The biting chill of an autumn day in Southington, Connecticut, is melted away once inside the South End Schoolhouse. Though now heated by modern means, the late eighteenth-century building has a cast-iron wood stove in the center of the learning space. “Kids would have had to bring their own firewood and take turns keeping it warm in the winter,” explains Stacey Dolan, a native to the town, and the quintessential guide through historic Southington. One of her responsibilities as a board member of the Southington Historical Society is to give monthly schoolhouse tours. “A friend of mine got me involved in the Historical Society. He thought my love for the town would make me a perfect member. Every tour I give gets me excited all over again to share our town’s history.”
Dolan brushes a lock of blond hair from her cheek before turning toward the front of the room. Paintings of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln observe the space. Light wood and wrought iron desks are set in uniform rows facing the expansive blackboard. Shelves hidden by cupboards in the back corners of the classroom house vintage schoolbooks with yellowed pages. Dolan smiles as she walks across the wood floor toward the board. “The Historical Society took this over and revamped it to make it look like the original schoolhouse would have in 1793.” The original building, erected in 1754 further down the scenic street, burned down. “It’s been the Historical Society’s mission to get this open for the public. Kids and their parents just can’t wrap their heads around the fact of all different ages being in here, and having a well outside, an outhouse, all that stuff; it’s kind of crazy.”
When discussing the history of Southington, it is a critical flaw to not mention the entrepreneurial Bradley-Barnes family. Amon and Sylvia Bradley established their homestead in 1836 and the family remained for 137 years. After Amon’s death in 1906, his grandson Bradley Barnes inherited the Main Street home and lived there until his death in 1973. Due to the entrepreneurship of the Bradley-Barnes men, Amon’s grandson became known as “the richest man in Southington”. Upon his death Barnes turned the homestead over to the town. Today the building stands as the Barnes Museum, unchanged by the modern world, and a glorious step back in time for all who wish to tour the estate.
Marie Secondo, curator of the Barnes Museum, is proud to share all she knows of the Barnes estate. After she and Dolan exchange pleasantries, Secondo goes from room to room, her face lighting up at each noteworthy detail. “This is an original diary, it’s from 1895. There are 52 family diaries. So we have been able to, through the diaries, document a lot of things about the house.” The home is overflowing with pictures of the family at every stage of life, as well as magazines collected by the family over time. “I’ve laid out many of the December issues, this is a 1946 Esquire. We have about ten thousand magazines and newspapers, and as many photographs; early photographs of the family and places in town. There was a local photographer that was kept very busy,” Secondo says with a laugh, her glasses shining in the dim lights of the living area. She also notes the impact Leila Barnes, Bradley’s wife, had on the estate. “She was an artist, she painted a lot of the artwork in the home.” The realistic nighttime scene of lantern-lit boats with scarlet-hued sails beneath luminous clouds is a testament to her talent. The sunroom, still home to stunning flowers, is lined with Leila’s immaculate goblet collection. Multicolored glass sends rays of rainbow sunshine through the space. “There are five hundred in this room alone. Before Leila died, she had glass shelves installed because, of course, she wanted to display her collection.”
It’s a short drive from the Barnes Museum on North Main Street to the Southington Historical Society on Main. The building was originally constructed in 1902 to be the town’s first library. Wealthy Southington resident Lucius Walkley proposed the idea of building a library, and then put up half of the funds for construction. However, once the building became overwrought with literature and furniture from the nearby Bradley-Barnes estate a separate library was built across the street. The former library then became the Historical Society residents know today. The Neoclassical granite-columned building houses the Barnes’ furniture and priceless town artifacts from the past, though it is much less cluttered now. “[The Bradley-Barnes family] bequeathed some money to the library to build an addition.” Dolan stands in the circular atrium of the massive building, motioning to the exhibition spaces behind her as light streams in through the stained-glass panel above. Vaulted ceilings make voices carry and echo throughout the rooms. “However, in the trust for the addition it stated we had to have furniture from the Bradley-Barnes’. That’s how the addition came into play and why this is our Historical Society in town.”
The Historical Society houses a plethora of pieces from Southington’s past, even the wooden facade of the Ruggs and Barnes bolt factory. This factory was built in 1839 and was the first of its kind in the United States. In 1903 the Clark brothers bought the business. They knew the building would be an important part of Southington history. “The Clark brothers knew how old it was. They cut the front off of the bolt factory and when they eventually sold, they brought it to us.” The weathered, iron-detailed facade is Dolan’s favorite relic; her second favorite is against the far wall of the next exhibition space. There stands a dark wooden structure accented with light-colored trim, painted with green and gold accents. The structure opens up into a small chamber to the left with a sturdy, old stool set on the floor. “This is a portable photograph booth. It is the first of its kind, the original prototype that the Florians made. The Florian family, who lived in town, came up with the invention of the instant photograph, or the positive-positive photograph.” Slated for the dump, the Florians’ neighbors actually saved the materials that made up the booth. Once the nondescript wood pile was brought to the Historical Society, they paid a carpenter five thousand dollars to put the booth back together. Now it stands proud with its original camera alongside, and visitors may even take their picture inside.
Along with these treasures, the building boasts a room full of town relics. The first glass case at the entrance of the building houses a collection of silverware from the old Southington Cutlery Company, incorporated in 1867. Beyond this case is the “How to Be a Lady” case, which Dolan introduces with a playful smirk. “This goes through all the things that a girl would have to learn how to do in order to be considered a good wife: from embroidering to making different lace cuffs, to making hats with floral designs.” The Historical Society also has a collection of schoolhouse essentials, and various military uniforms and war memorabilia in a separate room. The immense collection offers a window into Southington history. Dolan and other volunteers believe it’s worth maintaining.
“To me it’s a sense of pride,” Dolan says, “if we didn’t have that photograph booth, people probably wouldn’t talk about the Florians, or that they invented positive-positive film processing. That history is lost, and that’s a sense of pride that I think we should have. Same thing with the Ruggs and Barnes building. It’s not even that we have it, it’s that we had the intelligence to keep that history. That’s what I love. I love being involved in the history of this town. It makes me proud.” Dolan’s desire to preserve the town extends to her community service work. She often joins in programs that aid in feeding and taking care of the homeless population in town. “When I was asked to become a board member, I thought: what better honor is there to help preserve the town I love for others?” Dolan opens a delicate schoolbook, staging it for pictures. “Just because you’re not sitting on a board doesn’t mean you still can’t participate in fundraising and caring for your town.”
Headline Photo Credit: Kristiana Torres
Kristiana Torres is a staff writer for Blue Muse Magazine