January 18, 2022

Chester Museum at The Mill Views the Civil War from the Home Front

Hannah Watkins, a college student and poet from Chester, recorded three letters written in 1862 by Nancie Ayers, her 20-year-old great-great-great-great-aunt, to her brother, a Civil War soldier. The letters can be heard on SoundSticks at the new exhibit at the Chester Museum at The Mill. (Photo courtesy of Keith Dauer).

After spending the 2011 season viewing the Civil War through correspondence primarily from soldiers at the front to their families and friends back home, the Chester Historical Society is now balancing what was happening at the front with what was happening at home.

Through correspondence, town records, church records and artifacts, a picture of Chester in 1862 emerges in the Chester Museum at The Mill’s new seasonal exhibit, “Beyond the Battlefield.” Featured in the exhibit are letters between a brother and sister, correspondence from a Union surgeon to his wife advising her on gardening necessities at home, records of the local Congregational Church (now the United Church), and the tools and implements used in Chester’s homes and shops. The result is a picture of life at the home front while the Civil War raged in other areas of the country.

The exhibit was chaired by Keith Dauer and Sandra Senior-Dauer. The Dauers, retired history teachers and Chester residents, say that their interest in the Civil War has been growing since they were in college. Keith went to college in Virginia, where he was taught about the “War of Northern Aggression” by a professor who called President Lincoln a “hairy baboon.”

One of the most poignant aspects of the exhibit,  the Dauers say, are the letters between Willis and Nancie Ayers, a brother who saw action in Northern Virginia and was captured by Confederate forces at Chancellorsville in 1863 and his sister who was living in Chester. Portions of her letters have been recorded for the exhibit by Hannah Watkins, the great-great-great-grandniece of Nancie Ayers. Nancie’s words come to life on SoundSticks in the exhibit.

The exhibit also contains Silliman inkwells, which were produced in Chester and carried by hundreds of Union soldiers, so they could write home to their families. Also of interest at the Museum this year is a new Chester history treasure hunt for children and their families.

The exhibit is open to the public for the 2012 season along with the award-winning permanent exhibit, “Streams of Change: Life & Industry along the Pattaconk.” Regular weekend hours are Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. through October. Admission is free. The museum is located at 9 West Main Street (Rte. 148) in Chester (exit 6 off Rte. 9).

Chester Historical Society is partnering with five other societies (Middletown, Haddam, East Haddam, Deep River and Old Saybrook) in a two-year joint promotion of the six museums and historical homes titled “Get Lost in Heritage.” Visitors to the sites can enter a drawing for overnight stays at two area inns and receive free “Get Lost” wrist bracelets. Info: www.ctriverheritage.org or 860-526-5765.