Help may be needed to save this historic treasure

The Stanton-Davis Homestead Museum in Stonington was created about eight years ago with the generous donation by farmer John 'Whit' Davis of the 17th century house that had been in his family for some 11 generations.
The Stanton-Davis Homestead Museum in Stonington was created about eight years ago with the generous donation by farmer John "Whit" Davis of the 17th century house that had been in his family for some 11 generations.

It may be that one of the region's most interesting museums is one of its least known.

It also may be the newest museum in the region, even though it is dedicated to preserving one of the oldest buildings in Connecticut.

And it is, alas, not yet open to the public.

The Stanton-Davis Homestead Museum in Stonington was created about eight years ago with the generous donation by farmer John "Whit" Davis of the 17th century house that had been in his family for some 11 generations.

The house and all its remarkable contents - everything from Indian war sticks to whaling implements - are now owned by the museum, a private non-profit.

Davis, who is in his late 80s and is still farming the land of his ancestors, sits on the museum's board of directors.

Most of the farm property surrounding the house, hundreds of acres of open fields and salt marshes at the mouth of the Pawcatuck River in Stonington, has been preserved through conservation easements held by the state.

Davis gave the house and contents to the museum so that it could be preserved in the same way as the land.

The remarkable house was built sometime before 1676 by Thomas Stanton, a founder of Stonington and an Indian interpreter who spoke the Algonquin language.

It is believed that both Uncas, leader of the Mohegan Tribe, and Cassacinamon, an early Pequot leader, probably visited Stanton in his front parlor, maybe even used one of the tables the museum now owns.

The fields of the Davis Farm were used to supply the Continental Army, and archaeologists have found traces of Indians who may have been on the land 5,000 years ago.

The historic significance of the Stanton homestead was recognized as long ago as the 1930s, when it was included in a Depression-era survey of the country's most significant historic buildings. Pictures and architectural drawings of the house from the Historic American Buildings Survey are on the National Park Service Web site.

It also has had some significant moments in the more modern limelight.

A segment of the Today show, remembering the 1938 hurricane, was broadcast from the farm, and the house has been featured in both National Geographic and Yankee magazines.

When he gave a tour of the house back in 2004, as the museum plans were developing, Davis showed me an article about the farm from a 1906 issue of "Ladies Home Companion," which he plucked from one of the house's many, many boxes of old materials, pictures and family keepsakes.

"There are trunks in there that haven't been opened in three or four generations," Davis said then, confiding he comes from a long line of pack rats.

Museum volunteers have removed most of the material from the house, in preparation for renovations, and they are in the process of cataloguing much of it. Textiles are being kept in a climate controlled environment at the Mashantucket Pequot Museum and Research Center.

The museum also has obtained and matched several grants, allowing for an engineering study of the work needed to be done to stabilize the building. The roof has been secured.

Some of the museum volunteers have been accepted into a new Connecticut Humanities Council program that will help train them over the next two years in museum skills and practices.

Still, I couldn't help but think, while touring the house again last week, that the museum and its hard-working volunteers could use some major help soon with the considerable work that lies ahead in preserving this historic treasure.

And that help couldn't come too soon, given the frail nature of this antique building, which appears already to be in the process of a slow collapse.

The Stanton-Davis Homestead Museum needs some prominent lawmakers from eastern Connecticut, from anywhere in Connecticut, to take on this important project, to help ensure the house is properly preserved.

Not much money would be required to protect this cultural icon for future generations of Connecticut residents.

Help, too, should come from some of the older and more established museums in the region, maybe not money but, at least, expertise and institutional support.

Businesses, especially those that profit from tourism, could help. Our region's two tribes should also take a keen interest in the success of this museum.

Really, anyone with any interest in history should step up. You can learn more at the museum's website, stantondavishomestead.org.

It would be a shame to let the chance to preserve this historic landmark properly slip away.

This is the opinion of David Collins

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