Sunday, May 06, 2012

Road trip! Harwinton, Connecticut museum

Dane Deleppo is president of the T.A. Hungerford Memorial Museum in Harwinton, Conn.
When we lived in the suburban sprawl of Plano, Texas, I had a a running joke with a friend that the oldest thing in town was the skinny pear tree, circa 1989, next to the swing set by the pool in my back yard. It wasn't true, of course, but we always got a chuckle out of that.

Ahh, good times.

But I digress.

In Connecticut, where we live now, everything is old.
Originally built to house the Harwinton (Conn.) library, this building now
is home to the T.A. Hungerford Memorial Museum.

The house down the road from ours in Avon was built in 1840.

Farmington, the town next door, was settled in 1640, which according to my West Virginia University math is only 142 ... err, 148... years after Columbus discovered America.

Simsbury, 12 miles away, was incorporated in 1673.

Bristol, home of ESPN, was founded in 1833.

And each little town in Connecticut (see Bristol) seems to have a small historical society or museum stuffed with old stuff, including seldom-seen Civil War treasures that many larger museums would love to get their hands on.

Think grandma's attic on steroids.

This afternoon I spent nearly two hours rummaging through nooks and crannies of  T.A. Hungerford Memorial Museum in Harwinton, a tiny town of about 5,000, approximately 25 miles west of Hartford. The small museum is almost hidden away on a hill along Route 4, just up the road from The Liquor Lady and a cemetery that includes gravestones that date to the late 1700s. The museum building, once the Harwinton Library, dates to 1909.
Civil War muskets in the Hungerford Museum collection.

Dane Deleppo, a genial 63-year old former AT&T building maintenance mechanic, is president of the museum, making order out of what once was chaos. It's an ongoing effort. When he first visited the museum years ago, Civil War muskets were stored in the damp, dingy basement. Aghast, he eventually had the weapons moved to a more suitable home on the first floor.
These initials are carved into the stock of a musket shown at
bottom of the above photo,  perhaps by its original rebel owner.

Deleppo and his wife Carol, the museum treasurer, as well as a dedicated group of other folks, have catalogued some of the Civil War collection, which includes a small Confederate flag picked up by a soldier at Cold Harbor, a kepi worn by a musician in the 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery and muster rolls of the 13th U.S. Colored Heavy Artlillery. (In a sad commentary on the era, the rolls include the listing of the former "owners" of the men in the 13th, who were freed or escaped slaves.)

Much of the Hungerford Civil War collection was donated by ancestors of soldiers from Harwinton, Deleppo said. A local woman recently gave the museum an army drum that may date to the Revolutionary War. Where did some of the other stuff, including an unused World War I gas mask, come from? Well, your guess is as good as Dane's.

My favorites in the Civil War collection are the gem tintypes of 2nd Connecticut Heavy Artillery soldiers and the Confederate musket captured at Harpers Ferry and apparently picked up off a battlefield by a Union soldier. The initials J.R.S. are carved into the stock of the musket, perhaps by the original rebel owner, and the side plate denotes the weapon was converted in Richmond.
A rare War of 1812 lieutenant's uniform.

But my absolute favorites in the museum holdings have nothing to do with the Civil War.

"Check this out," Deleppo said as he slid a 4-foot-long, gray box from under an old, brown bench. As we removed the top of the box, an ancient red and blue coat with silver epaulets and worn metallic buttons and off-white knickers were revealed.

"This," Deleppo said, "is a War of 1812 lieutenant's uniform."

Despite its age, the rare uniform, donated by a local man, is still in decent shape, with just a few holes near the cuffs. "A guy last wore this in the 1970s during a Fourth of July celebration," Deleppo said with chuckle.

As we made our way up the narrow steps to the cramped attic, Deleppo uncovered a small, brown box and pulled out a tiny, spiked helmet that must have been worn by a soldier with an extremely small noggin.

"It's called a pickelhaube," Deleppo said of the World War I German helmet that was undoubtedly another long-ago battlefield pickup, probably by a Harwinton man.

There are other curiosities at the museum: an intricately weaved basket made by a local Indian long ago, a very heavy 18th-century target rifle and a bugle that may be Civil War era. And in a touch of mystery, the tomb of the building's namesake, T.A. Hungerford, is somewhere near the building. But the Civil War collection is easily the highlight.

This little gem of a museum is open every other Saturday from 1-3 p.m. or by appointment by calling Deleppo at 860-485-0517. Go check it out.
Dane Deleppo with a pickelhaube, a World War I German army helmet.

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