Blog by Jayne Darcy
Step back in time at a magnificent Fall River mansion
Housed in a 19th century mansion and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Fall River Historical Society is a museum, a library, a tourist destination, and much more.
If you picture a historical society as a dark sleepy place filled with old objects in display cases, you’re in for a big surprise at Fall River Historical Society (FRHS).
Yes, the FRHS is a museum that’s been dedicated to preserving the history of Fall River, Massachusetts since 1921. But the dynamic, multi-faceted organization is also a stunning mansion that’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places … a popular tourist destination that attracts visitors from all around the country … a star of the New England holiday season … and much more.
“The Hidden Gem of the South Coast”
The Boston Globe has called the FRHS “the hidden gem of the south coast,” and it’s easy to understand why. Here are some of the things that draw a steady stream of tourists, writers, journalists, filmmakers, and city residents to its doors:
- The largest Lizzie Borden exhibit in the world, including the alleged murder weapon, the original crime scene photos, and rare items acquired from private collectors on several continents. If you’re interested in Lizzie Borden, you don’t want to miss this.
- The entrance to a secret room on the Underground Railroad that was used to shelter slaves on the run during the Civil War. Can you guess where it was hidden?
- An acclaimed holiday open house with dazzling Christmas trees decorated in different creative themes each year … Ode to Marie Antoinette and A Snowy Winter Night’s Dream, to name just two examples. This event attracts thousands of visitors from near and far during the holidays.
- A first-rate boutique and gift shop stocked with charming and whimsical merchandise, old-fashioned candies and confections, an entire Christmas room, and a nook with books by local authors and works about Fall River.
- The Charlton Library of Fall River History, the go-to resource for research about every aspect of the city, including genealogical information.
Then there’s the house itself: a stately 19th century granite mansion on beautiful grounds with Victorian gardens and a gazebo. It’s a pleasure just looking at it as you walk or drive by, but its magnificent period interior is really a must-see.
A Treasure Trove of Local History
The mission of the FRHS is to preserve Fall River’s history and share it with the public, and that alone accounts for much of the Society’s great appeal.
With its vast and diverse collections, the FRHS is a treasure trove of interesting, beautiful, and unique artifacts from the late 17th to the mid-20th century, all with a connection to the city of Fall River and its people.
These items tell fascinating tales of days gone by in Fall River – stories told in textiles, old yearbooks, and mug shots as well as ornate paintings, furniture, and decorative objects once owned by the city’s wealthiest families, and also by thousands of photographs in various formats.
The Women at Work exhibit, for example, is more than an oral history of Fall River’s working-class women in the years 1920 to 1970. It is, as the Society’s website says, “the unique story of a city determined to reestablish itself” during a time of change and hardship.
The FRHS collections include:
- Costumes and accessories
- Decorative arts
- Fall River textile industry
- Local history
- Paintings, drawings, and sculpture
Items are displayed in both virtual and traditional exhibits, and a new exhibit space, the Douglas Hills Borden Jr. and Joan Louise Borden Gallery, willsoon enable the museum to share even more items with the public.
Read more about the collections here.
A Secret and Historic Hiding Place
At its original location on Columbia Street in Fall River, the FRHS mansion was one of several city stations on the Underground Railroad, the network that helped slaves who had escaped from the South travel to freedom in Canada.
The owner of the residence, businessman Andrew Robeson, converted a wine cellar into a hiding place and had a bookcase built in front of its entrance. Slaves on the run were smuggled into the secret room and concealed there until it was time to move on to their next stop, usually during the night. Today, the well-designed entrance to the secret shelter can still be seen at the FRHS.
A Spectacular Holiday Open House
The Society’s annual holiday Open House, known as Deck the Halls!, takes visitors back in time to experience the splendor of a grand Christmas past in the Victorian age. The mansion is decked out in holiday finery in period style from room to room and is truly a sight to behold, attracting thousands of visitors from around the region each year.
The highlight for many attendees is a series of dazzling Christmas trees, decorated in different and unusual themes each year. You might see an upside-down tree, a tree styled to look like a grand evening gown, or even a tree strewn with images of Krampus, St. Nicholas’ diabolical dark companion. Each tree takes several weeks to create, an effort painstakingly carried out by curators, staff, and volunteers.
This signature FRHS event has been featured on television programs including Chronicle and in Victorian Homes magazine, and is a cherished holiday tradition for many. Attendees say that the decor rivals that at the famous Newport mansions, and call it “breathtaking,” “magical,” and “dazzling.”
The FRHS is also a leader on the cultural landscape, hosting numerous engaging arts, education, and entertainment events for both children and adults.
There’s an annual summer lecture series about interesting aspects of Fall River history – for example, the story of city native Rose Wentworth, one of the greatest circus equestriennes of all time. The FRHS also hosts many book signings with local authors, plays and concerts on the grounds, and special seasonal offerings such as tea with Santa and Mrs. Claus.
So if you’ve never been to Fall River Historical Society, what are you waiting for?
Go take a look – you’ll be glad you did.