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Keeler Tavern Director Sheds Light On 3 Centuries Of Ridgefield History

Hildegard Grob is the Executive Director of the Keeler Tavern Museum in Ridgefield, whose history in town dates back to the early 1700s.
Hildegard Grob is the Executive Director of the Keeler Tavern Museum in Ridgefield, whose history in town dates back to the early 1700s. Photo Credit: Tom Renner
  • What : Keeler Tavern's Annual Cannonball Gala
  • When : Friday, Oct. 21, 2016
  • Where : Salem Golf Club, Salem, N.Y.
  • Tickets : Click here

RIDGEFIELD, Conn. -- Visitors find pieces from three centuries of history jammed into Ridgefield’s Keeler Tavern Museum. Hildegard Grob, the museum’s executive director, has the huge responsibility, knowledge and skill to tie them all together into an educational, interactive experience.

“The fact that the Tavern’s history spans three centuries makes it unique,’’ said Grob, who took over as Executive Director in 2012. “The museum’s history goes back to its early settlement in the early 1700s, takes us through the 1800s and into the Gilded Age in the 1900s. The people who lived here made history. They were very much involved and engaged in what happened here. Nobody gave anything away or had a tag sale. The artifacts and primary source documents are all originals.”

The Tavern has three distinct eras, each associated with prior centuries. The structure was originally built in 1713, and was the home of Benjamin Hoyt and his family. His grandson, Timothy Keeler, purchased the property and in 1772 established the building as T. Keeler’s Inn. At the Battle of Ridgefield in 1777, British troops fired upon the building. A cannonball lodged inside a corner post, and still remains there. (Some history stories refer to the tavern as “The Cannonball House.”)

William Keeler purchased the building from his father in 1815, and it served as a hotel and post office. After his death, his sister Anna maintained it as a hotel and post office. Her daughter, Anna Marie, became the owner of the hotel in 1862, and sold the property to prominent architect Cass Gilbert in 1907.

He restored it as a private home, where it was a weekend getaway for him and his family. Gilbert, who also designed the town’s fountain just up the road, also designed the Woolworth Building in New York City and the Supreme Court Building in Washington, among many other buildings. Keeler Tavern remained in the family’s possession until 1957. The Keeler Tavern Preservation Society purchased the property in 1965 and opened the Museum in 1966.

Grob, a Sherman resident, has two important missions in her role. She and her small team focus on preserving the buildings and numerous original documents and artifacts. She also develops educational programs to bring history alive.

The tavern even purchased additional space earlier this year when it acquired an adjacent property that was formerly associated with the tavern. The building at 152 Main St. will be used for a visitor's center and offices.

“What’s great is that our whole history is right here,’’ Grob said.

Grob and her team have discovered a gold mine of artifacts. There are legal documents, dishes, farm tools, shoes, clothes and paintings, each from different centuries and families.

The artifacts at Keeler Tavern tie into its educational programs. Visitors of all ages get to see, touch and feel the items that belonged to past generations. October is #HandsOnHistory Month at Keeler, where people can learn how early settlers used farm tools and implements in the production of food. Visitors can see how people used STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) concepts and harnessed the power of simple machines to efficiently farm the land.

“We do local history as a window to national events,’’ Grob said. “The Battle of Ridgefield, for instance, ties into the Revolutionary War. We have items that are very much related to STEM programs. We’ve had as many as 270 kids here over three days. The whole idea is to teach the kids the importance of perspective. They go from classroom to classroom.”

Helping pull all the pieces together to help tell its unique stories are the museum’s school docents, who portray characters, such as Benedict Arnold and Sybil Ludington, and work with primary source documents and artifacts.

“The whole idea is to give people an immersive experience,’’ Grob said. “We’re constantly developing new programs and giving visitors a hands-on experience.”

Grob came to the Keeler Tavern after working five years with the Sherman Historical Society. She spent her early career in education, journalism and public relations.

Her staff includes two full-time staff members, four part-time staffers and a battery of volunteers. The Tavern’s major fundraising event, its annual gala, benefits KTM’s education programs. It will be held on Friday, Oct. 21 at the Salem Golf Club in North Salem, NY. Tickets can be purchased online at keelertavernmuseum.org. Click here for more information about the gala.

As the executive director of a non-profit, Grob wears a lot of hats to help things go smoothly at Keeler Tavern. At the end of the day, her passion for discovering and telling stories about people from earlier generations stands out like a bright star.

“I love telling and sharing the stories,’’ she said. “That’s where my background is. It’s a great group of people here, from the people who work at the museum to the board to the volunteers and to the people of Ridgefield. Ridgefield treasures its history. It’s a huge effort, but it’s definitely something that’s important to the people of Ridgefield.”

For more information on Keeler Tavern, click here to visit its website.

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