The year was 1916 and the time had come for Scituate to form its own historical society. Stories on the world stage were overshadowing the local tales that year, but not by much. Truth be told, those national and international events would soon consume much of the local headlines, because they would be drawing the coastal town into them. The First World War was tearing Europe apart and over the next few years, 191 Scituate citizens would contribute to the war effort directly, as members of the armed services. This included the men of the new United States Coast Guard serving at the North Scituate and 4th Cliff stations, who, under the rules of the act that created the Coast Guard in 1915, operated under the Navy during wartime.
But there was more. A general malaise had hit the coastline of the South Shore as seasonal tourism had begun to wane after several decades of high times. On top of that, the summer of 1916 was marked with the country’s first wave of infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis. The disease started in Brooklyn and swept into small towns in the northeast, both in actual cases among the local children and in the fears of adults who looked at their hometowns with scrutinizing eyes.
Investing in the children of Scituate was a hallmark of 1916. That year the town built its new high school, the first since it constructed the original building in 1893. In actuality, the town hadn’t grown that much since 1850. In that year, the population hovered around 2,100 and by 1920, 70 years later, it had only risen to 2,500. But the nature of education had changed. There were really no more kids in town than there had previously been. It was just that more of them were going to school. On September 26, the cornerstone was laid for what is now the Gates Middle School.
Out on Lawson Common—the triangle of land enclosed by Beaver Dam Road, First Parish Road and Branch Street—more was brewing and, naturally, local millionaire Thomas W. Lawson, the man who had built the water that loomed above the school construction site across First Parish, was in the middle of it all. It all would work out in the end, but the small community was fighting, on the eve of American involvement in World War I, to erect a monument to its soldiers and sailors from two wars ago. Scituate had never properly commemorated its Civil War soldiers and sailors with a formally dedicated statue or other memorial. Thomas W. Lawson, whose father had died of wounds received during the war, wanted to help right that wrong, but he wanted to do it his way.
Amidst this tumultuous time, attention was turned to the preservation of the local history that mattered most to the community – the Old Oaken Bucket homestead, the site of the old well from which poet Samuel Woodworth drew inspiration for his poem that would be translated into more than 80 languages around the world; the remains of Scituate Lighthouse, which lost its lantern room in 1860, but was long famous for the story of the “American Army of Two.” The town purchased the landmark at auction from the federal government in 1916. Silas Peirce and a band of friends led the charge to form the Scituate Historical Society.
Scituate, though, was an anomaly. While most local historical societies and genealogical societies like the Daughters of the American Revolution and various descendants’ groups formed around the passenger list of the Mayflower, Scituate had a chance for their society to be different. While other communities fought to prove their American roots against a tide of new immigrant voices and new languages, Scituate had long ago seen its greatest influx of foreigners to its shores, starting with the mid-19th century potato famines in Ireland. It took a while as the society focused on true antiquities like the 17th century Stockbridge Gristmill at Greenbush, but soon that Irish mossing heritage would be celebrated as something unique to Scituate.
The society would have the responsibility of perpetuating the story of Chief Justice William Cushing and explaining why Norwell had ever opted to split apart and form a separate town. In years to come, the group would tell the story of Tom Lawson, but when the society started out it was still living the story (Silas Peirce’s name even appears in the court documents regarding the Civil War monument case). And it would be called upon to evenly share the stories of Scituate from all of its important villages – the center, the harbor, the west end, Greenbush, North Scituate and more – even recently detached Humarock – so that the whole Scituate tale might be told.
One hundred years later, that mission is still being carried out.