Electra Webb And Her American Past


Nevertheless, the local antagonism had its effect on Mrs. Webb s spirit. At times, recalled her secretary, she felt “overwhelmed” by what Time Magazine would tartly describe as “Electra’s hobby.” Four years after launching her somewhat eccentric museum, Mrs. Webb was still haunted now and then by the fear that it was all a hideous, costly mistake.

It was not until the Shelburne Museum finally opened to the public in 1952 that Mrs. Webb’s fears and local antagonism both disappeared, once and for all. As the first visitors—chiefly local people—passed through the old covered bridge, they could see for themselves the mighty labor and the admirable carpentry that went into its massive construction. At the old stagecoach inn, which housed Mrs. Webb’s collection of folk sculpture, they could see country whittling raised to an art in a building that once refreshed weary travelers struggling through old Vermont en route to Montreal. They could peer into a little stone cottage, cramped yet oddly dignified, which once housed a poor, forgotten farm laborer from nearby Burlington. They could see the bleached beauty of the old Vermont Methodist meetinghouse, once the center of Methodism throughout the Champlain valley. They could visit Shelburne’s old general store, now moved to the museum and restocked by Mrs. Webb with the whole extraordinary gamut of a general store’s merchandise, from biscuits and snuff to the "7 Sutherland Sisters Hair Grower"—the sheer diversity a testament to the isolation and self-reliance of Vermont’s old farming communities.

It is easy to see why the local antagonism vanished as soon as Mrs. Webb opened up her museum. The visitors could see at once that Electra Havemeyer Webb, of the baronial Webbs, the fox-hunting Webbs, the private railroad-car Webbs, had created a place that, above all else, paid a warm and eloquent tribute to the doughty virtues of their own Vermont forebears.