The Old Meeting House Museum
      
                                   
operated by The Atheneum Society of Wilbraham 
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Sunday, November 9
2-4 PM

Native American Lecture and Display

Doug Harris, the Historical Preservation Officer for the Narragansett Tribe in Southern New England, will talk about local tribe in this area from the 1600-1700's.

Free and open to the public


2014 Programs Schedule
(Events are subject to change.)

November 9 - Native American Lecture and Display

December 7th - Tree Festival

Open House is held from 2—4 P.M.
Admission is always FREE!!


Visit our Business Partners Page


Undercover Railroad Update

Local historians met recently with Dr. Eric S. Johnson, director of Archaeological Services at the University of Massachusetts (UMASS) in Amherst to fully research and lay the groundwork for the discovery of an Underground Railroad in Wilbraham along Main Street.

 By Joan Paris
Turley Publications Correspondent

 WILBRAHAM – One thing is for sure. Wilbraham abolitionists and anti-slavery sympathizers sheltered runaway slaves in various historic homes along Main Street and in the Glendale section of town as documented in historic texts.

As an ongoing investigation continues, through the preliminary archaeological study activities proposed by Eric S. Johnson, Ph.D., director of Archaeological Services at the University of Massachusetts (UMAS) in Amherst, town historians continue to discover the breadth of Wilbraham’s participation in our nation’s Underground Railroad.

A group of local leaders recently met at the Old Meeting House on Main Street in town where they continued to raise still more questions, hoping to apply to Wilbraham’s Community Preservation Act in January 2015 to fund the full study with a plan that is both well researched and affordable.

Sanders said, “The question about the Underground Railroad has been raised many times throughout Wilbraham’s history and it would be nice to put the question to rest.”

Board trustees from the Atheneum Society of Wilbraham, Sandy Sanders, Peter Ablondi, Michelle Sampson, Don Bourcier, and Bill Steele, were joined by Wilbraham & Monson Academy Head of School, Brian P. Easler, and Janet Moran, Archivist at the Academy.

Easler wondered how runaways would have fared traveling underground without prior knowledge of tunnel strength or the locations of ingress and egress along the way. “Would they have actually followed an underground channel, not knowing if tunnel strengths would hold and without knowing who they would meet in the tunnel?”

Easler explained that his military training would not have allowed him to do the same. “They would be looking for a stable sense of security. What measure of security would they have?”

“I wonder if instead, runaways were harbored in below ground holding tanks beneath resident homes for safe keeping, exiting at will when the ‘coast was clear’,” offered Bourcier.

Johnson explained there is at this time, inconclusive knowledge about underground activities until all studies at the old Meeting House, the Old stone Church and the Wilbraham & Monson Academy along Main Street are completed.

One possibility, Steele suggested, is that runaways may have been sheltered where there appears to be evidence of them beneath the Old Meeting House, which was then a Methodist church- lying in wait while the church was searched and escaping by tunnel to the Old Stone Church. “Maybe when the church was searched, they slipped back to the basement of the Old Meeting House,” he proposed.

Others agreed saying maybe some portion of runaway safety was supplied by local sympathizers who simply fed them, shielded and guided them along their way.

Easler seemed to think that freed and enslaved runaways alike would have fared better above ground where they could plan and predict their circumstances.

According to Johnson, Wilbraham’s history has several documented accounts of residents’ involvement in the anti-slavery movement and the Underground Railroad in the years before and during the Civil War.

In “The History of Wilbraham” by Chauncey Peck, Johnson said, there is a description of the demolition of a house in 1907 and the discovery of two cellars; one the known larger main cellar, and a second smaller cellar under the pantry that was previously unknown to the homeowners and made visible only upon removal of the floor (Peck 1913).

The discovery, Johnson reported,  of the hidden cellar led to the interpretation that this house was used as a “station” on the Underground Railroad, and it became known as the “underground house” (Merrick and Foster 1964, p.278).

During the 1830’s the Rev. and Mrs. Virgin owned the house, and he said they acknowledged providing aid to runaway slaves. The location for the Virgin house is described as standing in the “center village,” adjacent to the historic Village Store; located approximately 55 m (180 ft) south of the Old Meeting House (Peck 1913, p. 311, and Gray 2001).

