I only stopped at the Shelburne Museum because Jake and Michelle recommended it. I wasn’t in the mood for a museum, and looking at it from the road the place didn’t seem all that impressive. But I had a lot of time to kill before I was supposed to be in Burlington, so I decided to pull into the parking lot and buy a ticket.
The woman at the counter gave me a map and directed me to the door on the other end of the gift shop. I walked through it to find myself back outside, looking out over a field. There was a foot path and a sign pointing to the left for the Round Barn, an architectural feature which for some reason people always find intriguing. I walked over to the barn and began looking at the antique farm equipment and horse-drawn carts kept inside. The barn itself was an artifact, having been moved to the museum from its original location. “Okay,” I thought to myself, “It’s one of those homestead museums with stuff about rural life 100 years ago.” I continued to look around.
Outside I saw another sign on the path directing me towards the Circus Building. I looked over and saw a carnival carousel full of children. My brain struggled to connect what I was seeing with where I had just been. I pulled out my map and confirmed that all three of these structures were part of the museum. The field was part of the museum. In fact, the Shelburne Museum sits on 45 acres of land and is comprised of 39 buildings, 25 of which are historic structures that were relocated to the grounds (such as the barn). My map indicated a shuttle route I could take advantage of if the walking became too much for me. This was a lot more museum than I had anticipated.
Behind the fully functional carousel was the Circus Building. It was shaped like a horseshoe and I slipped in through a door on one end. The shape of the building created a single, long, curving hallway. On my right were historic carousel pieces – horses, sleighs, lions, etc. They were lined up in rows, one right after the other. On my left was a continuous glass case which held miniature circus figures lined up in a parade. There were tiny llamas and elephants. There were figures of monkeys riding donkeys led by clowns. There were horses and dancing girls and lions in cages. And this went on through the entire building. The whole way around there were carousel horses on my right and tiny trapeze artists on my left. I must have seen several hundred figurines. Near the end there were about a dozen old circus posters that read like the lyrics to “Being For the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”
After the easily 15 minute walk through the circus building and a brief stop to see a large rifle collection in the Beach Gallery, it was clear that I didn’t have time to see everything. My map included a “Highlights” tour for those with limited time, and I decided to follow it. The nearest building on the list was actually a ship – the Ticonderoga steamboat. This National Landmark is 220 feet long, 107 years old, and sitting in the middle of a field in Vermont. The entire ship had been renovated and filled with period-appropriate pieces from the days back in the early 20th century when the Ticonderoga sailed the north-south route on Lake Champlain. I caught the tail end of a free tour and learned about the hardships of shoveling coal.
I decided to deviate from my Highlights tour in order to visit the Apothecary Shop. I can’t understand how any person could pass up a visit to an Apothecary Shop. The shop was connected to the General Store, and both were filled to the brim with artifacts. There were old bottles lining the walls and antique tin cans advertising the high quality hair pomade that was once inside. The docent in charge of the General Store insisted I also take a look at the Dentist’s Office.
On the second floor of the building was a fully furnished dental office, including an old dentist’s chair and some terrifying tools. There was still a part of my mind that couldn’t understand where I was. There was the barn with the farm equipment, then the figurines of dogs riding Shetland ponies, then the giant steamboat, and now a room full of scary doctor’s equipment above a fake store pretending to sell vials of snake oil. I suppose the thing that was really putting me off balance was that I had absolutely no clue what expectations to have for each successive building. I was starting to feel like nothing could surprise me, because everything did.
I made my way past the Heritage Garden and the 1782 Dutton House and Tavern to get to the Hat and Fragrance Textile Gallery. The tour described it as “A riot of quilts, rugs, samplers, and more.” In case you’re wondering, it takes an awful lot of quilts to form a riot. There were so many quilts on display that some of them were sandwiched between panes of glass and lined up in an accordion-style viewer like cheap posters in a college bookstore. Guests could thumb through the giant pieces from the 1800s while even more impressive textiles loomed over them on all sides. After walking past a room full of so many Persian rugs that they had to be stacked on top of each other, I found an intriguing side area full of glass cases. Inside each case was a tiny scene. There would be a seamstress’s shop with the most impossibly small spools of thread. Or maybe an old Victorian home that could be mistaken for the most ornate dollhouse you’ve ever scene. I assumed this is what they mean by the “and more” part of the gallery description.
