For many years I have wanted to visit the Shelburne Museum in Vermont and we arranged to go with our neighbours, Marlyse and Ian, on a fancy car drive: we in our Corvette and they in their nice maroon Mercedes-Benz SLK. The weather looked promising and we were on the road early for the four hour drive, crossing the border into New York at Rouses Point at the tiny Customs office. Although there were only about a dozen cars ahead of us, it took a while to get through but soon we were driving across the bridge over Lake Champlain into Vermont and then turned south on Interstate 89 towards Burlington. From the Interstate, Route 7 soon took us into Shelburne, where we enjoyed a nice lunch at a busy little restaurant.
After lunch we strolled through the Saturday craft fair/market set up in a park across the street, enjoying some Dixieland music, before driving over to the Shelburne Museum itself.
The museum was founded by Electra Havemeyer Webb, who was a pioneering collector of American folk art. Her father, from a multigenerational family of sugar refiners, built up what became known as the Sugar Trust, essentially a national monopoly of this valuable product, and became stupendously wealthy. Short-tempered and difficult, he fought with his school principal and his formal schooling ended at 8. He and his wife Louisine were dedicated collectors of art, with an emphasis on the then-ignored French Impressionists. Ultimately, they would donate nearly 2,000 artworks to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Mrs. Webb, whose husband was a Vanderbilt relation, followed a more radical path and collected quilts, duck decoys, weather vanes, advertising signs and horse-drawn vehicles. Her serious collecting of Americana began around 1911, predating Colonial Williamsburg or Greenfield Village. Henry Francis Dupont was encouraged by Mrs. Webb to start his own collection that would eventually become the Winterthur Museum. Her home in Shelburne, located 2 miles from the museum, has been restored and decorated as it would have been in her time. However, sale of another house in Long Island meant she needed somewhere to put all her cigar store indians and decorative art, so in 1947 she corralled some friends and the Shelburne Museum began. It is considered to have one of the finest collections of America.
The operation of a major museum in a small town in Vermont is clearly not easy. In 1996, the museum sold some of its artworks for $30 million to raise funds to continue operations over the long term.
Our first stop at the museum was the newest building, opened in 2013. The Pizzagalli Center for Art and Education features two modern galleries, a 130 seat auditorium and classrooms. During our visit we admired a wonderful collection of circus posters. Most of these--the largest ones-- had actually been removed from the side of a house located at a crossroads and scheduled for demolition. Over decades, travelling circuses has paid the owners for the right to put up a poster, basically pasting over previous year's ones. It is amazing to me that the museum experts were able to remove these huge artifacts intact and the result was a wonderful display of period advertising for an artform, the travelling circus, that has essentially vanished in America. (The Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey Circus, the largest and most famous of all, closed in May 2017 after 146 years due to declining ticket sales and animal rights concerns.)
It was a beautiful summer day and we were drawn to some of the outdoor exhibits. Walking through the finely landscaped grounds, we passed a charming Second Empire-style lighthouse, which had once faced Lake Champlain on Colchester Reef (now renamed Sunset Island) and operated from 1871 until 1933. The island was sold in 1956 and the derelict lighthouse was sold for $50 for timber but Mrs. Webb rescued it and had it rebuilt at the museum. It now houses some of the American furniture from the Shelburne collection.
|1871 Colchester Reef Lighthouse|
And close to the lighthouse one finds one of Shelburne's most remarkable treasures: a 220 foot long Lake Champlain steamboat, the SS Ticonderoga. It was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1964. Here is a detailed description of this superb ship from (of all places) the November/December 1980 issue of "Farm Collector:"
The Ticonderoga is the last remaining example of the type of North America side wheel steamboat that carried our westward expansion in the decades before the railroads. Except for her enclosed wheel-houses, an early 20th century development, the Ticonderoga is identical in design and propulsion system to the vessels that served every seaboard and inland port in the United States (except on the Mississippi River system) from the late 1830s to World War II. Her motive power is a vertical beam engine, an American marine adaptation of the Newcomen engine first used for pumping water out of English coal mines. This type of propulsion system led to a distinctly American development in marine architecture: the engine rose several decks through an ellipse, allowing commodious passenger accommodations and substantial freight capacities. At the same time, great ease of handling and navigation in shallow waters was made possible by the side paddlewheels. In their heyday in the 19th century, side-wheelers were ubiquitous. The paddlewheel era is one of the most exuberant and colorful in American history.
|Crew accommodation--the ship had 28 crew members|
|The axle for the paddlewheels|
|The purser's office|
|The captain's stateroom|
|The dining room|
|Deck cargo: a 1925 Durant touring car and a Ford Model T truck|
Designed for the luxury tourist lake trade, and used mainly for excursions, the Ticonderoga also carried freight such as apples, cars, and livestock and had roomy overnight passenger accommodations. She once carried an elephant across Lake Champlain. The Ti's interior shows the elegance of the grand tradition of American steamship building in the butternut and cherry paneling of its dining room and stateroom hall, its gold stenciled ceilings and its wide and lushly carpeted staircases.
|1920 Hershell-Spillman Carousel|
|The Two Hemispheres Bandwagon, the most expensive circus wagon constructed, cost the Barnum & Bailey Circus $40,000 in 1903 ($2.4 million today). It was 10 feet tall, 8 feet wide and 28 feet long and required 40 horses to pull it.|
|The 40 horses needed to pull the bandwagon|
|The Gertie Buck, a self-propelled railway inspection car used on the Woodstock Railway|
|A wooden replica of "Old Ironsides," the first locomotive built by the Baldwin Works in 1832|
Built in 1899 for Dr. William Seward Webb, the Grand Isle was one of several private railcars used for his commute from Shelburne to New York and other personal travel. Webb later donated the car to Edward Smith, former Vermont Governor and President of the Vermont Central Railway. The car’s mahogany-paneled parlor, elegant dining room, staterooms, and plush furnishings typified the private luxury cars that became important symbols of rank to railroad men, business tycoons, and public figures in the final quarter of the 19th century. The museum purchased the Grand Isle in 1960 and it was restored to its original splendour.
|Three-Seat Surrey, c. 1900|
|1890 Million et Guiet Berlin Coach, featuring a gold satin-lined interior|
|Caleche (c1890) by Million & Guiet of Paris, France|
|1852 Concord Coach by Abbot-Downing Co. of Concord, NH|
|Six passenger caleche sleigh by Abram Aker of Sing Sing, New York, c. 1880|
|Horse-drawn hearse with interchangeable wheels & runners (c1849) by A. Tolman & Co. of Worcester, MA|
|Roof-seat Break (c1890) by Brewster & Co. of New York, NY (left) and Hansom Cab (c1895) by Hinks & Johnson of Bridgeport, CT (right)|
|Fancy Cutter sleigh (c1885) by B. Ledoux of Montreal, Quebec|
|Popcorn wagon (c1880) by Keator & Wells of Cortland, NY|
|1903 traverse, used for coasting downhill with 8-10 passengers and controlled by the driver at the front as well as through brakes at the rear|