Saturday, February 19, 2011

Buy Local! (Historical edition)

The Brookfield Historical Society and Museum, Brookfield, CT

Anyone who has spent any amount of time at all doing research--whether it is into family history or a particular historic event--realizes the treasure trove that may be found at local and county historical societies and their research libraries. 

I spent a few years working in a small county historical society myself so I am generally aware of how vastly the fortunes of places like this can vary depending on funding, donations, and sadly, politics. Some town and county museums are blessed not only with thoughtfully and carefully curated papers, books, documents and photographs, but also with a staff--often many of them are volunteers--who are helpful, friendly, and knowledgeable. So in the same way that buying local produce and meat is better for both you and the economy, spending some time at your local historical society or museum is also mutually beneficial. You'll learn about your family and/or your community and you'll support an organization that has kept the lamps of history lit in quiet corners for decades upon decades. 

Yes, there is a lot of one-stop-shopping to be done when it comes to research and genealogy, and I'm not suggesting there's anything wrong with that. I'm only proposing that if there's a small entity that might hold a document or record that you've been looking for, give them a shot. These (often) small gems can be the repositories of a town's memories or they can track a county's transition from agriculture to medical mecca. And while the state historical society or state library can also be of great help, the smaller sites are so important to the fabric of a community. And hey, in some cases your tax dollars have helped fund these sites so pay a visit and see the good work they are doing. 

I've been researching a small book project off and on for a while now and even though I've had some fun and useful finds online and through the NYT and New Yorker archives, the real gist of what I've been looking for has been uncovered with the help of the hardworking archivists and staff at two local museums--in Danbury and Brookfield, Connecticut. 

I can't say enough about the folks I've been lucky enough to work with at both spots and honestly, I could spend days at the Brookfield Historical Society. It's a charming building and they are rightfully proud of the heritage of their community. A few other people walked in with some queries while I was there and it was fun to eavesdrop on their sounded just like my dad when he and his old high school buddies get together. Needless to say, I felt right at home there, sitting at a large pine table covered with old newspapers and photographs as the shutters rattled in today's harsh wind. I knew basically what I'd hoped to find today, it's always a challenge with a structure that has been gone for a few decades now, and my expectations were exceeded. But not only did I spend time with the "White Turkey Inn" file, I also learned about the Copperheads in Connecticut during the Civil War and chatted about a Revolutionary era cannonball that a local couple had been found on their property. The hour or so I'd planned to spend turned into nearly four hours and I left with a stack of photocopies and a total buzz from all the documentation I'd found. The staff shared their memories with me of a place I'll never  see in person but have, nonetheless, completely fallen in love with. Yes, even reading about zoning battles can be exciting when you look back in hindsight and can piece together how the proverbial dominoes began to tumble.

A gift certificate from the White Turkey Inn

I'll be back for more at both the Danbury and Brookfield Historical Societies because they are important and the work they do is meaningful--just like the indie bookseller or the local coffee joint. We all know to buy local whenever possible, so give your local museum or historical society the same treatment. It's even possible you'll learn something about yourself in the process. It is far too easy to take these places-- and the work they do for granted--only to bemoan their passing after they've disappeared.


sid fernando said...

I'd missed your voice and didn't realize how much until reading this piece.

The Paper Tyger said...

Much too, Sid. Many thanks.