It might be an exaggeration to call them madcap, but the original “Madcap Dorothies,” as the founding ladies of the Dorothy Whitfield Historic Society are affectionately known, were certainly high-spirited. In 1916, when the stilted social graces of the time permeated their afternoon teas, the Dorothies discovered a common cause and displayed a wonderful sense of fun and adventure to save an important piece of Guilford history.
Articles in the Shore Line Times and minutes of the Society’s meetings provide a fascinating glimpse of early twentieth-century society in Guilford. The founding members of the historical society were eager for some purpose beyond their afternoon socials at which they sipped tea, referred to one another by the courtesy titles of Miss or Mrs., and often recited poetry.
When it was brought to the Society’s attention that a deteriorating, 200-year-old house on Boston Street was about to be torn down, the Dorothies sprang into action. They had no money to speak of as an organization, but they set out to buy the house anyway before it was reduced to rubble and carted off into obscurity.
They held a series of lively open houses that raised far more than the $400 they needed to secure the mortgage. Six hundred people attended one of the events at former Connecticut Governor and Guilford resident Rollin S. Governor Woodruff’s Rollwood estate and contributed $500, an enormous sum for the time. It was a rollicking show according to the Shore Line Times, complete with “exhibition dancing in costume, a gypsy dance, a waiter’s drill in costume, a famous boy soprano, a Japanese song, and dance by a dozen maids from the Flowery Island, and palmists to tell all fates.” Woodruff also advanced the Society a substantial personal loan of $600, later repaid by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.
When the Dorothies had amassed enough money from the affair at Rollwood and others like it, they finalized the purchase of the Hyland House, hired preservationist Norman Isham to supervise restoration, and opened it to the public in 1918 as a museum of colonial life and architecture.
Those civic-minded ladies had a sense of history and an abiding confidence that they would find a way to raise the funds to purchase the house. With an enterprising spirit, they bought and preserved the structure. Today the Hyland House Museum serves the community as a tangible link to the past and a living museum for the children of the town. More than nine decades later, the Guilford community is indeed grateful to those “Madcap Dorothies.”