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A letter from John Hancock, Sophia Smith's ear trumpet and a half-pound key: Finds from the Hatfield Historical Museum

Last modified: Monday, June 24, 2013

HATFIELD — When Kathie Gow took over as curator of the Hatfield Historical Museum three years ago, she was nearly buried alive by the town’s 343-year-old history.

Boxes piled waist-high, milk crates and bags of artifacts donated by residents over decades lined and stuffed areas of the one-room museum. Drawers, shelves and corners were crammed with centuries-old town documents, miscellaneous objects and textiles whose origins were not always entirely known.

“It was hard to know where to start,” Gow said during a recent tour of the museum on the second floor of Dickinson Memorial Hall on Main Street in Hatfield. “It was overwhelming.”

An infusion of local and state grants, some paid hours and a can-do attitude have been game-changers, however.

One musty artifact and document at a time, Gow is leading a multifaceted and still largely volunteer effort to inventory, manage and make useful what some visitors have described as a quintessential small-town, New England historical museum.

“What I love about Hatfield is that it’s bursting with content,” said William Hosley, a cultural resource consultant and former museum director and curator of the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. “It’s not processed. It’s really authentic.”

Along the way, some remarkable discoveries and rediscoveries are being made, including an original 1782 letter from John Hancock, at the time the first governor of Massachusetts to Hatfield town leaders. The letter addresses local drainage issues and features Hancock’s famously large signature, well known from the Declaration of Independence.

Another recent and thrilling find was a March 31, 1704, letter from Hatfield resident and militiaman Samuel Partridge, in which he writes about the 1704 Raid on Deerfield to which he responded a month earlier. The Partridge letter was known to exist, but its whereabouts had been a mystery for many years. The letter is sure to attract renewed interest among historians and scholars, particularly Historic Deerfield, and it now represents one of the most important items in the museum’s collection.

“To have a primary document from that time by one of the players in that event is pretty cool,” Gow said. “Every town has its treasures.”

A collecting town

The ongoing inventory project at the Hatfield Historical Museum follows a prolonged period of declining archival work that had caused a backlog at the museum. With limited resources and training, volunteers were not always able to keep up with the workload. Meantime, town residents continued, year after year, to drop off items they believed to be of historical significance.

The objects got squirreled away, undocumented in many cases, and the museum’s collection grew. Some of the objects turned over at the public library downstairs are items that don’t fit the museum’s mission (an old cookbook from a Somerville church was recently shipped off to that city’s historical society), but many of the donations are of cultural and historical value locally, like a recent box of old women’s hats and early 20th-century clothing worn by former Hatfield residents, and a 1930s memoir by Fannie Graves Hubbard, who grew up during the Civil War in Hatfield.

“This collection has been here for a long, long time,” Gow said. “It has been serving as a receptacle for the town’s things. Hatfield is a very collecting town. They’ve always saved things.”

To undertake the massive project, Gow has harnessed a combination of local and state grants, as well as donated services and a volunteer work force. She has rallied support from town leaders and residents who continue to recognize the museum’s importance, including the town’s Historical Commission.

During the past two years, Hatfield’s Community Preservation Committee has awarded more than $32,000 in CPA funds to the Hatfield Historical Society, which oversees the museum, for an ongoing collections management and preservation project. The collection is owned by the town and protected by the Historical Commission.

The latest round of CPA money has helped hire a part-time staff member for collections work, provided Gow with 624 paid hours this year at $20 per hour, and covered the cost of archiving, restoring and preserving some of the most important items in the collection while allowing time to sort through ongoing donations.

Recently preserved items include three 19th-century samplers by Hatfield schoolgirls aged 8 to 11. The ornamental needlework dates from the years 1806 to 1846. The inventory project has also helped reconnect small silhouettes of two Hatfield sisters that date to 1808, which had been separated in the museum. One candidate for preservation this year is a 6½-foot-long piano scarf that had been worked on by four Hatfield women spanning 150 years.

“It’s pretty impressive to the committee,” Community Preservation Committee Chairman Robert Wagner said of the museum work.

He said the committee has approved funding for the museum because the historical society’s funding proposals have been sound. “People are seeing the results of it,” he said.

“The historical preservation projects have fared well because it’s an important part of Hatfield and I think the CPC recognizes that,” Wagner added.

Thus far, an initial pool of CPA funds has paid to inventory and preserve approximately 1,500 artifacts in the museum, work that has focused initially on at-risk paper, photos, books, deeds and other documents. Hundreds of those artifacts are being digitized and put online, providing far superior access for researchers, genealogists and others interested in the museum’s collections. Gow estimates that there could be as many as 8,000 additional artifacts that need to be properly inventoried in the museum.

