November 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 7
ALL PHOTOGRAPHS IMAGES FROM THE PAST.
The history of any town, large or small, has the air of a surreal play, one on which the curtain never goes down. The cast changes constantly; the set does not—except that from time to time scene shifters steal in with fresh furnishings, backdrops, even entire buildings. The plot is improvised by the characters as they go along. It can be as somnolent as watching grass grow, or bursting with action. And such dramas, of course, never end.
Our subject here is Bennington, Vermont, a picturesque setting at the foot of the Green Mountains, tucked into the southwest corner of that state. The time is the latter part of the nineteenth century, slopping over a little into the beginning of the twentieth—the age of photography. It is about a century since the first settlement in 1761—or Act I—in what was then known as the New Hampshire Grants, land claims that were hotly disputed by the neighboring province of New York. What with border battles and then the American Revolution, followed by fourteen years of the “Independent Republic of Vermont” until statehood came as a relief in 1791, Bennington was all frantic action. The Green Mountain Boys, led by Ethan Alien and his enormous kindred, were in the thick of it. They seized Fort Ticonderoga, with its stores and invaluable cannon, from a sleepy British garrison. They fought beside Gen. John Stark’s militiamen in the Battle of Bennington, a victory that fatally weakened Gen. John Burgoyne’s attempt in 1777 to drive south from Canada to New York.
Dominating the stage is the giant figure (some say six feet six) of the legendary Ethan, variously regarded, then as now, as either a hero or a profane rowdy, or perhaps some of each. His followers state it as fact that he once killed an attacking bear by shoving his powder horn down its throat and, on another occasion, strangled a mountain lion with his bare hands. Once when Ethan and his cousin Remember Baker were in the woods at night, sleeping off a drinking bout at the Catamount Tavern, Remember was awakened by some hissing sounds and saw a rattlesnake repeatedly biting the sleeping figure beside him. He sprang to his feet and grabbed his musket, but then the snake pulled back of its own accord, weaving unsteadily, and lurched drunkenly into the underbrush. As Remember remembered, Ethan awoke complaining of “damnable, bloodsucking mosquitoes.”
A century later the setting has changed: how peaceful, how prosperous the old frontier outpost has become! Bennington is still small but is spreading out. Knitting mills have sprung up all along the Walloomsac River, and woolen and cotton mills. Bennington manufactures boxes, machinery, stereographs, and collars and cuffs. Immigrants have poured in heavily from Canada, while the Yankee farm boys ventured westward in search of better farmland. Local farms nevertheless still place a lot of cans on the milk trains bound for New York and Boston. Railroads and wagon roads have replaced the two old Indian trails that crossed here at the “Four Corners.” The Vermont Soldiers Home is here, but what recalls the heroic past the most is the great Bennington Battle Monument, dedicated in 1891. It is the highest memorial to a battle in the world, 306 feet altogether.
What is truly unusual about Bennington among most American small towns, however, is that so much of its photographic record still exists. Elsewhere, many collections of one or two photographers’ work are preserved in archives, but in this case we have a succession of photographers, with most of their known work in one private place.
Bennington’s first professional cameraman was Calvin Dart, a daguerreotypist and then a photographer who moved there in 1838; in 1882 he passed his business on to William H. Sipperly. Sipperly made stereographs as well as ordinary photographs and had practiced his art in Saratoga and other upstate New York towns. He was also a wanderer, who, after six years, sold the business again, in 1888. The buyer was Madison E. Watson, a Vermonter of skill who must have decided that photography was a poor, hard living because he gave it up in 1899 and went to the West Coast. The successor to the job, and to the growing pile of negatives, was steady Wills T. White, who kept at it for forty years and retired in 1939, leaving behind a new pile of wedding, portrait, school, and other work, still using glass plates into the 1920s.
The Bennington Hoard (as I think of it) slumbered on peacefully and undisturbed in White’s abandoned studio on the third floor of the Bennington Banner building until 1959, when it attracted the attention of Robert L. Weichert, a civil engineer and skilled amateur photographer who had come up from New York to Bennington. He was working for the Banner as a temporary replacement for a draftee when he began to explore that top floor. The unwanted “old-time” photographs, as he called them, caught his imagination. After a while he acquired the whole collection, except for some that went to the elegant little Bennington Museum. Over the next twenty-five years Weichert added more negatives, prints, and ephemera to his collection and started to put things in order (by subject interest and quality, rather than by photographer).
Wearying but still caught up in his task, Weichert was joined in his project by a vigorous and much younger enthusiast of local history and its interpretation to the public, Tordis Ug Isselhardt. A 1958 graduate of Bennington College, with an M.A. from Middlebury College, she had extensive experience in preservation and museum work.She started a business with Weichert, called the Weichert-lsselhardt Collection, Images from the Past, and together they bought a house on Main Street simply to house the photographs. Isselhardt worked to catalogue and conserve the material. She continued after her partner’s death in 1983, supporting her project by giving entertaining lectures and slide shows all over the state and selling high-grade prints from the collection.
If you pass through Bennington, as my wife and I did last year, and if you take a meal in the fine restaurant housed in the disused Bennington railroad station, you will see more of the Weichert-lsselhardt Hoard, handsomely enlarged on the walls. That is how we found it and heard from the collector’s own lips this statement of her self-imposed mission: “To help people transcend the barriers of time and place to understand any community or culture as the expression of its people.”
Chew on that a moment. I think I am for it. If you want to know more, go to Bennington’s “Four Corners,” where the Molly Stark Trail crosses what I call “the Ethan Alien Trail,” and head a couple of blocks west on Main Street. Tordis Isselhardt’s place is across from the big church. She’s still collecting, has plans for a book, and the play called Bennington goes on.