Published November 18, 2020 in the Fairfield Citizen by Joshua LaBella.
EASTON — When carefully opening a ledger from the 18th century, the Easton Historical Society can step into history and see someone like Bill Smith buying two yards of calico for his wife and three pounds of sugar.
“He pays for it with a dozen eggs and maybe two quarts of butter,” said Bruce Nelson, the society’s director of research.
The organization has more than 40 day books, or ledgers, from local merchants and two books of recorded minutes from the Staples Free School Trustees. The documents date as far back as the late 18th century, Nelson said.
Nelson said the documents are in varying conditions, and it is urgent the society preserve them before it is too late, adding they provide a snapshot of the commerce in the town and region’s early history.
“What these ledgers are great at doing is showing the type of farmers that were in town, their relative wealth, how much it took to pay for ordinary things and what they purchased,” Nelson said, noting Easton was fairly self-sufficient in the 18th and 19th centuries. “We get a better picture of what people were using — what people were doing.”
In order to do that, Nelson said, the historical society is going to need a minimum of $5,000 this year to get the process started. He said those expenses break down into $2,000 for a full-book scanner and $3,000 to professionally digitize the documents that can not be done in-house.
He said they were at less than 20 percent of that goal as of Nov. 4.
“We were in the process of prioritizing the work when COVID-19 forced us to abandon in-person office work — an absolute necessity for examining and then determining our course of action,” Nelson said.
Nelson said the Easton Historical Society is an independent, all volunteer non-profit with no town or state funding. It relies on donations from individuals, businesses and charitable foundations.
“With Easton having so few businesses, and charitable foundations cutting back on gifts and grants, fundraising has become very difficult over the past few years,” he said. “We currently raise money for our mission by offering high-quality, professionally painted historic house plaques and through the generosity of members of our community who can become ‘Friends of the Society,’ with a minimum donation of $99.”
Since 2018, Nelson said the society has successfully digitized over 600 of its vintage photographs and, just this past winter, it professionally digitized its entire collection of audio and video tapes. He said this project is the next, and likely the most challenging, process in preserving Easton’s past.
While these documents aren’t a large percentage of the overall number of the society’s collection, Nelson said they’re priceless because they reveal an economic culture that can’t be accurately captured through other types of documents.
He and the historical society’s curator, Elizabeth Boyce, are working on the project. As they go through these documents, he said they are finding the day books from the 1800s are the ones most at risk of deteriorating beyond repair.
“Some of the really older ones aren’t too bad because the paper is made out of a combination of linen and paper,” he said. “Then, when you get into the middle of the 19th century, it becomes mostly cheap paper. In the cheap paper of the middle of the 19th century, the acid in the ink, any light that gets on it and stuff like that, the paper starts to deteriorate and the ink starts to fade.”
Nelson said the spines on some of the journals are getting very weak, requiring them to be professionally preserved. He said that process is expensive, adding it can cost up to $2,500 for one book.
There is still more work to be done, Nelson said, adding the coronavirus pandemic interrupted he and Boyce’s work cataloging each journal to see what they they can do themselves. He said the society also needs to research reputable professionals for the documents they cannot work on.
“What we’re hoping to do is get enough interest in the town to get some people to donate a little money to help us buy some of the equipment and to help with the digitization,” Nelson said. “We only have a shot to save this stuff over the next few years.”
Donations to the Easton Historical Society can be made at https://historicalsocietyofeastonct.org/.