for this recipe because the American chestnut tree no longer exists in its former range in the Appalachian forests. In 1904, an Asian bark fungus was accidently introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. First identified on trees in the New York Zoological Park, within 20 years up to three billion chestnut trees had been killed in America.

The chestnut blight had reached Shirley by 1919 when the Tree Warden reported “The money was used in cutting brush and now and then a chestnut tree that was dying of chestnut bark disease”and in his 1922 report “have also cut quite a number of chestnut trees that have died of blight”.

Perhaps you remember Longfellow’s poem “The Village Blacksmith” with its opening stanza
“Under a spreading chestnut-tree the village smithy stands;
the smith, a mighty man is he, With large and sinewy hands;
And the muscles of his brawny arms are strong as iron bands.”
The chestnut played a prominent role in the life of early America. It was a rapidly growing hardwood tree, reaching 100 feet in height and up to 10 feet in diameter. A handsome and sturdy tree, it was often planted for shade, ornament, and fruit. In many eastern states it made up over 25% of forest hardwoods. The nuts were sweeter than chestnuts from Europe or China, and were important for wildlife. Deer, wild turkey, bears, and the now extinct passenger pigeon all feasted on the autumn crop. The wood was valuable for fence-posts, railway-ties and telephone poles due to its resistance to moisture and rot.

While the towering Chestnut tree no longer exists in New England, remnants of these once treasured trees can still be found in the forest. One of the features of the chestnut is its ability to send sprouts out from its roots. A recent autumn walk at the Trustees’ Farandnear reservation on Center Road in Shirley found many clumps of chestnut saplings. Often the sprouts are found circled around a dead sapling. A once promising young tree, 25 feet in height with a 22 inch diameter can be found along the path between the two bog dikes. Unfortunately this summer the top branches of this tree were infected with the chestnut blight and the tree will eventually succumb to the fate of its long-gone parent tree. You can see its bark on the photo. Other photos show the autumn color of the chestnut leaves and a clump of sprouts.

As you walk the trails in Shirley woods, try to picture the towering chestnut tree of a century ago that now is memorialized by the sprouts from its roots.

Shirley Historical Society's cover photo

Shirley Historical Society's cover photo

Thanks to many generous donors, the Historical Society now has a variety of themed gift baskets for sale. You may want t...
Themed Gift Baskets - Shirley Historical Society

Thanks to many generous donors, the Historical Society now has a variety of themed gift baskets for sale. You may want to purchase one as a gift for a relative or friend, or for your self. You deserve it.

Cozy Kitchen Basket Vintage blue and white hand painted trivet/tile. Scene is entitled “Oostpoort”. Stamped Delft, Holland $20 Shirley Community Cookbook from SHS gift shop $10 Vera Bradley Pocket Market Organizer $12 Note book with lined paper “Hold that Thought” $3 Stonewall Kitchen Wild B...

As organized in 1928, “The purpose of the Community Club of Shirley Center was to further the welfare and influence of S...

As organized in 1928, “The purpose of the Community Club of Shirley Center was to further the welfare and influence of Shirley Center by developing its environment as a New England Village.”
“One way to do that was to keep up the time-honored custom of the community gathering.” The group continued to meet four times a year into the 1960’s with some of the members being Benton MacKaye, Harriet Lyon, Lucy and Howard Longley, Gordon Banks, Charles Goodspeed, Robert and Eleanor Holden, Hermann and Kate Field, Mott Davis and family, Claude Pifer, Charles, Ethel, and Geoffrey Bolton, and Phil Lamoreaux.
“Another way to bring forth and retain the spirit of the village was to go after new neighbors to fill the empty houses.” The group then contacted people they thought would be a good addition to the community.
“Still another way to bring forth the spirit and environment of the village was to conserve its setting and landscape – its common, its shade trees, its roadways, and its houses which form the outward structure of the community.”
In 1930, Benton MacKaye had mapped the Center and the club presented a proposal for locating shade trees on the roads around the Common. Look for trees in the attached old and new photos. According to Town Historian Lucy Longley, Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops planted maple trees around the common and placed glass bottles containing their names at the roots.
In 1945, members of this group were instrumental in preserving the First Parish Meetinghouse. In later years, many of these same Community Club members were also involved in forming the Shirley Conservation Commission and the Historic District Commission.
Nowadays, there aren’t as many social clubs that have such long lasting influence as that early Community Club of Shirley Center.

