The Not-So-Secret Society: Westfield’s Hidden Gem

December 20, 2021

Historical Society President Greg Blasi and Town Archivist Robert Wendel in the Historical Society archives photos and artwork (Photo by Siena Jabon)

Nestled in the heart of Westfield, unseen among residential streets, is a treasure trove of antiquities, a seemingly endless record of times antecedent to our own. We’ve all driven past it: the brick building across from Stop-and-Shop with its stately columns and American flag flying in the breeze. 

It is commonly known as the Board of Education building, but its most unsung department lies on the third floor: the Westfield Historical Society. All of the Society’s archives are housed within just two classrooms in the BOE building, but the reach of their work extends far beyond those walls.

The Westfield Historical Society is based within the Reeve House, an 1870s home on Mountain Avenue. It was donated to the town in 1985 with the intention of supporting the work the Society does. The Society also owns the Miller-Cory House, which began as a farmhouse in 1740 and now functions as a living museum where actors dress up in period clothing and reenact the daily lives of house inhabitants nearly 300 years ago. Both of these extraordinary houses are registered as protected historic sites on the state and national level. The Historical Society’s archives have been housed in a variety of locations over the years, including the Westfield Police Department and Tamaques Park, but they have found their current home through the generosity of the BOE.

With many resources available, the Westfield Historical Society is a non-profit private organization that serves to educate and illuminate the rich history of our town. Granted the responsibility of carrying out this honorable undertaking, the Trustee Board of the Westfield Historical Society consists entirely of volunteers dedicated to preserving town artifacts showcasing Westfield’s extensive history through community events.

These volunteers are led by President Greg Blasi, who has been the proprietor of his own architectural firm for the last 17 years. Blasi has been lending his experience in architecture and passion for history to the development of walking tours throughout Westfield since 2017. The staff’s keen interest in the history of Westfield is apparent in the way they light up at a single mention of anything from bygone days.

Despite the Society’s support from these avid, committed volunteers and a rich collection of primary and secondary resources, most students at WHS are unaware of its existence or apathetic to what it can offer. “If you polled Westfield kids, maybe a few would know of the Historical Society, but most wouldn’t first think of it as a place to go for school projects,” said WHS Social Studies Teacher Brett Curtis.

Enrico Basso, WHS Social Studies teacher, agrees, blaming the internet for  complacency in research. “Being able to go online has allowed students to easily obtain information, and if they want to find a primary source, they’re not necessarily first going to go downtown to get it,” Basso said.

Visiting the Historical Society is never more than a phone call or email away and their website also offers a virtual tour of the Reeve House that is maintained by the Society.

Basso recommends the Historical Society for resources, noting various incentives that could make a trip worthwhile. “If you have a project, if it’s something that you’re flirting with for your career, or even if it’s just history that interests you or anything along those lines, it’s a great resource.”

The archives offer an exclusive perspective directly into the complex narrative of Westfield’s history. The artifacts housed within are nonpareil, providing opportunities to investigate a distinctly Westfieldian perspective of the accounts of greater events.

“There’s a lot of things within the archives that nobody else really has, and a lot of people would be surprised how extensive our collection is. It’s one of the largest for a town our size in the state of New Jersey,” said Historical Society Archivist Robert Wendel. 

The Optic staff was lucky enough to get a tour of the Westfield Historical Society’s archives, and we can attest to the fact that the collection is truly awe-inspiring. A particular favorite item of our writers’ was George Washington’s original Call to Arms that was sent to our very own “West Fields” back in 1776; copies were delivered around the original 13 colonies to rally troops and support for the Revolutionary War. The nearly 250-year-old paper is in pristine condition, thanks to the efforts of the archivists at the Society. 

The Westfield Historical Society’s biggest fans: WHS Social Studies Teachers Enrico Basso and Brett Curtis (Photo by Vivian Jeckell)

Also from the Revolutionary period, the archives are home to an extraordinary find: a local doctor’s kit from the 18th century. Dr. Philemon Elmer was a surgeon in Washington’s army, with the 1st Regiment Essex County Militia. His cracked leather bag is still intact, complete with the brass “bleeders” he used to treat patients. Medical professionals of the era believed that “bad humors” plagued the blood of the sick, so people like Dr. Elmer were responsible for doing the only thing they could to cure them: get the bad blood out. 

Wendel showed us some other highlights of their collection as well, items used by Westfieldians of days gone by. “We have an old clay jar that would have been used in the 1800s. There are things like the sword that former resident Thomas Clark fought with in the War of 1812. We even have parts of the original sewer system; wooden logs that were hollowed out. We also have the original lightning rod from the Revolutionary War-era Presbyterian church that was up on top of the steeple.”

Giving us the ability to see through history is arguably the most impactful contribution of the Westfield Historical Society. Most know that New Jersey was a part of the American Revolution, that we sent our boys to Vietnam and even that people lived here for thousands of years before our ancestors arrived. But seeing the corporeal evidence is invaluable in helping Westfield residents become cognizant of the fact that we live in a town steeped in the past. 

The Society is also home to an extensive collection of artifacts about our “town hero,” as Wendel called him: the one and only Charles Addams. The Society collects nearly everything they can find about him and have a fascinating assortment of souvenirs of his time in Westfield. His 1929 WHS senior portrait looks almost as if it could be found on our own Class of 2022 page, and his early cartoons were featured in the pages of a school magazine, similar to the one you’re reading now. 

