ESSEX — The Essex Historical Society (EHS), a non-profit organization formed in 1955 and boasting 250 members today, will be celebrating its 60th year throughout 2015 with a variety of special events and programs. Of special note is the Dickinson Initiative, a series of five events aimed at increasing awareness of the impact of the E. E. Dickinson Witch Hazel business on Essex.
According to EHS President Sherry Clark, “We wanted our anniversary celebration to have a purpose and highlighting the Dickinson legacy seemed like the perfect choice given the company’s historical significance for much of the 20th century. We are particularly excited to unveil our plans to refurbish the “Yellow Label” building in partnership with the Valley Railroad Company.”
The “Yellow Label” building, which sits on the southern end of the railroad depot property on Plains Road, is a familiar and somewhat iconic site to area residents although most are probably not aware of its history. First constructed around 1915 as a birch mill for the production of birch oil, it served as a storefront for the E.E. Dickinson Witch Hazel products in the 1980’s.
The renovation project entails the replacement of windows, roof, and deteriorated structural elements as well as general cleaning and painting, all to be done by the Valley Railroad. EHS will refurbish the Yellow Label signs and install Dickinson history exhibit panels in the newly repaired space.
Plans are now being finalized for a Dickinson Initiative Pre-Construction Party to take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. on May 15 on the grounds surrounding the Yellow Label building. The free event is open to the public and will feature tours of the Yellow Label building, Witch Hazel advertising art on display in the Jensen Gallery, River Valley Junction building, and cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. At 6:15 p.m., a short presentation of the Dickinson Initiative plans and a Yellow Label Day Proclamation by the Board of Selectman of Essex will take place. The dedication and unveiling of the refurbished building is targeted for one year later on May 15, 2016.
Other 60th Anniversary/Dickinson Initiative events will include a special fundraising reception to take place at three Dickinson buildings on North Main Street in Essex on Sunday, Sept. 13; the EHS 5th Annual Fall Foliage Antique Auto Show and Tour of Dickinson business and family sites in partnership with the Belltown Antique Car Club on Sunday, Oct. 18; and a special program entitled “Creating the E. E. Dickinson National Brand” to be presented in January by EHS and held at the former Dickinson corporate office at 31 North Main Street, Essex, now the Wells Fargo office building.
The Essex Historical Society was formed and incorporated in 1955. According to news reports at the time, the Town of Essex was about to announce its intention to sell Hills Academy located on Prospect Street. It was no longer useful to the Town for classroom space and had been rented to various tenants for many years. A concerned group sprung into action and the first unofficial meeting of the Board of Directors was held at Essex Town Hall on Friday, December 10, 1954. Edwin B. Pratt was nominated President, John A. Bjerkoe, Vice President, Elizabeth J. Mundie became treasurer and William H. Matthews, curator.
The newly formed Essex Historical Society purchased the Hills Academy building from the Town for one dollar. From 1955 to 1985, Hills Academy served as the Society’s meeting house, as home to its growing collection of Essex memorabilia, and as exhibit space depicting the story of Essex history.
Then in 1985, the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (known then as S.P.N.E.A. and now renamed Historic New England) deeded the Pratt House Museum on West Avenue to the Society and the focus of activity shifted to the Pratt family narrative.
Today, Pratt House continues to interpret 18th century farm life in Essex and the nine generations of Pratt Smithies, many of whom lived in the house. The barn houses a set of panels depicting a time line of Essex history and an early loom that is worked on by an award winning group of weavers. The beautiful meadow to the rear of the property is the site of the Community Garden and often the scene of antique car shows and old fashioned summer fairs. Hills Academy provides additional meeting and exhibit space on the first floor and storage and office space on the second floor for the collection and archival files.
Essex Historical Society serves the three villages of Essex — Centerbrook, Essex and Ivoryton – and strives to be the center of excellence for collecting and sharing historic resources for Essex and the surrounding area, and to be the facilitator among other organizations focused on the history of the area, so that they may inspire future generations.
For more information on the Essex Historical Society, its events and membership, visit www.essexhistory.org or call 860-767-0681.