- Historic Sites
Electra Webb And Her American Past
How a brave and gifted woman defied her parents and her background to create the splendid collection that is Shelburne
April/may 1982 | Volume 33, Issue 3
What do the following items have in common—a peerless collection of old American juilts, a 220-foot steam-driven side-wheeler, last of its noble race, and the exact replica of six beautiful rooms in a millionaire’s Park Avenue apartment? The answer is nothing except that they all can be found at one of the most amiable public places in America: the Shelburne Museum at Shelburne, Vermont—”35 buildings on 45 acres and the S.S. Ticonderoga ,” as the little guide to the place puts it. Most of the thirty-five buildings are historic New England structures ranging in date from a 1733 salt-box house to a slate-walled Vermont jailhouse built in 1890. The forty-five acres are chiefly a lovely lawn without a “Keep off the grass” sign in sight.
The Shelburne Museum is neither a restored New England village nor a replica of an old New England village. Despite the fact that Shelburne contains the authentic makings of just such a replica—a variety of farmhouses and barns, an 1840 Methodist church, an old general store, an up-and-down sawmill, and a blacksmith’s shop—not the slightest effort was made to create the illusion of entering the past. Quite the opposite is true. An outdoor museum that adorns its grounds with handsome lilac and rose bushes, it is making a definite effort to dispel the idea that any such illusion was intended. Honesty Is the Best Policy seems to be the tacit motto of the place and contributes not a little to its amiable nature.
Still, if you do not enter the past at the Shelburne Museum, the past there will sooner or later enter you—“get in amongst you” as the late P. G. Wodehouse would have put it. It is a generalized New England past, mainly ante-bellum, when the living wasn’t easy, especially in northern Vermont.
I myself was first pierced by the Shelburnian past while contemplating a large, horse-drawn wooden roller once used to pack down road snow so hard it would last until mid-April. Apparently, in the horse age it was far easier to sleigh over snow-covered roads than to get around during the balmy summer when the roads were either mud or hard ruts. The historic topsy-turviness of it all was enthralling: nowadays a heavy snow will bring a great metropolis to its knees; in old Vermont it was welcomed as pavement. Winter isolates the carbound modern. In old Vermont, winter was visiting time, which is why—as the superb carriage collection at Shelburne attests—old Vermont sleighs were usually a lot fancier than old Vermont buggies and wagons.
Until a few years ago the past probably got in amongst a visitor while he was entering the museum grounds. That was because the entrance was a truly stunning relic of Vermont’s past- a 168-foot covered wooden bridge with an outside sidewalk, the last of its kind in America. Superbly designed and stoutly built, it had faithfully served travelers crossing the Lamoille River from 1845 until 1949, when the Vermont Highway Department decided that its two lanes were too narrow to handle the increasing auto traffic. The department donated the 165-ton relic to a little white-haired lady named Electra Havemeyer Webb, who was just starting up a museum thirty-six miles away at Shelburne. Her new museum, as yet unseen by the public, was based on Mrs. Webb’s disarming notion that her bulging collections of old quilts, dolls, hooked rugs, ships’ figureheads, cigarstore Indians, and old hatboxes did not need a theme, a purpose, or a “philosophical core,” to quote a museum expert who chided Mrs. Webb for the lack of one in her nascent museum.
The museum expert was perfectly correct. The only real unity the Shelburne Museum had, or has, or probably ever will have, is the spirit and personality of its founder, who took courage in her hands at the age of fifty-eight and decided to show to an unpredictable public all the things she had been collecting since 1907, the year when her mother first learned that the eighteenyear-old heiress she was training up to a life of Art Appreciation and Refined Connoisseurship harbored very pecular notions about what constituted art.