I just watched a documentary on television about the Mayans. In it, the narrator, Peter Weller, asks the question, “Why is there a special fascination with the Mayans?” His conclusion is that so much is still not known about this ancient civilization and more and more discoveries are revealing new information right into the 21st century.
The same goes with Newburyport.
What makes this city so fascinating? Especially when other historic communities literally surround us and are even better documented.
It is because much of what is known about our place is hidden. Hidden because so many want it hidden or completely fail to see the importance in exposing that history. Or, there are roadblocks of ideology, politics, prejudice and demands of family and privacy. Then there is bureaucracy and cultural assumptions and even romantic inclinations that will be threatened if the true facts are exposed. (No one likes a party pooper!)
There is an air of excitement when people start asking about the history of this port. Wild imaginations run rampant as they seek to find answers. People get emotionally excited when they learn some previously unknown history about Newburyport. It fires their imagination. (it especially fires their imagination if it’s true!)
It may scare the bejeebers out of local archivists, curators and historians; but the city demands a special type of person. Instead of historians, we need more who are adventurers, mercenaries, promoters and trail blazers, using ingenuity not science to get the job done. In the past, it was men like Ray Chapman Anderson and Dr. Ernest A.W. Budge (He even knocked heads with a French archeologist) who became models for Spielberg’s fictional Indiana Jones.
Science is very orderly but its careful processes can’t stand up to tribal violence or political intrigue. The adventurer using sometimes indirect or unusual channels (some may say illegal) means to uncover truth often blaze the trail that can not be followed by scholars in white robes. Often, it is the amateur who must be called upon to tie everything together to uncover knowledge that some specialized scientist or historian will fail in making that connection.
Newburyport’s past demands that kind of person.
Many in the seventies didn’t even know that Yankee Homecoming is located in the end of July because of the Coast Guard. Most thought the YH phenomenon was a tourist gimmick to get people to come to down-and-out Newburyport. Because of that, sidewalk sales and fireworks became more important than a dedication ceremony at the Custom House. Discounts at Farley’s (which I love to take advantage of!) and a tent sale at Hyman’s are more in the consciousness of the locals than our rich history. If it wasn’t for Ralph Ayers over the years pushing for Old-Fashioned Sunday; it would look more like a Chamber of Commerce festival.
For another example, we have tunnels but no one from the Building Department to the Department of Public Safety has the slightest interest in finding out where they lie. Private homes with entrances lying in their basements have sealed lips. As for tourism; how deflating if the truth comes out that the tunnels have no connection with the Underground Railroad. (They don’t) Killing romantic inclinations doesn’t help get tourists motivated.
Developers who want to demolish and gut our historic homes certainly don’t want to hear their “targets” have national and regional significance. It is unfortunate the historic survey (which was a small sampling) missed half of our significant homes. Now it leaves us to hurriedly dig into the archives at the Library and the records at our museums to save them and hopefully in the nick of time!
The Tea Party Event, the Witch trial of Elizabeth Morse, the contributions of Caleb Cushing, William Coombs and Theophilus Parsons – are just now coming to light in the 21st century.
We need individuals who will come forward to find out the true history and significance of Newburyport.
Banks and Businesses can’t do it – they can’t afford the time for an expenditure into research that may end in a dead-end. Historians can’t do it – they get bogged down in minutiae – government can’t do it – they’re all about maintaining the status quo.
We desperately need a small army of Indiana Jones – male and female, townie and newcomer – “To Dig!”.
PS. Some have mistakenly thought my “cliff notes” post is the be all and end all on Newburyport’s history. My previous post was more of an abridged version of our significance. Keep digging because I bet there is a whole lot more to be revealed!