There’s a lot to learn about a place by its history. For Sarah Rooker, this means digging into the rich history of Norwich – to appreciate the past, and also to better serve the future.
“Citizen historians” – or residents who are taking an interest in learning about and investigating their local history – are on the rise in Norwich, Rooker says, who became the director of the Norwich Historical Society (NHS) in 2016. “We need to continue to tell the story of Norwich and help people understand what makes a strong community and what the aspects are that make them love it so much.”
Norwich, chartered in 1761 by Benning Wentworth – the Royal Governor of New Hampshire – is a town with a rich history and a strong community that continues to thrive. When Rooker moved to Norwich in 1994, she learned this quickly.
As the director at NHS, Rooker’s main responsibility is to fulfill the society’s mission of preserving local history and promoting community engagement in local history education. Depending on the day, this could mean working with trustees and volunteers, curating new exhibits, organizing community projects and school programs, or caring for the artifacts in the society’s collections.
When it comes to history, “I really like all of it,” Rooker says, though architecture and landscape history are some of her favorite topics. Growing up in a family who appreciated local history played a big role in Rooker’s interest in New England culture. Rooker spent much of her childhood reenacting at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts, where her mother was the museum curator. “I learned a lot there about history,” Rooker says. “I would spin and weave and do hearth cooking… I just really connected deeply to it.”
As an undergrad student at the College of William & Mary, Rooker completed a degree in American Studies and worked at the nearby Colonial Williamsburg settlement where she trained to become a museum educator. Since then, Rooker’s career focus has always been on history education. Over the years, Rooker has worked as an educator for the Vermont Historical Society and as the director of the Vermont Museum and Gallery Alliance. Along with working at NHS, she also leads the local non-profit “The Flow of History” – a place-based history professional development resource for grade school teachers in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Now, Rooker has just finished putting the final touches on NHS’s “Becoming Norwich” exhibit – a collaboration with Norwich cartoonist Emily Zea, featuring a series of illustrated histories of Norwich, which just opened in May. Between Zea’s artistic contributions and Rooker’s writing, the exhibit covers Norwich’s history from its early years to today, with an emphasis on the importance of small-town government. The exhibit will run through 2023.
The historical society’s last exhibit showcased an old pulpit Bible from Norwich which had been vandalized by “rogues” in 1848. The Bible had been in NHS’s collections, and when Rooker opened it, she discovered that “it had been cut all the way through almost like a book safe,” to reveal a note written by the church deacon exposing the vandals “for all generations yet to come.” “It gave me the shivers,” Rooker remembers. “I [had] just got a note from the past. He wanted us to know what had happened.”
This exhibit and all NHS offerings aim to engage community members in learning about their own history. Rooker sees it as a way of “taking the history and thinking about ways to make it connect to the present,” she says. For the vandalized bible project, Rooker invited community artists and poets to respond to the exhibit with their own interpretations of the story. This blend of curiosity and creativity is at the heart of NHS and Rooker’s mission.
A current NHS project – “The Weather Diaries” – presents monthly reports from two Norwich diaries written 150 years apart – one in 1873 and one in 2023. The diary entries focus on the weather, and when viewed in comparison, “[It’s] really interesting – especially with climate change – to look at the differences in snow cover, frost dates, planting dates, and sugaring,” Rooker says.
After spending the past few months bringing “Becoming Norwich” to life, Rooker will soon turn her attention to the busy summer season at NHS. Now that the warmer weather has kicked in, history walking tours and other community events are just on the horizon. Most of these NHS-sponsored events are fundraisers to support the continued success of the historical society, which “[raises] everything that [it spends] every year,” Rooker says.
Walking and bicycle tours are some of the most popular event fundraisers, which cover all time periods of Norwich history, generally anywhere from 1700-1960. “People in Norwich, they’re active; they like to bike and hike and get out,” Rooker says, who plans to continue developing NHS programming that incorporates nature and exercise. “We want to meet them where they’re at.”
Walking tour offerings include mid-century modern house tours, home and garden tours, stone wall and cellar hole walking tours, a Union Village tour, and a Civil War and slavery history tour at the center of Norwich. “Any kind of fundraising thing we do, I like to have it have a history piece to it,” Rooker says. “Those walking tours are an incredible way to connect to the Town.” Pre-recorded podcast driving tours are also available year-round and can be accessed for free through the NHS website.
Tour participants receive a laminated packet of documents and resources specific to the tour (these might include things like historic photos, diary entries, or other archival materials), and they’re encouraged to make observations and comparisons and to ask questions. “When you walk up and down a street and you can look at a house and imagine who lived there and how it was built and know stories, you feel so grounded, and it makes you happier,” Rooker says. “I see that over and over again, and it just brings me great joy to help people discover that.”
An Antique show in September is another annual fundraiser that supports NHS, and through the winter, a series of Zoom lectures – “Discover Norwich” – helps bring donations in during the colder months. Between these fundraisers and volunteer support, NHS would not be possible without support from the community of Norwich that it serves.
With an influx of people moving to the Upper Valley, Rooker takes special care to welcome any new Norwich neighbors to learn about the community using NHS as a guide. “We have constant work to do to help people learn about and value the historic houses and their historic barns and their historic landscape,” Rooker says. “And [to] understand that all those pieces come together to make this beautiful town what it is.”
Finding a balance between historic preservation and modernization can prove tricky sometimes, but Rooker is determined that Norwich can keep up with the times while still “[retaining] the historic character [of Norwich] that we all love,” she says. For the historical society, part of finding this balance is keeping records to help preserve history (like photographs, diary entries, or other artifacts), while also embracing progressive attitudes and a growing population. For example, NHS offers educational resources for homeowners on the care and maintenance of old buildings, so that their history can be honored while also accommodating concerns about energy efficiency – an increasingly common focus of modern construction.
Another way NHS connects with the community is by providing an interactive and easily accessible array of digital history resources, which can be found on the historical society’s website, norwichhistory.org. The website contains updates on NHS news and events, along with information on historical society exhibits, an online collections catalog, resources for historical research, and even a list of activities for families with children. NHS also connects with patrons and community members via a mailing list and the local listserv.
“At the heart, historical societies are community institutions,” Rooker says. “It’s a busy hive of activity all the time.” Even though the historical society’s official hours are Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, students, volunteers, and community members stop by daily for one reason or another. Community members – typically high school students and elders – are drawn to volunteering at NHS and are involved in a variety of ways, anywhere from setting up exhibits to putting on fundraisers.
NHS memberships, which renew every summer and start at $15, are another large piece of the support that makes the historical society possible. NHS members directly support the programming that the society provides to the community, most of which is offered for free. “Really, what you get by being a member is knowing that you’re a steward of your community,” Rooker says.
For the community of Norwich, the historical society is a vital resource for keeping the Town’s history alive – helping people answer questions about their past and learn from history as they make decisions for the future. For Rooker, some of her most important work is giving citizens the tools they need to stay engaged in their own history.
“I like seeing how history can connect people to where they live,” she says. “If a town is going to have a strong identity, it needs to know where it comes from.”