Published: December 24, 2002
The Right Man in the Right Place Says, “It is the right time to step down.”
By R. Scudder Smith
DEERFIELD, MASS. — Historic Deerfield. Donald R. Friary. But the Deerfield-Friary connection has been going on for a long time, 37 years, and it was not until 2001 that the popular executive director of Historic Deerfield took the official step and announced his retirement, effective December 31, 2002.
“I will be staying on at Historic Deerfield in the capacity of Senior Research Fellow for the next three years, working four days a week from a remote corner on the third floor of the library,” he said. Finally the opportunity to dig deeper into the lives of some of the early residents of Deerfield, research that will translate into more informative tours of the museum houses, has presented itself to Don, and he is taking it up with great enthusiasm.
It has been a long way, and mostly uphill, from the time he first darkened the doors of Deerfield in 1965 to the present, a period that spawned growth in tours and programs, attendance and financial support. Deerfield was 13 years old and Donald Friary was a graduate student when the match was made between the two, sealed with the position of head tutor of the Historic Deerfield Summer Fellowship Program in Early American History and the Decorative Arts.
But there was a more humble beginning to Historic Deerfield than the one Don confronted in the mid-1960s. Henry and Helen Flynt, residents of Greenwich, Conn., first recognized the historic value and charm of Deerfield’s Main Street when they brought their son Hank to look at Deerfield Academy in 1936. Hank spent four years at the school, presenting his parents with lots of time to visit the area, to recognize its wealth of history, and to plan for the preservation of this street full of homes. In 1945 the Flynts began their project, starting with the Allen House and the Deerfield Inn, and ten years later, in an interview with Yankee Magazine, said, “We thought we should show our appreciation to our ancestors for what they did to make our country great, not only historically, but from the aesthetic angle. And that’s how we really got started.” Deerfield had opened in 1952 with four houses, under the direction of the Heritage Foundation, and by 1965 the Flynts had amassed a collection of 10,000 objects with strong emphasis on silver and textiles.
While the Flynts were busy creating the foundation for Historic Deerfield, Don, a native of Boston, was earning a diploma from the Boston Latin School, the oldest school in the nation, and then went on to receive his AB, American civilization, from Brown University. He furthered his education with a MA and PhD, American civilization, from the University of Pennsylvania and was a special student at the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum during the summer of 1964. He kept busy as a manuscripts cataloger at the Boston Public Library, an assistant professor of history at the State University of New York, College at New Paltz, and in the Summer Fellowship Program at Deerfield. He spent the summers from 1965 to 1974 in the Fellowship Program, and from 1971 to 1975 served as director of education at Historic Deerfield. From 1973 to 1975 he also assumed the position of assistant director, and took over the helm in 1975 as executive director and secretary.
From his first brush with Historic Deerfield, Don has always taken great pride in the Summer Fellowship Program. “We get about 50 applicants and accept ten,” he said, “and many have gone on to prominent positions in the field and antiques and the decorative arts.” Among the alumni are Leslie and Leigh Keno, Jay Cantor, antiques dealers Ross Levett and Sumpter Priddy III, Philip Zea, and Michael Brown of Bayou Bend.
Historic Deerfield, as it has been known since 1971, got off to a modest, low-key start. “The place had enormous potential and was ready to take off,” Don recalls, “and I felt one of my earliest duties was that of establishing an identity.” While Historic Deerfield was known to many, and had received a good measure of press, it was far from becoming a household word. Back in 1956 Alice Winchester, editor of The Magazine Antiques, wrote “about ten years ago word began to go around that something was happening in Old Deerfield,” and continued to say, “Deerfield today is an enchanting village on a little plateau in the Connecticut Valley.”
National Geographic came to Deerfield in 1969, wrote and photographed a cover story, and attendance went up 50 percent that year. “It showed, without question, that we had to build an audience, and from that time forward we have been growing,” Don said.
To build that audience Don did not look far, but hired his wife of three years to run his public relations department. “Grace was a student of mine, we married in 1969, and after we moved into the village she joined our staff in 1972, and has been hard at it ever since,” Don said proudly. And for Grace, along with the job and marriage to Don came two children, a son and a daughter. Richard is now in investment management in Boston, and Elizabeth is a teacher at Walnut Hill School in Natick, Mass. “It was a great place for children to grow up,” Don recalls, “as they were always surrounded by interesting people and wonderful things.”
It appeared as if the Friary family had adopted a third child — Historic Deerfield, an infant institution seeking maturity. As early as 1959 the Flynts had hired their first employee, Peter Sprang, who served as the first curator of collections and helped the founders during those early days. Over the years the staff grew slowly, and it was not until 1970 that a librarian was engaged to manage the large collection of books and research material.
A staff of eight was in place when Don took over, and today 60 full-time and more than 100 part-time people keep Deerfield running smoothly. This number includes 11 curators for the collections, as well as the staff that keeps The Deerfield Inn a popular destination for travelers. When the inn was acquired by the Flynts it had 11 rooms; at present there are 23 accommodations and full dining and banquet facilities. A total of 54 buildings are owned by Historic Deerfield, including barns and smaller outbuildings, and 13 houses are open to the public for tours.
As with many small businesses, Donald Friary became a man of many hats. “I started the financial and administrative departments, kept the books in the early days, and worked toward building both the collections and the library,” he recalls. “We ran a tight ship from the start and it has paid off,” he said.