Peck further notes in an early twentieth-century interview with the Virgins’ son that “Mother” Virgin (presumably the reverend’s wife) sheltered people in the “Virgin Hollow Hotel,” intimating a hiding place in the upland ravines east of the town’s center, in the Glendale section of Wilbraham (Peck 1913, p.312, and Merrick and Foster 1963).

Several other town residents were known for their involvement in the Underground Railroad, and participated in concealing fugitives in “a nearby steep ravine” according to (Merrick and Foster 1964, p.278).

In later years, according to Sampson and Johnson, Mrs. Elsie (Pease) Parkness, whose father harbored escapees in the ravine, recalled bringing food to people hiding there when she was a child (Merrick and Foster 1964).

The ravine hideout stories are supported by members of the Atheneum Society of Wilbraham who speak of the old story told to children about “ghost lights” deep in the hillside.

Presumably, the lights were the campfires of refugees and the “ghost story” was told to keep children from exploring the ravines and discovering the hidden camps of runaway slaves.

Johnson said, “Another example of Wilbraham’s participation in the Anti-Slavery movement is written in Peck’s history of the town. He briefly describes a “severe struggle” when two persons seeking freedom and hidden at a Mr. Edward Morris’s house were somehow discovered by their “masters or hunters” (Peck 1913). A brawl ensued, and one of the escaping slaves was captured, while the second successfully fled into the woods.”

Johnson explained that UMAS staff will gather historic period maps and other published documents concerning site locations during library research. Historical maps may include the Massachusetts survey maps of 1794-5 and 1830, the Walling maps of the 1850s and 1860s, Beers and other atlases of the 1870s, the USGS maps of the 1890s and the 1930s, twentieth century USGS quadrangles, and Sanborn Insurance maps (as appropriate).

Johnson proposed a couple of methods for testing for a standing underground structure by using remote sensing equipment. He said a combination of electrical resistivity and ground-penetrating radar (GPR) will be used to detect subsurface anomalies.

Sampson and others said they will be optimistic either way. If a tunnel cannot be determined, at least we can document the activities of Wilbraham’s sympathizers in the national historic database she said. 

According to their website, the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program has identified a regional trek through Western Mass. that includes Amherst, Charlemont, Florence, Longmeadow, Northfield, Northampton, Southwick, Springfield and Westfield.  The group plans to submit evidence of Wilbraham’s involvement.

Easler outlined a plan to identify and involve both Academy and Minnechaug U.S. History students in the archaeological dig for hands-on experience, if the project is successfully funded.


Old Meeting House Plans Historic Research

The Wilbraham 250th Celebration Committee was awarded a grant with which to publish an updated Wilbraham history book detailing important events that have taken place since the 1963 edition was published.

Wilbraham resident extraordinaire, Joan Paris, was hired as the book's editor. She asked the Atheneum Society Trustees to provide the history of the Society and its operation of the Old Meeting House.

Trustee Michelle Sampson wrote about the Underground Railroad and the legend that a tunnel connected the Wilbraham & Monson Academy Old Stone Church basement with the basement of the Old Meeting House was used for this purpose. It was reliably reported that in 1928, when Mountain Rd. was being reconstructed, a Town DPW truck fell through the tunnel and the tunnel was subsequently filled in.

Her research piqued the interest of the Atheneum Board members as well! The Board has asked the University of Massachusetts Archaeological Services for a proposal to scientifically recreate the existence of the tunnel and provide needed scientific proof. Director Dr. Eric Johnson and his team visited both sites recently and are preparing a proposal which the Trustees hope to soon present to the Town’s Community Preservation Committee for FY15 funding.

We will keep you updated on our progress!



Our September Open house was quite interesting.  Thanks to John Jurkowski for sharing his collection of artifacts found using his metal detector. We were also lucky to have the contents of the Wilbraham time capsule.


Many thanks to Trustee Bill Steele for showing us his antique farm equipment at our August 2014 Open House


 

Interested in the History of Wilbraham?

If you are interested in the history of Wilbraham, then the Atheneum Society of Wilbraham is interested in you!  Our non-profit organization is served by a board of trustees, whose numbers have dropped over the years while the number of members to the organization has been on the increase. We are seeking individuals who are interested in preserving local history as well as educating and involving the community.  

There has never been a better time to join this important group! Our membership numbers have increased and our open house events have drawn record attendance. The year still holds some fascinating exhibitions and exclusive programs that are incorporated into our monthly open house events.

