SHIRLEY -- Old houses in New England need tender, loving care to survive the inexorable ravages of time and the occasional ice storm. Old churches do, too, even more so when the building is woven into the fabric of a town's history.
If you want to pursue that subject in local terms, just corner a member of the First Parish Meeting House Preservation Society of Shirley and get ready to extend two hands, side by side, to catch the rewind as lengths of historic yarn get spooled from the source. Chances are, you won't want the spin to stop as the yarn stretches from the town common, where Shirley's Historic Meetinghouse has stood since 1773, to town borders and beyond, winding through the region's colonial past like patterns in an antique quilt.
Talking to two members of the group -- Patty MacDonald and Paul Przybyla -- before a dinner/concert fundraiser at the Bull Run last Friday night was like that.
Acting as host and public-relations ambassador, MacDonald invited guests as they entered to take a look at the colorful and telling display set out by the door, with enlarged photos showing the handsome, high-steepled, historic Meeting House in all its simple, white glory, including before and after shots of recent repair work.
Rotted old balusters were replaced with new ones last year, for example, and a new iron fence was constructed and installed by a Fitchburg ironworks firm whose owner, Tim Gendron, is from Shirley.
"This is a major fundraiser" that also raises awareness and keeps the cause alive, MacDonald says before moving off to hobnob with other guests.
Less mobile at the moment but just as enthusiastic about the cause, Przybyla stands nearby, ready to pick up where MacDonald left off. Clearly a history buff, get him started and off he goes, weaving designs whose complexity he has already divined into the distances of time and back again, keeping his aims in sight as he heads in several directions.
Want to hear about the Stevens tracker organ, for starters? Intact since 1843, restored now and with an electric motor, the venerable instrument sounds glorious and can still be powered by hand, which is less noisy, he says.
As for history, the old church has plenty, from its endearingly creaky floorboards to its soaring rafters, which, by the way, acoustically accommodate soaring voices marvelously.
Books and beyond
Some Meeting House treasures are less visible, like the 1,600 old books tucked away in cupboards. The society's ladies, years ago, kept a lending library, Przybyla says, and the volumes are still a good read today, depicting the period from 1820 to 1870 like a snapshot "frozen in time."
There may even be a signed copy of a Lousia May Alcott book in the collection.
Most of the names he plucks from the past are not famous authors but well-known locals. Lucy Longley, Harley Holden, James Parker, Seth Chandler. The latter was pastor of a congregation that once occupied the meeting house when it was a church.
Chandler had friends in Concord, back when church and state were "the same entity," which is to say, back when the meeting house served as such and as a church, too, which was the case when it was built, 20 years after Shirley was founded in 1753.
Przybyla thinks that connection could explain how the autographed Alcott, if there is one, got here.
Rolling right along -- interjecting that the Historic Meeting House is unique in that it's a community building but not owned by the town -- Przybyla says the American Antiquarian Society authenticated one book that now belongs to the Preservation Society. It's a diary, kept within the pages of "The Farmers' Almanac" by James Parker, the original owner of Valley Farm, later the home of Hermann and Kate Field.
Moving up in the world, Parker later lived in the big yellow "Harrison house" at the corner of Parker Road. He had the habit, common at the time, of keeping his journals in the margins of "The Farmer's Almanac," stuffing in added pages if need be.
Perhaps a flea market find somewhere far from Shirley, the quaint Parker diary that made its way back to town via the Internet was apparently one of many, most of which the society owns. "We have transcriptions," of those other entries, Przybyla says, beaming like someone with a long-lost treasure map in his pocket. "Fascinating!"
The artifact was, in fact, a missing link, closing a gap in Parker's journaling timeline. Turning to the antiquarians for authentication, they not only did so, but also considered it valuable enough to keep. "If you don't buy it, we will," they said, according to Przybyla, who is positively gleeful about the priceless acquisition. "We got it for $200 on eBay."
Fired up now and seemingly as proud of Shirley's past as if he were a founding father himself, Przybyla continues his peripatetic narrative. "Did you know ... that on June 27, 1776, there was a Town Meeting in Shirley to decide if the town would declare independence" from England? Besides the celebrated Fourth of July, "We have our own Independence Day!" he says.
Threading his way through the past with the meeting house as the eye of his needle, Przybyla mentions bronze sculptures and a famed artist named Gray whose work is displayed at the Pennsylvania Statehouse and the Metropolitan Museum of Art and whose papers show he was a local, too. Fervently thanking the Shirley Historical Society for revealing it, he says that correspondence the society has in house proves Gray sculpted the prominent pieces he spoke of and document his link to Shirley.
By now, dinner is being served, signaling the start of the evening's entertainment and an end to Przybyla's spiel. He promises to pick up the thread later, on request. For now, he wraps with a quick collage of work done, work in progress and hoped-for work to come if the fundraising campaign is successful.
For example, the Historic Meeting House has been "acclimated" so it's livable, usable, that is, with a gas heating system that allows concerts and other events to be held there when the weather turns cold. "We finally got a decent piano," too, he adds, and cleared out the area where the pulpit once stood to create performance space.
"Now, we need to paint it," Przybyla said of the precious old building, pinpointing one of the most pressing projects on the to-do list. He surmises the cost would be $60,000 to $70,000, given that there's repair work to be done as well as painting and that lead paint will have to be scraped under controlled conditions and properly removed.
Come to think of it, that might be a conservative estimate, he says. "We'll see."