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Humanities scholar discovers a treasure strove of information about small towns in the 19th century

May 21, 2014
GORHAM Do you know what your great, great grandparents used to do on those long, cold, winter nights? Besides that.

It turns out they would get together with other residents, usually in the local schoolhouse, once a week for a night of "improvement and education," along with a healthy dose of local gossip.

Jo Radner, put on a program last week at the Gorham Public Library on these local lyceums that took place generally between 1830-1890, and the resulting journals. Unlike the more well known ones with famous speakers lecturing, these lyceums contained writings that were created completely by local people.

Radner came across evidence of these lyceums while cleaning out the attic of a home in Fryeburg that had been in her family for 200 years. At first she said she didn't know what they where, piles of paper hand sewn together with writings that ranged from serious topics to recipes to gossip. They included a cover that said "Toll Bridge Journal." Toll Bridge was a small village that was a section of Fryeburg. She put them in a box and there they sat for a decade.

Since then research has led her to re-discover events that were once well known in most small towns and hamlets in northern New England. They seemed to be unique to that area New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. She has found no evidence they occurred anywhere else or after 1890 and the fact that they occurred at all seemed to be lost to history.

The closest lyceum to Gorham she has found evidence of was in Jackson.

They seemed to be organized and run by the younger people in town and were often lively affairs that could include music and other entertainment, as well as readings. An "editress" was selected the week before for the next week. Residents were expected to submit writings to her and she would copy them over in her own hand so no one would know who submitted them. There was thus often only one copy made, which may be why they are so rare, and forgotten.

The lyceums were held from October to May, which seems to correspond to the farming cycle.

Since finding out about them, Radner said she has consciously looked for them and has found several.

"I realized I had stumbled on something that had been forgotten," she said.

Topics could be on almost anything, although politics and religion seemed to be two that were steered clear of. One issue included a debate on the virtues, or not, of gum chewing. Another debate was on the value of farming versus industrialization, and on whether it was beneficial to move west, or stay put. These were two issues that were very relevant to that time period.

Often there were poems, Biblical parodies and sly jokes about certain individuals, or couples, that may or may not include a moral lesson. Some writings even purported to the diaries of someone in town.

Some claimed to know who was sweet on whom. Because the writings were anonymous, it was a good way for someone to "test the waters" to see if a person he or she was interested in was interested back.

It seemed to be a big thing to be chosen to participate in a debate (always all male). The topic was chosen the week before, as were the participants two in favor and two against.

Recitations were given by girls/women and everyone could participate in the music. The editor/editress was almost always a woman and she would read all the writings submitted for the journal.

Radner believes these lyceums were more than entertainment. There was a belief then that education didn't stop at "common school," which was up to eighth grade at that time. People believed in common school you learned how to learn, she said.

The debates and writings on serious issues gave attendees the opportunity to learn about something new or to see another side of an issue, Radner said.

"It wasn't just writing, but taking part in these lyceums, interacting with other people," she said. "Lyceums were neighborhood communities, a shared place, history and community."

She ended by urging everyone present to "check their attics."

Martin Lord Osman
Salmon Press
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