J. Ritchie Garrison, November 19, 2020


J. Ritchie Garrison, November 19, 2020


Arrowsic, Maine
Bates College
Clarke Trading Post Site
Decorative Arts
Historic Deerfield
House fire
Material Culture
North Dansville, New York
Oil embargo
Saw Milling
SLR Film Camera
Steam Railroad Locomotives
Strawbridge & Clothier
Sweat Soldering
Tilton School
University of Pennsylvania
Winterthur Program in American Material Culture
Worcester, Massachusetts


J. Ritchie Garrison is an esteemed alumnus of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, a member of the class of 1974. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and grew up in Atherton, California before moving back to Worcester as a child. He attended Tilton School in New Hampshire, then Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, before his time at Cooperstown, then went on to the University of Pennsylvania for his PhD in American Civilization. Following his academic career, he worked as Director of Education at Historic Deerfield before moving to the University of Delaware and the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. He became Director of the Winterthur Program in 2004 and served in that role until 2019, when he retired.

Mr. Garrison’s time at CGP involved intense study of the local region, from agricultural and economic history, to architecture, craft, and material culture. In addition to that, Mr. Garrison and his wife, Carla, faced an extraordinary event during their time in Cooperstown: a house fire. No one was harmed, but it was a life changing moment.

In this interview, Mr. Garrison speaks about his early exposure to material culture, his academic experience in Cooperstown, the event of the house fire and the lessons it brought, and, finally, his observations about both the Winterthur and Cooperstown graduate programs.

This interview was conducted over Zoom on Thursday, November 19, 2020. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic necessitating a virtual interview, it made little difference in the depth of what was shared.


Caroline Brown


Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta




Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY










Atherton, California
Worcester, Massachusetts
Cooperstown, New York
Pitman, New Jersey
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Newark, Delaware
Plymouth, Massachusetts


Caroline Brown


J. Ritchie Garrison


Zoom Platform, Plymouth, Massachusetts (Garrison) and Cooperstown, New York (Brown)


CB = Caroline Brown
RG = Ritchie Garrison

[START OF TRACK 1, 0:02]

Alright, this is Caroline Brown interviewing Ritchie Garrison remotely on the Zoom videoconference platform. Mr. Garrison is at his home in Plymouth, Massachusetts, and I am in the building of the Cooperstown Graduate Program. It is the morning of Thursday, November 19, 2020. This interview is being conducted for the Cooperstown Graduate Program’s Oral History Project, which is part of the Research and Fieldwork course.

[TRACK 1, 0:29]

So, let’s jump in. Tell me a little bit about your childhood experiences with material culture and how that shaped your interest in the field.

