In the past year and a half since my daughter, Julia, has attended Deerfield, I have grown to appreciate the special characteristics of Deerfield from a newcomer’s perspective. Since I didn’t attend boarding school, I will never fully understand the many traditions that give Deerfield a feeling of warmth and community. However, when I visit her, bit by bit, I learn more about the people and history defining the school, the town of Deerfield and the Pioneer Valley. I am always fascinated by the thoughtful comments during Margarita’s talks to parents and how she often refers to people, events and places from history, shedding light on current campus happenings and the messages being relayed to the students. Taking her lead, I set out to discover and share the person after whom the Hitchcock House is named and learned how relevant the name behind the school store is in today’s society. I’ve structured the article so you are able to dig deeper through the links. Be careful! What you’ll find is a truly amazing story about two extraordinary people: Edward and Orra Hitchcock.
Constructed in 1779, The Hitchcock House is the family home of Edward Hitchcock who was born in 1793 and attended Deerfield Academy from 1804 to 1809. He later became principal of Deerfield, from 1816 to 1818, and taught the sciences. While at Deerfield, he met Orra White, who was born in Amherst and one of the earliest female botanical and scientific illustrators in America. She was just 17 when she was named the new preceptress for the women at Deerfield in 1813. At the time, the trustees realized the importance of appealing to families who were searching for more advanced education for their daughters in an era when colleges were closed to women. Contrary to what most people believe, Deerfield was co-ed for 150 years until 1948 when it became an all-boys school.
Deerfield thrived under the leadership of Edward and Orra since they expanded the curriculum to include such subjects as astronomy, geology and botany. Edward spent a great deal of time collecting angio- and gymnosperms in an herbarium while Orra drew and painted these specimens. We are fortunate to be able to view her works of art since the watercolors that comprise Orra’s “Herbarium Parvum, Pictum 1817-1821” are held in the Academy Archives at Deerfield. This collection consists of a 64-page album of watercolors depicting over 175 local flowers and grass specimens and is a glimpse of what was being created on campus close to 200 years ago. The images help one understand Orra’s unique characteristic of teaching–her ability to combine instruction of the sciences with painting and other decorative arts.
After Edward and Orra left Deerfield, they married in 1821 and arrived at Amherst College. Four years later he was named professor of natural history and chemistry. He went on to become Amherst’s third president from 1845-1854 and to establish the still-famous collection of dinosaur footprints housed at the Beneski Museum of Natural History. Orra continued to draw and paint while at Amherst and turned her attention to assisting Edward while he pursued his work as a teacher and scholar. This self-taught artist made more than 60 large-format charts on linen for his lectures. Orra died in 1863 at the age of 67, and Edward passed away the next year at the age of 70. Edward and Orra thought of themselves as perfectly ordinary, but created and discovered numerous things that are truly extraordinary. From 1991 to the present, several exhibits, websites, books and catalogues have been created highlighting the significance of Orra and Edward’s contribution to society.
A recent exhibit, a recreation of a 1798 classroom, curated by the Pocumtuck Valley Memorial Association–Astronomy, Geology and Dino Tracks!–was held in Deerfield, MA at the original Deerfield Academy School building, Memorial Hall Museum. Just a bit south, an exhibit was held in Amherst, MA at The Frost Library at Amherst College which highlighted both Edward and Orra, called Re-Presenting Nonutuck: the Landscape of Paintings of Hitchcock and Gloman. The exhibit focused on Amherst’s senior resident artist at the Department of Art and History of Art, David Gloman, and his recreation of eight of Orra’s works of art from Hitchcock’s 1841 monograph Geology of Massachusetts. Heading further south to New York City, the American Folk Art Museum held an exhibit curated by Stacy C. Hollander this past summer and fall called Charting the Divine Plan: the Art of Orra White Hitchcock (1796-1863) which was recently named in The New York Times as one of the best art exhibits of the year (listed ninth under “Global Highlights” in Best Art of 2018).
Although important to acknowledge the recent exhibits, I would be remiss not to mention two earlier exhibits at the Charles P. Russell Gallery at Deerfield Academy and the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College occurring in 1991 and 2011, respectively. Of special note, The Mead Museum exhibit included a beautifully illustrated catalogue featuring a biographical and interpretive essay by two well known scholars, Daria D’Arienzo and Robert L. Herbert. Copies of the catalogue will be available at the Boyden Library during Spring Family Weekend. Although I’ve tried to include as many images and links for your convenience below, I am surprised by the number of scholars and organizations I continue to discover now that I’ve become more aware of the importance of the Hitchcocks.
What started as a simple research project about the heritage of the Hitchcock House turned into an opportunity to meet the people “behind the scenes” at Deerfield who make the school feel like all of these wonderful traditions happen effortlessly. A special thank you to Anne Lozier, Academy Archivist, and Brent Hale, Deerfield Design and Art Director, for providing additional insight and photos for the Hitchcock House. I would also like to thank the Deerfield Parents Network for allowing me the opportunity to share this article with you. Please join me in attending their next meeting to be held during Spring Family weekend on Saturday, May 11th at 7am in the space located under the Dining Hall. The meetings are informative and a great way to meet the parents and administrators who work so tirelessly to make all parents and students feel welcome at Deerfield. Hope to see you at the meeting and wishing everyone a Happy New Year!