‘Becoming Whately’: New exhibit tells town’s story through historical objects

  • A look at one of the various industries that popped up in Whately in the 19th century. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Paleo-American flint spear and javelin heads excavated in Whately. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Judy Markland curated the Becoming Whately: A History in Objects exhibit that explores the history of the town through objects from different time periods. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 6/17/2022 5:25:30 PM
Modified: 6/17/2022 5:25:18 PM

Residents of Whately may know the town has a rich history of pottery and is now an agricultural community, but how many know of the bustling industries that once planted their roots here? And while older folks may remember, how many people remember the water crisis of the 1980s?

These questions and more can be answered with the Whately Historical Society’s new exhibit, “Becoming Whately: A History in Objects,” which looks to shine a light on the parts of the town’s history that may have slipped through the cracks of time. Curated by resident Judy Markland ahead of the town’s 250th anniversary, the exhibit features a wide range of objects that tell the story of Whately, from 10,000 B.C. to the present day. Funding for the exhibit comes from the Whately and state cultural councils.

“We tend to think of Whately being 250 years old,” Markland said, adding that the town and area’s history goes back through eras of history. “I saw another history in objects exhibit … I thought it’d be a way to show off the collection and to show off Whately too.”

The oldest items, Paleo-American flint spear and javelin points, were excavated from the nearby Sugarloaf excavation site and date from 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Markland said flint is uncommon in the Pioneer Valley, which means traveling packs of hunter-gatherers found their way to the area and followed the banks of the rivers, which “funneled” deer and other animals into the area.

As the climate changed over the course of thousands of years, farming became a viable option for humans in the area and the Native American tribes began to settle. As these tribes grew and began communicating with one another, they developed trails that Markland noted are still in use today.

“The trails are now the roads we use today,” she said, pointing out River and Long Plain roads on a map of the Native American trails.

Fast forwarding to the American Revolution and century beyond that, Whately’s pottery industry began flourishing. Markland described pottery as a “heavily family-oriented” industry at first, but as pottery demand grew, mills were needed to keep up with production.

“They were selling them by the dozen and they would produce thousands,” said Neal Abraham, the president of the Whately Historical Society, adding it cost several dollars per dozen. “One factory would produce 10,000 to 20,000 a year.”

Abraham noted that Whately’s pottery was famous for its color, but the region lacked good “starting powder.” The pottery industry in town, however, was generating so much income that residents and factories were able to import the powder for their own use.

While Whately’s pottery is well-known, Markland highlighted a bustling broom-making industry that many people don’t know existed in the region beyond Historic Deerfield, which often hosts broom-making classes.

“It’s something that’s lost as a part of valley history except for Deerfield,” Markland said. “Broomcorn was one of the first major cash crops in Whately.”

Whately’s fertile soil for planting and lush forests for broom handles lent themselves to the growing industry, which exported 180,000 brooms in 1848. Being a tool that everyone needed and also something that could be worked on during the winter months, broom-making was a “huge business,” until the opening and expansion of the Erie Canal in the early to mid-1800s facilitated mass trade and travel throughout New England and the Midwest.

“Geography is what determines so many industries,” Markland said. “This was a big deal.”

Passing by the text of Whately’s 1771 petition to separate from the town of Hatfield, Markland pointed out a display highlighting the Whately Water Crisis from 1984 to 1987, which she said was a “fascinating story of how the town coped.”

From 1979 to 1983, the insecticide Temik was discovered to have polluted wells around town. As more and more polluted wells were found, the Selectboard declared a state of emergency during Memorial Day Weekend 1984 and the town got to work. Several solutions were proposed, including joining Deerfield or Hatfield’s water systems, which did not have the capacity for the full town. This kicked off a blitz of town planning and a long grant-seeking process that garnered national attention — as shown by story excerpts from the New York Times in the display.

The process was nearly derailed in August 1986 when a Town Meeting was called and a two-thirds majority was needed to approve the appropriation of millions of dollars for the new water system. The article passed by a single vote. All throughout this time, the National Guard and other government entities were bringing water tanks to the town to ensure residents had clean water.

“It must have been agonizing,” Markland said. “People that moved here in the last 20 or 30 years didn’t hear about this.”

Other displays show the history of indentured servitude of young girls in the town, the wallet-making industry of Whately and the trolley system that ran through the town from 1903 to 1924. To visit Becoming Whately, people can visit the Whately Historical Society, which is located in the Town Hall at 194 Chestnut Plain Road. The Historical Society is open on Tuesdays from 9 a.m. to noon. As part of the town’s 250th anniversary celebration, the Historical Society is open today and June 25 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m, along with additional hours on June 21 from noon to 2 p.m. and 4 to 7 p.m.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.


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