All History is Local History

A new monthly column from the Brookline Historical Society.

Former Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill famously said, "All politics is local." He might well have said that "all history is local," too.

After all, everything happened somewhere. Brookline, to be sure, has seen its share of history. Events and issues of national importance—from independence to immigration, from abolition to abortion, from modern medical practices to modern presidential politics—have played out in large and small ways here in Brookline.

But if everything happened somewhere, it's also true that something happened everywhere. And the story of Brookline is worth telling not just for the way it is woven into the broader tapestry of American history, but for what it tells us about the place in which we live, work, shop and play, how it developed and how it became what it is today.

This article, first in a monthly series of columns on Brookline Patch, kicks off another of the Brookline Historical Society's expanding efforts to bring the story of Brookline to new and old residents in new and old ways. In the coming months, we'll tell you about people, places and events from the town's past, answer questions you might have and let you know how you can learn more.

The Brookline Historical Society was incorporated in April 1901 to pursue "the study of the history of the Town of Brookline, Massachusetts, its societies, organizations, families, individuals, events." A lot has changed since 1901: in Brookline, in the Society, and in the way we think about and portray the past.

In 1901, Brookline was approaching its 200th year as an independent town. The population was just under 20,000. Edwin Munro Bacon's "Walks and Rides in the Country Round About Boston," published in 1898, noted that the town had been called "...the most beautiful town in the vicinity of Boston and the wealthiest in the country...especially noted for its numerous extensive estates, pleasant woods, and fine landscapes." Many individuals whose families had lived in town for generations were prominent in town affairs (and, not surprisingly, in the membership of the Historical Society). The Beacon Street boulevard, with its electric trolley and burgeoning residential and commercial development was barely a decade old.

Today, on the eve of the 2010 Census, Brookline's population is estimated at about 53,000. Professionals and their families, many of them attracted by the proximity to Boston, local universities and hospitals, convenient public transportation and excellent schools and services, make up a large segment of the population. The commercial and residential nexus of town has shifted north, with bustling Coolidge Corner the symbolic center of the community. A recent travel guide (Fodor's Boston 2010) says "Going to Brookline is a nice way to get out of the city without really leaving town."

The roles and activities of the Historical Society have changed, too. The Society initially held meetings once a month, later reduced to three or four times a year. Papers on historical topics were presented, and some, though not all of them, were published each year in the Society's Proceedings. Not long after its incorporation, the Society took over the care and maintenance of the Edward Devotion House on Harvard Street and stocked it with relics of the town and colonial history.

Today, the Historical Society continues to present programs, free and open to the public, twice a year. The one-room Putterham School—used to educate Brookline children from 1768 to 1922—and the Devotion House are opened for free tours on alternate Sundays in spring, summer and fall. Proceedings are no longer published, but the Society has an award-winning website, featuring hundreds of historic photographs, maps and postcards, program highlights and information about town history.

More changes are coming and will be announced here and elsewhere. In the meantime, visit our website—http://brooklinehistoricalsociety.org—and the Brookline history blog—http://brooklinehistory.blogspot.com—as well as the Devotion House and Putterham School. (Open house schedules are on the website.) And tell us what you want to know about Brookline history.

The author of this month's article, Ken Liss, is president of the Brookline Historical Society.


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