The 100-year-old Melville Academy Museum came into being when a piano was donated to a new group dedicated to improving Jaffrey Center.
The Jaffrey Village Improvement Society, now the Jaffrey Center VIS, was started in 1906. In 1919, the Wesselhoff family, who lived in the first house on Gilsum Road, gave a piano to the Jaffrey Village Improvement Society, said Ken Campbell, a member of the Society and a former curator of the museum. His wife Suze Campbell is the current curator. The only problem was that the Society didn’t have anywhere to put the piano.
“The reason that they thought of taking over the Melville building is that they had nowhere to put the Wesselhoff piano,” Campbell said. “So they said ‘Well what about the Mellville Academy, it’s just sitting there.’ So they asked the town, so the town said ‘Well if you want to restore it you can take it over,’ And so they did. In 1920, a year later, they established the museum.”
Sunday marks the day the party held in the new museum on Aug. 4 to celebrate its opening.
“And it ties into the movement of village improvement societies,” Suze Campbell said. “The area was really dilapidated and a group of people got together and wanted to make the place look nice again and it was the village improvement society movement that inspired them I’m sure. … The museum happened to be the project that the Jaffrey Village Improvement Society took on. … Each village improvement society started had a different thing that they focused on.”
After a major restoration of the building, in 1961 Jaffrey voters agreed to turn over the deed for the building to the JCVIS for $1.
The academy was built 60 years after the town was founded in 1773.
“It originally was the first high school in Jaffrey, a private academy,” said Ken Campbell said. “It was named for Jonas Melville who was the principal donor and driver, I think, of the construction. He also funded a building of the First Church of Jaffrey in 1831 and the United Church in Jaffrey in 1857.”
“It was very coed. It started in 1833 and in 1835 they packed 87 boys and 87 girls into these two floors. Upstairs you’ll see the original desks and apparently they used to seat three to a desk, which is mind-blowing,” Ken Campbell said.
Jonas Melville went “bust” in “the crash of 1857,” Ken Campbell said. Without his financial support, the academy closed. Six years later the town adopted it as the number 11 schoolhouse.
“They had an interesting arraignment. They would have an elementary school in Jaffrey Center one year and then in the school building on School Street downtown the next,” Ken Campbell said.
The mission of the museum is to preserve and communicate the history of Jaffrey, the Academy, and the Jaffrey Center Village Improvement Society.
The Melville Academy Museum, certainly tells the story of the old schoolhouse but also the old Jaffrey Center Post Office and the entrepreneurs and authors that also called Jaffrey their home.
Author Willa Cather has a prominent display that added last year, the “Willa Cather’s Spirit Lives On” exhibit. Ken Campbell said that Cather wrote that the best parts of her books were written in Jaffrey, while staying at the Shattuck Inn. Cather was known to sit in a tent in the woods, with a view of Mount Monadnock while she wrote many of her novels, including My Antonia, A Lost Lady, Death Comes for the Archbishop, and One of Ours.
The museum also has a large collection of bandboxes made by Jaffrey entrepreneur Hannah Davis, who made her bandboxes out of thinly slices wood using a machine she had invented herself.
“She would take her horse and cart and go all the way over to Lowell Mills and sell bandboxes to the mill girls,” Ken Campbell said.
These women are included in the first floor exhibits that are arranged into 14 “themed areas,” which also include 19th and early 20th-century clothing and exhibits about Amos Fortune, Rev. Laban Ainsworth and Jonas Melville and a 1922 model of the Jaffrey Meetinghouse.
Upstairs on the second floor are 28 of the original school desks.
The Campbells said they are not sure what happened to the Wesselhoff’s donated piano.
The building that sits on Thorndike Pond Road at Blackberry Lane in Jaffrey Center, the original center of the town, not only tells the town’s history but is a symbol of the dedication and devotion the town’s people have to preserving that history.
“Jaffrey was a special place and it is a special place and it will be a special place if people keep, not only preserving history and talking about it, but also in doing things to boost up the things that were here,” Suze Campbell said. “And The Park Theatre will be really a big boost. The library is doing great things – showing history up on the second floor, they’ve got all kinds of these exhibits. The Jaffrey Historical Society is really working away having programs and exploring all these things and this museum here is the compliment to all of that along with the Meetinghouse, saying we are special.”
The Melville Academy Museum is located at 39 Thorndike Pond Road and is opened during the summer months on Saturday and Sundays from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. The last day this summer will be Sunday, Sept. 1. Admission is free but donations are gratefully accepted.