You may want to see what’s new at the Bennington Museum, too!

Outside facade of the Bennington Museum.
All photos by Phil Holland

May 1, 2023

If you want to see Vermont at its greenest, May is your month.

Set your calendar to Mayfest (May 27, 2023) for downtown Bennington’s annual rite of spring, with 95 vendors offering juried crafts and specialty foods, and expect live music, too.

New this year is the Young Entrepreneurs Corner, where vendors 13 and under will peddle their wares. It’s not just lemonade anymore.

Newly opened for the season is the Bennington Museum, whose eclectic collections have furnished the materials for an exciting new exhibit that takes a fresh look at the history of the town.

You won’t find a trace of Ethan Allen or the New Light faithful who settled Bennington here. There are no Green Mountain Boys, either.

The title of this modest but provocative show, “A History of Bennington,” slyly asks what history is and from what point of view it is told. The answer begins with the words of James Baldwin that are displayed on a wall as you enter a small gallery on the Museum’s ground floor: “History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise, since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”

The key word is “present.” The demand for equality and visibility by groups – including the female half of humanity – whose stories and struggles have often been omitted or downplayed in traditional histories and museum displays lies behind exhibits such as this one.

To find it in the heart of the village of Old Bennington – whose white Colonials and Old First Church are classic New England – is part of the exhibit’s subversive appeal.

In Bennington, as in other historic towns, the times are a-changin’, and history is changing with them.

It’s the objects that are the stars of the show, beginning with two adorable visored caps with veils made by the mother of one of the women who joined in a civil union in the year 2008, when Vermont was the first state in the nation to recognize same-sex partnerships; the couple married a year later, when Vermont legalized gay marriage.

Two veiled caps on display at Bennington Museum.

The first Pride march in Bennington took place in 2019, as a poster for the event witnesses. The photograph of two women who were prominent in Bennington’s summer colony in the late 19th century shows that same-sex partnerships are nothing new in town.

two women who were prominent in Bennington’s summer colony in the late 19th century shows that same-sex partnerships are nothing new in town.

Most military stories revolve around men. A large bread bowl, said to have been used by Mary Tilden Dewey to bake loaves for soldiers who fought at the Battle of Bennington, tells a story of courage and patriotism from a different angle.

A wooden bowl on display at Bennington Musuem.

The bowl perches on a stand next to a Navy uniform worn by an Arlington woman who served as an intelligence and personnel officer in the WAVES in the 50s and 60s until limitations on women’s service cut short her military career.

Navy uniform worn by an Arlington woman who served as an intelligence and personnel officer in the WAVES in the 50s and 60s.

Sometimes history can be rewritten by simply turning a page. The account book from Stephen Fay’s Catamount Tavern, famous for its place in early Vermont history, has been exhibited by the Museum before, invariably turned to an entry where Seth Warner and his Green Mountain cronies ordered rounds while probably plotting against the Yorkers or the British.

Now it shows visits to the Tavern in 1771 and ‘72 by “Capt. Solomon Indien.” What brought to Bennington this prominent member of the Stockbridge Mohicans who would go on to fight with the Patriots in the Revolution? It might have been the matter of land, for Southwestern Vermont was Mohican territory at the time of the arrival of Europeans in the area, and the town had appointed Fay and two others to negotiate a settlement with the tribe a few years before.

Capt. Solomon Indien signature in guest book at Bennington Museum.

Even doors can be repurposed. When the Catamount Tavern burned in 1871, some few parts were saved, including an imposing set of doors that formed part of the Museum’s original collection at its opening in 1928, typically displayed as the doors that had seen Stark, Warner, Allen, and other Revolutionary-era heroes pass through.

Now they are displayed next to a bill of sale for Margaret “Peg” Bowen, enslaved and sold by Stephen Fay in the 1770s. The doors that were closed to Peg are also the doors through which she may have passed far more often than those heroes.

Two wooden doors on display at Bennington Museum.

Two other exhibits reference Black themes. Begun in 2014 and ongoing, the I Am Vermont Too photo-story project, focusing on the lives of BIPOC Vermonters, is represented by three photos by Sha’an Mouliert. A portrait of Lemuel Haynes, the biracial Calvinist and Revolutionary War veteran of Rutland who once preached from the pulpit of the Old First Church, hangs by a display of his printed sermons.

You may have heard about Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and other remedies of the latter 19th and early 20th centuries that were spiked with alcohol, opiates, and cocaine (think Coca-Cola and Paine’s Celery Seed Compound), but the dimensions of their use and abuse, especially in the state of Vermont, are nonetheless shocking.

In 1900, we are informed, Vermonters consumed an estimated 3,300,000 doses of opium every month, not counting patent medicines, or about ten doses for every man, woman and child then living in the state.

The roots of our present problems go deep. Bottles, druggists’ formula books, and a harrowing letter describing a suicide are on display. No less grim are two tiny, masterful embroidered scenes by Ray Materson, an outsider artist who turned to embroidery while serving a sentence for armed robbery, using yarn teased from old socks. In one, an abused woman despairs while her child looks out on an idyllic scene of maples hung with sap buckets. In another, three syringes spell “VT” against a backdrop of ski mountains.

"Vermont Mother in Turmoil" by Ray Materson.
“Vermont Mother in Turmoil” by Ray Materson

All these exhibits are contained in a gallery of only 300 square feet. It’s the anti-MASS MoCA of exhibition spaces, providing instead a focused experience, one that is likely to lead you to think of Bennington, and perhaps history itself, in new terms. Collections manager Callie Raspuzzi, who conceived and mounted the show, observes that it’s part of the Museum’s efforts to broaden the stories that it tells.

“A History of Bennington” will run through the end of the year.

Upstairs, Curator Jamie Franklin has arranged a fresh take on Bennington Modernism, with new artists and new works on display. The Regional History Room, too, has gotten a makeover and is now open Saturdays and certain afternoons.

An Abenaki exhibit occupies a space that leads from the Grandma Moses gallery to the Battle of Bennington room, and a temporary exhibit of student art and the rest of the permanent collection – including an Ethan Allen bar tab from the Catamount Tavern — lie upstairs. It is fair to say that there is something for everyone.

Pownal resident Phil Holland writes a monthly post for Vermont Begins Here.