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History majors uncover lost relics in Willimantic Town Hall

Published on October 04, 2023

History majors uncover lost relics in Willimantic Town Hall

A box of old documents found in the town hall
An old box of documents found in the town hall

Eastern history majors and members of the History Club uncovered centuries worth of historical documents in the top floors of the Willimantic Town Hall at the conclusion of the spring 2023 semester.

The town hall is slated for major renovations, and town officials needed to clear out some of the materials and documents on the third and fourth floors. They contacted Eastern, asking if the University would be interested in any of the documents for its Archives and Special Collections, located in the J. Eugene Smith Library.

History professors Caitlin Carenen and Jamel Ostwald accompanied the students to the town hall, where they discovered a plethora of historical documents and archives.

“It was an eclectic and fascinating collection,” said Professor Carenen. “They found a variety of items including war draft cards, old maps, letters to the town hall, receipts for purchases and immigration and tax records. Our students came to the rescue and in one afternoon saved history. They had a great time uncovering all sorts of documents, some from the colonial period.”

A student examining documents

Students and faculty uncovering and organizing boxes

A student holding an old apron

The students made a game of who could salvage the oldest relic while simultaneously exploring the decrepit upper reaches of the town hall. They searched everything from the dusty floor of the courtroom to the heights of the clock tower.

“Climbing up to the clock tower while being able to see to the street below was a surreal experience,” said history major Jayson Caballero.

History Club President Danny Silvester agreed that the clock tower was his favorite part, along with discovering references for people from the early 18th century and maps depicting Willimantic during that era.

“While we sorted through the intense volume of paper materials in small groups, the room was soon filled with various shouts of ‘check this out!’ and fellow students would shout out the dates of various documents,” said history major Lindsay Weaver. “The old courtroom was especially wild to walk through as the high ceilings, old light fixtures and podiums for the judge and jury were all left in the condition they were in when it was still in use.”

History major Paula Hernandez is currently working on the 1910 Digital Windham Project under Professor Ostwald, and she found that a hands-on experience with her research topic “really enriched” her project.

The students were able to get a sense of what fieldwork was like in their major, and collaborating with faculty helped them to get settled in and exceed the day’s goals with flying colors. “It’s rare seeing historians and history majors work together,” said history major Emily Gardner, “but with the common goal of preserving these records, we were able to work fast and collectively.”

“Rescuing old documents and seeing what countries these people from the 1700s and 1800s were from was also really cool because it really put into perspective just how diverse Willimantic was, and still is,” said political science major Adam Martel.

Written by Elisabeth Craig