The History Centers tells the history of Austerlitz in a series of six wall displays covering successive periods of time. The first explores the initial settlement of the area from the 1750s to 1799, while the last covers the twenty-first century to date. Each wall lists the notable events during its era, and includes maps, artifacts or other visual material pertaining to the era.
A dramatic centerpiece in the room is the restored 1915 chemical fire engine, courtesy of the Spencertown Fire Company, which had it beautifully restored a few years ago. The old town hall was in fact built in 1915 principally to house this very equipment, the first fire-fighting apparatus in the town, acquired after the 1914 fire that destroyed the general store and nearly consumed much of the village.
Another important display consists of two sets of portraits of Sherman and Lydia Griswold, donated by the James Rundell family. Sherman Griswold was by far the largest landowner in the town at the height of the sheep boom in the 1830s. The paintings occupy both sides of wooden boards. On one side are portraits of the Griswolds by Ira Chaffee Goodell, a prolific itinerant artist who visited Spencertown in the early 1830s. On the other side are the Griswolds as painted a few years later, in quite a different style, probably by James E. Johnson. Johnson’s iconic painting Salting Sheep (c. 1836), showing the Griswolds in their Sunday best feeding salt to their sheep, with their house and barns on Beale Road in the background, is present in the form of a handsome reproduction donated by the Columbia County Historical Society, which holds the original.
The Center also displays the original Proprietors Book of the Spencers Town proprietorship, a Massachusetts-chartered entity which functioned from 1757 until the area was determined to be part of New York in the early 1770s. The book records the meetings of the proprietors, and its contents have been transcribed and annotated.
A wall display entitled Austerlitz Archeology presents artifacts recovered in the town soil by Max Cane. His findings, from a site on Dugway Road, feature coins and other objects dating as far back as the earliest settlement of the area in the mid-1700s.
The inaugural temporary exhibits in the Center present the histories of the Austerlitz and Spencertown fire companies. Significant events in their histories are presented on boards, and the exhibits also include historic photographs and old firefighting equipment.
The History Center, which also includes the historian’s office and files, is located next to the new Austerlitz town hall, the 1836 Spencertown Methodist Church which was acquired and repurposed with funding from the Ellsworth Kelly Foundation.