Old Town House exhibit maps the history of Marblehead in the 20th century

Marblehead residents and visitors until late October can step back into a not-so-distant past and explore life in this town in the 20th century.

The Marblehead Historical Commission recently opened “Mapping Marblehead: The 20th Century and Beyond” in the Old Town House. It is the historical commission’s third and final exploration into the town’s history one century at a time over the last four years. 

“We are just so pleased to pull this off,” said the Marblehead Historical Commission’s chairman, Chris Johnston, before an opening-reception crowd. “It was a learning process to try and figure what’s the best way to tell the story of Marblehead history – but I think we’ve done it rather well.” 

A first-rate exhibition

“Mapping Marblehead” intertwines digital layers and primary sources – video, photography, text, newspaper articles and maps – to engage visitors.

Marblehead Historical Commissioner David Krathworhl, who offered his technological expertise to “Mapping Marblehead,” combined visual data sets on Apple Maps to construct interactive, layered maps that capture Marblehead’s population growth and development over time. That growth is further underscored in another map showcasing ‘Headers’ adoption of conservation land over the last 100 years. Meanwhile, a huge aerial photo of the Marblehead Peninsula sprawled out on the Old Town House’s floor places the town’s development into perspective.

In a not-to-miss installation, an iPad kiosk plays excerpts – projected on a large TV framed by salvaged Marblehead signs – from the “20th Century Marbleheaders: Their Memories, Wisdom & Wit,” a compilation of recorded oral and visual histories from such Marblehead luminaries as Doris Bartlett, Harriet Bull, Bill Conly, Josie Crowley, Martha Gorman, Capt. Bill Kelley, JoAnne Mayer and Barbara Pierce.

The documentary, directed by Ed Bell and MHTV, was ready-made for this exhibition and features major regional and Marblehead events from the first elections of women to the Marblehead Board of Selectmen and the Blizzard of 1976 to life in Marblehead in the 1950s and the USS Constitution’s 1997 visit.

Marblehead Historical Commission Chairman Christopher Johnston address an Old Town House crowd during the opening reception of ‘Mapping Marblehead: The 20th Century and Beyond’ in early July.

Throughout, folks will find histories that may be familiar or not so familiar: Starling Burgess, the Temperance Movement, the Great Pandemic of 1918, the posthumous appreciation of J.O.J Frost’s primitive paintings, the Sorosis Farm, the town’s Bicentennial celebration.

Graphic designer Helen Riegle fashioned the exhibition, and Marblehead Historical Commissioner Pam Peterson composed its text.

“Marblehead grew with the century,” writes Peterson, a Marblehead historian and the former Marblehead Museum executive director. “Farmland gave way to houses, and newcomers brought business; new schools along with civil and religious institutions were built.”

The Roaring Twenties witnessed Marblehead’s embrace of popular culture and continuation as “a destination for artists, yachtsmen and tourists.”

“The luxury of leisure time, brought on by prosperity, made yachting a natural pastime,” Peterson writes. “Marblehead, which won the America’s Cup sailing race three consecutive years starting in 1885, became ‘The Yachting Capital of the World.’”

For visitors, the Marblehead Historical Commission has packaged domestic and global events, like the world wars and the Great Depression, that can seem abstract or overwhelming in scale into a Marblehead context.

“The United States did not enter the war until after Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese in 1941, but the country was on alert from the beginning, watching with horror as events unfolded in Europe,” Peterson writes. “By 1940, coastal watchtowers had been built on Marblehead Neck. Private yachts were commandeered for coast patrols, as the threat from the sea was very real.”

When the country joined World War II, 1,300 Marblehead men and women signed up.

A town tethered to the sea

Curators, moreover, provide visitors with an important reminder that history can be subtly ubiquitous in Marblehead like the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration’s murals in Abbot Hall. People will also see 1925 schematic designs of the first sewer system installed after Marblehead abandoned outhouses and welcomed “the wonders of indoor plumbing.”

At a time when many cling to revisionist histories, the Marblehead Historical Commission supplies an honest assessment of the town’s history with religious discrimination. The exhibition points out that some “kept Jewish people from being shown Marblehead Neck houses to buy and from membership in private clubs” during the early to mid 20th century. Such discrimination would not be acceptable in subsequent decades and, in fact, is called out today by such organizations as the Marblehead Taskforce Against Discrimination.

For Marblehead, Peterson said the single biggest historical event in the last century did not play out in one fell swoop but rather over time: Marblehead’s population grew from 7,582 in 1900 to 20,371 in 2000 – roughly three times over – with immense growth following World War II.

“Marblehead entered the 20th century as a small, poor antiquated town with declining local industry, a beautiful coastline, and an attractive proximity to Boston,” wrote Peterson. “It exited the century an outwardly focused, wealthy, commuter town with a harbor full of recreational boats.”

But one thing remained clear, Peterson points out: “Tied to the sea, Marblehead’s location and history continue to define it.”

The entire project was truly a collaborative effort: Alongside the Marblehead Historical Commission team, Marblehead Town Historian Don Doliber, Town Historian Emerita Bette Hunt and Standley Goodwin reviewed text and maps. Support was provided by MHTV Executive Director Joan Goloboy, Marblehead Museum Executive Director Lauren McCormack, private collector Carol Swift, Dave Hostetter, the Rotary Club of Marblehead Harbor, and Andy Barnett at the Marblehead Little Theater.

Funded by a grant from the Harold B. and Elizabeth L. Shattuck Memorial Trust, the exhibit runs until Oct. 23. Regular exhibit hours are Fridays from 1 – 4 p.m., Saturdays from 10 – 4 p.m., and Sundays from 1 – 4 p.m. All are welcome to visit the exhibition inside the Old Town House, 1 Market Sq., and there is no charge.

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Marblehead News staff

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