Historic 'curtain call' in Wardsboro


WARDSBORO -- At first, some civic-minded volunteers simply wanted to spruce up the stage on the second floor of Wardsboro's town hall.

They've ended up with a donated set of antique, painted curtains that, when properly restored and hung, will take performers and spectators back to a time when such works of art were fixtures in Vermont.

It's a major undertaking that requires fundraising, which kicks off with a concert by the musical duo Hungrytown at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the town hall. If all goes well, a small group called Wardsboro Curtain Call is hoping to have the backdrops hung in time for the town's famed Gilfeather Turnip Festival this fall -- and for every event after.

"For us, we're replacing lost history with found history," said Cherie Moran, a member of the group. "And I just think it's such a wonderful thing."

SLIDESHOW: Wardsboro's historic curtains.

Most of Vermont's painted curtains were created between 1890 and 1940 for town halls, grange halls, theaters and opera houses. Burlington-based Curtains Without Borders was started in 1996 to find and assess those curtains.

"We thought there might be 25 pieces, but the total number of historic painted curtains in Vermont eventually grew to 185. We believe we have now found them all," Christine Hadsel, the organization's director, wrote on www.curtainswithoutborders.org.

Conservation efforts began in November 2002 and "as of December 2010, every curtain has been cleaned, mended and judiciously in-painted," the website says. "Of these, about 25 have been put into 'deep' storage because they are too fragile to be displayed or there is no place to install them."

While the primary focus has been on curtains already in the Green Mountain State's historic halls and theaters, Hadsel noted that "Jamaica and Wardsboro are the only two towns in Vermont that have been on the receiving end of curtains in need of a home."

Wardsboro had no curtains of its own. Though the town hall apparently featured painted curtains at one point, "nobody can tell us what they looked like or where they went," Wardsboro volunteer Karen Davis said.

There had been talk for some time about finding plain front curtains for the town hall's stage. But, as Davis recalls it, the antique-curtain project started as a chance meeting between Hadsel and Wardsboro resident Cris Tarnay at a grant workshop a few years ago.

"The two of them were chatting and made a connection," Davis said.

Then, last year, Hadsel was giving a Curtains Without Borders talk to coincide with her organization's exhibit at Brattleboro Museum & Art Center. A few Wardsboro residents made the trip to meet her.

"That's when she told us that these curtains from West Paris, Maine, might be available," Davis said, adding that volunteers sought and received permission from Wardsboro Selectboard to pursue acquisition of those curtains.

The effort culminated in early April, when a group from Wardsboro drove north to St. Johnsbury, met Hadsel, rented a moving truck and traveled across New Hampshire to Maine.

According to a news report from West Paris, the grange there was disbanding and had sold its hall to an American Legion post. That necessitated a new home for the hall's century-old painted curtains, which the Wardsboro group carefully removed from wooden rollers, packed and transported back to Vermont.

In Wardsboro, the group was welcomed to the town hall by supporters snapping pictures.

"It was a big homecoming kind of thing," Davis said. "It was really cool. That was the best part."

It turns out that Wardsboro's new curtains, though they had hung in Maine for nearly 100 years, have a local connection.

"These curtains are by Charles Huiest of Troy, N.Y. He also painted the great curtains just up the road in South Londonderry," Hadsel wrote in an e-mail to the Reformer. "Huiest's great-grandchildren still live in Troy and will try to come to Wardsboro when the curtains are restored. They have never seen them or the ones in South Londonderry."

The Wardsboro group plans to hang three of the curtains -- a country scene, a street scene and a grand drape titled "November Twilight." There also are two interior scenes, which in their prime would have completed the backdrops needed for any sort of dramatic productions at the old Maine grange hall.

"Sadly, the two interior scenes are very badly water-damaged and will cost an awful lot more to restore," Davis said.

But she added that "they're part of the set. And even if we can't afford to have all five of them put up right away, it would be great to have them. And who knows what we might be able to do with them later."

For now, just getting the three other curtains cleaned and restored is a challenge. Wardsboro Curtain Call is seeking more than $10,000 to conserve and install the curtains, a cost that also includes acquiring new front drapery for the town hall's stage.

The group, which along with Davis, Moran and Tarnay also includes Nancy Perkins, Jill Dean, Lee Miller and Darlene Rutnik, has established a website at www.wardsborocurtaincall.org. They are hosting fund-raisers including Saturday's concert and a June 7 talk by Hadsel at the town hall; there also has been a grant application.

"It's all a matter of money," Price said. "When we have the amount of money we need, then we can schedule time with Chris (Hadsel) and get our volunteers together (for restoration)."

In the meantime, and even though the curtains are in desperate need of cleaning, the Wardsboro group has found some things to enjoy in the antique scenery. That includes a number of faded signatures on the flip side.

"It was tradition for different troupes and performers to sign the back of the curtains. Thankfully, they signed them in pencil," Moran said. "I think the oldest date that we could discern was 1942. But it's really, really dirty. You can get a sense of 100 years of dirt."

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.


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