Well, over the years, I’ve had numerous opportunities to interact with family things. In a sense, I grew up in a house filled with old things dating back to the early 19th century, and in some cases, to the 18th century. When I was very young, I moved to California with my parents. I was then three years old and moved out there with a baby brother and a sister who is exactly one and a half years younger than I. At that point, traveling to California was a pretty big deal and we flew over in a “prop plane.” I don’t really remember very much about it other than it was a very long flight. Today, if you fly straight out to California it’s about four hours from Boston–which is where we took off from–but, in fact, back then it was eight hours because they were prop planes. They didn’t have jets as we know them today. My dad worked for the Norton Company and he took the train from our house down to Santa Clara, California where the plant was. We lived in Atherton which is now practically ground zero for the Silicon Valley establishment, I guess you could say. I had a very interesting childhood growing up in California, but I remember several things about life there. One was watching the last era of the steam railroad locomotives, which ran on the commuter lines from San Francisco down to San Jose. That was an unusual experience because most people at that point were experiencing railroads that were shifting over to either electrical or diesel locomotives. So, for me, watching a steam engine puff past was an experience that was both out of the past and simultaneously endlessly fascinating to a kid. My parents also took advantage of being in California. My mother loved the climate and had many friends out there. I think, in many ways, she sort of wished she could move back to California. I remember trips past the gold fields, to Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, where we went several times in my youth. When I was nine we moved back to Worcester, Massachusetts, which was as different an experience as you can probably imagine. And it was at that point that I got to know, in a more detailed way, some of my other family members whom I was only distantly aware of when I was in Worcester as an infant and then a toddler. They lived in an old house in Waban, Massachusetts and, of course, my grandparents–my mother’s parents–lived in Worcester, in a house probably built in the 1920s. I remember my grandmother cooking on a stove that, in fact, probably came out of the 1920s–a gas stove in a colonial revival house. My grandfather there had worked for United States Envelope and had grown up on a farm in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. So, I guess you could say in a way, that I had always been surrounded by family members who were as attached to the past as I became out of interest. I listened to their stories and I learned from the things that they owned and, in subsequent years, some of those things came down to me. That’s sort of the long and short story of how I got interested in material culture. I think that’s probably true of a lot of people who become interested in material culture. What makes it challenging from an academic standpoint is that most of us don’t really get any formal kind of training in material culture. Certainly not even in college, and almost never in high school. Although, we do have, sometimes, teachers who will take us out into the world and let us look at things and try to help us make sense of them. Sometimes they’ll even take us to museums and let us look around in those things. So, in a sense, I don’t think I was probably much different from many other young men growing up in the 1960s and ’70s. I did go to prep school, and that was unusual, I suppose, for most of my cohort of peers. I had spent my life in Worcester in the early ’60s with friends playing pick-up baseball and going to school. I only actually can ever remember spending one year in public school and that was in fourth grade. That was a very strange experience for me because I didn’t think I was in any way particularly unusual, but I topped out at the very head of the class in reading. That was a strange experience because it never occurred to me that I would be ahead of anybody else in many academic subjects. I was always, as a student, much stronger in history and English than I was in mathematics and the sciences. Partly, I think that was from exposure, partly it was just the ways and means by which I was interested in things. I enjoyed model railroading, building things, various kinds of craft projects, and I was always pretty gifted in art. In fifth grade, I won the art prize for the entire school. That was an unusual experience and it began to make me realize that there were talents I could develop if I put my mind to them even as I perhaps neglected other opportunities that might have served me equally well, had I been more astute at paying attention to them. When I got out of prep school–having graduated as a senior from Tilton School–I went to Bates College and quickly worked into the rotation of the Department of History and, in particular, came under the influence of James Leamon, who subsequently became one of the great professors of history in the State of Maine, writing several books about Maine. Jim–who I still keep in touch with from time to time–is remarkable for his eclectic interests, not only in all things Maine, but also in local and regional history and in the world of material culture. It was, in my sophomore year, when Bates had something called the short term in May. A lot of schools have what are equivalent to short terms in January, but if you’ve spent much time in Maine it makes infinitely better sense to actually have a short term in May than it does to have it January, given weather conditions there. Sophomore year, Jim and a small cohort of fellow students went down to the island of Arrowsic and explored and dug in the Clarke trading post site which had been demolished in the aftermath of King Philip's War in the 17th century. I gained a lot of experience and I excavated a square that, in fact, uncovered a still surviving charcoalized oak floor, that was in front of the fireplace that somebody else in previous years had excavated. While there, my partner and I uncovered the powdery bones of a human hand with a ring through one of the ring fingers. The bones were so fragile we couldn’t really recover them, but the ring we could. It’s clear that, [for] a young man or a young woman, the ring was a friendship ring. It said “the gift of a friend” on the inside of it. Someone had died during the massacre of the trading post right there in front of the fireplace under circumstances we couldn't fully recover. But that was a kind of special moment, in the ways in which I began to think about material culture and its relationship to history, actually digging in the past. It’s in a number of ways shaped how I thought about the past, how I thought about doing history, how I thought about the ways in which materiality intersects with the kind of theoretical and historiographical suppositions of historians. That’s the short story.

[TRACK 1, 9:58]

So this brings us right about up to the time when you were about to start your time at CGP. Before you arrived, how did you envision what it might be like?