Tales from the Common by Paul Przybyla  The 1938 HurricaneThe year 2020 has been the second most active Atlantic hurrica...

Tales from the Common by Paul Przybyla The 1938 Hurricane

The year 2020 has been the second most active Atlantic hurricane season on record with 23 named storms. In early August hurricane Isaias passed to the west of central Massachusetts with only its wind gusts and minimal rain affecting the town of Shirley and in late September hurricane Teddy passed east of Cape Cod on its way to Nova Scotia. These near misses to us were reminders that New England has a history of being in the path of these destructive tropical storms and they deserve attention and respect.

The most disastrous hurricane to hit New England in the twentieth century occurred on Wednesday, September 21. Lucy Proctor Longley recorded in her Shirley Historic Diary “Breaking at 5:00 p.m. after a day of peculiar atmospheric conditions, the havoc wrought in the next four hours was unbelievable. Chimneys landed in wells, barns were wrecked, roofs ripped off, pine groves felled - - no school, no water, no lights or heat, no refrigeration. Stores threw meats away, fall colored leaves lost their beauty.”
The attached map shows the path of the storm up the Connecticut River Valley. Four prior days of steady rain had saturated the soils so that trees were at risk of uprooting in high winds. Rain runoff threatened to bring streams and rivers to overflowing. While in the tropics the hurricane had reached the equivalent of a Category 5 storm but it had downgraded to a Category 3 storm at landfall in Connecticut. As it moved north along the eastern seaboard it became sandwiched between two high pressure areas resulting in a record-breaking forward motion of 60 m.p.h. which amplified the wind velocity on its eastern side. The Blue Hills Observatory in Boston recorded average wind velocities for a five-minute period of 111 m.p.h. at three different times within the hour after 6 p.m., and a wind gust of 186 m.p.h.became the strongest hurricane-related surface wind gust ever recorded in the United States.
Harry Johnson, postmaster at Shirley Center, wrote from his home on Parker Road in a letter to his daughter Natalie of the damage in Shirley from the hurricane. “NO water, lights etc. in Shirley Village for a couple of weeks. Samson Cordage shut down, Suspender Mill operating 25% on old water power. Lack of water and sanitary conditions look bad for Village…You should have seen Parker Road and Center Road. Big trees all down from Bull Run to Shirley Village.. …The Center School House shingles gone – one big window blew in and ripped the tar out of things in one school room and the beautiful big trees out front and the big one out back all gone. I was in there sweeping when the trees were blowing down. I rushed over here to see how Mum was getting along as she was alone and I was afraid this house would blow down. Your Ma was as calm as a cuke. In fact she was ‘too busy’ to even know the wind was blowing. But when I told her to come outside to look at all the trees blowing down into Parker Road and she was nearly lifted off her feet she realized that there must be a slight breeze…The house stood O.K. But you should see our pines out back – all gone flat and you can’t walk through them. Blew right through Wyman’s woods [on Whitney Road] and also all those pines around Wyman's house down and ones near the house blown on top of the house. Shirley Common looks like ‘Verdon’ battle front…. Mail gets here on time better than phone or wires because of planes and rail. Making special effort on 1st and 2nd class mail because it is best way for communication.”
Close to 600 people in New England died in the storm. Forests were decimated with a loss of 2.7 billion board feet of lumber from fallen trees. The 3,000 acre Harvard Forest in Petersham suffered severe damage. Through the effort of over 50,000 laborers from the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps, 1.6 billion board feet were eventually salvaged. In New England 4,500 home were destroyed and another 25,000 damaged. Property losses were estimated at $4.7 billion in current value. If an identical hurricane had struck in 2005, it would have caused $39.2 billion in damage due to changes in population and infrastructure. Insurance actuaries talk of one hundred year events. Unfortunately, it is not a question of if, but when, will the town of Shirley next experience its storm of the century?
(Images are from the collections of the Shirley Historical Society. Most of the general statistics of the hurricane are from Wikipedia)
Look in comments for locations of photos.

