Hands on History: Stroll through the 1850s at Keeler Tavern

What was Main Street like nearly 200 years ago? Surprisingly, it was similar to today, according to an exhibit running this month at Keeler Tavern. Shops and businesses still lined the main drag, though rather than paying with a credit card, you might hand the grocery clerk a sackful of potatoes to record in his ledger. Call it the great-grandaddy of Apple Pay.

That’s one corner of Keeler Tavern’s Hands on History exhibit, which runs this month from Oct. 8 to 29. Admission is free, thanks to tavern sponsors, the museum directors noted.

The exhibit covers the late 18th Century through the end of the 19th Century.

Dubbed “It Takes a Village,” the exhibit re-creates a walking tour of the shops and businesses that once lined Main Street through the tools and appliances that were used day to day.

Undeterred by the age of those relics, visitors are encouraged to handle, or even use, some of the tools — to get a tactile sense of what life was like in Ridgefield during the tavern’s heyday.

“A lot of these tools are in great condition, since they were intended for heavy use,” said Catherine Prescott, assistant museum director.

A local woodworker recently showed off the techniques carpenters would have used before the age of power tools. His contemporary tables and benches, made with old-world skills, stood out at the carpentry exhibit, Prescott said.

Walking tour

Using an old map from the museum’s archives, the staff arranged each exhibit to coincide with a real business as it would have appeared to someone walking north along Main Street in the 1850s.

Starting from the “south,” museum-goers duck under a painted sign for the Keeler Tavern. An old map of Main Street hangs on the wall, handwritten names denoting the different shops along the way.

First stop: a carriage maker’s shop, where a set of augers used to hand-carve the wooden wheel spokes sits prominently. Each exhibit has a small highlighted portion of the antique map the museum used as a reference, showing where each shop would have once stood downtown.

That dirt caked in the hub of an ancient wagon wheel mounted on the wall?

That’s really old axle grease, Prescott explained.

She showed off a shaving horse from the museum’s collection that seemed to be a crowd favorite, with fresh wood shavings littering the floor.


Melissa Houston, the museum’s head educator, explained that giving students the opportunity to touch and work with the old tools gives them an understanding of history they can’t really get from a textbook.

“A teacher can’t bring a shaving horse into the classroom,” she said, “but they can come to the museum and use one.”

“Memorization has its place, but at the museum, we want students to interact.”

Hildi Grob, the museum’s director, said that the exhibit also encourages students to read handwritten script — sometimes centuries old. “This is great, because students don’t learn cursive in Connecticut anymore,” Grob said.

She rifled through a pile of copied and laminated pages from a ledger kept at Timothy Keeler’s general store, from around the time of the American Revolution. To modern eyes, the ornate handwriting appears almost indecipherable.

But students are expected to have fun with the past as well.

In one corner, the staff set up a mock general store as a stand-in for Timothy Keeler’s historic shop, which he named David’s Shelf. The wall is stocked with dry goods and rows of glass bottles with historically accurate labels. Baskets of potatoes (they’re fake, to keep from going bad) sit on the counter, allowing students to barter for items.

That sense of familiarity is really at the heart of what makes the exhibit feel alive. The staff certainly hope students will connect with it as well.

“We aspire to be a classroom,” said Grob.