DEEP RIVER - In the mid-19th century, Deep River and neighboring Ivoryton prospered, based largely on the West African ivory trade. It started with Phineas Pratt's invention of the circular saw, which led to the establishment of successful ivory cutting shops and then worldwide dominance in the production piano keys. At one point, Pratt Read was cutting 12,000 pounds of ivory a month. Thousands of elephants were killed to make the piano keys that fueled Deep River's prosperity. In the early 21st century, Deep River turns its attention to saving the elephant.
The Deep River Historical Society, Rotary Club, and town are presenting a special two-day program, "Deep River and the African Elephant," on Saturday, Nov. 9 and Sunday, Nov. 10, recounting the history of the ivory trade here, the plight of elephant today, and the battle to save them.
Peter Howard, a trustee of the historical society, is chair of the event.
"Deep River and Ivoryton flourished in the 19th and early 20th century because of the African ivory trade. Now is the time to help save the African elephant," he said.
In 2011, 25,000 African elephants were slaughtered by poachers supplying illegal ivory traders and more were killed last year. A study from the Wildlife Conservation Society shows that 60 percent of all African forest elephants have been killed in the last decade for their ivory tusks, leaving about 80,000 in their primary habitats in Western and central Africa.
"We want to join in the worldwide conservation effort to stop the massacre, and to heighten awareness of this crisis and to involve our community," Howard said.
The idea for the program grew out of a discussion among the trustees.
"I can't remember the exact moment, but we decided to consider some type of program. I had been introduced to a Washington, D.C., lawyer named Stephen Stone who was very involved in wildlife affairs. When I called him, he suggested I call Herb Raffaele, chief for U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services International Affairs. I did. When I told him what we were thinking of doing, he was very excited. Then I got excited, and then we were off and running," Howard recalled.
As the program developed, Howard stayed in touch with Raffaele, who sent this message: "The initiative which Deep River is undertaking is extraordinary and, as far as I know, unprecedented and visionary. I believe it has the potential to send a very powerful message to our entire country."
The program and the speakers are impressive. On Nov. 9, in the Deep River Town Hall auditorium, the program begins at 7 p.m. Brenda Milkofsky, a founding director of the Connecticut River Museum and a curator of a major exhibition on the ivory-cutting industry in the Connecticut Valley, will discuss "The History of the Ivory Trade in Deep River and Ivoryton." Milkofsky assisted in the transfer of records and artifacts from the Pratt, Read Company to the Smithsonian in 1988.
Daniel M. Ashe, the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, will come from Washington, D.C., to discuss "The Plight of the Elephant and What Can Be Done to Protect Them." And joining both Ashe and Milkofsky on the Saturday evening speaking program will be Paula Kahumbu, executive director of the Kenya Land Conservation Trust, chair of Friends of Nairobi National Park, and an outspoken opponent of the international ivory trade.
Howard contacted Kahumbu after another conversation with Stone just last week. Did Howard know Kahumbu? She was in the area now, speaking at Stony Brook.
"I had heard her on public radio. I knew she was a marvelous speaker. I called and we talked. She said she thought she could come to Deep River," Howard said. He added her to the program.
On Nov. 10, the program will begin at 2 p.m. with the viewing of the National Geographic Society film Battle for the Elephants, introduced by filmmakers John Heminway and Katie Carpenter. The film will be shown in the Town Hall auditorium. It is not recommended for children under 10 years.
There will be a rededication of the elephant sculpture sponsored by the Rotary Club of Deep River. The sculpture sits outside the Town Hall. At 3:15 p.m. at the Deep River Historical Society's Carriage House there will be a display of student elephant project art and essays with awards presented by Superintendent of Schools Dr. Ruth Levy and Lorianne Penzara-Griswold, president of the Rotary Club.
Also, on view will be ivory artifacts and period photographs from the Deep River Historical Society and the Ivoryton Library.
Tickets for the program are $20 for adults. Students are free with a ticket.
"The goal is to involve young people. That's how we continue to this effort," Howard said.
Tickets are available at the Town Hall or the Whistle Stop Café. A portion of ticket sales will be donated to Save the Elephants, a Kenyan organization recommended by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.