I have heard it said that understanding and sharing your past can change your future, but it was only recently that I began to fully grasp this truth.
In my work as a freelance writer and personal historian, I often ask people, “How did you get to where you are today?” The question might be in reference to a person’s vocation, but it may also simply be about how a person came to live in a certain place. The answers I’ve received have been endlessly fascinating.
Recently I asked the question of myself. I’d been invited to speak to a local Chamber of Commerce. They asked if I could share any history of the town where I would speak. “Sure,” I answered. And then scurried about to figure out what I would say.
I soon realized that I knew quite a lot about the town of Walpole, MA. I began my talk by suggesting that I’d get different answers from each person, if I asked them how they’d come to Walpole. “So how did a Florida girl end up here?” I asked. “I came north for college—and to see snow!
I got what I wished for. But coming to Walpole? “Well, what brought me to Walpole was love. You see…there was a boy.”
Digging into my memory of conversations I had with this young man’s family, I recalled stories of his grandfather, an Irish immigrant, who was able to provide for his family of seven children on a chauffeur’s salary. This grandfather drove Mr. Bird, owner of one of the largest companies in the area, around town. I heard stories of the boy’s father, who worked at the hat factory in Norwood (a neighboring town), signed up with the Marines, fought (and was wounded) in the Pacific during WWII, then returned home to work as a prison guard at the local state prison.
Walpole is known to many only as a town that has a state maximum security prison. But there are many other more positive aspects of this town. I recalled the days when this young man who first brought me to Walpole worked for the Walpole Woodworkers, makers of cedar fences and cedar buildings. People have been coming to Walpole for cedar since colonial days, when the cedar in the nearby cedar swamp brought people to this area. Remnants of the swamp remain along the way from Walpole to the neighboring town of Norfolk.
I was married in Walpole, at a tiny church tucked into the edge of Bird Park, which was a gift to the town from the wealthy Bird family. Members of the local audience smiled as I recalled the town swimming pool that had been built out of a small dammed stream in Bird Park, the waters of which eventually flow into the nearby Neponset River. By the time I came to Walpole, the pool had been abandoned in favor of a modern concrete town pool built in the downtown area. When I walked through Bird Park years ago, the pool area was uninviting, a rather scummy mess of a place. But in earlier years it had been the scene of many a wonderful adventure for children looking for a place to cool off on a hot summer’s day.
Bird Park fell on very hard times, but it was not just because of the abandoned swimming pool. The wooded trails of the park were the scene of a grisly murder. People avoided the park, which only made things worse.
But it was not only Bird Park that fell on hard times. The marriage I had entered into so hopefully fell on hard times as well. For many years I avoided Walpole, feeling reluctant to revisit places that had brought joy, but which now brought up many now painful memories.
Just a few years ago, still living in the area in a nearby town, I began searching out local walking trails to create a book, “Easy Walks in Massachusetts.” As I traveled town by town, walking the trails, I got closer and closer to Walpole. What I found when I returned was a sweet surprise.
Bird Park had been taken over by the Trustees of Reservations, and transformed into a little jewel of a park, a place families once more enjoy visiting. The swimming pool has been returned to a more natural state, and I’ve stood next to my grandgirl as she stared, eye to eye, with a large bullfrog, hunkered down in the weeds of the frog pond.
I learned that the Walpole Town Forest offers some of the best views of the Upper Neponset River in the area.
Adams Farm, a very recent addition to town open space, a total of 700 acres of land open for walking and mountain biking, is a wonderful gift to the town, with a community garden and more.
I ended the talk with a story of an adopted son who felt like an outsider, until his family undertook a DNA genealogy study, which revealed that, rather than being an outsider, in fact many generations back the son had in fact been connected to the family. The long-lost son had come home.
It was a simple question I was asked. “Can you share any Walpole history?” My answer was a bit more complicated. After my talk, I saw people huddled together talking, their memories spurred by the simple things I had spoken about. This Florida girl has felt like an outsider for the duration of the time I’ve lived in New England. And yet, the day I shared these stories with the generous folks in Walpole, I felt as if I’d come home. Indeed, understanding and sharing our past can change our future. And that’s a good thing.
Marjorie Turner Hollman
Marjorie Turner Hollman is a personal historian who loves the outdoors, and has completed two guides to Easy Walking trails in Massachusetts, “Easy Walks in Massachusetts 2nd edition,” and “More Easy Walks in Massachusetts.” A native Floridian, she came north for college and snow! New England Regional Chair for the Association of Personal Historians, she is a Certified Legacy Planner with LegacyStories.org, and is the producer of numerous veterans interviews for the Bellingham/Mendon Veteran’s History Project. http://www.marjorieturner.com