Since you’ve paused here to gaze upon this blog, dear web traveler, I presume that you possess some interest in history, and perhaps even for the things previously appearing on this site. From that I will speculate that might enjoy this recently published Boston Globe piece by Chris Marstall on Massachusetts’ aluminum historical markers: “History, Preserved in Sturdy Aluminum: Eighty Years Ago, What Did We Want to Remember about Massachusetts?”
In 1930, Marstall notes, “[s]ome 275 markers were erected … to mark the state’s 300th birthday,” and identify “places which played a leading part in the history of the colony.’” Marstall’s interest in the subject appears to have been sparked by the work of Robert Briere, president of the Sturbridge Historical Society, who is leading an effort to preserve and restore the 81 year-old signs. Another part-time historian, Russell Bixby, is “recording GPS coordinates for the 144 or so markers remaining in place,” which are then displayed with other information at HMDB.org.
Marstall’s piece makes it clear that he’s dealing with historiography, as well as history. The renowned Harvard historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, was responsible for most of the text on the signs, and his goal was to rehabilitate the Puritan image. To this end, Morison portrayed the commonwealth’s founders as “literate community builders, industrialists, and pathmakers,” rather than dogmatic prigs. Morison may have met some modest, temporary success in this regard. But what he could not account for was our judgment on his own work, including the observation that his many commemorations of Puritan and Indian battles severely minimized Indian deaths.*
The article brought to mind the first local historical marker that I recall noticing: a small stone monument that had been erected in a corn field on a back road in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. I was seventeen when I caught my first glimpse of the marker from the passenger side of my buddy’s Toyota Celica. The gently undulating field in which it squatted was not unlike the dozens of others that we rocketed past on the 10-mile trek between our rural homes and the ramshackle gym we frequented. But one summer evening, on the back leg of this teenage orbit, I noticed this greyish stone protrusion. Initially, as we hurtled pass at roughly twice the posted speed limit, I was able to decipher only a word or two. But after several passes, the entire text came into view: “Last Battle of Shays Rebellion was here Feb. 27, 1787.”
I’m pretty sure that I knew almost nothing about Shay’s Rebellion, but the name was familiar enough to trigger the curiosity of someone who prematurely fancied himself to be serious about things that happened in the past. To my adolescent mind, battles were the essence of serious history—you know, Caesar, Napoleon, George Washington, Dwight Eisenhower—all that. I had certainly passed markers before, but this one made an impression. The words engraved on that midget obelisk produced an intimation that my humble corner of the American continent possessed historical significance.
I’ve been an historian too long now to believe that a single sign can have any direct causal impact, like for instance, launching a seventeen-year-old on a career path. But also long enough also to appreciate the debt we owe to the resolute preservers of stone, aluminum and memory.
* Not coincidentally, Marstall’s article was passed along to me by the incomparable Eric Schultz who blogs about business, innovation, and history at The Occasional CEO and who also happens to have written an excellent book on King Philip’s War.