20 YEARS OF RECOLLECTING NEMASKET: An Interview with the Middleboro Gazette
This summer, Michael J. Maddigan is celebrating the 20 year anniversary of Recollecting Nemasket with the release of “Recollecting Nemasket: Twenty Years of Historical Writing,” adding to a list of a dozen books he’s written and published about Middleboro, Lakeville and Onset.
We recently caught up with him at the Krazy Days street festival in Downtown Middleboro, where he was busy connecting with local fans, of his and of local history, and selling his books. We arranged for a question-and-answer session via email, and Maddigan was gracious enough to respond and share his recollections of how Recollecting Nemasket came to be, where it may be going and some of his secrets about investigation local history.
How did you become interested in local history, and being the 20th anniversary of Recollecting Nemasket, how did the column first come together and find its way to print in The Gazette?
“I’ve had an interest in history for as long as I can remember and developed a passion for local history when I started work as a tour guide at the Middleborough Historical Museum at the end of junior high school. Working there for a number of summers raised more questions about Middleborough’s past than there were ready answers, so I began to research topics about which I had questions or about which I wanted to know more. I’m the guy who always wants the full story and the details and this curiosity has driven my writing.
“The museum was (and is) a great resource for local history and I had the privilege of knowing and working with Mertie Romaine who wrote the second volume of the town history and was an incredible inspiration and wealth of knowledge on Middleborough’s past.
“Writing about local history began with a piece I wrote for the Reflections insert of the Middleboro Gazette that some readers may remember ran for several years. In 1997, Jane Lopes who I was working with on the Middleborough Historical Commission asked me to write a regular column relating to local history and I’ve been writing ever since.”
Middleboro has a rich history and it seems a well-documented history through several eras and a variety of sources - including The Middleboro Gazette - can you talk about how your pieces come together and some of the available sources easily accessible to the hobbyist historian looking to dig up family history or learn more about local history? Also, after 20 years and several books, do you see the collected works of Recollecting Nemasket as an important piece of that documented history?
“You’re right, The Gazette has always had a tradition of encouraging local history writing and we’ve been fortunate that since the newspaper was founded its editors have placed a strong value on the subject and recognized the importance of a community knowing and understanding its past.
“I find the research the fascinating part of the project as that is where discoveries are made and the learning is had. The purpose of writing is to share that learning with others. Typically when I encounter an unusual fact or a source for local history, I make note of it. I might not use it immediately, but usually I will come back to it.
“For local history, sometimes the best resources are local newspapers, but as a historian, you have to view news reports critically and look to other sources for corroboration. Town records and reports, the registry of deeds, and state and local libraries and archives hold a wealth of historical information waiting to be rediscovered and reevaluated.
“As individuals, we each have our own history to share and I encourage people to do so because history is communal. It is shared experience. Truthfully, sources can be discovered anywhere and sometimes in unexpected places. When I was searching for images to illustrate a history of Onset, I discovered them in the archives of the Newton Public Library. You just have to be diligent, persistent and inquisitive.
“I’d like to think that Recollecting Nemasket in all its forms – newspaper column, blog and publisher – has furthered an understanding of the history of Middleborough, Lakeville and more broadly southeastern Massachusetts, but I’m humble enough to let readers decide as to how this contribution will ultimately be viewed.”
How was Krazy Days, and how are folks responding to your latest book, “Recollecting Nemasket: Twenty Years of Historical Writing,” which marks two decades of bi-weekly historical commentaries in The Middleboro Gazette?
“Krazy Days was a great success. It’s gratifying to meet people who share a common interest in local history, many of whom are new residents who are eager to learn about the community’s past. Readers have been kind sharing information and stories, and I’m appreciative of the opportunity to meet and interact with them, if only for a moment.”
Do you have any favorite pieces from the Recollecting Nemasket catalogue, or are there any interesting tidbits about town life that you managed to dig up that shocked, or amazed, or maybe left you with more questions than answers?
“There are many that are better than others and some, frankly, not so good. My favorite pieces and the ones I’m most proud of, though, consider individuals who lived on the margins of history as it has been written in the past, stories that broaden the conception of what local history should concern itself with and stories that challenge us to think critically about our past. One example is the story of Middleborough’s Chinese immigrants. While the number of Chinese-Americans in town was never very large, their experience is no less deserving of consideration than that of the earliest English settlers. From the perspective of the Chinese community, it is their experience that is local history, not the experience of others.
“I also have a soft spot for stories about everyday individuals who do extraordinary things and who do good things, in the process revealing their humanity. I’m continually amazed and inspired, for instance, by the stories of Middleborough’s World War I servicemen that were compiled in Representatives of the Great Cause and appeared in Recollecting Nemasket. Frustratingly, too many items have left me with unanswered questions. I want to know the story of Lucy Robinson who became the earliest female physician in town, where baseball was first played in Middleborough, what pre-contact Nemasket was like and so many other things. Unfortunately I may have to resign myself to never knowing, and I find it sad that knowledge that was once commonly known may be lost forever.”
How long can Recollecting Nemasket keep it up? Are there still many more stories to be told?
“The stories definitely will last longer than I will. I’m challenged by having too many ideas for books and histories that I’d like to write, but don’t have time for. Friends joke that I need a patron who can support me full time so that I can write.”
Also, can you tell me about the new group in town that is working toward collecting and publishing a new volume of Middleboro history?
“The group is actually the Middleborough Town History subcommittee of the Middleborough Historical Commission which is looking into the publication of a third volume of Middleborough’s official town history. The proposal was brought to us by Arthur Battistini and the subcommittee is proposing to have an article on the fall town meeting warrant. I do encourage residents who have an interest in local history to become involved, whether it’s on the town history project, the Historical Commission, the Historical Association or another organization. There are many fine groups doing much work preserving our past.”
One of my favorite Recollecting Nemasket pieces – in a bit of very recent history - told the story of a songwriter in the Netherlands who’d come across Recollecting Nemasket online and used it as inspiration for new material. Do you recall the details of that one? Is he still at it?
“Yes, as far as I know – that would be Wouter Broekman from the Netherlands who was inspired by a number of Recollecting Nemasket pieces in The Gazette. It is surprising how Middleborough’s history has travelled around the globe and reassuring to know that the broader lessons of Middleborough’s past have proven inspirational and meaningful beyond our favorite New England town.”
Maddigan’s next book is a history of Bridgewater State Farm which is due out next year from the History Press. Readers can find all of Maddigan’s 12 and counting titles at www.recollectingnemasket.com.