Well, I wasn’t sure. You need to understand that, while I was actually a sophomore at Bates even before we went to the island of Arrowsic, I had begun thinking about, well, what did I want to do with a college education? When I entered, I hadn't really declared any sort of a major like, I suspect, the majority of undergraduate students. And I suppose I approached the problem from the standpoint of what I didn't really want to do–what I wasn't particularly interested in more than I approached it from the standpoint of what I was interested in. I had always been interested in museums. Dad and Mother had made it a point of taking us to museums. So, I began thinking about whether I could construct a career out of that. Now you also need to remember that in the late ’60s, we were at the height of the Vietnam War and the Tet offensive. My senior year at Bates, I got a number two on the draft lottery, which meant that I was likely to be drafted into the army if it were not for the fact that I had received a college exemption–which was then grandfathered–and the war ended literally in 1973, the year I graduated. So, I never was drafted into the army, but I was facing the prospect of that. I had applied to graduate school, to several schools at both the level of PhDs and MAs. My academic record was such that I got into some of them but not all of them. I remember being invited to Interview Weekend out at the Cooperstown Graduate Program and driving over. I had worked all through the summers for the previous three years. I remember driving over in March I think it was–mid-March maybe–to Cooperstown to interview with Bruce Buckley who was then the director of the program and a folklorist and also with... [laughter]. There are a lot of the memories associated with it. It was a huge Interview Weekend! I mean there were just dozens of us. At that point, the admissions of the class were in the vicinity of thirty people for both history museum studies and the folklore program and that didn’t even count people who were coming in later for conservation interviews with the Kecks [Caroline and Sheldon Keck]. I remember driving over on Route 20 from Worcester on a glorious spring day, listening to Roberta Flack on the radio, and then driving down to Cooperstown–which I had never before visited–and thinking to myself well, this is really a very beautiful place and I could be happy here. I had applied to the Winterthur program but didn’t make it into Interview Weekend. That's one of the ironies of my career: that I never got into the program I subsequently ended up directing, but such is life. I’ve often used that as an example of students that I’ve been forced to reject for the Winterthur program as a way of telling them that perseverance counts. I’ve also often thought that my admission into Cooperstown simply took me in a direction that I would not have gone in had I gone to the Winterthur program and learned a great deal more about decorative arts than I did at Cooperstown. Not that I didn't learn about those things, but in going to Cooperstown I was forced to really engage with agriculture, farming history, a range of social history topics, and indeed, the themes of development and westward expansion in Upstate New York in ways I never would have had I gone to Delaware. So, there I was. I went through my year at Cooperstown with my education and then by October of my first year there—and you have to remember at that time the [Cooperstown] program was only a year and did not include an internship, though I had already worked for two summers at Old Sturbridge Village as an interpreter and had had quite a bit of experience in material culture. I was a pretty good writer and that counted for a lot. My thesis was nothing to brag about, although it was very interesting and I learned a lot from it. I did a thesis on an account book in the CGP library there–the NYSHA library–on a saw miller and farmer who lived in North Dansville, New York, out in “Genesee country.” I had to learn a lot very quickly about saw milling and a range of topics in a part of the country I knew almost nothing about. The thesis, as I recollect it was, well, it wasn’t wretched, but it wasn’t particularly outstanding, in part because I didn't finish it right away. I applied for and got into the University of Pennsylvania’s program in American Civilization to work on my PhD and trundled off. My sister-in-law and brother-in-law lived down there. I was married at the time and they were living in southern New Jersey in a little town called Pitman, where [my brother-in-law] Reverend Bob was a Baptist minister and much beloved in the town of Pitman, which, as it happens, was an old Methodist camp meeting town. So, I would commute into Philadelphia and worked in the morning. We were in the middle of the tail-end