By Sam Buzzell July 2017
Every four years, large crowds gather in the Community Room to walk amongst their memories. They traverse a serpentine path through the complete history of the Congregational Summer Assembly, gazing in wonder at materials collected by archivists from Catherine Stebbins to Jane Cooper. This, of course, is History Night. Many use it to relive times past, some go to see their parents and grandparents as children, but all leave seeing the CSA in a new light, one of deeper understanding and appreciation.
The event’s creation was preceded by the appointment of Catherine Stebbins, then assistant to Ruth Nickels, as the CSA’s first archivist. She took the opportunity and ran with it, purchasing a filing cabinet and beginning to work to compile a complete history of the Assembly. With the scrapbook collection that she had begun as a child as a base, she created full chronological albums of the early days of the CSA which were later used as the primary sources of material in the first few History Nights.
In the Community Room, a small crowd hunched over several dimly lit tables bearing the pages of Catherine’s archival scrapbooks. This was the night of August 19, 1983, the first History Night. Promoted only by a small blurb in the Sunday church bulletin and exclusively involving the photos from Catherine’s personal collection, the event had room to grow. The idea was presented again three years later, becoming a tradition every three years.
By 1993, Katy Gosnell was archivist. Her reign is responsible for the current format of the exhibition, constructed by arranging styrofoam boards on church pews and pinning photos onto the upright boards. Under Tammy Royle, the event was rescheduled to every four years, as the workload grew and setup became more complicated due to increasingly detailed exhibits. While some were disappointed by the change, it brought to light the reasoning behind the spacing of the events: History Night is an incredible undertaking for the archivist, and becomes at least a 14 hour day for the crew. In addition, the timing helps to create a more appreciative mindset when viewing the exhibition, as this is not something one sees every day.
The day itself now involves the movement of up to 16 church pews by the maintenance crew, followed by a complete movement of the contents of Pilgrim Place to the Assembly Building including not only hundreds of photos, but also ledgers, operetta scrapbooks, oral histories, cottage curios, old costumes, and more. When all of the materials are assembled, the photos are pinned to the boards. Due to the chronological nature of the items, they must be posted from oldest to most recent and must be handled carefully. When the room is ready, the archival crew leaves to get dinner and dressed for the event, and are replaced by ‘security guards’ in one-hour shifts - positions which they have no trouble filling as the recipients are allowed to peruse the exhibition at their leisure. Then, at 7pm, crowds begin to gather to see what there is to be seen - which is quite a lot, as it turns out. After the stragglers are gently nudged out of the place at close to 9:30pm, the archivist begins removing the items photo by photo, piece by piece, until the Community Room is bare once more.
Archives is one of the most important areas of the CSA. A huge portion of the history of our organization is very well reported on, and archivists have worked tirelessly for decades to continue that work. To have preserved documentation of the CSA from its beginnings in 1901 until now is an incredible feat; to save these items is to keep their contents alive, whether it is to learn from them, remember them fondly, or simply to appreciate them, and is invaluable to us today.
This year, the communications committee will be covering History Night from start to finish, filming the setup of the event and interviewing current archivist Jane Cooper and archivist emerita Tammy Royle. We will archive the archives at work, and capture the history of History Night. A complete version of the film will be posted on the CSA YouTube page shortly after the event!