Vital Rokeby Museum building completed; key exhibit next

FERRISBURGH — After more than a decade of planning and effort and a few setbacks along the way, the 13-year-old dreams for Ferrisburgh’s Rokeby Museum to become a major Underground Railroad history site and dramatically expand its ability to handle visitors is a giant step closer to reality.
Brandon general contractor Naylor & Breen Builders recently finished a two-story, roughly $1.5 million visitor center on the Route 7 site that will go by the name the Rokeby Museum Underground Railroad Education Center.
The building, which has a footprint of 2,500 square feet, takes advantage of the terrain to have ground-level entrances on both floors, and internally there is an elevator as well as a stairway, plus two handicap-accessible bathrooms.
The second story of the building, which is just downslope and to the right of the historic Rowland Robinson home that serves as Rokeby’s heart, will by May 19 house the museum’s permanent exhibit, “Free and Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont.”
The first story offers critical amenities Rokeby has lacked: a lobby large enough to handle bus tours, a meeting room that can accommodate up to five dozen people for educational programs or be rented to interested groups, a kitchen to cater to meeting room guests, office and storage space, bathrooms, and even a water fountain.
Those latter amenities may sound simple, said Rokeby director Jane Williamson, but she only half-jokingly said even long-time supporters appreciate what they mean to a museum that has not been able to deal with profitable larger groups.
“It’s really swell,” Williamson said. “We had a lot of excitement among the volunteers about using the bathrooms and getting a drink of water.”
Completely seriously, she said a visitor center housing a major attraction will make a vital difference for the Ferrisburgh landmark dedicated to the abolitionist Robinson family and their 19th-century farming homestead and lifestyle.
“You cannot host bus tours and school groups in that house. Only rarely is it possible,” she said. “If we want to serve that large public, which we do, this allows it to happen.”
The other, and possibly single most vital reason for the building, will be housed in its now-vacant second story: the Underground Railroad exhibit.
“There won’t be anything like it,” Williamson said.
There are other museums that are devoted to or touch upon the Underground Railroad, including the National Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati, Ohio; one on African-American history in Boston; and smaller museums in Newton, Mass., and Ausable, N.Y., that focus on the journey of escaped slaves to freedom before the Civil War.
But Williamson said perhaps Rokeby alone can offer a rich multi-media display based on diaries and original letters written not only by escaped slaves but also their former Southern masters.
Those materials — plus excerpts from other diaries written at the time — stand in for and offer a personal perspective on the experiences of slaves as they made the perilous journey northward, she said.
“They pour out their hearts,” she said. “They tell you how frightened they were, what a hard decision it was, how cold they were, how hungry they were.”
The upstairs is structured as a circular series of galleries. Visitors will first follow the path of a freed slave named Simon, who fled Maryland when he learned his master planned to sell him to a deep-South plantation, and then eventually made his way to Rokeby, where he essentially lived openly and freely.
“The letters are all about his escape. He’s on his way to Canada, he runs into Oliver Johnson, he gets diverted to Vermont. So we have that information about him, and you can follow it. But along the way we can provide context, general information, not just specifically about Simon running away, but what happens to other slaves running away,” Williamson said.
The trip goes through Philadelphia, a part of which will be recreated in the exhibit.
“You’ll be walking along practically a life-size street scene of Philadelphia,” she said.
The next gallery will focus on Simon and another freed slave, Jesse, and their life on a Vermont farm in Antebellum Era.
“When you come here this is going to be a farm scene in Vermont. There’s a panel about the Robinsons. There’s a panel about Vermont in the 1830s with what characterized Vermont, sheep and abolition. It’s kind of like as a visitor you arrive a Rokeby along with Simon,” Williamson said.
The exhibit will include letters exchanged by Jesse and his former owner in which Jesse offered $150 if his owner would renounce his ownership claims, but the owner insisted upon $300. Williamson said the museum would love to know more about Jesse’s journey, which is currently lost in the mists of time.
“We know quite a bit about his life in North Carolina from a research trip we made there, and we know about his life at Rokeby working on the farm for at least a year,” Williamson said. “How the heck did he get up here? I hope someday we uncover that nugget.”
The next gallery uses scrim fabric hangings, alternating track lighting and recorded voices and noises to dramatize Jesse’s story at Rokeby, including his negotiations with his former owner.
“With this stage and some scrim panels, we can have three or four different stage sets and just how we light them will determine what the audience sees,” Williamson said.
A final gallery will put what is going on in Vermont and Rokeby into historical context.
“This is the national scene,” Williamson said. “This is about what is going on during these years that all of this is a part of.”
One admission price will cover the exhibit, the Rowland home, the outbuildings, walking the museum’s hiking trail and picnicking on the property.
 Back in 1999 the idea was born, and early this past decade a foundation operated by Lois McClure gave Rokeby a grant to develop the exhibit. In 2003, Williamson said McClure gave a further $500,000 toward the larger project, with a condition it be matched by 2006.
Three 2006 grants took care of that: $235,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a $200,000 federal Transportation Enhancement Grant through the Vermont Agency of Transportation, and $20,000 from the National Park Service.
The typical red tape attached to federal grants delayed the project until 2008, Williamson said, and the recession hit. A large private pledge was withdrawn, and another was put on hold. The project was halted until 2011, when Rokeby netted a $206,000 Scenic Byways grant. The project was back on, and Naylor & Breen came aboard.
Now, Williamson said, the finished product is universally popular. 
“Everybody who walks in goes, ‘Oh, my God, this is gorgeous,” she said.
One final hurdle, a tragic one, remained. The exhibit’s West Coast designer passed away at the age of 62; the Dec. 31 installation date was no longer realistic, and the Rokeby was left scrambling for a new designer.
Fortunately, a colleague of the designer in California was able to pick up the threads of the project, and Williamson said the Rokeby will easily meet its May 19 target date.
“It just took a huge bunch of time … But it’s OK, we’ve got until May,” she said.
Now Williamson can turn her attention to the next task — marketing. That task will involve working with the state’s heritage tourism coordinator, Vergennes resident Catherine Brooks, who is developing, by coincidence, a 15-site Vermont African-American Heritage Trail.
“The next thing I have to do is figure out how to market it,” Williamson said. “When it opens, that’s our opportunity to make the biggest splash we can possibly make.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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