The chances of building the collections through outright purchases were slim in those early days. “We virtually had no funds for this, only $1,000 per year to spend,” Don said, and thus he turned his attention to remedy the situation. Over the years the Friends of Deerfield was organized, and within this group the Asher Benjamin Society was formed. “The society is made up of some substantial donors and Deerfield has benefited as a result,” Don said. Endowments have been established, and outright gifts have helped the collections to grow.
“It is astonishing what shows up from time to time,” Don said, “and as recently as a few weeks ago.” He was referring to a piece of needlework and a sampler, both made in a neighboring town, that he was able to purchase at Douglas Auctioneers, a well-known auction gallery just down the road in South Deerfield. A New Jersey collector called offering an early puzzle jug, and, as the result of a visit to Historic Deerfield, another collector offered some Dutch Delft tiles and an American Indian bow and arrows.
“At present we are buying more than we are being given,” Don said, “and we are finding things at auction and from private individuals.” A Hadley chest, massive in size, was recently purchased from a private dealer and the silver collection has had some exciting additions. Twelve pieces of communion silver from the First Church in Deerfield, on extended loan to Historic Deerfield, were added to the collection in 1997, a very significant grouping of tankards, beakers and cups dating from as early as 1725. “We received a call saying that the silver would be picked up in two days by Sotheby’s unless we bought it,” Don recalled, “so we did.” The purchase brought into the collection important pieces by Boston silversmiths Paul Revere, William Pollard, John Edwards and his son Samuel, John Dixwell and Jacob Hurd, as well as Samuel Williamson of Philadelphia.
The Flynts had the foresight to leave things “with no strings attached,” so that over the years some of the pieces have been deaccessioned due to either poor quality or being fakes. “We like to acquire objects that meld with our collections, or fit neatly into one of the houses, and thus over the years we have been weeding out those things that do not accomplish our goals for Historic Deerfield,” Don said. As a for instance, he noted parting with a New Jersey dressing table and a Philadelphia high chest, neither of which was an asset to Deerfield.
While working on building the collections and opening more houses, the momentous task of building an audience loomed. The success of Historic Deerfield was riding on this, and it took a great deal of time for both Donald and Grace Friary. As she was constantly expanding the media coverage, he was encouraging bus tours and group visits, dangling the historic merit of the village and the charm and convenience of the Deerfield Inn before all who would listen. October soon became the most popular month for visits, and the Saturday after Thanksgiving the busiest day of the year.
With good reason, Historic Deerfield attracted a large number of dignitaries, including film stars Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Elizabeth Taylor. The king of Jordan and the president of Iceland have also enjoyed time there. “One time Jackie Onassis came for a visit and I was escorting her to a couple of the homes,” Don said. He remembers they went into one of the houses, and as they entered a lady was ending her tour and was about to leave the building. She recognized Jackie, did a double take, and went right over to an elderly man who was one of the tour guides stationed at the front door. “Did you see who just came into the house?” she asked. The guide, without batting an eye, said, “Yes, that was our director with a visitor.”
In addition to keeping the interest in the various houses at a peak, Donald Friary takes in a larger picture of Historic Deerfield. “I am concerned with the development of the land around Deerfield,” he said, adding, “a great deal of it has remained farmland and is still worked.” He is making every effort to keep it that way, and when possible, tracts of empty land are added to the Deerfield holdings. “A piece abutting some of our land is now being purchased and we will keep it open space,” he said. Don is one of the founders of the Deerfield Land Trust that has protected more than 1,600 acres of farmland in the town of Deerfield from development.
One of the crowning accomplishments of the Friary tenure has been the planning and construction of the Flynt Center of Early New England Life that opened in 1998. “We were 13 years in the planning stages for this building,” Don said, “and it has provided Historic Deerfield with badly needed space.” The 27,000-square-foot center provides for changing exhibitions, seminar and meeting rooms, staff offices and conservation studios. “I was honored by having the main exhibition space named after me,” Don said with pride.
The Flynt Center was made possible as the result of the success of the museum’s first major capital campaign, an effort that started in 1994 and ended in December 2001. The ambitious goal of $12 million was not only met, but exceeded, due in large part to Don’s fundraising talents. During the next several years Historic Deerfield will grow again, this time with the opening of a Children’s History Center, another project with the Friary stamp.
So after such a long and productive career in one place, what could be the challenges in retirement for the talents of Donald Friary? “I collect nothing, aside from a few maps including some road maps,” he said, which may account for his keen interest in travel. And what place does he favor the most? “I like them all,” he replied, which should make moving about the world all that much more enjoyable.
Research and writing will not be shoved to the back burner, but will always be a part of his life. Speaking engagements and consulting will consume some time, and, “I would like to continue to conduct tours to different parts of the world as I have done in the past,” he said. There is even the possibility of turning his passion for travel into a small business, developing historical tours particularity as they relate to the history of New England. And a move back to the Boston area is not out of the question.
A visible, active and productive part has been played by Donald Friary at Historic Deerfield for the past 37 years. He has assumed the role of preacher in the village church, teacher in the one-room schoolhouse, tour guide for many visitors, fundraiser and administrator, all with the professionalism needed to move Historic Deerfield into the lives of countless people. And what is happening in the search for a new executive director, a person who will take up this active role and pull all the right strings for Historic Deerfield? “That is one decision I am not going to help with,” Don said, adding, “it is the job of the trustees and I am sure they will make a fine selection. I am not even aware of who or even how many have applied for the position.”
So again to quote Alice Winchester from the September 1956 issue of The Magazine Antiques, she wisely observed: “Deerfield offers a splendid opportunity to study the American decorative arts in contemporary settings, and its educational contribution cannot be overstressed.” Donald R. Friary has seen to that.
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