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Everything Old is New Again:

How the Windsor Historical Society is making the town’s history modern & accessible
CMSC recently talked to Doug Shipman, Windsor Historical Society’s Executive Director to learn how they’re engaging Windsor’s diverse residents, partnering with the downtown, and going viral on Facebook.

As a New England state, Connecticut has a long history, and as home to the first English settlement, Windsor lays claim as Connecticut’s first town, and correspondingly the state’s first downtown. So it’s not surprising that like other Connecticut towns, Windsor has a Historical Society to preserve and share the stories of its past. What is surprising is how proactively this historical society is working to bridge its history with its present, making a point to tell everyone’s stories – not just offer the traditional perspectives – in addition to spotlighting the town’s current diverse demographics. They’re also refreshingly open to embracing new technologies and working with a myriad of partners to reach new audiences.  

Celebrating All Residents & Their Stories

Windsor Historical Society (WHS) was established in 1921 to prepare for Windsor’s 300-year anniversary in 1933. At the time, the Historical Society was focused on preserving its colonial past, buying their first building – the current Strong-Howard House – within their first four years. That focus on preserving colonial era history would remain until only very recently. Doug Shipman, WHS Executive Director, notes that as the town edges towards its 400-year anniversary, they’ve been changing their focus to be more representative of the town’s current demographics and to celebrate and share the histories of all of Windsor’s residents.

While Windsor was ninety-eight percent white in 1921, it’s now forty-eight percent white, fifty-two percent people of color. In fact, Doug notes it’s one of the most diverse towns in CT. To help reflect this, the WHS had a nine-foot tall map of the town made that they bring to public events. They then took pictures of residents and added them to the map where the person lives. To date, over one thousand residents can now see themselves pictured on the map with friends and neighbors. To Doug, this exercise has dual achievements: it helps people see that they’re all a part of the Windsor community and also lets them know the WHS is there for them. “It’s kind of our way of bringing a little bit of the Historical Society into the downtown and people seeing, ‘hey, the Historical Society is kind of a cool, modern, history-is-fun kind of place, not this stodgy old brown furniture thing.”

Collaboration Over Competition

In addition to engaging residents and visitors directly, Doug is also quick to credit collaboration as one of the keys to their success. The Historical Society makes an effort to partner with downtown businesses and organizations like CMSC member First Town Downtown to amplify each other’s events and work. WHS has also been involved in the town’s tourism efforts for a long time, with WHS and other arts and culture organizations playing a large role in the overall nature and quality of the community. The Historical Society was one of the founders of the Windsor Arts and Museums Association (WAMA), a collection of seven museums and attraction sites people can visit, including art museums, the CT Valley Tobacco museum, a vintage radio museum, Loomis Chaffee Mercy Gallery, Oliver Ellsworth Homestead (the third U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice and framer of the Constitution), and the Windsor Freedom Trail sites.

His approach is optimistic and pragmatic. “I endeavor to say yes to partnering with others. I try to avoid the idea of scarcity, but rather collaborate on funding,” Doug says, noting that they can do more by working together. He talks excitedly about UConn Department of History Professor Fionna Vernal who’s been working with WHS, South Windsor’s Wood Memorial Library and Bloomfield’s Wintonbury Historical Society to get grant funding for an online oral history collecting platform called Their Story.

He adds that this is a great example of why it’s important to collaborate, not compete. Each of the three organizations has a particular strength that they focus on. When someone is looking for something WHS doesn’t offer, they’re happy to recommend their colleagues, and they do the same in return for WHS.

Using New Approaches

Beyond partnering with local and regional organizations, WHS is open to using new technology to further engage audiences. Doug muses how people used to think they had to physically get people through their doors because they feared if you put something online no one would come. Now it’s the opposite. To meet this new mindset, they offer a lot of information online – Black histories and oral histories, even the last seventy-five years of Windsor High School yearbooks.  They also partnered with First Town Downtown and the Chamber of Commerce to create a virtual walking tour that bridges attractions separated by the town’s geography. With their proximity to Bradley Airport, the walking tour also occasionally attracts travelers who may have long layovers and want to get out of the airport for a little while.

Doug notes that their staff does a great job of posting to Facebook, with the archivist, curator, community history specialist, and the office manager taking turns so it’s not overwhelming for any one of them. And it’s working – several of their photos have gone viral, with tens of thousands of people seeing their images. Doug loves it. “It’s great because a lot of people see themselves in it and share it and that’s what we want, people relating to their history.” He adds, “That’s their memory. They’re trying to make a connection between what we’re doing, the history we’re presenting and their memory, and that’s how people learn and have an emotional attachment to history and become fans and love history, because of that personal connection.”

To learn more about the Windsor Historical Society or view their upcoming events, visit their website.

About CT Main Street Center

CMSC is the expert resource for developing and sustaining vibrant downtowns that fuel our state’s prosperity. Our mission is to assess, educate, convene, and advocate to develop and grow our traditional downtowns, village centers, and urban mixed-use neighborhoods. We provide education and training, resources and technical assistance, and function as the statewide champion for downtowns and Main Streets of all sizes.

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