The Henry Whitfield State Museum in Guilford is chock full of 17th-19th century furnishings and artifacts, starting with the stone structure itself, set in the middle of eight acres of nicely manicured grounds. Its historical pedigree is further confirmed in that it is the oldest house in Connecticut, and the oldest stone house in New England. It was also the first state-run museum, opened in 1899.
It was once the home of the Rev. Whitfield, one of Guilford’s original settlers who came here with a group of fellow Puritans 375 years ago this year seeking refuge from religious persecution in England.
The stone fortress-like structure contains a dazzling array of historical items, starting with a pair of chairs. Yes, chairs.
Museum curator Michael McBride feels one of them is the most important item in the collection. It belonged to William Leete, an original Guilford settler who later served as governor of both the New Haven and Connecticut colonies before they merged in 1643. “His chair is one of the few surviving artifacts associated with Connecticut’s 17th century governors,” he said.
The other chair once belonged to John Hart, the first graduate of Yale College in 1703. As interesting as that is, the Leete chair goes back to the formation of Connecticut itself.
Walking through the house visitors can see many representations of the past, and with a little imagination begin to feel what it must have been like to live in a dark, probably smoky house in considerably less space than they might be used to today.
Its collection ranges from hats to hatchets, clocks and candlesticks, and a powder horn given as a gift by soldiers to Benedict Arnold when he was first Captain of the Governor’s Foot Guard in New Haven in 1771, well before he betrayed his struggling country.
The exhibits also include an 18th century Dutch flintlock musket, Circa 1750, an exhibit on the Pequot War and a French naval sword owned by Capt. Frederick Lee, a hero in the Revenue Cutter Service that would become today’s United States Coast Guard.
Those who know the story of the Mayflower might be lucky enough to time their visit to see a small piece of that famed vessel that brought the Puritans to Plymouth Rock. It is not always on exhibit, but is in the rotation to be displayed soon.
The house is one of three buildings on the site. A visitor center contains a range of information, a gift shop and changing exhibits in two galleries. You may also make an appointment to use the research library.
Connecticut Public Television has featured the house as one of Connecticut’s cultural treasure. Before you visit, you might take a quick glimpse, courtesy of CPTV.
Henry Whitfield State Museum
248 Old Whitfield St. Guilford, CT 06437