of the first great era of oil embargo. You have to understand the sort of total economic context here. The country was in the midst of a full-blown recession and even in the year we were in Cooperstown, it was often a struggle to find gasoline to fill the tank up with. It was one of the ironies that my wife was then substitute teaching–because she was trained, and is trained, as a mathematician–and was teaching out in the towns just to the west of Cooperstown. They apparently had plenty of gas, but Cooperstown did not. So, she would actually gas up when she was doing substitute teaching out in those western towns, which was how we made a go of it. Things got better in the summer of 1974, and as I began studies at Penn, it was a very strange world. I was working as a checker. In other words, in the foreign department of Strawbridge and Clothier, once one of the great department stores in downtown Philadelphia. A nine-story building, and I worked on the eighth story, which was where we brought in imported clothing made largely in Southeast Asia. Essentially we were the foreign department, and I would work basically six hours in the morning starting at eight and going to about two in the afternoon, and then I would walk to the university because I couldn’t afford the subway fee and the exercise was good for me anyway. I would walk about a mile and a half up to Penn from downtown Philadelphia and do my afternoon seminar classes. At that point, we were taking four classes, and then I would go home and study in the evenings after class was over. Those were normally three to six. So, after class, I would walk back to downtown Philadelphia and take the high-speed rail line to southern New Jersey, where my wife would pick me up and we’d have a quick dinner and proceed onward. So, I was at Penn for two years. The spring of my second year, I had, at that point a fellowship. I had enough academic success that they found some scholarship funding for me. Our eldest child was born at that point, so life was truly full. I remember talking to, probably, at that time, my chief mentor, Anthony N. B. Garvan, who wrote a very important book on architecture and town planning in Colonial Connecticut, and whose father had formed the Garvan collection at Yale University. Tony Garvan was, in many ways, a very strange guy, but he also was brilliant. He really taught me to think about a kind of anthropological approach to material culture. He had been involved during World War II in using anthropological perspectives during the war. He served in the war and was really trained to try to understand, in the Pacific Theater, native peoples as well as Asian cultures, in an effort to inform strategic planning, really, for the war effort. So, he was in an office, but he proceeded on after the war to get his PhD and began teaching at Penn in the early 1950s, when I was still a very young lad. Tony shaped my thinking in a lot of ways about a number of things. He was quirky. And his quirkiness often involved, I suppose, thinking outside the box. He was simultaneously a historian, an art historian and an anthropologist and his background in decorative arts was something that infused his teaching. He had grown up with it because of his father’s collecting. Tony was good friends with a fellow named Don Friary, who had recently become the director of Historic Deerfield. I was then a young dad, 24 years old, recognizing that I now had a son and a family to support and I’d better find a job tout de suite. When [Don] came to visit Anthony Garvan, he was looking to interview anybody who might be interested in the position of Director of Education at Historic Deerfield. So I met with him. I applied for the position and, although they offered the job initially to someone else, when he turned it down, I accepted it. I was second in the interview and, in many ways, that would shape my career. So, that’s how I got into the museum field, in this convoluted and indirect route. I’ve often told students that you can try to plan your life, but, in a way, life plans you. It is a kind of back and forth that everybody has to come to terms with. It’s difficult to foresee more than about three to five years out where you’re going to potentially end up. So, you have to be open to the possibilities, to train yourself in the ways of thinking both outside the box and of thinking substantively about what you can bring to any particular position that you work in. So, I’ve been very fortunate. I’ve taught a lot of just extraordinary students over the years who’ve gone on to fabulous careers, including Cindy Falk, who you work with. I’ve been able, as a consequence of that, to meet a great number of interesting people in the field of museums, decorative arts, and material culture in ways that I am deeply grateful for.

