‘A whole new history for Historic Northampton’

  • Elizabeth Sharpe, co-executive director of Historic Northampton, talks about the museum’s exhibit, “Making it on Main Street.” Behind her is a clock that first was displayed outside a downtown shop in 1785. Below her is a model showing Main Street in 1847. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • An artistic illustration of Catherine Linda, a slave from Georgia whose owners traveled with her to Northampton in the early 1840s, is part of a key exhibit in “Making it on Main Street” at Historic Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A detail of a model built by members Amherst Railway Society shows 110 and 112 Main Street in Northampton, home to Butler's Bookstore and Cook's Watch Store in 1847. They are the oldest existing buildings on the street today.  STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A tall case clock by Nathan Storrs stands beside a sign for Cook's Watch Store (1833-1858) and another sign for Storrs and Cook (1827-1833), which are all part of “Making it on Main Street” at Historic Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elizabeth Sharpe, co-executive director of Historic Northampton, says the museum’s new exhibit is “not about buildings — it’s about people.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A portion of a sign (1950's-1975) from McCallum's department store that was located at 150 Main Street glows beside a two-piece silk dress made by the shop of Mary Ferry and Mary Dickinson in 1881. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • A model of downtown Northampton in 1847, built by members of the Amherst Railway Society, is a key part of the exhibit. In the background is a photograph, by Paul Shoul, of the Second Annual Pioneer Valley Women's March, which ended downtown in January 2018. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elizabeth Sharpe, co-executive director of Historic Northampton, talks about “Making it on Main Street,” which looks at over 350 years of Northampton history through the lens of Main Street.Photo by Jerrey Roberts. Design by Nicole J. Chotain Elizabeth Sharpe, co-executive director of Historic Northampton, talks about “Making it on Main Street,” which looks at over 350 years of Northampton history through the lens of Main Street.

  • Something for the kids: Sharpe displays elements of a hands-on activity that involves a copy, made by Sharon Mehrman of Florence, of a chest, circa 1680-1740, that’s part of “Making it on Main Street.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Sarah Strong's chest (made between 1680-1740) is part of the exhibit “Making it on Main Street” at Historic Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Elizabeth Sharpe, co-executive director of Historic Northampton, says the museum’s new exhibit will hopefully get people “to see their world out on Main Street differently.” STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Central Grocery, circa 1915-20, at 221 Main Street, Northampton, where Main Street Cleaners is located today. Image courtesy Historic Northampton

  • A view of the Hammond Block and Masonic Building on Main Street, 1969; today this is the site of restaurants such as Fitzwillys and La Veracruzana and other businesses. Photo by Harvey J. Finison/courtesy Historic Northampton

  • Main Street’s “Shop Row,” running between Pleasant and Old South streets, circa 1860s. Image courtesy Forbes Library/Historic Northampton

  • Laurie Sanders, a co-director of Historic Northampton, talks about maps depicting the transition of Nonotuck to Northampton in the town’s earliest days. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Marie Panik, museum manager of Historic Northampton, sits behind a model of downtown Northampton in 1847, built by the Amherst Railway Society, that’s part of “Making it on Main Street.”. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Published: 8/29/2019 4:37:46 PM

Over the last three-plus decades, Northampton has landed on any number of “best-of” lists put together by various publications, including a nod as the “Best Small Arts Town in America” and other rankings that have praised the city for its mix of art, music, dining and cultural offerings. And Main Street, where most of those shops, restaurants, art galleries and music halls are found, has served as the city’s heart.

In that sense, says Elizabeth Sharpe, co-executive director of Historic Northampton, Northampton’s Main Street has defied a trend during that same period that’s become all too common in many American towns of comparable size — that of once-thriving main streets dying off, as businesses relocate to outlying malls or elsewhere, young people leave to seek better job opportunities, and vacant storefronts proliferate.

