Keeler Tavern Museum declares victory on capital campaign

The Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center’s capital campaign team: Hildi Grob, Joel Third, Kam Daughters, Hilary Micalizzi, and Nick D’Onofrio.

Winning feels good.

That’s why anyone traversing Ridgefield’s historic Main Street recently has noticed exuberance all around the Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center. The museum’s capital campaign team started its preparation for a campus expansion in November 2016 by acquiring the property at 152 Main Street and, over the last three years, executed that plan by receiving pledges, grants, and individuals gifts that transformed the brick building into a new visiting center — the first stop for its several thousand annual visitors.

Now it’s time to celebrate the payoff — $1.5 million, to be exact — of all that hard work.

“Reaching our initial fundraising goal is not quite as momentous as surviving British cannon fire 242 years ago,” said Hilary Micalizzi, president of the museum’s board of directors, referring to the upcoming anniversary of the April 27, 1777, skirmish that permanently lodged a cannonball in the historic tavern’s northeast corner post.

“But it is an extraordinary milestone — one that speaks volumes about our donors’ generosity and their confidence in our future,” she added.

The capital campaign’s “victory” coincides with this weekend’s Battle of Ridgefield anniversary which Keeler Tavern is commemorating with free museum tours from 1 to 4 p.m. Saturday, April 27. On the tours, local historian George Hancock will talk about the story behind the famous cannonball.

There will also be a lecture on the British invasion of Connecticut at the Ridegfield Library at 11 a.m. that same day, and a Battle of Ridgefield walking tour that runs from 2-3:30 p.m.

The battle anniversary concludes with self-guided tours through Olde Town Cemetery from 2 to 4 p.m.

“We want to acknowledge the people who have lived here and who are buried here,” said Hildi Grob, the museum’s executive director and the capital campaign manager.

“To steal Charlie Pankenier’s line, this is the most historic site from Hartford to the Hudson,” added Joel Third, who served as campaign cabinet co-chair along with Micalizzi and Kam Daughters. “We want to keep mining that history and make it new for the people that come through our doors …

“What I think the visitor’s center will allow us to do is engage with our audience to create a new range of stories and enhance the visitor experience.”

Summer fun

There will be a grand opening for the new visitor center from noon to 3 p.m. on July 4 — the same date as the museum’s annual Watermelon Fest.

The free event will feature a dramatic reading of the Declaration of Independence and the ceremonial slicing of a watermelon. There will also be a dunk tank where kids can sink King George, live music on the terrace, and an art show in the Cass Gilbert Carriage Barn. If that’s not enough to put visitors in a nice, summer mood, there will be free watermelon, lawn games, craft-making tables, and food trucks.

“The watermelon comes from an old Keeler Tavern tradition,” Grob said. “When we first opened in 1966, we gave away free watermelons.”

And for those who want a tour, the museum will have its first floor open for visitors to hear the story about the cannonball. They’re also welcome to visit the museum’s gift shop.

Of course, the main attraction will be the new visitor center.

A grant from Ridgefield Thrift Shop helped cover the cost of the welcome center’s reception desk.

During the opening ceremony, visitors can also watch an orientation video to understand some of the site’s fascinating stories while seated on a bench built by an Eagle Scout (video equipment underwritten by the Ridgefield Women’s Club and Rotary Club). There will also be a presentation on the museum’s future collections storage and research facility on the lower level, which is being made possible through grants from the Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD).

In addition to grants, a trio of donors — Anita and Nick Donofrio, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Foundation, and the Anne S. Richardson Fund — pledged $100,000 or more to the capital campaign. 

“This project is as deserving as any I’ve ever seen,” said Nick Donofrio, honorary chair of the campaign.

Donofrio, who has been involved in philanthropic endeavors large and small all over the country, called the acquisition of 152 Main Street a “gutsy move.”

“The museum’s leadership has really made history with this project, and as a community — as a region, in fact — we’re going to benefit from it for decades to come,” he said.

Keeler Kids

The opening ceremony on July 4 will kick start a busy month for the history center. The first session of Keeler Kids runs July 15 to July 19 from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and will cover life in early Ridgefield for students in first through third grade.

