New film documents 250 years of Ferrisburgh history

FERRISBURGH — From the critical — the town’s involvement in the War of 1812 — to the whimsical — in the 20th century a Burlington-bound train crunched a loaded manure truck — a new professionally crafted film offers a comprehensive look at Ferrisburgh’s history.
Produced on a volunteer basis by veteran filmmaker and Panton resident Ed Dooley, owner of Waitsfield’s Mad River Media, “Ferrisburgh: A Vermont Town With a History” traces the town from its days before European settlers arrived until its 250th birthday celebration a year ago.
The hour-long DVD will make its official debut at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, June 15, at the Ferrisburgh town office building and community center. It offers interviews with many local residents and footage of modern local scenery interspersed with historic photographs, maps and paintings.
Dooley, who has decades of experience and a satellite office in France (more info on his company can be found at madrivermedia.com), does some voice-over work, but only when necessary.
“In general my style … is to let the people tell the story,” he said. “We had to have some narration in this just to tie things together.”
Among those speaking are Lake Champlain Maritime Museum founder Art Cohn; farmers Ray Brands and Calvin Hawkins; selectboard member Sally Torrey; late resident and Grange member Isabel Munnett; Ferrisburgh Historical Society members Gail Blasius, Silas Towler, Robert Mitchell and Charlie Langworthy; and other residents, including Elias Baldwin, several schoolchildren and Karlene Devine.
“We asked a number of people what they thought were the most important things that made Ferrisburgh what it is now,” Dooley said.
The DVDs will be for sale, starting Saturday night at the preview screening at $15 apiece or two for $20. After that, they will be available locally for $20 each.
Towler, the historical society’s treasurer, said there are no specific plans for proceeds above and beyond the only cost to the society for the film, which was $525 to produce DVD copies.
Typically, Towler said, the society supports town students who enter scholastic history contests, and puts on programs at its headquarters, the former Route 7 schoolhouse and longtime town clerk’s office.
In the film, society president Gail Blasius describes the society’s mission as making “prime source material … accessible to all community members.”
Any proceeds, in one sense, therefore would be secondary, Towler said: Having the town’s history documented helps the society fulfill its goals.
“We really want to get this out to the people,” he said, adding, “The more they know about the town, the more they participate … We want people to be involved and informed.”
Towler said the society is “thrilled” with Dooley, who came aboard after a discussion with Langworthy and has spent two years off and on working on the project, including what he called “a solid month” editing down 40 hours of raw footage into the final product.
“Ed approached us and said he wanted to do it, and wanted to do it as a donation,” Towler said. “He’s got huge time into it.”
The DVD sticks to a largely chronological approach, starting with Abenaki and Iroquois settlement, the arrival of Samuel de Champlain, the mid-1700s land grants from New Hampshire governor Benning Wentworth that prompted the area’s settlement, and the specifics of the town, starting with “grant proprietors’ surveyors” Benjamin and David Ferris.
Mitchell points out the town was supposed to be about 24,000 acres, but says, “It ended up a lot bigger than that.” Vermont’s ninth largest town, Ferrisburgh contains about 39,000 acres.
Forty-acre lakefront lots were most desirable at first, while Assistant Town Clerk Pam Cousino notes some inland lots were “drawn out of a hat.”
Cohn, of course, touches on the area’s Revolutionary War and War of 1812 involvement, and he and Baldwin discuss and agree upon the much-debated “Dugway” that connects Otter Creek with Lake Champlain near its mouth.
Cohn says that for about a century, Lake Champlain served as a conduit for commerce “just like our interstate does for us.”
Cohn also cites Ferrisburgh’s four rivers and ample farmland: “It was really the embarrassment of riches … Really, Ferrisburgh prospered from the earliest time.”
Rokeby Museum Director Jane Williamson touches upon abolitionism and the Civil War, and the prevalence of Merino sheep farming.
The arrival of the railroads and industry are touched upon, and agriculture is a major theme throughout, including the gradual conversion to dairy, the strong Dutch presence, and what Brands calls the town’s agricultural “community within a community,” the members of which support one another.
“You’re a neighbor. We help each other out,” Brands says.
There are plenty of smaller touches, too. Langworthy notes one of his ancestors, Sheffield Langworthy, was asked to leave town, possibly because of habits related to running a tab at a tavern — and Dooley’s camera pans over the bill in question. 
Karlene Devine shares stories of her late father, Karl Devine, one of which is the honey wagon that becomes stuck on the railroad tracks and then struck by the northbound train. Devine notes that many in Ferrisburgh are amused that the train would not smell sweet when it arrived at its destination.
Dooley also chronicles the effort to renovate the former Grange Hall into town offices, which turned into a new construction project after the building is one of several destroyed in an arson spree. At first, the film notes people were angry, but when they realized who had set the fires — a resident who was the victim of head trauma — they felt compassion instead.
“This is actually one of the most positive stories I’ve heard about Ferrisburgh,” Dooley said. “People were saying, ‘This guy needs help’”
Ultimately, one of Baldwin’s comments might best explain why Dooley and the historical society are excited about the film.
“Once you know the history of a place that you know well,” Baldwin says, “it completely changes how it feels to be there.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the date of the film screening.

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