Yet for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, says Sharpe, Northampton’s Main Street mirrored those in many others parts of the nation, even as it shaped its own distinctive stories. Now those stories are at the heart of Historic Northampton’s newest exhibit, “Making it on Main Street: 400 Years of History,” a presentation that’s concise but rich, showcasing Main Street in its various incarnations over the years and highlighting some lesser-known episodes from its past.

The exhibit is also the first for Historic Northampton in the museum’s refurbished space, a roughly 800-square-foot, multi-purpose room designed for exhibits, public programs such as lectures and films, and interactive displays and demonstrations for children.

And as the museum builds a stronger donor/membership base (now up to 600) and recovers from a tough financial period from about five years ago, Sharpe and her fellow co-executive director, Laurie Sanders, who both came to the museum in 2016, say they’re looking forward to staging future exhibits that will tell Northampton’s story in different ways.

“I like the idea of getting people to look at their world with new eyes, to see their world out on Main Street differently,” says Sharpe, a writer, historian and teacher who previously was director of education at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. “Once you see your world in a new way, your care for it increases, and you want to preserve it or make it better.”

“We see it as a whole new history for Historic Northampton, because everyone who lives here will learn something if they come here,” adds Sanders, who brings a background as a naturalist and programming specialist to the job. “It’s small, but visitors will get so much more understanding when they walk into downtown Northampton after coming to the gallery.”

“Making it on Main Street” doesn’t narrate Northampton history by focusing on the city’s famous figures, such as Jonathan Edwards, Sojourner Truth, Calvin Coolidge and others. Rather it’s the story of small landholders and businesspeople, merchants and artisans, artists and activists and the changing face and dynamic of Main Street over time — how it went from largely a commercial center to, in the past three to four decades, something of a regular public forum for protests and social activism.

The exhibit in turn is divided into seven chronological sections, from 1650 to the present, each with its own collection of artifacts, photographs and other material to describe how Main Street evolved over time. For the period 1750 to 1830, for instance, the display includes some of the material that craftspeople designed — clocks, furniture, handmade clothes — when Main Street first began developing as a center of commerce.

“I wanted a coherent narrative that runs all the way through the exhibit,” says Sharpe, who did a good amount of the research for the show and also wrote the exhibit descriptions. “Even if you can’t tell the whole story — and I can tell you a lot about what was left on the cutting room floor — you can give people the flavor of what happened.”

Constructing the exhibit

Indeed, the exhibit begins with two wall-mounted panels that depict how Native Americans such as the Wampanoag, before the arrival of English settlers, used the area that later became Main Street and downtown Northampton, and how those settlers restructured some of that land — and how the different understandings of land “ownership” between the two peoples eventually led to conflict.

Sharpe and Sanders point out that, fittingly enough, an exhibit (total cost of $100,000) about a modest-sized community is the product of a whole community of local contributors: artists and craftspeople, designers and contractors, researchers and volunteers and graphic designers. One example: printmaker, illustrator and watercolorist Nancy Haver of Amherst has produced several evocative black and white illustrations that backdrop the chronological sections, including one that shows what Main Street may have looked like in the early 1700s, with just a handful of buildings — including the First Congregational Church — along a dirt byway that was hillier in those days (the street was later leveled for easier transport).

“We did a lot of research to tell [Haver] what it would have looked like,” says Sharpe. “We looked at old Gazettes, with reminiscences of Main Street, and we kind of drew it out for ourselves, with pictures of certain buildings … There’s a certain amount of educated guesswork, but we think [Haver] has really captured the look.”

From a visual standpoint, one of the most arresting parts of the exhibit is a 12-foot model, constructed on a table toward the front of the room, of what Main Street looked like in 1847. Designed by members of the Amherst Railway Society, the model (which Sharpe and Sanders says is slightly compressed) shows Main Street from approximately the location of today’s Amtrak rail lines to where State Street is (in those days it was actually a canal).

The colorfully painted buildings, only two of which still exist today (many burned down over the years, Sharpe notes), include the Edwards Church (but in a different location), some private homes, a hat factory and what was known as “Shop Row” — a string of small stores and businesses, such as a tailor, a silversmith and a book bindery, that occupied the approximate location of current businesses including CVS Pharmacy, Bruegger’s Bagels, the Guild Art Store, Strada and Essentials and a few others.