[TRACK 1, 22:54]

Tell me a little bit more about the fieldwork that you did while you were here in Cooperstown. You mentioned your thesis work. Could you speak a little bit more about that?

I can talk about that, since you’re in a course that deals with fieldwork. To me it was always one of the strongest suits at the Cooperstown Graduate Program–that there was an actual course in fieldwork. I think that stemmed, in part, from the ways in which Lou[is C.] Jones conceptualized when he founded the program. I knew Lou and Aggie Jones pretty well. We even stayed at their house after our apartment was burned out. Lou brought in Bruce Buckley, who was at that time the principal instructor for the fieldwork course, although he brought in others to help train folks in measuring and drafting buildings. I’d actually already had some experience with that–taught by Richard Candee of all people–when I was working at Old Sturbridge Village during their summer internship program. Richard showed me how to research deeds and, at least, the rudiments of measuring and surveying buildings. So, in many ways, as young as I was, I was probably way ahead of many of my classmates who’d never had that kind of an experience previously. Bruce, as a folklorist, was deeply interested in the ways in which fieldwork shaped both the theoretical aspects of folklore but also the use of evidence. Bruce really saw very little difference between doing forms of oral history and doing fieldwork literally out in the field. One of the things I always cherished about Cooperstown was that we got into the agricultural byways of the local communities and really spent time looking at the landscapes. Bruce himself taught us a great deal about doing fieldwork, how to do oral histories. I already knew pretty much how to do primary historical research based on my undergraduate experience and a little bit of the archaeological experience that I talked about previously. But, we had experience going out in the field and measuring buildings and, because I’d had some experience drafting and was probably one of the most proficient artists in my particular class, I seem to have gotten the most difficult drawing to do, which was a section of a Greek revival house. If you’ve done any drafting or gotten training in it, doing a section is about as difficult an assignment as you can do, and this was in the era when you did it by hand. You weren’t using CAD, etc. I had already known how to do photographic kinds of work in the darkroom. I knew how to develop negatives and print them. It had gotten me into a bit of trouble because we were supposed to show up for practicums, but I didn’t see the point, since I already knew how. Once I went to the one that explains what the rules were for using the dark room—this is all completely out of fashion today, but back then it was a big deal. I already knew how to do that because I had been part of the photography club when I was at Tilton in prep school and had spent two years already developing negatives and printing them. So, to me it was like, “Why would I waste time doing this when I could be reading or studying, etc.?” But I was quickly informed that it was not appropriate as a graduate student to blow off the earnest imprecations of my professors to teach us practical things, even though I may know how to do it. I think they were afraid I was setting a bad example for my fellow students. It was a little embarrassing, but one gets over those things and learns from them, at least I hope. So, the fieldwork was a part of it. It shaped the way I thought about my thesis because, when you’re looking at an account book, most of it’s very dry. It’s also very empirical. You read about entries that detail what was happening more or less as they’re happening or within a few days of when they’re happening. I had to understand debits and credits. I had to learn something about a type of manuscript that I had really not encountered previously. I had to think about the familial relationships and the local history of North Dansville in ways that I hadn't before.

Because, like all graduate students–and I suspect you’re not remarkably different than I was then–I had no money. I did have a car, and I remember going out twice to North Dansville, which was a fairly long way out there. You can’t just drive right through the Finger Lakes. You either go north of them or you go south of them to get to North Dansville, and I went south of them through Corning and then up to North Dansville over the back roads, in part because I wanted to see what was left of Rufus K. Stone’s mill site and, if possible, his house. Indeed, I found them and drove down the hill from where his farm was into North Dansville, which was an old water cure site. I couldn’t afford a hotel, for heaven’s sakes, so I slept in the back of my Chevy Nova in a campground where, at least, there was a bathroom, so I could stay overnight. I did the research [that I could], took a lot of photographs. When I was in high school, I’d acquired a pretty decent SLR film camera and some useful lenses and took a number of photographs and explored the mill site, portions of which–including a few remnants of the dam that had powered the sawmill–were still there. But I never would’ve learned about sawmilling and aspects of craft had it not been for that particular mill site. So that’s how the fieldwork connected into the MA thesis. The larger problem for me was that I immediately left to go on to further graduate study at the University of Pennsylvania to work on my PhD. Technically, I finished my Penn MA before I finished my MA for the Cooperstown Program because, frankly, earning an MA in a PhD program means, for the most part, means finishing your seminar papers and your coursework and you’re, more or less, automatically granted the MA. It was not until I started at Historic Deerfield that I actually had sufficient time to sit down and write up the results of my history MA. To his credit, my boss, Don Friary, forced me, by threatening to let me go basically if I didn’t get it done. So, I did, but by hurrying it into existence, it probably wasn’t as good a project as it might’ve been otherwise. I’ve subsequently thought that the two-year plan that many Cooperstown graduate students have now is probably a little more conducive to finishing theses on time, although I know that doesn’t always happen. Doesn't always happen at the Winterthur program either.

[TRACK 1, 30:49]

So, tell me more about this house fire that you experienced during your time in Cooperstown.

