The town and the Amity Woodbridge Historical Society have not been able to work out their differences with regards to the museum caretaker at the Historic Thomas Darling House and after months of rising tensions, the Historical Society’s Board of Directors voted to explore options of moving its collection out of the museum.
“It could be put in storage, or it could go to other museums,” said Alexia Belperron, its president, after the vote. But all of these options are yet to be determined and need to be explored, she cautioned.
The disagreement with the town erupted earlier this year, when the Historical Society wanted to part ways with its caretaker, Ethan Schneider, who has built up a successful farm on the property. But at the time the Board of Selectmen voted to follow the recommendation of Town Attorney Gerald Weiner and keep the month-to-month lease with the farmer going until it expires at the end of this year.
“Most residents would like the Board of Selectmen to find a way to continue farming at the Darling House AND to have a caretaker,” said First Selectman Beth Heller at the November selectmen meeting, referring to a packet of letters they had received in support of Koan Farm. Heller said she was adamant that the Historical Society continue its mission in running the museum, but she also said it was “unrealistic, unfair and unjust to require the farmer to leave his apartment at the Darling House.”
But after four years of struggling with the ever-widening farm operation, the Historical Society decided that the two functions — that of a farmer and of a museum caretaker — are mutually exclusive. For one thing, society members complained about times the caretaker allegedly neglected his duties; but, in addition, they said that 21st century farming practices — with plastic greenhouses, and tarps for weed control — do not agree with the look of an 18th century museum, which is supposed to transport the viewer to a different century.
And yet, “The Darling House Museum and Koan Farms can thrive together,” the Historical Society wrote on the subject on its website. “We have asked that the farming operations at the Darling property be separated from the museum—allowing the Society and the museum to focus exclusively on preservation and education and allowing the farmer to focus on his farm.”
But back in June the selectmen voted along party lines to follow town counsel’s advice to keep the lease with the farmer in place until it expires at the end of December. At its November meeting, after months of rising tensions, the Board of Selectmen unanimously directed Town Counsel Gerald Weiner to begin discussions with the attorney representing the Historical Society with the goal “to achieve mutually acceptable revisions” to the agreement currently in place.
The town owns the property, including the building, while the Historical Society is in charge of the collection. For the past 45 years or so, the Historical Society has hired a caretaker, and the town would sign the lease. The arrangement with the caretakers has been that the rent is below market rate, with utilities included, with the understanding that the caretaker will cut the lawn and bushes, and keep an eye on the building and its collection. He does not get paid for that work.
In addition to the lease with the farmer, the town has a management agreement with the Historical Society. Belperron welcomed the selectmen’s vote to start talks regarding that agreement, saying it was a step in the right direction. However, it comes too late.
The Historical Society has applied for, and was granted a Good to Great grant for non-profit organizations. The grant is for $48,000, with $16,000 in matching funds from the Historical Society, which would allow them to create a workspace kitchen to increase their hearth cooking events; also reconfigure the half-bath on the ground floor to make it handicap-accessible; and install a fire-mist suppression system. In case of a fire, this system would create a dense fog to smother the fire, rather than a sprinkler system, which would create a lot of damage to the collection.
The items in the Thomas Darling House are things that actually belonged to the people who lived there, she said. Some are nearly 300 years old. They are irreplaceable.
“We were supposed to start work in January 2020,” Belperron said. The grant is on hold until they can work things out, but if that doesn’t happen, they may have to return it, she said.
While selectmen authorized Town Attorney Weiner to start discussions regarding the relationship of the town with the Historical Society, talks also started about the farming operation. At a meeting in early November, the town attorney and the attorney for the Historical Society, Dwight Merriam, met, together with First Selectman Beth Heller, the farmer, Ethan Schneider; and preservationist Leland Torrence, who has been an outspoken supporter of the farmer. Attorney Merriam suggested finding alternative housing for Mr. Schneider, possibly even by financially supporting such a move. Apparently, Schneider was open to such an arrangement.
Weiner stressed that no such solution had been agreed to by either side, but it was put forward as a way to move the positions. Indeed, neither the town nor the Historical Society, which operates with free-will donations, would be in the position to support a private enterprise financially, however maybe a donor could be found willing to underwrite such a move.
In addition, Attorney Merriam reportedly suggested that if the farmer were to agree to live off-campus, but continue his farming operation at the Darling House, he might need adequate shelter to eat, rest and have bathroom access for himself and farm help. Attorney Merriam made the connection to an architect who agreed to visit the site and come up with some suggestions how that could be achieved.
Former long-time president of the Historical Society, Don Menzies, addressed the Board of Selectmen during public comment. “We firmly believe in Berenice Baldwin’ s hope that the town and the Historical Society would be able to work together,” he said. Baldwin was the last owner who sold the property to the town and deeded the contents to the Historical Society. “We are a little astounded that we are here at this point, fighting for that.”
Menzies spoke in favor of the farming operation, but he warned the town to not buy into a larger plan that would make this property along with the antique barn across the street a “destination.”
“We think there is a larger program, amorphous at this point, and we don’t know what it entails, a gut feeling at this point — it is not in the best interest of the property,” Menzies said. “We are preservation-minded,” he said of his fellow Society volunteers. The barn across the street is unchanged since 1770, he said. “Once you alter that, you can’t go back.”
Menzies asked town leaders to carefully consider the future of that property. “We’d like to weigh in and be apprised of what is coming down the pike.”
By Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent