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The Deerfield Inn

The Deerfield Inn was built in 1884 and is still in use.

This year, the town of Deerfield, though incorporated in 1677, will mark its 350th anniversary since the first English settlers called the upper Pioneer Valley their home in 1673. Since the beginning, a lot has changed, but the town has tried to keep some aspects the same.

“It was a farming community,” Town Administrator Kayce Warren said. “If you’re going to Historic Deerfield, you’re going to see a lot of agricultural land. Most of it is preserved; most of it is still used for agricultural purposes. That was an element for many, many years that probably goes back to incorporating the town because of where we are; we had a great ability to grow things.”

Jessye Deane, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said the town, while maintaining that agricultural focus, has also become a true tourist destination. In fact, tourism contributes about $79 million to Franklin County’s economy, and Deerfield is one of the driving forces behind those numbers.

“We’re seeing just about 27,000 visitors to Yankee Candle each year, and Historic Deerfield has just under 14,000,” Deane told BusinessWest. “These are people that are driving more than 50 miles to reach these destinations. In a lot of cases, these people are staying over at Champney’s and the Deerfield Inn. They’re taking in the sights, and they’re hopefully enjoying all of what Franklin County has to offer.”

 

Celebrating the Old

Historic Deerfield — an open-air destination that boasts a history museum, an art museum, and several historic house museums, as well as the Deerfield Inn and its historic restaurant, Champney’s — certainly reflects those roots. As one of the best-preserved collections of original historic houses in New England, Old Main Street, or simply “the Street,” as Historic Deerfield President John Davis called it, is lined with 40 houses that predate the Civil War.

As a frontier settlement, Deerfield regularly suffered from attack. The village was abandoned during King Philip’s War after the 1675 attack at Bloody Brook and resettled in 1682, only to face several more raids in the 1690s and into the early 1700s.

Today, the 18th- and 19th-century houses of the village center, many on their original sites and filled with antique furnishings, reveal the lifestyles of Deerfielders from the time of the first English settlement to the Arts and Crafts movement in the early 20th century. The village has been on the National Register of Historic Landmarks since 1962.

“You get an amazing look at how the Puritans designed their towns and those houses along the street; 12 of them are museum houses that our visitors can go into,” Davis said.

Over the past year, Historic Deerfield has “really emerged from the pandemic” and is close to being back to where it used to be, recording its second-best month in its existing 75 years this past October, he added.

Because it was already engaged in virtual programming, he explained, the museums were able to hit the ground running faster than some of the larger museums when it came to using Zoom for digital content — and they’re continuing to do so. And when restrictions were lifted, the houses reopened for people to come see the 32,000-piece collection and the 12 homes open to tour.

“Being able to bring all of those back has really encouraged folks to visit us again in person, and there are a number of seasonal educational programs that are also big drivers for us,” Davis said. “One of the most popular of those is our open-hearth cooking program where you can actually see a meal being prepared in the old-fashioned way, over an open fire, and it’s not an experience that you can get in many other places.”

“You get an amazing look at how the Puritans designed their towns and those houses along the street; 12 of them are museum houses that our visitors can go into.”

John Davis

John Davis

Another program that brings locals and visitors as far as Boston and New York City to ‘the Street’ is the Sheep on the Street program in May, which attracts hundreds of people to look at the historic trades associated with wool. Flocks of heritage-breed sheep walk the streets like they would have in the 18th and 19th centuries, and visitors enjoy sheepdog and shearing demonstrations as well.

Davis said that the town and Historic Deerfield have a close relationship and like to function as “the town’s museum,” with Deerfield residents getting into the sites for free. But he wants to rekindle the museum’s relationships with schools, not only in the surrounding areas, but as far south as Springfield and Holyoke. Schools stopped having field trips because of COVID, and now that they’ve returned, he wants to make welcoming students a bigger priority in 2023.

Historic Deerfield

Historic Deerfield features 12 historic homes that visitors are able to tour.

“Western Massachusetts is a fascinating region, both for its history and its contemporary beauty,” he noted. “And this is one of the most magical places — this mile street that you can turn off of Route 5, and it’s like you’re going into a different century. I think that that is a part of the story of our region here in Western Mass. that is really interesting to folks who may not otherwise think of this as a destination area.”