“Ridgefield’s first post office opened in the Keeler Tavern in 1792,” Grob said.

“Before telegraph and telephone, before text message and email, the postal service carried news throughout the 13 colonies and early United States,” the museum’s website adds. “Campers will join Timothy Keeler as deputy postmasters along the post road, establishing their post offices and ensuring the news reaches its final destination.”

The following week, students in fourth through sixth grade will go to camp to learn about cabinets of curiosities — the first American museums.

“A predecessor to museums, cabinets of curiosities reached the height of their popularity in the 19thCentury when everyone from princes to armchair scientists proudly showed off their collections. From natural specimens to man-made objects, from ancient artifacts to the newest technological wonders, everything was collected. Over the week, campers will collect and curate objects to create their own cabinet of curiosities.”

Keeler Kids final session for students in the seventh grade and up will run from July 29 to Aug. 2. It will cover vintage fashion “based on historic costumes from the 19th century in our collection,” according to Grob.

‘Beyond the cannonball’

The hands-on, educational activities for kids mirror what the history center’s leadership would like to offer its adult visitors when they come to the 3.8-acre campus with 350 feet of Main Street frontage.

“There’s a whole 300 years of history here that people don’t realize — our history goes way beyond the cannonball and the tavern, but it’s hard to get away from that colonial history sometimes,” said Third. “There’s the Founding Era, the Civil War, and the Gilded Age. Of course, we don’t mind if people come for the cannonball but we want them to stay for the other stories and to keep coming back.”

To that point, Grob believes the new visitor’s center will help the museum retain visitors and have them return for second, third and fourth visits — and possibly even more.

“We’re more than just the tavern, we’re more than just the beautiful gardens,” she said. “This place has many purposes: Business, education, gardening, research, science …. we’re developing a medical program that will cover the history of disease. …. We’re always looking for more.”

Educational programs from students continues to be the bread and butter though.

“Our school programs have tripled,” Grob said. “We’re going to have more than 2,500 student visitors this year … and some of the grants we receive go toward underwriting the cost of busing in students from underprivileged communities. …

“We’re developing curriculum here that delves into the history behind race and also the history of gender,” she added. “We want to be able to look behind and learn from the past and connect it to the present and also use it to try and think about what the future might look like. …. One of our biggest goals is developing a civics component in our educational programs and shining a light on this participatory system we call democracy.”

Finish line?

Although victory has been declared, the fundraising campaign isn’t over.

Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center will continue to solicit commitments and gifts through 2021, aiming to hit the $2-million mark.

The additional funds will enable the center to further pay down the mortgage that funded the purchase; develop new multi-media tours, exhibitions and programs that tell the expanded campus’s many stories; and create a new archive storage and workroom facility in the visitor center’s lower level.

The latter is planned to open in December.

“When we discussed fundraising at the beginning, we were adamant that we wouldn’t spend money until the funds came in and we’re still making sure we are being fiscal responsibility with our donors,” Micalizzi said.

“We are working hard to prioritize our projects to make sure we’re not exceeding past what we have raised. … We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew.”

“From the beginning, the money that came in has been used to pay off the mortgage of this building,” added Third, who has also served as board president in the past.

Micalizzi said the new visitor center, and the fundraising behind it, has been a wonderful outreach opportunity for the Keeler Tavern Museum.

“We want to partner with this community as much as possible,” she said. “We want to inform the community about what we’re doing but we also want to illicit feedback and work together with the town …

“The money that has come in, we’re putting right back into the community,” she added. “We’ve kept the money right here in Ridgefield, hiring local contractors and local businesses to help us with our development process. And we’re not done. We still have a lot more to do to transform our site.”

Tours of the Keeler Tavern are offered Wednesdays, Saturdays, and Sundays, from 1 to 4 p.m. More information can be found at keelertavernmuseum.org or Facebook.com/KeelerTavernMuseum.

“Right now, we’re only open nine hours a week,” Grob said. “Our goal is to have the capability if having the visitor center and museum open for 20 hours each week, or possibly even more. We would all like to be full time.”

“Other museums are shrinking but we’re growing,” added Micalizzi. “We’re always looking for more and we want to stay relevant. We have 300 years of history and we intend to keep it alive.”

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