Brattleboro Historical Society is on a mission

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BRATTLEBORO — We are currently living through the largest social experiment in human history. As the COVID-19 virus spread, world governments recognized that the only way to slow and stop the spread of this deadly malady was to shut everything down. Everything. The whole planet.

That shutdown left our Brattleboro Historical Society trustees in a bit of a pickle. We find ourselves suddenly unable to fulfill our obligations as a board. The BHS operates out of three buildings in town: the History Center and Museum on Main Street, supervised by Danny Guadalupe; the Municipal Center, home of the Research Room; and the Beal House, supervised by Karen Davis, in West Brattleboro. These spaces are now all-but inaccessible to the public, and represent a major challenge to the fulfillment of our fiduciary obligations as a historical society. We can't get at our stuff, and it's a huge bummer. But don't worry, we have the makings of a plan. Read on and we'll fill you in on the inner-workings of the BHS.

First off: What are the board's obligations? What is the mission of the Brattleboro Historical Society? What do we actually do?

Our mission is this: "collect and preserve historical artifacts, documents, photographs, and data of persons, places, and events significant to Brattleboro from its earliest days to the present, and to disseminate Brattleboro's history through research, exhibits, and interpretation of the collection for the education and enjoyment of the community."

There's a lot packed into that sentence but we can distill its essence by calling BHS our cultural archive of Brattleboro. If that sounds like an overwhelming prospect, know that your instincts are correct. We are perpetually overwhelmed, but we love it. And we invite you now to take a journey inside the Brattleboro Historical Society as we set about our impossible task.

Take a deep breath, because we're diving in.

We have paper archiving containing genealogies; histories of local entities like the fire department and department of public works; we have listings of business people through the decades. There are over 900 research files on specific local topics. Lots of maps. Small maps. Big maps. Room-sized maps. Vital statistics before the 1950s. Oral histories from local residents. A huge Estey Organ collection. Estey family artifacts that take up numerous shelves.

There are books about Brattleboro, many of which are now out of print. Postcards that contain old photographs. Extra large photos. A tragically underappreciated collection of stereo-cards (stereo-cards are an old technology that is still in wide use today, marketed primarily as a children's toy called the View-Master). The archive also contains tens of thousands of old photos, from film negatives to table-sized panorama images.

Dissemination of history is another cornerstone of our mission, and the words you are currently reading are part of the effort to make good on that promise. If you can't visit the archive, that's okay, we'll bring Brattleboro's story to you. One major effort, pursuant to this goal, is `This Week in Brattleboro History,' an article (this is the 80th in a series begun with the cooperation of this newspaper, The Brattleboro Reformer), a radio show-cum-podcast, produced by BHS trustee, Joe Rivers and his intrepid group of young historians at Brattleboro Area Middle School. These programs provide bite-sized portions of Brattleboro history and lore, investigating topics as varied as the pre-colonial peoples of this area, to the development of Putney Road after the Second World War. They also profile local figures, from heavies like Levi Fuller and Clarina Nichols, to more contemporary figures like Andy Natowich and Brattleboro's break-out rock group, the Trophies.

And these are no ham-n-egg productions. Joe and his students have been widely recognized as trailblazers in this arena of online media, accepting invitations to present their work to historical societies and educational conferences throughout the state. The Vermont Folklife Center and VTPBS have also taken interest in the project, producing stories of their own about the new-media powerhouse at BAMS.

We also love telling Brattleboro's stories in person. Trustees Bill Holiday, Joe Rivers and Lee Ha have cultivated a following like Phish in the late 1990s by taking local history presentations on the road to local assisted living communities. People who have spent a lifetime living in Brattleboro have always loved hearing the stories of this place, and without failure, contribute their own recollections and information to that history. The community learns Brattleboro history from us, and then returns the favor one-hundred-fold.

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Sometimes these presentations take on significant scope and scale. In 2018 BHS created an exhibit called `Brattleboro, the Defining Decades: 1870-1920', that was shown at the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier from July 2018 to January 2019. The exhibit was subsequently shown at the River Garden in Brattleboro in early 2019. Maybe you saw it!

