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Two decrepit wooden barns in a field, framed by yellow-flowering plants in the foreground.

Tobacco sheds in Hatfield, Massachusetts

Photo by Alexa Nickandros

  • History Saviors: From Trash to Treasure at the Hatfield Historical Museum

    Hatfield, a small farming town in western Massachusetts, is known for the richness of both its soil and history. Its historical society’s upbeat and resolute curator, Kathie Gow, deems Hatfield a “collecting town.”

    “It’s more often a problem of what not to take,” she says in describing how items come to the museum. “If you start asking for things, people would give you their whole basements and attics.”

    This Connecticut Valley town’s population has never surpassed 3,500, though its longest-residing families have been here for thirteen generations. Accoutrements and curiosities fill homes passed down. Barns and tobacco sheds emerge rugged and forlorn from the silky landscape. Some serve as tombs for exhausted farming equipment, symbols of accumulation, but they also speak to preservation and, most importantly, cultural heritage. According to Gow, most residents would rather hang onto their great-grandparents’ “junk” than sell it or bury it in a landfill.

    The Hatfield Historical Society, an independent nonprofit established in 1970, tells the stories of the town’s people through its programs and the objects collected in two museums, the Hatfield Historical Museum and the Mary Lou & Robert J. Cutter Hatfield Farm Museum (both owned by the Town of Hatfield but managed by the society). Through exhibits and storytelling, museums like this create an environment of living history. Gow and others are integral to the process of saving history; they ensure a sanctuary for family heirlooms and what some might even call “trash,” then take steps to make these objects educational resources for the community.

    Lost and Found

    On a summer day in 1946, an English setter named Patty Boy took his usual delight in digging holes in the dirt floor of the cellar to sit in. A show-off of his skills as a pheasant-hunter, he was quite pleased with himself as he trotted upstairs to present the day’s findings—a ragged, dirt-encrusted piece of cloth—to his owner, Paul Stefancik. Paul’s wife Anna, amused, washed it and displayed it in the hutch.

    Old piece of cloth which someone used to practice embroidering the alphabet and numbers, a few phrases, and a design of a house with people and trees in the yard. Embroidered year reads 1828. Laid on a blue backdrop.
    Embroidery sampler donated by Humilia Stefancik Gougeon
    Photo courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Museum

    Seventy-four years later, Humilia Stefancik Gougeon presented Kathie Gow with the donation of the embroidery sampler. Ms. Stefancik, who grew up on Prospect Street above a tavern owned by her father, remembers the day her mother saved the cloth instead of discarding it. Displaying a young woman’s embroidery skills was the equivalent to hanging an A+ paper on the fridge today. Clean and pressed, a name and date—May 24...1828—are stitched into the bottom right corner.

    “The name was Rachel Curtis,” Gow says, describing the sampler’s maker. Gow’s Zoom backdrop is an image from Hatfield’s Main Street Cemetery. Her head is just to the right of an imposing stone marked Kingsley. “The same Rachel Curtis that is on this tombstone here,” she continues, “who married Moses Kingsley. So, she’s Lewis’s mother.”

    The subject of Lewis H. Kingsley, somewhat of an elusive figure of Hatfield’s past, had piqued my discussion with Gow. Kingsley was a local photographer who worked in the 1890s. Over 200 of his glass-plate negatives were recently uncovered and donated by Joseph Malinowski Jr., a resident of the neighboring town of Hadley. I was interested in finding out their significance for Hatfield, which led us into a conversation on the unlikely ways in which historical objects come to be found and kept. Curtis’s embroidery sampler, a fluke discovery in a dog’s escapades, was just one example.

    “A lot of people would say, ‘What is this stuff? We got a dumpster in the driveway. Just throw it in!’ But what a treasure trove of information and fabulous images would have been lost!” As a curator, Gow harbors unending enthusiasm for the Kingsley collection, one that’s been in Malinowski’s family for at least three generations, though no one is sure why. Malinowski remembers visiting his grandfather’s house as a child where the slides resided, holding the glass plates, each about the size of a paperback book, up to the light.

    Gow describes the state in which the slides were found: “They were in a bunch of dusty, dirty cardboard boxes found in the attic of a garage that had been moved from a couple of houses.” Hatfield photographer Sloan Tomlinson digitized and did some digital cleaning of the glass negatives, and now the images can be shared. Some reveal a landscape much different than today’s, while others give insight into the fashion of the time, the types of carriages horses pulled for transportation, celebrations with parades, and methods farmers used to cultivate onions and tobacco.

    A tree-lined street with horse-drawn carriages and a church steeple in the background. Black-and-white photo. Same tree-lined street with cars instead. Church steeple is still visible. Color photo.

    L.H. Kingsley’s 1890s photograph of Hatfield’s Main Street shows what appears to be a celebratory parade.
    Photos by L.H. Kingsley, courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Museum / Alexa Nickandros

    A brick building flanked by two bare trees. Black-and-white photo. Same red brick building, with different trees that are also bare. A street has been paved with street signs and cars parked nearby. Color photo.