After carrying, sorting, cleaning, researching, pricing, packing, unpacking, selling, and packing back up again, this is...

After carrying, sorting, cleaning, researching, pricing, packing, unpacking, selling, and packing back up again, this is what the Shirley Historical Society President and Vice-president look like when the yard sale is done until spring.

It's almost 3:00 pm on Saturday October 3rd and we are cleaning up from the yard sale. Many boxes will be saved for the ...

It's almost 3:00 pm on Saturday October 3rd and we are cleaning up from the yard sale. Many boxes will be saved for the Spring Yard Sale.
The estate items are still available for purchase in the meeting room. We will list them separately in future posts.
Many thanks to everyone who donated and everyone who purchased.


182 Center Rd
Shirley, MA

General information

Anyone is welcome to join the Historical Society just by paying the annual dues.

Opening Hours

Monday 10:00 - 13:00
Saturday 10:00 - 13:00


(978) 425-9328


Be the first to know and let us send you an email when Shirley Historical Society posts news and promotions. Your email address will not be used for any other purpose, and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Contact The Museum

Send a message to Shirley Historical Society:

Our Story

The Museum Curator is on duty at the Museum most Mondays and Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. - 1:00 p.m. and often on Thursdays. She is able to be contacted by telephone and email. It is our hope that we will find a way to safely re-open for visitors, and volunteers. We also hope to have new displays and programs every few months and to lead tours of the Shirley Shaker Village site in the fall. Please stay in touch, remotely.

Nearby museums


It's a wonderful, old building with 12" brick walls and, no, it doesn't vibrate when the trains go by. . . surprisingly! As Meredith said, it was built for mill worker families and single men. As single men and women were not allowed to live in the same building, single women mill workers were housed in the Brookside Inn aside of the current Brookside Grill.
The Townsend Historical Society warmly welcomes you to visit for a daylong celebration of our revolutionary history. On Saturday, October 5, history will come alive at the Reed Homestead with tours, hearth cooking, and craft demonstrations. Docents will lead you through our Federal-era dwelling, which is well known for its Rufus Porter murals. Volunteer reenactors will set up camp, perform military drills and musket firings throughout the day. Civilians of the same period will be demonstrating period crafts such as candle dipping, writing, toys, and games. Last, you’ll be offered a rare glimpse into cooking on the hearth and beehive oven as our chefs prepare a demonstration of a noontime meal in the house’s kitchen. This daylong celebration is for you and your family. Admission is free but we encourage you to join the Townsend Historical Society if you like what you see. Come down and experience history hands-on. See you there! This event is rain or shine. For any questions, please contact the Townsend Historical Society: 978-597-2106.
I just picked this up on eBay the other day
Please help us spread the word. History will come alive once again this fall at the Townsend Historical Society's Open House on Saturday, October 13 from 10-4. This year we feature a minuteman encampment with the Townsend and Stow Minutemen Companies. They will occupy the Reed Homestead (72 Main Street in Townsend Harbor) and draw us back into life of yesteryear. The event is great for all ages. There will be a full array of displays in the circa 1809 Federal house and adjacent cooper shed. You won't want to miss this exciting and hands on way to link the past into present. All are welcome and admission is free. Hope to see you in October.
Note information about Benton MacKaye in this Boston Globe article:
Part 2
I was just reading the Spring Newsletter and feeling I recognize the house on the bottom of page 2. Could it possibly be our former homestead at 64 Center Road. AKA the Birthplace of Lura A. White? Or am I mistaken?
Last Chance to be on the Shirley Town wide yard sale participant list.... DEADLINE is tomorrow at 6 pm!!!!! (No Exceptions) It's Free to Participate and be on the list! This will be the Last town wide in shirley til Spring! Contact me via Email [email protected] or via facebook message to get on the list! Date of Sales are This Saturday October 7th from 8-3!