Asked what her favorite part of the program is, Eloise Clark—Director of the Hooper Institute, joyfully responded, “I am the director and I create all of this. I love to implement and organize programs. Seeing happy kids’ faces of course is always wonderful!”
The Hooper Institute graces the top of a beautiful hill with diverse terrain—a golf course across the street, a pond just down the hill, and behind the building a community garden on what was once a sheep pasture. The building itself has a woodworking shop set up downstairs and the main room on the second floor is decorated with farm tools and historical accounts of farming and gardening in the region.
The community garden was full of bright green vegetation this growing season and it was evident that the beds are well maintained and in good hands. The water collection system that pumps water from the pond down the hill certainly captures ones attention. At the primary school, sunflowers were towering overhead, the cherry tomatoes were slowly ripening and the Japanese beetles had taken a liking to the bolting asparagus plants. The smell of old wood wafted through the air, cultivating historical images of farming as the Institute comes alive. It truly is a unique site.
The Hooper brothers of Walpole, George and Frederick, were responsible for sowing the seeds of the Hooper Institute
in the late 1920s. Their mission was to provide the town of Walpole, exclusively, with programs that focused on agriculture, forestry, botany, soils, and environmental conservation, providing historical background to the Connecticut River Valley, as well as the natural resources that sustain it. Essentially, they wanted to make connections between local agricultural history, the tools used, and the people who worked the land.
The building that houses the Institute was built in 1930, serving as Walpole’s Agricultural School. The agriculture vocation program was later moved to the high school in the 1960s.
David Blair, the Institute’s director in the 1970s and sole employee, started the community gardens behind the Institute, as well as in North Walpole. Both gardens were a big hit during the 1970s gas embargo, which nurtured a time of self-sufficiency. Eventually, by the 1990s the primary school also had a garden.
Presently, Eloise Clark is the Executive Director of the Institute (she started in 1977). Eloise splits her duties with Rebecca Whippie and both oversee the vitality of the community gardens and programs.
Up and Running
As Eloise elaborates, “The Hooper Institute is unique in and of itself. We go into the classroom to do lessons for a whole year, which is about 40 lessons per school year.”
This is the primary way the Institute serves the youth of Walpole at no charge. Funds donated by the Hooper brothers, as well as from ongoing donations, fully fund the programs.
Students learn a great deal about agriculture, wildlife, soils, and other aspects of environmental science through hands-on activities such as planting seeds, weeding, watering, mulching, and harvesting. The children begin to develop a reverence for plants and their life cycles, as well as the many birds, insects, and mammals that interact with the garden throughout the year.
The Institute also runs a summer work program and a variety of summer camp programs. High school students work on the farm of their choice in Walpole. In return, the students get paid through the Institute and acquire hands-on skills, while local farmers gain free labor.
The summer camp programs offer enriching experiences for youth of all ages. In 2008, more than ninety young people explored the grounds of the Hooper Institute, hiked and biked to spectacular natural areas, visited local farms, and tried their hands at woodworking in the Institute’s woodshop.
Hurdles to Overcome
The Institute is very fortunate to have the vision and financial backing of the Hooper brothers. However, they are currently drawing the maximum amount of funds from the trust. Fortunately, Eloise and Rebecca are creative and are seeking grant opportunities elsewhere. They always accept free-will donations to offset program costs.