A Good Year

For many people, 2016 was, to quote from social media, “a dumpster fire.” Between what feels like an incredibly large number of celebrity deaths, and the events of November 8, it certainly had its moments. For me, though, it has been one of the best years in quite a while.

The atmosphere at work changed from the very first day of the year. We started a new chapter (excuse the pun), which led to my getting a promotion. The job I have now is not anything I ever imagined I would do. However, I enjoy it. I’m good at it. And most importantly, my work is respected.

I dated. For many of you, this is no big deal. It was huge for me. Maybe I’m too particular (this did not involve any commercial web sites), maybe it’s social anxiety, maybe it’s this, maybe it’s that. Whatever. For a few hours this summer, I was able to put that all aside and hang out with a guy.

My best friend from high school and I started our birthday celebrations a couple months early this year. We spent a weekend in New York, having splurged on tickets to Hamilton. The show was (as you’ve probably heard once or twice) amazing. Getting to spend hours walking around the city, on beautiful, sunny days, talking about everything and anything, was equally wonderful.

Later in the summer I was asked to be the Vice Chair of the Hartford Jewish Film Fest (March 16-26, 2017…see you there!). I’ve been on the committee for a few years now, but this is my first leadership role with the Hartford Jewish community. The film fest falls into the category of ‘lots of fun and lots of hard work,’ and I’m looking forward to being more involved than I have been.

img_4893The next step in my birthday celebration was a week in Wisconsin with my family. We
stayed at a lake where my grandparents used to have a house. I was able to visit with friends I hadn’t seen in a few years, introduce my niece and nephew to some very dangerous (but incredibly beloved) playground equipment, and spend copious amounts of time outdoors. Swimming in the lake is one of my favorite activities, and I don’t get to do it nearly as often as I used to. Even the morning it was 48°, I was in for a dip before breakfast!

img_5152When my actual birthday arrived, I celebrated with a bike ride from West Hartford to Old Saybrook. It was another warm, sunny day, and perfect for the 54 mile trip. By mid-September, the water in Long Island Sound has reached a perfect temperature. It was incredibly refreshing after spending four hours on the bike. My mother met me at the beach, we had lunch, did some shopping, and then she drove me home. Later that day a friend and I went to Mozzicato’s, where I had just the right amount of cake.

Though I have branded myself as Cycling Archivist, over the past few years I have done increasingly more of the former and less of the latter. This fall I had the opportunity to process a collection for the Watkinson Library at Trinity College. It’s a small collection (less than three linear feet), but I welcomed the opportunity to get back in the game. Working full time at one job, and trying to fit in another four or five hours a week at a second job, is tough. There are some interesting pieces, though, and I’m glad I got to work with them (I wrote five blog entries between October 28 and December 14 about the collection. Search for ‘Wells’).

Cycling. It has continued to be a huge part of my life. On the last day of July I realized I was a mere 35 miles away from hitting 500 for the month on my road bike (I don’t keep track of distance on my hybrid). I couldn’t let that milestone slip by. My pace for the ride ended up being my fastest ever. Most Saturdays I have a friend to ride with, which is wonderful. One Sunday I went out with some racers. It was fast, and I couldn’t really keep up, but I gave myself points for going on a group ride (I’m a slow rider and generally avoid group rides because of the frustration they bring). My biggest cycling accomplishment of the year, though, is my new personal best record for biking to work. As of this writing, I haven’t missed a day commuting since February 23. That includes the day in April when it snowed, which I admit was a

Commuting in December’s single degree temps.

mistake. Excluding weekends, holidays, and vacations, I have ridden to work 191 days in a row. For the year, I have 218 commutes. Yes, there have been days I’ve switched vehicles at lunch. But I still got in the bike ride. Who knows what Mother Nature has in store, but I am trying to get as close to February 23, 2017 as I can!

One of the best holiday gifts I got was the weather in Atlanta during my recent trip there. I was able to ride my sister’s bike each day, including Christmas Day, when it was 75°!

