Exhibit shows how Keeler Tavern linked Colonial Ridgefield to world — and its complicity in slavery

RIDGEFIELD — A new exhibit highlights how a 250-year-old tavern connected Colonial-era Ridgefield to the wider world — and doesn't shy away from exploring the darker side of the site's history. 

Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center has invited visitors to explore Colonial-era Ridgefield through the museum’s newest exhibit, which celebrates the 250 anniversary of the opening of Timothy Keeler's tavern and general store. 

Located in the Gilbert Wing of the historic tavern, the rotating exhibit is divided into two parts: one part focuses on the tavern and its visitors while the other part focuses on Keeler’s general store. Chief Curator Catherine Prescott credited Keeler Tavern Education Director Melissa Houston for developing activities in the exhibit to engage visitors of all ages and reinforce the interconnectedness of people through the lens of Keeler’s tavern and store.

“This exhibit is really talking about how the tavern and the general store connected the people of Ridgefield to the broader region and also the world,” Prescott said, “because I think for a long time there had been this romantic notion of Colonial people and the Colonial Era with people being very self-sufficient and inward-looking. We just wanted to use this opportunity to talk about how connected the world really was through global trade, the global economy and travel.”

Prescott said taverns were a large component for travel as places “where people stopped, stayed and carried news through,” and that Keeler Tavern’s exhibit focuses on the tavern’s role as a gateway between Ridgefield and the rest of New England.

However, Prescott said Keeler Tavern also wanted to include in the exhibit how Keeler’s participation in the international economy was actively complicit in slavery and the international slave trade.

“We don’t want to ignore the fact that a lot of the goods that were sold in the store were produced by enslaved people,” she said. “Timothy sold things like chocolate and tea and rum — those were all produced by enslaved people so we wanted to make sure to include that aspect of it.”

Katie Burton, head of communications and grants, said the museum felt it was important for the exhibit, “Cheers to 250 Years! A History of T. Keeler’s Inn, Tavern and Store,” to reflect that.  

“We wanted to connect it internationally, not just in 'good ways,'" she said. “We still get a lot of people who are surprised that there was slavery in Connecticut and slavery in Ridgefield.”

Inside the exhibit 

During the American Revolution, the property at 152 Main St. (where Keeler Tavern now sits) was owned by Timothy Keeler, who operated a tavern and a general store on the site. Prescott said the year 2022 is the 250th anniversary of the earliest possible opening of the tavern and store. As luck would have it, she said the exhibit opened on Oct. 22 — the date of the very first entry in Keeler’s ledger from 250 years ago.

“I hope that people are surprised but also delighted by how connected Ridgefield was to a global economy," Prescott said. "I really wanted to stress Timothy is this center: he brings all these goods in from all over the world and then the people of Ridgefield are buying from him.”

A few of Keeler’s ledgers are propped on display, which Prescott said can tell people “not only about Timothy but about the people coming into the store.” An array of Keeler’s best-selling items — including chocolate, molasses and sugar in cone form — are also on display, as are a few items that might have been sold at the general store, such as a nutmeg grinder, a China tea set, gin and wine bottles, and ginger jars.

Visitors can raise a toast to the tavern’s anniversary with reproductive pewter mugs and take a photo underneath a reproduction of the Keeler Tavern sign; the original sign hangs in the Keeler Tavern Museum. They might also try a hand at a game of Skittles, a Colonial-era version of Pinball.

On one wall of the exhibit, visitors are invited to identify where in the world goods like rum, tea and sugar were sourced and brought to Ridgefield. At the “Seven Seas Sashay” station, visitors can create their own spice mix from seven different spices and herbs sourced from different parts of the world and used in 18th century recipes.

The exhibit will run through Dec. 31. Visitors can receive access to the exhibit with regular site admission; exhibit-only passes are also available. Tickets can be purchased at the Keeler Tavern Museum & History Center website.

“I really do hope that visitors, when they leave here, have a real sense of how a place like Keeler Tavern acted as this connection for the people of Ridgefield,” Prescott said.