Heritage Plantation: museums set in a gracious country garden

Here in this ever-beautiful corner of Cape Cod, one man's fascination with antique cars, another's preoccupation with military history, and a third's talent for plant breeding all came together to produce a museum unlike any other. It's called Heritage Plantation, a diversified display of Americana set in 76 acres of landscaped beauty, which began as the Wing family farm not long after the Pilgrims set foot on these shores. Currently these undulating acres are aglow with the color of thousands of rhododendrons -- the internationally acclaimed Dexter hybrids -- and an almost equal number of azaleas.

The Heritage Plantation property, opened to the public in June 1969, includes a restored Shaker round barn that houses the antique auto collection; a hand-hewn, chinked timber replica of a Revolutionary War building, where some 2,000 military figures and firearms are on display; an arts-and-crafts museum that features a working carousel; and a restored windmill that ground corn and wheat commercially in nearby Orleans for most of the last century. On selected days it still does so today.

The Heritage Plantation lands had been farmed, mostly successfully, since the late 1600s. But they were somewhat rundown when New Bedford textile manufacturer Charles O. Dexter bought them in 1921. He began his years of retirement here by breeding blueberries, but later switched his attention to rhododendrons as part of his program to beautify the landscape.

The thousands of crosses he made each year ultimately produced more than a hundred markedly superior cultivars, of which 112 are represented at Heritage Plantation. These now world-renowned Dexter crosses are distinguishable by their vigorous growth (several of the cultivars reach 15 feet in height) and large flower clusters, some of which are a foot in diameter.

In 1969 Josiah K. Lilly III bought the former Dexter acres for the express purpose of starting a museum. For a while he had debated founding a museum to display his collection of 34 antique autos that included Gary Cooper's 1931 Duesenberg, an American-built Rolls-Royce, and an assemble-it-yourself vehicle from the Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog often known as the Sears Surrey. But Mr. Lilly had wondered how he might present his cars in a way that was different from other established auto museums.

There were enough good auto collections on display to threaten the success of new entrants that merely offered the same thing, he believed.

The opportunity to be different came when Lilly inherited the military collection of his father, Josiah K. Lilly, and when the Dexter property came onto the market. He could display the two separate collections in the arboretum-like setting, and the combination would be something no other museum could match. The idea was a success from the beginning.

Today Heritage Plantation, a Massachusetts charitable trust with a substantial membership, attracts thousands of visitors annually. It presents rotating exhibits (currently an art exhibition, ``Young America,'' featuring children in the major American painting periods from 1790 to 1980 and a Currier & Ives collection) as well as many special events and permanent displays. Special events might include a practical gardening session on how to cultivate rhododendrons, propogate day lilies, or display hostas at their best, and entertainment at the open-air theater.

Heritage Plantation is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and for periodic evening events at the theater. The entrance fee (adults, $5; under 12, $2; infants free) allows visitors access to the plantation all day, which makes it one of the better entertainment-education values around.

Ticket holders can leave (for lunch, perhaps, in the adjacent picnic area or at the nearby historic Daniel Webster Inn) and return at will. The nearby town of Sandwich itself is a storehouse of New England history.

Heritage Plantation is about three miles from the Sagamore Bridge, linking the ``island'' of Cape Cod with the mainland -- which, in the words of one visitor, makes it a ``leisurely breakfast and an easy drive'' away from Boston.

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