J. Ritchie Garrison, November 19, 2020 (video)


J. Ritchie Garrison, November 19, 2020 (video)
J. Ritchie Garrison
Caroline Brown
House fire
J. Ritchie Garrison is an esteemed alumnus of the Cooperstown Graduate Program, a member of the class of 1974. He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts and grew up in Atherton, California before moving back to Worcester as a child. He attended Tilton School in New Hampshire, then Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, before his time at Cooperstown, then went on to the University of Pennsylvania for his PhD in American Civilization. Following his academic career, he worked as Director of Education at Historic Deerfield before moving to the University of Delaware and the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture. He became Director of the Winterthur Program in 2004 and served in that role until 2019, when he retired.

Mr. Garrison's time at CGP involved intense study of the local region, from agricultural and economic history, to architecture, craft, and material culture. In addition to that, Mr. Garrison and his wife, Carla, faced an extraordinary event during their time in Cooperstown: a house fire. No one was harmed, but it was a life changing moment.

In this interview, Mr. Garrison speaks about his early exposure to material culture, his academic experience in Cooperstown, the event of the house fire and the lessons it brought, and, finally, his observations about both the Winterthur and Cooperstown graduate programs.

This interview was conducted over Zoom on Thursday, November 19, 2020. Despite the COVID-19 pandemic necessitating a virtual interview, it made little difference in the depth of what was shared.

[Joe Pine was a] good guy, and we enjoyed being with him and at least for the couple months that we were on Pine Boulevard. The fire was traumatic. It didn't really damage our marriage, but it certainly did have an impact on our financial situation and our ability to do things. There was a tremendous amount of clean-up. I think one of the best things that came out of it was Carla and I, and Alice and Carl-I don't remember what happened to Joe, maybe he was there-but certainly Alice and I and Carl and Carla ended up staying with Lou[is C.] and Aggie Jones. They had a house on the corner right next to the Susquehanna River draining out of Lake Otsego. That was actually pretty magical. Lou was a sort of larger-than-life figure anyway and was both charismatic and a little bit intimidating to those of us who were his graduate students. He was very experienced and deeply knowledgeable and very, very well connected. So, in many ways, our experiences with Lou, I remember as being a very special time, even though his background in folklore and folk culture, were quite special. At that point, there were some shifts going on. The latest director of the New York State Historical Association was a fellow named Peter Welsh, and not everybody got along with Peter Welsh. He represented a very different experience. He was actually a graduate of the Hagley Program at the University of Delaware. I don't know enough about his management experience or background or relationships with the Clark family but I have to say that Peter Welsh was very good to me. He was a friend of Tony Garvan, and when I was applying to graduate school at Penn, he wrote Tony a very pointed letter that I'm pretty sure got me into the program in American Civilization. So, I've always been very grateful to him. I also appreciated his interest in technological history. So, in a sense, the fire drove us out of our kind of newlywed, cloistered experience. You know what it's like to be a graduate student and to have to hole up and study and write papers and do all of the things that the curriculum demands that you do. So, the fire was extraordinarily disruptive, but there are times when you look back at those kinds of life disruptions-the birth of our children was another form of disruption-and you say, you know, not only was that not bad, but it was actually really good for us. I'm not encouraging you to go out and experience trauma, but I am encouraging you to be open to the learning experiences that occur from those kinds of events. They will occur in your life-I hope not as severely as a fire-but there will be things that come up, whether it's car accidents or whatever, that you learn and grow from. It's part of building your self-confidence that not only will you survive these things but that you can deal maturely and effectively with them. So, in that sense, I suspect that our fire, even though it didn't happen to other people beyond those living in the house, was a kind of reminder for my classmates. They were really very helpful. They came in and helped us pack up the stuff that was left in the kitchen which was just unbelievably dirty. We squished our way around the carpeting in our apartment because there was still so much moisture. It's difficult to understand the humidity that occurs. Of course, because the building had had a fire, and we were in December, I can assure you it didn't stay 71 degrees as it did that day the fire erupted, so they had to turn the heat back on in order to prevent the pipes from freezing and bursting every bit of plumbing in the building. So, you walk into this building and it stinks of fire. You're sloppily walking around in this saturated carpeting, trying to remove things and make decisions about whether you're gonna just pitch it or save it, and everything is completely filthy dirty, just unbelievably dirty. Some of it you can take over to the sink and wash, but when you do that, the relative humidity-the RH that you're probably studying in your classes-must have been in the vicinity of ninety percent. It was like being in a cool tropical climate, I suppose. You know, maybe they had the heat jacked up to seventy when we were there. But it was just ridiculously unpleasant, and you just couldn't stay clean when you're in there. So, you get dirty, you clean up as best you could, you packed. We had to go find boxes. Well, that's not as simple as it sounds in a sleepy town like Cooperstown, not when you have so many people trying to track down boxes. As I said, we were carting things. Once we found a new apartment, we could begin carting things over there, but I had to go find people who could refinish furniture because I didn't have time or the space to do it. It was interesting. I had to hand in a paper. I remember it was on religion and the Burned Over District in Upstate New York. It was crinkled from being soaked in water. I had been working on it when I left that early afternoon to go up to classes. Fortunately, something was covering it, but it still got wet. It was on the coffee table in front of the sofa where I was working on it. We didn't have computers back then, so you had to type everything. And I was a lousy typist! I had to use Corrasable paper, so you could erase out your mistakes and go back in and fix them–things that you wouldn't ever think of worrying about today were issues back then. It didn't make them harder, just different. On the other hand, I think that in subtle ways, the expectations are higher for you guys than they were for us, because it's easy for you using word processing to correct mistakes and produce very good work. I'm not sure it's faster, because the available time is what it is. But, it probably means the quality of your work is, in general, a little bit better in some ways than it was for us. You simply can do things now that would've been very laborious for us to do. If you're proficient with CAD, you can draw in CAD now and make changes. We hand drew everything. We learned to map, we learned to measure, we learned to do all of the fieldwork skills that would become extremely important for me teaching, later on, my own graduate students how to do these kinds of things. So, I didn't have a computer until I went to the University of Delaware, when I bought my first Mac [laughs].

Well, thank you!
Atherton, California
Worcester, Massachusetts
Cooperstown, New York
Pitman, New Jersey
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Newark, Delaware
Plymouth, Massachusetts
Caroline Brown
Cooperstown Graduate Program, State University of New York-College at Oneonta
Cooperstown Graduate Association, Cooperstown, NY
Moving Image
Track 1 - House fire