Well, when my wife and I went looking for an apartment in Cooperstown, we were still at that point not married. I guess it was probably early in June, shortly before we were married. At that point, we needed to find a place to live. That’s not always easy in Cooperstown. I don't know that it’s become more easy; there are certainly sort of historic apartments that Cooperstown students occupy and sort of trade off from generation to generation. That’s a whole lot easier if you’re not married because you can have roommates, you know, if you put two strangers in the same room together, you can kind of manage to work that through. The housing stock in Cooperstown is both very expensive, given the hospital there, and the local cost of living and the dearth of fairly decent apartments. Carla and I were able to find housing in a house on Pine Boulevard, which you may be familiar with. It was up towards the County Courthouse, the Otsego County Courthouse. Not quite on the corner, but just behind it. It belonged to a contractor, whose name was E. J. McCrassen. I interviewed E. J. McCrassen in my own fieldwork course many years ago. Somewhere, the transcript and the tape is probably in the archives in Cooperstown. At any rate, we got the rear apartment on the second floor with a couple others who were in the front apartment of the first floor and, as I recollect, an elderly woman on the first floor. In the attic space, which McCrassen had converted into an apartment, was Carl and Alice Hemenway. Alice, my wife, Carla, and I became good friends with Carl [and Alice], at least until the fire broke out, and we kept in touch after that until the time of Alice’s death due to cancer. Alice’s apartment, in some respects, wasn’t quite done. Early in December, on one of the warmest days I’d ever experienced in Upstate New York–it actually made it to 71 degrees–and I think it was December 3, but don’t hold me to that, we were all outside larking around. I headed off to class, and I noticed as I left that the plumbers who’d been working up in the attic were eating their lunch on the front steps. It was such a pleasant day. It was well understood that it was probably the last pleasant day before April of the following year. It didn't surprise me that the plumbers were there. I walked to class. It’s not a really long walk, but it’s probably close to a mile to get up to the classroom building, which was then in the library. The building you all have classes in now was then the conservation studio and had really been built for that purpose. So, I got up to the classroom and perhaps fifteen minutes into the start–I don’t even remember what the seminar was–my mother, who had been visiting us that weekend with my father, thundered into the classroom, and said, “Ritchie, you’ve got to come now, your house is on fire!” My mouth opened. It was the last thing that I would’ve expected. I don’t know what happened to the class. I guess the class probably continued, but I grabbed my stuff and fled. My mother drove me back and indeed, when I got there, there were flames shooting out of the roof and the Cooperstown Fire Department was there. It turns out that the plumbers–and I think their insurance company had to pay for a lot to restore the house–their plumbers had been sweat soldering pipes up in the attic in the vicinity of old 19th-century wooden framing, and had started a fire. That often happens when you’re sweat-soldering copper pipes–which, back in the day, was how everybody pretty much did their water lines–and they caught the framing on fire and thought they had put it out and then they went out to lunch. So, at that point, when I first got there, the fire was mostly confined to the third floor, to the attic area that Carl and Alice occupied. They lost virtually everything. It didn’t burn the roof through, but, in effect, their entire apartment had been gutted, either by the flames or by the firefighters who chopped holes in the roof to flood everything with water. It’s difficult if you’ve never been through it to even imagine what happens when you flood literally thousands of gallons of water through the