Local historian Bruce Nelson is looking to make the history of Easton and Redding easily accessible, as well as encourage young people to want to learn about their town.
Nelson recently took on the job of curator and executive director of research for the Historical Society of Easton, a volunteer position he said hadn’t seen much activity for much of the past 10 years.
As curator, one of the projects he’s working on is digitizing the society’s photo collection.
“My goal is to digitize as much of the collection as possible and get it online where folks can search for what they need and then see it instantly,” said Nelson, 70, a Joel Barlow High School graduate who was born in Weston and grew up in Redding. However, his family history in Easton goes back nearly 200 years.
The digitization process involves scanning, enlarging, cropping and cleaning photos, and making them more clear before storing them in a digital file that is accessible by entering one or two keywords, according to Nelson.
To date, Nelson has digitized and labeled more than 200 photographs and drawings from the collection. “I’m also correcting a good deal of what has already been catalogued, but had either no identification, or had the wrong information supplied,” he said.
In addition, he has taken over the society’s Facebook page, called the Historical Society of Easton, CT. “I’m making several posts a week with photos and historical descriptions,” Nelson said.
Within a few weeks of taking over the page, it grew from an average of 200 views per post to close to 2,000 views per post. On average, there are over 100 comments, shares, or likes on each post.
Each post takes between one and two hours to research, “But it gets people interested,” Nelson said.
His most well received post to date, posted on Aug 5, was a photo of 28-year-old Helen Keller meeting Mark Twain in 1909 at his home in Redding.
“It was in my collection, and was viewed by 95,000 people,” Nelson said. He added that 8,600 people either clicked for more information, commented, liked, or shared it.
The next generation
Another one of Nelson’s goals is to dispel the notion that young people aren’t interested in history.
“The fact is, they are, if it’s presented to them in an engaging method,” he said.
He said when it comes to history, presentation is everything.
“When we were taught history, we were taught battles and memorization. But if you look at people’s houses and explain to kids how life was lived 200 years ago, they are fascinated by it,” Nelson said.
Social media can be a great teaching tool, according to Nelson.
“You go on Facebook and get it instantly. There are lots of visual and a few words set the hook. Give them enough to make them want to learn more and they will keep coming back,” he said. “It’s like casting a baited hook and catching a fish and reeling them in.”
Nelson is also an author, and has written 17 historical novels, one of which he co-wrote with Brent Colley, a Redding native and first selectman of Sharon, whose research and ideas were the foundation of the project.
“The Revolution Comes to Redding” is a 230-page novel aimed at readers ages 12 to 14. It recounts life during the winter of 1778-79, when Gen. Israel Putnam’s army encamped in Redding.
The aim of the book, according to Nelson, is to get young people curious about local history by presenting life during those years through the eyes of a 14-year-old boy’s long-lost journal.
He said he hopes to get the book published and into Redding’s school curriculum.
Nelson has just finished identifying and labeling about 200 photographs that were recently donated to the Mark Twain Library in Redding.
“All the photos came with no identification. They were all taken in the Poverty Hollow area of Redding between 1900 and 1915,” Nelson said. “I was able to successfully identify most locations and structures.”
Colley and Nelson are administrators of the Fans of Redding CT History Facebook page. Nelson also created the Photo History of Connecticut Facebook page — which has almost 2,000 members — and the Photo History of Maine page.
The main purpose of any historical society, according to Nelson, is “to collect and share as much historical information as is reasonable.”
“It’s all about sharing history. I want to make history available and fun,” Nelson said. “My whole mission is to share it, and not to store it, because many small-town historical societies have not had the ability to do that. Many are so small and seldom open, making it very difficult to share information.”
Nelson’s interest in history dates back to his childhood, when he spent a lot of time exploring the Aspetuck Valley in southeastern Redding.
“From about the age of 7, the kids in our neighborhood freely roamed the valley where the Bridgeport Hydraulic Company had taken the land and torn down the old mills. There was a couple of button factories and Squire James Sanford’s once thriving iron foundry,” said Nelson, who is retired from the automobile business after 45 years. “There were dozens of old foundations to explore.”
Those who would like to identify a photograph or learn historical information about Easton or Redding may contact Nelson through any of his Facebook pages.
“History is constantly evolving. There is no such thing as definitive history,” Nelson said. “It’s important to know as much history as possible, since if we don’t understand what came before, how do we protect our future?”