On my exploration of Fairfield's institutional anchors, I found myself at the Fairfield Museum and History Center.

The organization began in 1903 as the Fairfield Historical Society, founded by Rev. Frank S. Child, the minister at First Church Congregational and a history buff. The group's first meeting was held at his home, now the Sherman Parsonage, on Old Post Road.

For the first half of the 20th century, the group housed historical material at Fairfield Memorial Library. Artifacts at that time were mainly manuscripts and letters donated by families of early Fairfielders.

In 1955, a dedicated building was built at 636 Old Post Road, across from Old Town Hall and the Town Green. Honoring Oliver Gould Jennings, the two-level structure held offices, a library and exhibit space that allowed the society to add to its collection textiles, furniture, agricultural items paintings and other items.

By the end of the millenium, the society realized it was outgrowing its space and decided to build a new facility at 370 Beach Road -- 300 yards south of the old property, behind the Sun Tavern.

The new 13,000-square-foot building opened in September 2007 and today maintains a classroom, offices, lobby, timber-framed meeting hall, three gallery spaces, a library and a gift shop.

"This is a unique place to not only see and learn about the town but the people that lived here," said Walter Matis, a program and volunteer coordinator. "It also allows us to gain perspective on where we've been as a town and where we're headed, which is important when certain town issues arise, and just to appreciate the town."

From a program perspective, there's boundless opportunity -- from vacation week camps, summer camps, author talks, a book club, walking tours and, of course, exhibits, which are continually rotating.

May brings the "IMAGES" exhibit, which features the iconic photographs of Bill Eppridge, as well as juried entries from amateur and professional photographers.

Besides museum-led activities, the space is often rented to outside groups including charities, private clubs and wedding parties.

Matis said the facility is much more than a traditional museum. "We're not just celebrating the past but exploring issues across the board that are controversial or hot topics," Matis said.

Aksenia Mace, a patron from Fairfield, said the center should be meaningful to young people.

"The museum is a wonderful contribution to the town, especially for children," she said. "It gives them a sense of roots and makes them feel like they belong to a place with a past, but with a perspective on the present and future, too."

Boris Terziev was visiting from Montreal.

"There's an interesting landscape of homes in the area, and it's fun to learn about the history behind them and some of the indigenous peoples," he said.

"This is a very New England experience for anyone not from the area."

Browsers often stop in the gift shop stop to buy a memento, though the shop offers much more.

The shop's new manager, Bobbie Sue Russell, is in the process of reworking the space to be more open and accessible.

"You can find a wide array of Fairfield souvenirs," she said. "Also works by local artisans, one-of-a-kind jewelry, home decor, wedding gifts and children's books."

But it's the educational focus that has helped the museum gain prominence.

"A lot of our activities are inspired by and reinforce themes of our exhibits, exploring deeper connections," Russel said. "For instance, a recent maritime exhibit inspired map making, orienteering and sharing into how sailors lived."

As young students arrived for an afternoon program, I checked my compass and pushed off to explore other Fairfield mainstays.

Mike Lauterborn's "Man About Town" appears every other Friday.