ash, soot, and carbon of a house fire. It has to go somewhere and it does what it always does, it goes down. So, it went right through our apartment and, in a number of cases, through the other apartments in the building. So, everybody had to move out. Thankfully, my parents had been there and they’d actually managed to extract much of the furniture from our apartment, because we had a back entryway and there was a sort of ell out on the first floor and a kind of roof deck off of our apartment. Dad had been busily moving back and forth taking furniture out of our apartment and sticking it outside. He couldn’t get everything out, but he got a lot out. And we moved it down to the back driveway area before the firefighters basically said, “Okay, you can’t keep entering the building. You’ve got to stay out for your own safety.” So, that was a very sorry day. They put the fire out. The next day, my parents had to go back to Massachusetts, which they subsequently did. I don’t frankly remember off the top of my head where we put all our furnishings and the stuff that had been salvaged, but I think it was in one of the storage buildings that NYSHA owned that we were able to move it to. There had been a garage in the back. I think we put some of it there too. At any rate, some of our best furniture was safely out of the building and didn’t suffer a lot of damage, but some of it did. If you’re not familiar with it, when you run water through ash, you create lye. Lye is a really excellent paint and finish stripper. So, as I said, we were somewhat fortunate. My mother, being a natural worrier, at that point, since we married and we had a lot of nice wedding things, said you must have apartment insurance. I don’t remember what we spent on it. I think it was a year’s apartment insurance for like thirty-eight bucks. I mean that was a lot of money back then. It wasn’t a bag of groceries or anything, but it was a lot more then. Remember, you could fill up your gas tank for about three bucks, okay? It was a different era. So, we had four thousand dollars worth of insurance on our apartment stuff and we used all but about twenty bucks of that cleaning up. We had a ninety-dollar dry cleaning bill, just from the clothing we had to have cleaned. And the bedding, etc. We had to buy a new mattress and box springs. We didn't at that point own a bedstead. We’d lost a sofa. I had to have furniture refinished, my grandmother’s barrister bookcase which she had left us. So, we got it all cleaned up and we moved down to a set of apartments which were, frankly, much posher further down the road towards Oneonta. They’re still there actually. That’s where we lived for the rest of the time I was in Cooperstown. It was a difficult experience. I’d often use that experience in my teaching subsequently, because we had to learn a lot very quickly about how to mitigate fire damage. So, when I was teaching, at one point, collections management in the museum studies program at the University of Delaware, I could talk with a degree of authority about what happens in a fire, and how one mitigated the worst of those effects when you’re dealing with disaster preparedness. So, that’s the story of the fire on Pine Boulevard. Everybody had to move out. It was a pretty sorry spectacle. I’m not sure, frankly, where everybody ended up. About a year later I was contacted by Carl and Alice to ask if I would be willing to testify in the legal suit that they filed against the plumbers—well, really the insurance company of the plumbers. They lost well over seven thousand dollars worth of material. They were young marrieds, too, and they lost books, they lost furniture. I remember going up to their apartment and seeing the shell of a phone literally melted. It was a wall phone. It had literally melted off the wall and it was just a fragment of what it was. So, that was the experience. In a lot of ways, it taught me a lot, but I have to say I would’ve foregone the experience if I could’ve. It did set my studies back, because I effectively lost two and a half weeks of both classroom time and homework time trying to clean up the mess.

