Skip to main content

Electra Webb And Her American Past

July 2024
12min read

How a brave and gifted woman defied her parents and her background to create the splendid collection that is Shelburne

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.

The highly cultivated Mrs. Havemeyer undoubtedly bought hats, but it would never have occurred to her to collect the boxes they came in. Mrs. Lpuisine Waldron Elder Havemeyer was the wife of Henry O. Havemeyer, president of the American Sugar Refining Company, a monopoly that did more to inspire antitrust sentiment in the 1890's than any other company, with the possible exception of Standard Oil. The Havemeyers, however, were not the average robber baron and baroness, which is to say, a workhorse harnessed to “the market” paired with a clotheshorse galloping into the Four Hundred. The Havemeyers did not hold gaudy balls; they held genteel Sunday musicales. They numbered artists among their friends, most notably Mary Cassatt, the pioneer American impressionist painter. The sugar king invariably played the violin each morning before setting off to work. He and Louisine took countless arduous trips to Europe in a passionate search for great art to collect. By the time Electra was a well-traveled teen-ager, her parents had acquired one of America’s finest private collections of European paintings (now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art). They also had acquired—judging from Mrs. Havemeyer’s privately printed memoirs—a contempt for ordinary Americans, who simply refused to understand, as Mrs. Havemeyer complained, that a private monopoly was a good thing and persisted in thinking it very bad indeed. Louisine’s hatred of Teddy Roosevelt was venomous.


In any case, Electra inherited the family passion for collecting but most assuredly not the family contempt for the commonality, as she demonstrated on that crucial day in 1907. “I was driving through the little town of Stamford, Connecticut, and what should I see but a cigar-store Indian,” Mrs. Webb was to recall some fifty years later to an audience at Colonial Williamsburg. “It represented a life-size squaw clutching a bunch of cigars in her hand. I just had to have her.” The shopkeeper was happy to sell it for fifteen dollars. Electra carried it home in her car and duly showed it to her recently widowed mother. “Ladies and gentlemen, if you could have seen my mother’s face. She said, ‘What have you done?’ ” Now Electra might have replied that she thought her wooden squaw was quaint or amusing. Had she thought so, it is safe to say there would never have been a Shelburne Museum. Instead Electra bravely tackled Mother, Mary Cassatt, and high art head on: “I bought a work of art,” she explained. “This is perfectly dreadful,” replied her mother. When Louisine Havemeyer realized that the dreadful deed was only the first step, that her daughter would go on to fill two large houses with carved eagles, hand-painted wallpaper, and rude country furniture, she was aghast, mortified, and most of all, bewildered. “How can you , Electra, you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?”

Now there is something to be said for Mrs. Havemeyer’s view. When you own Tanagra figurines (these, too, can be seen at Shelburne), it is not easy to see art in a cigar-store squaw hastily carved by some anonymous itinerant whittler. When her daughter began collecting such things, it was even harder to do so, for in 1907 Electra Havemeyer was a genuine pioneer, twenty years ahead of her time. She was collecting “folk art” before almost anyone knew that Americans produced it and was piling up “Americana” before the term was coined. Moreover, she collected such things not because they were sweetly nostalgic or historically valuable but because she liked the beauty she found in them. No wonder Mrs. Havemeyer threw up her hands in despair and complained that it was “hard for a mother” to bring up a daughter on Old Masters only to “see what taste she’s fallen to now.”

What Mrs. Havemeyer couldn not grasp was that her disIf turbing daughter did not real.M. .M. Iy care about “taste” as such. She cared about something deeper than taste and prior to art itself. What she loved—and the Shelburne Museum is the proof of this—was the evidence of a truth easily forgotten in the endless solemn talk about art: that while people may have horrendous taste, the love of beauty is well-nigh universal. That is why crusty Vermont farmers wanted graceful-looking weather vanes, why hard-bitten merchants put up handsome-looking trade signs, why tough old sea captains wanted carved figures on the prows of their ships, why farm girls decorated quilts with beautiful patterns of patchwork, and why the future founder of the Shelburne Museum avidly collected the weather vanes, the signs, the figureheads, and the quilts. She once explained to a visitor: “I try to find the art in folk art.” Mrs. Webb’s endeavor can be stated more broadly. She was delighted to see love of beauty shining forth in workaday things and in lives otherwise cramped, harsh, and laborious. That is another reason why Mrs. Webb’s museum turned out to be so amiable a place. It displays its founder’s deep affection for the virtues of ordinary people. “She was simplicity herself,” her elderly secretary, Elsie Schoonover, told me. “You never had the feeling you were with a woman of great wealth.”

