Historical society wins three grants

Wilton Historical Society is planning a permanent exhibition that will take visitors to the museum complex on Danbury Road from Wilton’s pre-Colonial beginnings to the present by telling the stories of influential area families. The exhibition, Connecticut’s History, Wilton’s Story, is being developed with a $125,000 Good to Great grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development.

The society is also pursuing several other endeavors with two additional grants that were announced last week by Executive Director Leslie Nolan. An $8,000 grant from the Elizabeth Raymond Ambler Trust of Wilton will support two educational programs, and a grant of $1,500 from Connecticut Humanities (CTH) will partially fund the creation of a new website.

The new exhibition will be a two-year project that will transform the foyer area of the 1740 Betts House plus one of the existing historic kitchen spaces. “When you arrive at the museum complex, there is nothing to provide context for the society’s historic buildings and location, or for a sense of the cultural depth of the town” Nolan said.

An interactive timeline will allow visitors to see historic and cultural connections to other parts of Wilton and the state. “House museum displays are moving away from static period rooms, which do not interest many visitors,” Nolan said. “People respond to history presented in a way that is engaging and memorable — in stories.”

The timeline will allow a visitor to learn, for instance, that the late, great jazz musician Dave Brubeck; folk singer Lead Belly; American Impressionist painter J. Alden Weir; Johnny Gruelle, author and illustrator of the Raggedy Ann books; sculptor Solon Borglum, the Silvermine School and Knockers Club; and sculptor Gifford Proctor had Wilton and area roots and connections. “The beauty of an exhibit like this is that it is a jumping off point for visitors to continue on to see other Wilton attractions, such as Weir Farm and Ambler Farm,” Nolan said.

The $125,000 state grant requires a 25% matching contribution, which the historical society has already raised, bringing the total funds available for the project to $156,250.

Hands-on history

The two projects being supported by the Elizabeth Raymond Ambler Trust teach history through experiential learning.

The Young Yankees 4th Grade Colonial History Program is an ongoing partnership with Wilton schools for approximately 20 years. Over the course of five days earlier this month, almost 500 fourth-graders in public and private schools as well as home-schooled students visited the museum complex for a hands-on history day, learning about weaving, spinning, hearth cooking, spoke-shaving, barn raising, the blacksmith shop, trading and bartering, and life in the militia. Last year a new experience was added with a Native American Narragansett descendant, who taught about local history and material culture in a large wigwam.

Barn, Blacksmith & BBQ offered a similar experience to the general public with many of the same historical re-enactors on May 21.

The Connecticut Humanities Grant will allow the society to redesign and replace its website, train staff to maintain and update it, and introduce new features. It is expected to launch in September. The new website, which is being designed by Brown Bear Creative, will provide intellectual as well as physical access to the society’s resources.

Information: wiltonhistorical.org