Tavern on Time
Eleven-year-old Benjamin Hoyt hid in a corn crib and survived the Deerfield, Massachusetts, “Indian” Massacre of 1704 that left other family members either killed or taken prisoner. Nine years later, after migrating south to Connecticut, Hoyt built a rude cabin that would ultimately become his homestead on Lott II, Main Street in Ridgefield—now the Keeler Tavern Museum property.
So begins the 300-year saga of the Keeler Tavern and the lives that are woven throughout its history via artifacts and stories that were left behind. With a town-wide birthday party planned for June 15 and other activities already underway, the 300th anniversary of Keeler Tavern becomes an opportunity to highlight the changes happening there.
Keeler Tavern, a living museum since 1966, is updating its Colonial image to include a three-century story, with a cast of characters ranging from wealthy elite to innkeepers, postmasters, hotel proprietors, and farmers. The stories are as varied as the times they depict. From the first one-room building with it’s “Indian”-proof door built by Benjamin Hoyt to the elegant gardens and outer buildings added by American architect Cass Gilbert, the town’s oldest gathering place represents the evolution of America—socially, politically, and economically.
“No one has the stories we do. It is up to us to tell them and get people excited,” says executive director Hildi Grob. “It is important to have a discussion about history and how it is relative to today.” Grob adds that the yearlong celebration of special events and intellectual programs will highlight the museum’s transformation.
The rich stories are being told by reenactments of former residents like Anna Keeler, distant relative of Benjamin Hoyt. Miss Keeler, an innkeeper at what was formerly the Keeler Hotel, could be called one of Ridgefield’s first feminists. She found a way to circumvent a law that did not allow married women to inherit property by putting off her nuptials until she could convince her brothers to deed the hotel to her. She married her paramour, Abijah Resseguie, in 1829, and the couple renamed the property the Resseguie Hotel.
Among the artifacts preserved at the Keeler Tavern are the journals of the Resseguies’ daughter and only child, Anna Marie. Her prolific writings mark historic events such as the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination, as well as day-to-day insight into reading circles, teas, and gossip. She writes about the town-wide mourning of Eddie Pickett, a native son mortally wounded at Gettysburg, and how such events affected her, her family, and friends. Like her mother, Miss Resseguie was a woman who was unafraid to show her spunk. She hired a free black woman, Phillis Dubois, whom she called her “sister,” to help in the hotel. Dubois would ultimately be buried with her mistress in the family plot.
One of the most affluent periods in Ridgefield’s history occurred after a railroad spur reached the town. With it came wealthy financiers, industrialists, and an influx of artists like J. Alden Weir, Frederic Remington, opera singer Geraldine Farrar, and playwright Eugene O’Neill.
Ridgefield’s Gilded Age also brought architect Cass Gilbert, who the residence on Lott II and dubbed his new home the Cannonball House for the remnant of Revolutionary War ordnance still embedded in one of its walls. Gilbert not only transformed the property into a summer retreat for his family and friends, he also presented the town with the landmark fountain that commands the corner of Main Street and West Lane. Its image is also preserved on the town seal. Gilbert created it so his wife, Julia, might enjoy it from her bedroom window.
Telling entertaining stories and displaying artifacts are only part of the mission that Keeler Tavern has adopted, says Grob. A plan to implement relevant programs that encourage an understanding of history and how it influences us today is already in place. For example, one of the planned programs will shed light on the second amendment and the current debate about gun control. “If we are making history, let’s make sure we are intelligent about it,” Grob adds.
Those who miss the June 15 birthday will have multiple chances to celebrate the museum’s continuously evolving opportunities to discuss history and how it impacts lives today, says Grob.