Expanding the story: New research at historic Hadley home examines the lives of people who once lived or worked there

  • Joshua dos Reis, at right, leads a tour at the Porter-Phelps-Huntington house. New research at the museum examines the lives of enslaved people, indentured servants and others who once worked on the property. Listening to the talk are Mark Roblee, Bee Roblee and Aurora Donta-Venman, a volunteer. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A simple, unfinished bedroom on the top floor of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington house in Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joshua dos Reis leads a tour of the historic Porter-Phelps-Huntington house in Hadley, where new research has examined the lives of others besides the family members who once worked on the property, including enslaved people and servants. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Jacqueline Strauss, Elizabeth Wheeler and Aurora Donta-Venman move to the second floor of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington house, where new research has focused on the lives of other people who once worked on the proeprty, including ensl STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joshua dos Reis stands at the front door of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington house during a recent tour of the historic Hadley property. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mark Roblee holds a copy of a 1765 ad at the Porter-Phelps-Huntington house that documents how an enslaved man at the home ran away. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A simple bedroom on the top floor of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington house. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Monday, July 11, 2022

As Joshua dos Reis led a group of visitors through the historic Porter-Phelps-Huntington house on a recent tour, he paused in a front room, known as the “Long Room,” of the 270-year-old Hadley home. Pointing to a graceful arch near some tall windows, he said “With this arch, the family was basically saying ‘We are rich. We are prosperous.’”

For years, that’s been a big part of the story of the historic house, a home that was owned by six generations of the same extended family before being turned into a museum in the mid-20th century. The people that originally built the home in colonial Hadley and then expanded it developed a prosperous farm with hundreds of acres of land, and the house later became a summer home for wealthy descendants of the original Porter family.

Because the home was owned by the same extended family, the property, once called Forty Acres, has been a treasure trove for historians, giving them access to thousands of original letters and documents as well as furnishings, providing a valuable window into 18th- and 19th-century life in the Valley.

But in the last few years in particular, research about the home and farm has broadened considerably, taking into account the lives of others who once lived and worked on the property: enslaved people, indentured servants, farm and dairy laborers, artisans and seamstresses. The museum is also learning more about the Indigenous people who lived on the land before European settlers arrived.

“We have a new version of representation and storytelling here,” Karen Sánchez-Eppler, a professor of American Studies and English at Amherst College, said during a presentation at the museum last week. “We’re able to tell a broader story of the other families and people who make up the history of this land.”

In fact, Sánchez-Eppler, who heads the board of directors of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Foundation, prefaced her remarks by noting “We’re gathered here on Nonotuck land” — land that was also used or crossed by Mohican, Nipmuck and other Native peoples who eventually “were displaced by European settlers … We recognize this is a difficult subject to contend with.”

Sánchez-Eppler was joined by a few other historians and three University of Massachusetts Amherst graduate students in history, all of whom have done fresh research about the Hadley property that was funded in part by different grants the museum was awarded in recent years.

The pandemic, which forced the museum to close to the public for two years, actually gave researchers more opportunities to dig into their work, says Susan Lisk, the museum’s executive director.

Brian Whetstone, one of the UMass students, spoke about James Lincoln Huntington, a family descendant and Boston obstetrician who in the 1920s began repairing the aging home and turned it into a museum in 1949.

Yet Huntington preserved a “romanticized” version of the property’s past, Whetstone said, by taking down aging farm structures such as an ice house and chicken barn and focusing visitors’ attention on the house and its colonial pedigree.

“He filtered what we see today to reflect what his vision of what the house was,” Whetstone said. “He erased the signs of a working landscape, sometimes by accident, but also by design … and reinforced the genteel image of life here.” (One old barn was moved in its entirety to the town center to become the Hadley Farm Museum.)

Yet the “refined, affluent lives” of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington family were only made possible by labor that Huntington had essentially “made invisible,” Whetstone added.

Another UMass graduate student, Alison Russell, has studied how Charles Phelps — he became part of the family in 1770 when he married Elizabeth Porter, the daughter of the two founders of the home, Moses Porter and Elizabeth Pitkin Porter — made money in the early 19th century through trade in a wide range of plantation products, from Cuban sugar to cotton and indigo.

“That’s one of the things we’ve learned — just how deeply entangled life in our own area was in the Atlantic slave trade, even after slavery was outlawed in Massachusetts,” said Sánchez-Eppler.

Walking through history

Much of this new information has now been incorporated into tours of the museum, which resumed in early June. As dos Reis led about eight people on one of those tours of the venerable house this week, he noted that at least six enslaved African Americans worked on the property between the 1750s and 1783 (slavery was abolished in Massachusetts in 1784).

One enslaved man, Ceasar Phelps, was sent to serve in the Continental Army during the American Revolution in place of Charles Phelps, as “it was common for white men, when called up to serve in the army, to send their slaves as a substitute,” according to the museum’s website. Ceasar Phelps wrote back to his owner — or more likely had someone write the letter for him — in 1776 to tell him he had yet to receive any of his wages and to ask that Charles Phelps send him an item of clothing.

A copy of that letter, which can be seen as part of the museum’s tour, is signed “I remain Your Ever Faithful Slave Sezor Phelps.”

The tour also includes another reproduced piece of 18th-century writing, an ad that appeared in a local newspaper in 1765 when another enslaved man, Zebulon Prutt, ran away from the property.

dos Reis, though, noted that the Porter-Phelps family showed a more progressive or unconventional side as time went on. Elizabeth Porter Phelps, Charles Phelps’ wife, worked for years running a busy cheese- and butter-making operation at the property even though her husband made a good income through other means, and she employed many women from the area in variety of jobs, including weaving.

“Elizabeth rejected being part of high society,” said dos Reis. “She wanted to work.”

In the 19th century, Elizabeth’s daughter, Elizabeth Whiting Phelps Huntington, became a committed abolitionist. And another descendant, Catherine Huntington, protested the trial and verdict in the famous 1921 case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, the two Italian immigrants executed in Massachusetts that year for a murder many contended they had not committed.

The tour of the Porter-Phelps house still outlines its interesting architectural details, as different sections were built over the course of about 50 years, beginning in 1752; it was perhaps one of the earliest houses in western Massachusetts to include a central hall and and fireplaces in individual rooms, rather than being designed around one large chimney.

“It was a sign of wealth and power to have separate fireplaces,” said dos Reis.

The museum will continue to broaden its research, Lisk and Sánchez-Eppler said. For instance, Erika Slocumb, a UMass graduate student in African-American Studies, is examining the lives of free black families who continued to live and work in Hadley, including at the Porter-Phelps property, after slavery ended.

“We want to keep expanding the story,” said Sánchez-Eppler.

More information on the Porter-Phelps-Huntington home can be found at pphmuseum.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.