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The Sheldon Museum has a long history with trains

LONG-TIME SHELDON MUSEUM volunteer “T” Tall, shown in the back with Santa hat, has helped set up and run the model train display at the Middlebury museum each holiday for decades. Independent file photo

Henry Sheldon, a young store clerk in Middlebury, had been fascinated with trains since he first rode one on July 3, 1845, when he had taken an excursion with two friends from Middlebury to Montreal — via stagecoach, steamboat and train — a month shy of his 24th birthday. 

“It being my first glimpse of Steam Horses,” he wrote in his diary, “I rode most of the way with my head outside of the cars.” 

Over the next few years, Henry and many other Vermonters watched with growing excitement — and impatience — the construction of the Burlington and Rutland line as it slowly made its way north toward Middlebury. Not until Saturday, Sept. 1, 1849, did the first locomotive finally arrive in Middlebury, as Henry jubilantly described in his diary: 

“A great day for Middlebury. The car arrived at 11½ am amidst the cheering of the multitude, the ringing of bells, and the firing of cannons. The new and splendid Locomotive…and three freight cars with iron came.” 

It was only a short time later that Henry sold the “Oyster Saloon” business he owned at the south end of the bridge in town, and he took on his new job of riding the train and handling all the mail as a Route Agent for the U.S. Postal Department between Burlington and Boston. Since the velocity of the train barely exceeded the pace of a stagecoach, and stopped at many stations on the run between Burlington and Boston, each trip took the best part of a day and an evening, leaving little time for the mail agent’s recuperation between trips. Moreover, the job demanded a good deal of hard work; indeed, the job description was much longer than this essay! Not surprisingly, it took only a few months for Henry’s enthusiasm for trains temporarily to wane, and he resigned. But seven years later, his love of trains returned, and he obtained the job of Station Agent for the Burlington and Rutland Railroad at the Middlebury station, and he kept that job for the next six years.

CHILDREN HAVE LONG enjoyed seeing the model trains run every holiday season at the Sheldon Museum. The little wonders will be operated Tuesdays through Saturdays until Jan. 3. Admission is free during the Midd Night Strolls in December and during the Sheldon Open House on Dec. 3.

While Henry would be pleased at the return of regular train service to Middlebury this past summer after a nearly 60-year absence, he would be even more proud of the fact that for the past 30 years, his Sheldon Museum had hosted a wonderful model train exhibit over the winter holidays. According to a brief history of the exhibit by “T” Tall, one of the exhibit’s long-time volunteers, it all started in the summer of 1992, when Middlebury resident Peter White asked the Sheldon if he could build a train layout to exhibit and operate some antique Lionel toy trains built in the 1950s. The museum acquiesced and allowed Peter to use Henry Sheldon’s “card room.” This marked the origins of what is now called the Midd-Vermont Train Club. 

The featured attraction of the 1992 exhibit was a four-foot, exact replica of the Shoreham Railroad Bridge built in 1897, which still exists and which is the only remaining wooden Howe truss bridge in Vermont. Word spread and more than 1,000 visitors came to see the exhibit. The original members were Ron Nimblett from Vergennes, Dana Myrick from Bridport, “T” Tall from Cornwall, and Bobby Andrews, Al Stiles and Peter White from Middlebury. At least 40 others have volunteered over the years. 

“T” Tall also notes in his history that several years later, the display was moved to a larger room. Using the exact plans of architect Bob Rand, the exhibit was expanded to six tables. This enabled the club to add an HO layout (the most popular in Vermont) to the uppermost portion of the layout to give the observer a feeling of depth. The middle track is Lionel O-42, the type usually found beneath Christmas trees. The lower level is Lionel’s standard O gauge, the kind found in permanent, year-round exhibits.

The layout features a large mountain with a working gondola extending from the top of the mountain to the lower level. The idea for the gondola came from a longtime volunteer from Bridport, the late Ed Mitcham. An exact replica of Middlebury’s train station, graciously crafted by Michael Rainville, owner of Middlebury toy train manufacturer Maple Landmark, is a highlight along with the huge panorama mural of the Green Mountains. There is also an exact replica of the Sheldon Museum and its historic barn expertly painted and built by Gayl Braisted, a longtime Sheldon volunteer and local artist. 

VOLUNTEERS HAVE RUN Lionel O-42 and O gauge model trains at the Sheldon Museum since 1992. Spectators of all ages delight in the sound and movement of the tiny engines and are fascinated by the buildings, bridges and snow-covered landscape through which they move.

The addition of sophisticated working railroad signals, many able to be operated by young children which were the brainchildren of two other longtime volunteers and current leaders of the train crew, retired electrical engineer Larry Maier and retired Coast Guard officer and retired civil engineer Ed McGuire. In 2021, a video camera was added to the caboose of one of trains that projects the train’s journey on a monitor for all to see.

The Sheldon’s model trains will be running Tuesdays to Saturdays this December through Jan. 7. 

Please visit the Sheldon’s website for the daily train schedule: henrysheldonmuseum.org or call 802-388-2117. Admission to the museum is $10/adult; $5/senior and 18 and under are free. The Sheldon Museum will offer free admission on the three Midd Night Stroll Thursday evenings, Dec. 1, 8, and 15 from 5-8 p.m., and on Saturday, Dec. 3, for the Sheldon’s Holiday Open House.

David Stameshkin is a Henry Sheldon Museum trustee, author of several books, and a retired dean of Franklin and Marshall College.

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