In 1969 when the Rochester Historical Society was born, the town’s population was
1,965. Gas was 35 cents a gallon around here, and the value of the average house in town was $28,000. As of 2018, the population is 5,698. Gas is about $2.75 a gallon, and the average Rochester home is valued at $375,000.
Rochester, to say the least, has certainly changed these past 50 years. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the now 50-year-old tradition of preserving as much of the history of Rochester as possible, something Rochester was ready to celebrate on September 14 during a party at the COA.
After a luncheon and, of course, a big piece of cake, the roomful of Rochesterites – some current, some prior, but always a ‘townie’ at heart – enjoyed a stroll down memory lane, led by a string of guest speakers well versed in the history of Rochester. Some shared stories discovered during past RHS meetings when members hosted “memory nights” and nights of “show and tell,” like the story Connie Eshbach told about the dances behind Dewey Park that went on “until boys from another town came to destroy the dance pavilion” after, she quoted, “a battle of baseball bats.”
There was the vacant haunted house on Bowen’s Lane that residents were convinced was haunted by ghosts of white that passed behind the windows but ultimately ended up being sheep stranded inside.
There were stories about how Rochester was void of electricity until the 1940s, RHS fundraisers gone awry, and the quirky gifts students have given Jackie Demers, Rochester’s very first kindergarten teacher, who taught for 45 years at Rochester Memorial School. Demers, originally from New Bedford but now an appointed honorary “townie”, has tons of stories.
“Where else but Rochester would you have a cow come to school and walk across the hall into the courtyard?” asked Demers. “Only in Rochester, and I was a city girl so I sure wasn’t used to that, but the kids loved it.”
Demers continued, “God blessed me when he led me to Rochester… It’s been a great time for me and I thank all of you for your many, many kindnesses.”
The times have certainly changed since the very first members started the RHS, including the Society’s first-ever treasurer, Barbara King Besse, who was present at the party.
“What started [the Rochester Historical Society] was curiosity,” said Eshbach. “Because they were curious about the houses they lived in and the neighborhoods they lived in. I think that… some people think of history as dry as dust; but, really, it’s for people who are curious about things.”
And if one is curious enough to visit the RHS museum located at the East Rochester Church on County Road and rifle through the ton of books, documents, genealogy searches, and other relics, as Eshbach put it, “You get answers to questions you maybe didn’t know you had.”
Mack Phinney, president of the RHS, had a message for the generation after his: “It’s up to you to pass it on to the younger folks to rediscover and share the history of Rochester.”
By Jean Perry