It was just a country tavern, part bar, part restaurant, part general store, smelling of wood and tobacco, supplying the same farmers year in and year out with the comforts and necessities of existence and giving them common ground to share the passage of their small-town lives.
However, Buckman Tavern in Lexington Center was also at the heart of history, a key staging ground at the birth of America. In the years after adoption of the Constitution, the customers who frequented Buckman and the town's other taverns were some of the men who'd seen the very first action of any United States soldiers, and who'd done their town immortal service by making it the first to fight for freedom.
Those same customers populate the pages of a ledger book kept by the tavern owner Rufus Merriam, who ran Buckman from 1794 to 1815. His colonial script - though of course by 1794, Massachusetts was no longer a colony - documents the daily needs and wants of his neighbors. And those neighbors seemed to want a lot of rum! But spirits were only a portion of what Merriam sold.
This handsome ledger, an invaluable artifact of the nation's earliest days and the lives of its most famous residents, was in danger of falling apart beyond the point of usefulness. Recently, it's been brought back to supple life by a benefactor who's devoted decades to halting the disappearance of our history.
Susan Bennett learned that Conservation Evening 2018, a fundraiser to save and restore four precious ledgers from Buckman and Munroe Tavern, had gotten most of the way, but not all the way, to raising sufficient money to restore all four. Bennett knows something about fundraising, and restoration. She's the quiet powerhouse who oversaw the renovations of Munroe and Buckman Taverns and Hancock-Clarke House, and the erasure of debt on the Lexington Depot during twelve impactful years as the Society's executive director.
Her love for Lexington and its history is obviously undiminished - and so is her awareness that it takes more than affection to preserve the past. That's why she stepped forward to help make up the difference between what was needed and what Conservation Evening raised. The deaccession and sale of an Edward Curtis print unrelated to Lexington got the ledger restoration project all the way across the finish line.
Earlier this month, Bennett got to see first handhand what her generosity had wrought, and what she'd bequeathed to future generations. She came to the new Archives and Research Center (ARC) at Munroe Tavern to meet Society archives manager Elizabeth Mubarek, who was carrying the newly-restored ledger in its custom-fitted box, and looked, in the sparkling sunshine of a New England morning, not unlike an Archives Elf hurrying a holiday present to an expectant recipient. "One less box to move," said a grinning Mubarek, who has worked to pack and prepare hundreds as the ARC is filled with four centuries of records and ephemera.
Bennett gave the ledger the once-over of a seasoned museum professional and pronounced herself pleased. "People in Lexington don't realize how incredible our collections are. And it's really important to spread the word about how incredible they are," she said. And touring the new state-of-the-art shelving and cabinetry, she said to Mubarek: "It's nice to see the Society so committed to the best level of care for its collections. You guys have taken it forward beautifully."
A report on the book's condition from the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, which did the restoration work, describes the damage and then the steps that were taken to undo it. Even couched as it is in conservation-ese ("The full-leather tight-back binding was very worn, abraded, and torn"), it still reads like a short story with a happy ending ("Tears were mended with Japanese kozo paper.")
Mubarek puts it a bit more tellingly: "Parts of the cover were coming off in flakes, and it was moldy." But now, the pages turn easily and read clearly. The cover feels delicious, like deerskin - not that the staff is planning on allowing much touching.
Whichever description you go by, it's clear what Bennett's generosity has enabled: the freezing of time by NEDCC, or even the undoing of time - rolling back the damage of centuries. And she's done it in the name of a dear friend and fellow historian, Mary Keenan. Keenan's a stalwart of the Society who keeps the minutes of Board meetings and has pitched in at every turn over the years.
Her motivation, however, goes much deeper than public-spiritedness. She is a trained and experienced historian who taught at Lexington High School for many years, and the author of "In Haste, Julia." Published in 2011, "In Haste, Julia" is likely to see a new wave of interest this year. It tells the story of Julia Robbins Barrett, born in East Lexington and destined to travel New England pushing the causes of abolition and women's rights, including the right to vote. She, and Keenan, are sure to get their due again as the Society celebrates the centennial of women's suffrage in 2020.
As she stood with Bennett amidst the gleaming wood and metal shelving of the new ARC, Keenan grinned the grin of a teenager and recalled getting the call from Bennett that she'd be donating her $5,000 in Keenan's name. "I was flabbergasted," Keenan said. "Oh, how do I express it? I was just delighted."
Perhaps the greatest protection the project has afforded the ledgers, and the greatest benefit to researchers interested in what they can reveal, is that digitization of every page was part of the work. That means the book itself can rest securely in its specially-made box, in a locked cabinet at the Society's vastly-improved archives, while historians can peruse its details to their heart's content.
Keenan said the preservation and digitization will enable researchers to trace "the web of connections" among the Lexingtonians who commenced the Revolution War. "You can see exactly when the Revolution was occuring because of the changes in what people were buying," she said.
And, in typical Society fashion, Bennett and Keenan already seem to have turned their attention to the next job that needs doing. The Society needs funds to preserve other priceless items, just as the ledgers were put to rights. One suspects it won't be long before the two history lovers will be beating the bushes, looking for modern Lexingtonians to add their names to another ledger, this one electronic, recording the donations of those willing to answer the call of historical preservation.
-Guest Contributor Craig Sandler, Managing Partner, State House News Service
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.