Sections Travel and Tourism

Blast from the Past

Historic Deerfield Opens a Door to 18th-Century New England


Philip Zea

Philip Zea says his mission at Historic Deerfield is to bring the heritage of the Connecticut River Valley to life.

For Historic Deerfield President Philip Zea and his staff, the yearly mission is not simply to preserve the heritage of the Connecticut River Valley, but instead to bring it to life.

And they do so with an intriguing, and always evolving, blend of education and entertainment.

“We’re a lot like a professional sports team in the sense that what we do for a living is other people’s recreation,” said Zea as he worked through an interesting analogy. “We want everyone who comes here to have a great time, but also an informative time.”

Once a bustling destination along the 18th-century Boston-to-Albany road, the 104-acre property is now one of the state’s most popular outdoor history museums. Zea, who has enjoyed two stints at Historic Deerfield, first as chief curator for 18 years and later as president — a position he has held for 11 years — oversees a staff of 47. His passion for researching history and sharing it with others has allowed the museum to steadily increase its attendance over the past five years, thus boosting the bottom line at a time when many museums struggle to gain the time and attention of families with plenty of entertainment options.

And Zea and his staff have a positive outlook for the museum, which saw its total income increase by more than $328,000 from 2012 to 2013 (excluding $510,000 awarded to the museum in 2012 through business-interruption proceeds disbursed as a result of Tropical Storm Irene; more on that later). The solid rebound year generated total revenues of more than $4 million for the facility, said Zea, noting that the biggest challenge facing his staff in future years is to continue to evolve and improve to better serve the community’s needs.

“We want to provide people with a sense of confidence that, if they invest their time and money in us, then they are going to come here and have a good time,” he said. “We’re constantly reinventing ourselves and learning more about the history of the area to ensure the public has a great experience here.”

Education is a primary focus for the museum staff, which hosts thousands of students each year from throughout Massachusetts, Vermont, and New Hampshire. Along with Plimoth Plantation and Old Sturbridge Village, Historic Deerfield ranks at the top of the field-trip list for teachers looking to bring their students to an outdoor history museum. Boasting 54 buildings and an expansive campus, students can view everything from hearth-cooking demonstrations to architectural woodworking.

“We have a very robust education program here. In addition to field trips, we also provide programs to help Girl Scouts earn their badges,” said Laurie Nivison, Historic Deerfield’s director of marketing. “We’re looking into arranging programs for the Boy Scouts as well.”

Drawing new visitors is an annual priority for the staff. Zea said the museum has seen an increase in school field trips since 2012, but family trips and private tours in the summer and fall months have also accounted for a significant percentage of visitors. While Historic Deerfield largely remains a hidden New England gem — residents of New England states represented just half of the museum’s total visitors in 2013 — national and international interest has picked up, with 10% of last year’s guests visiting from foreign countries.

The museum’s collection of early-American furniture, ceramics, textiles, and metalwork is a key draw for many guests. The collection was expanded in 2013 with the acquisition of 178 rare objects, including 48 items from the William T. Brandon Memorial Collection of American Redware and Ceramics. All but 30 of the items acquired this year were gifts to Historic Deerfield.

“What’s great about working here is that the setting is the story, with the meadows and village and buildings all adding up to be our biggest artifact,” Zea said. “We like to focus on what people’s lifestyles were like back in the 18th century, learning not only from the physical environment but also the temporal environment.”

Added Nivision, “depending on what your interests are, there’s something here for everyone.”

History Lessons

With ongoing research conducted daily by staff members, there’s something new to learn about the region’s history with each visit. From Benedict Arnold’s arrival in Deerfield to recruit troops (before his turncoat days) to the significance of Barnard Tavern as a political and social hub of the community, new knowledge is just waiting to be discovered at a very old place.

As early as the 1800s, Historic Deerfield, site of the infamous Indian raid of 1704 that claimed the lives of 50 settlers, was attracting history buffs, Zea said, describing letters in the museum’s research library that document Mount Holyoke College students traveling to the campus in the 1830s.

But in order to preserve and present history, the staff at Historic Deerfield must address a number of challenges — everything from Mother Nature (this is an outdoor facility) to that aforementioned competition for the time and dollars of 21st-century families.

For starters, said Zea, the staff must embrace the innate challenge of maintaining the buildings where history was made. Major renovations of two prominent buildings have topped the list of priorities in recent years. The Deerfield Inn, which was damaged by floodwaters during Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, was dramatically transformed, including a completely renovated kitchen, the installation of a new fireplace in the dining room, and significant upgrades to the terrace room. Built in 1884, the building continues to serve travelers as it did 130 years ago.

“Reactions to the new interior design have been overwhelmingly positive,” wrote Anne Groves, chair of Historic Deerfield’s board of trustees, in a letter for the museum’s annual report. “The project team did an exemplary job in managing the renovation and the financial analysis involved in bringing the Inn back online.”

Meanwhile, Barnard Tavern is in the process of undergoing an extensive makeover, which includes repairing the foundation, stabilizing the chimneys, restoring wall paneling, replacing the heating system, and reconstructing the stairway and railings. Completion of the project is scheduled for 2015, 220 years after the tavern was first constructed in 1795.

Meanwhile, attendance is an ongoing challenge, and the staff at the museum addresses it by establishing new and engaging programs and exhibits.

Last year, for example, introduced a three-day workshop called “Every Dish Has a Past,” focused on research of historical recipes — a program that concluded in tasty fashion, with participants cooking the meals they researched.

Moreover, the theme of the museum’s 2014 Dublin Seminar for New England Folklife will be sports and recreation in New England. Taking place June 20-22, the annual seminar will include presentations on hunting, fishing, hiking, climbing, marksmanship, horsemanship, and the paths to popularity of sports like hockey, baseball, and basketball. Lectures will also be given on the history of sports record keeping and statistics, as well as the evolution of sports apparel.

Along with these new additions to the museum’s lineup, Historic Deerfield will return many of its beloved events and activities from past years, beginning on April 26, when a Patriots’ Day re-enactment will feature a cannon-firing display, a parade, and colonial craft activities. The museum will also host its annual Columbus Day antique show, presented by the Antiques Dealers Assoc. of America.

“The Patriots’ Day event is always fun for families, usually drawing at least 300 people,” Nivison said. “It’s a great chance to come out and see several different groups take part in the re-enactment.”

Another goal for the staff in 2014 is to not only educate visitors about the setting and the historical events that have taken place in Deerfield, but to also accentuate the stories of the people who made those events significant.

Zea said it’s imperative to emphasize what people’s lives were like so visitors will have a better understanding of their motivations and interests. The rise of Deerfield as a cultural and political hub, for example, was contingent on geography and the arrangement of roadways, with Deerfield marking the intersection between the Boston-to-Albany road and the north-south Hartford-to-Hanover (N.H.) route, an 18th-century equivalent to the junction of I-90 and I-91.

“It’s important to focus on community history and also domestic history by sharing how people lived and traveled and encountered locations like Deerfield in the first place,” said Zea.

It Takes a Village

The phrase ‘living museum’ has come into use in recent years to categorize facilities like Historic Deerfield, and it’s an apt term.

It accurately describes how such museums show how people lived, but it also suggests that such facilities are constantly evolving and finding new ways to not only transport people back in time, but to help them understand what they’re seeing and put it into historical perspective.

It’s all a part of making the past come alive, said Zea, adding that Historic Deerfield’s imaginative work of the past several years will ensure a solid future for this key regional tourist destination.

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