Remembrance of Things Past: Students take a Flex project to the big time
“Mr. Welt! I found Arthur!”
That shout came from the back of Room D 111, my Social Studies classroom at Fitch Middle School. The student doing the shouting was seventh-grader Deb Hoffman, who with her partner Sarah Pearson, were busily at work on a project in a little alcove in the back of the class that held our only computer, an iMac G3, an Apple product that came in as many colors as a bowl of jelly beans.
The two girls — Deb, who was very spontaneous, a softball player and fun loving, and Sarah, who was much more serious — were both very bright and excellent students. They were engaged in a project to learn all they could about Arthur Barrows, who had been born more than 130 years earlier, and his family.
The project that Sarah and Deb, and many others worked on over a span of many years, began when I made a visit to Miller’s Stamp Shop in Uncasville. Like many youngsters, I had been a stamp collector as a kid. However, over the years, other activities took up much of my time.
I did manage to attend the Sixth International Philatelic Exhibition in Washington in 1966, but only because I was a student in that city. Other than that, my collection sat on a shelf. That’s not unusual for the hobby. Mortgage payments trump stamp purchases!
However, when I turned 40 I decided to buy myself a new stamp album for my birthday. In fact, I bought atwo volume Scott National Postage Stamp Album, whichI still have and use.
While I was sitting at the counter in the store, I saw a box of old letters dated from the late 1800s to the 1920s. Dealers tend to buy such items at estate sales, hoping to find something of value, either a stamp or postmark. I don’t remember what Irv was asking for them, but I bought the box thinking my students might enjoy looking at them and, maybe, even learn something.
At the beginning, students read them when they had finished their assignments. All I asked was that they be sure to put the letters back in the correct envelopes. As interest grew, I asked if anyone wanted to take these letters on as a project. A couple of students agreed.
Their first task was to put all the letters in chronological order. Most of the postmarks were fairly clear, and lacking that, the letters themselves were generally dated.
My next challenge to them was to try to determine the relationships of the people mentioned in the correspondence. As the kids read the letters they copied down names on 3x5 cards and tacked them to the bulletin board in the back of the room.
I explained to my students that salutations, “Dear Father,” and closings, “Your loving daughter, Florence,” pretty much explained the relationship. As connections were uncovered, strings were stretched from one name to another.
Later we learned more about genealogy and family tree charts.
By the time Sarah and Deb inherited the project in the mid-1990s, we had the Internet with, as I recall, Netscape Navigator and email. We had also learned something about the Barrows family.
Arthur Barrows had been born in Groton, Mass., in 1863. He attended Brown for one year and then took a teaching position in Union, Conn. He left at the end of the year to return to college, but continued his correspondence with a Union colleague, Ella Corbin, whom he had tutored in algebra and Latin.
When Arthur graduated from Brown, he and Ella were married and moved to Providence, where Arthur took a teaching position. The couple had two children, Florence and Raymond. Arthur earned a master’s degree at Harvard and eventually took the family to Ithaca where he started a Ph. D. program at Cornell.
Apparently even as an undergraduate Ella had warned Arthur not to try to take on too much, but Arthur replied that he thrived on pressure. Cornell must have been too much pressure because after about a month, the school refunded his tuition money to his wife and Arthur entered a sanitarium in Rhode Island.
From there he returned to live with his mother in Providence while Ella took the kids home to Union to live on her family’s farm.
From time to time, Arthur left Providence for employment. He tried farming in Connecticut as well as teaching in a one room school for one semester. He also worked briefly at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
When the girls learned of that I suggested they contact the history department at the university and see what they could find. They wound up in an email exchange with a grad student there who explained he was the department computer geek. He was so fascinated with their project that he spent one lunch hour at the archives.
His email report to Sarah and Deb stated that Arthur had spent only one uneventful semester at Fayetteville.
By the time my young researchers were in eighth grade, I challenged them to write a biography of one of the people mentioned in the letters. They continued in my Flex period, and it was not unheard of for them to talk their way out of another class to come back to D 111 to continue their research.
The person they chose to write about was Florence, called Totkins by her grandmother. She was born in 1888 and grew up on the farm. She went to high school in Stafford Springs, since Union,
like many towns, didn’t have a high school at that time.
From there she went to Smith, where she majored in botany. From Smith she took teaching jobs in New Jersey and New Haven and was active as a Camp Fire Girls leader. She was hired by Connecticut College in 1919.
Since Connecticut College is only a few minutes away from Fitch, I contacted Catherine Phinizy, the college archivist, to see if I could bring the girls over. Phinizy was happy to help, and after a great deal of paperwork, I loaded the kids in my Volvo 740 wagon and we were off to New London.
There, Sarah and Deb learned that Florence was involved in the establishment of the famous Conn College arboretum.
They also learned about the role of archives. As I jokingly explained to them, a college archive is similar to Grandma’s attic, full of stuff you don’t want to throw out, but you’re not sure what to do with.
Ms. Phinizy was interested to learn that I had a number of youngsters who liked to work with primary source materials. A short time later she called me and asked if I could bring a crew over to help her. She had one undergraduate assistant and had just been handed several cartons of materials from an alumnus who had gone on to an academic career and left all her papers to
the college. She needed help sorting them out. It took only two visits before we were almost able to complete the project.
Not long thereafter, the editor of the Connecticut College Magazine contacted me to see if they could publish the girls’ biography of Florence. It appeared in the Winter 1996 issue. The same article was republished in the Connecticut Postal History Society Journal.
Carol Pratt, an old friend who hosted the “Welcome to Groton” show on Channel 2, asked to interview the girls. As we were seated in the studio with the video about to start recording, I noticed a big lump in Deb’s cheek.
“Is that a jaw breaker?” I asked her.
She grinned and nodded yes. I held my open palm under her chin and she spit out the candy, which I deposited in a potted plant next to me and as far as I know it’s still there.
And that’s what’s great about teaching middle school. One day they’re doing graduate level work and the next day they’re little kids!
Robert Welt of Mystic is a retired longtime teacher in Groton Public Schools.
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