HISTORY OF THE STONINGTON HISTORICAL SOCIETY


By Taliaferro Boatwright
(From Historical Footnotes , May, 1995)

This year, 1995, is the centennial of the Stonington Historical Society. To quote from theStonington Mirror of Friday, February 8, 1895,

Quite a number of our citizens assembled at the rooms of the Free Library Monday evening to consider the advisability of organizing an Historical Genealogical society here. All present were in favor of forming the same and so it was done. All interested in the project of the society are invited to join, and you can do so at a meeting to (be) held Monday evening, February 18th. The following officers were elected:
President ….. Franklin Noyes
Vice Pres. ..... Samuel H. Chesebro
Secretary ….. Henry R. Palmer
Treasurer ….. Geo. D. Stanton, Jr.
With the addition of Miss Emma Palmer and the Rev. C.J. Hill, the above officers were named as an executive committee.

In the minutes of the Society is preserved an organizing document, in beautiful calligraphy, which states:

Desirous of promoting Historical and Genealogical knowledge in connection with the Town of Stonington, we whose names are hereby subscribed, form ourselves into a Society for that purpose and agree to pay One Dollar a year toward the expenses.

Eighteen persons signed the agreement.

The first constitution of the new Society, which was adopted at the initial meeting, stated that the object of the Society was "the promotion of historical and genealogical knowledge, the collection and preservation of books, pamphlets, documents, relics and other things of historical value relating to the Town of Stonington." In that "object" can be seen the seeds of the Lighthouse Museum and the Society's present-day Library and archives.

During the first years of its existence, the Society, then known as the "Stonington Historical and Genealogical Society," was small. It met quarterly, in the "rooms" of the Stonington Free Library; after 1900 in their new building in Wadawanuck Square. In many ways, the Society functioned as a literary club in the early years of its existence. It requested members and other local authorities to prepare papers on aspects of the history of the Town, which were delivered at the quarterly meetings. Among these was a paper by Miss Emma Palmer, on the Bombardment of Stonington, in the War of 1812; it was subsequently printed by the Society, the first paper to be so honored, and is still available in the archives.

Other early activities included attempts to obtain genealogies of the Denison, Miner, Palmer and Stanton families; the receipt and storage of various records, the gifts of members and others; and, in November, 1895, the formation of a committee to research the old houses of Stonington. The Society resolved at its first annual meeting in 1896, to obtain pictures of houses and notable inhabitants of the Town.

Franklin Noyes died in 1902, and Samuel H. Chesebro was elected President succeeding him, at the Annual Meeting in 1903. Samuel Chesebro wrote extensively on the houses of the Borough and their residents. He served as President of the Society for ten years, and was succeeded by Dr. James H. Weeks, who, among other interests, maintained a whaling museum in his home.

During the Great War, and for several years following it, the Society was relatively quiescent, in fact the Minute Book notes in 1922 that no dues had been paid since 1916. However, the officers were concerned about acquiring a headquarters, or home for the Society, and felt that it should be incorporated. Both ideas were under study for several years.

In 1924, J. Culbert Palmer was elected President of the Society. By July, 1925 the Lighthouse had been acquired, through the provident intercession of Eugene Atwood, and with the help of a quiet fund raising campaign. At the same time, steps were taken to incorporate as the "Stonington Historical Society."

The Annual meeting of September 25, 1925 was the last meeting of the Historical and Genealogical Society and the first of the newly incorporated Stonington Historical Society. At the meeting, Mr. J. Culbert Palmer was elected President, Judge Elias B. Hinckley, Vice-President, Dr. Charles Mallory Williams, Treasurer, and Miss Louise Trumbull, Secretary. A special committee was named to look over the old Lighthouse and determine what was needed in the way of repairs, restoration and alterations to make it suitable as a headquarters for the Society. Mr. Edward Palmer York, a prominent New York architect and Borough resident, was especially helpful in this effort.

The Society began to house its collection of books, newspapers, textiles and historical artifacts in the Lighthouse. During the summer months it operated a tea-room there, usually on the terrace but inside in inclement weather.

