- Historic Sites
Sidewheeler For Shelburne
A determined collector brings a steamboat to her museum of Americana—by rail.
April 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 3
Despite the fact that a Vermonter is chemically unable to bring himself to a compliment, the Green Mountain State is one where early structures are held most dear, almost in reverence, and there was from the start a good deal of general satisfaction about the saving of the bridge. It was soon joined by a stagecoach inn which had served wayfarers on the turnpike between New York and Montreal during the earliest days of the Union. Finally out of business in 1948, the 165-year-old inn was screened by a tangle of trees and shrubs from the old stage road, now a broad highway running through the town of Charlotte, a few miles south of Shelburne. Dismantled, transported and re-erected, beam by beam and brick by brick (there were 40,000 of these in the two chimneys), the building was swiftly transformed from a bleached shell into the graceful hostelry it once was, even to the ballroom running across the second floor. It now contains a most impressive collection of American sculptural folk art—figureheads, weather vanes, trade signs, circus figures, eagles and other crude wooden masterpieces.
In rapid succession came several early dwellings in stone and wood—a country school, a brick meeting-house, a store, a three-story Shaker building, even a tiny two-cell jail constructed entirely of Vermont slate. With floors also of slate, a riveted iron door and a lone small window which succeeds in maintaining a perpetual twilight within, the jail shares with the other buildings the spare charm of early north-country architecture.
Still awaiting the attentions of the museum construction crew, who would now rather work with hand-hewn beams and wooden pins than with two-by-fours and nails, are an up-and-down sawmill and a carrousel complete with hand-carved animals, boiler, steam engine and calliope, believed to have been made for the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. It is likely also that a memorial building to her parents will be erected to house the paintings that Mrs. Webb withheld at the time the Havemeyer Collection went to the Metropolitan.
It is readily evident that the scope of these buildings in terms of character and period is wide. Some of them, like the Cavendish salt box house and the Vermont House of stone, are furnished according to their periods, while the so-called Variety Unit and Town Barn contain collections of dolls, pewter, china, glass, toys, quilts, rugs, tools and a number of other categories. The whole is nevertheless curiously unifying and artistic in effect, which may be attributed to the impact of one person’s imagination.
Arriving early and staying late, Mrs. Webb daily works her way through a welter of details; there is building work, for example, and a steady program of decorating and furnishing, and after a day of business, a large family to preside over. But she is a woman with a boundless capacity for taking on something else, of which the story of the Ticonderoga is a fine example.
The old steamer, resting in an artificial lake, will be the most striking feature of the Shelburne landscape. But it will not stand in maritime solitude among the treasures of the land, for nearby in the museum grounds, in all its faded, early-Victorian glory, rises the old Colchester Lighthouse. For many decades, before modern technology spawned the automatic flashing beacon, it stood guard over a reef in Lake Champlain—until Mrs. Webb steamed by one day on the Ticonderoga and made a mental note that it ought to be preserved. When the lighthouse was declared surplus by the Coast Guard it was dismantled by the museum crew, towed in sections on pontoons to the mainland, trucked to the museum twenty miles south and re-erected. Filled with ship paintings and other memorabilia of lake travel, it will make a fitting companion to the sidewheeler which used to pass it every day on its progress up the lake.