Don’t worry, the year wasn’t perfect. Amid all these high points, were certainly were some low ones. But the first time in a while, the highs were more numerous. A lot of this was luck, and things I won’t necessarily be able to replicate next year. Friends have had marriages end in 2016, and have lost family members and close friends. Certainly for them, this was not the best year. I hope everyone else, though, can look beyond the top headlines, and see that there were many good things that happened in 2016.

Hartford Outside the Box: The first six months

Back in June I started a series on my professional blog about archival materials available for research in Hartford. I have reached the halfway point (yay!) and decided I would share the posts over here.

Introduction – An explanation of why I am doing this, and some of the thoughts I had as to how I would be going about it.

July: Music in Bushnell Park

August: Eliza Read Sunderland

August/September Extra

September: H[amilton] Outside the Box – Eliza Eaton

(I had to concentrate on a post I was asked to write for an archives group, so there was no entry for October.)

November: Harriet Jacobs

December: Caroline Hewins

I have an idea for January, but February – June are completely open at this point. I hope you enjoy these, and Happy New Year!

Colgate, Art, and Judaism

Revelation, Elbert Weinberg, 1963
Revelation, Elbert Weinberg, 1963 (Chapel House, Colgate University, Hamilton, NY)

When my alma mater, Colgate University, announced that former Israeli President Shimon Peres would be speaking on campus, I decided I wanted to be there. My rationale was really nothing more than, “Hey, I visited that guy’s country last year. I wonder what he has to say.”

The biggest challenge was that he was speaking during Family Weekend. This meant there was no room at the inn – any inn – within about 60 miles. But I have a very good network of archivists, and soon found a place to stay.

As I approached the highway entrance ramp in Hartford, I looked down to see that my odometer read 10,013 miles. My car knew it was going to Colgate.

Label accompanying the sculpture
Label accompanying the sculpture (click to enlarge)

One of the first things I did when I arrived in Hamilton was to walk up to Chapel House. I was intent on finding the sculpture by Elbert Weinberg that I knew was there but, to the best of my knowledge, had never seen before. Weinberg was, among other things, a Hartford native, and a Jew. Here in Hartford his work can be seen in front of the State Armory building on the corner of Capitol and Broad (center of photo), at the Mandell Jewish Community Center on Bloomfield Ave in West Hartford, and at Hartford Public Library. Earlier this year I was processing his papers, which are held by the Library. I had previously seen old photographs of the sculpture at Colgate, but it was great to have the opportunity to see it in person.

Shimon Peres is still jet setting across continents at age 91. In conversation with Colgate alum and ABC News’ Bob Woodward, Peres delivered a message of peace. He promoted science and technology, and was encouraging to students (I certainly hope) and non-students (I can vouch for that).

Whether or not anyone else is impressed, it was fascinating to me to be able to combine my love of Colgate, archives work, and involvement with the Jewish community in one weekend trip.

My Review of #NEAfall12 (and archivist conferences in general)

I tend to be a harsh critic of the New England Archivist (NEA) meetings. This is primarily because I have never lived, worked, or studied in Boston or at Simmons College. To me, the meetings always have the air of a Simmons reunion, and that is not what I need from my regional conference. I usually attend because I feel that I should, not because I am actually excited about it. So to attend yesterday (schedule), and to be glad I did, was a welcome surprise.

The Conference and Twitter

At conferences I use Twitter to connect with other attendees, to take notes, and to share information with other archivists. The NEA sessions do not (at least this time) have individual session numbers. With three concurrent sessions, the result on Twitter can be confusing. This meeting’s theme was proactive archivists, and my contribution was to give each of the sessions an identifier. I saw that at least one other tweeter used the list, which is enough success for me.  An incredibly generous and trusting friend let me borrow her iPad,  significantly aiding my ability to live tweet. Reviewing my tweets this morning, I can see room for improvement. One of the best parts, however, was noticing the tweets that were re-tweeted or marked as favorites by non-archivists who follow me. A MIT alum, for example, re-tweeted one of my notes from the session on the Edgerton project.

