Keeping History Close

I’ve been blessed in life having been born into a family that loves to talk about the past.  Inevitably, at our gatherings, we turn nostalgic, share stories, sigh and cry over old photos.  I learned very young to embrace my family history and all of the characters who helped shape it. In elementary school, I became a saver of memorabilia from my own life.  Ticket stubs from movies, school graduation programs, paper umbrellas from a Shirley Temple I drank at some special occasion, postcards purchased on family vacations…you get it.  I created my own life history in a ‘Reminiscence Box.’  How fortunate I find myself now in helping create the same for our city!

I’m also lucky to have been surrounded by people who feel the same way about place in my hometown of Danbury, Connecticut.  That fact is reaffirmed for me every day in the archives at The Danbury Museum & Historical Society. Folks love to stop in and chat.  They might have a question about local history or lore, they may be searching for their own family origins or perhaps they just want to tell a story about the old days.  But, for me, the most fun comes when they walk in with an historical item for donation.

In recent weeks, the museum has been running ads with the headline: “Don’t Throw It Away – In Danbury It Should Stay” and promoting the same through social media. The result?  A surge of donated items that are now being catalogued and added to our collections and to the research library archives.  Here’s a peak at some of our recent acquisitions and how they came to us:

A selection of 'Old Danbury' images recently donated to our photo archives

Photos….we love photos!  They help us make a visual connection to the past.  Historic photos play a prominent role in our off-site educational sessions with Danbury Public School elementary students.  Our education coordinator, Joretta Kilcourse, uses them as points of reference to illustrate Danbury’s history both past and present.  Volunteer Berdyth Bailey has spent countless hours organizing our photo archives and we offer her endless thanks.

Old photos from our collections were used to create a short film about Danbury hatting history. The film is beautifully narrated by Mr. Mort Seigel, a Danbury Museum volunteer who, before retirement, worked as a broadcast announcer.  The production is part of our newly re-opened and permanent hatting exhibit in The John Dodd Hat Shop.

It’s important to note, when donating photos to provide us with a date/year, as well as place and  names, if known.  This helps us with cataloging and directing future researchers.  Who knows, perhaps one day you’ll stroll in and we’ll show you a picture of your great, great grandmother.  A recent visitor spotted his grandfather in a baseball team photo in our current exhibit!

A wonderful, new addition and a perfectly timed donation given our current exhibit, 'Covering All the Bases: A Pictorial History of Danbury Baseball'

Paper items always speak to me as well.  Pouring through old editions of the Danbury newspapers city directories (phone books), school yearbooks, diaries and scrapbooks with old clippings, business trade cards, postcards & other bits of ephemera add a unique perspective to historic research.  These items can be immensely helpful to genealogists and family researchers.

Program from a 1921 Danbury High School production by the DHS Minstrels

Apart from local residents who hand deliver items for donation, we also receive numerous emails, out of the blue, from people who are looking for a home for a piece of Danbury history.

“I have Earl Norwell Thorp’s 1927, hand written and illustrated journal from his Architecture 10 class at YSFA (Yale School of Fine Arts). Would you like me to send it to you?”

Would we! Earl Norwell Thorp was one of the founders of earliest incarnations of  The Danbury Museum.  (See my earlier post:  All About Art from The Very Start)

Cover Page of Earl Norwell Thorp's Notebook

“I lived in Princeton, NJ for 40 years. While living there and walking my dog, I noticed some old photos hanging out of some cartons in the Wednesday garbage pickup pile on our street. It seemed very old and basically involved Danbury family histories, correspondence , photos, etc, going back to civil war era and perhaps earlier, I scooped them up and took them to my house. There is one photo of the blizzard of 1888 in Danbury, amazing. Anyway, I would be glad to send it to you at my expense, if you might be interested.”

“I’d like to make a donation of papers that were from a house on Deer Hill Ave. It appears that many have to do with Danbury. For instance, we have cost estimates for the construction of the Padanaram Dam.”

“I have my father’s letters sent from France to his parents in 1916. Let me know. They will forever be safe with you, and if my children want to see them they know where to go.”

We’ve also received a recent treasure rescued prior to the demolition of The Hotel Green, a Danbury landmark once located on Main Street.  A portion of the sign from The Mad Hatter Tap Room now hangs in the entrance to Huntington Hall

Portion of original sign from The Hotel Green's Mad Hatter Tap Room

We are grateful to these donors who have been good stewards of  history and for their appreciation for the past.  The next time that you’re cleaning out an attic, basement, closet or desk drawer and something related to Danbury history catches your eye….remember, “Don’t Throw It Away – In Danbury It Should Stay.”

Consider The Danbury Museum & Historical Society as a repository and keep history close!