 

Embracing the New

One of the more recent and frequently visited attractions is Tree House Brewing Company. Originally established in Brimfield, the brewing company now occupies the old Channing Bete headquarters on Route 5 and is celebrating its one-year anniversary in town.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,090
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $14.97
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.97
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

The craft-beverage scene in Franklin County was “alive and well” before Tree House Brewing Company joined the long list of local breweries, Deane said, but Tree House certainly helped introduce Deerfield and Franklin County to a larger craft fanbase.

Warren added that the taproom at Tree House Brewing Company is “really fun,” and several of her colleagues meet there to socialize and catch up after work.

“Tree House has really good beer, and they have really good pizza. You can bring your own food in, but once again, it’s nice to have options, so it’s not just Yankee Candle,” said Denise Mason, chair of the town’s Connecting Community Initiative. “We have Tree House, which is an anchor, and we have everything else — we want to connect all of it to give people choices.”

She went on to say that Yankee Candle offers pizza, but if someone wants another food option, they don’t always know what’s available in Deerfield. To create opportunities for diners and restaurant owners alike means making the town more accessible.

Warren added that the piece that really leads to economic development is getting people off the highway into the town center so they can shop, eat, get their hair done, and engage with the many wellness-focused enterprises. “We want to be able to get people back and get people into the center of town.”

Moving forward, Deerfield officials hope to improve the municipal parking lot, known as the Leary Lot, to create a more direct pathway to the main streets in the center of town. Berkshire Brewing Company wants to expand, “and that’s a good place for them to do it because there is parking and accessibility right next to the lot,” Warren noted. “But there’s also this concept of creating small spaces for people to eat, to gather, that are pretty and accessible and inviting.”

Fixing up the Leary Lot helps businesses around the center because it gives them some parking access and resources to other parts of town. With four other restaurants on Elm Street and another restaurant, Wolfie’s, on South Main Street, parking in the center of town is a massive need.

“If there’s no parking, people won’t shop or stop, especially older individuals,” Mason said. “If they don’t have easy parking, they just go somewhere else.”

The goal, of course, is to keep them in Deerfield, a town that has seen plenty of change over the course of 350 years and is looking toward a positive future while celebrating its rich past.

Franklin County

Connecting Past and Present

Philip Zea says Historic Deerfield paints an often-surprising picture

Philip Zea says Historic Deerfield paints an often-surprising picture of a large swath of the region’s cultural history.

It’s a grand reopening more than 200 years in the making.

Specifically, it’s a house in Deerfield, built in 1795, that operated as a tavern for roughly a decade.

“We know a lot about it, and because most Americans today travel, we thought it would be great to show the public how people back then lived, not when they were at home, but when they were out and about,” said Philip Zea, president of Historic Deerfield, the living-history museum that comprises more than 50 buildings on or near sleepy Old Main Street.

“Believe it or not, our tranquil street here, north and south, back in the day, was the equivalent of Interstate 91,” Zea went on, adding that Old Albany Road connected with the 18th-century equivalent of the Mass Pike, making Deerfield a sort of crossroads of New England, frequented not only by locals, but by travelers.

Refurbishing that tavern — it will open later this year — is the latest capital project undertaken at Historic Deerfield to expand the scope of the history the museum aims to convey across its 110 acres, he told BusinessWest. “We want to tell that story, what the country was like when it was on the move — not today, but in the 1790s and a little bit later.”

Upstairs from the tavern is a big assembly room that quickly became the largest public space in town, so the tavern keeper drew income from renting that space, for court proceedings, auctions, and balls. Deerfield Academy was founded in that room in 1797.

Zea can share countless historical details like that one in this complex that includes 28 houses built in the 1700s and another 14 that predate 1850. “The skyline is intact, if you will.”

“When people feel the need to know more about the past, we need to be more inventive about how we share it.”

So is business at Historic Deerfield, which opened to the public 71 years ago and has continued to evolve its programs and exhibitions to keep visitors returning and, crucially, keep attracting new generations at a time when it’s not always easy to turn young people on to history.

Knock, Knock

That ‘71 years’ may be an official statistic, as Historic Deerfield was indeed begun in 1947, and its first museum house, the Ashley House (built in 1733), opened its doors to visitors in 1948.

Yet, the street was a sort of unofficial museum well before that. The local library has correspondence, from the 1830s, from two Mount Holyoke College students who wanted to head north and visit Deerfield’s houses, which even then were old. One homeowner charged them a dime to come in and see the house. “That’s the business of history,” Zea laughed.