Both J. Culbert Palmer and E.P. York died in 1928, but the revitalized society continued to grow. Dr. Charles M. Williams was elected President in late 1928. A noteworthy effort voted by the Society the following year was the marking of all the houses in the Borough that had been standing at the time of the Battle of Stonington in 1814. Four years later, the Society organized a pageant re-enacting the Battle of Stonington, which was presented at the dedication of the new bridge across the Pawcatuck River. Among the young people participating were Clarinda York, Margaret Hamill and John Streeter. During the thirties, also, the practice of presenting papers on subjects of interest in Stonington history at society meetings was resumed, and there were many notable additions to the museum collection.

The '38 Hurricane did considerable damage to the Lighthouse Museum and grounds: the terrace was destroyed; part of the roof blown away, and the shoreline on the east side washed back about 30 feet. Repairs were made slowly.

In 1940 J. Culbert Palmer, Jr. was elected President. Shortly thereafter it became known that the former Ocean Bank building on Cannon Square was available. Williams Haynes presented a well-organized and far-reaching plan for reorganization of the Society, which included purchase of the bank building, setting it up as headquarters for the society, and operating it as a second museum. In 1942, the building was purchased, but the demands of the War precluded work on establishing it as a headquarters, or indeed, many society activities other than caretaker tasks. Instead, the building was leased to the American Red Cross, who used it throughout the war.

In 1947, Commander Griffith Bailey Coale, a noted artist, was elected President of the Society. The bank building was rented to the New London City National Bank, and the Society turned its attention to the Stonington Tercentenary, in 1949. Williams Haynes compiled The Stonington Chronology, which was published as part of the Stonington Tricentennial celebrations. The Society was able to add many items to its collections, as a result of the attention paid the Tercentenary. Many of its members participated in the colorful events.

In 1950, after the untimely death of Griffith Coale, Stephen Hurlbut was elected President. With the devoted and enlightened help of his wife, Irene, who became Curator of the Lighthouse Museum, the Society was transformed, over the next decade, from a largely amateur organization, with a tea-room, but few assets, to a flourishing, solvent society, with a valuable historical collection. It was greatly helped by the gift, in 1952 by Colonel Frederick Horner, of the Arcade Building, which was converted into an office and apartments, and provided a welcome source of income. The Society Library was moved to a room on the ground floor of the Stonington Free Library, now the Stimson Room.

In 1959, Stuart Webb was elected President. At this time a new interstate highway was being built through southeastern Connecticut. Its proposed route went through a Colonial home, Whitehall Mansion. The owners, Professor and Mrs. DeWitt T. Keach offered to give the house, which would be moved, and its new grounds to the Society. After considerable discussion, the Trustees voted to accept the gift. The President resigned, and was succeeded, on a temporary basis, by Mrs. Stephen Hurlbut. The work of moving and reconstructing Whitehall proceeded. When it was complete, the Society moved its Library and archives, and its office there, began furnishing the house appropriately, placed its collection of clothing and costumes in it and opened it for exhibition as a Colonial home during the summer months.

In 1963, following a suggestion by Williams Haynes, part of another thoughtful and thorough-going plan for the Society, the Society began publishing a quarterly bulletin, Historical Footnotes. Its first issue was dated November, 1963. In August, 1964 it published a notable special issue on the Battle of Stonington, fought 150 years earlier.

In 1964, Captain Robert J. Ramsbotham was elected President of the Society, a position he was to have for a quarter of a century, and one in which he guided the Society wisely and effectively. During his tenure, the Lighthouse Museum and Whitehall Mansion were maintained and improved, with the former drawing increasing numbers of visitors; the Society published a number of books, including an updated Chronology, issued for the 1976 Bicentennial, and Stonington Graveyards; carried out many educational programs for school children and others: provided historical and genealogical information for inquirers and researchers; and added substantially to its membership.

In 1994, after study, and with the help of special donations, the Society acquired the "Palmer-Loper House," the one-time residence of Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer, hailed as the discoverer of the Antarctic Continent, and on of Stonington's most famous sons. As it enters its second century, the society faces a challenging future.