My favorite aspect of the conference was the way in which the presenters approached their subjects with humor. It is difficult to convey this, but it was most notable in the session on “Things They Didn’t Teach me in Library School.” Janaya Kizzie, Archivist at RBS Citizens Financial Group (Citizens Bank), couldn’t show us any images, as that might have been in violation of federal law. Instead, she brought her literal archivist’s toolkit. A large messenger bag, it contained all the tools she routinely brought with her on site visits. Many of these tools, such as a headlamp, double as hurricane supplies, so she was all set for last week’s storm. Also among the items Janaya had with her was a copy of the movie National Treasure. She said she uses it to explain her job to people! Overall, the most important thing corporate life has taught Janaya is to have her elevator speech at the ready.

Following Janaya was Sam Smallidge, from the Converse archives. Yes, Converse as in Chucks. He provided a history of the archives, including an incident that sent shoes flying through a window and out into the flooded street below. Employees also seem to have stored items from the archives in their own desks, for safe keeping. Slowly, items such as those are being returned. Sam is also filling in holes in the collection by buying from eBay.

Also in this session, Marta Crilly, City of Boston Archives, described social media outreach. Having been involved with Twitter and Facebook at my previous job, I appreciated many of her comments, particularly that you never know what your audience is going to enjoy. For that reason, post a variety of items, even if you think they are boring. It turns out people in Boston enjoy images from the 1970s…because they remember whatever it was!

An unusual component to the program, yet highly worthwhile, was the informational session about NEA Roundtables. I would guess that the majority of the attendees were in the room, as nothing else was scheduled for that time. Paige Roberts, Gregor Trinkaus-Randall, Elizabeth Slomba, and Kari Smith each spoke about aspects of Roundtables and their benefit to NEA and SAA members. The NEA roundtables are being structured in the same way as SAA’s. Gregor gave an overview of how they work, and how they benefit both members and SAA leadership. In essence, roundtables will focus on issues that can not be discussed in depth at the biannual meetings. Elizabeth gave the example of informational sessions about rare books. Once established, the hope is that some of these smaller groups will be able to advise NEA leadership as necessary. Kari Smith has already taken the initiative to start a digital archivists roundtable. Though the guidelines say 30 signatures are required to form a group, don’t let that stop you. Be proactive! If there is interest, a roundtable can be formed.

Archives Conferences in General

Morning Ride in Chicago, August 2011

What I have learned over the past few years is that you have to make a conference – regional or national – work for you. It will surprise few readers that two things which have made conferences work for me over the past several years are bicycles and Twitter. As I prepared to travel to Chicago for the Society of American Archivists (SAA) Annual Meeting in 2011, I commented on Twitter that the cost of renting a bike in the city was going to be higher than I would have preferred. One tweet led to another, and the next thing I knew I was able to get up before sessions and pedal a bike, borrowed from a fellow archivist, along the Lake Michigan trail. Bicycling and meeting someone new, in one fell swoop. My helmet also became a conversation starter as I carried it around the NEA Spring 2012 meeting at Wesleyan University. With the conference less than 20 miles away, I had no excuse not to attend. Unwilling to give up a Saturday ride, I decided to combine the two. Yes, it meant I arrived late and missed a highly regarded plenary, but it was what I needed. Not only was the helmet a conversation starter then, but when I encountered an archivist yesterday who had ridden to Simmons, it was common ground for a chat between sessions. Of course, I neglected to introduce myself and have no idea what her name is, but it’s still progress.

I recognize that Twitter is not for everyone, but it has been an invaluable resource for me. One of the major reasons I decided to attend NEA yesterday was that two friends, who I originally met through Twitter, were members of the program committee. I wanted to support their efforts by attending. Once I arrived at Simmons, I took a cue from other groups and conferences (particularly the SNAP Roundtable at SAA) and used Twitter to find a lunch buddy. I introduced myself to my lunch buddy at the end of the first session. At the same time, I met the person she had been sitting with. One lunch buddy tweet and I met two new people. Now I will have even more people to look for at the next conference.

Hubway bikeshare on the Fenway, November 2012

No one conference can be everything for everyone. But as I have found, if you find a ways to personalize them for yourself, they will be much more enjoyable in the long run.

Your floor, sir.

At work today we had a group of fourth graders visiting from one of Hartford’s elementary schools. We had half an hour in which to introduce them to primary source materials. My supervisor, Brenda, and I created an exercise that included using city directories from the early 1900s.

