On January 1, 2006 I started the Newburyport Blog, 18 years ago, who would have thought. Back then blogging was new and no one had blogged about a local location, so right off the bat there was a lot of interest. My goal was to have a place where civil discourse could be had about local politics. Ha, that lasted for less than a week and this was before social media. My other goal was to get people interested and invested in local civics, specifically historic preservation.
Because it was a blog, not a newspaper, nothing scholarly, I wrote about my life and how it was affected by what was happening in the city, Newburyport, that I was writing about. Looking back my favorites were about my father and my son. In February of 2009 I wrote a post called “Newburyport Stories,” and that was the genesis of what became the Newburyport Historic Interactive Map and the website that goes along with it, Keeping the Story Alive.
My son had given me a book for Christmas with a skull on the cover. To say I was skeptical, would be an understatement. I soon found out that the skull was painted by my favorite artist, Vincent Van Gogh, that was redemptive. It was also written by David Sedaris. I was very late to the David Sedaris planet and he ended up being one of my all time favorite writers. The book my beloved son gave me was, “When You Are Engulfed in Flames.”
By February of 2009 I found myself being weary of pissing off my fellow Newburyport citizens, living under a constant risk of being harassed, of being sued or being threaten of being sued. And the book gave me an idea – stories, centered around my beloved New England seacoast city of Newburyport, MA that would inspire rather than preach.
I was a professional artist who was represented by New York City galleries. People may find the idea of being an artist romantic. For me it was anything but. The business side was brutal, and creating, going somewhere deep into my subconscious to pull out images to put on canvas, was exhausting. However, I was driven since I was a little girl, first having seen Vincent Van Gogh’s painting “Starry Night” with my father, it was something I could not not do.
I decided to “retire.” And what did I want to do, I wanted to do research on my beloved coastal city. It was the same muscle, different medium. Having a general idea of what I wanted, finding bits and pieces that at first make no sense but gradually come together to create a picture, a story. And the more stories the bigger the body of work, just like painting.
The first person I researched was Abbie Foster because I found her name on a deed and I wanted to know who she was. Where did I go to figure that out, the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center. It took me 6 or 7 months, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. But down in the Archival Center was Sharon Spieldenner, the head archivist and all the wonderful people who worked and volunteered there. I was a neophyte, the people down in the Archival Center who helped me were scholars, professionals, people who earned a lot of money doing research, and people born in Newburyport with vast institutional knowledge that was bottomless. Was I intimidated by these folks, at times, you betcha, were they wonderful to me, oh yes.
Sharon Spieldenner was my main guide. She did not do the research for me but pointed me in the right direction and let me struggle to figure things out on my own. When I wanted to know when Abbie Foster built her fancy mansion on High Street, Sharon and Ghlee Woodworth (Newburyport historian) went down to the bowels of City Hall and retrieved the tax records showing exactly when the house was built. Who does that, who helps like that, no one. I could not figure out where Abbie got the money to build the fancy mansion, and Sharon would not let me give up, and eventually I figured it all out. Sharon even found an old photograph of Abbie’s beautiful house at 74 High Street. Who goes to all that trouble – no one I had ever known.
Abbie Foster, a remarkable woman, who had long been forgotten, her story was now out there on the Newburyport Blog. One of my favorite things was when I walked around the neighborhood, I would find people pointing at the house, I would stop and ask why and they would say, “Do you know about Abbie Foster?” I would say nothing except, “Tell me what you know.” Research in the Newburyport Archival Center, with lots of help from lots of amazing people, resurrected Abbie and her memory and her dignity, and I was hooked.
Abbie Foster’s House, 74 High Street, courtesy of the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center
The Map and the Website
I’ve loved walking around on Newburyport’s ancient streets with its extraordinary architecture ever since I moved here in 1981. I also loved going to open houses. In 2019 I had gone to a lot of open houses where I would always talk to the realtor who was there and ask questions. I asked about who was buying houses, prices continued to go up and people who had lived here their whole lives or a better part of their lives had steadily been moving out to places that were more affordable. What I heard over and over again was that the people who were moving here not only did not know the history or the stories, but they did not care about the history or the stories of this remarkable seaport city. And I realized with some alarm that the stories, Newburyport’s stories, were being lost.
