BRATTLEBORO—Under the auspices of a National Endowment for the Humanities matching grant, five local nonprofit organizations — Marlboro College, Brattleboro Literary Festival, Brattleboro Historical Society, Brooks Memorial Library, and Write Action — have joined forces to embark on a multiyear community journey to research and present the Brattleboro area’s rich and undersung history of writing, publishing, printing, and words.
“People, Places, and the History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont” (Words Project) will produce podcasts and maps for bicycling, walking, and driving tours, as well as a heritage book chronicling the four-year Project’s findings, among other things, according to a news release.
Two inaugural exhibitions “Lucy Speaks” and “Brattleboro’s Letterpress Years,” set to launch mid-October, herald three and a half more years of public activities that will engage community members, including teachers and their students, in place-based “research pods” that will investigate, share, and celebrate Brattleboro’s rich literary history from the Abenaki to today.
“Brattleboro’s Letterpress Years,” a month-long exhibit into the area’s rich history of letterpress publishing, opens Wednesday, Oct. 11, with a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. at Brooks Memorial Library.
Debuting Saturday, Oct. 14, at this year’s Brattleboro Literary Festival is “Lucy Speaks,” a pop-up interactive traveling museum that allows visitors to explore the life and times of colonial-era Guilford resident, former slave, and earliest known African-American poet, Lucy Terry Prince.
In August, the Words Project was awarded a highly competitive $150,000 “Creating Humanities Communities” matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. So far, the Words Project has raised $6,000 toward meeting the targeted first $25,000 match from the NEH.
A fundraising campaign will be led by Steven Budd, a former college president and fundraiser who brings a long career of advocacy and nonprofit leadership to the project.
The Downtown Brattleboro Alliance will host the Project’s audio tours and provide a platform for the community’s research pod findings and other Project information and news on its website www.brattleboro.com. The Project has also launched a Facebook page, “Brattleboro Places and Words."
The Downtown Brattleboro Alliance will be joined by other organizations collaborating on the Project — Windham Southeast Supervisory Union, The Commons, the River Gallery School of Art, the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, and the Landmark Trust, among others.
“The Project will explore how history and stories are embedded in particular places,” says William Edelglass, Professor of Philosophy at Marlboro College, who spearheaded the submission of the NEH grant with Project Director Lissa Weinmann and is the lead scholar on the project.
In a news release, he said the college’s SPARK teacher training program will help facilitate classroom work in conjunction with the WSESU school district: “The collaborative research, public events, and tours will connect us more deeply to the history and places we share as a community."
Center of publishing
“Brattleboro’s Letterpress Years,” a month-long exhibit with hands-on activities, is the first of three exhibits planned for Brooks that will build toward a major exhibition at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center in 2020, focusing on Brattleboro’s past as a bustling center of publishing and printing in New England — as well as a book whose writing and production is being led by another Words Project partner, local writers’ group Write Action.
Letterpress printing was the primary way information was printed and distributed from the 1500s through the mid-20th century. Early settlers to New England brought their European letterpresses with them, finding fertile ground in Brattleboro to set up printing operations that blanketed the region with newspapers and other periodicals, including one of the nation’s first female-run papers.
The exhibition will feature artifacts from this once-dominant industry, images of letterpress operations, a rogue’s gallery of key players from the times, interactive activities, and a timeline of Brattleboro’s rise to becoming one of the peak producers of books, magazines, and newspapers — and how this flood of activity affected the growth and settlement of the area.
The letterpress exhibition is curated by Stephanie Greene, who serves on the Words Project Leadership Team. Greene is the daughter of the late Stephen Greene, co-owner with his wife, Janet, of the eponymous Stephen Greene Press, a prestigious, independent publishing company that operated in Brattleboro for 24 years before being sold to a larger Boston publisher in 1978.
“Brattleboro is home to a rich history of publishing and printing, dating from the late 1700s,” Greene said in the release. “The Words Project creates an opportunity for the local historians and enthusiasts to collect and showcase this history. The collaboration between visiting scholars and residents will promote a broad and deep appreciation of our shared heritage that will serve as a model for other communities."
Interactive literary museum
“Lucy Speaks: Remembering early Brattleboro-area resident, Lucy Terry Prince, the first known African-American poet, former slave, and eloquent advocate for equal treatment under the law,” debuts at the Literary Festival with MILES (Mobile Interactive Literary Exhibition Space), a traveling museum created by and for the Words Project. MILES will roll out the exhibit in front of Key Bank on Main Street from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday of the Lit Fest.
“Lucy Speaks” invites visitors to walk or wheel inside the fully ADA accessible space and experience Lucy’s stirring words and her times. Lucy argued successfully before the top judicial body of early Vermont to keep her land when harassed and challenged by white neighbors.
“Visitors to ‘Lucy Speaks’ will be encouraged to share their own stories and learn how one person’s voice — like Lucy’s — can make a difference,” said Literary Festival director Sandy Rouse.
Brattleboro-based storyteller and writer Shanta Lee will perform Lucy Terry’s only extant poem, “Bars Fight,” on the hour on Oct. 14, from noon to 5 p.m., and Oct. 15 at noon and 1 p.m., engaging audiences in a dialogue on Lucy.
Students from Marlboro College will also present a performance based on Lucy’s life and times. Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina, scholar and author of Mr. and Mrs. Prince: How an Extraordinary Eighteenth Century Family Moved Out of Slavery and into Legend, inspired much of the exhibit and she will be a featured speaker at the festival from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. on Oct. 14 at Centre Congregational Church.
She will be reading with Wendy Warren, author of New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The “Lucy Speaks” MILES exhibit was conceived by the Brattleboro Literary Festival and The Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, which won a $2,500 National Main Street grant from Edward Jones. Ana Saaveda organized the local Edward Jones offices to contribute and the Sunrise Rotary Club for MILES’s later use on Flat Street.
Marlboro College Art Professor Amy Beecher curated and designed the exhibit with Curatorial team Jerry Carbone, Sandy Rouse, Lissa Weinmann, and Sarah Kovach.
“Lucy’s story and the whole Words Project are inspiring Marlboro College students to become actively engaged in Brattleboro as an incredibly rich learning environment,” Beecher said.
A large map of Windham County next to MILES will encourage passersby to ‘pin’ places they think may be interesting to research for the audio tours.
In the years ahead, the Words Project’s classroom and community pod research will be shared via podcasts, maps and plaques for walking, biking, and driving tours; a book on the printing and publishing history of Brattleboro; special pages on the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance’s website; an exhibition of handmade books and publishing and printing artifacts at the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center; community picnics, lectures, and other public events that will grow around the Brattleboro Literary Festival; and other annual happenings.