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Memories in Church Photographs: Donkey Basketball and the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls records, 1824-2012, contains many thousands of words. The collection contains a vast trove of photographs from throughout the church’s history, though especially from the later half of the twentieth century. These photographs contain many hundreds of memories of the people, places, and events that make up the history of the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls.

These photographs also provide us windows into the traditions and happenings of the past. Many pieces of forgotten americana and old memories are certainly held within the collection. Among my personal favorites though are two images of youths, wearing sports uniforms and football helmets, carrying a basketball, and atop donkeys. These are two pictures of an exhibition sport known as donkey basketball.

Donkey basketball is certainly a unique piece of americana. Generally held as a special fundraising event, donkey basketball is very much what the name suggests, basketball, but the players are all riding atop donkeys. There is no dribbling, the teams are smaller, and to touch the basketball, one must be atop their steed. Donkey basketball dates all the way back to the 1930s, though the peak of donkey basketball was likely during the 1960s or 70s. Donkey basketball does still occur across America, though it’s popularity as a fundraising event has waned, especially in the 21st century due in large part over concerns for the welfare of the donkeys.

While we might not be able to identify the names of the youths atop the donkeys, nor do we know the exact date of these two photographs, it does not detract at all from the importance of these memories in photograph form. Photographs, first physical and now digital, have become one of the most important tools for people, and churches, to document daily life. Where once written word really was one of the only ways to consistently learn about daily life, photographs provide significant insights into the lives of 20th and 21st century persons. And as the donkey photographs show, these photographs can teach us about the various traditions and events once held in places which may have since become otherwise forgotten.

The mission of the CLA is to preserve the memories of the churches whose records are held at the CLA. Memories are stored in all types of records, from the memories of parish decisions kept in ledger books, to the memories of important life events found in vital records, to the memories of pastors found within church communications and sermon notes. And of course, you have the memories of church life found in photographs and scrapbooks. All these memories are precious and important, and we take these memories seriously all throughout the process of acquisition and processing. During acquisition, we try to ensure that we capture as much of a church’s documented memory as possible. And during processing, we not only ensure that descriptions make visible these memories in the finding aid, but also ensure that the materials are stored in ways that guarantee their long-term preservation. As an example, bond paper, a type of archival safe paper, is interleaved between every photograph to help ensure the long-term preservation of those photographs in the South Hadley Falls collection.

When looking through the photographs of the Congregational Church of South Hadley Falls, the two photographs of donkey basketball stood out to me, in large part because they showed me a type of event that I had no idea existed before seeing these pictures. But any one set of photographs could have captured my imagination and curiosity. And its for that very reason, that sense of discovery and excitement, that we are so honored to be a repository of these memories.

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