×

Resident writes book on history of Wendell



Last modified: Tuesday, August 18, 2015
WENDELL — Pam Richardson and her husband had recently moved to a stone house 2½ miles down a dirt path in the woods here when she got “bitten by the genealogical and local history bug.”

Richardson, who had worked as a psychotherapist and a French teacher, hadn’t even seen the town in 1997, when they bought the property that had jumped out at them from a Yankee magazine listing.

But she dove right into the task of finding out what Wendell is all about, and how it got that way.

The first thing she discovered when she began poking around the old town library around the year 2000 was that unlike most of its neighbors, Wendell had no official town history.

“There wasn’t much information,” said Richardson, a Washington, D.C., native who grew up in Paris and Tokyo and has had a “checkered career” that has included waitressing, designing gardens and being a secretary, but never thought she would wind up an author of a tiny town’s history.

Back in Newburyport, “If you wanted to find out what happened 200 or 300 years ago, you just went to the library, and there it was. Here, if you came to the library, they had everything they could have had, but it just wasn’t much.”

So she began searching through whatever she could find online, or in Louis Everts’ 1879 “History of the Connecticut River Valley” and Josiah Holland’s 1855 “History of Western Massachusetts,” but it was slow going.

What had gone wrong?

“I don’t think it was high up on their list of needs,” Richardson speculates on why the town has no official history. “The heyday of Wendell, when the population peaked at about 1,000, was 1815. It went downhill from there, until 1960, when it was 293. (The 2010 population was 848.) After its heyday, there wasn’t a lot of money. There were hardworking people, but many of the people who came or were born here just moved on.”

In fact, one of the people who stood out in town, a Harvard-educated judge named Joshua Green, arrived in 1790 and served the town for more than 40 years as a selectman, assessor, justice of the peace, treasurer, and church deacon and also served as a senator and a New Salem Academy trustee.

Holland called Green “the most useful and influential man in the town and its vicinity ... He was in many respects, the glue that held Wendell together, and his passing was a watershed event in the life of the town.”

Then Richardson struck gold.

Greenfield map collector David Allen mentioned to her that while going through some old files, he stumbled on a note saying that the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester had notes by a Thomas Sawin, who lived in Wendell in the mid-1800s.

“I immediately got in my car and got these notes,” Richardson recalled. “That was when I began to think, ‘Maybe a book is in the future.’”

The pages of Sawin’s five slim volumes, about 5-by-7 inches, were handwritten in tiny script “all mushed together in long, slanted, fading ink, with arrows crossed out,” Richardson said. “It was definitely a chore to read it, but it was worth it,” with detailed maps that depicted where houses were in town, who owned them and who had built them, along with the sites of earlier structures, she said.

Most of the notes by Sawin were written in the early 1840s, and as he wandered around town drawing derailed maps, he was able to talk to old-timers who’d been in Wendell for years.

“Thomas clearly wanted to write this book,” said Richardson, who is including him as co-author, complete with the 1810-1873 dates of his life. “After going through all his notes, I call him my muse and mentor. I felt very, very close to him and that we should join forces and write this history. Because I couldn’t have written the book without him. It’s really Thomas’ book as much as mine.”

Sawin commented that people in Wendell were “too few, and too poor, and too illiterate” to ever pay for his own book’s publication, Richardson said.

Wendell, although settled in 1752, according to Richardson’s book, was carved out of Ervingshire, to the north, which John Erving had bought a year earlier for “three coppers per acre.”

South Wendell — the part of the town roughly south of the cemetery and the new library — was part of Shutesbury. Residents in South Wendell sought to be annexed to Shutesbury but were rejected by the town in 1772.

In 1781, after nearly three decades of independence, Wendell was incorporated, and in 1803, as the Louisiana Purchase expanded the young nation westward, the town annexed a mile-wide strip of Montague to its west.

Her history tells the story of the town’s Mormon Hollow section, where a couple of dozen Mormons converted after the arrival of two itinerant preachers in the late 1850s held worship sessions in private homes. And of course, it relates the story of Oliver Wendell, a Boston banker and judge whose grandfather had been Massachusetts Gov. Simon Bradstreet and was himself the great-grandfather of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.

But when it comes to identifying the single most compelling thread of her adopted town’s history, Richardson has to pause to reflect.

“I’m just fascinated by what makes people tick,” said the amateur historian, who has followed up on her research by launching a blog where anyone interested can post their own findings about Wendell’s past, and who’s been visiting cellar holes around town, often with a metal detector.

“The stories of ordinary people really fascinate me. Other than Joshua Green, who stands out, it’s just a town full of ordinary people.”

If she’s learned anything from her 15-year odyssey, with townspeople now intrigued by being able to read the story of their town, Richardson said, “My sense is (Wendell) hasn’t changed that much. Other parts of the world are probably unrecognizable from what they were 263 years ago, right? But here we have pretty much the same roads with a few new ones. It’s a wonderful feeling that I can read about these people 100 or 200 years ago. I can practically see them, sense them. There’s a very strong sense of community today, and I get the impression the same was true then. There’s something about being isolated up here, on top of this little ridge, that contributes to that. That sense of community’s been here from the beginning.”

Richardson, who’s already sold 160 of the 200 copies she had printed, gave a talk to a packed audience at the library last month and plans to sell more books at Wendell’s Old Home Day on Aug. 22. She has tapped into that community by digging into the town’s past.

“It’s huge,” Wendell Librarian Rosie Heidkamp said. “Before this, we just had anecdotal stuff and pamphlets. She’s just moved us light years ahead.”

Richardson said, “I’m still not satisfied. I really want a time machine,” and she has been asked by some residents to write a volume that picks up the history from 1900.

“The response has been so gratifying. One woman in town refers to it as ‘our book,’” she said. “I’m doing the best without a time machine to pretend I have one.”

Richardson’s blog can be visited at www.wendellMAhistory.wordpress.com.