‘Children of the Swift River Valley’
‘Beautiful faces’ inspire exhibit of pictures from Quabbin’s ‘lost towns’
Henry White, circa 1895.
TURNERS FALLS (February 8, 2014) — Althea Dabrowski of Northfield and sisters Sibyl Smith and Abigail Goman of Easthampton take direction from Hallmark student Sabrina Gavino at an old-time photo booth set up during the opening of the photographic exhibition "Swift River's Children." Dabrowski's 6th grade students at Northfield Elementary painted two backdrops for the photo booths and learned about the beginnings of photography in the meantime. Recorder/Trish Crapo
Child wearing a Lord Fauntleroy jacket.
Clifton Peirce, 1927.
Glance around almost anywhere there are other people nearby, in a cafe or city park, walking down Main Street and — even if you’re not at a sightseeing destination — you’re apt to see people taking photos of one another, or individuals taking “selfies,” photos of themselves. Nowadays, these photos are most likely being taken with cell phones, which let you not only capture an image quickly but turn around and upload it right away to Facebook, Instagram or some other online social network.
Photography today is fast and casual. Almost anyone can take pictures and almost everyone does — lots of them.
In contrast, having a photographic portrait made at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th was “a momentous occasion,” museum educator Sheila Damkoeler said.
Damkoeler, executive director of the Swift River Valley Historical Society in New Salem, curated the show “Children of the Swift River Valley,” now on view at the Great Falls Discovery Center in Turners Falls. The exhibit includes approximately 50 photographs of children from the towns of Dana, Enfield, Prescott and Greenwich, the towns that were flooded in 1938 to create the Quabbin Reservoir to supply water to the burgeoning city of Boston.
In black-and-white or sepia, the photographs show children alone, with their siblings, parents, extended families, or holding favorite objects such as pets, books, toys or dolls. Individually, each provides a glimpse into the character of a child now grown and gone. Together, they create a composite portrait of the last generation to live in the “lost towns” of the Swift River Valley.
Damkoeler, who lives in Bernardston, discovered the photographs in a “binder exhibit” originally compiled in 1999 by Elizabeth Peirce, curator of the historical society for over 25 years.
Peirce has long been interested in the history of the Swift River Valley. She has written two books — “The Lost Towns of the Quabbin” and “Quabbin Valley: People and Places.” At 89, she is at work on a third.
Her husband, Clifton, was born in Atkinson Hollow and grew up in Prescott, Peirce said. “When he was old enough to go to school, there were no schools left in Prescott.”
This was because conversations about the construction of a reservoir had begun as early as the 1920s and populations in the four towns had already begun to dwindle as families relocated. Determined to stay in the Swift River Valley, the Peirce family moved to the town of Greenwich, where young Clifton was able to attend school through eighth grade.
“And then it was 1938 and they had to leave,” Elizabeth Peirce said. Her husband’s family relocated once again to Orange, where she and her husband met in high school.
Clifton Peirce was a child of the Swift River Valley.
“In the pictures that are on the walls,” Peirce said, referring to the exhibit at Great Falls Discovery Center, “he is the little boy holding the white cat.”
Peirce first decided to create her binder display because, “As I was looking through things, I kept finding wonderful pictures of children with their beautiful faces and I thought wouldn’t it be nice to just put them together?”
Peirce also wanted to honor the significance that these studio portraits held for the children’s families.
“It was so important for people to take pictures of their children,” Peirce explained. “They would dress them up in the best clothes they had.”
In order to create the desired, formal appearance, “Little girls are very often wearing some of their mothers’ jewelry,” Peirce said. “And sometimes they will have, for instance, a crocheted collar on that doesn’t belong to the dress.”
Sometimes the shoes a child is wearing look a little too large — possibly borrowed from an older sibling, Peirce speculated — or several little girls in separate photos might be wearing the same muff, most likely a photographer’s prop.
Out of the binder
One day, leafing through Peirce’s binder, which easily holds twice as many photos as are in the current display, Damkoeler, like Peirce before her, found herself smitten.
“I was captivated by them,” Damkoeler said of the children in the photographs. “I sometimes didn’t even know why. Sometimes the child was just so cute or so beautiful, or it was something about the way they were standing.”
Damkoeler, who recently returned to school and received a degree in museum studies from Tufts University, found the photographs compelling on many levels.
“First, I think it humanizes the story: you look at these pictures and you realize, people lived there (in the Swift River Valley). Just as basic as that,” Damkoeler said.
