An Unprecedented Donation from an Extraordinary Man

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Lester Smith Previous Curator at the King House Museum and the Town Historian

Over the past year, the Historical Society has been processing an amazing donation: the lifetime Suffield history collection of Lester Smith. Lester served as Curator of the King House for over 40 years, and more than two decades as Town Historian. Since its inception in 1999 until last year, he was a writer and photojournalist for The Suffield Observer. Many readers know Lester: his passion for the history of Suffield and his dogged inquiries into the distant past and contemporary events in town made him an indelible presence in the area. I began working at the King House Museum two years ago, having first visited in 2016. I’ll never forget my first visit: Lester’s knowledge, intelligence, and curiosity made an impression. And he obviously kept very busy—there were projects ongoing throughout the house, and he had turned the kitchen into an active workspace. As I now appreciate more fully, he devoted much of his long life to supporting local history. He has been a resource to many locally, and, as his correspondence makes clear, around the world, in inquiries and projects related to Suffield and regional history. He served as a member or on the board of numerous organizations and remains a mentor and friend to many of us who share his interests.

Lester and his son Peter Smith have generously permitted me to take any items of interest from Lester’s house to the King House Museum and add them to the Society’s collection. Given Lester’s longstanding passion for Suffield, and his prolific collecting, the material is deep and rich. I refer to going through his collections as “sluicing” and see myself as mining for history gold as I go through his extensive collection. A question I am frequently asked: what are you taking out of Lester’s house? The short answer is: amazing material that likely exists nowhere else. At present, over 1,000 items have been accessioned into the museum’s collection, and dozens of linear feet of research materials are being made accessible to anyone interested. Each week, I visit Lester with a bag full of questions, and I always leave with pages of answers and notes. He and I have developed a wonderful relationship, and his collegiality and friendship have enriched my life in ways I cannot fully express in words.

Lester was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and moved to New Haven as a baby with his parents and two siblings. After graduating from MIT, he took a job designing aircraft propellers with Hamilton Standard and moved to Suffield in 1954. I often joke with Lester that he has the zeal of a convert in his love of all things Suffield. But he is part of a long and distinguished tradition of historians, both born and raised in Suffield and later transplants, who studied the town’s history. They include Hezekiah Spencer Sheldon (1820-1903), Delphina Hammer Clark (1892-1984), Hawley Rising (1925-2012), Roger Loomis (1916-1999), and many others.

Lester stands out because of his understanding that history is continuously happening and his commitment to preserving recent history alongside interpreting the past. One of his collecting passions is Suffieldiana, a term he invented which refers to all things Suffield: advertising and promotional materials; ephemera including postcards, matchbooks, menus, and countless other items; work by local artists; cups, mugs, and other serve ware featuring area businesses and organizations; maps, maps and more maps; and items from town schools. In his honor, the special exhibit this summer will be Suffieldiana: Lester Smith Collects and will feature items that illustrate the town’s recent history and Lester’s unyielding commitment to preserving it. Special thanks to Peter Smith, Anne Borg, and Jackie Hemond for their support of and assistance in facilitating the donation of Lester’s truly once-in-a-lifetime collection to the King House Museum.

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