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Taking history into their own hands

By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / July 19, 2012
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Youngsters from ages 8 to 14 can have a hands-on experience this summer with rare artifacts from the collection housed at the Dedham Historical Society,  as part of a new program on local history and family genealogy.

“They put on white gloves and handle the artifacts,” such as antique candlesticks and old school bells, said Vicky Kruckeberg,  the society’s director. The chance to see and touch old museum pieces provides inspiration for the children’s “Make A Plate” designs, and symbolizes the program’s goal, Kruckeberg said, “to make the connection between the past and the present.”

Each Wednesday this month and next — with the last session on Aug. 29 — the society will offer a free, one-hour  program focusing on local history and family genealogy. Described by the society as “a great way to introduce historical and genealogical concepts to kids in a nonacademic environment,” the same program is being offered each week.

Looking to expand the organization’s offerings for young people, Kruckeberg said, she called on museum volunteer Eleanor Palma  to help prepare and lead the new weekly summer sessions.

“We’ve talked about education and students and what we could do to bring students into the society, and finally came up with this idea,” Kruckeberg said.

Palma, a retired teacher from Dedham’s elementary and middle schools, is also “one of our major genealogy researchers,” she said. “That makes her perfect.”

“I always liked history,” said Palma, who has done volunteer research for the society for a dozen years. “People send e-mail and send letters if their relatives have Dedham connections,” Palma said. Her interest in genealogy began when she researched her grandfather.

Genealogy goes back a long way in Dedham, which was founded in 1636.  Introducing young people to the basics of local history and genealogy, her summer class “has a beginning, middle, and end,” Palma said. “We begin with a brief overview and touch briefly on their own genealogy. I tell them if they’re interested to go home and find out more from their parents.”

Oral history is another way historians gather information, she said.

The class demonstrates this approach by having the students interview each other, starting with questions such as “What’s your name? Do you have a pet? What grade are you in?”

You can learn about both family and local history by interviewing people who are close at hand, such as grandparents, an exercise many schools have adopted, Palma said. She learned that from experience when a grandnephew interviewed her.

“I was his ‘old person’ source,” she said wryly. “I was famous in Hopkinton.”

One of the lessons that oral history can teach is how much has changed within a lifetime. “I used to get out of the movies at 11 p.m. and walk 2 miles home,” recalled Palma, who grew up in Dedham. “You walk with your friends and drop them off first, but the last part I did by myself. It was safe.”

Long walks home after dark have virtually disappeared from the lives of youngsters today, as her students can attest.

Students in her summer program also receive an introduction to the society’s museum collection, including some examples of world-famous Dedham Pottery.  Inspired by the Chinese ceramics that a family member saw at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the Robertson family opened a pottery company in Concord that soon moved to Dedham.

Dedham Pottery operated during the American Arts and Crafts movement  between 1896 and 1943.  It was known for stoneware with a fine crackle gaze and thick cobalt blue border designs. The pottery’s most famous design is a circular series of crouching rabbits known as “the Dedham rabbit.” 

Students also can see a church bell made by the Paul Revere Co. and the death mask of Hannah Shuttleworth, who donated the High Street property and made a bequest for the construction of the society’s house in the 1880s. 

“I just call it a mask,” Palma said. “I ask, ‘Have you ever used papier-mache?’ ”

The students also see pictures of an old toaster, a wringer washing machine, and other once-important objects that few people have a name for today.

The culminating activity is creating a personalized plate. Each child makes a drawing and the program sends it to the Make A Plate Co., which manufactures a plastic plate imprinted with the design. The images can range from a family tree to a historical image to a Dedham Pottery design.

“It’s kind of a cute idea,” Palma said. The activity draws together genealogy, local history, and Dedham Pottery, the town’s chief claim to fame in the wider world.

As a sign of the importance of local history, the society’s summer class is being funded by the town’s Cultural Council and the Hermann Dexter Lodge of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization for laboring men whose Massachusetts roots go back to 1820. 

Robert Knox can be reached at

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Behind the Scenes

Summer Program Just for Kids

Dedham Historical Society,

612 High St.

Wednesdays, 10 a.m., until Aug. 29


Register at 781-326-1385 or,