We meet monthly as a Board of Trustees from April through December. In addition, we staff the Old Meeting House on Main St. one Sunday each month for an open house event which includes a themed program. Knowledge of Wilbraham history is not required to be a trustee; the desire to know more about the town and its history is our only pre-requisite. Please feel free to share this request with anyone you know who fits this criteria.

We invite you to join us and leave your mark on the community. Use your personal strengths to support us and serve our community in a meaningful way by preserving its history.  Anyone interested in joining the Atheneum Society of Wilbraham as a trustee can send an e-mail to president@wilbrahamatheneum.org.


What's New at
The Atheneum Society of Wilbraham

Atheneum Inventory Management  (AIM) Project
The collections at the Atheneum Society of Wilbraham are a vital asset to our community, and the maintenance of those collections is the job of the curators.  We, like many other small museums, have been maintaining and documenting the collections, contacts and donations on paper, until now.

We are excited to announce that our new volunteer curator team has obtained a laptop and purchased and installed a copy of PastPerfect software, the most widely used collection management software in the world.  These volunteers have been meeting every week to slowly and steadily sort through paper records and museum collections;  photograph, organize and label items; and enter descriptions, locations, dates and donors for each item onto the computer.  When the project is finally complete, the items in our collection will be stored with accompanying multimedia information (such as images and document files) and easily searchable. 

 This cataloging process will not only provide a searchable database; it will also serve to familiarize the new curators with the collections, helping them to retrieve objects and information for research and development of intriguing museum exhibits, programs, and publications.  It will strengthen the Atheneum Society of Wilbraham's ability to fulfill its mission by making it more efficient to share knowledge, educate and involve our local community.   (3/2011)


PRESS

Antique Autos have a lawn party at the Old Meeting House

Times - Girl Scouts Quilt Show

Wilbraham Native Americans Open House


OUTSTANDING OPEN HOUSES
IN RECENT YEARS

Thank you to our contributors at our October 2014 candlelight walking tour of Wilbraham’s historic Adams Cemetery. A large crowd listened to the re-enacted stories of some of those buried in the cemetery.


Many thanks to all of the businesses and organizations that participated in our 2013 Christmas Display.

And thank you to the Friends of Wilbraham Public Access who sponsored the Ice sculptures.


Wilbraham Charter visits the Old Meeting House

Many thanks to Gale Candaras for arranging for the original Wilbraham Charter to be brought to Wilbraham. The document was on display in the Old Meeting House on June 15, 2013, the 250th anniversary of its signing.
Approximately 100 visitors stopped in to see it.

This historical document signed on June 15, 1763 normally resides in the capital building in Boston.  We also thank
Michael Comeau, Executive Director of the Massachusetts State Archive, for delivering the Charter and for his abundant information.  It arrived on Saturday, June 15, 2013  from Boston by police escort.
Find details about the
Charter here.


We hope you enjoyed our Antique Clothing exhibit at our May 2013 open House.


In September 2012, the Old Meeting House Museum hosted a presentation on the Underground Railroad that drew a standing room only crowd.

The talk was presented by historian Steve Strimer of the David Ruggles Center for Early Florence History and Underground Railroad Studies. The Ruggles Center, named for an early abolitionist, documents the movement and settlement of fugitive slaves in the Connecticut River corridor of Massachusetts. Strimer discussed what has been preserved and uncovered about the Under-ground Railroad, in Western Massachusetts.


Our well attended open house on July 8th 2012 featured the Wilbraham Art League Exhibit entitled Yesterday's Artifacts, Today's Art This unique art show offered an opportunity for each artist to create a work of contemporary art based on a historical artifact that inspired him or her.  Participating artists chose an artifact from the collection at the Old Meeting House Museum. 
 

The open house also included a dedication ceremony for the bell from the Second Baptist Church (circa 1800) from Butler Hill on Boston Road in Wilbraham. This bell was donated to us by Jesse Rice, and has been installed in our backyard garden. The display was made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts. Many thanks to Joan Paris for presenting the dedication.

We'd also like to thank Friendly Ice Cream Corporation for providing ice cream and a freezer.


 

450 Main Street ~ Wilbraham, MA 01095 ~ 413.596.4097

 

All photos on wilbrahamatheneum.org are copyrighted.