A gathering in Stony Creek Sunday was reminiscent of scenes that have played out in the seaside village for decades. The Fife and Drum Corps played patriotic music while people gathered on the lawn of the old church and enjoyed refreshments while talking with their friends.
The difference is the former St. Therese Church is now home to the new Stony Creek Museum, which is preserving memories of the village known for its tourism, Thimble Islands and pink granite quarries.
On Sunday, more than 400 people attended dedication ceremonies for the museum as it celebrated the village’s most important asset—- the continuity of community that is so unique.
“This is a nostalgia museum, it’s not just an historic museum,” Maureen DaRos told the Eagle. DaRos, who volunteers as curator, estimates she has already catalogued about 1,000 Stony Creek items, and there are a couple thousand more waiting in storage.
“It’s exciting that we have this much to show for what we’ve been doing the last couple years. It will always be a work in progress,” DaRos said, adding that some preparatory work is still needed before the museum has its official grand opening in a few weeks.
DaRos, who is a senior researcher at the Yale Peabody Museum in New Haven, said the recent find of a trunk filled with a quarryman’s belongings was one of the greatest discoveries she has made. Click here to read the story of the trunk.
She expressed appreciation for those who have donated memorabilia, photos and artifacts, and asked people to continue sharing their keepsakes. In addition to the permanent exhibits, there will be rotating exhibits to showcase different aspects of community life.
“We encourage you to participate,” she told the crowd. “We’re all stewards in this … We’re glad to see some young people here and we hope you’ll want to volunteer in the future so this museum will live on.”
Her father, First Selectman Anthony “Unk” DaRos also encouraged people to search for their treasures. “Who knows what’s stashed in attics just waiting to be found and added to the history of this town.”
The first selectman congratulated the museum committee, saying “They did this with their hearts and souls.”
Bob Babcock, chair of fundraising, thanked everyone for their donations of time, money and labor that helped make the museum a reality. He said it all began when “Judy and a few other people had a dream four years ago.” He was referring to Judy Robison who is credited with spearheading the museum project.
Robison, who is president of the museum board, is quick to say it was a team effort. “Let me stress community,” Robison told the Eagle. “It’s been a huge community effort.”
The committee’s original plan was to display the artifacts at the Willoughby Wallace Library, but it soon became obvious that a larger space was needed. “You do not know when you start, what is going to emerge,” Robison said.Here is an earlier story about the museum’s kick-off event three years ago.
“There’s a history here that’s like nowhere else in the state of Connecticut,” said state Sen. Ed Meyer, D-12th, as he addressed the crowd.
State Rep. Pat Widlitz (D-Branford and Guilford), who was instrumental with Meyers in obtaining a state grant for the museum, also spoke about the uniqueness of the village. “We try to explain Stony Creek to people in Hartford…the history is so rich here and it’s so diverse,” she said.
And then it was time to cut the ribbon.
“It’s extraordinary,” said committee vice-president Ted Ells as he watched the ceremonies. “It’s overwhelming the support we’ve gotten and the interest the whole village has in its history.”
“It’s a great little town celebrating its history,” said Gordon Geballe, an associate dean at the Yale School of Forestry and a lecturer in urban ecology, as he toured the museum.
“I think it’s a wonderful tribute to our little village’s history, and it makes it easy to comprehend for others,” said John Herzan, who served on the Connecticut Historical Commission when the village and islands were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Before Sunday’s festivities, volunteers were busy Saturday setting up exhibits, but they took time to talk with the Eagle.
A Museum Tour
Maureen DaRos offered a quick tour of the museum, beginning with the Stony Creek Timeline, which begins in 1739 when the Thimble Islands were deeded to Isaac Cook, and ends in 2012 with the dedication of the museum.
The timeline and the story panels at each exhibit area tell the story of the Creekers. Exhibit areas showcase the growth of tourism, the importance of the sea, the magnitude of the quarrying industry, and the strong sense of community.
She explained that the real history began when the New Haven and New London Railroad started service in 1852. The rail cars transported tourists to the resort village and shipping the prized Stony Creek pink granite to market. Click here to read a story about the quarries.
In 1854, tourism was booming and seven hotels opened in the next 24 years. Items are on display from the popular Indian Point House hotel that was built in 1854. In 1883, Brainerd’s General Store opened where the Stony Creek Market is now located. A large exhibit of artifacts from Brainerd’s pharmacy is located to the left of the entrance.
“Shellfishing was such an integral part of the Creek,” DaRos explained as she talked about an exhibit of lobster traps, an oyster dredger, and an eel spear.
In 1886, the Stony Creek Fife & Drum Corps was founded. In 1900, the first Memorial Day parade was held in the village, a tradition which continues to the present. Also in 1900, the Hook and Ladder Fire Company Number 2 was established.
Another story panel tells how the population tripled between 1887 and 1900. Middle-class vacationers filled the seaside hotels, while quarry owners and industrialists built Victorian “cottages.” Company housing and boarding houses provided homes to quarry workers who emigrated from Europe. The “native Creekers” ran the hotels and provided services to the tourists and quarry workers.
St. Therese Church was consecrated in 1927 at the site where the museum is now located. The congregation moved to its new location on Leetes Island Road in 1968. After that, the building served as a community and recreation center for many years. The current firehouse was added to the site in 1976.
The renovations of the former church were funded through a $75,000 grant from the state bonding commission, and donations of money and labor from local residents. The building needed new plumbing, electrical work, windows, heating system, insulation and a handicap ramp.
“Neil and Judy Robison have been the driving force,” DaRos said in regard to their efforts in overseeing renovations and setting up displays.
On Saturday, Robison and her husband and their son Brian were assisting Brenda Milkofsky as they put finishing touches on display cases. Milkofsky, who recently retired from the Connecticut River Museum, is a museum consultant and exhibit developer who designed the layout of the Stony Creek Museum.
The committee recently learned they will receive a $7,000 Connecticut Humanities Grant to conduct oral histories. A replica of the facade of village house, which is being used as a video kiosk, will display videos of the oral histories.
In addition to Judy Robison, Ted Ells, Maureen DaRos, and Bob Babcock, other members of the museum board include Pat McGlashan, Peter Brainerd, Elaine Brainerd, Deb Roberts, Jake Greenvall, Beth Dock and Theresa Biagiarell.
The museum, located at 84 Thimble Islands Road, is currently open Sundays but will be open more often by mid-summer.