Dining with History: Always up for a good potluck, Heath residents also serve up tasty stories
Art Schwenger reads an 1882 letter from W.L. Sumner to cousins Edmund and Lucinda Gleason. Doug Mason photo
Rebecca Dorr-Sampson reads from the Journal of Grace Landstrom that dates to the 1910s. Doug Mason photo.
Lois Buchiane and Ruth Johnson reminisce about childhood winters in Heath. Doug Mason photo.
Doug Mason photo
The next production of Dining with History will take place on Saturday, July 26, in the Community Hall in Heath Center, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Pictured, a previous Dining With History. Doug Mason photo
Doug Mason photo
During a previous Dining with History, Kara Leistyna reads an excerpt from the History of Heath.
Doug Mason photo
During a previous Dining with History, Nancy Thane acts as M.C.
Doug Mason photo
During a previous Dining with History, Bob Gruen reads recollections of time in Heath from James Hobart Childs.
The Heath Historical Society has been going strong since 1900. It owns and maintains four historical sites in town. Its membership roll numbers more than 200. Its all-volunteer staff maintains three buildings with archives that include letters, diaries and numerous artifacts.
Early in 2013, board members of the society came up with a novel way to highlight Heath’s past and make it more relevant to Heathans in the present.
“We were at a historical society meeting and we sort of lamented the fact that we have open houses on occasion and not very many people attend them,” recalled board member Nancy Thane.
“Kara (Leistyna) and I started brainstorming with others at the meeting to see what we could do that would be more interesting to people. Some kind of a presentation. And, it should be fun,” Thane added. “Well, I always liked dinner theater and people in Heath always like a potluck.”
They decided to combine those two factors and mount an event called Dining with History. The first dinner in January 2013 set the format for those to come. Several Heath residents were asked to read from archival materials or to tell personal and family stories on stage.
In between readings, audience members enjoyed a potluck supper and discussed the program.
That first evening proved so successful that the Historical Society has organized four more. A sixth program will take place on Saturday, July 26, at the Community Hall in Heath Center.
Leistyna and Thane serve as producers and directors of the dinner shows, with help from other Historical Society members and town residents. The two begin their planning by choosing a theme for the next event.
“We look through the stuff we have,” explained Thane. “We gather materials. We think of other things we might need or might like to have and start asking people what they have in their attics. We look for a variety of material.”
“People really enjoy sharing. Every once in a while I’ll get something in the mail that this wonderful old farmer will send,” she added.
Leistyna noted that a rich source of materials for the series came to her almost by accident. A friend who sells ephemera called her after finding boxes of old letters from the turn of the 20th century that appeared to be from Heath.
“Nancy and I scoured through the boxes,” said Leistyna.
The themes of the programs are usually tailored to the time of year. A Father’s Day session honored Heath’s town fathers — and even one of our nation’s fathers.
Bob Viarengo donned pantaloons, a period coat, a tricorner hat and a wig to read a letter from George Washington to his colleague General William Heath, after whom the town was named. (Costumes are optional, but Thane and Leistyna report that many of their thespians like to wear them.)
Perhaps the most popular program so far — particularly among younger Heathans — was last fall’s Halloween-related dinner, in which the vignettes focused on ghosts in Heath.
Historical Society president Nina Marshall has 5-year-old twins. “My kids were absolutely spellbound; they were so fascinated by the ghost stories,” recalled Marshall. “For months afterwards, they were repeating some of the lines that they’d heard in the stories.”
Marshall is thrilled with the response to Dining with History.
“The town and (Historical Society) members just love these things,” she enthused. “Bringing the collection alive is something that we want to do and that’s one of the reasons we came up with Dining with History ... I’m really proud of what we have been able to do.”
She believes that the culinary aspect of the evening is crucial to the program’s success. “Heath is famous for its potlucks,” she explained. “They’re really some of the more gourmet meals you’ll find. (Dinner is) a great way to get the community involved.”
Participants in the entertainment also find the evenings delightful. Budge Litchfield enjoyed reading an 1883 letter from Fred Gleason to his future wife, Della Mae Stetson, (portrayed by Litchfield’s wife, Sheila).
”I really had a sense in looking at (the letter) that this young man was pretty shy and a little unsure of himself but was definitely sweet on this young lady. I read it that way,” he said.
Litchfield has attended several of the evening programs. “It’s a nice way to experience Heath history and visit with your neighbors and have a nice potluck meal,” he said.
Lois Buchiane participated in a program last winter that highlighted traditions of cold-weather fun in Heath. She and another longtime Heath resident, Ruth Johnson, sat and reminisced informally about their childhoods. They also shared family stories.
Buchiane’s family, the Bensons, will celebrate its 200th anniversary as Heath residents next year. She is descended from storytellers; her great-grandfather wrote for an earlier incarnation of this newspaper.
“He could spin a good yarn,” Buchiane said with a smile.
The series tries to mix the generations, explained Nancy Thane. Buchiane is 88. Austin Sumner, who read an undated school essay from Fred Gleason, is 10.
“It was interesting to be up there and actually talk about people that lived a while ago in Heath,” said the young Sumner. “I would like to do it again.”
Clearly, Nancy Thane, Kara Leistyna and their fellow Historical Society board members plan to keep the program going as long as possible.
Thane is a retired teacher. “I love teaching,” she said. “This program to me is one of the ways one does a natural kind of teaching. I think people are going away with a better understanding of our town and maybe a little more knowledge of history in general.”
Leistyna concurred. “My feeling about history is, it shouldn’t just be in a dusty box.”
Examples from past readings
“The Autumn,” written by Anna W. Maxwell in November 1845; read by Nancy Thane.
“The winds have now, a wild and pensive tone That tells the heart of loneliness and gloom; ark clouds are hanging in the skies blue zone, And summer beauties now fling off their bloom Decay’s gray mantle silently is thrown Oh, nature’s face, But, Autumn! Thou canst fill with hallowed thoughts the bosom, sad and lone, for all thy charms are solemn, pure, and still A soft and twilight loveliness is thine; And ere the trees their “leafy honors” shed, Their fading robes — their Autumn dresses shine With changing hues of yellow, green and red; We gaze upon them — and the tear is starting; For they are like our joys — seem brightest when departing.”
“The Old Time and the New,” by F.E. Gleason (no date); read by Austin Sumner
“Within a few years it took weeks, even months, and sometimes longer to send a message across the ocean. Now, people can converse with each other, thousands of miles away. A few years ago, the stage coach was the only means of public conveyance. Now we can go in the cars from one place to another in a very short time. Time was when the Farmer had only scythe and rake to do his haying. Now he has his mowing machine and horse rake so he can ride over his fields which makes it much easier for him. In the olden time, all the cloth was made by hand on the spinning wheel and loom. Now it is made by machinery which is run by steam and water power. Now what has helped to make all this improvement but the energy and perseverance of the people.”
Dining with History July 26
The next production of Dining with History will take place on Saturday, July 26, in the Community Hall in Heath Center, from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Its theme is “Summer Fun in Heath.” The Old Town House and Center School buildings, also in Heath Center, will be open from 3 to 5 p.m.
Guests are asked to bring a dish to share; plates and beverages will be provided. Dining with History is open to the public. There is no charge for admission, although contributions to the Heath Historical Society are welcome. For more information, contact Nancy Thane at 337-5580.
Photographer Doug Mason’s website is www.douglasmason.com/