[TRACK 1, 42:19]

You are in a unique position to speak about the Cooperstown Graduate Program and the Winterthur Program and the differences between them. How do you conceptualize the differences? Do you mind sharing some thoughts on that?

I certainly can talk about my perceptions of it. I think it’s important to understand that making comparisons based on my experience in the 1970s is a vastly different experience from making comparisons in the 2020s. Both the Winterthur program and certainly the Cooperstown program have changed quite considerably, as have the universities they’re affiliated with. It would be difficult to do this in a very concise kind of fashion. When I went to the University of Delaware in the fall of 1985 to begin teaching in the museum studies program, museum studies was then affiliated with—it was its own separate unit, although I was a faculty member of the Department of History. At that point I had just finished my doctoral dissertation, which lasted for the nine year’s experience while I was working at Deerfield. I began teaching a number of Winterthur students who took my classes, various classes that I taught. So, I got to know them a good bit, but at that time the program was really intensively focused on decorative arts. That’s the great strength of the Winterthur collections. There’s really nothing that either NYSHA or The Farmers’ Museum had that fully compared to what Winterthur had. The other thing that Winterthur had was an absolutely spectacular library. Arguably, the greatest decorative arts library in the United States and one of the best in the world, in the Western European English speaking world, certainly. That was extraordinary. I could do things down there that I would find very difficult to do at Cooperstown. That said, Cooperstown can do other things better than Winterthur can. Winterthur, by virtue of its founding and early history, was the estate of an extraordinarily wealthy man. In some sense, there are similarities to what went on in Cooperstown with the Clark family and the ways in which the Clark family shaped things. But the Clarks were always much more interested in forms of agricultural history and in the founding of The Farmers’ Museum than Henry Francis DuPont was. Now don’t get me wrong, because DuPont, when he actually listed his occupation, he didn’t say financier, he called himself a farmer. Yeah, you probably don’t know that. He actually had one of the most important dairy herds in the entire western world. There are dairy cows all over the world that are the offspring, the lineal descendants, of the cows on his farm. He had a herd I think in excess of eighty cows and he knew every one of them by name. So, he was deeply into his cows and the breeding of his cows. And that was a by-occupation. Maybe in some ways his main occupation, in ways that are difficult for many people who know Winterthur today to even conceptualize, although if you spend time in the giant barn up on the hill, you get some sense of it. So, the libraries were quite different. Cooperstown was a much more locally focused kind of library. It had a great collection of secondary books [in history], which, in some ways, exceeded what we had at Winterthur, but that’s because the University of Delaware library could back up [the Museum]. Their volumes are somewhere in the vicinity of a million and a half volumes; it’s a major research library. And they have the patent records and all of the government documents that you really can’t even find–except online–down at SUNY Oneonta. So, the libraries are vastly different by comparison. The programs are much smaller. The funding for the students is much different. And that means that the Winterthur program, because every student arrives with full tuition and a pretty generous stipend that is now in the vicinity of twenty thousand dollars a year, it’s difficult to compare the resources for the students in the two programs. I would say that academically, the Winterthur program really focuses more on material culture whereas the Cooperstown program, particularly after they dropped the folklore program, became much more focused on doing some of the things that we did when I was a student, but also on a certain degree of management teaching in ways that the Winterthur Program doesn’t try to emulate. It’s not that students can’t get that, but they can get it at the University of Delaware. In that sense, the curriculum is probably more open in the Winterthur program, because while there are core courses you take at Winterthur, much of your coursework is actually at the University. Depending upon your inclinations, you can actually work with a top-flight department of history at the graduate level with other PhD students. The same thing is true of art history and some of the other course work. The larger array of material culture resources at the University of Delaware are probably unparalleled, at least in this country. But that said, there is nothing for Cooperstown to apologize about. They do what they do exceptionally well. They have a lot of gifted faculty members–Will [Walker], Cindy [Falk], Gretchen [Sorin], and others that I’m not as familiar with, of course–are really gifted both as teachers and as insightful leaders. Gretchen is an old friend. She and I don’t see eye-to-eye on everything, but that’s okay. I really admire her effort to build a more diverse and inclusive kind of program. Because I’ve been on their academic program review several times, there are probably things I cannot simply talk about, because they’re privileged, but I would say that Gretchen has been not only very entrepreneurial in her leadership of the program, but very creative and resourceful in trying to find ways of growing the opportunities for a broader array of students in the program–particularly the initiative related to the science curriculum. What’s really tricky at this point is that the relationship of the Cooperstown program is a little bit fraught because of changes within the New York State Historical Association–which is now really more the Fenimore Art Museum than it is The Farmers’ Museum–changes within the leadership and structure of the Clark Foundation, as well as some of the directions that SUNY Oneonta is going in, and the whole sort of whacko creation of the second major museum studies program out elsewhere in the SUNY system. So, Gretchen certainly has a great many challenges. She also is faced with a much different budgetary situation than the Winterthur program is. The Winterthur program benefited when the McNeil family sold, let’s say they made a fortune when they sold Tylenol, okay? They had so much money from that sale, that they had to find ways of donating huge sums of money to a variety of charitable organizations, and they did that very generously. One of the beneficiaries was the Winterthur Program. So that’s really the endowment that funds the Winterthur Fellows. Those are some of the major differences. Probably the other that is the most significant, pedagogically, is the proximity to the Culture Fellows at Winterthur to the conservation students and the analytical laboratories at Winterthur. That kind of connection is essentially unparalleled. There are really only three conservation programs in the country, and none of them are as deeply embedded with each other as they are at Winterthur. I will always be grateful for what I learned at Cooperstown. My own academic work depends, in many ways, not only in what I learned in Cooperstown about agricultural history, rural landscapes, fieldwork, architectural history, etc., but really complements what I would learn subsequently about decorative arts through my students at Winterthur and my associations with curators and teaching staff at the museum and the University of Delaware. So, I feel like I’ve lived a charmed life.

Thank you.



Bit Rate/Frequency


Time Summary

Track 1, 0:20 - Childhood, material culture
Track 1, 9:58 - Cooperstown Graduate Program, University of Pennsylvania
Track 1, 22:54 - Fieldwork
Track 1, 30:49 - House fire
Track 1, 42:19 - Winterthur, CGP




Caroline Brown, “J. Ritchie Garrison, November 19, 2020,” CGP Community Stories, accessed April 14, 2021, http://cgpcommunitystories.org/items/show/464.