The Canterbury Historical Society (CHS) was formed from a desire to restore and preserve local history. Big Y has supported this nonprofit organization through its Community Bag Program.
Tell us about the Canterbury Historical Society.
Our mission as a historical society is to seek to promote appreciation and interest in the history of our beautiful little New England town. We collect and preserve materials that illustrate and document Canterbury’s history and encourage the preservation of our historic sites and assets.
The Canterbury Historical Society is here to keep history alive. Many people find history boring and irrelevant; that’s not the case here. We like to prove people wrong by showing them how interesting and stimulating history can be.
Initially, we started as the Lisbon-Canterbury Historical Society, which was back in the late sixties or early seventies. Then Canterbury branched off in the early eighties, and ever since then, we have been our own historical society.
That’s how it started; many people were interested in the local history and preserving it. So they all got together and said, “Let’s form a society.”
What services do you provide to the community?
The Canterbury Historical Society provides various opportunities for our local community to experience and be a part of our history. We host events, have ongoing projects and offer historical resources to the local community.
We hold meetings with a program every month except for July and August. These meetings are always open to the public and have some fascinating speakers. We also have local housing records and things like that, but we don’t do genealogical research as we don’t have the resources for that.
The Canterbury Historical Society also hosts the annual Old Home Day event on the Canterbury Town Green in the fall. This will be the first year coming back to do it since Covid, and it’s a day when we have local vendors of handmade items. There are pottery makers, candlemakers, blacksmiths and people demonstrating old-time activities. One of our members has a set of old waffle irons, and he makes waffles and cookies over the fire and gives them out to people. A lot of the other community organizations join us. Old Home Day is one of our most significant events.
People really missed it when it was gone. It will be exciting to come out and finally get it back this year. It’s free, open to the public, and we open up our one-room schoolhouse for tours. Some bands provide entertainment, so it’s a nice community day on the green.
Tell us a story that illustrates the good work of your organization.
We have a historic cemetery that runs through town. It’s what you would call a dead-burial ground because there are no current burials. It’s all historic and was a mess, for lack of a better term.
The Canterbury Cemetery Association decided not to take it on anymore because they’re a for-profit organization. The town ended up responsible for it but wasn’t doing much with the grounds, so we were granted permission to take over the cemetery and restore it, maintain it and open it up as an Open Air Museum.
There are a lot of beautiful carvings on the colonial gravestones that are of considerable intrigue. People are very interested in them, and this particular cemetery, the Cleaveland Cemetery, is where the founder of Canterbury, Major James Fitch, is buried. It’s where the first pastor, Reverend Samuel Estherbrooks, who was called to Canterbury, is buried. And it’s also the burial ground of Moses Cleaveland, who founded Cleveland, Ohio, in 1796. The Cleaveland Cemetery has 22 Cleavelands, which is why it’s called the Cleaveland Cemetery.
There are a lot of beautiful carvings on the colonial gravestones that are of considerable intrigue.
The Canterbury Historical Society is going in, and we’re cleaning and restoring gravestones, keeping the grounds maintained. We will also get some interpretive signage and give it the respect it’s due. It will be a place that people who are enthusiastic about this sort of thing can come and visit.
We’re excited about this new project. The carvings are folk art. Preserving that and presenting something that many people have shown interest in illustrates that we’re not just interested in history but in protecting these important parts of our town. We have many cemeteries, but this one will be our premier cemetery. And we’ve got at least 12 American Revolution Patriots buried there, too, so there are a lot of interesting stories in that cemetery.
What is your most outstanding achievement or contribution to the community?
The restoration of a Canterbury one-room schoolhouse is an outstanding achievement. We used to have nine schoolhouses here in Canterbury. Many of them either no longer exist or stand as someplace where the public can’t visit.
In 2002, we took over the schoolhouse from the town. It was built around 1850 and used as a schoolhouse until the 1950s. Volunteers from the Historical Society took over all the restoration and repair, resulting in thousands of hours of work. And to this day, we still maintain it.
We open the schoolhouse during select summer weekends and oftentimes during Connecticut Open House Day. It’s currently set up as a school from the 1940s. My aunts, my mother, my uncle and my grandfather all went to this particular school. It’s located on the green, right behind the First Congregational Church. Once it ceased being a school in the 1950s, it became the town’s library until 2001, and it was the only library in Connecticut that did not have indoor plumbing.
It is an incredible accomplishment to have restored this piece of history. There is now a lot of information about people who used to go to school there, and it’s cool to see all that history.
What do you want people to know about the Canterbury Historical Society?
Most people hear historical society and think of stuffy older people sitting around talking about back in the day, etc. That’s not the case!
We do concerts, tag sales, events with the Lions, and occasionally put on dinners. We’re more vibrant than people think we are. The Canterbury Historical Society has fun! History is one of those things that, when you start looking at it, it’s like pulling a string from a blanket; it just keeps going. And then you realize the interconnectedness of everything. People often say, “That’s really cool. I didn’t know that.”
Most people probably don’t know that Benedict Arnold went to school in Canterbury or that Cleveland, Ohio, is named after a guy born and raised here in Canterbury. There are so many cool little things that you can learn. We’re not a bunch of boring historians; we like to have fun with history.
How are you using the funds you’ve received from the Big Y Community Bag Program?
We’ve got some terrific programs for the rest of the year, so we will use the funds we raised from the Big Y Community Bag Program to pay for a couple.
We have a gentleman coming in June who portrays a black Civil War soldier from Hartford. A lady coming in October will talk to us about one of the big famous cemeteries up in Hartford. We have a gentleman coming in November who will give us a history of Christmas carols while he sings them. And in September, we have a gentleman coming who will talk to us about our own Moses Cleveland in the Western Reserve, which is timely, with all the cemetery work.
It’s always good to have extra money to put into the budget for these programs because we do not charge people to attend them. All our programs are free and open to the public, and we encourage people to come and bring a friend.
We’ve had some very cool programs over the years, and we’ve had a decent turnout. But it would be nice to have even more people show up because the presenters that we bring in are fascinating.
Is there anything you would like to add?
We really appreciate opportunities like the Community Bag program to help us. As a nonprofit, fundraising can be not much fun. So, anybody who has a way of supporting us, we are very appreciative of that. The Big Y Community Bag Program is a fabulous opportunity for us to get funding efficiently. Other than that, I encourage people to attend meetings or programs and get involved. You might find you like it!
Linda Orlomoski is the President of the Canterbury Historical Society.
Published June 22, 2023.