Bennington Museum Opens Early Vermont Gallery
Bennington Museum has opened a new permanent installation, the Early Vermont Gallery, which represents life in Vermont from the time when the earliest European settlers arrived in 1761 with only the bare necessities, to the early 1800s when Vermont craftsmen achieved a level of sophistication rivaling Boston and New York. Explored through stories and vignettes, the gallery showcases over 85 items from the Museum’s extensive historical collection of over 30,000 objects.
“We hope that these objects will serve two distinct purposes. First, to share with the public the deep, rich collection we maintain here at the Museum; second, to tell fascinating stories of the early life in Vermont,” states Robert Wolterstorff, executive director.
Vermont, one of the last areas of New England to be inhabited by Europeans, was claimed by both the colonies of New York and New Hampshire, but New Hampshire’s royal governor, Benning Wentworth, began issuing grants for towns in 1749, hoping to realize large profits; established colonies were running out of cheap, available land, and the New Hampshire Grants were quickly bought up. New York reasserted its claim of ownership in 1763 with the support King George III, and in 1777, leaders in the New Hampshire Grants, including brothers Ethan and Ira Allen, declared the region an independent republic.Vermont joined the Union as the 14th state in 1791 .
The earliest piece in the Early Vermont Gallery is a simple six-board chest made by Peter Harwood around 1762, representing the type of useful furniture needed on the frontier. The Harwood family prospered, and in 1769 Peter built a larger house, and like other settlers, acquired finer furnishings. A fine example is the corner cupboard and tea table Jedidiah Dewey made in 1769. Corner cupboards were built into the most public room of the house, and used to store and display pieces necessary for entertaining to show off a family’s wealth and social status. “The fact that Bennington homes had fancy cupboards and tables specifically dedicated to the social custom of drinking tea less than a decade after the town was settled speaks to the rapid progress the settlers made,” states Callie Raspuzzi, curator of the gallery. “It was a time of enormous opportunity in Vermont, but … many families were never able to afford the fine furnishings seen throughout this gallery.”
By 1810, Vermont was no longer an isolated frontier, and artisans achieved a level of sophistication that rivaled urban centers of Boston and New York. The musical tall clock on view represents the best available in the US in the early 1800s. “Very few Americans owned clocks of any sort at this time,” states Raspuzzi, “and musical clocks were certainly a sign of a refined home. None were more mechanically complex, or beautiful than this one.” A set of ten bells and hammers play seven tunes. The movement’s day of the month wheel and moon dial depicting a burning ship, was complex and would be the high point of a clockmaker’s career, achieved by only a small fraction of artisans. Another object in the gallery is one of the first globes ever made in the US, manufactured by James Wilson of Bradford, a farmer with no formal education who taught himself geography, astronomy, mathematics and cartography in order to achieve his goal. George Stedman of Windsor crafted complicated bombe front chests, popular in the Boston area in the late 1700s. The exhibit has one of only six known Vermont-made examples. The portrait of Julius Norton with a flute and piano might raise questions about music and its place in the home. Norton played the flute, violin, and piano. His ‘s valuable piano reflected the family’s wealth earned from their successful pottery business. The family’s neighbor Hiram Harwood was also a musician, and noted entertainments in his diary – a part of the Museum’s collection – from formal dances held in a local ballroom to small groups of friends dancing in the kitchen.Bennington Museum is located at 75 Main Street/Route 9, Bennington. Visit benningtonmuseum.org or call 802-447-1571 for more information.