Pastkeepers in A Small Place

Five Centuries in Deerfield, Massachusetts

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People know who they are by fixing themselves in place and time. They keep the past in numerous ways—not simply by writing histories but also by telling stories, creating pictures, collecting memorabilia, preserving old homes, and tracing genealogies. As Michael C. Batinski shows in this imaginative study, the pastkeepers of Deerfield, Massachusetts, have long illustrated this human yearning to connect with past and place. For five centuries people in this small New England town have passed stories from one generation to the next, preserved homes, and established one of the nation’s first historical societies and local history museums.

Like many small places in the American landscape, Batinski points out, Deerfield does not fit into the history we learn in textbooks. With the exception of the famous French and Indian raid on the town in 1704, nothing of national significance has happened there. Yet that has not diminished the interest of local inhabitants in establishing and maintaining a vital connection to the past.

Different groups, from Native Pocumtuck to Puritan settlers to the grandchildren of Polish immigrants, have told the Deerfield story in varied and sometimes conflicting ways, each drawing on the past to shape its own sense of collective identity. Together their efforts at pastkeeping reveal how people organize and explain the motion of time, why they feel it important to pass on family stories, and why they keep family heirlooms. In doing so, Batinski argues, they illustrate why the preservation of the past remains a civic concern to us all.

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