Heritage Museums and Gardens

Visiting Heritage Museums and Gardens

Auto Museum

The Classic Automobile Museum at Heritage Museums and Gardens

Heritage Museums and Gardens is located on the shoulder of Cape Cod in Sandwich, Massachusetts, and its 100 acres of gardens have provided locals and visitors a place of tranquility for over 50 years. With a series of revitalizations and development of its grounds over the past twenty years, Heritage Museums and Gardens has become a bona fide point of interest for visiting vacationers looking to escape the crowded roads and beaches, if only for a few hours. Guests can enjoy permanent exhibits including the classic automobile museum and the American Folk Art Museum, along with extensive hydrangea gardens and multiple acres of rhododendron that bloom from Memorial Day through mid-June.

Visitors to Cape Cod that are looking for a place to be outside without the crowds, and maybe away from the sand for a little while should consider visiting Heritage Museums and Gardens. This is a place where my family has gone every year since moving to Cape Cod in 2001. A walk around its gardens is always restorative.

History of Heritage Museums and Gardens

Flume at Heritage Museums and Gardens

The Flume at Heritage Museums and Gardens is host to aquatic flora and a large lawn for picnicking or napping.

Heritage Museums and Gardens was established in 1969 by philanthropist and heir to the Eli Lily pharmaceutical company, Josiah K Lily III, and his wife. The original name of the property was Heritage Plantation, but with the addition of multiple museum buildings along with the negative connotation of the plantation verbiage, it was rebranded in the early 2000s.

Prior to its establishment as a public garden, the estate was owned by horticulturalist and rhododendron hybridizer Charles O. Dexter, who would breed 5,000 – 10,000 seedlings each year. He developed 145 known varieties of rhododendron, 125 of which can be found at Heritage Museums and Gardens today.

Classic Automobile Museum

Antique Automobile Museum

The American Automobile Collection at Heritage Museums and Gardens is a treat for any motor enthusiast. It features 42 automobiles ranging from the 1899 Winton Motor Carriage to the 1965 Ford Country Squire Station Wagon. The museum itself is beautiful, containing two floors of vintage automobiles with informational placards detailing the history and specs of each car, the purchase price in the year it was released, along with the median household income to give viewers an idea of its affordability. For instance, the 1910 Peerless Model 27 Roadster sold for $4,300 new, with a median annual income of $574. The average American would have to work for seven and a half years in order to pay off this car! Needless to say, the average American did not own a Model 27 Roadster.

Old East Mill and Hart Family Maze Garden

Old East Mill at Heritage Museums and Gardens

The Old East Mill has been standing at Heritage Museums and Gardens for over 50 years. Originally built in 1800, the mill was first located further east on Cape Cod in the town of Orleans. There, it processed wheat, corn, barley, rye, and salt from local farmers. During the Civil War, the mill ground cornmeal that was shipped to Union soldiers on the front lines.

After the war, the mill continued to operate, but it was now the age of the railroad, and the Old East Mill found it difficult to compete with cheaper product shipping from the midwest. In 1893, the mill ceased to operate as a grain processor.

For the next seventy years or so, the mill was in private hands and although it was well maintained and restored, it served mostly as a window into the past. In 1967, it was purchased by Josiah K. Lily III and moved approximately 31 miles to its current location.

Occasionally, Heritage Museums and Gardens will open the interior for viewing, but generally, it is enjoyed from the outside as guests walk to and from the Garden of the Senses or the Maze Garden.

Behind the Old East Mill is the Hart Family Maze Garden. This was always a great feature to visit when my kids were younger. Families can have fun finding their way to the end of the garden while enjoying the many types of foliage that make up the walls of the maze.

McGraw Family Garden of the Senses

McGraw Garden of the Senses Boardwalk

One of the newest additions to Heritage Museums and Gardens is this paved walking trail lined with fragrant flowers and plants along with a number of benches, and bistro tables where folks can sit and enjoy a packed lunch. The garden also includes a tree-flanked boardwalk and stone walls that add to the serenity and seclusion of this particular garden.

Designers at Heritage Museums and Gardens were sure that this particular garden was accessible to all, regardless of physical ability. The entire feature is wheelchair accessible and the path itself was made to accommodate those with disabilities or frailties.

The McGraw Family Garden includes a wide palette of colors, smells, and textures to stimulate all of your senses, just as the name says.

Special Exhibitions Gallery

Creating Cape Cod Exhibit at Heritage Museums and Gardens

Creating Cape Cod is a rotating exhibit for 2022. Here, a replica of a passenger cabin depicts how the railroad changed Cape Cod from scattered fishing villages into a major tourist destination.

Temporary exhibits are on display each year at the Special Exhibitions Gallery. In 2022, Heritage Museums and Gardens has built Creating Cape Cod. This exhibit tells the story of how the Cape grew into the resort destination that it is.

While we may all now think of Cape Cod as a great place to enjoy a beach vacation, that was not always the case. Cape Cod was once a region that thrived on seaside industries such as fishing, whale oil, and salt. When those industries dried up in the late part of the 19th century, much of the economic stability went with it.

It was first the railroad, and then the ability of the average American family to own an automobile that transformed Cape Cod into what it is today.

From the scrappy fishing villages of a bygone era to the beginnings of a tourist mecca, Creating Cape Cod brings the visitor on a journey through the centuries.

Hidden Hollow

Hidden Hollow Treehouse

Hidden Hollow is where kids can run around and play. This outdoor discovery area allows children to create artwork, play with nature-inspired musical instruments, explore the post and beam treehouse, or investigate some of the nature displays scattered around the premises.

The treehouse is definitely the centerpiece of Hidden Hollow and is also handicapped accessible. Built on a slope, wheelchairs can easily access the lower level, allowing physically impaired guests to enjoy some fun. 

Carousel and The American Art Gallery

Carousel at Heritage Museums and Gardens

The carousel is located at the back of Heritage Museums and Gardens. It is a classic model initially purchased in 1908 for a park in Meridian, Mississippi, from carousel designer Charles Looff. The carousel was bought and sold a couple of times over the generations until J.K. Lily III purchased it in 1968. He constructed a building resembling a circus tent to house the carousel at its current location, where it has been entertaining families for generations.

Riding the carousel is included with admission.


While there are a few areas of the gardens that will not be accessible to everyone, Heritage Museums & Gardens is generally friendly to those with limited physical abilities. All of the museums are wheelchair accessible, as well as the outdoor café.

Some of the main paths have steep grades that make pushing a wheelchair quite a bit of work, but there is a complimentary tram that circulates throughout the property to give those who need it a lift. For that matter, anyone can ride the tram, even if you’re just pooped.

Heritage also provides wheelchairs to those that might need one but do not have their own.

Lilly’s Café at Heritage Museums and Gardens

Lilly’s Café is conveniently located onsite and offers a variety of snacks and sandwiches for sale. The café has outdoor, covered seating in addition to nearby picnic tables where you may enjoy your lunch. The menu offers sandwiches, soups, and snack items, along with beer, wine, and other non-alcoholic beverages.

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Download the Cape Cod Lighthouse Guide

This one-page guide contains information on all 14 Cape Cod lighthouses. Keep it handy during your vacation and always know where the nearest quintessential Cape Cod icon is located. 

Cape Cod Lighthouse Guide

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