[NOTE: The full version of this article by Cathy Stanton originally appeared in the Greenfield Recorder on July 17, 1999, as “Franklin County comes home: Old Home Day is a century-old tradition to boost civic pride.”]
The nearest public transportation was miles away, and the only way to get to the pretty hilltop town was by what one visitor called “the strenuous Up route.”
Nonetheless, people started gathering early in the morning for a day of games, picnics, music, and visiting with neighbors. In the afternoon, two scratch teams faced off on the baseball diamond. A local band played long into the evening. “These Old Home occasions,” the same visitor remarked, “retain their popularity to an unusual degree.”
The comment was made in August of 1916–but it might have been referring to last weekend’s Old Home Day in Rowe, or to any of the other Old Home Days celebrations that survive in Franklin County in 1999. The combination of sports, music, and food–and the community goodwill they generate–have changed very little in the past hundred years…
[T]he Old Home Days tradition has its own particular history. It began at the end of the 19th century, as New England towns and villages watched more and more of their citizens moving away. Just as today, many towns were fearful for their social and economic futures. One response, designed to boost civic pride while reminding successful former residents of their ties to their hometowns, was to hold annual reunions, known as Old Home Days…
By 1902, the state was actively promotely the reunion idea. The Massachusetts legislature passed an act making the last Sunday in July the start of “Home Week.” Municipalities were encouraged to host local reunions, and to invite as many former residents as they could locate.
Penny postcards were sent to every corner of the country, urging people to come home for a visit.
There was the hope that successful sons and daughters might be moved to donate money to build a new library, pay for a piece of public art, or build a summer cottage. At the very least, reunion-goers filled local hotels for a week each season. Towns appropriated money for Old Home Days with the expectation that they would see a return on their investment.
In towns where Old Home Days survive today, it seems to be community spirit, not municipal improvement, that’s on organizers’ minds.
“It’s an event that just kind of consolidates everybody,” says Karl Jurentkuff, one of the people behind last week’s Old Home Day in Rowe. “It’s a happy occasion, and it helps you forget the little petty peeves you may have with people over town politics during the rest of the year.”
Like Jurentkuff, who has been helping to run the Rowe event since 1967, Anne Diemand of Wendell has put in more than 20 years as an Old Home Day organizer. “It’s been one of the really continuing things in Wendell life,” Diemand says. “It provides something for the community and for visitors too. I like that people can come and bring a picnic basket and a blanket and hang out all day. And they can spend gobs of money, or no money at all”…
The 1950s and 60s were lean times for Old Home Days throughout the area. In 1950 the Warwick committee considered disbanding due to lack of interest. Two years later the Orange newspaper reported that the group was struggling to “revive the old-fashioned family picnic idea.” In Rowe, the annual event faded during the 1950s, to be restored in 1967…
Underlying it all is a homegrown celebration of place that makes each Old Home Days event unique. Many of our New England forebears’ predictions are being lived out in our fragmented, increasingly global culture, but these small-scale festivals prove that local culture, too, is alive and well in Franklin County, and that many of us still share a sense of what it means to “come home.”
For further reading:
- See the links on the Old Home Day wiki page, and please contribute any additional information there. The article above is about Franklin County in general; the wiki page has some information about Wendell’s event in particular.
- The undated image from a newspaper article is from the files of Dick Chaisson in Athol.
- The other two images are screen grabs from a YouTube video posting by Lois Ellsworth, with footage of the first of the revived Old Home Day events in Wendell in the late 1960s.