Windsor Historical Society operates two historic house museums. Our mid-eighteenth-century Strong-Howard House is furnished with reproductions of furnishings that the Howard family would have had around 1810. Captain Nathaniel Howard’s detailed probate inventory, which listed all of the family’s possessions (valued at $4,731) at the time of his death in 1819, helped us furnish their home with accuracy.
Our other historic house was built by Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee in 1767. It was the largest home on the Palisado Green, exceeding even the minister’s home in scale and decoration. Like Captain Howard, Dr. Hezekiah Chaffee died in 1819. The doctor’s estate was worth $18,510.86, four times that of Captain Howard’s. As you might expect, Dr. Chaffee’s home was furnished to the nines. In 1844, his son John, who lived in the house, died and the family possessions were auctioned. The home passed to distant relations, then to the Chaffee School for Girls, then to the Town of Windsor.
Furnishing the Chaffee House
In 1992, the town leased the Chaffee House to Windsor Historical Society to operate as a museum. How would we furnish it? The committee charged with this task put out a call for artifacts. Ruth Morgan Porteus, then 99 years old, lived a few houses south of the Chaffee House. Her great-grandfather, Deacon Jasper Morgan, had purchased one of the Chaffee’s fire buckets in 1844 and passed it down through his family. Ruth felt the fire bucket should return home and donated it back to the Society. We were thrilled!
Much of the rest of the home was furnished from Windsor Historical Society’s collections. But this posed a challenge. Dr. Chaffee owned several sets of late 18th-century chairs, over thirty of them. The Society did not possess even one set of chairs from Dr. Chaffee’s period, but we did have a set of six Colonial Revival Hartford Chippendale-style chairs made in 1880. These look like chairs Dr. Chaffee might have had, so into the North Parlor they went with the thought that if ever the Society acquired more appropriate chairs, we would upgrade.
Dr. Chaffee owned a fancy desk, far more ornate than anything in the Society’s collections. However, the Connecticut Historical Society has many fine furniture pieces in storage without exhibition space to display them. We were fortunate that a few years ago, they lent us a beautiful desk and bookcase made by Westfield cabinetmaker Erastus Grant, who trained in Hartford. While this is not Dr. Chaffee’s desk, it is the sort of desk he might have owned.
Enter the Porteus family once again. Ruth’s grandson, Milton Porteus is preparing to sell a family home after many generations in our neighborhood. He is donating a wonderful collection of family furnishings and photographs to Windsor Historical Society, including more Chaffee-period appropriate pieces. These include a Connecticut Valley high chest and a desk-bookcase, some Connecticut Valley chairs, a Pembroke table, two candle stands, some porcelain, a sampler and other textile pieces, and some amazing family photograph albums showing our neighborhood in the late-19th and early-20th century. Milton’s siblings already have housefuls of things, and his daughter is at a mobile stage in her life, not wanting the responsibility of caring for family artifacts. The family has agreed that they want Windsor Historical Society to be the new home for these precious family items.
For us, it’s an honor to preserve them and to share them with the public. The Morgan family, like the Chaffee family, once stood near the economic apex of Windsor society. Their furnishings will fit right into the Chaffee house and enhance the tour experience. And we are still on the lookout. The collecting work of the Society is never complete!
By Christine Ermenc, executive director, 2019