Founders Day and Awards

Since 2007, the Amherst Historical Society has celebrated Amherst’s founding through an annual lecture and presenting awards to deserving citizens.

In 2022, the Conch Shell Award was renamed the Arthur F Kinney Award, to honor Dr Kinney, who started the award presentation when he was Society president in 2007. The award is given to recognize those who have made valuable contributions to the preservation and appreciation of Amherst’s history.

The President’s Award is presented from time to time to a person who serves as one of its trustees, in recognition of exceptional service to the Society. The award is presented only occasionally when such special recognition is merited.

The Mabel Loomis Todd Lecture is presented annually at the Founders Day Celebration by the Society to recognize the efforts of Mabel Loomis Todd who founded the Amherst Historical Society in 1899; the Society’s charter was granted by the State of Massachusetts in 1903.

Read about Founders Day and the history of Amherst by past AHS president Elizabeth Sharpe

Elizabeth Sharpe, former Board of Trustees president, presented a history of the town and explained the significance of the conch shell. Her remarks, reposted with permission here, provide the best explanation of our Founders Day Celebration and Annual Conch Shell Award.

“Tonight we celebrate the founding of Amherst — 249 years ago on February 13, 1759. Prior to that date, the place we call Amherst was a patchwork of farms owned by families like the Dickinsons, the Cowles, the Boltwoods and the Kelloggs who were considered the “east inhabitants” of the town of Hadley. Folks in the parent town of Hadley called this place various names–East Hadley, Hadley Farms, East Farms, the East Precinct, the Third Precinct and later the Second Precinct. (We moved up a notch from third to second precinct when South Hadley spun off of Hadley’s orbit.) You can see that we were in need of our own name and identity, and in need of our own government. As more farms sprang up here in the 1750s, our population topped Hadley’s but our inhabitants were still required to travel to Hadley to conduct town business and to pay taxes for which they received little in return. So, in 1758, a group of local men petitioned the government of Massachusetts Bay to incorporate Hadley’s Second Precinct as a district, not a town, but a district. A district enjoyed the same powers as a town, it just couldn’t send a representative to the General Court. But a district could hold town meetings and otherwise govern itself. The petition was delivered to Boston in June of 1758 and three quarters of a year later on February 13, the bill was passed. Hadley returned to its eastern inhabitants their proportional share of the town stockpile of gunpowder, lead, and flints and the tie was, more or less, severed.

Now about that new name. It was a perk of the governor of Massachusetts Bay to name new districts. And so, Governor Pownall did. He was a close friend of General Jeffery Amherst whose recent successful military expedition against the French at Louisburg in Canada made him a hero in the colonies and in England. For the governor, it would be a living monument to his famous friend to name this new district Amherst. Who could object? Certainly no one in the new district of Amherst. Not then, anyway.

There is no record regarding when the district of Amherst became the Town of Amherst; it seems Amherst conferred town status on itself. In 1774, some 15 years after becoming a district, Amherst began acting like a town by sending a delegate to the Provincial Congress and soon began using the designation “Town of Amherst,” although, as far as anyone can tell, it held no legal title. The title was granted, after the fact, in 1786, when Massachusetts passed a law stating that all districts incorporated prior to 1777 were to be towns. Thus, we celebrate as Founders Day the date the district of Amherst was established.

It is the conch shell that symbolizes Founders Day. In the 17th and 18th centuries, blowing the conk shell was a common method to call or warn inhabitants, and New England towns typically paid someone to blow it. Records show that an East Hadley man (that’s us) in 1743, was paid 3 dollars a year to “blow the kunk” and sweep the floor of the meeting house. Montague, Old Hadley, South Hadley, Williamsburg, and Stockbridge also paid someone to blow a conch shell. We know that Whately had a conch because in 1785 they voted NOT to pay someone to blow it.

