Donald R. Friary
Fifty Years of Collecting for Historic Deerfield
When Historic Deerfield, Inc. was founded on November 15, 1952, the new organization was building on a long and strong tradition of preservation and of collecting in a small western Massachusetts village. The first organized preservation effort in the United States took place at Deerfield in 1847-48, when a group of local citizens printed a broadside and mounted a newspaper campaign to save the "Old Indian House" that had survived the famed 1704 French and Indian attack on the village. In 1877 Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association (P.V.M.A.) purchased the recently vacated 1798 Deerfield Academy building and opened it in 1880 as a museum with the first permanent period rooms in America. Arts and Crafts advocates and practitioners bought antique houses in the village in the late-19th century so that they could work in its sympathetic environment. In the 1920s Deerfield Academy began to purchase old dwellings along The Street in Deerfield for use as dormitories and faculty residences.
Soon after Deerfield Academy’s incorporation in 1797, a museum had been established to collect exotica of natural and human history. That 18th-century, which included Mohawk artifacts acquired by families of Deerfield captives, remains on view in the Academy building, now the Memorial Hall of the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association. The P.V.M.A. from its inception in 1870 collected artifacts, books, and manuscripts related to the early history of Deerfield. Private individuals in the community also collected evidences of Deerfield’s past and often furnished their houses as reliquaries. Notable among those was Miss C. Alice Baker, who restored her ancestral home, the Frary House, in 1890-92 and filled it with antiques collected in Deerfield and elsewhere. When Henry and Helen Flynt appeared on the scene in the 1930s, they found a well-preserved, although decaying, community with collections and old houses that could tell them a great deal about the town’s history.
Although Henry Flynt had made the long trip by trolley from his childhood home in Monson, Massachusetts, to Deerfield, the Flynts’ real introduction to the historic community was in 1936, when they brought their son, Henry N. Flynt, Jr., as a freshman in Deerfield Academy. His parents became enchanted with the charming old village that was so full of history and of interesting people. They formed a close friendship with the Academy’s legendary Headmaster, Frank L. Boyden, and his wife, Helen Childs Boyden, a Deerfield native. Mr. Boyden had already headed the Academy for 34 years; he would serve another 32 years before his retirement in 1968 at the age of 88. A shrewd Yankee schoolmaster, Frank Boyden recognized real potential in the interest and energy and resources of the Flynts. He encouraged their interest in the school and in the community and garnered gifts of cash for Academy needs like squash courts and a school store. Henry Flynt was asked to join the board of the Academy and was elected President of its Trustees in 1943. By that time the couple’s interest had spread from the campus to the community, but they continued to keep the Academy very much in mind.
During the war, the Flynts bought two properties in the village that had come on the market, but dedicated them to school use. In 1945, at the urging of the Boydens, they purchased the Deerfield Inn, a dilapidated summer hotel at the center of the village. Mr. Boyden had long hoped that it could be renovated to serve Academy parents and alumni throughout the year. The Flynts also bought the Allen House for use as their own home in Deerfield, realizing that their interest and activity in the village was turning into a long and strong commitment. Henry Flynt became increasingly interested in the dramatic early history of Deerfield and responded to Mrs. Boyden’s suggestion that a rundown tobacco sorting shed that had once been the grand dwelling of Deerfield’s Tory minister, the Reverend Jonathan Ashley, should be moved back to its original site, restored, and furnished as a museum open to the public. That occurred in 1948, and was immediately followed by the restoration of the Asa Stebbins House, the first brick house in Franklin County, erected in 1799 by Deerfield’s wealthiest landowner. In 1949, the Flynts accepted as a gift the Hall Tavern, a 1760 structure 20 miles west on the Mohawk trail in the Town of Charlemont. It was reerected in Deerfield as a museum and community center. In 1951 they returned the John Wilson Printing office, which had been moved around the village of Deerfield six times since its construction in 1816, back to its original site and use on The Street. By the time that Historic Deerfield was formally incorporated in 1952, the Flynts had four museums open to the public, all furnished with an accidental, but distinguished, collection of antiques.
The Flynts had begun to buy antiques in the mid-1940s, at first to furnish the Deerfield Inn and the Allen House, and soon became interested in objects related to the history of Deerfield. After they opened museum houses to the public in 1948, their tastes and acquisitions moved toward high style and they started to frequent New York dealers as well as local auctions. The first Colonial Williamsburg Forum in 1949 introduced them to other collectors and they found themselves competing with Henry Francis du Pont of Winterthur, Electra Havemeyer Webb of the Shelburne Museum, and Miss Ima Hogg of the Bayou Bend Collection. When they formed Historic Deerfield in 1952, they had a collection of American antiques that would ultimately be given to the new institution.
Following the establishment of the Heritage Foundation, which would become Historic Deerfield, Inc. in 1971, Henry and Helen Flynt began to slowly to transfer houses and collections to the new organization. They also continued to acquire and restore buildings.
They had constructed a Fire House in the shape of a barn for the community on the Asa Stebbins property in 1949. They renovated the Post Office to look like a 17th-century meeting house in 1952. In 1957 they adapted the disused Congregational Church as a nursery school and community center. They also restored houses as museums open to the public. In 1954 they demolished an Italianate house and in its place re-erected the Dwight-Barnard House, originally built in Springfield, Massachusetts, around 1725. In 1957 they restored the Sheldon- Hawkes House, which had been the home of Deerfield’s historian, Hon. George Sheldon (1818-1916).
The pace of the Flynts’ collecting quickened in the 1950s and Historic Deerfield became nationally known, in part because of the publication in 1952 of Frontier of Freedom, a book of magnificent pictures of Deerfield, inside and out, by that exquisite photographer of the New England scene, Samuel Chamberlain. Deerfield had long been famed as the site of a famous French and Indian attack in 1704, but it was now also the location of a major collection of New England furniture, early American silver, English and Chinese ceramics, American, English, and European textiles, needlework, and costume, as well as a variety of household objects. These filled the Flynts’ domestic settings in the Deerfield houses and enabled them to tell visitors about everyday life in early Deerfield and about the quality of craftsmanship and imported goods in colonial and early national America. Between the mid-1940s and the mid-60s Henry and Helen Flynt had collected more than 10,000 items for Historic Deerfield.
The Flynts continued to collect objects with a Deerfield provenance, but they branched out and up to enhance their growing museum with masterworks of early American decorative arts and related European and Asian export arts. Among their major acquisitions in the 1950s was a Boston bombe desk and bookcase that had descended in the Ames family (Fig. 1), a sideboard attributed to John and Thomas Seymour, elegant clocks by Aaron and Simon Willard, and a stunning William and Mary gateleg table that had descended in the Bowdoin family of Boston an Maine. Later, they acquired a turret top tea table made in Boston around 1740 (Fig. 2), and a lovely little lobed kettle stand that had belonged to Mercy Otis Warren. They selected a choice group of early American portraits, including a John Wollaston of Stephen Greenleaf (Fig. 3), his only Boston sitter.
This article was originally prepared for and published in the catalogue of the Ellis Antiques Show, October 31 to November 3, 2002