Keeler Tavern’s Cannonball Challenge will help make museum a ‘history center’
“The battle was raging on Main Street,” said Hildegard Grob. “The British had set up their cannons …”
Grob, executive director of the Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center, chose Friday, April 27 — the 241st anniversary of the Battle of Ridgefield — to fire the opening shot of Keeler Tavern’s “cannonball challenge” capital fund-raising campaign.
The goal is to enable the Keeler Tavern to complete renovations of its new visitors center at 152 Main Street, just north of the Keeler Tavern, and incorporate it into the museum’s campus as part of its effort to become a “regional history center,” drawing people to Ridgefield.
“People come here to see the Keeler Tavern History Center,” Grob said. “They walk down Main Street. They pop into the Aldrich. They need food …”
The Cannonball Challenge will run between two significant dates, the April 27 anniversary of the Battle of Ridgefield and July 4, date of the Declaration of Independence.
The Keeler Tavern is trying to raise $1.5 to $2 million. After close to 100 gifts from major
donors, the capital campaign is 90% of the way to the initial $1.5-million goal.
In the Cannonball Challenge the general public is being asked for donations, and the total contributed by the public between April 27 and July 4 will be matched dollar for dollar, up to $50,000, by a local philanthropist — giving the challenge the potential to raise $100,000.
The capital campaign will finance building renovations, landscape improvements, site re-imagining, and loan repayment, the Tavern says, incorporating the museum at 132 Main Street and adjacent visitors center at 152 Main Street into “a single, unified campus.”
“Ridgefield’s Main Street is bookended by two exceptional cultural assets, each special in its own right,” said Nick Donofrio, the campaign’s honorary chairman. “We’ve risen to the occasion in support of one — our new Ridgefield Library. Now it is time to join in support of our companion Main Street gem, Keeler Tavern Museum and History Center.”
Details about the campaign, the Cannonball Challenge, and making donations are at www.keelertaverncampaign.com.
The visitors center will be in the brick building that Keeler Tavern acquired in 2016 from the estate of the late of Dr. Robert Mead. But it’s more than the property next door. It was built in 1937 to be a memorial library housing the papers of Cass Gilbert, the renowned architect who lived in the Keeler Tavern in the early the 20th Century and gave Ridgefield the nearby Main Street fountain. It was designed by his son, Cass Gilbert Jr., also an architect.
Expected to open later this year, the visitors center will welcome people with admission, orientation, tours, refreshments, and restrooms. Upstairs will be new staff offices.
Eventually,, the building’s lower level will become high-density storage and workroom space for the museum’s archival collections, including 7,000 glass plate negatives by early 20th-Century photographer Joseph Hartmann.
The plan’s second phase envisions more effective use of the Cass Gilbert Carriage Barn and the addition of interactive tours that enhance docent storytelling with digital technologies to give visitors — including 2,000 school students a year — a more compelling experience of the site’s 300-year history.
One idea being studied is “an immersive type of digital experience of the Battle of Ridgefield,” Grob said.
“It’s not gadgety at all,” she added. “It’s sound, audio, visual — it’s immersive.”
The Keeler Tavern has stories to illuminate three eras of history. First are Colonial and Revolutionary War-era tales, with patriot tavern keeper Timothy Keeler and the cannonball fired by the British during the Battle of Ridgefield — still embedded in the tavern’s wall. Civil War-era stories are drawn from diaries kept from 1851 to 1867 by Anna Marie Resseguie, a granddaughter of Timothy Keeler who lived at and helped run the inn. And in the nation’s “Gilded Age,” architect Cass Gilbert and his family lived in the former tavern.
“We’re not just the little old ladies down the street with the mob caps on,” the tavern’s Hilary Micalese said. “We’ve got a really exciting campus.”
The plans also envision expanding the museum’s schedule from being open nine hours a week to 20 hours week. “Hopefully, we’ll eventually be open every day except Tuesdays,” Grob said.
Guests at the April 27 kickoff event included Ridgefield state Reps. John Frey (R-111) and Michael Ferguson (R-138) and First Selectman Rudy Marconi.
“It is the icon on the southern entrance to town, it is the gateway to Ridgefield,” Marconi said of Keeler Tavern. “We’re steeped in history in Ridgefield, and I think this is the jewel in the crown of the history of Ridgefield.”
The Keeler Tavern board and staff are working on both a long-term strategic plan and an “interpretive plan” that will guide its storytelling.
“It’s a multi-year exercise,” Grob said. “There’s a lot of planning, and everything takes a lot effort — and everything takes money.”