COOL THINGS BLOG

Greetings fellow historians and local history enthusiasts…welcome to the Pioneer Valley History Network’s blog. You will find postings here that range from exhibit reviews to comments about life in a small museum. This is a forum to share thoughts and ideas, collaborate on events and ask advice from our neighbors throughout the Pioneer Valley. We hope you will take the time to explore our blog and add to it with both comments and postings.
If you are interested in submitting a piece to our site, please see the tab “Our Contributors” for more information.

“Conway Goes to War”

Re-blogged from: http://31massinf.wordpress.com

Fans of the 31st Massachusetts Infantry should definitely consider visiting the Conway Historical Society over the coming weeks.  Sixteen members of the regiment were connected to Conway and the museum is displaying many artifacts from the 31st, including the McClellan saddle, sword, canteen, and uniform items of Gordon H. Johnson of Company C.  This is the largest known collection of 31st items, although some of them are on loan from local families.

Among the Conway soldiers was Patrick Hayes of Company A, who lost an arm at the Battle of Sabine Cross Roads. Also enlisting from Conway was our old-friend Adelbert Bailey, who outlived all the other members of the regiment. The aforementioned Gordon Johnson served nearly the entire war, enlisting in November of 1861, re-enlisting in February of 1864, and mustering out in September of 1865. His neighbor, William G. Maynard, who enlisted as a 19-year-old mechanic, deserted in 1864 at New Orleans.

Canteen of Gordon H. Johnson (on loan from the Reed family).

Canteen of Gordon H. Johnson (on loan from the Reed family).

The exhibit includes an extensive list of all the Civil War soldiers from Conway, meticulously researched by Robert Llamas of the Conway Historical Society.  The items are great, the information is helpful and the presentation is well-done; what’s not to like?

You can visit the Conway Historical Society on Sundays, 2-4 p.m. or Wednesdays, 4 – 7 p.m., through Labor Day, though there is a hope they will extend the exhibit through the Festival of the Hills, the first weekend in October. For more information, call (413) 559-1180 or (413) 626-6881.

Also, Robert Llamas will be giving a one hour talk on “Conway in the Civil War” at the Conway Historical Society on Sept. 9th at 7:30 pm. The emphasis, of course, will be on Conway’s men and events that had an impact on the town, though many broader events of the war will be discussed. This is a great opportunity to see the exhibit of the same name. All will be welcome.

“I was out in the woods chopping with Charles Nowlton and was just thinking of going home for the night, when Lieut. Geo. S. Darling came out where we were to work, seeking for recruits, and as I had been wanting to enlist, this was just the opportunity, so I took his pencil and paper upon an oak stump and made myself a soldier for three years in Co F., 31st regt.”

Thus begins the Diary of Richard F. Underwood, of Belchertown, just one of scores of newly-discovered manuscripts of Civil War diaries, letters, and personal recollections of members of the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.  Comprised mainly of troops from the four western counties of Massachusetts, the unit was known as the “Western Bay State Regiment.”  Recruits enrolled in the final months of 1861 for three years’ service, but most re-enlisted in February 1864 and served for the duration of the war.  The regiment was the first to enter New Orleans in 1862 and from then on the unit was stationed in and around Louisiana, having participated in the Red River Campaign, the Siege of Port Hudson, and saw action at Bayou Teche and Sabine Cross Roads.  Curiously, at one point, the 31st Regiment was temporarily re-outfitted as a cavalry unit.

The manuscripts were found in the archives of the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History in Springfield.  They had been collected in the early 1900s by the regimental historian with the purpose of publishing a regimental history which was never completed.  In 1929, the documents were donated by the dwindling regimental association to the Connecticut Valley Historical Society, whose collection was absorbed into the current museum. They have remained unprocessed until now.  The collection includes more than fifty manuscripts written by more than thirty individuals.  Most have been transcribed and typewritten, but none have been published before.

Private Underwood continues: “December 12, 1861. Left home in the morning early for the depot.  It came hard to leave home I can tell you.  I left Belchertown at 2 o’clock to go to Camp Seward at Pittsfield.  I got there about four in the afternoon tired out with my long ride. It was my first riding on a rail.  The 31st were encamped in the agricultural buildings on the top of a cold bleak hill.  I was homesick enough on my first night in Camp. I had to sleep on a board and only one blanket for three of us.  I caught a cold that night that never went off till I was far down in Dixie.”

Some of the documents are simply transcripts of the day-by-day diaries kept by the soldiers at the time.  Most, like the Underwood transcript, appear to be edited reminiscences based on actual diary entries.  Others are personal recollections written retrospectively.  There are also collections of letters written during and after the war.  All combined, they draw a vivid and insightful picture of Civil War camp life in and around Louisiana from 1862 through 1865.

