For the last few months, the Cheshire Historical Society has been meticulously going through each and every item in the Hitchcock-Phillips House, home to the Society for more than five decades. It’s been exhaustive work, undertaken by a number of volunteers committed to chronicling each artifact in the group’s collection.
For Cayetana Navarro, Historical Society president, the process has felt a bit like being an archeologist.
“We are finding real gems,” said Navarro. “The teams that have volunteered (to do the inventory) this summer, they have been amazing. They are here for hours, in a house with very little (air conditioning), going through every single object. They’ve gone through every room … and, just what we’ve done so far, you can see the stories coming through.”
That, in the end, is Navarro’s goal — to situate both the Hitchcock-Phillips House, and the Historical Society at large, to better tell the story of Cheshire to a new generation.
“What is Cheshire’s history?” asked Navarro. “We can’t really tell that right now. What I was hearing from people was that (when they visited the house) they didn’t know where to look. There was just a bunch of stuff. We couldn’t even find things if people came asking. So, we needed to change that.”
Navarro took over as president of the Historical Society from Diane Calabro, when Calabro assumed the role of Cheshire Town Historian effective February 1. A member of the group since 2013, Navarro had, for quite some time, been interested in tackling the inventory of the Hitchcock-Phillips House, which was one of the many items in the group’s strategic plan adopted a few years back.
But when Calabro left and more than half of the Historical Society Board of Directors also stepped away from the organization, Navarro realized the task was greater than just one project.
“I met with Diane and said, ‘This could be bad,’” recalled Navarro. “Diane said, ‘Yeah, it could be.’ So I said, OK, I’ll put my name up (for President). I was already invested in the strategic plan. I thought I brought skills and talents that would be helpful in saving the organization.”
Navarro won the position and immediately went about putting the Historical Society on the new path. As part of the group’s 2022 Special Meeting to discuss the future, Navarro put it to members succinctly: There were, in her mind, three options. One was to support the status quo. The other was to shutter the Historical Society completely. But the third option was for “radical transformation.”
The group chose option-three.
“Many of these people have been a part of (the Historical Society) for 20, 30 years,” said Navarro. “It’s been a passion for them. It’s been a community. So, it’s always hard (to accept change). But, I think what the pandemic did was really break the status quo.”
The strategic plan for the Historical Society was initiated by Calabro, who Navarro credits for putting the group on the path they are currently following. Grants were secured to help fund the overarching blueprint for how the organization will move forward into the 21st century where, as Navarro explained, they are competing “with all of these things,” holding up a smart phone.
In the end, Navarro hopes that the Historical Society will have four main components: the Hitchcock-Phillips House Museum, which tells the story of the historic structure itself; the Society Museum, which shares the overall history of the town through displays; a research center for those looking to do projects; and a resource for local groups to hold meetings or functions. “We have a lot of space that isn’t really being used that well right now,” said Navarro.
However, before any of that could become a reality, Navarro believed that the Society needed to really know exactly what it has in the building.
For years, the Hitchcock-Phillips House utilized the historic home’s many rooms to showcase a variety of vintage materials. In one room, examples of 18th and 19th century toys were displayed, while in another any Civil War-era artifacts were collected. Navarro and her team of volunteers have been going through every piece of material to determine what should stay or go.
“We approached everything by having an unbiased opinion,” she said. “We asked, ‘What’s its condition?’ If it’s a moth-eaten blanket beyond repair? We have to dispose of that.”
“As we were going through, we found we had a half-dozen to a dozen (old) can openers,” Navarro continued, with a laugh. “Do we need all of them? Now, if some have (historical significance), then OK.”
However, the meticulous work has already paid off. As Navarro explained, when one volunteer, tasked with chronicling each Civil War-era button and ribbon in the Society’s possession, inquired whether it was necessary to photograph each and every one, Navarro took the time to look more deeply at the items. What she discovered was that many came from the 20th Connecticut Volunteer Infantry, which famously fought at Gettysburg, among other battles.
“I said, ‘Oh, my God, this is a really important story we can be telling,’” she recalled. “We can connect it to a book (written by former Town Historian Jeanne Chesanow), to diaries we have. You could really see the possibilities.”
As the inventory project has continued, so have such discoveries and it’s only heightened Navarro’s excitement level. “Over the last couple weeks, it’s been tremendously exciting,” she said. “You can really begin to see all of the stories we can tell.”
When the inventory is completed, Navarro hopes the Hitchcock-Phillips House will provide a much more interesting and immersive experience for visitors, but the group isn’t ready to re-open its doors to the public just yet. Describing the project as being “at the end of the beginning,” no timetable was offered as to when the newly-imagined museum will be ready.
However, Navarro hopes that, for the Historical Society, the future mimics the famous movie “Field of Dreams.”
“There’s definitely a ‘If you build it, they will come’ dream happening here,” said Navarro, in regard to new visitors and new membership. “As we are able to start showing and telling the community what we are doing and the opportunities coming, I hope it will inspire people to join.”
“I am optimistic that, as we gain energy ourselves, that will begin appealing to other people,” she continued. “I am pretty hopeful that we can spur that attention and energy, it will propel us forward.”