- Historic Sites
Sidewheeler For Shelburne
A determined collector brings a steamboat to her museum of Americana—by rail.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
The stresses and strains of this operation were borne no less by the contractors than by the trustees of the Shelburne Museum, particularly its zestful president, Electra H. Webb, who spent several sleepless nights before summoning up the courage to give final approval to the plans for moving the Ticonderoga overland. “We must preserve the boat,” she concluded, “and I think we had better go ahead and move it, but this is the biggest decision I have made since I said yes to Pa 45 years ago.”
“Pa” is J. Watson Webb, great-grandson of Commodore Vanderbilt, ten-goal polo player and master of foxhounds. Forty-five years ago Electra Webb was Electra Havemeyer, daughter of Henry O. Havemeyer, founder of the American Sugar Refining Company. As early as the age of sixteen she acquired a taste for collecting, not the Continental art in the Metropolitan Museum’s Havemeyer Collection for which her parents are remembered today, but Americana. One of her earliest selections was a cigar-store Indian which she brought home and lovingly placed on the piazza alongside her mother’s Chinese bird cages and bronzes filled with rare ferns. Her mother stared at it in horror.
“How can you, who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, collect such American trash?” she demanded. In criticizing her daughter for nonconformism Mrs. Havemeyer was being a bit forgetful, however. An indomitable figure who was one of the United States’ most ardent suffragettes, she had once been jailed in Washington for picketing the White House.
The Indian was allowed to stay and Electra went on to fill her own room with objects of American folk art, and after she was married, crammed more into her house in Westbury, Long Island. She then had no thought of a museum—she was just collecting things she liked. She filled the passing years with five children and twelve grandchildren. Accompanying her husband on his hunting expeditions, she made seven trips to Alaska and bagged two Kodiak bears. No less a horsewoman, she rode to the hounds with her husband every year until the Second World War when her abundant energies were taken up as director of the Red Cross blood program for New York City.
It was not until 1947 that the Shelburne Museum was begun. In that year the question arose of what to do with a fine collection of old carriages at Shelburne Farms, the 4,000-acre estate which Mr. Webb’s father had established in the Eighties. The Webbs decided to build a horseshoe barn out of old timbers and open it to the public as a museum of the carriage-maker’s art. This was the start. Soon Mrs. Webb was adding other new buildings to house the treasures of early America which by this time were overflowing her home and even the horse stalls of her barns.
The first venture which suggested operations on the Ticonderoga scale resulted from her determination to save the last double-lane covered bridge with footpath remaining in the state of Vermont. For over a hundred years it had spanned the Lamoille River at Cambridge, Vermont, and the question was: could a 168-foot bridge be successfully dismantled, moved 31 miles to Shelburne and re-erected at the museum grounds? Mrs. Webb proved it could be done. The bridge was placed over dry land, leading from the highway to the museum grounds, and a lily pond was dug out under it to make things look realistic.
Shortly thereafter an old Vermont Yankee was seen one morning contemplating this marvel of engineering and the lily pond beneath it. A gray-haired lady drove up and the old Vermonter called to her: “Do you work here?”
“I certainly do,” replied Electra Webb.
“Have you ever met Mrs. Webb?”
“Crazy, ain’t she?”
As Mrs. Webb considered how to reply to this, she was relieved to find that the old gentleman was going to answer his own question. He pointed to the lily pond under the bridge and declared: “It’d been a damn sight cheaper if she’d just filled up the hole!”