In addition to the Underwood diary, there is a transcript of the recollections of Mrs. Sarah Darling, wife of Captain George Sumner Darling.  In it, she recalls the time her husband was captured by the enemy and exchanged for a Rebel officer being held prisoner in New Orleans.  Captain Darling and she were residing on the Deslond Plantation when Rebel troops appeared and captured her husband as he returned from New Orleans.  The prisoner requested a chance to say goodbye to his wife, which the Confederate officer, Capt. Poche, granted.

“I was waiting. Pretty soon I heard Mr. Darling’s step on the stairs and he says, ‘I am a prisoner, Sarah’ and I says, ‘I expected it, they have been up to the house.’  Behind him was the Captain and he says, ‘Good evening, Madam Darling.’ I invited him to come in, and he came in and looked all around and then looked at me…I didn’t say one word to Capt. Poche, but I made up a face at him — I turned up my nose at him.”

Mrs. Darling’s recollections were recorded after the war, in 1905 — probably from an interview — after her husband had passed away. She continued:

“They had not been long gone before somebody came pounding on my door and I says, ‘Who is that?’ and he says, ‘Lieut. So-and-So from camp. Open the door.’ and I said I shan’t open the door. And he says, ‘If you don’t open the door, I will break it down’ and I said, ‘If you break down my door, I will shoot you. I have got a gun, here,’ and he didn’t dare break my door down.”

The entire collection of manuscripts from the 31st Massachusetts Infantry Regiment is available for inspection at the Lyman & Merrie Wood Museum of Springfield History, just off the Quadrangle in Springfield.

Submitted by Barbara Pelissier, Westhampton

The Friends of the Westhampton Public Library hosted an afternoon of interactive history this past spring.   They dusted off some of the museum’s items and put them in the hands of several teenagers with the request to research their use and demonstrate them to the public.  As a result, many everyday tools and activities of our predecessors were demonstrated both inside and outside the library building.   As an added enticement to encourage hands-on participation, guests who had their “Passport to the 1800s” stamped were eligible to win a door prize at the end of the afternoon. The teenagers learned their crafts over the course of the previous week, often using their own parents and siblings as guinea pigs.  By the day of the event, they were all quite adept at demonstrating them and were enthusiastic in their interactions with visitors of all ages. In just two hours, on a rainy afternoon, over sixty visitors arrived, with 40 choosing to actively participate and complete their passport!  There were plenty of door prizes for both adults and children at the end. The parents of the participating teens were very proud of how successfully their kids had mastered and presented their activity or craft, and the adult demonstrators were surprised at the amount of interest and positive feedback they received about the activities that they presented.  There have been many calls for a repeat of the program, and we’re already in the planning stages for 2014. I would encourage all towns to dust off their museum relics and bring them to life again!  We did all of this with very little money, two months of planning by a committee of three, and some local volunteers who were happy to set up the tent and move some furniture around.  Most importantly, we created some lasting memories for many children and their families who had a fun participating and learning together about daily activities in the 1800s.

Westhampton Passport to History

By Cliff McCarthy

After the clamor and hyperbole of the 2012 presidential election abates, we cannot help but be drawn to the past for comparison, or at least perspective, on our quadrennial media orgy. What a difference a century makes.

Campaigning was different in 1912, when the nation experienced one of its wildest and most bizarre presidential elections.  That was the year that former President Teddy Roosevelt broke with the Republican Party, which he claimed had been taken over by a conservative faction, and sought election under the new Progressive Party banner.  Proclaiming himself as healthy as a “bull moose,” TR vigorously stumped around the country, giving speeches from the caboose of a campaign train.  He called for stronger federal regulation of the economy and lambasted irresponsible corporate greed.  In Milwaukee on October 14, he was shot by a local saloonkeeper, the bullet lodging in his chest after penetrating his steel eyeglass case and a folded copy of his speech.  He gave the speech, then went to the hospital.

His rival, the rotund William H. Taft, disdained campaigning.  His strategy was to rely on the stature of his office and the Republican machine to deliver the necessary votes, while leading from the White House — the first “Rose Garden campaign.”  It may have been an omen when his running-mate, Vice-President James S. Sherman, died less than a week before the election.

The beneficiary of the Republicans’ turmoil was the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson, whose “New Freedom” campaign highlighted individualism and a less powerful federal government.  At that time, only one Democrat had won the presidency in the previous half-century.

Adding to the mix, Eugene V. Debs ran a credible fourth party campaign on the Socialist Party ticket, winning nearly a million votes nationwide — 6% of the popular vote — having spent a total of $66,000 on his campaign.  And there was even a Prohibition Party candidate.

