posted by Sheila Connolly
A few years ago my husband accepted a new job on Cape Cod, but home prices on The Cape (not to mention the horrors of summer traffic, as described by residents) drove us to look further north, and we ended up in buying a house in a town about half an hour from my husband's job. We had no personal connection with the town, but it was convenient, and we fell in love with a particular house.
This year the town has been turned topsy-turvy by the possibility that a local Indian tribe, which in May received federal recognition as a sovereign nation, may choose to put a mega-casino on a chunk of largely empty land north of the town center. But that's a story for another day.
One of the complaints heard most often from local protesters is that the town will lose its peaceful rural character. There are about 22,000 residents, but they're spread over a lot of ground; the town center has one main intersection, and only one stoplight. Its heyday was somewhere before 1900, when a lot of the local industrial barons built handsome Victorian homes. But that's not the story either.
As a newcomer to the town, and an amateur historian, I have made an effort to learn about the history of the place (finding, among other odd facts, that my great-great-grandfather's small company installed the first electric lines here in the 1890s–lines that we're still using in our house). The town has a pair of museums, housed in an eclectic assembly of buildings, both new and old, near the center of town. The problem is, they lack funding, so they are open about six hours a week, and it took me four years to get around to visiting them. (I'm getting to the story, I swear!)
The archeological museum focuses mainly on Indian artifacts, and if the casino is approved, the museum will either be absorbed into something greater, or will be refurbished in a major way. The other noteworthy component of the museum complex is the Historical Museum, also known as the Tom Thumb Museum. (At last! I have arrived at the story!) For those of you who were are ignorant of Tom Thumb: General Tom Thumb was the stage name of Charles Sherwood Stratton, a midget who traveled with P.T. Barnum in the mid-19th-century. In 1863, he married another midget, Lavinia Warren, likewise a P.T. Barnum, um, client? Exhibit? Asset, in any case. (Piece of useful information: Lavinia used the surname Warren professionally, but in fact she was born Lavinia Bump. Not quite as euphonious, is it?)
I acknowledge that "midget" is a politically-incorrect term, but that's how the Thumbs were known in their day. They were perfectly formed people who happened to be less than three feet tall, and a lot of people were willing to pay to see them.
The Tom Thumb Museum supplies a delightful docent of advanced years who is well versed in Thumb/Stratton/Bump lore, and who takes great pleasure in telling their tale. What is so strange is to find that these performers, or entertainers, or whatever you choose to call them, were real people, with real lives–and they lived around the corner from where I now live. Tom Thumb was recruited by Barnum at an early age, and performed before the crowned heads of Europe. When Barnum heard of the diminutive Lavinia, he raced to offer her a similar contract. And, as the story goes, when Tom first met Lavinia, it was a true love match. They married (to much public fanfare), and the museum has the wedding dress Lavinia wore. They toured successfully for many years, and they built their own mansion here in Lavinia's home town, tailored to their needs (shorter steps, for example).
Unfortunately, poor Tom died at a relatively early age. Lavinia remarried (to another midget) and they toured for a time, but eventually the money ran out. They sold the big house, and at the end were reduced to selling ice cream and soft drinks at a stand on the highway outside of town. After Lavinia's death, the sale of her memorabilia netted only a few hundred dollars.
Local museums are truly interesting. They reflect not only what happened in a town, but what the people of the town think is important to preserve. It's curious, isn't it, that the most important person to emerge from this town was a midget? (If you don't count Deborah Sampson, a woman who signed up and fought in the Revolution as a man.) But her memory is honored, nearly ninety years after her death.
Through a curious twist of fate, I'm currently working on a book that deals with many of the same issues that face this town right now (and I drafted the book well before this current controversy began). When faced with change, what should the people of a town fight to preserve? Some parts of the past are worth holding on to; others just hold you back. But who gets to decide?
In this case, the people of the town, through a Special Town Meeting–a form of local government that has existed since the original founding of the colonies (and which I use in my book). And isn't it ironic that this venerable form of government will address the petitions of an Indian tribe that the local colonists dispossessed over three hundred years ago? And the town may change, in ways its residents neither want nor foresee. But I hope the Tom Thumb Museum benefits from whatever funds may flow to the town.
We need to remember our history--all of it.