Reopening the Doors to Durham's History

The Durham Historical Society will hold a reopening celebration on Saturday at the Center School House.


History will soon be on display again in Durham, where members of the town's Historical Society are nearing the end of a more than decade-long effort to renovate the second floor of the Center School House, the historical society's home since 1962.

The historical society will hold a reopening celebration on May 12 from 9 a.m to 2 p.m., when exhibits of the town's past will be on display.

"We're getting pretty close here," says town historian and historical society member Fran Korn. "It will be nice to get the place opened up again. We're trying to get everything centralized here so people can come learn about the town."

While the historical society has held monthly meetings in the former 2-story schoolhouse for many years and has continued to host local school children, most of the historical society's collection has been hidden away in storage. 

But recently, as the renovations neared completion, Korn and Sarah Atwell, president of the historical socity, began moving many of the items to the building for display.

"I love history," says Korn, whose family has deep roots in town. "My love of history is really the history of this town. I just really think that it's important that people understand their roots. And frankly I think it's a lot of fun."

Soon, the space will be used as a meeting place for lectures on the town's history.

"There's a lot of history associated with this. If you read the history of Durham, they talk about the voting on the U.S. Constitution and how they lined up out here," Korn says pointing to the town green.

'Gutting It'

Built in 1775, the Center School House functioned as a school until 1923. Over the next half-century it had many functions, including serving as a ration center during World War II, the home to the District Nurse Association and at one point was a two-family apartment.

In the 1960s, the building was nearly demolished before it was eventually taken over by the historical society which leases the building from the town of Durham.

"We decided we were going to gut it," says Korn. "When we actually decided that we were going to take this place apart we had no idea how badly deteriorated the frame of the building way."

While the first floor had been well-kept over the years, renovations to the second floor have been ongoing since 1977.

Along the way, volunteers have discovered hidden pieces of history, including a fireplace hearthstone which had been buried in the ground, as well as a char-marked ceiling beam that Korn said indicates that a stove had once stood below.

"The work is fun. Raising the money isn't so much," says Atwell.

Over the years, the historical society has relied on public and private donations, membershp fees as well as proceeds from several books highlighting the town's history to pay for the costs of rebuilding. The most recent book, Durham: 1900-1950 Postcard History, was published in 2010.

Last spring, painters put on a fresh coat of white paint on the building's exterior. Future renovation efforts include installing heat in the building and a bathroom downstairs.

Atwell recently secured a grant from the Middlesex County Community Foundation to pay for two display cases that will be filled with town artifacts (see photos).

"I remember being around the building as a kid growing up and I was also a history major in college and I'm pretty sure that this place had some influence on making that decision," Atwell says. "I enjoy coming down here working away little by little. It's still fun, it's always been fun."

For more information on the Durham Historical Society, including how to become a member, visit their website.


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