    Dickinson Memorial Hall on Main Street houses the town library on the first floor and the museum on the second.
    Photos by L.H. Kingsley, courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Museum / Alexa Nickandros

    Gow plans to crowdsource details via the museum’s Facebook page in order to identify the places and faces in the photographs. Through the process, it will become evident how deep the story runs for the local community. Some will know what became of the old elm by the schoolhouse. Others might match the ghostly faces in “The Graves Family Reunion” to portraits of great-great-grandparents hanging on their walls. Farmers will recognize fields their families have plowed for generations. One image shows Kingsley himself, aloof and squinting into the lens of his large format, 4x5 camera.

    Gow is grateful that the collection found its way home to Hatfield, instead of a national museum or eBay. “This is where we can give it the most context, where we’ll have people try to identify all the slides, and if the houses are still there, maybe have before-and-after shots.” Viewing the photographs at the Hatfield Historical Museum will be an intimate experience for locals and an opportunity to begin conversations about what once was—and what still is.

    We are left to wonder what lies beyond the four corners of a photograph. Its informational and emotional value is enhanced when we put a face to the photographer, identify the location, or relate it to a personal experience. The same goes for other objects. When they are placed in an exhibit setting surrounded by complementary objects and with an overarching theme, something once viewed as trash becomes treasure.

    Trash with a Past

    Recently, the Hatfield Museum chose to display an object that is not only an example of a snapshot in time but is quite literally trash: a baseball-sized chunk of lead.

    “Well, this was my sister’s,” Hatfield native Al Rejniak said when he presented it to Gow.

    “His sister Jean had it her whole life,” Gow tells me. “She gave it to her daughter, and her daughter gave it to Al, and he donated it to us.”

    Closeup on a hand holding a ball of molten gray metal, about the size of a tennis ball, in a white paper towel.
    Photo courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Museum

    During World War II, there was a metal shortage, so people dropped off broken silverware, scissors, or jewelry at community “metal drives.” Kids collected liners from discarded cigarette packs, which were then made of lead, and contested for the biggest ball. Most were turned in, melted down, and recycled into armament, but Al’s sister kept hers.

    “It tells you about smoking, about littering, about cigarette laws,” Gow says, referencing the switch to aluminum foil in pack liners. “Here’s this thing that looks like trash, but if somebody saved it and brings it in and tells us a story, it tells you so much about the history of the community.”

    Museums localize national or worldwide events such as wars by revealing how they affect communities. Textbooks may drill in the role political forces played in WWII, but Al’s ball of lead sets the scene closer to home, providing tangible evidence of where and how some of the metal for bullets had been collected. Instead of a battlefield vision, we imagine our neighbors packing armfuls of scrap metal as they would potatoes at harvest.
    “It gives you a sense that life is really complicated, and there’s no one story that says it all,” says Wayne Schlegel, a Hatfield Museum volunteer.

    Curators like Gow draw conclusions about life and history based on a sum of objects. Everyone plays the role of curator in their own lives; we keep objects that tell our story and ditch the ones that don’t. It is worth wondering, though, how the contents of your trash bin could tell an equally informative story.

    “Those things getting saved by the people who thought they really belong in Hatfield and helped get them to the museum, that’s really what is so cool. They kind of become history saviors,” Gow smiles. What separates a “history savior” from the rest of the nostalgic bunch is intent.

    A two-story house surrounded by trees. Black-and-white photo. Same house with different streets, and now with paved roads surrounding. Color photo.

    The Morton House, 1 South Street, Hatfield, Massachusetts
    Photos by L.H. Kingsley, courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Museum / Alexa Nickandros

    A large inn in the background, with a dirt road and picket fence in the foreground. Black-and-white photo. Same inn in the distance, now with a paved road. A neat row of trees has replaced the fence, with another house on the other side. Color photo.

    The Hubbard Inn at 4 Elm Street housed George Washington’s troops during the Revolutionary War.
    Photos by L.H. Kingsley, courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Museum / Alexa Nickandros

    “I think right away of people who are holding onto stuff because they know that even though the community might not realize it, they know that someday this is going to be important,” says Dennis Picard, president of the Pioneer Valley History Network of western Massachusetts. He offers an example of the guy on his way to the dump after cleaning out Grandma’s attic but takes a detour for the local historical society to see if the quilts he found are of any significance.

    The Preservation of Life—and Death

    Joe Lavallee, a frequent object donor, used to live in the old house of Charles Byrne. Byrne was the town doctor from the late 1800s until his son Robert took over in 1933. Some locals remember the Byrnes making house calls in their sleigh, which Lavallee stumbled upon in the garage.

    “He had boxes of booklets of all the little handwritten notes that Robert and his father took down from their visits to the townspeople,” Lavallee says. “It was an entire health history of a little town, any malady they had.”

    Despite Lavallee’s eagerness to donate the records, some of the people named were still living. He understood that a donation at the time would be an infringement of privacy, so he held onto them for thirty-five years until everyone mentioned had passed, and then donated them to the museum. A state grant and volunteer help made it possible to document them. We learn from the doctor’s handwritten notes that he was meticulous, professional, and sometimes eccentric. He believed in the therapeutic qualities of alcohol and even made his own medicines. The records show us the causes of death in Hatfield—pneumonia at the top—and that those short of cash paid their medical bills in potatoes, onions, or milk.

