- Historic Sites
This Is Tranquil Deerfield
As it Looked Ninety Years Ago…
April 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 3
Traffic is heavy on U.S. 5 running north from Springfield, Massachusetts, up into the vacation lands of Vermont and New Hampshire. Not far from the Vermont border the road signs say “Deerfield”- but most drivers neither stop nor slow down, for the village lies to one side, a quarter of a mile off the highway. They thereby miss one of the most fascinating of New England’s communities—rich in historic memories, with many old and wonderful houses and few modern “improvements” to mar the peaceful village atmosphere.
One potent force in keeping Deerfield much the way it was in the eighteenth century, when it was rebuilt alter the infamous Deerfield Massacre of 1704, has been Deerfield Academy, a distinguished school that has educated American boys steadily since its founding in 1797. Dr. Frank L. Boyden, Deerfield’s famous headmaster, and the trustees have long encouraged preservation of the character of the old village—something they have been able to do effectively because the academy owns and maintains a number of colonial houses which are inhabited by faculty members and other villagers. The result is that visitors to Deerfield today might easily recogni/.e it from the views seen above.
The boys at Deerfield take a considerable interest in the historic surroundings of their school, though in general their enthusiasm, divided between scholarly matters and such natural concerns as skiing, electric guitars, and girls, is not especially remarkable. About two years ago, however, nine members of the junior class who happened to be unusually interested in the history of American culture put their heads together and decided to make better use of the rare advantages of Deerfielcl.∗ Almost immediately, they found a helpful ally in the Heritage Foundation (no connection with AMERICAN HERITAGE ), established at Deerfielcl in 1952 by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Flynt for the purpose of preserving collections of Americana in and around Old Deerfield. Mr. Joseph Peter Spang III, associate curator of the Foundation, became an advisor to the group of inquisitive boys, and they began to meet once a week to study the village’s historical collections and its colonial architecture.
∗ Christopher P. Monkhouse was the boy most active in forming the “American Studies Group,” as they called it. The others were: Russell M. Brooks, 1). Preston Goodheart, Peter A. Halstead, Osmun R. Latrobe, Robert J. McKay III, Teri N. Towe, Maurice w. willcy, Jr., and Timothy B. Wolfe.
The enterprise went well enough, but by the spring of 1964 the boys began to itch for a specific project to work on—something through which they could themselves make a contribution in the field of American studies. They had gradually become aware that on the walls of museums and homes in the Deerfiekl Valley there were a good many attractive paintings and drawings signed “Champ,” or, more formally, “J. Wells Champney,” with dates ranging from the 1870'$ through KJOO. Who was J. Wells Champney? In a sense, answering that question, with ample illustrations, became the project the boys had been seeking. For they were not long in discovering that Champney was very much a Deerfield artist, having spent nearly all of his last thirty summers in the village, where he painted Deerfield scenes with skill and unmistakable affection. Beyond that basic fact, however, information was not so easy to come by. Champney had died in 1903, and since then had been, it seemed, largely forgotten. The boys plunged in, and by dint of many weeks of hard work, slowly assembled a mass of fads about the artist in whose life Deerfield had played such a meaningful part. But now a further project occurred to them: why not try to gather together enough Champney paintings for a full-fledged show in the Academy’s Hilson Gallery? the elm before their Decrfield home; son Frère ignores the game.
It took a year to do it, and the co-operation of many outsiders; but by April of 1965 they were ready with a representative exhibit—more than eighty of Champney’s oils, water colors, and pastels, plus many drawings and photographs, loaned from museums and private homes in various parts of New England and New York. With that accomplished, Curator Spang and the boys went to work and produced an impressive illustrated catalogue including complete descriptions of the pictures in the exhibit, as well as a biographical sketch of “Champ,” critical observations on his work, and a bibliography. A condensation of the biographical sketch, which was the work of Robert J. McKay, '65, appears on the following pages, and our captions draw heavily on the catalogue. — The Editors