Did you know that the town of Fairfield's history is the history of the region?
Did you know that the town predates Norwalk, Greenwich and Stamford? Or that it once boasted two of the state's busiest and most important harbors (in Southport and Black Rock)?
All this and more, say historians and staff at the Fairfield Museum and History Center, is explored in "Creating Community," an interactive exhibition that marks the town's 375th anniversary. It is the museum's most ambitious exhibit since its opening in 2007, said Meri Erickson, the museum's director of external affairs.
The exhibition not only celebrates contemporary Fairfield, it explores its rich connections with the towns and cities in the region that it helped to shape.
As the exhibit's curator and director of the center's library, Dr. Elizabeth Rose, said the show is designed to engage residents (adults and children) as well as history buffs. For kids, there are costumes to wear, (air powered) cannons to fire, spy codes to crack and trollies to ride. Adults might appreciate the extensive reading material on hand -- diaries, letters, maps -- and memorabilia, men's and ladies' fashions, household items and photographs on view.
The exhibition's opening section explores Fairfield's origins as a farming village founded by Puritan Roger Ludlow, an English lawyer. As Rose noted, Fairfield's founding was a "direct result of New England's first war: the Pequot War of 1637," in which the Massachusetts-based Ludlow fought. Two years after first passing through the area, he returned to the "fair fields," which had been cleared for farming by the local Pequonnock tribe of the Paugussett Nation. He purchased lands west of the Pequonnock River -- now downtown Bridgeport -- from these native Americans for his settlement.
(Ludlow or Ludlowe? Although a town high school named after the founder is spelled with an "e" at the end of his name, the Fairfield Museum and History Center spells this name throughout the exhibit without the "e." And why is this? Rose replied as follows: "If you look at his signature, it looks sort of like an `e' on the end, but most historians render it without the `e' on the grounds that it is a flourish rather than a letter.
(Thomas Farnham, whose book `Fairfield: The Biography of a Community' (1988) is the standard reference source on the town's history, spells it `Ludlow,' so that is what we have followed.")
From Colonial times through the Revolutionary War (and the near complete destruction by the British in the 1779 burning of Fairfield), the exhibition compacts huge amounts of history in a visually dramatic manner.
Children (and grown-ups) can crawl through the recreated Native American wigwam, view a Bible from 1608 (the oldest object in the exhibition), climb into a mock Revolutionary War fort and watch a video depicting the burning of Fairfield. Explored also is the 19th century, which saw the region prosper through agriculture and international trade and the introduction of the New York-New Haven Railroad in 1848, which connected Bridgeport (chartered as a city in 1836) and Fairfield with New York City.
A section on "New Communities, 1880-1920" explores the explosion of immigrants -- especially Hungarians, Polish, Italians and Irish -- to the region and their enormous contributions to making the area a nexus of the Industrial Revolution.
In this section, visitors can hop on a mock trolley and listen to oral histories from immigrant families. The development and growth of such companies as Warner Corset, Bullard Machine Tool, Wheeler & Wilson (later Singer sewing machines), Bridgeport Brass, Remington Arms and American Graphophone (later Columbia Records). Community builders are noted, too, including P.T. Barnum, who undertook many projects for the betterment of the Bridgeport-Fairfield area and whose magnificent Iranistan estate was built in 1848 on Fairfield Avenue.
A "Suburban Community," 1941 to the present, rounds out the show, with the section noting that after World War II, thousands of Bridgeporters made the move to Fairfield, more than doubling its population from 1940 to 1970. Fairfield County soon would gain the image of the "suburban ideal" through such movies and television shows (snippets are shown) of "I Love Lucy," "Bewitched," "The Twilight Zone" and "The Stepford Wives."
Throughout 2014, the museum will host numerous events planned in conjunction with the town's 375th anniversary; check its website -- www.fairfieldhistory.org -- for updates.
The Fairfield Museum & History Center, 370 Beach Road, is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information, call 203-259-1598.