St. Johnsbury History Buffs Look To House Artifacts

Jan 10, 2014

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 nineteenth 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 gathering dust in storage. But now an all-volunteer group has found an historic house where they hope to display them—if they can raise the money to buy it. To attract donations to the St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center, they have placed a tiny fraction of the collection on display in the vacant yellow frame mansion. Executive Director Peggy Pearl shows off a sun-filled room with gleaming glass cases.

Thousands of touchstones of the town's early days are gathering dust in storage. But now a volunteer group has found an historic house where they hope to display them—if they can raise the money.

“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,” Pearl says.

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 also 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’s re-located.

“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 Vermont’s Preservation Trust, predicts success for what he calls an unusually dedicated and hard-working 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."

“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.”

And a strong sense of direction, Gilbertson says, is what's motivating these advocates. Even though grant money for historic preservation is drying up and visitors to small local museums are declining in the Internet age, Gilbertson says the St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center is on the right track. If the purchase goes through, he says, keeping the doors open will cost money. But with volunteer help and some partnering with other organizations like St. Johnsbury Academy, he sees a bright future for some now hidden gems from the past.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story reported that artifacts stored for the heritage center at the Fairbanks Museum would need to be removed in the next several months. Museum officials say they support the project and there’s no deadline for removing the historic items from storage.