History of the Society

 

History of the Branford Historical Society

Drawing on the cover of the Society’s first published By-Laws in July 1961.

Caroline Jourdan, Samuel Beach and Alice Peterson had the idea of forming a Branford Historical Society and the first meeting was held on May 2 7, 1960 at the home of Thorvald and Lucy Hammer with nineteen people attending. The first officers were Thorvald F. Hammer, president; Alice Peterson, secretary; Samuel Beach, vice-president; and Wallace Foote, treasurer. A membership and historical committee were formed. Articles of Association were signed on June 12, 1961 and on July 17 that year the organization was incorporated, papers drawn by Attorney Rhoda Loeb. In 1963 Federal and State tax exempt status was obtained. Brochures and stationary were designed.

During the 1960s the Society held lecture meetings, tried to grow its membership, and had a display of Branford memorabilia at the Academy with items loaned from citizens. Meetings were held at the library, churches, Academy and Community House. A historic plaque program was instituted by Frank and Miriam Bigelow with input from residents and deed research. Several fund-raising events were held including an appraisal day and a doll show run by Mary Virginia Prann. Membership gradually increased. In 1970 Archie Hanna granted the rights to his book A Brief History of the Thimble Islands to the Society. Now in its fourth printing, it continues to provide some income for the Society.

Discussion was ongoing about obtaining a permanent museum space and 12 Bradley Street (The Timothy Bradley House) was seriously considered. Lack of funds and parking were problems. The Harrison House at 124 Main Street was owned by SPNEA (Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities), the building willed to them by J. Frederick Kelly. SPNEA had a series of tenants living in the house. After a 1974 attic fire the Society approached SPNEA about leasing the house as their headquarters and a twenty-year lease was arranged. The Branford Historical Society took on the responsibility of full maintenance of the house. The Society continued leasing to tenants and having the house open to the public twice a year. The lease from SPNEA was renewed for another twenty years in 1994 and again through 2014.

In 1980 a decision was made to start furnishing the house and showing the Harrison House as a museum. During this time great strides were made furnishing the house with donations and occasional purchases. Many items previously donated or loaned to the Blackstone Library were turned over to the Society in 1987 on long term loan and more items were loaned in 1994. Major pieces of furniture were donated by Delphina Hammer Clark, a national known authority on American Decorative Arts and Branford native. The Society received a state grant to do some work on the house and to have it opened Thursday, Friday, and Saturday afternoons. Eventually Thursday and Fridays were dropped.

As part of the effort to open the Harrison House, the Garden Club planted and began to maintain the gardens in 1980. An herb garden was designed by Maud Sargent and installed. That garden was replaced by the Garden Club in 2011. The work done by the Garden Club is a great asset to the Harrison House and the beautiful grounds. About 2000 Arnold Peterson, William Davis and Jane Bouley arranged, displayed and labeled the growing number of tools and other artifacts in the barn.

During the 1980s Betty Linsley and Jane Bouley began properly cataloging and maintaining the Society’s archival papers and photographs. Major collections were obtained from the Beach family, Foote-Prann family and photographs by Arthur Seaburg and Earl Colter. In 1994 an agreement was made between the boards of the Society and Blackstone Library to house those collections in the new Branford Room at the library. The collections are financed and still maintained by the Branford Historical Society.

During the formative years Caroline Jourdan, Sam Beach, Mae McCabe, and the Bigelows worked hard to establish the Society. Janet Murphy Gaines was a driving force in the Society during the 1980s and 1990s furnishing the house, training guides and instituting procedures and policies. Nancy Hendricks and later Anton Wohlert arranged the displays in the Exhibit Room for many years. Throughout its history, the Society has had dedicated board members, guides, and volunteers.

In 1979 the first Strawberry Shortcake Festival was held at the Academy to commemorate Branford’s role as one of the leading producers of berries in the early 1900s. The event grew when the Branford Festival was started and continues to be the Society’s major fund-raising event with over fifty volunteers.

During the last decade the Society continues its mission and pursuit of historical research, a lecture series, shortcake festival, maintaining the archives, house and contents and having the Harrison House open Saturdays during the summer. 

From notes in the Society files
Notes of Janet Gaines, 1988
Written by Jane P. Bouley, 2013