Maurianne Adams addresses the Amherst Historical Society upon receiving their 2020 Conch Shell Award for contributions to the preservation of Amherst History. Photo: Art Keene

by Art Keene,  Maurianne Adams and George Naughton

The Amherst Historical Society Conch Shell Award for 2020 was awarded to Maurianne Adams for her role in creating the Lincoln-Sunset-Prospect Local Historic District (LHD).  The award was part of the Amherst Founder’s Day celebrations on Sunday, February 9 in the Woodbury Room of the Jones Library.  

The Society established the award in 2007 to recognize an individual, business, or organization that has contributed to the preservation and awareness of Amherst History. It is presented annually to an individual or organization that has shown a commitment to education and interpretation, and that has used innovative and creative methods to showcase Amherst’s Historic Resources. The award is named for the conch shell or “Ye Auld Kunk” that was used in the 1700s to call Amherst residents to Town Meetings and to worship.

As George Naughton, President of the Historical Society pointed out, the creation of the new LHD, with emphasis on its mixed-race, mixed-class post-Civil War origins, was truly a collaborative effort. It involved volunteer researchers who spent hours in the Jones library archives as well as a Study Committee that spent yet more hours deliberating proposed boundaries and approval processes, as well as initiating contact and meetings with residents, making  presentations to Town committees, and pursuing strategies to address the politics of creating a new LHD.  In the spirit of that cooperation, Adams accepted the award on behalf of the collaborative effort put in by so many people.

George Naughton opened the award ceremony by reviewing the history of the award and then went on to explain why it went to Maurianne Adams.  Here are his remarks:

George Naughton’s Remarks
And now, I would like to turn to the annual award. Before the internet, telephone, and radio, how were people called for important events? True, some church buildings had steeples, but not all the steeples had bells, and not all the towns had town criers. In earlier times, a conch shell was used as a trumpet, to call residents together and usually a person was paid a small amount of money to be the official blower of the conch shell. (And if you’ve ever tried to get a noise out of a conch shell…) Amherst is fortunate to retain the object in the collection of the Historical Society. Arthur Kinney initiated the Conch Shell Award in 2007; since then, distinguished scholars, historians, and organizations have received this award in recognition of their contributions to the preservation and awareness of Amherst’s history, and their commitment to education and interpretation of that history. 

So it is a pleasure this year for the Historical Society to recognize someone who has made significant contributions to the intellectual and cultural life of this town. This past fall, Maurianne Adams gave us a brilliant lecture on the creation of the North Prospect-Lincoln-Sunset Local Historic District, which was formally approved by Amherst Town Meeting in 2017, and now has its own Wikipedia page

Now, Dr Adams served on the committee, but we need to emphasize that she did not work alone. Mr Steven Bloom chaired the committee, and Ed Wilfert, Phil Shaver, Bonnie McCracken, Suzannah Fabing and others did a great deal of the work. Would those who I just named, or anyone else who served on the committee, please stand to be recognized? 

Naughton then gave a conch plaque to  Adams, who made the following remarks:

Maurianne Adams’ Remarks
This award is totally unexpected and I am hugely honored.  The LHD project was an enormous effort taking many hours over days & weeks from 2012, when a group of us sitting in my living room hatched the plan following the advice of Laura Lovett and Gretchen Fox, until 2017, when the final report was completed and Town Meeting approved the new LHD.

We started with more extensive boundaries and 305 identified properties, of which 160 were already listed in the MA Historical Commission’s Amherst Historic Houses Survey Index.  But the houses already listed were the large, impressive houses, generally on Sunset and Lincoln, not the small farmhouses build by Irish and African Americans some fifty years earlier and equally worthy of note and preservation, if one took a social, cultural and demographic approach to creation of an LHD, as we firmly did.

I’m not an officially trained historian, although my dissertation 50 years ago had me working in the archives of numerous libraries including the British Museum.  So digging through sources to find clues and puzzle pieces to create a portrait that no one knew had once existed – that became my obsession and a source of real pleasure quite familiar to me from so many years before.  

But I knew nothing of architectural design or history – and that leads me to the observation that this award honors our collaborative work on this project, something that could not possibly have been done as a solo venture or by someone with a single area of expertise.

