Slayton: The New Ceres

Apr 3, 2018

She may be the best-known, most widely recognized sculpture in the State of Vermont, and she stood at her post, high atop Vermont’s most important building, for some 80 years. But this week she was taken down, and she’s going to be replaced.

I’m referring, of course to the larger-than-life female statue that until this week stood on top of the Vermont State House. She’s known as “Ceres,” or “Agriculture,” and she has a fascinating history. Her two inter-related names are part of that history — which continues today, because of her planned replacement.

But to begin at the beginning, we need to go back to 1857, when the famed Vermont sculptor Larkin Mead produced the first female statue for the brand-new State House. He named her simply, “Agriculture,” but she became popularly known as “Ceres,” the Roman goddess of agriculture. That’s most likely her proper name, but it was probably unacceptable in the righteous Christian world of mid-Nineteenth Century Vermont.

Eighty years later, Mead’s statue was replaced because it was rotting. It was made of wood, and any wooden item that endures 80 Vermont winters has a tendency to decay.

Her condition was discovered in 1938, during the Great Depression, and so the Sergeant-at-Arms then, Dwight Dwinell, proposed to carve the replacement himself — thus saving the state some money.

Dwinell’s replacement — a serviceable but somewhat rough copy of Larkin Mead’s original — is made of Ponderosa Pine. And it, too, stood atop the State House for 80 years, until, like its predecessor, it was found to be decaying inside.

And so it’s slated to be replaced, as part of a re-gilding and general repair of the State House dome.

State Curator David Schütz says that the plan is to find a Vermont wood carver to replace the current statue, and that it’s very likely that the re-placement will copy Larkin Mead’s original “Agriculture,” not the Dwinell version. That statue, a work of folk art, is likely to find a permanent home at the Vermont Historical Society museum in the nearby Pavilion Building.

And so there will be two representations of the Goddess of Agriculture in Montpelier — one atop the State House dome, with the other nearby — to remind us that farming is still, in this Twenty-first Century, a vital part of our life, our economy, and our Vermont identity.