“But then, I think there are ways to read these photographs to get a sense of the social norms of the day or to learn other things, or to engage in the past in different ways. For example, this little boy is wearing a Lord Fauntleroy suit,” she said, pointing to a photograph of a boy wearing long pants, a short, fitted jacket — most likely velvet — and a shirt with wide collar and long cuffs. As if the outfit wasn’t fancy enough, around the boy’s neck, someone has tied a big, flourishing bow.
The novel “Little Lord Fauntleroy” was written in 1885 by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who also wrote, “The Secret Garden” and “The Little Princess.” Illustrator Reginald Birch’s pen-and-ink drawings of the main character set off a fashion trend as parents dressed their little boys in similar outfits, making the suit “wildly popular” in Europe and then America, Damkoeler said.
Before the novel’s publication, little boys would have been wearing dresses until the age of 5 or 6; the Lord Fauntleroy illustrations were partially responsible for the shift to boys being dressed in pants at a younger age, she explained.
“I’m intrigued by the whole formality of that time period, when you think of how informal we are today,” Damkoeler said. She echoed some of Peirce’s observations as she continued, “It was really important even for children to have a dignified pose and to be dressed in their best and to be posed in front of a backdrop that looked proper.”
To give viewers a sense of what sitting for a portrait entailed in that time, Damkoeler arranged for two simulated 19th-century photography studios to be set up in the Great Room at the Discovery Center, complete with backdrops hand-painted by students from Northfield Elementary School, sixth-graders taught by visual arts specialist Althea Dabrowski. Theater director Reba-Jean Shaw-Pichette provided a rack of costumes for people to try on and Hallmark Institute of Photography students set up cameras and lighting equipment. Though the Hallmark students are now no doubt busy with portfolio requirements, the backdrops and some of the costumes are still available in the Great Room for people to use in composing and taking their own photos, Damkoeler said.
The day of the opening reception, Dabrowski posed with her sisters, Sibyl Smith and Abigail Goman, in front of one the backdrops her students had made.
“We were born and raised in Amherst,” said Goman. “The story of Quabbin is a story we know.” She recalled that a girl who had attended high school with her in Amherst had grandparents who had been forced to leave the Swift River Valley.
Dabrowksi said that creating the backdrops had been an optional project for her sixth-grade art students. Working from reproductions of studio background panels from the late 1800s, students sketched with chalk, then painted with tempera paints.
“The materials were pretty authentic,” Dabrowski said.
As they worked on the two backdrops, one an interior, the other a pastoral scene, students had a far-ranging conversation touching on questions such as: “Why do people want to have their portraits taken? Can a photographer ever capture the ‘real likeness’ of a person? What is reality? What is history?”
They discussed how toys, tools or other objects in photographs could provide clues as to who the subjects of the portraits were.
Who they were
While some of the photographs in the exhibit were well-labeled, and thus, provide accurate information as to who the children were, “So many of these don’t even have names on them,” Peirce said.
Just as we might do today, people procrastinated captioning their photographs, assuming they’d have plenty of time to do it later.
“I’m always telling people, ‘Write on it, write on it!” Peirce said. “And don’t just put that this was grandpa’s sister.’”
Marking down specific names, locations and other information in a photo album or on the backs of photographs will help people identify their subjects decades later, she said.
As for the prevalence of digital photography these days, Peirce expressed her worry that, “We’re not going to have a good photographic record of things because people have the information on their iPods instead of having a paper copy.”
“I wonder what photo albums will be like in the future?” she asked.
Peirce wasn’t convinced that digital photography’s popularity necessarily meant that it was better than the old film technology.
“Everyone used to think Polaroids were the big thing,” she said. “I took a lot of Polaroids of my children and now they’re starting to fade. It remains to be seen if (digital photography’s) better. It’s certainly going to change things.”
“Children of the Swift River Valley” will be on display at the Great Falls Discovery Center, 2, Avenue A, Turners Falls, on Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., now through March 29. Contact: 413-863-3221 or go online to: www.greatfallsdiscoverycenter.org (Damkoeler urges people to call ahead before visiting to make sure the gallery isn’t closed for a meeting or other special event.)
A satellite show, “Head to Toe, Dressed in Their Sunday Best,” is on view at the Quabbin Visitor Center, 485 Ware Road, Belchertown; hours Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. In addition to presenting about a dozen photographs from the 19th and early 20th century, the show highlights hats and shoes from the same time period.
The Swift River Valley Historical Society, 40 Elm St., New Salem, is open seasonally, beginning in June. Its collections include clothing, tools, toys, books and other objects; photographs; and documents such as town and church records, personal letters and diaries. For more information, go online to www.swiftrivermuseum.org.
Trish Crapo is a writer and photographer who lives in Leyden. She always looking for Franklin County poets with recent publications or interesting projects to interview for her column, Poets of Franklin County. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.