Right outside was the Smokehouse. You know, one of those old buildings constructed to house a slow-burning fire that would smoke a variety of hanging meats to preserve them for the winter. A simple, 4×6 foot smoke house. From 1820. Across from the Toy Shop.
In the Stagecoach Inn I got to see folk art sculptures and paintings, along with weathervanes and duck decoys. This is to say nothing of the whirligigs. Every museum ought to have a full collection of 100-year-old whirligigs.
I walked by the Covered Bridge, which was once the main entrance to the museum. It had been brought over from Cambridge, Vermont, and was now used only by maintenance vehicles. I had seen something about the Covered Bridge back at the entrance but wasn’t quite sure what the big deal was. It was easier to understand looking at it. Consider for a moment that we’re talking about a two-lane bridge, not a single lane bridge. The thing is huge, made of wood, and was built in 1845 for a road 40 miles away.
I was getting tired. I had already been at the museum for much longer than I anticipated. But there were two more buildings on my tour, near the entrance. I hopped on the oversized golf cart shuttle and got off at the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building. Most of the buildings at Shelburne were named for their purpose or contents – the Weaving Shop, the Meeting House, the Artisans Shop. This was one of only a few buildings named after a person. I assumed that like so many wings of so many hospitals it was named after a big donor to the museum. That is, as I found out, a supreme understatement.
In 1910 Electra Havenmeyer married James Watson Webb, an heir to the Vanderbilt family fortune. Perhaps her most distinguishing feature was her ability to recognize the value of American history long before anyone else did. She was collecting Americana art before anyone realized it was art. After many years of unique taste and unlimited finances she had enough objects to start a museum, and that museum became the Shelburne. She wasn’t just a major donor. When the museum started, she was the only donor.
Upon entering the memorial building I was greeted by a docent, who asked if I would like some help navigating the exhibits. She pointed to the rooms on either side of her and up the stairs and began reciting their contents.
“Here is where you will find the family’s living room,” she said, “and over to the side are the impressionist paintings – be sure to go into that room over there where we have four Monets -“
“Monets?” I asked her, positive I misheard.
“That’s right,” she said, “It’s the closest you’ll ever be to a Monet.”
I was too distracted by the thought of a place having both a barn and a Monet that I didn’t bother to ask for an explanation about the phrase “family’s living room.” I walked over to the Monet room, which was the only place on the museum grounds where I had seen a security guard. Seizing the opportunity, I stuck my nose as close to the paintings as I could, then stepped back to see the difference as the abstract strokes turned into figures. I felt the guard looking at me and worried I was getting too close for his comfort. He approached me.
“If you look at this one you can actually see where some of his brush hairs came off,” he told me. I moved to the painting in question and marveled at my own proximity to the leftover tools of the founder of Impressionism.
In turning to the center of the room I couldn’t help but notice I was in someone’s dining room. Not in a room made to look like a dining room, or a gallery that included a nice dinning room table. I was in their actual dining room. One room over I found myself in the living room, and later in a bedroom. This building included, brick for brick, several fully furnished rooms from the 1967 Park Avenue apartment of museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb. In every space there was a small photo album with images of the original rooms, each looking exactly the same then as they do now.
I learned more about Electra when I went to my final stop, the Center for Art and Education. This was the most modern of any of the buildings – it had only been open for four days. I realized when I got inside that it was supposed to be my first stop, rather than my last. The center includes a small sample from nearly every collection on the campus. There was a single carousel horse and one large rug. There was a stack of a dozen hatboxes where earlier I had seen a hundred. The Center was a collection of the collections, organized to show what the curators felt were the four common themes in the museum pieces: Color, Pattern, Whimsy, and Scale. When put like that, I could finally see the connections. Color in the paintings, pattern in the rugs, whimsy in the circus clowns, scale in the dollhouses. In the Center for Art and Education I saw pieces I had missed from the buildings I didn’t have time to see. I examined my map again, suddenly realizing the scope of what I had passed by: the Horseshoe Barn full of stagecoaches and carriages, the Blacksmith Shop and the Jail, the full-sized steam engine replica. I struggled with the thought. Even after spending the day there it was hard to imagine a place where you could get so distracted by a doctor’s office or a Degas painting that you don’t notice a train.
The Shelburne isn’t a museum, it’s an amusement park. It’s a town. It’s a spectacle. It’s a sideshow. It is the most eclectic damn place I’ve ever seen. I never knew what would be around the next corner and I found that sense of discomfort to be delightful. I wish every museum could hit us with such surprise and confusion. Or maybe I just wish the Shelburne was closer to home. I would go visit every summer. And I would never see it all.
