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Editorial: History lessons in Hatfield

  • Curator Kathie Gow talks about the exhibit “Celebrating Nature: When Beauty Was Infused in Everyday Objects” at the Hatfield Historical Museum.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Hatfield takes local history seriously and its Historical Museum’s latest project opens a fascinating window to a bygone era of one of the town’s major industries.

The Porter Machine Works was founded in 1886 by Jonathon E. Porter near the Mill River, and was renamed Porter & McLeod Tool Co. in 1898 when Hugh McLeod joined the firm. The machine tool company perhaps was best known for its engine lathes before in the mid-20th century.

In 1989, business partners Richard Rescia and Stanley Zewski bought the old manufacturing shop, hoping to convert it to apartments and studios for artists and craftspeople. Though that plan did not work out, the building yielded a treasure trove of documents chronicling how the company conducted its business from the 1880s to 1921, with one notebook from the 1950s.

Much is mundane, some is fascinating. A portion of the records are in good condition, while others are dirty, hard to read, fragile and “in poor condition with large portions of each document missing due to rodent nibbles.”

The 29 boxes containing more than 38,000 documents arrived in a roundabout way at the Historical Museum, on the second floor of Dickinson Memorial Hall at 39 Main St. Rescia donated the collection to the town in 2001 or 2002. “The age of some of the stuff – back to 1888 – we knew it had to be of interest to somebody,” he said. “There were quite a few boxes of stuff, and none of it was organized.”

Those boxes sat for a few years in the town garage, and when its roof began leaking, Rick Martin, a member of the Historical Commission, moved them to his barn. There they stayed for a decade before the records were turned over to the museum.

Curator Kathie Gow obtained grants to hire a researcher, Deb Blodgett, to catalogue the records and protect them with acid-free folders and boxes. They created on online inventory recording the contents of each folder in every box. Many of the descriptions are repetitive, for example: “typed letters, handwritten letters, telegrams, order forms, notes, postcards, bill of lading etc. relating to orders placed with Porter Machine Works by various companies.”

Other documents provide more hints about the nature of the tool company’s business, including a 1918 export license from the War Office; a bound book with leather cover containing various records, list of accounts receivable 1882-1896, list of lathes in stock 1892 and insurance in force 1876-1894; and a textbook, “The Guide to the Ellis System of Actual Business Practice and Practical Bookkeeping,” copyright 1892.

“When things started, correspondence was handwritten,” Blodgett said. “Then you started to see around 1900 the introduction of typewritten documents. You start to see telegraphs in the 1880s, 1890s. Then you start to see telephone bills. This whole collection is just a keen insight into business practices at the turn of the century in a small rural town.”

Gow and Blodgett said the collection is of interest to historians who want to mine it for clues about the region’s industrial past, and local residents interested in genealogy.

The Historical Museum takes pride in showcasing artifacts of Hatfield, which was founded in 1670. The museum notes that “Hatfield is, and always has been, a ‘collecting’ town, and we are lucky to have some treasures from the early days of its settlement, plus many items from the 19th and early 20th centuries.”

The museum’s exhibits are eclectic, ranging from the serious – letters and oral histories describing the experiences of Hatfield veterans during World War II – to the playful – toys of children during the past 150 years, including homemade doll dresses, antique games, marbles and vintage skates, sled and skateboard.

Earlier this year, the museum opened an exhibit called “Celebrating Nature: When Beauty was Infused in Everyday Objects,” which continues into 2017. The museum is displaying artifacts based on aesthetics rather than their historic context.

Gow said, “So many of the things have these beautiful designs, and they’re just ordinary, everyday objects and not something that’s necessarily going to be featured in an exhibit.”

Hatfield is fortunate to have a Historical Museum and people like Gow who are dedicated to the preservation of history and making it accessible to current and future generations who want to take lessons from the past.