If you have lived in a family home, you know how memories and items can quickly build up over time around the house. Imagine what this looks like for a family that has lived in the same house for multiple generations. The Porter-Phelps-Huntington House Museum holds this family’s history in a home seemingly frozen in time.
The museum was closed for two years because of the pandemic, however, “frozen in time” is just the opposite of how the museum spent this time closed. Thanks to a grant from the National Endowment of Humanities, the museum has been able to redesign its tours in a way that tells broader, more inclusive stories about the family and all of the people that worked there. Connecting Point’s Dave Fraser brings us the story.
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Zydalis Bauer, Connecting Point: The Porter Phelps Huntington House Museum portrays the activities of a wealthy and productive 18th century family. The household was an important social and commercial link in the local, regional and even national networks of its day. Closed for two years because of the pandemic.
The museum has reopened recently, and thanks to a grant from the National Endowment of Humanities, it has been able to redesign their tours in a way that tells broader, more inclusive stories about the family and all the people who worked there. Producer Dave Fraser brings us the story.
Dave Fraser, Connecting Point: Hidden behind years of growth along Route 47 in Hadley is a unique piece of property and one that is highly significant to the town’s history. This house was continuously occupied by a single family since its construction in 1752 until the death of Dr. James Lincoln Huntington, the museum’s founder.
The museum is the Porter Phelps Huntington House Museum, and it not only contains the family’s belongings accumulated and preserved over 300 years, but also a rich collection of personal letters, diaries, account books, photographs and other material, all providing a valuable window into 18th and 19th century life in the Valley.
Marla Miller, Distinguished Prof. of History: I think we all know how things accumulate in our attics and basements, and since this family never had that occasion to leave the house, then the papers accumulated, the objects accumulated, and things just became a center of gravity.
Dave Fraser: Moses and Elizabeth Porter erected this farmstead known as 40 acres. The house, eventually enlarged, was home to six generations of an extended family. Today, it is surrounded by over 350 acres of protected farmland, forest and river frontage, retaining its original rural setting.
Karen Sanchez-Eppler, Prof. American Studies & English: It’s just an extremely coherent, consistent, rich, multilayered combination of landscape and structures and objects and the paper record that tells about them.
Dave Fraser: For two years during the pandemic, the museum remained closed. During that time, extensive research was done that has broadened the family’s story considerably, taking into account the lives of others who once lived and worked on the property. Enslaved people, indentured servants, farm and dairy laborers, artisans and seamstresses.
Marla Miller: We find that there are field hands and domestic servants whose grandparents were here, whose parents were here then the grandchildren work here later in life. There are three generations of enslaved women in this household, and so we see many families whose stories unfold on this ground who are also multigenerational – and some of those families are still in Hadley today.
So, it is not only the family that owned the property that were here over many generations, but the families who worked here.
Dave Fraser: Among some of the more interesting documents uncovered were the financial accounts of Charles Phelps’s trading habits in the early 19th century.
Karen Sanchez-Eppler: Everything he did every year, he would fold all his receipts together and put them in a little packet wrapped with paper, tie them with string, and write the year on them. 1797 1805 and then inside all the things he spent money on.
Dave Fraser: Tours which are open to the public, outlined some of the interesting architectural details of the home as different sections of it were built over the course of about 50 years. It is perhaps one of the earliest houses in western Massachusetts to include a central hall and fireplaces in individual rooms rather than being designed around one large chimney.
Marla Miller: I think one of the things that’s been important about this project and that I’m excited about sharing with visitors to the museum is the way that history is always changing. So we have referred to this as a reinterpretation initiative because that’s kind of museum vocabulary. But in truth, history is never stable.
We are always learning new things. We are asking new questions. New scholarship emerges in one area that makes us ask new questions in another. In the case of this House, it’s also true that more resources become available. People send archival materials. More things come to us that answer questions that we’ve had. And so history is always changing – it’s always evolving. And so it’s fun to kind of pull back the curtain on that with the visitors to the museum and and show them what that really exciting process can look like.