by Emily Kaminsky
BARRE — A rich collection of archival material and artifacts representing Barre’s earliest history through the turn ofthe 19th century and beyond will soon be settled into its new home at the Vermont Historical Society’s Vermont History Center, which is home to the Vermont Heritage Galleries and the Howard and Alba Leahy Library located on Washington Street in downtown Barre. “It’s a collection of collections,” says Paul Carnahan, director of the Howard and Alba Leahy Library. “It’s the largest amount of items we have processed at one time.”
The collection had been unavailable to the public ever since it was confined to storage at the Ward 5 School. It’s more recent home had been the Aldrich Library, where, for at least two decades, some of it was on display and most of it was boxed up and stacked wherever there was room. The collection was moved to the Ward 5 School when the library underwent renovations.
The collection includes hundreds of artifacts that very few people have seen such as early granite industry tools, a revolutionary war rifle, fire buckets and fire house memorabilia, service and ethnic club materials, clothing, personal heirlooms and furniture. The collection also includes hundreds of boxes of archival materials such as photographs, news clippings, financial and legal records, correspondence, personal papers, account books and printed materials. Together, they tell a story of a small rural community of yankees that in a short period of time grew to become the center of granite trade and industry and a melting pot thanks to immigrants who came from abroad to work in the quarries.
According to Vermont History Center Curator Jackie Calder, the Barre Historical Society and the collection was started in 1915 as a response by upper-middle-class yankees to a perceived threat to their cultural heritage. The collection was organized in a formal way in 1974 and transferred to the Aldrich Library when the Barre Historical Society closed its doors in 1980.
“It was challenging,” says Marjorie Strong who is archivist at Vermont Historical Center and was archivist at the Aldrich Library in the 1990s. “The Collection was on the second floor and packed floor to ceiling,” she recalls. The hazards were so severe that she remembers climbing a ladder once to get some boxes down and falling back onto a big rack of historical paintings. She also used to fear dropping the big granite tools through the library’s second floor glass flooring. “I imagined them just going straight through,” she says.
Not only will the collection find a safer home at the Vermont History Center, complete with climate control and acid-free containers, but it will also be more accessible to the public. In August, the Barre Historical Society (which was revived in the 1990s to rescue the Old Labor Hall) signed an agreement with the Vermont Historical Society to house and maintain the collection at the center. “We’re happy to have it here. The center is an appropriate place for the collection,” says Calder. “It’s a very interesting collection for us because we have a lot of Montpelier materials. We think of them as two very separate communities but what the collections will reflect is a lot of intermarriage between the upper- and upper-middle class of the day,” she says.
The artifacts are less well known at this point as Calder has not been able to get a good look at the collection yet. “It’s freezing over there and there are no bathrooms,” she laments. By early 2015, however, several truckloads of artifacts will be delivered to the center’s doorstep and she and her staff will start the long process of cataloguing and storing the artifacts and their associated papers. “It’s not here yet and I don’t know it. There are thousands of things over there. We’re pretty full; we’re going to have to squeeze this in somewhere,” she says.
For Marjorie Strong, bringing the collection to the History Center is a dream come true. “It’s really fun. There are things I’ve totally forgotten about. It’s kind of like my baby is back.” Both she and Carnahan expressed how frustrating it has been to know that the collection existed but to have no way to access it. “It was really frustrating; people would know it existed but we couldn’t get to it. Now we can,” Carnahan says.
Processing the collection will take time, effort and money, according to Calder. The Vermont Historical Society funds its operations, programs, and facilities with appropriations from the state of Vermont, contributions and bequests from private individuals, and program fees and other earned revenue. Already halfway through it’s fiscal year, it does not have extra funding earmarked to process the Barre History Collection. Approximately $18,000 is needed to pay interns and purchase materials to catalogue the collection. Calder is looking for donations from the community at large to help foot the bill.
The appeal to fund the work will hopefully be answered by the community. The collection holds many treasures that help define Barre as a community then and now. “Historical items help us remember where we come from; we often take things for granted until it’s all gone,” says Calder. “We’re very happy to have the Barre History Collection here. It’s an appropriate home for it.”
Calder says she is committed to bringing the materials to life for the public by circulating items through the existing Barre history display at the center called “The Emergence of the Granite City: Barre 1880 to 1940.” That exhibit currently includes quite a few items that were initially culled from the collection. For more information on the Vermont Historical Society, the Heritage Galleries and Library at the Vermont History Center in Barre, and the Barre History Collection, visit www.vermonthistory.org or call 479-8500.