By the early 19th century, conks went out of use when towns could afford large bells to hang in the bell towers attached to their new, larger meetinghouses. A bell sounded more pleasant than a conk; it was more refined, more urban, more like Boston or Philadelphia, or London. Across New England, conch shells were laid aside.

But, in Amherst, as in many towns, someone recognized what the conk had meant– that it had been a way of calling farmers together, a way of gathering the community, so that individuals could deliberate and then to act as one body. The conk represented democracy, and fittingly it was a democratic instrument. It was hand-held, easily obtained, and most anyone could blow it. Unlike a bell, it didn’t require a lot of money, a foundry to cast it, or oxen to haul it. It didn’t require a tower. When Amherst no longer blew its conk, I’d like to think that someone noted the passing of an era and saved it because of what it symbolized. Just as likely, the last person to use it placed in on a shelf in a back room and a descendant found it and preserved it because it represented the history of East Hadley, the district of Amherst, and later the town of Amherst. The Historical Society possesses that conch. We gather tonight to honor the spirit of the conch and to honor those who have worked to tell us our community’s history. After the presentations, we invite you to join us for a reception at the History Museum where you may see the original conch shell. You may not blow it. Nor would you want to since it sports 200 years of dirt and grime. Otherwise known as patina.”

Conch Shell

Arthur F. Kinney/Conch Shell Award Recipients

2024 Amherst College
2023  Cyndi Harbeson
2022  Deborah Bridges and Anika Lopes, for Dudley S Bridges, Sr
2021  No award
2020  Dr. Maurianne Adams
2019  Julie Dobrow
2018  Jonathan Tucker.
2017  James J. Wald and Jane H. Wald
2016  The Garden Club of Amherst- 100th anniversary
2015  No award given, no program held
2014  Ed Wilfert
2013  Patricia G. Holland and William N. Robinson
2012  Robert H. Romer
2011  Sheila Rainford and Ruth Owen Jones
2010  Town of Amherst 250th Celebration Committee
2009  James Avery Smith
2008  Douglas C. Wilson
2007  Polly Longsworth

President’s Award Recipients

2018 Jackie Tuthill
2017 The Grace Church
2014 Ellen O. Melley
2010 Elizabeth M. Sharpe

Mabel Loomis Todd lectures

2024 “Mabel Loomis Todd and the New England Transcendentalists” by Dr Julie Dobrow
A Historical Society for the 21st Century” by Catherine Allgor, Massachusetts Hisorical Society
2022  Dudley Bridges, Sr, and Amherst’s Civil War Tablets
2021  “The Pedigree of Honey”: Class, Colony, and Politics in Amherst’s “Bee Hive” and Emily Dickinson’s Bee Poems by Claire Elizabeth Nashar
2020  The History of the North Prospect Lincoln Sunset Historic District by Marla Miller
2019  Insights into Early Colonial Mores and Behavior, by Robert Cox
2018  “Reigning Fashion: Victoria and the Queen, 1837 – 1901” by Lynne Zacek Bassett
2017  “The Accidental Activist:  Mabel Loomis Todd’s Civic Impulses and Civic Engagement” by Julie Dobrow
2016  A History of Smallpox in Colonial America by Dr. Kevin Sweeney
2015   No program
2014  Forgotten Drinks of Colonial New England by Corin Hirsch
2013  Black Soldiers, White Officers: Amherst in the Civil War by Robert Romer
2012  Early Collections of the Amherst Historical Society by Marianne Curling
2011  Architecture of Dickinson’s Historic District by Phil Shaver
2010  The 1897 Pratt Health College Hospital by Paul Berman
2009  The Town of Amherst’s 250th Anniversary by Elizabeth Sharpe
2008  Mrs. Todd and Mrs. Dickinson by Polly Longsworth
2007  A History of Stage and Screen in Downtown Amherst by Dan Lombardo

Lifetime Achievement Award

2013 Allen and Sylvia Torrey
2008 Stephen P. Puffer, Jr.

Cina Cowls lecture