However wild the campaign was, the result was predictable.  Roosevelt effectively split the Republican vote, throwing the election to Woodrow Wilson in an electoral college landslide.  Roosevelt became the only third-party candidate to beat a mainstream candidate, Taft, in the electoral count.

Massachusetts went Democratic that year, supporting Wilson and Eugene Foss as Governor.  However, the staunchly Republican counties of the Pioneer Valley bucked the trend: Franklin and Hampshire went for Taft, while Wilson won Hampden by just thirty-five votes.

Submitted by:  Barbara Pelissier, Westhampton Historical Society 

What do 19th century churches and lunatic asylum’s have in common?  Both had dedication ceremonies that included the placement of a cornerstone either at or near the entrance or within the facade of the structure. Often accompanied by music and a simple Masonic ritual involving corn, wine and oil, sometimes not, the placement of a sealed rectangular box (usually copper) within the hollowed out cornerstone of the new edifice was common.  What was in the box?  Current issues of the local newspapers, copies of town reports, state reports, church reports, city directories, lists of members, contributors, directors or local politicians. Frequently, a few coins of various denominations or medallions were included. Sometimes there were historic and moving letters addressed, literally, to posterity.  They had every confidence we would recover their words and artifacts.  I’m not that confident.

The closing of state hospitals and the recent consolidation of many Catholic churches in the Pioneer Valley has left the fate of these cornerstone boxes in jeopardy.  Dedication dates are easily found in printed church histories, state asylum reports, or municipal reports.  A simple search of local newspaper databases or microfilm on the day of or the day following a dedication ceremony will provide current town/city planners with valuable information about any endangered historic documents or relics that may be lost to demolition or private sale.

I would like to see demolition delay ordinances amended to allow for implementation routinely on all 19th century public or religious structures slated for demolition until a determination is made as to whether any boxes lie within. If so, contractors can be instructed to carefully dismantle the specific sections of buildings that typically contain cornerstone boxes and be on the lookout for them.  Some know exactly where to find them. Boxes should be recovered from structures slated for sale by a municipality or church.  What can you do?  Make a copy of any cornerstone information you discover in your collections or research and send it to the planning department as well as the historical commission of that town/city.

For a description of a Masonic cornerstone laying ceremony, visitPhoenixmasonry.org.

A general history of cornerstones can be found at:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornerstone

Submitted by Penni Martorell, Wistariahurst Museum Curator and Holyoke City Historian.

In recent years, I have proudly brandished the title of “history nerd.” It was only recently that I realized that I was not like most of my peers. I have always been the one who wanted to know more about an item or artifact–who made it, where did it come from, how was it used and why don’t we still use them. As I reflect, I realize this character trait comes from spending many days after school at my aunt and uncle’s antique store. Many hours were spent in “The Shop” under the guise of dusting for a few cents spending money. But mostly I was imagining, playing with, and handling the many wooden, ceramic, glass, decorative and furniture items. I can still conjure up the smells, textures, and colors of many of the standard items—ceramic jugs, wooden bowls, candle holders and molds, tin boxes and all sorts of chairs.

What a gift my aunt and uncle gave to me, allowing me to experience these material items, with a quick lesson in colonial American history as my Uncle walked by posing questions–what it was used for, where did I think it was made, and why it might be valuable. The wash basins, the cooking utensils, the medical instruments, the tables and chairs—they all had a story. I learned to distinguish the claw and ball feet of certain chairs; how a flintlock rifle mechanism worked, and how dovetailed drawers are put together. Documents, newspapers, books, and photographs backing up the history I was learning at school. But nothing was more exciting than helping out at the local historical society on occasion. Here there was a colonial schoolhouse set up with desks, slates, and primers for children like me. And oh what fun it was when my Aunt donning colonial period clothing as the school marm and teaching school for visiting patrons.

For me History has always involved material culture—the physical objects of the past left for us to examine and explore, and providing all the fodder necessary to drive an historians’ research and inquiry.

So it is no surprise that museum work was a natural fit. For me there is nothing more satisfying than seeing a child engage their imagination with what it might have been like in the past; to hear their questions; to see their faces light up with curiosity; to hear the who, what, when, why and how questions uttered with hands raised and the “Oo, Oo, Oos!”.

Thankfully there are many folks who have never grown tired of pondering history. The pioneer valley is full of small historical museums, societies and associations staffed by tireless volunteers who also enjoy sharing material culture with anyone who is interested. Perhaps they too had a historically engaged childhood.

I encourage you, reader, to take advantage of these local historical sites to challenge your children to ponder and question the materials that fill the rooms. And if you don’t know where to start — it is here — exploring the Pioneer Valley History Network website.