Ghastly ghouls visit the museum barn

There is never lack of inspiration when the Berlin Historical Society looks for inventive ways to tell the story of the town’s history. Over the past 10 Berlin Fair seasons, we’ve recreated memorable scenes such as the 1907 Ladies Tea Room in a tent, a graveyard of realistic tombstones, the Berlin-New Britain trolley, the Seymour Fort in The Great Swamp, the Yankee Peddler and other vignettes.

Every year we astonish visitors with displays and DVDs that are both entertaining and educational. It is a lot of work for a small group of volunteers, but we are gratified by the positive feedback from those who visit the museum barn during those three days in October.

This year we took inspiration from columns printed in The Berlin News between 1893-1901. Since Victorian times, the Halloween spirit has enticed us to decorate our homes and play host to spooky-fun parties. Stories reported elaborate parties at a particularly elegant new mansion in East Berlin and other 19th century homes. Unlike the dry news stories characterizing modern reporting, the vivid detail in these accounts is fascinating. Not only do we know who attended a party, but what they wore, what they ate and how the hosts decorated.

Branches of evergreen hang over windows, star strewn gauze drapes doorways, “jack-lanterns” throw a “ghastly glimmer” and corn stalks stand in corners. Guests arrive dressed in an array of costumes — an Egyptian princess, Red-Riding Hood, Mexican Caballero, Milk Maid and Mephistopheles. Curiously, guests are required to communicate in sign language while games of whist, apple bobbing and fortune telling fill the evening.

Another party described was The Berlin Social Club’s Hop where costumed couples processed in a grand march followed by dancing. This event was held at Brandegee Hall, a town community center and theater on Worthington Ridge. The building would later become Berlin Town Hall.

We’ve recreated much of the decoration and food they had at these parties along with the games played. Victorians were obsessed with divination games and so the display includes a veiled fortune teller who may at times come to life and share her visions with visitors. We’ll provide free handouts on how Halloween has been observed throughout history. Perhaps our display will inspire your own Halloween party.

In another area of the museum barn we continue to commemorate The American Civil War years with a soldiers’ encampment scene and a display reflecting on the Battle of Gettysburg, 150 years ago. We also pay tribute to the oldest permanent Civil War monument erected in the country.

The war had such an impact on our town that a memorial to those lost was built before the war ended. The Kensington monument was recently added to The National Register of Historic Places and rededicated in a day long celebration of its 150th year on July 28. Commemorative medallions and postcards of the monument will be available for sale. The United States Postal Service will be on site Friday and Saturday, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., to hand cancel postcards and other mail for collectors with a one day indicia stamp featuring the monument. We’ll also be selling copies of Lyman B. Wilcox’s Civil War letters and Cathy Nelson’s history of the Kensington Monument.

“The American Flag: Honor and Glory” celebrates the history and customs of our national flag. Among the displayed items is a photo collage of the annual flag retirement ceremony held every Flag Day on the grounds of The American Legion Hall.

The new DVD on view in the hay bale theater area is entitled “Heritage Routes, Exploring our Roots” — a driving tour of over 100 of Berlin’s historic sites. Copies of this DVD and others we’ve produced will be for sale. Plans are evolving to create a companion booklet and map for the tour in the future. In the Country Store area we offer an array of homemade goods, confections, Berlin pottery, decorations and flea market treasures.

This is a milestone year not only for the museum barn at the fairgrounds, but for the main museum on the corner of Peck and Main Streets in Kensington. Twenty years ago the old Peck Library was repurposed to provide a home for Historical Society treasures. A display will showcase photos and memorabilia from the 1993 opening to the present. The museum, sparsely decorated at its opening, is now bursting at the seams. With so many people donating their photos, antique treasures and memorabilia we are continually enriching our knowledge of Berlin’s history for future generations.

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