Published: July 27, 2004
This year marks the 300th anniversary of the New England town of Sutton, Mass. Situated west of Boston and just south of Worcester, Sutton was established as a township in 1704. To celebrate this propitious event, the town is hosting a yearlong celebration complete with parades, concerts, festivals and tournaments.
For antiquarians, the most important facet of the celebration is the exhibition “Tell Tale Treasures: Unlocking Sutton’s Past, 1704-2004” at the Worcester Historical Museum through October 2. It offers an unparalleled assemblage of 350 rdf_Descriptions with Sutton provenance, including five pieces of Nathan Lombard (1777-1847) furniture, loaned from three private collections.
Since there are only about 40 pieces attributed to Lombard, having five in one place is a good enough reason to see this show. In fact, the depth of the exhibition might even warrant more than one visit if you have an appetite for delving into the stories associated with the town’s fascinating history. Hobby historians and good friends for 25 years, Judi Vaillancourt and Hillary White are the volunteer co-chairs of the Sutton 300 committee responsible for curating the exhibition.
Another reason to visit the exhibition will be a special talk on Thursday, August 12, at 7 pm. “An American Master Craftsman of the New Republic: Nathan Lombard of Sutton” will be the title of a lecture by Brock Jobe, professor of American decorative arts at the Winterthur Museum, Wilmington, Del. This program is free with museum admission and will be presented in Fletcher Auditorium of the Worcester Historical Museum.
The Lombard pieces in the show include the “Rosetta Stone,” his only known signed piece of furniture, according to Hillary White. It is a four-drawer chest loaned from a private collection. One exquisite Lombard candlestand came from a Massachusetts collector; two candlestands and a fine card table were lent from descendents of Lombard’s daughter, Julia Lombard.
Cabinetmakers Lombard, Major Daniel Tenney and Simeon Stockwell all opened shops along Singletary Avenue, creating a “furniture district” for Sutton. A five-drawer chest in the show came out of an old Sutton home that belonged to the Tenney family and was possibly made by him. Interestingly, the Coffin sisters, Betsy and Sophia, both quartered at the home of Squire Tenney when they attended a girl’s school in Sutton. Two of their needleworks dated 1806 (recently acquired at a Skinner auction and now in a private collection) are exhibited.
Two stately tall-case clocks hold a special place in the show. One is by Benjamin Willard, who taught the art of clockmaking to Timothy Sib- ley Jr. The other was made by Sibley himself. The Sibley family was among the first settlers of Sutton, coming from Salem, Mass. Sibley later taught clockmaking to several of his 14 siblings. The tradition of clockmaking continued in the Sibley family for the next six generations. (According to Hillary White, The Chipstone Foundation has in their collection a clock signed by both Benjamin Willard and Timothy Sibley.)
Free Masons were well established in Sutton. There is a portrait of Isaiah Thomas, an active Free Mason who wrote for The Massachusetts Spy, a local newspaper that was printed on paper made in one of Sutton’s many mills in a section of town that later broke off as Millbury. There are three hand-painted watercolors on silk Free Mason aprons in the show, as well as a ceramic jug that dates to 1797 and commemorates the 1797 charter of The Olive Branch Lodge.
Historic portraits make up an important part of the show. In addition to the painting of Isaiah Thomas, there are portraits of Sutton’s ministers by Zedikiah Belknap, and many portraits by John Blunt, who came to Sutton to paint for an extended period of time. The show includes his portrait of Harriet Wood, one of Capt Amasa Wood’s nine children. Portraits of the Captain and his wife and two other children are also in the show.
Three landscapes in the exhibition are thought to be Blunt’s. A landscape and portrait by Winthrop Chandler are on loan from the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (recently renamed Historic New England) of Boston.
Sutton’s history makes for a fascinating exhibition. The town was significant for patriots during the Revolutionary War, was productive agriculturally (including a cranberry business that had Frederick Law Olmsted as one of its investors), was an important center of early American craftsmanship and, before the Civil War, produced coarse durable cloth in the mill section of town. While benefiting economically by providing the fabric to clothe slaves before the war, 220 Sutton men fought against the South in the Civil War, with 20 losing their lives, and many more wounded. The show brings us from the Civil War to the present day.
Vaillancourt, with the help of several volunteer committee members, tracked down most of the furniture, guns, paintings, clothing, tools, jewelry, signs, quilts and other Sutton rdf_Descriptions that she had either seen during her five-year quest for exhibit rdf_Descriptions, or that had been brought to them during three “Discovery Days.” White has worked on the project for the past year and a half and researched background information and wrote all the display labels.
Serendipitously through her research White turned up a broadside at the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester for Sutton’s 1876 Centennial celebration. White and Vaillancourt were delighted to discover that they were following in the footsteps of earlier Sutton citizens who had put together a landmark exhibition with historic artifacts from the area. Perhaps Vaillancourt and White’s efforts will aid some future historian.
The Worcester Historical Museum is at 30 Elm Street. Admission is $5 for adults, children under 18 and museum members are free. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 am to 4 pm, and Thursday, 10 am to 8:30 pm. For information, 508-753-8278.
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