Postcard History: Heritage Museums and Gardens

By Carla Charter

SANDWICH, MA. – The Heritage Museums and Garden is a hundred-acre museum offering displays which appeal to a wide range of interests and beautiful gardens to stroll through.

The museum had its beginnings in 1964 when founder Josiah Lilly III visited Smoke Tree Ranch in California. While there he viewed a parade of antique cars driven by people in period clothing.  This parade piqued his interest in antique cars.

When he arrived back home he began his own collection of antique automobiles. “He bought 35 cars within the space of 5 years,” Jennifer Madden, Director of Collections & Exhibitions at Heritage Museums and Gardens said.

Josiah was not the first in his family to be a collector. “Lilly’s father, grandfather and uncles were all collectors of one type or another. Collecting was in his DNA, you could say. They believed if you wanted to learn about something you formed a collection of it,” according to Madden.

“His father was a collector of all different types of things,” she continued. When Lilly’s father died, he purchased his American antiques firearms collection, including a rifle which belonged to Buffalo Bill and a 6,000 military miniatures collection from his father’s estate.  The elder Lilly had commissioned the miniatures in the 1950’s to represent historical American regiments. “In the span of a few years Lilly had a collection of cars, a collection of miniatures and a collection of firearms,” Madden said. In 1969 Lilly opened The Heritage Museum and Gardens.

The museum has three different buildings, one of which is home to Lilly’s antique cars. This collection includes forty vehicles, among them a 1930 Dusenburg Model J once belonging to actor Gary Cooper and a 1909 White Company Steam Car ordered by William Howard Taft for the White House.

A special exhibit at the automotive building this summer highlights the Indianapolis 500. “We borrowed 20 cars from the Indy 500 Motor Speedway Museum. “The earliest is a race car from 1911. We also have the winning car from the 2016 race, driven by Alexander Rossi,” she said. The racing outfit that Danica Patrick wore when she became the first woman to lead a lap in the 2005 race is on display as well.

A historical house on the property was one that belonged to the Wing family for over two centuries. From the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s the house was used as a seasonal residence.

Then from 1920 to 1940 it was owned by Charles Owen Dexter who propagated Rhododendrons on the property. Recently the museum has acquired the drafting tools that Charles Dexter used to lay out the gardens on the land.

Along with the Charles Dexter Rhododendron Garden, the museum has a Day Lilly Garden, an Herb Garden and a Cape Cod Hydrangea Display Garden. The museum also hosts a North American Hydrangea Test Garden where new varieties of hydrangea are planted and studied by professional growing experts across the country.

The museum has  a 1908 historical carousel to ride, with all of the carousel horses being hand carved in the Charles Looff factory. Between 1876 and 1916 the Looff factory built about 40 carousels, only 10 are still in operation today.

Folk art at the museum includes a large collection of Nantucket Baskets, which were woven on lightships in the 1800s. Lightships were boats which were used as lighthouses when building lighthouses on a land mass was not practical. Sailors created these baskets, used for a variety of purposes, during their spare time.  From the 1950’s to the 1970’s, Jose Reyes used the methods of traditional Nantucket basket making to create pocketbooks.

Other folk art on display include scrimshaw from the mid-1800s. “We have two ship stern boards These include one with two carved eagles and a big arc shaped one carved with symbols of commerce,” Madden said. Stern boards are the decorative piece placed at the back of the ship.

The artwork of Wendell Minor is highlighted in a special exhibit at the museum this summer, with 100 of his original illustrations on display. Minor is best known as a children’s books illustrator although he has drawn covers for adult books as well.

“He worked with Buzz Aldrin on two books and had a long relationship with author Jean Craighead George. “Wendell insisted that everything in his artwork be right, so they would travel together so he could see, first hand, what the environment and animals he was going to sketch, looked like,” Madden said.  “When he worked on a book about Amelia Earhart, he went to Washington, D.C. to see a plane like the one she flew. He hired a model the same size as Amelia Earhart who was dressed like her, to sit in the plane. Even the cockpit instruments he sketched were historically accurate,” Madden continued.

More information on the Heritage Museum and Gardens can be found at