On a brisk Tuesday evening in November of 1923, six members of the Chatham Ladies' Reading Club gathered to discuss the need for an organization in town that would preserve the records and objects related to the history of Chatham . Alarmed by the rate at which antique dealers were buying up such items and aware that the seafaring way of life that had been so much a part of the culture of the town was slowly vanishing, they believed it was urgent to preserve all that they could of its history.
Within a few weeks the small founding group had almost tripled in number, and they met again to formalize the organization and approve the following resolution: The name of this organization shall be The Chatham Historical Society [and] the object of this society shall be to receive and hold articles and documents of historical interest of Chatham and vicinity; to provide and maintain a suitable place for their preservation and exhibition; and to arrange for lectures and publications on historic and kindred subjects.
In the 80 intervening years, the mission of the Society has changed little, but the Society's collections, activities, and involvement with the community have expanded greatly.
Three years after its founding, the members of the Society purchased a gambrel roof house that had been built in 1752 by Captain Joseph Atwood and had remained largely unaltered. Before long, however, the collection had outgrown this original Atwood House & Museum , and expansion began in 1949 with the addition of the Joseph Lincoln Room. In subsequent years the Durand wing, the Nickerson wing, the Mural Barn, and the Portrait Gallery were added to provide galleries necessary to house the constantly growing collection.
A major expansion and renovation of the entire museum was completed in 2005, along with restoration and relocation of Chatham’s famous twin light lantern house and the creation of a gallows for the museum’s collection of school bells. A large gallery was added to house an entirely new exhibit on the history of commercial fishing in the area, another gallery added now displays the antique tool collection, and a third new gallery now displays information, illustrations and memorabilia of the life and works of famed local author Joseph Crosby Lincoln. Previously, the Mural Barn was accessible only from the outside, but now a door from the Reception area leads directly into it. The new Reception area not only welcomes visitors, but also contains a Gift Shop that is stocked with unique gifts, books and fashion accessories that relate to the museum’s collections.
On the lower level, space was added for a guides’ lounge, a spacious library and board room, the Archival Center, staff offices, a research room and the antique clothing and textiles preservation room.
The entire museum is now air-conditioned and handicapped accessible.