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Circling back to yesteryear at the Sheldon Museum

MIDDLEBURY — The late Henry Sheldon amassed so many objects, documents and photographs during his lifetime that it’s difficult to condense them all into a single, round number.
Instead, the Middlebury-based museum that bears his name has elected to showcase a sampling of Sheldon’s treasures in a circle — or rather a grouping in which each of the featured items boasts a circle as part of its visual allure.
“Circling the Sheldon,” on display at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History through April 19, is an exhibit that rounds up such intriguing offerings as a penny-farthing high-wheel bicycle from the 1880s; a multi-colored “yo-yo” quilt; a cornucopia of vintage waistcoat buttons; and a Civil War drum. It’s an optical extravaganza of orbs that museum Associate Director Mary Manley believes will regale visitors who come in to make the rounds.
“To me, it’s a rich, visual experience of our collection,” Manley said as she led a tour of the exhibit on Thursday. “It’s an interactive show because of the circles. It makes me feel really good that you can see this one shape all the way through these pieces that span decades and centuries. For me, it is uplifting. It’s a fun show.”
She credited museum Director Bill Brooks for coming up with the “circle” theme, which staff and Middlebury College work study assistants honored as they selected objects from the Sheldon’s awe inspiring attic. Manley explained the circle theme offers a geometric twist to last year’s “Treasures of the Sheldon” exhibit, during which the museum showcased collection pieces that infrequently come into public view.
It became quite the scavenger hunt.
“We’d look in boxes and hoped for a circle,” Manley said. “It’s been really fun.”
Fun, and ultimately productive. Museum officials found more than 30 objects with a circle motif and arranged them all in one room. A couple of larger pieces — such as some farm equipment — didn’t make the cut because of their size.
On the flip side, the exhibit features several examples of some circular objects because one simply wouldn’t do. For example, there’s a grouping of wicker baskets, some of them Native American, each displaying a yawning mouth. An impressive collection of dark-leather water buckets, once used by volunteer brigades to put out fires, stand at the ready.
Some of the exhibit items hammer home the theme of hard work during the 19th and early 20th centuries. A sturdy, round grindstone perched on a wooden and metal base shows wear from the many farm implements that were sharpened on it through the years. A spinning wheel, with wonderful patina, reminds us that clothes and blankets weren’t always bought at the store.
One of the items literally stands on its own. It’s a prosthetic wooden leg worn by Revolutionary War veteran Johnathon Preston. Preston lost his leg in action during the Revolutionary War and eventually settled on Munger Street in Middlebury.
Longtime Middlebury residents will recognize the face of the clock that once kept time in the steeple of the historic Congregational Church of Middlebury. The metal Roman numerals and dial, dating back to the 1850s, were salvaged from the steeple during a 1989 renovation of the church, Manley explained. That clock face now tells a story, instead of time, as part of the Sheldon collection.
Also featured in the exhibit is an ornate silver chalice, circa 1879, that Henry Sheldon presented to his niece; a late 19th-century hand-sewn log cabin quilt that captures the circular movement of revolving windmill blades; a pair of c-bridge eyeglasses feature green lenses, brass rims, and flat side-pin temples; and the oldest item: an Egyptian oil lamp, circa 300-100 BC, carved from clay.
Interspersed among the orb-centric items are various poems, song stanzas and sayings that celebrate the circle. Among them, this from vocal artist Maynard James Keenan: “A circle is the reflection of eternity. It has no beginning and it has no end — and if you put several circles over each other, then you get a spiral.” 
Sheldon officials are already preparing for the next exhibit, to be titled “The Lost Gardens of New England.” Much of the material will be supplied by Historic New England, a Boston-based nonprofit that has a mission of preserving and presenting New England heritage. The exhibit will feature panels, photos, watercolors, outdoor furniture, bird houses and other garden-related memorabilia from years gone by. The Sheldon will supplement the exhibit with approximately 50 slides, dating back to the 1930s, showing gardens throughout Vermont. Some of those slides are hand-colored. The offering will coincide with a garden tour of Middlebury on June 8.
For now, the museum will continue to have its visitors viewing in circles.
“You can take (the exhibit) seriously if you want and really delve into these pieces, and you can also just have fun with the circles,” Manley said. She joked that the exhibit has trained her eyes to look for circles in everyday scenes once she leaves work for the day, such as at the bike rack in front of the nearby Vermont Folklife Center.
“Now I can’t stop seeing circles,” she said with a chuckle.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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