The Medfield Historical Society – Keeper of our History
In 1891 “a body of public spirited men, deeming it wise to preserve the numerous Indian relics, as well as the collection of historical articles prized by various town folks,” assembled and incorporated the Medfield Historical Society. As such, the Medfield Historical Society is one of the oldest historical societies in the United States.
The original incorporators of the society were William S. Tilden, Wilmot Mitchell, Albert A. Lovell, Joseph Allen, Willard Harwood, Jeremiah B. Hale, Edwin V. Mitchell, George R. Chase, William W. Haywood, John H. Richardson and James Hewins. William S. Tilden – town historian, state representative, gifted musician and publisher of the History of Medfield 1650-1886 – was its first president, while Albert Lovell assumed the role of Secretary.
During the beginning years, membership into the society was determined by vote. Existing members voted on prospective new members by placing a bean or corn kernel into a voting machine. A white bean or corn kernel was a ‘yes’ vote and the black bean or corn kernel was a ‘no’ vote, taking as an affirmative four-fifths of the votes.
From 1891 to 1894, all the meetings of the society, with the exception of the first, were private. For a period of eleven years, from 1895 to 1905, nearly every meeting was public with a large hearing, usually about 100 folks attending.
In 1917, when the Medfield Memorial Public Library was given to the town as a gift by one of the owners of the hat factory, Granville Dailey, it was Dailey’s request that space always be provided for the historical society. From 1917 until 1968 the historical society was located in the back room of the library, in what is today the Periodical Room.
At a town meeting in 1965, residents voted to expand the library in order to meet the needs of the large number of new residents moving into the town. The Bravo family home, located between the library and what was the old Needham Cooperative Bank at 6 Pleasant Street, was sold and moved to Park Street to make way for an expansion plan that would have added an addition connecting the library to the bank building. The bank building, which was purchased by the town, would then be incorporated as part of the library.
At the next town meeting, however, a vote defeated the funds to complete the library project and the town was now stuck with the vacant Bravo lot and an empty bank building. With the expansion plan dead, the library made a deal with the historical society. The historical society would move into the bank building on 6 Pleasant Street and the library would use the historical society room in the library for its expansion. Ever since 1968, the historical society has made the bank building on 6 Pleasant Street its home. The bank vault has become a secure holding area for all items of value.
In 1923 the historical society began a grassroots movement to save the historic Peak House, which had deteriorated badly and was facing possible demolition. Thanks to the efforts of the historical society, a grass roots effort in the community and money donations by the president of the hat factory Granville Dailey, the Peak House was saved and restored. It was officially turned over to the Medfield Historical Society on October 24, 1924, and remained its care through 2018.
In January 2019, a ten-year property management agreement was signed by the Medfield Historical Society and the newly-formed Peak House Heritage Center to give autonomy to the Center to manage the facility, operations, and visitor experiences at the Peak House. The mission of the Peak House Heritage Center is to engage, inform, inspire visitors as they learn about this historic house, the events that occurred here, and the diverse residents who shaped its legacy. The Center’s Directors are targeting the site’s historic preservation, its restored herb and native plant gardens, and interactive, client-centered exhibits as keys to integrate culture and tourism.
In 1996, when the Dwight-Derby House, Medfield’s oldest house and one of the oldest in the United States, faced demolition and sale, the historical society again took a leading role in saving the house. Brought before Town Meeting by a grassroots effort and put under the care of the Friends of the Dwight-Derby House, the historic Frairy Street house has also been saved and is being restored.
Since its inception, historical society meetings have been regularly held to highlight the town’s rich history and to make the community more aware of the important historic role Medfield holds in both the state and national picture. Over the years speakers have been brought in and different aspects of Medfield’s history have been showcased.
For 117 years society curators have collected and preserved Medfield’s history. Today, its small headquarters at 6 Pleasant Street, next to the Memorial Public Library, is literally “bursting at the seams” with the town’s history, family and house histories and artifacts and photos of all kinds. Membership into the Medfield Historical Society is now open to all and the membership voting machine, which is now on display at the society museum, is a relic of early times.