During summer weekends, families may often find themselves wondering, should the kids do something educational today? Or just something fun?
Families can do both. Fairfield has two popular public beaches, Jennings and Penfield. Just a few minutes' drive from those Long Island Sound strands is a lovely collection of restored historic buildings, newly opened to the public. The historic buildings, at Fairfield Museum, surround a shaded common area that is open for picnics.
The historic homes are open Friday to Sunday, but Fridays seem to be the best days for visiting the shoreline. On weekdays, parking costs only $20 at the beaches (it's $50 on weekends) and Jennings offers "Sand Jam" dance parties and family-friendly movies Friday evenings.
It's time for a day trip.
Pack a cooler and head to the Museum Commons to learn about 18th-century traveling, witchcraft trials, agriculture and "The Burning of Fairfield." After that, get some sand between your toes.
First stop: Sun Tavern, which was opened by Samuel Penfield in 1780, after the original Sun Tavern was destroyed by the British during the American Revolution.
For decades it was a travelers' hub. The first-floor dining room was a gathering place offering food, ale, beer, hard cider and a place to smoke and gossip or talk about legal matters and politics. These confabs were almost always just men. The business closed in 1818. George Washington, in a diary entry in November 1789, wrote that he stopped at the tavern and "baited" (ate) there.
Later the tavern was used as a private home. Then it was vacant for a while, being used on occasion to host an event. "It was just sort of sitting there, so we decided to restore it," said Deb Owens of Fairfield Museum and History Center, adjacent to the tavern. "It took us about a decade to apply for and get the grants and do the work."
The restoration re-creates some of the tavern's original features and offers some insight into old-time hotel accommodations. Common travelers had little privacy, almost always sharing a room and sometimes even a bed with strangers. A toilet chair — a regular chair with a big hole cut in the upholstered seat — sat in the corner of the communal bedroom, for nights when it was too cold, snowy or rainy to go outside. More high-end travelers, such as First Lady Abigail Adams, got their own rooms.
The dining area on the first floor has a lively collection of reproductions of almanacs, newsletters and other publications of the period, giving an idea of what the men gathered in the room would be talking about. Paintings and prints depicting Fairfield of that era are scattered throughout the tavern.
Two smaller buildings, a Victorian cottage and barn, were built in 1888 and until recently had been used as storage facilities for the museum. The barn is dedicated to the history of farming in Fairfield and is filled with vintage farm implements such as a plow, a harrow, a hay rake, a cultivator, a milking stool and a spinning-barrel butter churn. A reproduction rake similar to ones used by Paugussett Indians is made from antlers tied to a stick. The cottage has been turned into a little children's museum, with old-time costumes, interactive educational games, old-fashioned toys on exhibit, a craft table and a reading nook.
The most fascinating element of the Museum Commons isn't a building. It's an indentation in the lawn. In the colonial era, that hollow was Edwards Pond, which was used to test accused witches. In those days, folks believed witches floated and innocent women sank.
Admission to all of the historic buildings is free with admission to the museum, which is at 370 Beach Road. The museum is open daily 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., but the historic buildings are open only Friday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. through Labor Day. On Fridays through Sundays, admission is $8, $5 students and seniors, free for ages 8 and younger. Admission prices are lower on days when the buildings are not open. fairfieldhistory.org.
Jennings Beach, at 880 S. Benson Road, is Fairfield's largest beach, at 27 acres. The dance parties and movies on Jennings Beach will be held on July 21 ("Finding Dory") and Aug. 3 ("Moana"). The dances start at 6:30 p.m. and the movies start around 8:30 p.m.
The 3.5-acre Penfield Beach, at 323 Fairfield Beach Road, has picnic tables and charcoal grills, and is the site of one of the 26 playgrounds dedicated to the victims at Sandy Hook School. This one is dedicated to Jessica Rekos. fairfieldct.org/content/2765/2783.