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This image, one of the 10,000 in the collection of the Brattleboro Historical Society, shows an early Malfunction Junction.

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Group looks ahead at fresh ways to look back

Brattleboro Historical Society, about to turn 40 years old, seeks ideas and volunteers

Those who wish to donate artifacts, make a financial contribution, or let the Brattleboro Historical Society know their ideas for the group’s future can call 802-258-4957 or e-mail histsoc@sover.net. By way of disclosure, writer Fran Lynggaard Hansen, a former trustee, has recently rejoined the board after her recent return to Brattleboro.

BRATTLEBORO—On a Saturday morning, on the third floor of the Municipal Center, where Brattleboro High School students used to roam the hallways, Barbara George is seated in a circle, socially distanced and masked, with seven members of the Brattleboro Historical Society board of trustees.

“We’re also about to celebrate our 40th anniversary,” said George, a volunteer and longtime supporter of the BHS, as the board members met in the society’s public Research Room. “I think this is a great time to ask the public what they want from the Society.”

“How do they think we can serve them best?” she wondered aloud.

One obvious way might be the Historical Society’s Facebook page, with more than 5,500 users who enjoy commenting on the old photos posted. BHS Board member and volunteer Bob Cornellier offers a regular pictorial taste of life as it is and was here in the town with his “Then and Now” posts on the social media site.

Board member and Brattleboro Area Middle School teacher Joe Rivers has brought the work of the Society to his students, working with them to create more than 330 podcast episodes during the last six years and laying the foundation for another generation of history lovers through the society’s youth outreach.

Students interview local folks and are also delving into researching skills by examining history on topics as varied as Arthur Goodenough, a West Brattleboro poet and farmer who railed against the eugenics movement in Vermont; the history of the F. W. Woolworth store on Main Street, which burned down in a dramatic fire in 1972; and the origins of Esteyville, the area of town that sprang up around the Estey Organ Company in its 19th-century heyday.

According to Rivers, the podcasts originally began as a segment on Green Mountain Mornings radio program, which was broadcast on WKVT. When the station discontinued local programming, the segments began running on WTSA.

President Emeritus John Carnahan, a founding member, welcomed BAMS students to the Historical Society’s Research Room over a decade ago, Rivers said. “BAMS has incorporated local history projects into the education program since then,” he said.

All of the six-to-eight-minute episodes are available via Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Overcast, and other sites that host RSS feeds for podcasts. The sound files can also be played directly at soundcloud.com/bratthistoricalsoc.

For the past three years, the Brattleboro Historical Society, with contributions from BAMS students, has also produced more than 150 newspaper columns published in the Brattleboro Reformer. In addition to Rivers, society members Bill Holiday, Lee Ha, Carol Farrington, and Karen Davis have crafted articles that highlight the area’s rich and varied history.

“The information for the articles often comes from Research Room folder boxes,” Rivers said. Sources include bound volumes of local newspapers dating from 1833 to 1981: the Daily Evening Times, the semi-weekly Eagle, the Vermont Phoenix, the Windham County Reformer, and the Brattleboro Reformer.

The Society has amassed a varied and stunning collection of more than 10,000 photographs. In 2014, after the Society purchased a negative scanner, capable of scanning everything from 35mm negatives to 8-in.-{x}-10-inch glass plate negatives, Ha began scanning images that had not been seen in countless decades.

At this point, the Society is working on getting these glimpses of the past onto its new website, which earlier this year began introducing scanned, searchable documents to those visiting the visually rich website and its images, news, feature exhibits, and pictorial galleries.

A never-ending list of volunteer opportunities

In addition to the Research Room in the Municipal Center, the Brattleboro Historical Society operates its History Center and Museum at 196 Main St. It is open by appointment during the winter and on those Friday evenings during warmer weather when Gallery Walks are scheduled.

“I wish we could keep it open more often,” Ha said.

“There is so much more we could do if we had more volunteers,” she added. “We have a long list of what needs to be done, and the list is absolutely never-ending and quite varied.”

On that list is providing research help for those who make inquiries — a disappointing reality that is straining the resources of the nonprofit, which Ha describes as “very thinly staffed.”

“We get so many requests for historical research from our Facebook page, phone calls, and emails,” Ha said. “People are always welcome to come to the Research Room and look through our collection, but volunteers simply don’t always have the time to do research for those who request it online.”

Potential volunteers “don’t need to have a specific skill set, and if they have a particular interest, we’re happy to show them the how of things,” Ha said.

‘We want you to touch everything’

The public has donated both money to help fund the organization’s mission and also many of its artifacts, which are part of the town’s history in their own right.

Among those gifts are family Bibles, where histories were often recorded on the first few pages. They are now housed in the Research Room.

At a recent Historical Society event featuring part of the Society’s Estey Organ collection, George explained to the crowd, “This is unusual, in that we want you to touch everything. We want you to play all the organs.”

“People can’t believe it,” she said. “They come in the door, there are 20 organs here, and we say, ‘Please, play them all!’”

According to Carnahan, the publication of Before Our Time: A Pictorial Memoir of Brattleboro, Vermont, from 1830 to 1930 in 1974, by the Stephen Greene Press, a premier book publisher based in town, “gave the motivation for several of us to organize a Historical Society.”

Thirty-nine years later, with archival resources, youth outreach, public events and displays, digital archives, original research, and collecting oral histories, what’s next?

“That’s up to the public,” George said. “We appreciate their financial support. We appreciate our volunteers and wish we had more as there is so much to do. As we move forward, we’d like to hear from the public about the role they wish us to play.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #641 (Wednesday, December 1, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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