A spectacular riverside lawn and a unique artifact collection draw visitors to the Woodstock History Center.
This piece first appeared in Destination Vermont, a publication of The Vermont Standard.
It is the spectacular back lawn that often first attracts visitors to the Woodstock History Center at 26 Elm Street. “We have exquisite grounds,” says Jennie Shurtleff, the Center’s Assistant Director, “it’s one of the few places in the village that has public gardens, access to the river, and also one of the best views of the Middle Bridge.” An hour spent idling there, watching the Ottauquechee meander, can quiet the most harried psyche.
The Center’s gifts, though, aren’t limited to the calm of the gentle river, or the perfume of summer blooms wafting across the expanse of verdant grass. Inside its walls lies an eclectic treasury to inspire history buffs, yes, but also fashionistas, crafters, musicians, photographers, and genealogists. And anyone interested simply in imagining life in a small Vermont town decades ago can conjure it up in the Center’s museum, amongst the artifacts of everyday life left behind by fellow humans long gone.
This summer, for the first time, the Center will share the poignant stories of five of Woodstock’s own sons, in a room devoted to the Civil War. The exhibit’s diaries and letters, and contemporaneous photographs and artifacts, give penetrating, often sorrowful, voice to those who experienced the agonies of the war, and their loved ones at home. Amongst the memorabilia, one young woman’s skillful handiwork, a stunning quilt sewn of silk swatches that friends and family members cut from their own garments, memorializes a fiance who did not return.
The Center will also debut a collection of fourteen gowns that span nearly 200 years of fashion history. The earliest piece is a circa 1780s wedding dress; the most contemporary are gowns created by 20th century designers Cristobal Balenciaga and Pauline Trigere. The exhibit will kick-off with the museum’s June 25 History in Bloom fundraiser, where some of the fashions will be paired, just for the day, with floral arrangements and paintings or sculptures.
The lion’s share of the Center’s extensive collection, which has been accumulated over the years from diverse sources, is arranged in the rooms of the Dana House, the home built in 1807 by Charles Dana and occupied by his progeny until the mid-1940’s. Downstairs, the Federal and Victorian parlors are decorated in the contrasting styles, one simple and sleek, the other elegant and ornate. The hub of the house, the kitchen, lies behind. There’s an open-hearth fireplace and an adjacent, intact, wood-fired beehive stove. The unusual fluted monteith on the dining room table was used for chilling glasses; the simple, white, long-spouted “pap boat” was used to feed invalids. A portrait of “Figure,” the original sire of the hard-working and congenial Morgan breed, hangs above the fireplace; the horse was at one time stabled in Woodstock.
A display cabinet at the top of the main staircase holds elegant surprises; it’s laden with intricately worked purses, unusual jewelry, and finely detailed fans.
Beaded curlicues and plumes embellish a small ecru purse with tasseled handles; finely braided hair bracelets and earrings may have been fashioned as mementos for lost loved ones. A circa 1850 ivory-ribbed paper fan painted with medieval scenes and flourishes has a tiny mirror inset in the corner of its top rib. It’s easy to envision its centuries-past owner speaking “the language of the fan”: placing it near her heart to mean “I love you,” or twirling it with her right hand to say “I love another.”
Three of the upstairs rooms pay tribute in part to the women who, in the 19th century, began to have more time to devote to the decorative arts. “Instead of spending their time just trying to survive,” says Shurtleff, “they often looked around for ways that they could decorate their homes.” Among the many pieces are delicate, hand-wrought laces, pressed flower pictures, and tinsel paintings, reverse-painted glass backed with a shiny, crumpled tin foil-like material. Everyday items were often repurposed. One picture frame, for example, is ornamented with flowers and leaves cut from used leather gloves; a fetching rag doll was made from an old linen map of equatorial Africa.
The collection boasts dozens of toys and dolls, and a completely outfitted, multi-story early twentieth century dollhouse. There are unusual musical instruments as well, including a four-octave, foot-pumped lap organ.
This year, visitors will be able to look up descriptions of items on display at computer terminals set-up on the museum’s upper and lower floors. “We are finding that people like to go through at their own pace,” says Shurtleff, so now visitors will have the means to learn about the collection with or without a docent.
For those who are inclined to do genealogical or scholarly research, the Center’s library has an extensive collection of papers and ephemera. Its archive of photographs goes back 150 years, many document farm and agricultural life in the area. There are also numerous pictures of the Woodstock Inn, and the town’s streets, buildings and citizens. Over 2,200 photographs have been scanned in high resolution, so a viewer at a computer can zoom in on otherwise undiscernible details. And, the library’s collection of paper copies of the Vermont Standard dates back to 1852!
The Woodstock History Center is located at 26 Elm Street, Woodstock. The Center opens on June 25 for the summer. Planned hours are 1 to 5 pm, Tuesday through Friday. The garden and grounds are open to the public seven days a week.