I can’t believe I only took four pictures.
About two weeks before I was supposed to land in Vermont I got in contact with Jake and Michelle. They were friends of Mark and Connie from New Orleans, who were friends of my parents. Jake said that they were about to set out on a long vacation, biking around New England with “no set itinerary.” Already I knew they were my kind of people. Jake told me I was welcome to stay at their house anyway, he’d just tell the house sitter when to expect me. About 24 hours before I was supposed to show up at their door to meet the sitter, Michelle emailed me with an idea. They were camping near Middlebury, what if I met them there instead? I thought it sounded like a terrific idea, and drove across New Hampshire and Vermont to end up in Branbury State Park.
When I arrived, Michelle had just hopped into the shower after a long bike ride the two of them had completed together. Jake and I began to set up dinner, including some veggies I had picked up at the local roadside produce stand at Jake’s request. Michelle got back from the shower and the three of us feasted on a wide array of chopped up fruits and veggies. She mourned over a handful of tomatoes she had left on the dashboard of their van in hopes that they’d ripen in the sun. Instead she ended up with mush under the skins. Each tomato squished in your hand like a water balloon.
This was the end of their camping trip – the three of us would be spending the following night at their apartment in Burlington. So it seemed like the perfect opportunity to add their leftovers to our veggie feast, including some extra Indian food and scraps of delicious cheese. Jake kept offering me things – drinks, extra food, utensils – and joking about how he wanted to make sure he got credit in my blog for being nice. “I just want it to be known that I offered her a paper towel when you were in the shower,” he told Michelle.
As we finished dinner, Michelle began throwing all the dishes together in a cooler, insisting that nothing really needed to be cleaned since this was their last night of camping. I set up my little tent and the three of us wasted the night away staring at the campfire. It was nice to finally share a fire with someone.
The next day Jake and Michelle planned out their bike route. The two of them are avid cyclists, and they couldn’t fathom getting through the final day of their trip without at least a few miles of riding. I helped them clean up the camp and they gave me tips on how to spend my day. Michelle scribbled her suggestions for me for Burlington on a small sheet of paper, and they were off on their bikes.
It was only about an hour drive between Branbury and Burlington, so I had plenty of time to kill. I began with Jake and Michelle’s recommendation for breakfast – the Three Squares Cafe in the nearby town of Vergennes. I feasted on french toast covered in fresh fruit, cinnamon whipped cream, and a healthy serving of Vermont’s famous maple syrup. I walked down the three blocks of interesting town that made up Vergennes and began to realize how disgusting I felt. When every night is a new bed, it’s easy to lose track of how often you should shower. I had clearly gone too long, and there was enough grease in my hair to prove it. I started to wonder if I would be able to make it all the way to the evening, when I would have the chance to shower at Jake and Michelle’s apartment in Burlington.
Undaunted by my personal feelings of yuck, I continued with my list of recommendations. After a lengthy stop in one of the most interesting museums I’d ever seen (more on that in the next post), I had made it to Burlington. Michelle had listed off several places to visit and things to do. I drove down to the waterfront, hoping to find a public beach where I would be able to jump right into the lake. If I couldn’t take a shower, at least I could get soaking wet. But I couldn’t find a parking lot, much less a nice stretch of lake access. I took another look at my scrap of paper listing the fun ways to pass one’s time in Burlington. I flipped it over to the back and realized that Michelle had written the words “No. Beach for Swimming.” No beach? Numbered beach? I pulled out my phone and started searching the map of the city.
I raced up to the north end of town with renewed enthusiasm and had no regrets about paying eight dollars for parking when I got there. I changed into my swimsuit and piled my belongings near someone else’s empty beach towels. I always try to leave my things near other people in the hopes that it will deter any potential thieves. I don’t know how well it works but I didn’t care at that point. It was hot and I was sweating. I practically ran to the shore and dunked my head into the cooling waters of Lake Champlain. It was wonderful.
I floated along, watching the other beach-goers and excited children. I scratched at my head to push the water between the individual hairs. It had been hours since I first realized how much I wanted to jump into a lake, and it was well worth the wait. After a few minutes of floating and soaking, I went back to the shore. I spread my towel out on the sand and laid in the sun, occasionally getting too hot and jumping back in the water. What a beautiful day it was, what a much needed rest. Being covered in lake water never felt so cleansing.
