Closing a chapter in Darien's history
Judy Groppa has a twinkle in her eye as she steps along the wooden floor of the exhibit space at the Darien Historical Society Wednesday morning. She points to aged documents, models of whaling boats, photos and portraits, effortlessly telling stories about the town's history through the lens of these artifacts as she gives the Darien News a guided tour of the society's newest exhibit, "The Story of Darien: The Exhibition."
She's become an expert on the history of this small town during the course of this last decade, and on her last morning as executive director, she discusses Darien's history with the enthusiasm of someone who has just discovered it for the first time.
"I love the historical society," she said. "It's more than a job. It's a passion."
Groppa began working with the historical society about 20 years ago, when she first moved to Darien. Earlier in her career she was a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
"I loved doing research and exhibitions," she said. "When I moved here, I was introduced to the director at the time."
It wasn't long before Groppa was rolling up her sleeves and digging into her first Darien project.
"I started with an exhibit called `Lost Darien,' where I compared old photos with photos from today," she said. From there, she became a member of the board, before stepping up to serve as the board's president, then interim executive director and executive director of the society in 2000.
And while she won't be a mainstay at the society's new headquarters, she plans to continue being active in Darien's historical community.
"I definitely need to step aside so other people can have free reign to see their own visions for the historical society," she said. "I really want to do more curatorial things.
"I loved working on this," she said, standing in front of a display wall featuring images of the old Gorham Mill and the Rings End Bridge in its various forms through the years. This is just one portion of the exhibition, which ties in to Kenneth Reiss', book "The Story of Darien, Connecticut," which the society released earlier this year. "This is the first full-blown exhibition in the new space."
The new space is the 45-by-25-foot Scofield Barn, which was moved to the historical society's property to adjoin the Bates house in 2008; it was officially opened in September 2009. Groppa was instrumental in reuniting the two entities, which once stood together when the barn was originally constructed in 1827.
"We kind of thought of this exhibition as one we'd like to be able to put up whenver we don't have anything scheduled. Maybe we'll do about three exhibitions a year, and in the meantime, put this one up," she said.
"So it's sort of our semi-permanent exhibition, and I feel great about it," she said. "We've thought about this for so long."
Before the historical society acquired the barn, exhibits were often displayed at the library, Town Hall and other municipal spaces.
"We never had our own space, and you can't show original documents at the library. They just don't have the security," she said. "It's really, truly wonderful to have our own space and to do an exhibit like this."
Among the original documents are an oath of fidelity to the state of Connecticut, signed by Daniel Gorham in September 1777, James Jones' journal, in which he taught himself celestial navigation, letters, deeds and certificates dating back to times before Darien was incorporated in 1820, and more.
"There's so much here," she said. "Such a rich history."
The historical society has not yet named a replacement for Groppa.