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Helen Osborne Storrow

In the late summer of 1864 the United States was embroiled in its nation splitting Civil War. Families mourned the loss of their members and looked for some spark of hope that peace would return. In the city of Auburn New York one family joyfully welcomed the birth of a new member, their fourth child, a little daughter they named Helen.
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Helen Osborne Storrow
Helen Osborne Storrow 

Helen Osborne (Sept. 22, 1864 – Nov. 10, 1944) was born into a prosperous manufacturer’s home. David Osborne had started his working life as a blacksmith in the early 19th century. Tying his fortune on to the optimism of an expanding nation, David took a chance by forging tools, not for his neighbors, but to be shipped on the bustling Erie Canal to farmers out in the recently settled west. His gamble paid off so well that by the time his daughter Helen was finishing her education he had built a farm machinery factory in Auburn that employed thousands of workers. His horse drawn mowers and planters gained such a reputation for unsurpassed quality that the Czar of Russia commissioned a train to go from the port of New York City to Auburn to collect hundreds of pieces to be used on farms in his country.

Eliza, Helen’s mother, was a socially conscious Quaker whose aunt Lucretia Mott was an outspoken abolitionist. Lucretia was one of the organizers in 1848 of the now famous Seneca Falls convention which focused on women’s rights and even demanded that women be allowed to vote. Their family friends included such nationally known figures as Susan B. Anthony and William Lloyd Garrison. Perhaps the influence of her mother started Helen and her brother Tom on their lifetime path of altruism and concern for those who may not have had the privilege and comfort that they enjoyed in their youth.

Helen was first introduced to the city of Springfield when attended Miss Sophie Howard’s Boarding School there in the 1880s. It is possible that Springfield was chosen because Helen’s oldest sister Emily had married Frederick Harris, a successful and influential business man of that community. Little could she have known that her brief stay in this area would have led to such a commitment in her later years?

A part of fashionable education of young ladies in the late 19th century was travel in Europe, and Helen participated in style. Her visit to Switzerland resulted in a life altering moment. While hiking in the mountains of Zermatt in what was described as unsuitable shoes and clothing, Helen saw a young man striding down the path toward her. As he passed, she noticed his broad shoulders, green eyes and smile. She eventually caught up with her brother Thomas who asked if she had seen his friend from college, Jim Storrow. She had, and in the romantic style of that era, she felt she had “lost her heart then and there.”

Both Helen’s and James’ family agreed that they should wait until James had finished school before they seriously considered marriage. The Storrow family also insisted that James be set financially before he took on the responsibility of a wife and family. It wasn’t until eight years after that first chance meeting that Helen Osborne married James and took the last name of Storrow. As a wedding present James’ family gave him a house on Beacon Hill in Boston and $3000, a considerable amount of money for 1891.

Because of her sister’s ties with Springfield, the now Mrs. James Storrow kept in touch with the happenings in the Pioneer Valley. When the Eastern States Exposition was started in 1916 it was organized as a livestock exhibition. The founders soon realized that such a show would appeal to the men on the farm but not their entire family. To correct this oversight the Trustees of the Exposition created what was then called the “Home Department.” With her experience in organizing Girl Scout training, establishing regional camps for that same group, organizing relief efforts for Belgium during World War One and funding the Saturday Evening Girls of the Boston Settlement movement for Eastern European immigrants, Helen Storrow was asked to head this new effort as chairman of that department.

In the capacity as chairman, she organized displays and exhibits which represented the old and new in the area of homemaking in the 1920s. She developed displays about the use of coal for heating and cooking, the use of natural gas which was just making its way into many people’s homes, food preservation and home canning as well as organizing demonstrations of English Country dancing and traditional needlework. Helen had a lifelong interest in dancing and handcrafts. This interest may well have been influenced by the popularity of the Arts & Crafts movement of the early 20th century.

One exhibit of note was a room dedicated to the process of voting. Women had just received the right to vote in the United States – a fact that would have made Helen’s great aunt very happy even if it was eighty years after the Seneca Falls convention had advocated for it – and Helen wanted women to be able to enter the voting booth, a month after the annual Fair, in November and be comfortable with whatever method of voting they encountered.

The small, temporary buildings being used for the Home Department exhibits were adequate but unattractive. Each year before the Fair these buildings were moved into place and members of the Home Department had to decorate and furnish them for the theme of that building’s particular exhibit.

The theme for the Exposition in 1930 was to be “Three Hundred Years of Agriculture in New England 1630 to 1930.” The idea was put forward of decorating one of the temporary buildings in an Early American style in order to present a more attractive setting for the handicrafts displays. This initial concept was translated into the even more exciting thought of moving an authentic Early American home to the grounds. In 1926 when this idea was first brought forward, no antique structure in the United States had been restored after being moved from its original site of construction. Historically significant buildings, such as the Paul Revere Home and the Rebecca Nurse House had been restored and opened for public viewing, but those were still on their original lots. This was years before the Wells family conceived of Old Sturbridge Village or the Rockefeller’s Colonial Williamsburg or Henry Ford’s museum in Michigan.

Helen liked the idea though and shared it with her friends when they visited her home in the eastern part of the State. One person who heard the idea of the Home Department committee was Philip Gilbert who was a Trustee of the Eastern States Exposition as well as Commissioner of Agriculture for Massachusetts. He told Helen about an old farmhouse that his family owned and used as a summer house. He told her that if she was interested she could visit the building and see if it was suitable for her needs. As a result, the 1794 Gilbert House in West Brookfield was selected, disassembled, and moved to the West Springfield fairgrounds in 1927. The purchase price was $200.

The old farmstead proved so popular with the fairgoing public that she expanded the idea of moving just one building to incorporate a recreated village where youth and their families could see how people lived in the 19th century. Mrs. Storrow hired an architect and spent time locating buildings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire which had been built in the late 18th or early 19th centuries. She chose buildings that had been abandoned or were scheduled for demolition; thus, she saved some very valuable examples of building styles and made them accessible for others to learn about our New England heritage.

Finally, when the buildings had been located, she presented her proposition to the Exposition Board of Directors — she would purchase and restore the buildings if the Exposition would provide the land. From her original purchase of the Gilbert House, her final cost for all the structures that were moved totaled nearly $350,000 when the project was completed.

Helen had created what she called “The New England Village,” and in the first few years she and her friends helped to furnish the buildings through loans of period pieces. She staffed the buildings with guides comprised of Girl Scouts who annually competed to earn the privilege of staying at the Village throughout the Fair. The girls were housed in a bunkhouse type setting that was located in the clearstory attic of the Potter Mansion. To this day some numbered bed tags can still be found on the walls of upper level of the Potter House.

The original Aunt Helen’s Herb Garden was planned, planted and given to Helen Storrow Village in 1935 by the New England Girl Scouts as a gift of appreciation and affection. This was a secret garden, planned as a surprise gift. It was a real Girl Scout project – the first of its kind in the world. Five thousand Girl Scouts from Massachusetts, Maine, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont contributed to the garden. Those who could not raise herbs sent contributions ranging from three cents to three dollars so that all who were eager to be included in the project could have some part in this special gift.

In an historical pageant showing some of the ancient traditions and uses of these herbs, girls representing Old World nations as well as America presented the garden to Mrs. Storrow on her birthday, September 22, 1935.

After Helen’s death in 1944 the Trustees renamed the Village in her honor, “Storrowton.” Almost eighty years after its creation, Storrowton Village Museum on the grounds of the Eastern States Exposition continues the mission put forth by Helen Storrow to offer a backdrop for families of the present day to see and learn about the heritage and history of New England and those generations that lived on the hills and in the valleys of this region.

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