A large bulk of the digitization work is being done through an $8,000 Boston Public Library grant. Earlier this year, the state library’s staff picked up seven boxes of oversized and bound documents from the Hatfield museum and hauled them to Boston. The library is using its state-of-the-art equipment to digitize those documents into images that will be available on the state’s online Digital Commonwealth system. The latter is a repository of materials from libraries, archives, museums and historical societies across the state and funded by a federal grant awarded through the Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners. Hatfield is one of nine historical societies in the state and 122 institutions that have taken advantage of the digitization grant. The Meekins Library in Williamsburg is among them.

“The primary purpose is definitely raising the profiles of the collections that exist in the nook-and-cranny organizations of Massachusetts,” said Tom Blake, digital projects manager at Boston Public Library. “There’s no such thing as a small, unfunded library or museum once it goes online.”

As he digitizes history across the state, Blake said he is privy to an extraordinary collection of artifacts and documents, and Hatfield’s is among them.

“What you’re really seeing is a collection of what these communities find valuable about themselves,” Blake said. “It’s pretty amazing.”

Exhibiting history

In addition to getting a handle on what Hatfield’s collection holds and where, Gow has spearheaded an effort to create new exhibits, large and small, that tell the town’s story, sometimes with audio, and by occasionally blogging on the Hatfield Historical Society’s website.

Exhibits on the town’s Civil War past and Polish immigrant experience are a departure from what one consultant who visited the museum once called “storage on display,” when describing the state of the collection.

The Polish exhibit is particularly rich with artifacts that speak to this immigrant group’s experience working on the tobacco and vegetable farms of Hatfield. There are pickling jars and cigar molds, asparagus bunchers and onion clippers. Some of the items are on loan from the nearby Hatfield Farm Museum. Polish books, old photographs and religious items complement the story.

“It’s really the story of what Polish immigrants did all through the Valley,” Gow said.

On another wall, an assortment of mid-20th century artifacts blends in with other curious objects like a lard squeezer and early multi-tool, ice cream maker and doughnut fryer.

Hosley has visited the Hatfield Historical Museum from time to time over the years and once borrowed for an exhibit an extremely rare, early 18th-century chair from the collection. The chair is believed to have belonged to Canada Waite, great-grandmother of Sophia Smith, who founded Smith College and Smith Academy. Hosley said he’s aware of the inventory work under way in the museum.

“It’s almost like an archaeological dig, they’re going through this stuff and figuring out what they’ve got there,” he said. “I just think they’ve got amazing stuff. All the money in the world, you couldn’t replicate what they’ve got there.”

Many artifacts are connected to Hatfield’s most famous residents, such as Sophia Smith’s ear trumpet and Benjamin Waite’s gun and correspondence. A town militiaman, Waite in 1678 famously helped rescue his family in Canada who had been captured by American Indians. He was later killed during the Deerfield Raid in 1704.

High-profile objects like the first town meetinghouse key, weighing in at 10 ounces, accompany a quirky, old Americana side to the collection. A pair of early ice skates, a 1950s skateboard and old baseball catcher’s mask found in a barn are on display, as are toy farm animals and a fairly extensive collection of combs. One display card notes that a particular type of hair comb saved a woman’s life during a tomahawk attack “this side of Mt. Tom.”

Town leaders are planning one day to move the historical museum into the second floor of Town Hall to provide more space, improved climate control, and better access to the public, particularly once a new handicapped-accessible elevator is built. The elevator is expected to be voted on at next year’s Town Meeting.

“We have nowhere near enough space,” said George Ashley, who has been involved with the historical society for 35 years and has served for 30 years on the Historical Commission. “We can barely house all the stuff we have and make it accessible to people who need to see it and do research.”

Ashley who is curator of the town’s Farm Museum and was seen leading third-graders on a visit through the agricultural museum this month, said the historical society has had periods of strong activity in the past, though it’s been a while since someone has brought the kind of energy and vision Gow has in moving the historical museum forward.

“She has completely revolutionized the Hatfield Historical Museum,” Ashley said. “I’m absolutely thrilled she is the curator.”

If you go: The Hatfield Historical Museum is open from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. on Saturdays from April to October, or by appointment. The Hatfield Farm Museum is also open from noon to 2 p.m. on Saturdays from Memorial Day to Columbus Day.

Dan Crowley can be reached at


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