Last fall, longtime Varnum Continentals member and trustee Barbara Weaver took on a new role as Varnum House Museum Vice President. Since then, she and her husband Bill, another member and trustee, have been hard at work assessing the needs of this valued historic asset and putting hours and elbow grease — along with volunteer assistance — to improve the appearance of the house. This month, we sat down with Barbara for an update.
Q. You and Bill have been longtime Varnum Continentals members and you’re also very active in the state chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR). Where did you develop your interest in history and historic preservation?
A. As a prospective member of the DAR back in the 1980’s, I traveled to many locations and historical sites throughout New England and New York tracing my family’s roots. The importance of history to me grew as I connected personally to my own family’s ancestry. For example, I learned that during the Revolutionary War my direct ancestor, David Lyon, then a 23-year-old Connecticut soldier with a wife and two small children, was captured by the British and later died in a dungeon in New York. This made the understanding of our country’s history very real and personal.
Q. Why did you agree to take on this new role as Vice President in charge of the James Mitchell Varnum House?
A. I have spent many hours cleaning the museum and serving as a docent in the Varnum House Museum prior to my new role. During that time, I grew to appreciate the artifacts and the grandeur of this stately mansion. It is an exciting challenge.
Q. A visit to the Varnum Continentals website will provide a thumbnail sketch of the house and some details of its contents. How about sharing a few little know facts. For example, the house property on Pierce Street is relatively modest in size today. What was the area like when General James Mitchell Varnum and his wife built their home?
A. The actual size of the property remains the same as when James Mitchell Varnum and his wife Martha (nee Patty) lived there. The carriage house that stands at the rear of the property was not there at that time, but was built in two parts over the course of about a century: the north section about 1800 and the south part, which is the larger, about 1900. Many changes have taken place since: the bay windows on the south side were added in 1903 and on the north in 1910. The beautiful front grand entrance was added in the late 1800s.
Q. The Varnum Continentals Board of Trustees is working on its strategic plan that will take our organization into the future. What do you see for the Varnum House as part of this initiative?
A. In addition to restoration of and improvements to the house itself, I visualize large tents for outdoor weddings, anniversary parties, birthday celebrations, and much more on the beautiful grounds.
Q. Tell us a little about some of the improvements you have been working on over the winter.
A. My husband Bill has helped with many repairs over the winter. We painted the entire meeting room with its many doors and window shutters and the adjoining restroom. With numerous helpers, we also cleaned the museum room, polishing furniture and the MANY pieces of brass and silver. We have now begun working on the grounds, raking leaves and cutting down broken branches. There’s always something to do and we are very grateful for our volunteers and docents who have helped so much in our ongoing restoration and maintenance efforts.
Q. The House has been a popular site for weddings and receptions over the years. What do we need to do, in your estimation, to make this a more popular venue for a social event?
A. Signage for the parking lot, keeping the building and grounds in excellent condition, plus lots and lots of publicity on social media, TV, and print media.
Q. You are working on expanding the docent program. What are your goals in that effort?
A. The docent program is coming along nicely, as we have many new docents. Training sessions and orientation are important so that all docents provide the same information to our guests. The docents will be dressed in period costume or in the new Varnum shirts that I am working on.
Q. Why do you feel that it is so important to preserve and protect the Varnum House and its contents? How does it fit into our organization’s mission?
A. It is important to preserve the museum and it is a particular privilege to me. General James Mitchell Varnum was one of General Washington’s most trusted Generals in the Revolutionary War. He began building his home in 1773 prior to the Revolutionary War. Sadly, he never was able to spend a great deal of time in it. Today it is recognized as a very important structure in East Greenwich and, of course, is on the National Register of Historic Places. When I provide tours, it is amazing to see how people of all ages are interested in the history and background of this beautiful and historic “treasure chest.” Our organization’s mission of “Promoting Patriotism” certainly connects with the house.
Q. I’m sure our members and their guests will be looking forward to the June meeting and open house. Do you have any surprises lined up that you can share now?
A. Among the surprises will be a beautiful, newly painted and restored meeting room, a new antique toy display in progress, and many new volunteer docents to meet. I’m really looking forward to sharing the progress we have made over the past year with our members and guests attending the June 13th open house.
Thanks to Barbara for all her work and for taking the time to fill us in on the developments at and plans for the Varnum House. Don’t miss the June Meeting/Open House. You will definitely enjoy a great time, good fellowship AND a chance to see first hand the improvements underway in this very special historical venue.
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