Electra Havemeyer’s marriage in 1910 proved a second crucial step in the ultimate creation of the Shelburne Museum. It bound the New York-bred heiress to northern Vermont, rural New England at its most harsh and laborious. Electra’s choice of a husband was possibly no more to her mother’s liking than her eccentric view of art. J. Watson Webb, aged twenty-four, was a handsome young man, a well-bred young man, and the son of Commodore Vanderbilt’s granddaughter LiIa. He had summered in a 110-room house near Shelburne, where his father, Dr. W. Seward Webb, maintained (largely at his Vanderbilt wife’s expense) the largest hackney breeding stud farm in America, a horse barn the size of Madison Square Garden, the first private golf course to be built in America, and a coach house for his carriages that looked like a castle on the Rhine. Electra’s chosen mate, however, had a few definite drawbacks from the Louisine Havemeyer viewpoint. He cared nothing for art, had no money of his own as yet, and was determined to lead a sporting life of the most extravagantly costly kind. J. Watson Webb loved riding to hounds in Vermont, hunting moose in Alaska, shooting grouse in Scotland and quail in South Carolina, and fishing for salmon in Quebec. Above all, he loved playing polo, and by the early 1920's he was one of the greatest players in the world.

By then Electra was the mother of five children, the mistress of an estate at Shelburne, a still larger estate at Westbury, Long Island, polo capital of America, and a seventeen-room apartment on Park Avenue. She was, as her son J. Watson Webb, Jr., remarked to me, “a devoted polo wife,” meaning that she spent long, hot afternoons watching her husband and his colleagues galloping their costly ponies to exhaustion and her evenings attending—and giving—formal dinner parties for twenty or thirty polo-playing couples.


Given the polo round, the three luxurious homes, the annual hunting and shooting trips, Electra Havemeyer Webb could scarcely be said to be living anything remotely resembling the common life. Nevertheless, her original love of the common people’s rude art remained undiminished. According to her son, Watson, her mode of life probably strengthened it. Nothing, he said only half-jokingly, was better calculated to reinforce a feeling for simplicity than the gross opulence displayed by his mother’s Vanderbilt in-laws.

In any event, “I kept on collecting,” Mrs. Webb recalled two years before her death in 1960. “I filled a house … with collections, and my attic, of course, was a wonderful place. The sculpture increased over at the indoor tennis court, and as the children grew up, and somebody would ask for me, they would say, ‘Oh mother is over in the tennis court building with her junk.’ ” Her son-in-law Dunbar Bostwick still recalls the hazards of chasing a deep lob at that tennis court; you were in danger of breaking a leg tripping over a sidelined carrousel horse.

As early as 1929, the year her mother died, Electra thought of putting the overflow from her collecting on some sort of public display. She would restore some old house in Shelburne and turn it into a little admission-free museum of folk art. Modest though this idea was, it took seventeen years before Mrs. Webb got around to buying the house. Such timidity seemed so at odds with her firm character that I asked everyone who knew her if they could think of a reason for it. In part, I was told, Mrs. Webb worried about her ignorance. Despite all the years of collecting—"It’s like being an alcoholic,” she once remarked—she knew little in a scholarly way about what she owned. She had followed her intuition, which is all very well while outfitting a home but quite another when your intuitions are on public display to be judged and perhaps mocked by erudite critics—”antiquies” as Mr. Webb used to call them with undisguised contempt. Indeed, according to J. Watson Webb, Jr., it was his father, the aging ex-polo star, who probably made his mother so timid at the start. A scornful, hard-bitten man, “he intimidated her about how she spent her own money,” said Watson, and folk art to Mr. Webb was a waste of it.