Historic Northampton manager Marie Panik and a few other people, says Sharpe, “spent hours and hours and hours researching, surveying, looking at every piece of information they could” to develop the layout for the 1847 model, which depicts many wooden buildings and some brick structures. “It was really a heroic effort.”

And that research also revealed the similarities between Main Street then and the same strip today. “Even in 1847, I was struck by how much moving and changing and speculating was going on,” says Sharpe. “Businesses were changing locales, new ones were coming in — it was in constant motion.”

Other parts of the exhibit touch on some contemporary touchpoints. There’s a cardboard cutout of legendary activist Frances Crowe, for instance, and one section of wall features a large photograph of Main Street jammed with a crowd following the Pioneer Valley Women’s March in early 2018. A video monitor next to that offers a continuing loop of photographs, both contemporary and historic, of people and places in town.

But there’s also a section that looks at how Main Street in the late 1800s was home to several “high-end” dressmakers and seamstresses, businesses that employed over 100 women and girls and catered to customers such as Smith College students.

Sanders and Sharpe note that Main Street “came of age” in the second half of the 19th century, following a model that was widespread in American towns, with Victorian brick buildings that featured shops on the first and sometimes second floors and apartments above that. From the 1880s to the 1920s, in particular, Northampton’s Main Street was a thriving commercial area, Sharpe says — but the advent of the automobile eventually changed that dynamic, as shoppers shifted their attention to stores in shopping malls and larger cities.

In other ways, Main Street Northampton echoed Main Street U.S.A., such as in the growing debate over slavery in the mid 1800s. Though Florence had a core group of abolitionists, including Sojourner Truth, Sanders notes that elsewhere in the city “there were many connections, economic ones and family ties, to the South that silenced so many people here” on the issue of slavery. Some saw abolitionists as extremists; Frederick Douglas once had a rock thrown at him while giving a speech downtown.

In fact, one of the exhibit’s most telling stories is that of Catherine Linda, an enslaved woman from Georgia whose owners, the Hodgsons, brought her to Northampton while visiting western Massachusetts in the early 1840s. Local abolitionists, learning that Linda had expressed a desire to be free, were able to get a hearing for her before a Northampton judge, Charles Dewey, who told her that under Massachusetts law, she could be free if she wanted to be. But Linda, whose owners still had control of her children back in Georgia, told the judge she would return there.

Following that episode, Northampton’s three newspapers at the time, including the Gazette, alternately criticized the Hodgsons and the abolitionists, with the conservative Northampton Courier blaming “radical abolitionists” for driving business from town and making the South dig in its heels even more on slavery.

As Sharpe notes, “The progressive nature of the town is pretty recent.”

Yet Northampton’s Main Street has also managed to keep its basic layout and structure intact for over two centuries, she says, in part because many residents, planners and city officials saw the value over the years in maintaining links to the past, especially in the 1970s, when the downtown area won state recognition as a historic district.

“There were proposals to tear things down, change things around and redirect traffic,” she says. “But it seemed liked the town just said ‘That’s not quite right’ and just waited, and it worked to their advantage.”

Looking forward, Sharpe and Sanders say they want to explore other topics of city history that haven’t gotten much coverage, such as the extent of slavery in town — Jonathan Edwards was a noted slave owner — and a closer look at the Native Americans who once called the area home. Another possibility would be to examine the history of clothes making and “what people wore” in town, as well as Northampton’s place in the national — even international — fabric trade. “The best thing we’ve got [in our collection] is costumes,” Sharpe says with a laugh.

Sanders says the city has such a rich history — one that embraces politics, education, the arts, social movements and more — that “there are no shortages of stories to tell.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at

“Making it on Main Street” will be on display at least through June 1, 2020, and will receive some updated displays in the next several months, according to Historic Northampton. More information is available at historicnorthampton.org.

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