Wilton boasts a vast history, from stories of colonial farmers to Olympians to entrepreneurs, and countless individuals contribute to what makes the town so interesting. But who keeps track of all this history?
Julie Hughes works as a researcher, curator, and archivist at the Wilton Library/Wilton Historical Society‘s History Room, connecting people to historical resources to better understand Wilton’s history and how the town got to where it is now. Hughes has taken up the mantle forged by former town historians Carol and Bob Russell, and she’s one of Wilton’s top historians. Her passion and expertise shine through when anyone asks her about her work, and sharing that history with the Wilton community — as she does weekly in a “historygram” social media post on behalf of the Wilton Historical Society and the library — is a continuation of that focus.
GOOD Morning Wilton spoke with Hughes about how she approaches her job and why it’s an important role in Wilton.
GOOD Morning Wilton: How did you originally get interested in history?
Julie Hughes: I fell in love with history in my undergraduate days and became a history major, and I went to grad school for history at the University of Texas at Austin. When I graduated from there, I got a job at Vassar College as an assistant professor, and I taught history there in the department for about six or seven years.
When I did not get tenure, it was a shock to the system. I didn’t know what to do with myself, but my husband, who had been an astronomy Ph.D. a couple of years earlier had left academia for industry.
GMW: How did you end up in your current role and in Wilton?
Hughes: My husband got a job at ASML in Wilton, so we moved to a rental house and stayed there for a year. And then we bought a house in Newtown. I was really curious about the house we were living in — I’m from Seattle and the oldest thing we had there is from 1870 or something like that. I didn’t know what a colonial house looked like on the inside and our house said it was from 1920, but it looked much older.
So, I went to the history room at the library when Carol Russell and Bob Russell were still in charge there. I asked about the history of the house and said I didn’t believe the date. And they were able to point me towards the records on the house. Turns out, it was built in about 1820.
Once she knew that I was a history Ph.D., Carol asked if I wanted to volunteer and I said yes. That’s how I started at the history room. In 2018, it became a paid position.
GMW: What kind of work does your job entail?
Hughes: I help connect people to history. Today, for instance, was pretty busy. I got a call from a fellow in Arizona. Apparently, his father was born in Wilton in 1934, and technically, he was stillborn. He was not breathing and he didn’t breathe for 17 minutes. And the doctors gave up, but this one nurse kept working on him, and after 17 minutes, he started breathing. Apparently, there was a newspaper article about it that his son has never seen. His father knew about the article, but he didn’t have it either.
So the guy was calling from Arizona hoping to find this record of his father’s pretty much miraculous survival. And he thought it would be in the Wilton Bulletin. Well, the Wilton Bulletin started publishing in 1937, so it can’t be there. But it could be in the Norwalk Hour. It might be in the Ridgefield Press. It could be in the Danbury News-Times. I’m gonna be back for him this evening.
The other thing I do in the history room is preservation work. We’re trying to get a lot of stuff that is on old media converted into something we can actually use. I’m hoping to make it publicly available either through the library or the Historical Society’s YouTube, so that if somebody feels like watching a Memorial Day Parade from the ’70s, they can do it.
GMW: What’s your favorite part of your job?
Hughes: I actually get things to make a difference for people, at least momentarily. I have no illusion that it lasts very long, but that people seem to care about these things that you can find about their past and their family’s past and that it makes them feel a little more centered for a moment.
GMW: What’s the hardest part of your job?
Hughes: I can get stuck in the details, but that’s really good for this sort of archival work and for history work. I can get so invested and so focused on what I’m working on, but it becomes a great advantage for our job. It’s a bad thing for anybody who tries to talk because I immediately get terrified. And I can feel very bad.
GMW: What’s your life like outside of your work as an archivist?
Hughes: We’ve got the cats, Lu and Sam. The house that my husband and I live in was built about 1800 to 1820, something like that. And we have a barn that’s the same age. I recently took out all the windows in the barn, took out all the glass panes, and cleaned everything up. It was a big process. I like trying to do projects around the house to try and fix things.
GMW: What’s your favorite thing about Wilton?
Hughes: It’s strange that people in the Northeast have this reputation that they’re aggressive, right? Weirdly moving here, I’ve found people to be just much more welcoming of me as a human being than any place I’ve been. I lived in Texas for a decade and I just never felt at all integrated with the local community. And even where I grew up, I knew all my friends and stuff, but it just didn’t feel that organic.
But here in, in Wilton, I really manage that. I think part of it may not be so much the place but what I’m doing, because I’m doing this public service type thing where I’m interacting with the community through its interest in its own history. So, I feel like I belong here more than I should manage to in most places.
GMW: Anything else you’d like to add?
Hughes: Shoutout to my husband, the reason I get to do pretty much exactly what I wanted to do. He’s wonderful and my work here is very, very fulfilling. I feel very useful.
Anyone with a question about their family history in Wilton or a historical research query can contact Hughes at Wilton Library via email or by calling 203.762.6330. The history room is staffed on Wednesdays from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. and Thursdays from 1-4 p.m.
Correction: The article has been updated to clarify that the history room is part of both Wilton Library and the Wilton Historical Society, and that Hughes lives in Newtown.