Jeff Hostetler: Making History Fun

Jeff Hostetler would be the first to tell you he is no baseball player.

"I wasn't very athletic at all," he admits.

But, as president of the Deep River Historical Society, Jeff has baseball on his schedule at the moment. That's because of the upcoming tri-town classic baseball challenge on Sunday,
Sept. 21 between teams from Essex, Deep River, and Chester. The event, sponsored by the historical societies of the three towns, will feature a round robin format played by 1857 rules (see "Baseball: It Ain't What It Used To Be" on page 10.

The game, to be held at Devitt Field in Deep River, is not a fundraiser. There is no admission charge.

"It is for fun and entertainment, a family event," Jeff says. History, he firmly believes, should always have an element of enjoyment. "If it isn't fun, nobody cares about it."

Jeff is the longtime president of the Deep River Historical Society, and, what is more, sees no end to his tenure in the top post.

"I think I'm president for life," he says. But he has no regrets. "I think you feel more a part of a community if you know why it is the way it is. And the more involved the population is in recognizing the value of older stuff, the more the chance of preserving it."

At the moment the society has an exhibit, organized by Rhonda Forristall, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War: Deep River and World War I. The exhibit features uniforms, equipment, and photographs of local men who served in the conflict. Last fall the society did a successful weekend-long program about the history of ivory working in Deep River and the current plight of the African elephant. National Public Radio science correspondent Christopher Joyce recently did a segment on the ivory trade in Deep River and Essex in which Jeff, among others, was interviewed.

Heading the historical society is about more than exhibits. It is also about the building itself.

"On one level, it's an old house; the screens have to be changed, the plumbing repaired," he says. "I dream about hearing someone else say, 'I can do that,' but when I ask who is going to go up on the ladder and clean the gutters, there is silence."

In addition to leading the society, Jeff is a member of the board of the Connecticut League of Historical Organizations, a group representing some 200 clubs and societies. It is, he notes, a testament to the importance of local history that Connecticut has 169 towns but even more historical organizations.

"We can all get quite insular, and the idea of the league is to see what we have in common and can do in common," he says. "The purpose of all the societies is to cooperate, not compete."

September's tri-town baseball classic, he points out, is just such an example of cooperation.

Along with his wife, Linda, Jeff is an active member of the Deep River Congregational Church. He says that serving on the search committee that brought Reverend Timothy Haut to the church in 1980 remains one of the proudest things he has ever done.

For many years he and Linda have baked bread for the church's annual summer fair. And not just a loaf or two. The Hostetlers have some 60 to 70 loaf pans and use the kitchen at the church with its larger oven to accomplish the task. They mix and bake in three-loaf batches. The bread, of course, has to be fresh, so the couple spends the entire night before baking.

"The all-nighter used to be less of a deal than it is now," Jeff admits.

Jeff also serves locally on Deep River's Design Advisory Board, a group that can advise on plans before they go to the Planning & Zoning Commission.

"Sometimes a little tweaking helps," he says. In addition, he is Deep River's representative to the Middlesex County Revitalization Commission, a group designed to encourage the growth of local business.

Now retired, Jeff spent his professional career as an engineer at Pratt & Whitney. He was a metallurgist who worked in research for the company for more than 30 years. Linda, now also retired, worked for Wesleyan University in Middletown. The couple, she from Missouri and he from Ohio, met at Purdue University in Indiana.

"We're flatlanders, Midwesterners," Jeff says.

Or they once were. Though they traveled to the Midwest to visit family, Jeff recalls driving home along Interstate 95 in New Haven at low tide. He inhaled a whiff of the classic low tide reek, inhaled, and realized something besides the level of the water.

"I smelled it and realized I was home," he says.

Still, Jeff and Linda are inveterate travelers. They have visited every state, camping with their daughter, Gretchen, when she was younger. They actually visited Idaho twice, after they decided that merely passing through didn't count as a visit. "

You have to spend the night there," Jeff explains.

Now they travel alone. Gretchen is married, and the Hostetlers have three grandchildren

Before moving to Deep River some 30 years ago, the Hostetlers lived in Middletown-"Tract housing; we just didn't fit there," Jeff says. In Deep River, they live in a house built in 1840, and Jeff says it was learning the history of the home that originally brought him to the historical society. He loves not only the uniqueness of his home, but also its convenience.

"We value walkability. We can walk to Town Hall, the library, the school, the market. You didn't have to destroy a neighborhood just to get parking," he says.

On summer nights, when there is an outdoor concert on the historical society grounds and on the other side of the street the horseshoe players are immersed in their competition, the sight fills Jeff with delight.

"I feel like it is unleashing the full fury of small-town America," he says.

Vintage Baseball played by 1857 rules, a round robin competition between Deep River, Essex, and Chester, is on Sunday, Sept. 21 at 2 p.m. at Devitt Field in Deep River. Admission is free. The rain date is Sunday, Sept. 28.

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