Claremont History Group Links City With Its Past
Sharon Wood, a board member of the Claremont Historical Society, hangs a T-shirt for an alumni exhibit at the society’s museum and home. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Portraits of Abigail and Godfrey Cooke, of a prominent family who ran the Cooke Tavern in West Claremont. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
The Claremont Historical Society's museum and home, (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Purchase photo reprints »
Adam Steinberg takes attendees at yesterday’s the Ledyard Charter School commencement through a short breathing exercise during his keynote address at the Richard W. Black Center in Hanover. Steinberg, a yoga practitioner, worked with the class earlier in the school year. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »
The Claremont Historical Society comprises a small group of people who are fascinated by local history and dedicated to collecting, organizing, presenting and preserving the past.
“We are caretakers of the city’s memorabilia,” is how longtime society member Sharon Wood puts it. “We enjoy doing it.”
This year, the Claremont Historical Society celebrates its 50th year and the society’s museum on Mulberry Street marks its 35th.
Today, the museum will be open from noon to 3 p.m. to coincide with the annual alumni weekend for Stevens High School and the former St. Mary’s School.
With many arriving from out of town for the festivities, this is usually the busiest day for the museum, said Historical Society President Wayne McElreavy.
They will find much to explore. “The museum is such a treasure,” Wood said. “It is a real eye opener.”
She said it is common for first-time visitors to be surprised by what the museum tells about Claremont’s past. “They say, ‘I’ve lived here for years and never knew this was here,’ ” Wood said.
The society came into existence when a new home had to be found for the collection of historical material that was downstairs in the Fiske Free Library, former society president and current member Colin Sanborn said last week. The library was planning an expansion and needed the space for its children’s section.
Sanborn credited middle school teacher Howard Sargent for organizing the first meeting in 1962. In March of the following year, the Claremont Historical Society was born and began accepting the collection of artifacts from the library.
“The only problem was, there was no place to put it,” Sanborn said. “From what I have been able to pull together and in talking to others, it was a scramble to get things out of there. ... We did not have a home.”
A lot of the items were brought to a room in the opera house and other material was dispersed to members for safekeeping. For a while, the society used a wing at the Dow Building (SAU 6 offices) until the school district needed the space and a search for another location began.
In 1977, historical society member Mary Patten died and bequeathed her home on Mulberry Street to the city with the condition that it be used for a historical museum. A year later it was ready.
Sanborn describes the museum as “having everything from paintings to furniture, a military collection and made-in-Claremont products.
“It reflects a broad spectrum of Claremont history, what they used and what life was like,” Sanborn said.
The museum offers a look at a time when Claremont was an industrial city that shipped products, such as drilling equipment from Sullivan Machine, all over the world.
Society member Nancy Miville, who creates exhibits at the museum, said that today it will display items representing both Stevens and St. Mary’s, as well as the current exhibit on the role Claremonters played in the first two years of the Civil War.
Miville researched many of the battles that Claremont men fought in and even traveled to some of the sites.
“I have connected the people from Claremont with the war battles, what they did and did they survive,” Miville said. “Claremont paid a high price in proportion to its population.’’ Ten percent of its population of 4,100 served in the war, she said.
Collecting historical items, most of which have been donated, is only the first step toward preserving the past.
McElreavy, who has served as president for two years, said volunteers are cataloging the collection electronically. “My mission is more or less to get it organized,” he said. “We want to input everything into the computer.
“I also want to have a better retrieval system for people inquiring about family history.”
McElreavy, who was born in Vermont but has lived in Claremont nearly his entire life, developed an interest in the city’s history as a youngster when he picked up a copy of Otis Waite’s History of Claremont, New Hampshire, 1764-1894.
“There were interesting characters ... and great houses,” McElreavy said.
He also recalled going to a yard sale on Winter Street when he was a boy and spotting old postcards including one of the Stowell Home on Pleasant Street, now the site of Cumberland Farms.
“They were only a quarter apiece, so I bought them all. That’s when I started collecting Claremont photos.”
All historians, whether amateur or professionals, must be diligent about their research and not rely on what one person may have said or written.
McElreavy, who published a book last year, Images of Claremont, with more than 230 photos, has come across his share of conflicting or downright inaccurate information.
“We have numerous photos that say about 1910 but another copy of same photo says 1895,” McElreavy wrote in an email. “Some are clearly marked wrong. There is a photo of train tracks going up a hill identified as north of the High Bridge that is actually the Newbury Cut. Another is identified as the High Bridge, but it’s a bridge at Niagara Falls.”
Sanborn said most of what they have was donated and that the society reminds people that boxes in the attic that appear to contain nothing of importance could hold a rare historical treasure.
“Missed opportunities,” is how Sanborn described them. He once heard that Mondanock Mills, the textile company whose brick buildings dominated the Sugar River along Water Street in the late 1800 and early 1900s, made bedspreads that were on the Titanic.
Sanborn’s proof was discovered in a series of letters someone saved between the company and White Star Line, which owned the ship.
“At the time we could not procure them and I believe they were sold with the estate,” Sanborn said.
While artifacts can reveal much about a community’s history, personal stories bring the past to life.
“It is not so much the stuff but the people,” Sanborn said. “One thing I’ve always enjoyed is listening to members and others talk about what was going on in Claremont. ... It is amazing to hear some of the stories that are behind what people bring in (to donate).”
Years ago, someone had a white robe and hat from the racist Ku Klux Klan. “They recalled coming out of a building and seeing a bonfire on a hillside from the KKK.”
For several years, Wood organized programs for cemetery walks that told stories of the city’s past through the voices of former residents. Members would research biographies, then write narratives about the person and recollections from the time in which they lived. A member of the society dressed in period costume portrayed the historical figure and recited the narrative while standing by a gravestone.
“Every town has a story and every town has a great history,” she said.
While they work to preserve what came before, the historical society also wants to capture the present as the city prepares to mark the 250th anniversary of its charter in 2014. McElreavy’s other main project is to begin recording oral histories.
Those stories and remembrances will become another chapter in Claremont’s history, connecting the generations of today with residents in the future.
Patrick O’Grady can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.