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Article Published June 25, 2014
Kowalski Helps Guilford History Come to Life
Pam Johnson

Dressed in long layers of Colonial garb, Sue Kowalski will spend this summer weekend cooking over a blazing hearth-and loving every minute.

That's because Sue is one of numerous volunteers planning to help bring Guilford's past to life, during the first Early Guilford Days Family Festival on June 28 and 29 at Guilford's five historic museums.

"This is another collaborative effort of all five museums working together to help promote Guilford's history. In this case, we wanted to do something to coincide with Guilford's 375th anniversary," says Sue, a Hyland House Museum docent with the Dorothy Whitfield Historic Society.

"On June 28 and June 29, all five museums will be open with events and demonstrations going on that are related to Colonial history. Come in your Colonial costumes and help us bring history to life," she says.

Sue's Colonial costume is a full-length, long-sleeved dress with layers of skirts topping long socks in leather buckle-front shoes. She also wears a plain white "mob" cap (Guilford Colonial women made theirs of linen from flax grown here) and, of course, an apron.

While she's never had to take this precaution, "Colonial women would soak their hems in water to make them fire repellent, because they were always working so close to the fire and coals," says Sue.

Like any Colonial cook worth her salt, Sue also knows how to start a fire with just flint, a metal striker, and a small pile of dried material. This weekend, she'll tend the hearth at the Hyland House kitchen, preparing historic recipes in cast-iron kettles hanging over the fire and pots bubbling away on free-standing "burners" heated by coals pulled from the central cooking fire. There's also a beehive oven for baking.

Whether steaming open quahogs to make New England clam chowder, baking delicious corn bread, or assigning a child to turn the roasting chicken dangling from a string over the fire for hours, each meal was a huge undertaking, as were all things Colonial, says Sue.

"It really took a community to survive," she says. "Everything was very labor intensive, and if you did not band together for the greater good, you were sunk. If you were cooking all day, you certainly weren't making anything out of tin or blacksmithing or making clothes, so then the whole idea of bartering came about, and you helped each other out."

During Early Guilford Days Family Festival, hands-on Colonial activities abound. Colonial herbs and dying demonstrations will also take place at Hyland House, while at the Henry Whitfield State Museum, tinsmithing, chores, and Colonial games are planned. Guilford Keeping Society's Thomas Griswold House will host a blacksmith, weaving demonstrations, and Colonial games, and its Medad Stone Tavern will be the site of hearth cooking, paper cutting, and stenciling. North Guilford's Dudley Farm Museum will offer demonstrations of working with live oxen, gardening and farming demos, spinning, candle-making, and many household chores.

Much of what the museums will share this weekend is akin to the types of programming museum volunteers work so hard to make available to Guilford Public Schools 4th graders each year. For more than two decades, kids in grade 4 have looked forward to Early Guilford Days each spring.

"We took what we do with the school system and brought it to a wider audience for the town. We're trying to extend this out to the public so they can get a better feeling of the experience of Colonial life in Guilford," says Sue. "And it doesn't end after this weekend-we have events throughout the seasons at Guilford's five historic museums."

A resident since the 1980s, Sue says that "when I first came to Guilford, I didn't know this place existed...I was dating my husband, and he took me down to the Green by the back way…and we turned the corner to the Green and I just looked at him and said, 'You live here?' I had no idea he had a love of history, too."

Raising a family here, Sue was introduced to Hyland House during her child's 4th-grade Early Guilford Days visit and soon took up an offer to get involved. She was drawn to hearth cooking and became a student of two past docents, one from Hyland House and the other Griswold House, to learn the techniques. Sue has been demonstrating hearth cooking at Hyland House since 2004 and has also cooked for events at the Griswold hearth and Medad Stone Tavern hearth.

"All of these museums in towns are just gems," says Sue. "It's really so important to keep history alive because it's important to know about your past in order to plot a better future. So support our museums, become a member, volunteer, bequeath funds in memory of a loved one-help keep the hearth fires burning."

A retired teacher, Sue loves to share what she's found about Colonial hearth cooking and food ways and invites questions during her demonstrations. Before manning the hearth at Hyland House, Sue's career was teaching the hearing impaired in New York as well as in Connecticut. She remembers being inspired as a girl by the movie The Miracle Worker. Sue also caught her love of history early on.

"I got involved in the interest of history a long time ago, at the elementary level," says the Long Island, New York, native. "And my father was an incredible fellow. He would pack all seven of us into the station wagon, sometimes trailing a little pop-up camper, and take us across the country. My biggest enlightenment was when I was 10 or 12 and we went to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. To actually see Colonial history being enacted out was incredible for me. I was hooked on the hearth right away."

Step back in time on Saturday and Sunday, June 28 and 29 during Early Guilford Days Family Festival. Co-hosted by the five Guilford history museums, the festival is a celebration of 18th-century Colonial life in Connecticut and will include guided tours, hands-on crafts, games, and demonstrations. Free admission for children, $3.75 charge for adults. Saturday hours are 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday hours are noon to 4 p.m. Feel free to wear your tricorn hat or bonnet! Visit for more event details.