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Presenting the Past

Historic Deerfield Readies Its Legacy for the Future
Phil Zea

Phil Zea, president of Historic Deerfield, says the museum is seeing an upswing in visitorship.

Even in the world of living museums, Historic Deerfield stands apart. It co-exists with working farms, a church with an active congregation, and the local post office, offering a glimpse of the past as well as a snapshot of what has evolved from it. A greater number of people are noting Historic Deerfield’s unique draw and stopping by for a visit, and the onus is now on the attraction to keep them coming — and coming back.

There are not many museums at which a stray duck will suddenly cross your path, quacking a ‘hello’ as it waddles past.

But at Historic Deerfield, which is known as a ‘gateless museum,’ it’s a relatively common occurrence.

The property, which spans 104 acres and encompasses 53 buildings, includes 12 historically furnished homes that serve as museum attractions, interspersed among private homes and businesses.

The mix of old and new creates an intriguing effect; the Channing Blake Meadow Walk offers brief history lessons along the path, as well as bucolic views of Franklin County’s farmland and a smattering of working farms (some of Historic Deerfield’s land has also been leased to area farmers), complete with ducks, sheep, and dairy cows.

The Deerfield Inn, which has 23 rooms, a tavern, a café, and a restaurant, is also owned by Historic Deerfield, and sits adjacent to its free-standing museum store. Not far from there is the Flynt Center of Early New England Life, a modern, 27,000-square-foot building that offers rotating art and history exhibits, as well as visible storage on its second floor — rows upon rows of glass cases filled with early American artifacts ranging from tea pots to powder horns.

There are other businesses intermixed, including the Deerfield Post Office, the First Church of Deerfield, and buildings owned and occupied by Deerfield Academy and the Berment School, both private day and boarding schools.
Philip Zea, Historic Deerfield’s president, said the contrast helps create a multi-faceted history lesson.

“It’s not just an institution, it’s a working community,” he said. “The townscape is really our largest artifact. The point is to offer a sense of what life was like in the Pioneer Valley, and to offer people a chance to look at Deerfield as sort of a case study.”

Up and Down Town

But this is a lesson that includes a very dark chapter — the infamous pre-dawn French and Indian raid on Deerfield on Feb. 29, 1704, an attack that would leave 56 colonists dead and the community, then the most-western outpost of the British territory, in ruins. The 109 survivors of the raid were taken captive and forced on a months-long, 300-mile trek to Quebec in the dead of winter; 22 of them died along the way.

Visitors to Historic Deerfield can certainly learn about the massacre, but the mile-long stretch of Old Main Street is more of a celebration of what took place after the raid. This is a world unto itself, straddling a line between preservation of the past and modern life.

It’s long been a popular destination for history buffs and fans of antiques and the decorative arts, as well as for families visiting the region or taking weekend and day trips.

Still, historical tourism has had some lean years in the last few decades — Zea estimates the dip began after the Bicentennial — and is only now seeing a spark of new interest. It’s up to attractions like Historic Deerfield to rekindle the flame, and to keep the momentum going.

“The world of history museums has been in down times until relatively lately,” said Zea, noting, however, that while foliage season is Historic Deerfield’s busiest period, this summer has been a good one. “From a business point of view, the numbers are good, and we’re ahead of our budget.”

Last year, the museum recorded a 4% improvement over the previous year’s revenue, and while there are still challenges to be met — among them the high gas prices that can keep travelers away — there seems to be a sort of general upswing in interest in attractions like Historic Deerfield.

“I think an appreciation of the past happens on a generational schedule,” Zea mused. “Children visit these places with their parents, and then they lose interest until they have children; then they say, ‘we have to go back!’”

The Fabric of a Community

To boost visitation and maintain that resurgence of interest, Zea said that planning frequent special events, exhibits, and programs is key.

“We focus more and more on special events because that’s what brings people back,” he said. “People who love the place still won’t come back solely to see their favorite house. There needs to be another draw to pull them in.”

Workshops and special programs often showcase the museum’s large collection of art and antiques, which originate from several locales and time periods in addition to the colonial period.

Zea said the collection is currently made up of about 26,000 pieces, placing it among the 12 largest such collections of American artifacts, and programming surrounding the collection includes seminars, exhibitions, and hands-on teaching activities, such as archeological digs, weaving lessons, and gardening tutorials in the Teaching Garden. Open-hearth cooking is another popular draw, particularly in the cooler months.

Currently, the Helen Geier-Flynt Textile Gallery is on display, named for one of Historic Deerfield’s founders (along with Geier’s husband, Henry Flynt) and detailing the embroidery and textile trends of early American life. A second major exhibition slated to open in May, titled ‘Into the Woods,’ will focus on furniture and the creation thereof.

“The exhibition will look at some really sensational furniture,” said Zea, adding that there will also be an educational component, designed to empower museum visitors to better appreciate the antiques they’re viewing. “It will teach people how to look at a piece, and how to better understand how it was made. It’s very didactic.”

Also geared toward creating a buzz at the museum is a series of slightly less academic recurring annual events, such as the Chocolate Festival held in February, and Supernatural Sundays, held in October.

“The key challenge, and goal, is to continue to enhance our visibility as a destination,” he said, “for both families and groups. We want to be seen as a place to stop on the way to a Vermont ski trip, but also as a gateway to tourism in Franklin County.”

We’ve Arrived

As part of that goal, there are improvement plans on the drawing board for Historic Deerfield, though none are of a large enough scale to disrupt the traditional, authentic feel of the old New England neighborhood.

“We’re working on creating a better sense of arrival,” Zea offered as an example, noting that the gateless museum model, coupled with the fact that it exists within a working community, can confuse new visitors. “There will be some improved signage, and upgrades to visitors services.”

Zea said a new visitors center is also being mulled, but the project is only in the early stages of development.

“We still need to raise a lot of money, though we are working with an architect,” he said.

The annual fundraising goal for the museum is about $480,000 in unrestricted gifts, and about the same for restricted contributions, though Zea admitted that unrestricted donations are more helpful in these tight economic times.

“Special projects that people feel a passion for are important, but keeping the light bill paid is also important. Utilities in general are a problem.”

If Historic Deerfield does experience a downturn later in the year, Zea said he’s likely to attribute it to gas prices, though he and his staff are also mindful to translate the museum’s close proximity to other attractions in Western Mass. and Vermont despite its far-away feel.

“We’re only 90 minutes from Boston,” he said, “and more people are developing an affection for us. We will continue to work to build those relationships, and to spread the word that this is a great place.”

It’s also quite ducky.

Jaclyn Stevenson can be reached at[email protected]