West Boylston gained its independence from Boylston in 1808, and we’re lucky enough to have some yellowed, fragile newspapers from that year down in our Local History Room. The newspaper is the Massachusetts Spy, or Worcester Gazette. In those days, some S’s were written to look like fancy lowercase F’s, so the title
of the newspaper might look like “Maffachufetts Spy.” It’s also fun to say it that way.
The newspaper clippings pictured here are from July 6, 1808, barely six months after the incorporation of our town. The fledgling West Boylston had exciting news from abroad: Great Britain’s war with the Emperor Napoleon of France was not going well. This particular article details Napoleon’s orders for the United States to close its ports to Great Britain or risk war with France. Reading this paragraph is strange because it comes from a time when Napoleon was not a mocked, supposedly short-statured Frenchman who lost the Battle of Waterloo. In 1808, he was a real threat—maybe not to America but certainly to Great Britain and to whatever kingdoms and empires were unlucky enough to border France.
This newspaper clipping gives us a different context when thinking about West Boylston’s past. Perhaps we can even imagine town founder Ezra Beaman taking a break from his decades of campaigning for West Boylston’s independence and reading about world issues in the comfort of his home.
Townspeople likely talked about the risk of this foreign war at dinner parties or while trying to make small talk with a new acquaintance. Old newspapers remind us that people have always loved news, have always loved gossip. They also remind us that we, like West Boylston 209 years ago, are in the years before Napoleon’s Waterloo, and that the powerful people or foreign nations we fear will one day be nothing more than history growing musty on a yellowed newspaper page.
Some of the most valuable historical documents are letters and diary entries. Through these personal accounts, we can watch history unfold through another’s eyes. We are thankful to have several letters from a West Boylston soldier who served in World War I. George Buck, who was stationed in France in 1917, wrote to his parents about his first impressions of France. Two of his letters were featured in the Oakdale column of the Telegram & Gazette. Below, we’ve written out the full text of George’s letters so you can read them more easily. Attached are the original newspaper clippings which featured George’s letters. Thank you, George Buck, for your service and for letting us see history through your eyes.
George writes: “There are many things I would like to write that I can’t, but I can tell my first impressions of France, that is, as I saw it from the deck [of the ship which carried him to Europe]. I saw a number of towns and villages, which are, or seem to be, built so as to cover as small a piece of ground as possible. But it is hard to say just what I will think when I have seen it at close range. When the ship had come into dock, a large crowd of people was there to see us, and it was really touching. They threw peaches and cigarettes aboard. Believe me, when I say they are glad to see us.”
In another letter, George writes, “Dear mother and dad—Tomorrow is my birthday. I wonder if you will think of it. I bet you will; you have never forgotten it yet. I have been here just a week, and from what I have seen of the country, it doesn’t appeal to me a great deal, altho I am feeling fine, and am in the best of spirits. We are getting plenty of good food to eat, and a dry place to sleep. The people say that it never snows here. It rains often enough, because it rains every day. Everything is very strange to us here. The houses are all built of stone and in the town. Every house is a wine plaster. I haven’t seen a wooden house shop, and everyone drinks wine because the water supply is poor, and the quality of the water is not very good. Everyone is old-fashioned here. It seems funny not to see electric cars and automobiles, but we see plenty of army trucks. I heard this morning that Warren Churchill’s [another W. Boylston soldier] company has come in, but I don’t know whether it is so or not. I hope so, for I would like to see him again. We had a good trip across, as I wrote in my last letter. We are camping about two miles from the town, which is about as big as Clinton, but all in a bunch. Believe me, Worcester is good enough for me. I suppose it will be a long time before I get answers to my letters, but I will write every week, and if I have time will drop a line to the rest of the neighborhood. Your loving son, George. Somewhere in France, Oct. 12.”
The Civil War was America’s darkest moment; the nation’s politicians and people became so divided over the institution of slavery and numerous other factors that we eventually fractured into two separate nations: the United States of America and the Confederate States of America. In its few years, the Confederacy printed its own money.
In 1913, nearly 50 years after the war’s conclusion, the U.S. Treasury department sent some of the useless Confederate money to libraries around the nation as an educational material and a reminder of the nation’s worst conflict. The Beaman Library received several bills, including the ones pictured below (the $20 bill is a CSA bill and the $1 bill was printed by the Virginia Treasury Department). The $20 bill depicts the Tennessee State Capitol and Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens. The $1 bill depicts a milk maid and Virginia governor John Letcher.
During the war, the currency had no actual value—it was only symbolic that, one day, when the Confederacy won the war, the Confederate Treasury Department would pay the bearer of the bill. This can be seen on the bills. For instance, on the $1 bill, there’s the claim: “The Commonwealth of Virginia will pay ONE DOLLAR to the bearer on demand at the Treasury.” The $20 bill has a similar phrase.
More than 150 years after the Civil War, the Confederacy’s currency still exists and has become a popular collector’s item. Let this surviving currency of a long-gone nation also remind us of that terrible conflict, the lives lost during it, and the heinous institution of slavery that we must always remember and atone for.
World War I changed daily life in West Boylston. Patriotism resonated throughout the town. On November 11, 1917, exactly one year before the Armistice and the end of WWI, the citizens of West Boylston raised a service flag on the common in honor of all those serving overseas. Service flags are still flown today to indicate if a household has a family member serving in the military during a time of war, and they were first created and popularized during WWI. The town’s service flag had sixteen stars, but we aren’t sure why only sixteen. Though more than sixteen men from town enlisted in April 1917, it’s possible only sixteen were sent to Europe.
As the newspaper clipping below indicates, families with relatives serving in the military were asked to get a service flag for their home by the State. Also featured is a service flag from the Treasury Department advertising the Victory Liberty Loan, a war bond to support the war effort and its aftermath. A letter from the Treasury Department appears alongside the flag. The flag was sent to the Beaman Memorial Public Library for preservation and to “help to perpetuate interest in the Liberty Loan work in your community."