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A time to share stories

  • Lt. Daniel Thayer of the New Salem Fire Department goofs around on a tricycle at Old Home Day on Saturday after being challenged by a fellow firefighter to race.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Lt. Daniel Thayer of the New Salem Fire Department goofs around on a tricycle at Old Home Day on Saturday after being challenged by a fellow firefighter to race.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Residents gather on Old Main Street in New Salem on Saturday to listen to Charles Neville & the Skeletones during Old Home Day.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Residents gather on Old Main Street in New Salem on Saturday to listen to Charles Neville & the Skeletones during Old Home Day.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Sonya Gordon-Halpern, 5, tries her hand at cross-cutting with the help of family friend Margie McGinnis and grandfather Joe Halpern at Old Home Day in New Salem on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Sonya Gordon-Halpern, 5, tries her hand at cross-cutting with the help of family friend Margie McGinnis and grandfather Joe Halpern at Old Home Day in New Salem on Saturday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Austin Paine, 11, eyes competitor Bill Daniels' solar car as he exclaims during "the final heat" of races at New Salem Old Home Day on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

    Austin Paine, 11, eyes competitor Bill Daniels' solar car as he exclaims during "the final heat" of races at New Salem Old Home Day on Saturday.
    Recorder/Micky Bedell Purchase photo reprints »

  • Lt. Daniel Thayer of the New Salem Fire Department goofs around on a tricycle at Old Home Day on Saturday after being challenged by a fellow firefighter to race.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Residents gather on Old Main Street in New Salem on Saturday to listen to Charles Neville & the Skeletones during Old Home Day.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Sonya Gordon-Halpern, 5, tries her hand at cross-cutting with the help of family friend Margie McGinnis and grandfather Joe Halpern at Old Home Day in New Salem on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell
  • Austin Paine, 11, eyes competitor Bill Daniels' solar car as he exclaims during "the final heat" of races at New Salem Old Home Day on Saturday.<br/>Recorder/Micky Bedell

NEW SALEM — While Saturday’s Old Home Day focused on “going green,” groups worked on preserving a nonrenewable resource that’s not often mentioned in lectures on sustainability: stories of yesteryear.

Kay Leonard of the Historical Commission used the annual summer festival as a way to springboard her new oral history project, “A Historic Moment.”

“If we don’t capture history now, it’s gone,” Leonard said.

Throughout the day, Leonard interviewed several New Salemites. She hopes to collect stories and memories from the town’s older residents as well as some of its younger citizens.

“Yesterday is history, too, after all,” she explained. “So many people have good memories to share, and every one adds a little to the whole.”

Memory is a funny thing, and sometimes our minds can embellish the details of our experiences. Leonard said the occasional inaccuracy doesn’t take away from the historical value of someone’s stories. In fact, she said, it can have the opposite effect.

“Sometimes, people’s stories are almost more real than what actually happened. It gives history personality.”

Those who would like to contribute their own New Salem stories, or suggest people for Leonard to interview, can call her at 978-544-7645.

“Remember, they don’t have to be Earth-shattering stories,” she said.

While Leonard works to capture the stories of yore on tape, another local history buff is getting them onto the printed page and into the display case of the New Salem Academy Museum.

Eleanor McGinnis of the Friends of Historic New Salem has been corresponding with alumni of the New Salem Academy far and wide, collecting their stories and more tangible artifacts since 2006.

“It’s been loads of fun,” she said. “I’ve been talking to alumni all over the country and lots of them are willing to donate things.”

Posters, senior portraits and pictures of class trips, old trophies and awards, diplomas, event posters and a slew of typewritten tales can be found upstairs in the academy’s museum.

The other side of the top floor has been restored to represent an 1880s classroom.

If you’ve got a story or item for the academy museum, you can reach McGinnis at 978-575-0440.

“We would love to have more stories from alumni, and artifacts from the school,” McGinnis said.

McGinnis, who graduated from New Salem Academy in 1957 as Eleanor Mealand, never attended class in the old wooden Academy building that now houses a museum. She went to the new old New Salem Academy next door, a stone building that’s since been turned into a private home.

The old old academy was first built in 1795, and burned to the ground in 1838. It was rebuilt through the donations and labor of the townsfolk, and remained the town’s school until the newer stone building opened in 1908, serving the town until 1987.

The museum’s collection includes a handwritten letter detailing the day the school burned.

“They were holding class at the time, and people sitting across the street on the common saw the fire,” McGinnis explained. “It burned entirely within an hour.”

The museum also contains several letters detailing big events in town, like the Hurricane of 1938, which left the town cut off from the rest of the world for eight long days.

There are also less dire accounts of goings-on in, around, and on top of the school.

In 1940, a young Russell Cox, Class of 1939, was repainting the old academy’s steeple. Unbeknownst to him, the U.S. Army Air Corps was out on practice bombing runs near the Quabbin Reservoir. Evening came and they started to fly back toward Chicopee’s Westover air base, while Cox was still hard at work.

“The first one buzzed me, and the second one came over even closer,” Cox, now 95, recalled.

“I grabbed a hold of that steeple tight, and I was eatin’ paint,” he said. “The planes were so low they suctioned the steeple as they went by.”

It was like being in a small car that gets pulled into the vacuum of a passing tractor-trailer, he said, only he was about 30 feet off the ground and not strapped into a rolling steel cage.

Cox has lived in New Salem since he moved from New Jersey with his parents at the age of 5. They started out living in the academy’s dormitories, then moved in with nearby family members. His father went on to become chief of the police and fire departments, and Cox served as a firefighter as well.

“I used to pump gas, too, at Stowell’s store, back when we pumped it by hand.”

You can reach David Rainville at: drainville@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 279

On Twitter, follow @RecorderRain

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