Woodworker makes canes for Middlebury College tradition
HINESBURG >> For around 20 years, a custom furniture maker from Hinesburg has been helping keep alive a Middlebury College tradition by making replicas of a cane carried by an early patron of the college.
Given to Middlebury graduates each year during commencement, the canes are made of Vermont ash with brass tips and birch knobs. They are modeled after the cane Gamaliel Painter, a Revolutionary War veteran, judge and representative to the Legislature who helped found the college in 1800, carried around Addison County in the years before his death in 1819.
Over the years, John Lomas, an English transplant who's been in Vermont almost 25 years and has a workshop next to his home, estimates he has made about 30,000 of the canes. The mass production of the canes, now at about 1,000 a year, is different from the work he usually does, making high-end furniture.
"Sometimes quantity can be harder than a one-off because you can't hand-whittle every part of it," he said. "You've got to automate it to the point where it's efficient, and in the process you can't lose quality."
The cane itself is stained a dark color. The birch cap is painted white, and the foot is brass. Each cane includes a plaque with "Gamiel Painter's Cane, Middlebury College" and the year of the graduate.
Painter was one of the earliest European settlers of Addison County and was one of the people in the community to whom the original college charter was granted. The first students began studying at what is now Middlebury College in 1800.
The original cane is now in the office of Middlebury College President Laurie Patton, who carries it during ceremonial occasions.
It was around 100 years ago that the original cane became symbolic of Middlebury traditions of strength and resilience, said Middlebury history professor Jim Ralph, also a dean of the college. But those traditions were left behind during the turbulent 1960s.
It was in 1995 that then-President John McCardell created the tradition of giving the canes, an old, symbol of the college to new graduates. The tradition will continue at this year's Middlebury graduation on May 29.
"It matched Painter's characteristics as a person who was steadfast, was reliable, was a person who was forward-looking, was a can-do kind of person, and at the time a walking stick in the culture of the early 19th century was a symbol of masculine authority, of stature," Ralph said.
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