After changing back into dry clothes I realized I was famished. I had been so focused on getting clean that I had skipped lunch. I still hadn’t heard from Jake and Michelle, who were planning on going paddle boarding after their ride. I figured we wouldn’t be getting together for dinner, and turned to my list for suggestions. The first choice was a burger joint called The Spot. When I arrived I found a sign on the door indicating that while they are normally open on Wednesdays, they would be closed early on this specific Wednesday. I didn’t think it was a big deal and I moved onto the second option, a pizza place called Bite Me. When I arrived I found out that they were only just starting their pizzas for dinner service, and weren’t officially open for another hour. My last possibility was El Cortijo, a Mexican restaurant just off of Church Street (the local pedestrian drag). I found a decent parking spot and walked towards El Cortijo with trepidation. It’s not often one must turn to their Plan C just to find a decent meal. Fortunately for me, they were open and happily taking customers.
Just after I had finished up my meal I got a call from Jake. They were at the apartment, showering and generally getting their act together. I ended up joining them and a friend of theirs for a second dinner to celebrate Michelle’s birthday. After dinner the four of us walked down to a place called The Skinny Pancake, known for its delicious crepes and live music. Jake was excited to see tonight’s act “Joshua Panda and the Hot Damned.” Joshua Panda is a young singer-songwriter with a nice smile and the sort of tousled hair that only attractive musicians can pull off. The Hot Damned appeared to be just one other guy, and both he and Joshua sat in chairs with their guitars on the outdoor patio of the restaurant. Jake is clearly a huge fan of Joshua Panda, and he stopped talking the moment we sat down so he could listen to the music. Michelle kept poking fun at him for being such a fanboy, and the best Jake could muster in response was an embarrassed blush.
Not long after we’d sat down an older woman handed each of us a flier for Joshua Panda. She wore a long, white, see-through lace dress over a hot pink tank top and matching shorts. On her finger was a large ring with a flashing light on it.
“Are you his mother?” Michelle asked, taking a flier from the woman.
The old woman laughed. “No, it’s funny, many people ask me that. I’m his devoted fan and . . . spiritual connection.”
I looked at the flier, which was a hand-drawn depiction of the singer that honestly didn’t look anything like him.
“This is how I see him,” the woman told Michelle, indicating she had drawn it herself.
She wandered off, passing fliers out to everyone in the restaurant and being sure to snag people as soon as they sat down. As I sat there enjoying the music, I casually examined the flier. I realized it contained no actual information other than his name. When the woman returned to our table later, we got to talking. I told her I was leaving for New York state the next day.
“Oh! Take me with you!” she said with a smile, placing both hands on my arm.
“You don’t like Vermont?” I asked.
“Look at me,” she said, stepping back and holding her lace dress out to one side, “I’m a little flashy for Vermont.”
Michelle and her friend opted to head out early to get some ice cream, leaving Jake and me to watch the rest of the show and split a crepe. Near the end of the night I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I was leaving Jake said, “Wait until you see the hallway.” The long and zigzagging hallway to the bathroom was decorated with the sights – and sounds – of endangered species. The whole thing was painted floor to ceiling with tigers and birds and rhinos, and the sounds of the jungle played over hidden speakers.
When the show ended, Jake told me he wanted to go up to talk to Joshua. Jake runs a nearby ski resort and was planning on putting together a partnership with The Skinny Pancake where musicians like Joshua would play a gig at the restaurant followed by a gig at the resort the next night. Of course Jake adored Joshua so much that he suddenly became shy and couldn’t work up the courage to talk to the man. We left and Jake assured me that he thought it was better for him to talk directly with Joshua’s management.
That night at the apartment Jake and Michelle set up the futon couch for me and I got to take that much needed shower. I never got to see their house up near the resort, but I had much more fun hanging out with them than I would have were I left to my own devices. And it was nice to experience the people side of Vermont. The northeast has a way of being so liberal it’s conservative about it. There was public art on the streets, but it was very precise, very intentional – never chaotic. I came across a bench that instructed me not to sit for too long, since other people might want to use the bench. It was a piece of public service so concerned with serving the public that it was asking the public not to use it. I think I may head up to the area again someday to see the famous turning of the fall leaves and re-visit my new friends. Until then, it’s probably best that my time in Vermont was so short. I may be a little flashy for Vermont, too.