An evening at Miller Park: Chautauquans raise money to preserve and restore Miller Edison Cottage and garden

Historical impersonators from left; Bob McClure as Thomas Edison, Kathryn Chesley as Mina Miller Edison, Monte Thompson as Lewis Miller, and Lisa Wallace as Mary Valinda Miller, spoke with guests during a fundraiser held at Miller Park to support the preservation and restoration of the Miller-Edison Cottage and garden July 19, 2018. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

It’s been decades — in some cases, more than a century — since Chautauqua’s co-founder Lewis Miller and his wife, Mary Valinda Miller, along with their youngest daughter, Mina Miller, and her husband, Thomas Edison, walked the grounds of Chautauqua Institution. But last Thursday, they made a visit for Chautauquans looking to take a tour of the Miller Edison Cottage and garden during a benefit event to support the restoration and future care of the home and surrounding green space.

As the historic character interpreters conducted tours, each figure shared different information about the cottage’s history. The tours started outside of the cottage with “Mina,” as portrayed by Kathy Chesley, sharing stories about her family and the renovations she made to the home during her summers there in the 1920s. She then directed each group to the front porch, where ‘Mary Valinda Miller,’ played by Lisa Wallace, shared stories of the important figures who were hosted at the cottage.

Mary Valinda Miller moved visitors inside to the living room, where “Lewis Miller,” portrayed by Monte Thompson, was waiting to tell the story of the prefabricated cottage’s arrival at the Institution in 1875. He worked hard to develop the framework of Chautauqua Institution and the national movement it would inspire with Bishop John H. Vincent in the late 19th century, yet still managed to find time to enjoy time with his 13-member family at their cottage.

Chautauquans ended their tours in the garden designed by Ellen Biddle Shipman, a prolific landscape architect of her time, in coordination with Mina Miller. Visitors were briefed about plans to restore the historic garden by Supervisor of Gardens and Landscapes Betsy Burgeson, and then heard from “Thomas Edison,” played by Bob Mc– Clure, before returning to Miller Park.

The event on July 19 was a part of Chautauqua Foundation’s ongoing effort to preserve the cottage and garden for future generations of Chautauquans. The benefit event included guided tours, live music, hors d’oeuvres and an open bar, as well as the opportunity to learn more about the Miller Edison Cottage and Garden Committee’s desire to raise funds to restore the National Historic Landmark.

Chesley, interpreter of Mina Miller, has done other interpretations of historical figures in the past, and sees it as a beneficial way to teach people about history.

“It’s a wonderful thing for people to fall into history,” Chesley said.

Fellow interpreter Thompson added: “Show me, don’t tell me. People will learn better. … It’s much easier to swallow than it would be reading it in a book.”

The tours allowed Chautauquans to hear from voices of the past in the cottage. Once the tours concluded, Karen Goodell, co-chair of the Miller Edison Cottage and Garden Committee, spoke about those who are currently working to preserve the cottage and restore the garden.

Goodell recognized and thanked, among many others, the committee members, development staff, Burgeson and president of the Bird, Tree & Garden Club Angela James for their support of these projects.

She then introduced Bob Jeffrey, co-chair of the Miller Edison Cottage and Garden Committee. Jeffrey is a historic preservation developer and spoke about how well-preserved the cottage has been because of the care of its former owners, most recently Miller’s descendants Ted Arnn and Kim Arnn. He also touched on what aspects of the cottage’s restoration donations will fund. Needs include refinishing flooring, repairing ceilings, upgrading plumbing, restoring windows and more.

Other speakers included Institution President Michael E. Hill, Lewis Miller’s great-grandson Ted Arnn and philanthropist Tom Hagen, who donated the funds for the Institution to purchase the property. Following the program, every guest of the evening was invited by Cathy Bonner, chair of the Chautauqua Foundation, to pledge or make a donation.

Various individuals, like Chautauquan Mary Davenport, pledged donations that night. Davenport saw this as an opportunity to preserve a historic garden.

“I’ve been here for 25 years, owned property here and I’m totally committed to the future and vision of what Chautauqua will continue to be,” Davenport said.

Before the evening was over, $14,000 had been committed to underwriting capital projects at the cottage, over $110,000 was raised for garden projects and an additional $32,000 was raised for the garden’s endowment. Thanks to Hagen’s generosity and an earlier campaign to raise funds for the cottage’s endowment, funds have already been committed to its ongoing maintenance.

With monies raised for the garden and pressing capital needs in the cottage during the months preceding the July 19 benefit, the total funds raised by recent efforts amount to approximately $490,000 against an overall need of $987,500.

The capital needs for the garden were fully funded at the benefit, with $43,000 remaining to be raised for the cottage; the larger goal is to endow the garden for many years of future care.

Visit cottage to learn more about these projects, or to make a gift or pledge of support. Please contact foundation@ or  716-357-6243 with questions.

Tags : Lewis MillerMary Valinda MillerMiller Edison CottageMina MillerThomas Edison

The author Matthew Steinberg

Matthew Steinberg is a rising senior at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, studying communication arts, journalism, and Spanish. He will be copy editing for the Daily this summer, and in his free time enjoys spending way too much money at TJ Maxx, longboarding on roads that he shouldn’t and ranting about politics.