Sheldon exhibit shows the evolution of regional gardens

MIDDLEBURY — A new, colorful exhibit has bloomed at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History. On May 6,  the “Lost Gardens of New England” took root for a three-month run that will breathe new life into some of the region’s most resplendent flowers of yesteryear.
The exhibit, offered in collaboration with the Boston-based preservation organization Historic New England, will use various props and images to explain how the region’s flower gardens evolved in style and substance from the colonial days through the early 20th century. It will also feature images from 53 glass slides bearing color photographs of some stunning Vermont flower gardens of the 1930s, including several that once grew in various estates and backyards in Addison County.
Adding to the garden theme will be some carvings loaned by Orwell artist Norton Latourelle. A carving of a large dog — one of Latourelle’s specialties — will greet museum-goers in the hallway. Some of his carvings of flowers, vegetables and fruit will adorn the two galleries in which the Lost Gardens exhibit will take root.
Sheldon Associate Director Mary Manley described an over-sized cricket and a rabbit, also courtesy of Latourelle, that will join the garden party as a symbolic reminder of the interesting and sometimes unwanted guests that occasionally invade a flower bed or vegetable patch.
“They’re creatures you might see in a garden, friend or foe,” Manley said with a smile.
The museum will borrow a few vintage birdhouses to cultivate additional gardening ambiance.
But the main attractions of the exhibit will likely be flower images — particularly the 53 vintage flower photos donated by Middlebury resident Andrea Perham.
Eva Garcelon-Hart, the Sheldon’s archivist, explained that Perham acquired the flower images at an auction. They are color photos on glass slides. A very capable artist generations ago deftly applied some color paint to the flower images, giving them some extra pop. To Perham’s complete surprise, the slides included an image of her late great-aunt’s flower garden in Barre.
Garcelon-Hart and Manley suspect the slides were used as part of a 1930s-era lecture on flower gardens in Vermont, as the auction lot included some basic identification information for all 53 slides.
Among the slides — which back in the day were shown on a screen through a “magic lantern” projector featuring a flame, not a light bulb — are examples of gardens that once flourished in the Addison County communities of Vergennes, Salisbury and Cornwall. Museum officials are hoping folks who attend the exhibit are able to provide some clues and context as to the exact locations of the featured flower gardens and whether they still exist.
The Cornwall garden is identified as that of “Mrs. A.W. Bingham” and appears to have been located on the corner of North Bingham Street and Route 74, near a now-defunct church.
The featured Salisbury garden is that of the former estate of “Mr. and Mrs. E. Lawrence Dudley.”
And the Vergennes submission depicts the “Fisher Flower Farm” that was owned by Grace Fisher and located off Green Street in Little City. Grace Fisher was a daughter of Ella Warner Fisher, a published poet and writer.
Other slides in the collection depict flower gardens or show based in such towns as Fair Haven, Brandon, Barre, Manchester, Pittsford, Bennington and Dorset. All of the images were taken during the 1930s.
The featured gardens depict a veritable potpourri of flowers of all colors and sizes, including irises and roses. Museum officials suspect some of the gardens were planted and lovingly tended by homeowners, while others were likely “finger gardens” — that is, put in place by hired laborers under the direction of wealthy estate owners.
Either way, the flowers are beautiful and were thankfully captured on film (and slide) prior to becoming casualties of time, a farm plow or housing development. Manley and other museum staff painstakingly reviewed all 53 slides and picked a dozen that were scanned and converted to digital format thanks to Middlebury College staff. Those 12 images will appear as large prints adorning the gallery walls. The remaining slides will be projected on a loop as part of the Lost Gardens exhibit, according to Manley.
“It was really hard for us to narrow it down (to 12 photos),” Manley said.
The nearby Shelburne Museum is also loaning the exhibit photos of its historic gardens, which are in the process of being faithfully restored.
Manley said the Lost Garden show should appeal to people of all ages. She hopes the show will please people and inspire some to grow their own gardens. It will provide an apt lead-in to the museum’s annual garden tour, slated for June 8. The tour will this year focus exclusively on flower gardens in Middlebury.
“You don’t have to be a gardener to enjoy this show,” she said.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].
AN OLD PHOTO slide of the Fisher Flower Farm Garden in Vergennes is one of many slides that will be part of a new exhibit opening next week at the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History in Middlebury.
Photo courtesy of the Henry Sheldon Museum

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