When Cayetana Navarro took a look at the strategic plan of the Cheshire Historical Society, one thought came to mind.
“It felt like it was backwards,” said Navarro, who has been the Historical Society President for more than a year, having taken over for Diane Calabro when she moved into the position as Town Historian. “I thought, how can we do all this work if we don’t know what’s in the collection?”
That collection to which Navarro is referring is housed in the Hitchcock-Phillips House, longtime home to the Historical Society and itself one of Cheshire’s oldest and most well-known structures. For years, the house has served as a depository of old items, some with direct connections to Cheshire’s past, others simply from a bygone era.
Yet, as Navarro looked at the items filling up each room of the Hitchcock-Phillips House, she came to a simple conclusion. “I wanted to be able to leave (the end of her two year term) and say, ‘We know what’s in the collection.’”
For more than a year, Navarro and a team of volunteers have been combing through each item at the house, deciding what stays as part of the collection and what goes. Certain items hold obvious historical significance, such as the portraits of Civil War-era residents who distinguished themselves during the conflict. Others, however, didn’t seem to add much, either because they were duplicates of items or did not have a direct connection to Cheshire’s past.
“If it doesn’t have a direct tie to Cheshire…” Navarro stated. “We don’t want to be telling stories about other people’s stuff.”
And telling stories is exactly the goal of the Historical Society and its diligent chronicling of the Society’s items. As teams were organized, they were given specific rooms and displays to sift through. Doing so, Navarro believed, would “let us know what stories we should be telling.” She recalled that, throughout the process, volunteers would report back about finding different items.
“We would stumble upon something and say, ‘Oh my God, this is incredible,” she recalled. One such discovery occurred when a volunteer, tasked with going through the numerous ribbons collected over the years, asked if each one had to be looked at and identified. “I said, ‘Show me the ribbons,’” Navarro remembered. What she discovered was that many were from the Connecticut 20th Regiment, given to Civil War veterans when they would come back for a reunion. The 20th Regiment had so many local veterans, one company was referred to as the Cheshire Company.
“That’s when you begin to believe, ok, the story is beginning to reveal itself,” said Navarro. “It’s tangible.”
Items that were not deemed part of the collection’s future have either been offered back to the families or individuals who donated them in the first place, or in some cases to neighboring historical societies for whom the material might hold more significance. Then, the goal was to divide the displays up so that each room presents a more cohesive representation of Cheshire history.
For instance, one of the more popular rooms in the home has been the “toy room,” with examples of 18th and 19th century toys on display. Because of the nature of some of the toys, the room has taken on a spooky presence for some, even becoming the focus of local paranormal investigation team’s efforts in 2013. However, the room had been cluttered with items other than toys, so Navarro made sure that the collection is now cohesive, with only toys as the focus.
Another room, which had also been cluttered with a wide variety of differing items, has been turned into a kitchen-focused area that will take visitors through what items would normally appear at the kitchen table of a 17th, 18th, and 19th century Cheshire home.
The Hitchcock-Phillips House itself has been another focus of the inventory project. While the old home serves as the Society’s headquarters, it is also a structure with its own significance, and Navarro wants to make sure that those visiting get a sense of the structure’s history as well.
“The history of this house is the history of Cheshire itself,” said Navarro.
As of August, Navarro estimated that 98% of the inventory project had been completed. Several rooms had already been set up while others were a work in progress. The ultimate use of a small number of rooms was still being debated. However, Navarro could already see the “story” of Cheshire and the Historical Society taking shape, and she hopes that story is complete by the time her term ends in 2024.
“What I want is, (when the project is finished) if you come in and you just like to see old homes, you can see an old home. If you’re interested in Cheshire history, it’s here. And if you want to do research, you can (utilizing documents that will be cataloged in an easy-to-navigate way,” she said.