History Comes Alive on South Street

by | Jan 25, 2014

The Auburn Historical Museum occupies a small red building on the corner of South St. and School St.  What they lack in space, they more than make up for in stories: They’ve got history, mystery, Hollywood, war heroes, humor, artifacts, and now even a book.  The building itself, the former Tuttle Square School, occupies a place on the National Register of Historic Places.

I spent Tuesday morning at the museum. The excitement from Saturday’s release party for “Images of America: Auburn” had lessened.  But the museum volunteers’ enthusiasm had not.  To borrow a favorite expression of Sari Bitticks, curator of the Auburn Historical Museum and president of the Auburn Historical Society, the place is “massively cool.”

Familiar names abound here: Prouty; Bancroft; Stone; Holstrom; Blais; Goddard and Kusy to name a few.  These family names reflect the history of Auburn, and represent the connections one finds in quintessential New England agricultural and mill towns.  The faces change, but the names remain the same.

Bitticks led a guided tour which is well worth your time.  She conveys the history of Auburn with humor and enthusiasm, excitedly bounding from an interesting letter to a significant artifact to a fascinating story.

The first room takes visitors through the history, people and organizations that make up Auburn and its history.  Bitticks pointed out a case of memorabilia from Auburn High when the school mascot was known as the Dandies. AHS became the Rockets in 1991. Why the change? “They couldn’t get anyone to wear the Dandies outfit anymore” joked Bitticks.

Another important name change occurred in 1837 when Ward became Auburn. Originally named for Gen. Artemas Ward, Ward, Massachusetts was often confused with Ware, MA.  Mail was regularly misdirected and the Ware postmaster regularly complained to the Postmaster General.  Most Auburnites already know this story.  But do you know why our forefather chose the name ‘Auburn’? Neither does Bitticks.  “No one wrote it down” she says.

Another interesting mystery revolves around the beloved school teacher, Julia Bancroft.  “No one knows what she looked like” says Bitticks.  “We’ve never found a photo. She died in 1920, so she certainly would have had a picture taken. But we’ve never located one, or even a portrait.  If anyone has one, we would love to see it.”

The museum also spotlights other Auburn war heroes, notably Joel Prouty, a Civil War captain after whom the local Masonic Lodge is named.  The Auburn Historical Museum received Prouty’s original Civil War uniform from Ron Prouty – Joe’s great grandson – around 2009.  The uniform is remarkable due to its condition. Bitticks notes that the Prouty uniform has all of the original buttons, unusual for a sample from that era.

Of course, significant space is allocated to Robert Goddard, arguably Auburn’s most famous celebrity, though he was not actually from Auburn.  Goddard had an aunt who lived in Auburn, on what was then the Asa Ward farm, where the first liquid fueled rocket launch took place.

A fascinating and lesser known piece of Auburn’s history revolves around the growth of railroads and trolleys.  Auburn was once home to an amusement park – Pinehurst Park – located on the Auburn/Worcester line.  The Park featured a 2,500 seat amphitheater, and a scenic railway which, at the time, was the largest in New England.

The park was established at the urging of the Worcester & Southbridge Street Railway, which needed to keep steam up 7 days a week for efficiency.  In order to encourage weekend trolley riders, towns were encouraged to develop tourist attractions along trolley routes.

“Pinehurst only lasted about 8 years” explains Bitticks, going into storyteller mode.   “There was a gang, the Forty Mollies, a girls’ gang.  They terrorized and robbed visitors.  Now Auburn only had five constables, and in those times you couldn’t hit or even touch a girl.  There was a boys’ gang too, the Thirty Thieves, but constables would just scare them off with a crack to the head.  The girls were unstoppable.”

Did you know Auburn also boasts a bona fide Hollywood star?  Jeffrey Lynn starred in a number of movies, television and stage productions in the 1930s to 1960s. He starred alongside James Cagney in several works, and the two actors were friends.

There is much, much more to be gleaned at this small but important museum.  Notably, the entire operation is self-funded. The museum is maintained and operated by the Auburn Historical Society, an independent 501c3 organization. It is not a Town organization, as many residents believe. “We lease the building from the Town for $1 per year” says Bitticks. “Otherwise, we do not get any direct funding from the Town of Auburn.”

The museum has an annual budget of around $10,000-$12,000 per year which is raised through Historical Society dues, donations, and grants.  “Thank goodness for the Greater Worcester Community Foundation” Bitticks says.  “They are a major supporter.  They gave us a grant for an artifact shed, so that we can better organize and store our collections. That has made a huge difference.” she added.

The Historical Society meets at 6:30 pm at the Kateri Apartment Complex conference room (next to North American Martyrs Church) on the third Tuesday most months.  The Society does not meet in January, February, June, July or August.  “We always have an interesting speaker or topic, and some delicious baked goods” says Bitticks. “Anyone is welcome to come.”  Membership is open to anyone interested, and annual dues are $15 per person, or $25 for a family.

There are other ways to get involved.  The museum is always looking for volunteers to help scan photographs, catalog items, organize collections, and perform routine maintenance.  “This is a great opportunity for students who need community service time and have an interest in history” says Bitticks.

You can also support the museum and make a nice addition to your home library by purchasing “Images of America-Auburn” for $22. The book was assembled by volunteers assisted by and published by Arcadia Press.  There are vintage photos, a detailed Auburn history, and some intriguing stories.

With all the stories, letters, photos, displays and artifacts, the Auburn Historical Museum seems an ideal place for a school field trip, especially for third graders, where local history is incorporated into the curriculum.  Sadly, this seems not be to the case.

“Actually, we had no school groups visit us last year” says Bitticks.  “We used to have some walk down form Mary D. Stone, but those teachers retired and we haven’t had that in a while.”

The museum also boasts a traveling museum that they can bring to schools, nursing homes and the like.  “We have visited Emeritus, North American Martyrs and some other places” said Bitticks.  “We have offered to come to the schools, at no charge to them, but they have not taken us up on it yet.”

Bitticks and Town Historian Ken Ethier have also been invited to speak at various venues, and sometimes receive a stipend that goes to the Historical Society. If my tour of the museum is any indication, they would make for a very entertaining and informative talk!

If you have not found the time to visit, you owe it to yourself and your children to make the trip.  You will be impressed.

“We really want to have people visit” says Bitticks.  “Younger people can be turned off by old stuff.  They don’t see that history isn’t just 100 or 200 years ago.  History is right now.”

Auburn Historical Museum
41 South St.
Auburn, MA
(508) 832-6856
Hours: Tuesdays and Saturdays, from 9:30 am to 12:30 pm and by appointment.
Admission is free, and donations are gratefully accepted.