Rokeby Museum head still digging into Vermont history as she readies for retirement

FERRISBURGH — After a 22-year tenure highlighted by the addition of a 5,000-square-foot visitor center, Rokeby Museum Executive Director Jane Williamson will step down at the end of 2017 from a job that she admittedly was not at first sure she wanted.
Williamson, a 68-year-old Burlington resident and small-town Minnesota native, was a dedicated Rokeby volunteer long before becoming its leader.
She remembered her first visit to the Route 7 site in Ferrisburgh, known for the Robinson family of farmers, writers, Quakers, artists and abolitionists and their connection to the Underground Railroad.
“History was my true and first love, and I came on a house tour in 1989,” Williamson said. “I was just blown away by it. And at the end of the tour I said to the guide, ‘Do you guys need a volunteer?’”
After a few years of weekly trips to catalog piles of letters stashed in boxes and desk drawers, Williamson, working as a freelance publisher at the time, took a break from Rokeby and went to the University of Vermont to obtain a degree in historic preservation.
When she earned her master’s about a year-and-a-half later, Williamson had in mind a different career in the field.
“I wanted to go to work for … one of the bigger organizations, where there would be a lot of people that I could learn from,” she recalled.
But as was the case earlier when she left Antioch College in Ohio and moved to New York City with a history degree, and later when she earned a degree in library studies at Columbia University, Williamson discovered the perfect job was elusive.
While keeping her ears to the ground for work in her new field, she continued to help the American Medical Women’s Association publish its journal.
“I feel like I have a knack for graduating when there are no jobs,” said Williamson, who moved to Vermont in 1984 because her partner had opened a bicycle store here.
And then the Rokeby position opened in early 1995. Her love for the museum and fascination with its former owners overcame any doubts.
“For the most part, except for the fact it’s Rokeby … I didn’t want to become the director of a small organization,” Williamson said.
On the plus side, one of the things she has enjoyed most — a “barrel of fun,” she said — has been digging deeper into that trove of letters and documents and learning about the Robinson family.
“I keep trying to figure out a way to get graduate students to see those Robinson letters, because they’re a gold mine,” Williamson said. “You get the deep sense of knowing these folks in the past … Lucky for us they’re not boring.”
Over the years Williamson has taken care of many details, such as improving training for volunteer tour guides (something she said was needed from personal experience), writing grants for such things as better signs on the site’s historic main home and outbuildings, creating monthly off-season volunteer meetings to keep them engaged with the museum, overseeing restoration projects, and organizing batches of pressed flowers and locks of hair scattered throughout the home.
“I created what I called a hair collection,” she said.
Like any small nonprofit, the Rokeby must scramble for donations and grants and constantly fundraise, and rely on volunteers.
“There’s one challenge always, and that’s money,” she said. “And insofar as you can replace money with people who work for free, volunteers is the second.”
For example, the museum can only offer tours Fridays through Mondays because of the lack of volunteers to offer midweek tours, and understandably, Williamson said, volunteers want to take time off.
“We’ve always come through somehow, but there’s always this little kind of stress of, ‘How are we doing to manage this?’” she said. “We really need more money or volunteers, preferably both.”
Of course the most tangible evidence of Williamson’s tenure is the Rokeby Museum Underground Railroad Education Center, a 5,000-square-foot building that stands near the original Robinson family homestead. The first story of the center, completed in 2012, includes lobby large enough to handle visitor groups and seasonal displays; a meeting room for educational programs; a kitchen, office and storage space; bathrooms; and a water fountain.
The second story of the building houses the museum’s permanent exhibit: “Free and Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont.”
The exhibit is based in part on Rokeby letters written by freed slaves and their former owners, which offers both an overview and an intimate look at slavery.
“The most meaningful to me is the exhibition,” Williamson said.
It took a decade for the concept to become reality, in part because the 2008 recession struck just as fundraising began in earnest. But Williamson said that time gave her a chance to deeply research the finished product, which was created with the help of a design firm. 
“When I was in college I always used to over-research my papers. But the good thing about that is once you over-research it you can see all of it,” she said. “And you can see what’s important and you can pull out and shape something better.”
Visitors have reacted positively, and with emotion, Williamson said.
“We have a comment bucket and if you went up there and paged through you would see,” Williamson said, adding that a trio of recent visitors was reduced to tears. “It really hits people pretty hard.”
Another visitor was surprised to learn that in 1860 the value of owned slaves in the U.S. was more than $4 billion — higher than the railroad, financial and manufacturing sectors combined.
“She looked up and said, ‘They don’t teach you that in school, do they?” Williamson said.
The center has lifted Rokeby’s visitor count, but not as much as Williamson had hoped.
“When we opened this building, the summer after our visitorship tripled,” she said. “We’ve had some ups and down. The one market we have not been able to capture is the tour market, and I’m not sure why that is.”
Maybe the next director can solve that problem and give Rokeby a financial lift. Williamson said fighting the money battle, even more or less successfully, has been a factor in wearing her down.
“We’re still doing OK. We’re getting through the years, but there’s no push. The first thing we have to think of when we think of anything is where are we going to get the money,” she said.
Now, Williamson said, “new blood” is in order at Rokeby.
“I keep having ideas, and then I say, ‘Don’t say it, because I can’t get it done.’ I can’t keep doing it,” she said.
Rokeby’s board, Williamson said, hopes to have a new executive director on board by early December, allowing for an overlap of about a month.
After that, what will Williamson do?
“Of course I’ll do what I do now. I’ll go back to my research,” Williamson said.
She has a head start on a project looking at African-American property ownership in Addison County, Hinesburg and Charlotte in the 1800s, and in 2010 published a paper in a Vermont history journal noting the high rate — 50 percent — there compared to a lower rate — less than 10 percent — in the rest of the country.  
She has started to study other Vermont counties to see if Addison County is an outlier.
“Addison County is odd,” Williamson said. “This is the center of abolition. This is the center of sheep farming. This is where most of the Quakers lived in the state. In 1828 there were 11 (Quaker) meetings in Vermont, and eight of them were in Addison County. There were these peculiarities that meshed together to create this certain something.”
She will rely on the University of Virginia library for Census data and travel around Vermont to town and city clerks’ offices and churches to complete her research.
“It will be very interesting to see if what I learned about this small area holds true, whether there were some differences here,” Williamson said. “I’m really dying to know.”

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