Shortly after Mrs. Webb bought a house for her future museum, a stroke of fortune completely altered her modest little plans. Her brother-in-law, Vanderbilt Webb, having inherited the 110room house on Lake Champlain, decided to get rid of the old carriages and sleighs, most of them still neatly lined up in the enormous coach house. Of course Seward Webb had a turnout for every conceivable occasion, condition, or circumstance, from a double buckboard for transporting hunting parties to a glistening black Berlin for occasions of state, in addition to a slew of gigs, phaetons, and sleighs plain and fancy. “I couldn’t bear to have these carriages go,” Mrs. Webb recalled. “So I said, ‘Would you consider giving them to me if I had a little piece of property and kept them in Shelburne?’ ” The Vanderbilt Webbs agreed. Her husband, too, gave his wholehearted approval. Since Mrs. Webb decided to house the carriages in a historically appropriate building (an immense horseshoe barn, as it turned out), what her kinfolk were agreeing to, in effect, was the creation of an outdoor museum—a collection of fine old things housed in a variety of historically interesting buildings. The agreement “was the spark that lit the fire and I had my opening. And that was the start of the Shelburne Museum,” explained Mrs. Webb to her Williamsburg audience in 1957. Given the carriages and (what was far more important) her family’s tacit approval, “from then on there was no holding me.”


From then on, too, Electra Havemeyer Webb ceased to be a collector of folk art amusing herself. Of necessity she had to become a connoisseur of old Vermont farmhouses, barns, schools, churches, bridges, and paddle wheelers. Since most of the structures had to be carefully dismantled, transported, and reassembled at Shelburne, she had to become, too, a sort of supervisory engineer of some tricky feats of restoration. Since she and her husband continued to shoot grouse in Scotland in late summer and to spend autumn in New York and winter hunting quail in South Carolina, she also had to become the effective absentee leader of a pretty crusty band of Vermont carpenters, masons, and laborers. How well she won their loyalty is attested by an incongruous building that has stood for almost two decades on the Shelburne Museum lawn. It is a U.S. Coast Guard lighthouse that crowned Lake Champlain’s Colchester Reef from 1871 to 1952, when Mrs. Webb boldly bought the condemned structure. In the teeth of high winds, lake storms, poor moorings, and the indomitable strength of an old-time U.S. lighthouse, five of Mrs. Webb’s employees, unbidden, risked life and limb for twenty-six days to bring the Colchester Reef Lighthouse piece by piece to shore. It now stands near its old Lake Champlain companion, the S.S. Ticonderoga , which took eight months of even more taxing labor—as well as two hundred and fifty thousand dollars of Mrs. Webb’s money —to haul almost two miles overland from the lake to the museum.

Mrs. Webb also had to become, willy-nilly, something of a landscape architect. The landscaping problem was how to arrange in some order an extreme diversity of buildings when the one kind of order you do not want is that of a pseudo-historical village. Feeling out of her depth, Mrs. Webb called on the services of a distinguished Long Island estate architect to draw up plans for the museum. The landscape architect had gotten to the model-building stage when Mrs. Webb decided that his plan was fundamentally wrong. The formality of a Long Island estate, she concluded, was too pompous for the modest, weather-beaten structures she was rapidly collecting. I asked an old-timer who it was who had thought of the wonderfully simple solution of distributing the buildings informally around a pleasant and utterly nonhistorical lawn. He told me it was Mrs. Webb herself, true to her instinct for candor and simplicity. For landscaping decisions she relied on a man named Duncan Munro, who had been second gardener at Mrs. Webb’s Westbury estate; Mrs. Webb had detected Munro’s considerable artistic gifts. As the Vermont historian Ralph Nading Hill said of Mrs. Webb, “She was a collector of people as well as things.”


Most of all, Mrs. Webb had to be a patient diplomat. The Webb clan, by far the richest people in the area—in it but not of it—had always been the object of local suspicion. During the early years of the museum, elected officials put numerous obstacles in Mrs. Webb’s way. The homecoming World War II veterans were particularly antagonistic, recalls Bob Francis, the handyman-as-genius (another of Mrs. Webb’s finds) who has executed almost all the restorations in Shelburne from the first in late 1946 until the present day. “Many’s the time I’d have to bite my tongue,” he told me, listening to friends and neighbors angrily demanding to know why a rich old lady was buying up old houses instead of building new ones for returning GI ‘s. ” ‘Those old buildings won’t last ten years, they d say. Francis smiled at the notion. Having taken them apart and put them together again, he knew better than anyone that, even burdened with a hundred-year handicap, a stout Vermont farmhouse with its huge handhewn beams would still outlast the average jerry-built post-World War II dwelling.

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.


Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.