Mather Homestead: Learn about museum’s artifacts through blog

Photo of Sandra Diamond Fox

Deep inside the Mather Homestead attic, in the middle drawer of a wooden chest, wrapped in newspaper and tied with string, is a plain blue checked dress with buttons down the front.

A handwritten note tucked beneath the string reads,“Ella Maria Mather’s dress.”

Ella was a little girl, born in 1857 to Stephen T. Mather’s father, Joseph Wakeman Mather, and Maria Mahan.

The Homestead — a National Historic Landmark at 19 Stephen Mather Road in Darien — is usually open to the public, individuals and school groups. However, it’s currently closed right now due to the coronavirus pandemic. During this time, information about Ella’s dress — as well as dozens of other treasures — can be found on a new blog called “Hidden Treasures.” The blog can be viewed at by scrolling down to “What’s in the attic?

Additional blog entries can be found under “Blog & News.”

Many items described in the blog had originally been put into the Mather attic for safekeeping, according to Lauren Swenson, executive director of the Mather Homestead Foundation.

Donn Smith, a Darien resident and volunteer docent who gives tours of the Mather Homestead, has been going through the artifacts in its attic, and writing the blog posts. The items are all in trunks, in boxes, and on shelves.

Aside from photographing and describing each item he finds, he does research — he looks on genealogy websites and pieces together as much as he can about the item, in order to learn its history.

Education — from a distance

“Since our main mission is education, we are publishing a blog series on the artifacts in our attic to keep those stuck at home entertained and engaged,” said Swenson.

“A lot of the objects, such as the clothing, all we know is what is in there. Sometimes they’re labeled by the family. Other items we don’t know anything about,” Swenson said. “We have to make a guess using other pieces we may have found.”

Artifacts date as far back as Colonial tools from the 1700s, up to children’s books and clothing from the mid-20th century, according to Swenson.

“These are true history and nostalgia items,” she said. “We bring the history of the Homestead to people via social media.”


Blog posts include the following:

 Dolls: A series of old dolls from 65 years ago include an American Indian, those representing the Orient and a King George VI in its original Liberty London box that was made to commemorate the May 1937 coronation.

 Camera: Around 1924, Stephen Tyng Mather purchased a Bell and Howell 16mm Cine camera and Filmo Cine projector. He used the camera to create home movies that document his family life, national parks he visited, and special events. From 1925 to 1928, he made dozens of films while traveling to national parks as part of his annual inspection tours.

 Plaques: Mather Memorial plaques are in national parks across the country as well as at a few state parks and two schools. Among the first plaques outside of a national park is the one in Bear Mountain State Park in Rockland County, N.Y. The dedication was in 1933. In a trunk at the rear of the attic is the invitation received by Mrs. Mather to that dedication. Also in the trunk is the acceptance, on White House stationery, by Eleanor Roosevelt to attend the dedication. There is also the note of regret from the president for being unable to attend the event.

The process

To date, Smith has logged over 30 pieces. He said he anticipates logging over 50 items by the time the project ends.

He had been searching for items in the attic in the spring and fall.

“The attic is on the third floor and unheated, and in the winter it’s too cold and summer it’s too hot,” Smith said. “I picked it up again now because Lauren is publishing more of these blogs every week as we go through quarantine.”

After logging in all items, Smith is putting them back in their boxes. Eventually, many of the pieces may be on display in the Mather Homestead’s new entertainment center, which is currently being built on the property. The new 1,800-square-foot center — to be named the Elizabeth W. Chilton Education Center — will have a big, open space to host lectures, school groups, art exhibits, and more.

“We can do a number of different exhibits as time goes on,” Swenson said.

Smith said that he never knows what he’s going to find in the attic.

“Once you find something, you keep doing more and more research. You start digging and digging,” he said. “You put pieces together.”

Some items he finds solves a mystery. One mystery involved a family wedding invitation from 1893.

“There is a little card in there that refers to a wedding breakfast,” Smith said.

What’s a wedding breakfast? — Smith was curious.

He did some research and discovered that in the late 19th century, it was a tradition, which came from Great Britain, that a wedding breakfast meant the wedding reception.

History of the Mather Homestead

The Mather Homestead was built by Deacon Joseph Mather, a deacon in Middlesex Parish, in 1778 during the Revolutionary War. The Mather family is traced back to Lowton, Lancaster, England, 1596. Over nearly two and a half centuries, the home was kept within the Mather family, passed down through seven generations.

Read more here.

“Wonderful treasures”

Smith said the Mather Homestead may still be unknown by many people in town.

“For years, all of us in Darien would drive by this house, and wonder: ‘What is this house about?’ I had no idea,” Smith said. “I started docenting and learned about it.”

“I always enjoyed genealogy,” Smith added. “There are all these wonderful treasures up in the attic which no one had gone through. They had just been sitting there.”