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Historical Society director preserves Cambridge's past

Posted by Cindy Atoji Keene  June 28, 2011 06:00 AM

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By Cindy Atoji Keene

One of the most popular collections of papers at the Cambridge Historical Society are papers documenting rent control in the city, including compilations from the Small Property Owners Association and the Eviction Free Zone advocacy group. “Rent control was the third rail of politics in Cambridge for a really long time,” said Gavin Kleespies, executive director of the Cambridge Historical Society for the past three years. As a microcosm of an attempt at market regulation, the rent control archives are often requested by academics interested in urban and economic development, as well as those studying social cohesion and organization. “Even today, 16 years later, there are many people are passionate about this issue from both sides,” said Kleespies, 36.

But this collection is just one of the many documents preserved in at the Historical Society, which is based in Cambridge's second-oldest house, the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House on Brattle Street, built in 1685. Besides the city directories, book of vital stats, genealogical register, and commerce records, the Historical Society has a history of Rounder Records, photos showing the area’s once booming confectionery manufacturing industry, and copies of The Old Mole, a radical left newspaper published in the late 1960s. Kleespies is never sure what might be donated next. “To be able to open a box and look at a set of papers written in 1700’s is pretty remarkable,” said Kleespies.

Q: What are some misconceptions about historical societies?
A: A lot of people think of historical societies as populated entirely by little old blue-haired ladies who are reminiscing and not being very forward-looking, but we reach out to different populations in the community and we are in the process of digitizing much of our collection. The staff at the Historical Society are all under age 40.

Q: What’s your favorite item at the Historical Society?
A: Some photos are amazing, such as a collection of photos related to major factories in Cambridge that show industrial scenes that would be hard to picture here. The New England Brick Company, for example, had brick drying yards and clay pits on the west side of Sherman Street. It was a landscape nothing like today.

Q: You were born and raised in Cambridge. How did you get into this line of work?

A: At age 13, I was too young to get a job, and someone I knew was working for the now defunct Cambridge Discovery, a city tourism service. I was hired to lead two-hour walking tours of Harvard Square, and kept doing that through high school. It gave me a deeper understanding of the history of Cambridge. If people asked me questions I didn’t know, it was a good idea to look it up. After five years, I amassed a good amount of information, although I’m sure I said things that were wildly incorrect a number of times.

Q: What’s the most valuable or unusual item at the Historical Society
A: It’s hard to access value sometimes, but we have a sewing machine made by Elias Howe who patented the first American made machine; a chair that belonged to Ben Franklin; a number of interesting paintings, and a punch bowl that is not very attractive but worth a lot of money.

Q: Is the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House haunted?
A: When I worked in the archives of the Historical Society in 1990s, I would have sworn this place was haunted. It felt creepy all the time.

Q: Do you have any collections at home?
A: I have random collections of railroad spikes, historical postcards and fedoras.

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