And it’s often significant history, he went on. During the early Colonial wars, Deerfield was the northwestern point of English settlements in the region, so while people lived and farmed there, it was also a military outpost. Around the time of the American Revolution, the town was an organizational point for troops moving north and west. The week before Benedict Arnold and Ethan Allen took Fort Ticonderoga in 1775, Arnold was in Deerfield, buying beef for the army. “That’s real history,” Zea said. “It happened right here.”

For decades, families, school groups, and others have trekked to Deerfield for both its palpable history and its reflection of a quintessential new England village, Zea said. “If someone visits New England, they might go to Fenway Park, or get a lobster in Maine, but if they want a feel for what it was really like long ago, they’ll come here.”

That’s true of Old Sturbridge Village as well, but he doesn’t believe Historic Deerfield is really in competition with that complex, because often visitors want to check out both sites. We’re quite different. They’re interpreting 1830s New England life; it’s all about process and how people made their livings. Rather than focusing on a specific time, we’re one-stop shopping if you want to look at history from the 1770s, or even earlier, to today. If you want to be in a place and feel the expanse of history, this is the place you want to come.”

To keep visitors returning, the museum — which boasts 61 full-time and 115 part-time employees — needs to make it relevant, and that’s not always easy.

“The apex of this kind of museum in America was back around the Bicentennial. That’s when the biggest crowds went to places like this. That was about patriotism, about the roots of the country, the roots of American democracy,” he explained.

“That’s still important,” he went on, “but when people feel the need to know more about the past, we need to be more inventive about how we share it. It’s not always political history; it’s not always military history. What we do here is more about the history of culture in the Connecticut River Valley and the roots of small-town America in a place like Deerfield.”

Even the colors of the houses tell a story. Today, paint colors cost pretty much the same, but back in the 1700s, blue pigment was derived from cobalt, which was expensive. “So, if you could paint your whole house blue, it was like parking a fancy car in the driveway.”

Maintaining the condition of the museum houses and other structures — and expanding the activities within them — accounts for some of Historic Deerfield’s $7.7 million annual budget, bolstered partly by a $49 million endowment and the 1,317-member Friends of Historic Deerfield, which supports the museum through annual gifts from individual and corporate donors.

“We’re finding ways to move forward on the programmatic front, as well as historic preservation,” Zea noted. “One of our problems is, we’ve got a pretty good-sized physical plant, a lot of which is old, by the nature of the place, so historic preservation is important for us; it’s part of our mission and part of our responsibility that requires a fair amount of cash to keep going.”

The other key is to expand the audience because, obviously, the more people who come, the better — both for the museum and the region at large.

“Deerfield’s a little different from other museums in that, while we charge admission to our buildings, it’s a gateless museum. You can come to Old Deerfield, walk around, have a great time, and I don’t get into your wallet,” said Zea, who used to work at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, which operates under a similar structure on a larger scale. “But visitors, even visitors we really can’t count, are important not only to us, but to the regional economy, because we draw a lot of people to Franklin County.”

Lens to History

To keep drawing them, Historic Deerfield continues to expand both its programs and the physical space in which to present them. In the latter case, the organization recently purchased the home of 19th-century artist James Wells, built during the 1760s and known as Elmstead, to expand public programming and storage.

As for those programs, one ongoing lecture series, “Native Voices: Rediscovering American Histories,” which began with a well-attended event in January and continuing on Feb. 24 and March 24, aims to reframe the experience and perspectives of indigenous peoples into broader American narratives.

Then, on April 13 — the day that kicks off daily operations after the weekends-only winter schedule — Historic Deerfield will host its annual Patriots’ Day festivities, featuring a military re-enactment group from Connecticut and discussions about the impact of the Revolution on the people of Deerfield.

All of it, said Laurie Nivison, the museum’s director of Marketing, is intended to make history relevant to those who want to learn about it.

“With today’s audience, it’s telling the story and encouraging people to think about how it relates to their life and how their life might connect to one of the families who lived in the houses here,” she told BusinessWest. “When we bring people to come [give presentations] here, we want them to make that connection as well.”

Those connections can be powerful, Zea said, and visitors interact with the history in different ways. “Part of what a place like this peddles is nostalgia — what was it like then, or imagining how they did this and that. So, a big part of our constituency doesn’t want anything to change because that’s the nature of nostalgia.

“But then, there’s an equal part of our constituency that wants to learn more, learn different things, look at Deerfield in different ways,” he went on. “And there are so many ways to do that here because, while Historic Deerfield is a great institution, Old Deerfield is a great place in history. And we’re a sort of lens to that.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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