Living through history: Ridgefield Historical Society is documenting COVID pandemic with exhibit in the works

Photo of Alyssa Seidman

RIDGEFIELD — Just as swiftly as the state went on lockdown after reporting its first case of coronavirus two years ago, volunteers at the Ridgefield Historical Society formed a rapid response team to navigate the new normal.

The team comprised current board president Tracy Seem, town historian Kay Ables, Sally Sanders, Monica McMorran, Sharon Dunphy, Laurie Campbell and Betsy Reid.

They met on Zoom, like everyone else at the time, to brainstorm ways in which to document history as it was happening. One venture was the organization’s first foray into digital collections.

During the early days of the pandemic, the group interviewed more than 30 residents virtually to develop a video archive. Each recording details a different view of pandemic life from the perspective of town officials, business owners, educators and everyday people.

Reid was charged with interviewing residents for the project. She is now the organization’s collections manager.

“The underlying message in all the interviews was how people reacted to the changes and limitations caused by the pandemic,” she said. “All of the ideas and creativity (they) came up with to keep going (were) amazing.”

Since March 2020, the historical society has been collecting memorabilia from the COVID-19 era. Among the items are photographs of a barren Main Street with signs on store windows that signal temporary closures; fact sheets detailing how to “stop the spread” of the virus; and first-person accounts from residents.

Reid described one entry from the husband of a local bank worker. In his submission he explained that his wife was working overtime to file forms related to Paycheck Protection Program loans. He recalled hearing the garage door opening one morning at 3 a.m. — it was his wife coming home from work.

Reid’s favorite Zoom interview was with resident Audrey Fanning Hawker, a professional seamstress who worked in costume departments on Broadway.

Hawker had suffered a stroke, which caused her to lose her eyesight, but she taught herself how to sew again. When the pandemic hit she began sewing hundreds of mask and mask extenders to keep fellow residents safe.

Other videos detail how local organizations sprung into action to help those in need; how teachers, parents and children dealt with distance learning; and how town officials responded to ever-changing information.

“They give a really good overall picture of what was going on in town when things were really bad,” Reid said of the interviews.

RHS continues to collect COVID memorabilia to this day and plans to curate an exhibit at some point in the future. Reid stressed the importance of collecting as many materials as possible.

“I looked in our collections for (The Ridgefield Press’) reports on the Spanish flu pandemic and there was nothing … it wasn’t written about, really,” she said. “We’re gonna change that so people a hundred years from now know what happened.”

Reid said she plans to re-interview First Selectman Rudy Marconi in light of the statewide school mask mandate being lifted, and expects to tie up the collection soon.

“We’re not quite finished yet,” she added.

The Ridgefield Historical Society is currently accepting pictures, documents, artwork, writings and other memorabilia related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Items can be dropped off at the Scott House (4 Sunset Lane) or emailed to info@ridgefieldhistoricalsociety.org .

alyssa.seidman@hearstmediact.com