Last summer we tried something new: working with The Marina Restaurant and the Brattleboro Words Project, we produced an event called "Words on the Water." It was an outdoor event recognizing the history and continued presence of Vermont's pre-colonial native peoples. The speakers addressed a crowd of river kayakers and restaurant diners from a pontoon boat anchored in the West River; an area that was sacred to pre-colonial peoples and much beloved by locals and visitors today. If there's a better way to learn about a place than physically being in that place, it is unknown to us.

The research room is pretty awesome too, and BHS is ready to aid the full spectrum of researchers, from people digging into family histories, to scholars and professionals working on major book projects. Research Room volunteers John Carnahan, Lee Ha, Harriet Ives, Carol Farrington, Barbara George and Patti Griffin have been fielding inquiries for decades.

We also conduct our own research. The BHS was founded by, and continues to harbor, local historians bent on learning ever more about this community. This often means pounding the pavement in search of clues, or, in the case of Fort Dummer, donning a wetsuit.

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In 1976, founding BHS member Walt Harrington conducted an excavation of the Fort Dummer site, positively establishing its location. The coordinates of that location were unfortunately lost in subsequent years. That was a bummer in need of redress.

Enlisting the help of local diver (and friend of the BHS), Annette Spaulding, along with Addison Minott, who participated on Walt's 1976 dig, we took full advantage of a beautiful Saturday in September in 2017, and launched an expedition to reestablish Fort Dummer's exact (former) location. Our efforts were rewarded, and now you can dial your GPS to these digits, and visit the location: 42 50'15.3"N     72 32'49.7"W

In 2016 we also started a video documentary project called, "An Oral History of the Vietnam War Era," speaking with members of our community about their experience during that time. Dr. Robert Tortolani and Bill Fleming gave exceptionally candid, sober and eloquent accounts of their time in Vietnam during the war, and their life after returning to Brattleboro. Peter Gould, Oona Adams and Verandah Porch also spoke with Bill Holiday about their founding of the Packers Corners commune out in Guilford, providing much needed insight and clarity about their motives at that time, and the nature of day-to-day life on the farm.

But it's not enough to simply conduct research. Our mission mandates that we make known its existence, and provide ready access to our information. We produce a highly prized member's newsletter that has been meeting that need for decades. Lee Ha has been overseeing the production for many years.

Here's where things start to get crazy. Recently we started experimenting with social media. In 2016 we started a BHS Facebook page and quickly discovered that people like old photos of Brattleboro. Y'all really, really like old photos and stories of Brattleboro. So we started posting daily photos and people started following our page. As of this writing, 5,155 people follow BHS on Facebook, making our Facebook page one of the most followed small town historical society pages in the world. Seriously, the world.

Let's put those follower numbers in perspective. The Vermont Historical Society's Facebook page has 6,713 followers. The Rutland Historical Society has 1,675 followers. No one else is even close.

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Now, the tough part: we're in the COVID boat with everyone else. Health and safety restrictions in the Municipal Center have rendered the BHS archive all but inaccessible. An inaccessible archive means that we, the BHS board of trustees, struggle to meet our mission. Something needs to be done, and this unprecedented situation has us investigating an unprecedented solution: the possibility of digitizing the BHS archive.

Casual visitors to the online archive would find a trove of photos every bit as a binge-inducing as anything on Netflix. The image quality of those images allow for visual details and textures that suggest it might just be possible to reach into those images and touch the past.

A digital archive would also cut many research tasks down from hours, days or even weeks, to but a few seconds.

Initiatives like the digitization project, or any of the endeavors discussed above, underscore our commitment to preserving local history. We love peering into the past and discovering new things about this amazing community, but fulfillment of our ongoing mission requires that equal attention be paid to the future. How can we continue to build upon the tremendous efforts put forth by the early custodians of BHS, while leaving a worthwhile legacy to our successors? We have lots of ideas, and they're all pretty exciting. Stay tuned.

This article was created as a companion piece for this month's Virtual Gallery Walk. Brattleboro's Gallery Walk has existed since 1995 and usually takes place on the first Friday of every month. It is a product of the Arts Council of Windham County and a missed cultural experience during this time of COVID.

Brattleboro Historical Society: 802-258-4957, https://brattleborohistoricalsociety.org/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/brattleboro.history/

Twitter: https://twitter.com/BrattHistSoc

SoundCloud: https://soundcloud.com/bratthistoricalsoc

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/brattleborohistoricalsociety/


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