Deerfield Dispatch: Volume 1

Katie Garland, a history major at Messiah College, is spending her summer in Historic Deerfield as one of seven college students chosen to participate in the prestigious Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program. Katie will be immersed in an “all-expenses-paid intensive nine-week living-learning program that offers a rare behind the scenes view of the workings of a museum and a thorough investigation of early New England history and material life.”

I asked Katie if she would be willing to provide us with regular reports on her Deerfield experience and she has graciously agreed to do so.

What follows is Katie’s first “Deerfield Dispatch.” She introduces us to the historic town of Deerfield and compares the town to two other eighteenth-century places where she has visited–Williamsburg, VA and Greenwich, NJ.  (Katie is a research associate with the Greenwich Tea Burning Project). 

Having lived here about a week now, I am very aware of how Historic Deerfield compares to other historical town museums.  Before leaving home, whenever people would ask me what Deerfield was like, I would describe it as the smaller, New England version of Colonial Williamsburg. Well, it turns out that is only half true.  While Deerfield is similar to Williamsburg, it also reminds me of Greenwich, New Jersey, where I worked for a week last year as part of the Greenwich Tea Burning Project

As far as I know, Colonial Williamsburg was born when the Rockefeller family came to the town with their ideas and pocketbook, and crafted Williamsburg into a tourist attraction.  Their particular vision of colonial America is apparent in the town and organization today.

Historic Deerfield had a similar birth.  When Henry and Helen Flynt dropped their son off at Deerfield Academy, they fell in love with the area and immediately bought their own house in the town. Over time, they gradually began to buy and preserve houses in town, and fill them with furniture and other antiques.  In the beginning, Historic Deerfield largely existed to showcase their collections which illustrated their particular view of colonial America, but over time the museum has become more purposeful in telling a nuanced story of the past through the Flynt collection.

While Colonial Williamsburg and Historic Deerfield have similar origins, they are quite different today.  Visitors to Williamsburg are immersed in the culture of the late 1700s. The town is virtually free of 21st century trappings and people who live in Colonial Williamsburg are asked to keep modern objects out of the sight of visitors.  Not so in Deerfield.  The people who live here are free to park their cars in the street, their grills on the driveway, and their children’s play sets in the backyard.  As a result, Deerfield feel a bit more alive. It feels like a real community.

In this way, Historic Deerfield is more like Greenwich, New Jersey.  According to local Greenwich lore, the town had the opportunity to become a Colonial Williamsburg, but turned down the offer because it did not want to become too touristy.  However, it still embraces its early roots and walking down the main street feels a little bit like walking back through time.  But, like Deerfield, Greenwich is an active community in the present as well and has not abandoned its present story entirely in favor of the past.

Deerfield and Greenwich also both derive their historic importance from a single important event.  Greenwich’s historical identity relates to a tea burning when residents were protesting British tea taxes.  Over time, the tea burning became the town’s identity, especially after women organized the construction of the monument commemorating the event in the early 20th century.

Likewise, Deerfield was put on the map in 1704 when the town was attacked by French and Indian raiders as part of Queen Anne’s War. At least 38 Deerfield residents were killed in the attack, 112 were captured and taken to Canada, and most of the village was burned. The most famous of those kidnapped was the town’s minister, Reverend John Williams, who returned and penned “The Redeemed Captive Returned to Zion” in 1707.  His record of the event and life in Canada became a best-seller and established the town’s destiny and identity.  As in Greenwich, women were largely responsible for keeping the history of the town alive and paving the way for the Flynt’s leadership a generation later.

Thus,Deerfield is a hybrid of two very different historical towns.  Like Greenwich, it obtains its historical power from a single event which has defined its identity, and was largely preserved by women.  Like Williamsburg, the historical organization which controls interpretation of that history was created in the early 20th century.

I am looking forward to learning about Historic Deerfield in the next two months and discovering its particular niche in American museums, as well as learning about material culture and the ways that it can influence the stories that historians tell about the past. 

The picture shows the Wright House, where Katie is living for the summer.  Notice the cars in the driveway.  This is something that you would never see in Colonial Williamsburg.