If you are not familiar with city directories, you should be. They are awesome and we really need to bring them back. Similar to a phone book, they list residents of the city during a given year, along with their job, work location, and home address. The format of the directories would change from time to time, but the ones we were using today also have a street index, listing the head of household at each house number on the street.

The kids were supposed to look up a street, find the names of three residents, and then look up the residents in the main portion of the directory to learn more about them. One of the groups I was assisting looked up a man who was an “elev. op.” Uncertain what this stood for, they asked me for help. Although there are some definitions explained in the directory, this one was not. When I told them the man was an elevator operator, I received a bunch of puzzled looks. I continued to tell them that there used to be people who would press the elevator buttons for you. A boy in the group turned to me and said, “That sounds like a minimum wage job.” I had never thought about it that way.

G. Fox Elevator Crew, ca. 1945, Connecticut Historical Society collections (Gift of Henry Board).

Another fun moment was when Brenda introduced me as an archivist and asked if anyone knew what an archivist does. One very enthusiastic girl raised her hand, and when called upon, said that an archivist is someone who researches arcs. Have to give her points for trying!


Up, Down, and All Around

The first time I climbed the Traveler’s Tower I was in second grade. My memory of the field trip does not actually include the observation deck, however. I remember scratching my wristwatch on a street-level wall. And I believe one of the other classes got ice cream later on at Elizabeth Park (they had the cool teacher). The funny thing is that now, over 29 years later, I’m realizing that the way I remember the watch scratching incident, it couldn’t have happened. I wear my watch on my left wrist, and as I remember the wall, it was on the right.

Yesterday I inadvertently left my current watch at home, and it was more of a hot beverage day than cold ice cream. However, I found out the tower was going to be open for tours, and was intent on being in line when they started.

The tower was open as part of downtown Hartford’s EnvisionFest. I had some fun getting there. As I biked along Capitol Ave., a well intentioned pedestrian I encountered at the intersection with Laurel St. informed me I wanted to turn right, not continue straight. As the light turned green, I tried to quickly explain that I was not riding the Discover Hartford route. I’m not sure he understood.

I locked up my bike and walked toward Travelers. After circling the block and not finding anything indicating where the tours would begin, I decided to ask at an information booth. One girl tried to tell me the Travelers building was in the direction of Bushnell Park. She did not believe me when I pointed directly at it and basically told her she was wrong. My cycling attire (helmet and fluorescent jacket) caused some confusion as well. A guy at the same booth suggested I wanted to be in Bushnell Park because that’s where the bicycling was taking place. I had a very hard time convincing him the tower tour had nothing to do with bicycles.

Eventually I found the entrance (which had not been open when I first passed by and was not the one they had originally intended to use) and was in the first group to ascend 24 flights in the elevator and 70 additional steps (someone asked, I didn’t count). Despite the clouds, it was still a great view.

View of Hartford, North, from the Traveler’s Tower

When the leaves are off the trees in the winter, I can see the light at the top of the tower (an additional 147 steps up) from my back window. My house is somewhere in this direction:

View of Hartford, West, from the Traveler’s Tower

If you have ever wondered just how much of Hartford is covered with highway and pavement, this view to the South should answer that question.

View of Hartford, South, from the Traveler’s Tower

To the East is the Connecticut Science Center and more highway.

View of Hartford, East, from the Traveler’s Tower

While I was admiring the view, I kept thinking about a blog entry I wrote for work a little over a year ago, about the Hartford Public Library’s Caroline Hewins taking students to see the view from the Travelers building. Coincidentally, I left Travelers and immediately headed over to Hartford Public Library to work the multi-touch table, on display as part of EnvisionFest. The table is essentially an oversized iPad connected to a big screen tv. It is programmed with highlights of Hartford history, including the story of the Charter Oak, radio personality Bob Steele, actress Katharine Hepburn, scans of postcards and glass negatives.

