The Bolton Geranium: a plant with a lovely story
The Bolton Geranium is no ordinary geranium. It has a story that goes back to the late 1800s. A tale of love, sharing, near disappearance and finally revival. As these special plants go on sale at the Bolton Historical Society’s Annual Geranium Sale on Saturday, May 18th, we thought it would be a good time to get the details on these lovely townie gems. Having one is to be part of it’s delightful story.
We had the greatest morning chatting with Tim Fiehler, president of the Bolton Historical Society, in the Sawyer house on Main Street, which is an incredible little museum celebrating the town of Bolton. He told us all about the Bolton Geranium and talked about the world of the historical society, beauty of small town culture, and how it is the simple stories of daily lives that make history so magical.
Start plotting where you want to put these geraniums. We promise you’ll be smitten.
SOTB: So the tale goes back to 1885, right? Tell us the story!
Tim: Yes, well it goes back to Arthur and Arilla Miner. They were townspeople here. He was working over at the Thayer Estates in Lancaster, saw this unusual flower and brought it home to Arilla. They then propagated it and gave the slips to friends around town.
SOTB: That is sweet.
Tim: It must have faded out, because eventually around 1970 or so, Florence Sawyer (a very important figure in Bolton’s history) had the last one.
SOTB: The last of all the plants?
Tim: Yes, and apparently right before she died, she turned its care over to Esther Whitcomb (a friend of Florence and another prominent member of Bolton’s history) who kept it going. By 1988 she decided to try to start selling them for the historical society.
SOTB: What a cool idea. How do you maintain the geraniums throughout the year?
Tim: It is an absolutely unique plant. It is an heirloom variety. We use Kevin’s Greenhouses in Berlin to do all our propagating and growing. He is a geranium specialist and a wholesaler, so he saves breeding stock and gets them ready for us. Actually, about twenty years ago a member of the historical society named Joe Zacame got in touch with the UMASS Stockbridge agricultural program and they did some work with the plant, rejuvenating it. It’s a really hardy plant.
SOTB: Is this the historical society’s big money maker?
Tim: This and our annual silent wreath auction in the winter. The geranium sale is always the third Saturday in May. It’s funny we have the same folks come back every year. Other people stop and ask if we have other colors, so we have to explain that we only have the one plant, but it is the story that is important.
SOTB: The whole concept of women passing on plants to other women is so special. Take garden clubs in the area. Right now women and men are digging up plants from their gardens and bringing them in to sell at their annual plant sales. There is something so old and lovely in that action. Had Florence Sawyer not held onto this plant and had Esther not claimed it, it would be gone. They knew what they had, right? Without their care this would have become a forgotten story.
Tim: Thankfully we had these people. Florence and Esther where both charting members of the historical society. Esther wrote the book, About Bolton in 1988. She was also part of the group that did 1938 book on the history of Bolton. This is how the society started. A bunch of these people would meet together in the history room of the library in Bolton.
SOTB: Is that the room in the library with the spindle chairs and fireplace?
Tim: Yes, exactly. I think it’s actually called the Esther Whitcomb reading room. In 1962, they became incorporated as a historical society. In 1970, Florence gifted her house to the historical society as the headquarters.
SOTB: She didn’t have any heirs, did she?
Tim: Right, Florence didn’t have any kids of her own. She ran 4-H for forty years and was always involved with the kids in town. She also gifted the 16 acres behind the house to the town, which ended up being the land that the Florence Sawyer School is built upon.
SOTB: Her story is so neat.
Tim: The Sawyer name is very big in town. It is the human story that counts, the day to day life of average people. The stories of these little towns are incredible. We try to make that connection with kids from the school when they visit, that they are part of living history. People who lived here didn’t know they were a part of living history when they answered the alarm to march to Concord, for example.
SOTB: How long have you been president of the historical society?
Tim: You know I honestly don’t even know. It is like the mafia, they won’t let me out (laughing). We have our annual meeting and election of officers, and every year I say, it’s time for someone else to be president and everyone says, nah nah you’re it! So I am it, it has been a long time. It may even be pushing 20 years by this point. What’s funny is, as with a lot of small volunteer groups, there is a small core group of people, and it is the women that get everything done. I tend to be the head of the physical plant guy.
Side note: Tim is very modest. He is a carpenter by trade and has done endless work on the Sawyer house, including a renovation of the ballroom area on the first floor.
SOTB: What brought you to the society in the first place?
Tim: Living in one of the old homes of town, really. I live in the Wheeler Farm house that is over 200 years old. You can see it on the 1831 map; my road was the farm road cart path to the Quaker Reading house.
SOTB: Do most people who live in these old homes know the stories and how special they are?
Tim: A lot of them do. You know, it’s a weird slightly masochistic group of people who own antique homes (laughing). Generally you don’t get into it unless you are into it.
SOTB: In these small towns, it can be hard to get in with the original core townsfolk.
Tim: If you are talking to someone born and bred in these little towns, you can just name a family who had your house years ago, which is easier than saying where it is. I always say “I’m a new guy” because I’ve been here 25 years (laughing). What is neat for me, about living in an antique house, is that it has brought me into the older circles in town. Which is big! They usually say, “you saved one of the old ones in town so you’re alright by us”. (laughing)
SOTB: These little towns like Bolton are developing so fast. Do you think that there are elements that are lost?
Tim: There is a general change in the way things used to be. A lot of small town organizations that used to rely upon volunteer support are struggling. We used to be able to get work parties together if we needed to paint. That kind of stuff just doesn’t happen as much anymore.
SOTB: Why is that do you think?
Tim: It could just be a modern society thing. We can’t fight that; change is coming. This is the explosion of the Metro-West. Development happens, but the most important consideration is for it to be done sympathetically in a way that saves the downtown. The centers of these little towns like Bolton are worth protecting; they are classic picturesque New England.
SOTB: What is your favorite spot in Bolton?
Tim: I have to admit I have always been very partial to the view on Old Bay road up at the Morgan Horse Farm where you can stand at the crest, look to the east, and just make out the skyline of Boston. Then you turn the other way, and you think you are in Vermont. I love that spot.
Stop by the Geranium Sale and treat yourself to a clipping of history. These hardy plants will bloom all winter long if taken care of by a sunny window. Try to stop and visit the Sawyer House; it is an absolute treat. There are portraits of townspeople, displays of historical items, Florence's vast collection of frog figurines, the original weights and measures for the town of Bolton, and endless more.