While the Historical Society has a large number of physical artifacts, their other records deserve no less attention. They act almost as a registry of local information, such as pictures of historic homes in their early days. 

“Sometimes people call us and say, ‘I bought a house on this street, what did my house look like originally?’ So we might get lucky and actually find what that house looked like on that street when it was built,” said Blasi.

Another helpful resource the Historical Society maintains is their archive of The Westfield Leader, the local newspaper. The Leader is one of the oldest businesses in town, published since 1890, and the Historical Society holds original copies of some late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century editions of the newspaper. They also have an extensive collection of scans of issues spanning over a hundred years, impressively missing only a few of the thousands that have been published. 

Our very own sister publication, Hi’s Eye, is considerably represented in the archives as well. The Historical Society holds copies of nearly every edition since 1935. Optic will soon join the archives too, as the Historical Society has made it a goal to preserve all town publications for future generations.

Considering the vast range of contrivances within the Historical Society, even the most niche interests are represented. Learning how these interests are woven into the historical fabric of our town allows residents to see their own passions reflected by others throughout history.

“I think it always drives interest when you can make that connection of what you’re learning to who you are and what your town is in history,” said Basso. “When you have that element of ‘wow, this took place on my street,’ that’s something that I think is an awesome element to what is available at the Historical Society. It traces Westfield through the larger context of history.”

It is clear that the Westfield Historical Society can offer our town so much. They have an immense collection of resources that most of our community is not taking advantage of despite its immense benefit.

“Research with only a single Google search is pretty limited. A lot of times, when I’m reading [students’] research work, it’s the first couple of search results that they use, and it doesn’t even really fit what they’re trying to do. But they’re using it because they don’t want to do any more research or they don’t know where to go,” said Curtis. 

The primary sources that the Historical Society can offer are crucial to creating a more rich understanding of a time period or historical event, particularly through a more local lens.

“I like reading letters… you are getting into the life of somebody who may not be documented in history, and you can kind of see that these were things they were concerned about or how they actually even spoke to one another,” Basso said. “I always find letters to be really personal or interesting to get a feel for what the time period really was like for those particular people who are not often represented in textbooks.”

Westfield Doctor Philemon Elmer’s medical bag from the Revolutionary War (Photo Siena Jabon)

Because the ambit of the Society’s miscellany is so immense, they receive donations from enthusiastic Westfield residents who believe their belongings are worth preserving. Due to the continuous intake of new artifacts, the archives are filled to the brim. Therefore, when items are submitted, the staff must decide if it is important enough to the town’s history and community to sacrifice their precious storage space.

“For many years, we just accepted everything. Every item that we take in today has to tell the story of Westfield,” said Blasi. “But now, it has to have a story that goes along with it that we can substantiate. We need to determine why it’s historically important because we’re running out of room.”

Given the severe lack of space left in the archives, fundraising initiatives have been established in order to build an independent archive building on the Reeve property. These efforts have been years in the making, and the Society is still evaluating the expenses and logistics that would be required to have its own resource center. If given the proper support, these initiatives would be beneficial to the organization’s goals and allow it to more effectively implement its mission to support the Westfield community.

The Westfield Historical Society is a completely independent organization with no stipend given by the town to supplement its activity. As Wendel put it, they “live off donations,” and function solely based upon the dedication of the volunteer staff.

There are ample opportunities for WHS students to get involved with the Society. “We’re really looking for people with computer skills, because that is important for scanning items in and documenting and using databases. Secondly, we’re looking for people who are willing to do things here in the archives, who are willing to sit down and have a long-term project,” said Wendel. 

While Wendel hopes to one day digitize everything for the archives, for now, there is no way to access the archives online. An increase in volunteer activity could potentially speed up the process, making these resources more accessible to Westfield residents.

The Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics classes, taught by Basso, often work closely with the Historical Society on an internship level. After the AP examinations in May, students are allocated to various sites depending on their interests and the needs of the community to gain real-world experience by fulfilling the demands of the program. 

While some connection between the Society and Westfield Public Schools’ social studies department exists, both parties yearn for a deeper understanding and closer collaboration for mutual benefit. According to Wendel, it is challenging to incorporate local history into district curricula, largely due to inflexible time constraints. Nevertheless, efforts have been made to include these lessons, particularly to third and fourth grade students, and WHS history teachers believe that the local history the Society specializes in could also be beneficial for high school students.

“In most of the American history we teach, New Jersey and Westfield are a big part of it. You can put Westfield in the Civil War, you can put Westfield in the Revolution, you can put Westfield in World War II,” said Curtis. 

The ability for students to understand how their town has been involved in the same historical events they learn about in school is invaluable to develop a refined perspective and interest in history. The Historical Society can help them do that in a more tangible fashion; there is no better way to reach through time than by touching an Italian immigrant’s drum from the early 1900s or seeing the work of Westfield’s leading woodcarver, John Brunner.

The Westfield Historical Society is an organization that is often neglected by our community. The resources they offer are often irreplaceable in their benefaction to our understanding of Westfield’s place in history.

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