DUMMERSTON—The Dummerston Historical Society has two reasons to celebrate. Forty years ago this month, the society was founded. And, just a few weeks ago, the final coats of paint were applied to the new wing of the group’s circa-1801 headquarters.
To commemorate both occasions, the organization’s Board of Directors invites the public to an open house on Sunday, June 12, for the formal dedication of the new Bunker addition, and to toast the historical society’s birthday.
In a conversation with The Commons organized by Secretary Gail Sorenson, President Muriel Taylor, Vice-President Charles Fish, and Treasurer Jody Normandeau told the story of the organization, the history of its building, and how the addition came to be.
The Historical Society’s building, located next to the Town Offices on the corner of Middle and East-West Roads, “is sort of in its original location,” Fish said.
The home of the Dummerston Historical Society began its life as the District #1 Central schoolhouse, located approximately in the same place it is now. It remained there until, 30 years later, it was then jacked up and moved to low, marshy ground, closer to Middle Road.
According to Society members and documents, legend has it that during the spring thaw, the schoolmaster had to roll up his trouser legs and carry his students on his back to help them cross the marsh and get into the building.
Legend also says the school was moved through the influence of the man who owned the store next door. He didn’t like having 70 to 90 children running around near his place of business.
In 1881, long after the store was closed, the school was moved back to its “sort of” original location, where it has remained since then.
But the building ceased formal educational use in 1951, when a larger schoolhouse was built elsewhere in town. Then, the little schoolhouse was converted into the Town Garage, and it stayed that way until the present Town Garage was built in 1974.
In 1976, the Bicentennial Committee began discussing turning the former school into a museum. From that, the Dummerston Historical Society was formed.
The founding members were Harrison Evans, Thomas Johnson, and Richard Virkstis. Normandeau said she and her husband, Paul, joined soon after the society was formed, and Fish “started when we grabbed him!"
Normandeau mentioned Sue Miller and J. Garvan Murtha as other early members.
Taylor admitted she was a newcomer.
“I’ve been involved for about eight years,” she said. “I started as a volunteer. I offered to bake cookies and sweep and things, and next thing you know, I’m president."
“We got lots of support from the Selectboard and the zoning office” on the process of building the addition, Fish said.
They bought the building from Dummerston “for a dollar,” Normandeau said, noting the town owns the property beneath the school.
“The town leases the property to us for a dollar a year,” Taylor added.
The relationship between the town and the society continues into the use of the building, Taylor said. Various town committees hold their meetings there. In exchange, because the old schoolhouse cannot connect to a septic or water system and thus has no bathroom, town officials rearranged the Town Offices to allow visitors to the historical society access to their bathroom.
A timely gift
Taylor said the addition has been on the “want-list” for years, but the society never had the funds until a few years ago, when they were the recipient of a special gift from resident Samuel Bunker.
Bunker is the son of the late Ellsworth Bunker. In addition to living in Dummerston, the elder Bunker also achieved honor for his career as the U.S. ambassador to Italy, Argentina, India, Nepal, South Vietnam, and the Organization of American States. Ellsworth Bunker also led the American Red Cross and was the first person to twice receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
“Sam inherited from his dad many items of interest,” Fish said, including “boxes and boxes” of letters, reports, citations, awards, photo albums, and artifacts. The younger Bunker donated the items to the Historical Society about four years ago, and member Jonathan Flaccus, whom Fish described as “a dealer in ephemera,” recognized their value.
Flaccus organized the collection, kept the Dummerston-related items, and sent the rest out for auction. The sale netted the Historical Society about $61,000.
“With that, we hoped to build the addition,” Normandeau said.
The sale gave the organization a healthy start, and from there they received private donations and grants from the Vermont Community Foundation, the Crosby-Gannett Fund, and the Dunham-Mason Fund. Taylor noted that none of the funding for the addition came from Town Meeting, and members were never solicited, although some chose to give “because they wanted to."
The society also received assistance from the contractor who built the addition, according to Treasurer Jody Normandeau.
After soliciting bids from five local contractors, the bid was awarded to Brunelle & Son Construction.
“We think of them as a donor as well as a contractor. They helped us a lot. [Owner] John’s generosity allowed us to build this addition,” Fish said. The three officers agreed Brunelle & Son could likely have charged the society more than they did.
Another way the organization saved money on the addition was by painting it themselves, an idea developed by member Ruth Barton, who spent a lot of time with a brush and roller, as did member Tom Zopf.
“We came in under budget,” Taylor said, noting the Building Committee and the Board of Directors promised the membership they would do so, and would also leave money in the organization’s account in case of emergency.
The Building Committee, Taylor said, included a number of community members not on the society’s roster, and they worked closely with local architect David Ryan to design a building that would fit in seamlessly with the architectural vernacular of the existing structure. (And, indeed, one has to look very closely to see where the old building ends and the new one begins, especially on the exterior.)
The officers mentioned local septic engineer Alan McBean as another big helper. McBean wondered whether the additional stress on the Town Office’s restrooms from society events would exceed the system’s limits. His findings: it wouldn’t.
The “very active” Board of Directors meets once a month, and organizes quite a few special events, the three officers said, including authors’ presentations, exhibits of artifacts, and historic and contemporary photographs and art, either by Dummerston residents or by visitors using the town as their subject.
With the addition complete, the building’s main area can expand into territory formerly used as work and storage space, thus leaving more room for exhibits and meetings. Office space and the society’s growing collections will go in the addition — or at least that’s the present plan, Taylor said.