I contacted Sharon Spieldenner at the Archival Center and explained my panic. In the summer of 2019 Ms Spieldenner got together a whole lot of people who were scholars and citizens and from various historic institutions in our city. The only person not included was Ghlee Woodworth, who was doing everything in her power already to get the story out there, from the “Clipper Heritage Trail,” books, “Tiptoe through the Tombstones,” and lectures and talks about Newburyport’s history. As we all sat and talked, it was apparent that what people wanted was to make sure that stringent professional standards were adhered to, and if that was the case, time was running out, and the story was going to be lost.
I was not a professional, I was a neophyte (although I had learned a lot by that time) and a blogger. I had also worked with Jack Santos for 4 years on “If This House Could Talk” and had researched a whole lot of places along with the research and stories on the Newburyport Blog. It was Jack who gave me the idea for a map. And I thought, “What the heck,” I have a whole bunch of stories, glimpses, not PhDs, I will put those on an interactive map, to try a new way to get people hooked on Newburyport’s history. And I also, god bless them, got permission from the Museum of Old Newbury and the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center to use their collections, as long as things were attributed to them, and if/when they were downloaded people would know exactly where they came from. Those images made the map. And people love that map.
Unfortunately Google did not index either the history or the images on the interactive map. When the Covid Pandemic hit in 2020, I decided to use the time to create a website that would coordinate with the map that Google would index and that would help people know that the map and the stories existed. And where did I go for help with the map and the website, yes, the Newburyport Archival Center, Sharon especially, who once again, when there were times that I wanted to give up, would not let me. There would have been no map and no website without Sharon Spieldenner, without the people who worked and volunteered there. I may have thought I was a neophyte, but one day when I called, a wonderful volunteer told me I was a “rock star.” That is the kind of thing that keeps you going.
“When You Are Engulfed in Flames”
In 2019 there were 18 volunteers, Sharon Spieldenner and an assistant archivist, working on a grant that addressed the needs of materials in various conditions in the archival collection, including sending the more fragile and irreplaceable materials to people who specialize in conservation and preservation.
In 2022 I started to realize that something was amiss, the 18 volunteers were gone, the assistant archivist who left for an even better position had not been replace. I emailed two of the members of the Library Board and they had no idea, they were horrified.
On September 14, 2022 Ghlee Woodworth wrote a letter to the editor at the Newburyport Daily News praising the Archival Center. Who knew that letter could cause such fury, but it did.
On June 6, 2023 I wrote a letter to the editor saying how lucky we as a city were to have a professional archivist at the Archival Center. Who knew that letter could cause such fury, but it did.
Later in June 2023 all hell broke loose. The people, the scholars, the professionals, the people who had the institutional knowledge of Newburyport who volunteered their time for free, for sometimes decades, were maligned, viciously smeared for a week on the front page of the Newburyport Daily News, and the story had legs, well into the summer. By the end of the summer it was obvious, no more volunteers at the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center. However, maybe there was a chance for the city to retain Sharon Spieldenner, the head archivist who had untold knowledge of the vast and incalculably precious holdings of the Archival Center. But that was not to be either. On January 12, 2024 Sharon Spieldenner “retired” as head of the Archival Center. Knowing Sharon, who worked tirelessly for the Archival Center, who loved the Archival Center, whose vocation was the Archival Center, I am sure, that in her heart, she did not want “to go gentle into this good night.”
I’ve been told that the Archival Center is .1% of Newburyport’s budget so who would care about such a small thing. I do. If you are one of the people who use the map or are reading this, you may care also.
At the moment the Newburyport Public Library Archival Center is supported by staff. I like the staff at the library. The new head librarian seems to be a good person for the job. Apparently they are looking for a new person to oversee the archival services, among other things, and hoping to create a “history club.” Good luck with that. The people, the scholars, the professionals, the ones with the bottomless institutional knowledge, their trust has been destroyed. It took Sharon Spieldenner years to come to know not only the vast and incalculable resources of the Archival Center, but also what is included inside those books and on the irreplaceable materials, to help people find the pieces of the puzzle to put the stories and history of Newburyport together that people could love and understand. The materials may still be there, the staff may be able to locate some things, but the depth of understanding, the passion, the institutional knowledge is gone – it has been “engulfed in flames.”
~ Mary Baker Eaton, February 2024