During the morning my concentration had been on seeing Hartford from above. The most enjoyable moments of the afternoon, however, focused on what is below ground in Hartford. When selecting to view the glass negatives on the table, an 1898 map of the city displays along with thumbnails for three of the negatives in the collection. My favorite of the three is the stepping stone bridge in Bushnell Park:

Stepping Stone Bridge, Bushnell Park. Image property of the Hartford History Center, Hartford Public Library.

Many of the people with whom I spoke knew that the river now runs underground. But for those who were not aware, it was a great story to tell (you can read more about it in a New York Times article, a piece in the Hog River Journal, and listen to Catie Talarski’s recent trip through the conduit). Not only were these people surprised to learn about the river, they were equally astonished when I told them the library building now stands directly above a portion. The Whitehead Highway runs over the covered river. Creating a tunnel over the highway, is the Hartford Public Library.

I got to see the city from above in the morning, and teach with archives in the afternoon. How much better can a day get?

My Time at CHS

September 2, 2008 was the beginning of my tenure as Project Archivist at the Connecticut Historical Society (CHS). I interviewed early in August of that year. From the moment I walked into the late 1920s mansion in Hartford’s West End, with its dark wood interior and grand staircase, I wanted to work there. As I learned about the collections held in the archives, which mirrored my local history lessons in the Glastonbury Public Schools, I was convinced it would be a fabulous place for me to continue my archives career.

The project, funded by a grant from the National Historical Publications & Records Commission (NHPRC), was initially two years and renewed for another two. As with all jobs, it was not completely perfect all of the time, but it was a great experience. Our goal (myself and CHS Archivist Barbara Austen) during the first two years was to create online catalog records for 900 manuscripts and account books. We surpassed 2000 records. During the second two years, we succeeded in adding over 3000 more.

Some of the records, particularly the seemingly unending supply of anonymous farmers account books, were nothing short of boring to complete. I tried to be as creative as I could in each of my entries. However, there are only so many ways of saying that a farmer, whose name and location are unknown, sold beef and corn.

Other records were an adventure. The CHS staff and I were, till the very end, laughing over the Stonington Selectmen’s records. Each and every piece of paper in the collection had been folded and bundled together with string. I assume some of the debris I encountered was mouse droppings. Creatures had snacked on the records during storage in a barn or garage. All of it was covered in a layer of black dust. With help, I eventually managed to unfold all of it, give it some semblance of organization, and create the record.

At my farewell gathering on Thursday evening, someone asked what my favorite find was. With so many records created, it is really hard to say. Many of the collections that I found exciting, I was able to write about on the manuscripts blog.

Per the details of the grant, I was only supposed to catalog. But as a still-new-archivist, I knew it would be detrimental to my career if I merely sat and stared at OCLC Connexion for two years at a time. So between farmers account books, I sat at the reference desk. I served on the Web Task Force (for which we avoided using an acronym), the Digital Asset Management committee (for which we enjoyed using the acronym) and the Toilet Renovation committee (no acronym). I brought CHS into the social media era by creating and maintaining Facebook and Twitter accounts. As part of the final project for my Masters degree at Trinity College, I updated the finding aid files, and encoded finding aids previously only in Word documents, to be added to the new CHS website. When we implemented a new library catalog, Barbara and I discussed the structure of the new database and I customized the front end view.

I made friends, too.

From the beginning I knew there was a slim chance they would be able to create a permanent position for me after the grant ended. Nonetheless, I held out hope until mid-June. At that point a schedule was distributed. I was on it for July and August, but not September. I knew then that my half-hearted job search over the previous six months needed to become full-hearted. The economy isn’t great right now, and for archivists it really isn’t great. There are opportunities, though, and I am doing my best to find one that will match my needs.

And so, on August 31, 2012, I handed in my keys and bicycled away from the CHS for the last time as Project Archivist. I am proud of the work I accomplished and the information I have made available to the public. I am grateful for four years of indoor bicycle parking (and some ski parking). But leaving is hard. Very, very, hard. As others who have gone through this know, it is difficult to have done so much, and to just walk away from it.

While some people tell me this is the beginning of my next great adventure, I find myself still reflecting on the end of four, professionally full, years. If I can do so with humor, I will try to write about my unemployment trials and tribulations. First, though, I need to re-orient myself. The first step will be turning off the alarm clock.

