Recreation of the June 5, 2023 article in the Wilton Bulletin, where Francis Clerc Ogden actually contributed to as the "Original Old Timer".
WILTON — The remarkable history of America's apostle for deaf communication — and his unique connection to the town — are highlighted in one of two new exhibits at the Wilton Historical Society.
"The Lives of Laurent Clerc and Francis Clerc Ogden" looks at the history of the pioneer attributed with consolidating and ultimately creating what would become American Sign Language, as well as co-founding the first U.S. school for those who are deaf in Hartford in 1817 — Laurent Clerc. "He was this incredible role model," said Laurent Clerc Holt, a descendant who helped to organize the new exhibition. Holt is working to bring more attention to the man whom the deaf community views as its veritable savior in making communication and education possible for the hearing-impaired community. The American School for the Deaf, which Clerc co-founded with Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, was the co-producer of the new exhibit.
Clerc, who is known as "the apostle of the deaf in America" and was believed deaf from birth, was the great-grandfather of Ogden, co-founder of the Wilton Historical Society in 1938. Ogden was a town activist and historian, and a participant in many local initiatives during his 70 years in town. On Friday, May 19, a reception was held at the Wilton Historical Society celebrating the opening of the exhibit, along with another new exhibit entitled "The Town Book: E. Boyd Smith's 20th Century Wilton." Smith was a children's book author and illustrator whose work channeled and captured many sites and scenes throughout Wilton during the first half of the 20th century. Amy Broderick, an ASL teacher at Wilton High School, was on hand for the reception, which included many students and people affiliated with the American School for the Deaf, which is now in West Hartford.
"Most people don't know about him, (but) Lauren Clerc is who you learn about," she said. "To have that connection right here in our town is a little unbelievable, but it's really cool." Clerc was born in France and educated at the Institution Nationale des Sourds-Muets in Paris, which at the time was at the cutting edge of instruction for people who were deaf. When he was 30 and a teacher at that very school, Clerc traveled to England to lecture and met Gallaudet, a Yale University graduate. The two would later found what ultimately became the American School for the Deaf on April 15, 1817, in Hartford.
"There were 30 schools across the nation that were connected to his school," Holt said, explaining that the first generation of students who became educated in Hartford ultimately opened schools and presented learning opportunities for hearing-impaired people nationwide. Clerc is also largely credited with consolidating various sign languages, including Native American, Martha's Vineyard, various private methods, and the sign language used in France to form what became ASL.
"Sign language allowed the deaf to have a language and basically integrate themselves more into the world," said Holt, Clerc's great-great-great-great-grandson. Ogden was an author and noted town historian, writing many articles for the Wilton Bulletin up until his death in 1971. Having amassed many documents on Clerc, he passed them on to the Wilton Historical Society. There, they remained in its large archives for 60 years until they were recently uncovered by Holt, with the help of Nick Foster, director of the historical society, and Julie Hughes, the archivist at Wilton Library. "It was an unexpected opportunity to partner with a great organization," Foster said. The documents are now part of the permanent Clerc Collection at the Cogswell Heritage House, the museum affiliated with the American School for the Deaf.
"I think the joining of the two museums is wonderful," said Jean Linderman, the Cogswell's curator, who attended the reception. "It's a wonderful collaboration of two different histories that had a lot in common and never knew each other." Holt explained that the modern deaf community is very passionate about its history. "They revere these kind of original folks who came and brought the sign language over," he said. "People hadn't seen a deaf man that was like him," Holt said of Clerc. At the time, many people's prejudiced assumption was that deaf people couldn't be educated or taught to communicate at all. "He was an incredible role model," Holt said, noting that his group, Societe Laurent Clerc, is also working to have a U.S. stamp made in his descendant's honor.
For more information, visit wiltonhistorical.org. The Wilton Historical Society is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays to Saturdays. Both exhibits run through Oct. 7. Seasonal exhibitions are free for members and children under age 18 and $10 for nonmember adults.