Campaign underway to house St. J artifacts
By CHARLOTTE ALBRIGHT
Vermont Public Radio | January 11,2014
ST. JOHNSBURY — More than 5,000 artifacts telling the story of St. Johnsbury’s history may finally find a home, if supporters can raise enough money to buy a Victorian mansion in the heart of town.
The collection is no longer wanted by the Fairbanks Museum, but the museum says it will store it until a better home is found. History buffs are optimistic that the relics will get a second chance in an ideal location.
In 1830, Thaddeus Fairbanks, of St. Johnsbury, built the first platform scale, a keystone of industrial development in the 19th century. Want to see the wagon that brought the family to St. J? How about a complete collection of ice cutting tools? Unfortunately, those and thousands of other touchstones of the town’s early days are in storage. But now an all-volunteer group has found a historic house where it hopes to display them — if it can raise the money to buy the site.
To attract donations to the St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center, the group has placed a tiny fraction of the collection on display in the vacant yellow frame mansion.
“We have framed pictures of the Handy family that used to cut ice both in Lyndonville and St. Johnsbury, and we coupled those pictures with some of the other artifacts to try to tell the story of this bone-chilling profession,” Executive Director Peggy Pearl says while showing off a sun-filled room with gleaming glass cases.
An ice tong leans against an ornate fireplace. In other elegant rooms, cabinets hold 19th-century curiosities — a postal scale, a souvenir plate, a food chopper. Eventually, Pearl hopes to fill these spaces with everyday objects from the bygone era of this once-affluent town, and to hold classes here. Bigger treasures, like a child’s hearse and a popcorn wagon, would be displayed in the adjacent carriage barn. But first her group needs to raise $250,000 to buy the property from a law firm that has relocated.
“We’re hopeful that we will be able to take over this house because it’s in a move-in condition, as you can see today,” she says.
She stands in the entrance hall beside a cardboard thermometer showing that about $100,000 has been raised. Eric Gilbertson, field service representative for Preservation Trust of Vermont, predicts success for what he calls an unusually dedicated and hardworking group of local history buffs. And if they fail to find a home for these antiques, he says, St. Johnsbury will lose a sense of itself.
“It doesn’t happen very much in Vermont, but whether it’s buildings or artifacts or whatever, or (a town) just loses a section of its history, it kind of loses a sense of direction.”