Virtual AMTF Forum #saa12

This week the Society of American Archivists Annual Meeting is taking place in San Diego. When participants first arrived, a Dole container ship was docked quite nearby and generated a lot of excitement. It’s departure saddened many, but last night’s arrival of the Green Bay Packers at the conference hotel livened things up again. All of this I know from Twitter. Though a member of the Annual Meeting Task Force, I was unable to make the trip this year. Still wanting to be involved, I decided that at the same time the Task Force would be holding an open forum, I would offer a way for others not on site to provide feedback on the overall structure of the annual meeting. And thus was born the SAA AMTF Google Hangout.  Four of us gathered around our computers  (one in Washington, one in Wyoming, and two in Connecticut) and discussed the four major topics of the Task Force: Social Responsibility, the Meeting Model, Meeting Content, and Online Meeting Access. As you will see from the notes below, we jumped around a bit. Not being a fantastic note taker, I hope I have done a reasonable job of relaying the following thoughts and ideas.

-Intersperse sections, sessions, and roundtables throughout the conference instead of having them in separate blocks. Could eliminate a “dead day,” making it a three day conference, which could cut the cost.

-Wondering if there would be a cost savings to meeting in smaller cities. Other thoughts were that staying in a lower tier hotel might be cheaper (including wifi cost). If we filled up blocks in more than one hotel, could possibly have a mini meeting in one.

-The city needs to be easy for everyone to get around, whether you are walking or in a wheelchair.

-Sessions are good for the blend of theory and practice, ideas you can bring back to work with you. Sections and roundtables, being smaller, tend to offer more opportunities for networking. Would prefer more emphasis on smaller groups, student meetings, alumni mixers, etc. Ways to get more people involved.

-If offering content online, should be real time. Not likely to find the time afterward to sit and watch a session plus, if watching in real time, can join in social media conversations. Willing to pay for this, too.

-People make the conference. Need to encourage unconferences, tweetups, and other participant driven activities. Make room for informal groups. Have something like a hospitality suite, but with more structure (e.g. groups can sign up to use the room).

-SAA needs to be proactive, make things (such as last year’s labor issues) public as soon as possible. Be open! SAA doesn’t necessarily need to provide a solidarity statement, but provide an avenue for people to make their positions known.

-Do not understand how the program committee works. One regional selects session topics, members submit papers, and the committee matches the two. Perhaps not feasible for SAA, but need a better way of finding out what sessions people are trying to propose/where there are openings for people to join a panel. Might want to include SNAP in this in order to involve a younger crowd. Overall, need more transparency.

There were some technical difficulties as we got the Hangout up and running, but it was great to feel like I was participating without actually being at SAA. If anyone has any further input regarding the Annual Meeting, please comment below or contact any member of the AMTF directly. I am also willing to lead another Google Hangout if there is enough interest.

You also may have noticed I only lightly touched on the wifi issue. At this point it is pretty much a dead horse. We all know we need it, we all want it, but the cost can be prohibitive. The good news is that conference rooms in New Orleans for #SAA13 will in fact have wifi!

“Rediscovering Old North” at Hartford Public Library

Among my favorite things about Hartford are the parks. I walk through portions of Elizabeth Park on an almost daily basis. When biking downtown, I often ride through Bushnell Park (it is perfectly fine to ride on these sidewalks, it’s part of the East Coast Greenway). I don’t have too many opportunities to visit the others, but they are all beautifully designed.

Lately, at my “other job,” I’ve been working on a finding aid for the Hartford Parks collection. For this reason, I was quite interested when I learned the Hartford History Center at the Hartford Public Library would be presenting a program on the city’s Old North Cemetery and one of its most famous inhabitants, Frederick Law Olmsted.

Frederick Law Olmsted was born in Hartford on April 26, 1822. Yes, 190 years ago yesterday, the day of the program. This year (perhaps every year, I haven’t done the research) his birthday fell during National Parks Week. Neither Old North nor any of the parks in Hartford is a National Park, but they are all worthy of a celebration.