    A man in jacket and dark sunglasses standing in a graveyard, looking down at one worn tombstone.
    Joe Lavallee learned how to epoxy the crumbled headstones back together. These are two he reset in Hatfield’s Hill Burying Ground.
    Photo by Alexa Nickandros

    Lavallee also works to restore Hatfield’s cemeteries as their caretaker. Cemeteries are, in multiple ways, museums in their own right. In Hill Burying Ground, Hatfield’s oldest cemetery, weathered slabs of stone lean into each other, giving the impression of continued togetherness even after death. Cemeteries, like museums, assert the importance of place, the deceased laid to rest in towns they called home. Inscriptions and beveled symbols give us clues about the lives they led and sometimes how those lives ended. We give them our wonder in turn. Quality and size of stones hint at the importance of certain citizens, yet in the end everyone ends up in the same place.

    Twenty years ago, Lavallee noticed that the headstones were looking “pretty dilapidated” and went to see Cory Bardwell, whose family has tended to the cemeteries and dug graves by hand for four generations.

    “Cory, our cemeteries look like hell, what’s the problem?” he asked.

    “Well, there’s no money,” the reply.

    Lavallee joined the cemetery commission and tried to locate records. “They’re all in my head,” Bardwell, age eighty-four, told him. He proceeded to pull out a shopping bag containing loose pieces of paper, the names of twenty-four deceased people scribbled down.

    “I took it upon myself just as a hobby, I guess—maybe I’m nuts—but to go around and make maps.” Lavallee took action when the easier thing to do would have been to let the public resource fall to the wayside. “I wrote down everything on every headstone in the five cemeteries. It took me like five years.”

    Through his investigations, Lavallee developed a personal connection to those buried. “Oh, I walk through, and I talk to them all the time,” he says without hesitation. Visitors to the sites are often there to pursue genealogical leads. Lavallee is not only enthusiastic to guide them but takes an interest in learning about the deceased in exchange. I imagine the visitor having the impression of meeting a mutual friend. As a history savior, Lavallee cares deeply about stories that are not his own.

    A man standing in front of a light blue two-story house with an ornate door frame and pale yellow door.
    Wayne Schlegel in front of his home, erected in 1760 and occupied by the Billings family for 120 years.
    Photo by Alexa Nickandros

    Sharing the Stories

    Volunteers at the museum invest themselves in the stories Hatfield has to tell. Most are retired folks, non-natives of Hatfield seeking an understanding of their adopted hometown and the feeling of community that comes with it.

    “As a volunteer, you get a sense that you are part of something bigger than yourself,” says Wayne Schlegel, who has been volunteering for nine years. He has taken up an interest in the particulars of the 1760s house he lives in and the family that occupied it for 120 years. One of his favorite assignments from Gow is to examine and index materials, “then go back to find things of interest, particular quirky things.”

    For Schlegel, poring over piles of tax records, school budget documents, and receipts is like a treasure hunt for what the townspeople valued. “I was surprised to read that one of the big deals here was that the superintendent was ticked because the kids’ families kept on taking them out of school to do agricultural work,” he chuckles.

    Many objects at the Hatfield Historical Museum are like Schlegel’s anecdotes: hidden gems. They each tell their own story and encourage empathy in the beholder. As a collection, the items become even more evocative of the ethos of Hatfield—pride in heritage, joy in reminiscing, camaraderie—like the atmosphere in the local tavern after a hard day’s work on the farm.

    “Every town has stuff,” Gow says. “It’s just a question of has somebody been keeping it in one place?”

    It is our responsibility to preserve our history and to share it with the next generation. The role of local historical societies and museums is to ensure that the cultural heritage of a place is accessible to all, and history saviors are key to the process of trash becoming treasure. What of yours will turn up after you are gone, and what story will it tell?

    A family of five in a parlor. Daughter plays on piano, while the father (presumably) points at her sheet music. The mother has a textile in her lap. Grandfather and grandson read a paper. Old black-and-white photo.
    This is my favorite of the L.H. Kingsley photographs because of its mysterious nature. It leaves me searching for clues about the subjects. Their gazes are of particular interest, as is the question of what is staged and what is not.
    Photo courtesy of the Hatfield Historical Museum

    The Hatfield Historical Museum’s recent exhibits include Booze, Schmooze, and News; Remembering Hatfield Taverns and Clubs, an online collection of never-before-heard narratives from Hatfield Vietnam War veterans, and a tribute to Smith Academy’s championship boys’ basketball teams in the 1960s, which included an online community event. An online exhibit featuring Lewis H. Kingsley’s images launched in late May 2021 in conjunction with the 350th Hatfield anniversary parade, which was postponed from the prior year.

    Alexa Nickandros is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a supervisor at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. She would like to thank Hadley photographer Linda Hannum, for introducing her to Kingsley’s glass slides, and curator Kathie Gow. She dedicates this story to all those who volunteer their time in support of local museums.


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