Official ceremony: Darien's historic Stephen Mather homestead now town museum
The Stephen Mather Homestead is a little bit different than most other Darien homes. No open concept kitchen, no new flooring, no geothermal heat and central air, no energy efficient LED lighting. The homestead goes beyond needing a little updating, in that HGTV sense of the word. And yet, no one would ever change a thing about this piece of history in Darien. And now that it has become a historic landmark, no one ever will.
A ribbon cutting ceremony and reception was held at the homestead on Friday afternoon to mark the occasion that the homestead officially became a protected landmark that will soon be open to the public, on a limited basis as a museum. Members of the family were on hand, including Stephen, Anne, and Jane McPherson, who grew up in the house under the care of their mother, Bertha McPherson. The McPhersons were the owners of the house until Friday afternoon.
“I feel good because it’s going to be taken care of forever,” said Anne McPherson Tracy. “It's tough because this was home. We grew up here. But we're happy the Stephen Mather foundation will preserve the property forever,” she added. Standing in front of the original hearth, Anne spoke about their ancestors making dinner in the room when the home was raided by British soldiers, and the feeling of historical significance was palpable.
Also on hand were First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, Superintendent of Schools Dan Brenner, and State Representative Terrie Wood. Also present was Kristin Lessard from the National Parks Service. Mather was the first director of the National Park Service. He used his wealth and political connections to take the national park idea in important new directions.
Mather counted as one of the highlights of his life meeting the legendary John Muir on a hike in Sequoia National Park in 1912. When he visited Sequoia and Yosemite in the summer of 1914, Mather was disgusted by the poor condition of the parks. He wrote a letter of complaint to his college friend, Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane, who invited Mather to come to Washington and do something about it himself. Mather accepted the challenge. As assistant to Lane in charge of the parks, he began a crusade to mold a haphazard collection of national parks into a cohesive system and to create a federal agency solely devoted to them: the National Park Service
Read more about his contributions to the National Park Service here at PBS.org.
Brenner has already begun working with the homestead to arrange school trips during the 2017-18 school year so that students can better understand the significance of the property and the role played by Darien in the Revolutionary War.
The Senior Minister at the First Congregational Church, Rev. Dale Rosenberger, was on hand as well, and opened the ribbon cutting ceremony with a prayer. It was fitting that Rosenberger be on hand, as the house itself was built by a predecessor of his at the church, Deacon Joseph Mather. During his benediction, Rosenberger said “we are keeping something alive here today,” and spoke about the present keeping the memory of the past with us.
Richard Chilton, the Mather Homestead Foundation Board President, spoke about the occasion as well.
“It’s important for us to embrace our roots. It’s important for our children to understand where we came from,” said Chilton. He thanked the town of Darien and Jayme Stevenson for their support from the beginning, Flip Huffard and the Darien Land Trust, and “the wonderful community of Darien.”
“The goals and dreams are really amazing, we are going to do some wonderful things,” Chilton said.
Stephen McPherson spoke as well. “This was our house. We went sledding, we did all the things kids do here,” said McPherson, adding, “We wanted to make sure this house remained here for future generations.” McPherson thanked his family and said this was a day they had been looking forward to for a long time. “Deacon Joseph Mather would be very pleased with this. Stephen Mather would appreciate this. We know our mother would be very very pleased,” said an emotional McPherson.
First Selectman Jayme Stevenson was moved by the scene as well.
“The fact that generations going forward will be able to experience history alive in this place is incredible,” said a choked up Stevenson. “To see and understand what homestead and family means is really meaningful,” she added.
It was built during the Revolutionary War in 1778 by the Mather family. The Mather family’s ancestors include Cotton and Increase Mather of colonial Boston.
During the Revolutionary War, the house served as a safe house for neighbors to hide valuables from the British. It eventually became the home of Stephen Tyng Mather, who is credited with starting the U.S. National Park Service and serving as its first director from 1917 to 1929.
Though Mather’s family had New England roots, he was born in California and attended private school in San Francisco and the University of California. He worked as a reporter for the New York Sun until 1893 before leaving to make his fortune in a borax company.
The Homestead is also a prime example of late 18th century houses and was designated as a historic landmark on Nov. 27, 1963.
Mather’s daughter, Bertha Floy Mather McPherson, founded the Darien Historical Society in 1953 and served as its first president.
The Homestead has been owned by members of the Mather family for many generations, and is currently owned by three members of the family. The Mather family previously owned two open fields at the corners of Stephen Mather Road and Brookside Road. Several years ago, the fields were conveyed to the Darien Land Trust and are maintained as open fields.