The program was to include three speakers: Norma Williams, Philip Barlow, and Andrew Walsh. Unfortunately, part way through her presentation, Williams, a landscape architect and President of the Connecticut Olmsted Heritage Alliance, became ill and was unable to continue. She gave us a brief overview of the history of cemeteries in New England, but did not get to the history of Old North. Brenda Miller, Curator of the Hartford History Center, and Andrew Walsh did go through the remainder of Williams’ PowerPoint slides, so we were able to pick up a few nuggets of information. What follows are my notes from the program. Please excuse anything I may have remembered incorrectly!

Cemeteries went through three stages of growth, all of which are visible in Hartford. The first style can be seen at the Ancient Burying Ground. The oldest cemetery in town, the Ancient Burying Ground holds the remains of Hartford’s original settlers. By 1806 there was a need for a new cemetery, and Old North was begun. Among those buried at Old North are Rev. Horace Bushnell, Olmsted and many members of his family, and members of the 29th Connecticut, Connecticut’s African-American regiment in the Civil War. As attitudes toward death and dying changed in the nineteenth century, so did cemeteries. The third style is evident in Cedar Hill Cemetery.

Old North has been neglected over the years and now Philip Barlow and his firm, TO Design, are in the process of rehabilitating the cemetery. Among their tasks is restoring the iron work, including a seven foot high fence on the perimeter and ornate fences around family plots. Barlow was saddened to have to take down trees, but they were rotten and it was necessary. Nineteen trees were cut down and they plan to replace all of them.

The firm has also been reestablishing the historic driveways of the cemetery. Maps have provided some of the details, but they are also able to determine the paths based on the locations of markers and trees. Tree roots and water have proven to be obstacles. An arborist has been onsite to ensure no damage is done to trees as the roads are restored.

The original entryway into the cemetery contains two brick columns. Unlike columns today, which are made with a concrete (I think) core, these columns are completely made of brick. Old mortar is being removed and replaced. Broken bricks are being replaced with the most similar bricks they could find.

Roads in the cemetery are constructed of asphalt pavers. Authenticity being key to the entire project, Barlow and his crew requested that replacement pavers be “tumbled” (think clothes dryer!) to look older.

Three kinds of low mow, low maintenance grass are being tried at Old North. They plan to monitor the patches, and whichever works best will be used in the rest of the park system.

Next on the task list is the restoration of 87 monuments this summer. Barlow stated that this is a small percentage of those that need it.

Finally, Dr. Andrew Walsh, a professor at Trinity College, provided background on Frederick Law Olmsted and his vision for parks. Olmsted’s Hartford was much different than 21st century Hartford. The families had all been there from the time of the city’s founding (Olmsted was the 8th generation of his family) and, more or less, had spent the previous 150+ years trying to transform the wilderness into farm land.

The key to understanding Olmsted, Walsh told us, is that he believed people shape landscapes. The land reflect peoples values. To that effect, Walsh related, when Olmsted was asked what a proper epitaph for New York’s Central Park might be, he replied, “See what our fathers have done for us.”

For Olmsted, exposure to nature was the essence of life. He had spent his childhood wandering around the Connecticut River valley. Park designs, both Olmsted’s and other designers, would ultimately reflect this.

Around the time of Olmsted’s birth, Hartford residents began to head west to the Connecticut Western Reserve (now Ohio). The city at this point was leaning toward manufacturing and was in need of workers. The labor shortage was filled by immigrants from Ireland.

There was a great amount of contention between Irish and Yankees. Hartford’s wealthy, well-established residents looked down upon the poor new arrivals. Rev. Horace Bushnell decided this needed to be changed, and set about to create a park where the newcomers would be able to see and emulate their more proper neighbors. Olmsted would ultimately be influenced by Bushnell, but was much more open to change.

Walsh continued by discussing images of the Connecticut landscape, as it might have appeared to Rev. Thomas Hooker and his followers when they first arrived. Unfortunately, at this point I had to stop tweeting (my source of note taking), and the details from that point on are fuzzy. The evening ended with a question and answer session.

The two books Walsh referenced during his talk were Changes in the Land by William Cronon and A Clearing in the Distance by Witold Rybczynski.