Exploring the Last Green Valley: Optical Heritage Museum keeps history of American Optical alive

Exploring the Last Green Valley: Optical Heritage Museum keeps history of American Optical alive

The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor was and is home to many innovative and important companies. Beginning in the 19th century, with advances in waterpower technology and the birth of the Industrial Revolution, our rivers helped to power the new nation.

By the dawn of the 20th century, our region’s mill towns were burgeoning with opportunity and prosperity.

One of the most significant companies in the National Heritage Corridor, with a worldwide impact and reputation, was the American Optical Company of Southbridge, Mass.

I have a special fondness for this company that I first came to know when I moved to the region in 1978.

I arrived in Sturbridge, Mass. in November 1978 to work at Old Sturbridge Village. As I explored the history and development of my new employer, I learned that OSV was started by the Wells family, the founders of American Optical.

As I got to know my fellow employees, I discovered that many had worked for or had family connections to American Optical.

My work at OSV led me to appreciate the strong linkage the company had to the region. I was also very fortunate to establish lasting friendships with members of the Wells family who had maintained connections to OSV through the years.

To learn the American Optical Company’s history is to understand the worldwide and critically important impact this regional, national, and international company had on the lives of millions and millions of people.

“American Optical was founded in Southbridge in 1833 and grew to be the largest manufacturer of eyeglasses in the world,” according to Dick Whitney, executive director or the Optical Heritage Museum. “Its growth and prominence led to important developments in ophthalmic lenses (prescription lenses), frames, safety (protective) eyewear, fiber optics, instruments such as microscopes and vision testing devices, medical devices including heart pacemaker and defibrillator, Todd-AO movie projection which was used in filming the movie Oklahoma, and the founding of Old Sturbridge Village by the Wells family which owned AO originally.

“In recent years, American Optical businesses were sold off and merged with other companies. The contributions that American Optical provided in these fields, while not often recognized, still resonate today.”

I met Whitney years ago and soon discovered he was an employee of American Optical with a passion for preserving and sharing the company’s history and development of their many vision and optical-related innovations.

Over the years, Whitney has worked tirelessly to establish the Optical Heritage Museum. Based primarily on collections from the American Optical Company, the museum was originally founded in 1983 in celebration of the 150th anniversary of American Optical Company.

I remember visiting the Optical Heritage Museum with friends from Old Sturbridge Village when the museum was located on the first floor of the American Optical main plant building. We found it to be a fascinating collection and display of optical history.

With the downsizing and subsequent demolition of the main plant in 2000 to make way for the Southbridge Hotel and Conference Center, the collections were moved to storage at other locations on the American Optical Company campus.

Over the next decade, many volunteers worked toward a long-term goal of finding a home for the collection and the reestablishment of a museum. Business plans were drafted to promote funding a permanent location, fundraising events were held, and items from the collection were put on display at business locations in Southbridge.

In 2007, local businessman and developer/renovator Gabrielle McCarthy agreed to store the collections at no charge in the attic of an old church on Main Street that he had acquired for renovation.

During this time, others came forward to help digitize documents and work on portable displays.

Whitney, along with Donna Silverberg, Diane Matuck, and Jeanine McElroy established a virtual home to bring information about the collection to the world.

By 2013, the hard work of Whitney and the volunteers resulted in sponsorship and financial support by Zeiss and the museum became a reality.

Today the museum is located at 12 Crane St., and thanks to the financial support from Zeiss, along with their marketing, website and public relations support, the museum has a global reach as a source of information on optical history.

“The Optical Heritage Museum, located in Southbridge, contains one of the largest collections of eyeglass industry artifacts, from antique spectacles and frames to the latest optical diagnostic equipment,” Whitney says.

“I am grateful to Zeiss and their sponsorship of the museum, the many volunteers who have worked for years to bring this functioning museum to fruition, and to everyone who has donated to make the Optical Heritage Museum a reality. Items which had been in storage for many years can now be shared with the public once again.

“The museum is a showcase of what transpired in America during the Industrial Revolution and beyond. Old Sturbridge Village, founded by the Wells family of AO, showcases a time in the 1830s-40s, while this museum highlights what happened in the decades which followed.”

To learn more about this unique and special museum here in The Last Green Valley, I suggest you check out the website at opticalheritagemuseum.com.

The museum is located at 12 Crane St. in Southbridge and is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, or by appointment.

You may also be interested in attending an event at the museum from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Feb. 25, when The Last Green Valley’s Quarterly Historical Collaboration program visits the museum.

Information on this program can be found on the TLGV website at thelastgreenvalley.org by clicking on the Learn and Protect tab, then the Historical and Cultural Resources tab.

Please remember to RSVP to Marcy Dawley at marcy@tlgv.org or (860) 774-3300. We hope to see you then.

We live in a beautiful region full of unique and informative historical resources. I hope you’ll join us and organizations like the Optical Heritage Museum to care for it, enjoy it, and pass it on.

Bill Reid is chief ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor and has lived in the region for 35 years. He can be reached at bill@tlgv.org.

The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the preceding article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.