So I call out to honor some names:

       Gretchen Fox, no longer with us, sorely missed.  Trained as an art and architectural historian, a long-term resident of Fearing St who knew the neighborhood, its resident comings and goings, its history, its architectural gems, inside out.  She, too was obsessive about this project and I’d often see her up in the archives, tracking down some detail.  We/I miss her and wish to acknowledge her at this moment.

       Susannah Fabing, a member of the Study Committee, also an art and architectural historian, whom I’d see frequently in the Archives, quietly writing the house-histories, family stories, architectural detail of the North Prospect southern end of the LHD – as well as helping us make our challenging Study Committee decisions on the LHD boundaries, decisions in which architectural or demographic connections were in danger of being superseded by political considerations

       Ed Wilfert: Gretchen told me from the onset, “Go find Ed Wilfert, he’s always in the Jones Archives.”  Indeed he always is and was, before I arrived in the morning and after I left in the afternoon. He has an encyclopedic knowledge, including but hardly limited to Amherst house and family history.  I’d raise a question one day and he’d have the answer written up in his tiny, precise handwriting the next. He had copies of the 19th century Amherst maps, knew how they differed, helped me fill in the missing pieces. He was the most reliable corrective to the older property cards, having crawled through more basements and attics than I could have imagined, to understand what was added and when. We (or at least I) could not have done my own work without learning so much from him.

       Cindy Harbeson, who with a smile hauled out dozens of huge, heavy tax records (who paid taxes, not always the same as who lived in or owned a property) or pointed me to the annual 19th and 20th century Amherst address lists (who moved or lived where) or directed me to the files with their Goodwin family interviews and newspaper clippings, and solved my computer access problems.

       Sean McMillan, a post-MS graduate of UMA’s Design and Historic Preservation program, sent me back to the files for UMA theses on Irish and African-American communities in Amherst. Who knew?  He produced an extensive bibliography for us as well as the final report, with its splendid historical context for the emergence of our mixed race, mixed class, moving target of a neighborhood.  

And then there’s the layer of support, advice, and information needed for this entirely volunteer collaborative research team to do our work: 

       Nate Malloy, our Town staff liaison, was indispensable to us—his experience, his knowledge, and his excellent political judgment.  

       Brandon Toppance worked with us for several years to arrange the neighborhood meetings, create the Website (you’ll find it on the Town’s Website, Boards & Committees, Local Historic District Commission, all the materials under Lincoln-Prospect) and the final report of several hundred pages. 

       Steve Bloom, fearless, unflappable, and unstoppable leader of the Study Committee, who kept track of the properties completed (195 by final count) or in need of study.  

       The other members of the Study Committee, Bill Gillen, Bonnie McCracken, Phil Shaver, Ann Sutliff, a friendly group making extremely hard decisions on which we all felt strongly but without rancor.  

       Of course we drew upon  

o   2005 Amherst Preservation Plan

o   Master Plan

o   LHD for Dickinson area approved in 2012: Bylaw for LHD’s & Dickinson established as Amherst’s 1st LHD

Our research team endeding up examining archival sources for more than 200 properties, not all of which we finally used. The MA Historical Commission wrote to support our work and even suggested expansion of the district, something we would have happily done had we had the volunteer people- and research-power.  As I said, this was all VOLUNTEER research power!

Beyond the daunting nature of this project, I need to stress how much fun it was – how exciting to have started with the hunch that ours had developed as a mixed-race mixed-class community of Irish immigrants, African Americans from the post- Civil War south as well as northern NE farms, and Amherst-born folks who joined the development of this north-side of Amity Street bordered by the downtown &and the new land-grant Mass Agricultural College (now UMass Amherst).  And we found it far more intriguing than we could possibly have imagined – Irish clustered on McClellan and Beston who were tailors associated with Pease; African Americans on Beston, Paige, and McClellan who rented rooms to the Irish (or vice versa) who were mechanics or personal care-givers or ran collegiate rooming-houses and established the AME Zion Church. Paige properties were bought by workers at the livery stable – African American, Irish, US-born workers –who over time built their houses.  Cosby, Lincoln, Fearing had houses for faculty and others.  North Prospect also had a socially mixed community.  You can read all about it and go through the individual house histories as well as the LHD social, cultural, economic, racial, and ethnic interactions on the Town’s Local Historic District Commission Website.

So I’m thrilled that the Historical Society and the town have recognized the importance of this LHD and what it adds to our understanding of the complex history that is Amherst.  

And I’m delighted and honored to receive this award on behalf of the larger team of people with whom I had the great pleasure to work.

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