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Sheldon Museum unveils treasures from its attic

MIDDLEBURY — A trip to the household attic can often yield a few cherished family treasures with some interesting stories attached to them.
So it should come as no surprise that a trip to the attic of Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History can yield a veritable gold mine of artifacts that speak volumes about the people, places and history of Addison County.
Museum officials have dusted off some of the Park Street institution’s fascinating attic assets for its latest exhibit, aptly titled “Treasures from the Sheldon Museum.” On display through April 20, the treasures include a series of stunning paintings featuring local scenes and people, along with an array of unusual conversation-starters, such as an adult-sized cradle, a 135-year-old penny farthing bicycle with a 52-inch front wheel and a 120-year-old stuffed cat.
“They speak to us,” Sheldon Museum Executive Director Bill Brooks said as he surveyed the various elements of the exhibit last week.
“Everything here has a local connection.”
Some of the items in the exhibit were accumulated by the museum’s namesake, Henry Sheldon (1821-1907), a local merchant, postal officer and avid collector of coins, stamps, autographs, furnishings and many other items. Other treasures were donated to the Sheldon, acknowledged as the oldest community history museum in the country.
Some of the treasures are utilitarian.
Affixed to the museum wall is a large, 210-year-old marble saw used by Middlebury marble merchants Theodatus Phelps and Charles A. Landon. The two-man saw is toothless; sand was used to perform the cutting action on rock, Brooks noted. Phelps and Landon operated the saw at a quarry off Halpin Road in New Haven, among other places.
Near the saw is another reminder of Middlebury’s past and present: A built-to-scale model of the historic Pulp Mill Bridge that links Middlebury to Weybridge across the Otter Creek via Seymour Street. Lowell Clark, a 1951 Middlebury High School graduate, built the model as an assignment for an Industrial Arts course he took at Fitchburg State College in 1954. Clark’s model showcases the intricate truss work that characterizes the Pulp Mill Bridge, one of the few remaining two-lane, covered spans in the country. It has undergone several costly rehabs in recent years, most recently last year.
The Clark family donated the bridge model to the Sheldon Museum, where it has been in storage.
“I think he was pleased,” Brooks said of Lowell Clark’s reaction when informed his model would be part of the exhibit.
Also featured in the exhibit are portraits of some of the county’s prominent historical figures. Among them: Loyal Case, a Middlebury attorney who practiced in the late 18th century and early 19th century. He also served as Addison County state’s attorney. Described as a “man of ardent temperament and of kind, benevolent disposition,” one of his most celebrated cases involved the representation of a fugitive slave apprehended in Shoreham in 1808. Case convinced the attorney for the slave owner to drop the case. The opposing attorney happened to be his brother-in-law.
Also on display is a James Cady painting of the former Lake Dunmore House in Salisbury, a popular lodging establishment that burned down in 1877 and again in 1906. Cady was a Brandon-based painter and photographer. One of his photos features a stagecoach of people leaving Brandon for the Lake Dunmore House.
Interesting furnishings are also part of the exhibit. Among them is a chair, made by Henry Sheldon, that includes a piece of wood from the bench on which prisoners sat for trials at the old Middlebury Courthouse. The chair also includes two rows of unpainted spindles taken from “24 places of local and national history,” including the USS Constitution (built in 1797), Col. John Chipman’s barn (Revolutionary War era), the Congregational Church of Middlebury (1809), and Declaration House, Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was written.
In the middle of one of the exhibit rooms sits a large, early 19th-century cradle with documents about its Weybridge spinster owners, Misses Charity Bryant (1777-1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784-1868). Miss Bryant was the aunt of poet, editor, and abolitionist William Cullen Bryant. Reports indicate that every day after the noon dinner Charity would lie down in the cradle and Sylvia would rock her to sleep so that she could have her afternoon siesta while Sylvia did the housework. The two are the subjects of a 2012 article by feminist author Rachel Hop Cleves of Canada’s University of Victoria, “Miss Bryant Was the Man: A Female Husband in the Early American Republic.”
Aficionados of militaria will appreciate a painted silk banner, featuring an eagle and a shield, carried into the War of 1812 by a Plattsburgh, N.Y., unit; a French World War I poster that Brooks’ grandfather, Maj. Jacob Johnson Ross, MD, brought back to his family after serving as flight surgeon for the U.S. 17th Aero Squadron in France; and a Civil War drum that has blood stains on it.
Brooks hopes many people will take in the Treasures exhibit.
“It’s been fun,” Brooks said of the curating process. “It’s introduced me to many of the interesting things we have here.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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