Shelton History Center Reopens Brownson House

The Shelton Historical Society has reopened the Brownson House. In late October 2015, the Shelton Historical Society suffered severe water damage to the Brownson House, the cornerstone of the Shelton History Center, during a rainstorm while the roof was being repaired. Water poured down through the roof and attic all the way to the main collection storeroom in the basement, ruining ceilings and walls in its wake. One of the bedroom ceilings collapsed; holes were punched in certain areas to relieve water pressure and to keep it from traveling further along beams in the ceilings. The Historical Society had to close the facility to the public during 2016 for repairs.

Gigantic industrial dehumidifiers were brought in by a disaster recovery company. Running constantly for over a month, they finally dried the ceilings and walls, albeit with an $800 electric bill. It took such a long time, not only due to the extent of the saturation, but because of the lath, horsehair, and lime that made up the plaster walls in the circa 1822 house. Specialized contractors were brought in to repair, replace, and paint.

While the house was closed and our attention was on the physical structure, consideration was given to a long-term project that had, out of necessity due to the disaster, been postponed: focusing the interior of the Brownson House to interpret a middle class lifestyle of the early 1900’s. The Society had been working room by room but having the house closed permitted the project to proceed without interruption. Committees could concentrate on locating and installing period-appropriate floor coverings, lace curtains, and other furnishings. The most challenging aspect was finding the correct wallpaper, so it was decided to have it custom designed and printed. Furnishings were cleaned, polished, photographed, and put back into place.

The decision to interpret the house to 1913 rather than 1822—when the house was built—is due to the significant collections of photographs, diaries, account books, furniture, and textiles from the 1890’s through the 1940’s that the Society holds. Using these sources in the environment of an appropriately decorated house enables Shelton’s history to be told in a clearly understood manner. We know how money was earned and spent, how neighbors socialized, and how the growing middle-class farm families interacted with the businesses and industries that called Shelton home during this time.

Additional opportunities to tell stories of a rapidly changing society are told using this new interpretation: women seeking the vote, unions organizing, immigrants flooding through Ellis Island, and a world war looming. All these factors were reflected locally and related to those who lived in Shelton at the time.

The preservation of the Brownson House as a pre-World War I era farmhouse will fill a gap in interpretive history in Connecticut, both in terms of the time period depicted and the status of people represented. Most historic homes and historical societies demonstrate the colonial period or a famous or wealthy individual. Through the lives of ordinary people—the Brownson’s—the Society illustrates, as Harriet Beecher Stowe once stated, that “Every individual is part and parcel of a great picture of the society in which he lives and acts, and his life cannot be painted without reproducing the picture of the world he lived in.”

In addition to the Brownson House, the Shelton History Center consists of the Wilson Barn, the one-room Trap Fall School, a carriage barn, a corncrib and an outhouse. While the Shelton History Center staff is available Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, they also accommodate appointments for those who would like to arrange tours or use research materials.

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