Unlocking the secrets of our storied past

Unlocking the secrets of our storied past

The Words Project binds the pages of the region’s literary history

BRATTLEBORO — Abenaki petroglyphs of the Retreat Meadow are hidden under the flooded waters of the West River. Rudyard Kipling lived in Dummerston, where he wrote The Jungle Book. And the first edition of Harry Potter released in the U.S. - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone - was printed in Brattleboro.

These are just a few of the literary distinctions embedded in this locale, and The Words Project is on a quest to illuminate Brattleboro's longstanding history and reputation as a significant creative hub in the literary world - a place where words are written, published, and appreciated.

The Project just finished a year of planning after it was awarded a three-year grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, recognition that the town's history of writing, printing and publishing has national significance.

It officially kicked off two years of research partnerships with public schools and community teams on Sept. 1.

Brattleboro Words Project Director Lissa Weinmann originally conceived of the project as a way to explore the history of 118 Elliot, the downtown community space that she and her husband John Loggia have run since purchasing and renovating a defunct laundromat on the site of the Lawrence Water-Cure, one of two hydropathic resorts that put Brattleboro on the map as a destination in the mid-19th century and attracted writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Weinmann began working with a volunteer leadership team and a consortium of local nonprofits to organize the project after realizing that the town had been missing an opportunity to leverage its major educational, intellectual, and historic assets.

Representatives from Marlboro College, Brooks Memorial Library, the Brattleboro Historical Society, the Brattleboro Literary Festival, Write Action, and others serve on a 14-member leadership team.

A broad community initiative

Through school partnerships and harnessing community creativity, the Words Project will work to implement one of its key deliverables: The Brattleboro Words Trail.

The self-guided, community-created audio tour for walking, biking, and driving will begin in Brattleboro and extend to sites in nearby towns, including New Hampshire.

The initiative builds upon the work of Brattleboro Area Middle School students, who, under the guidance of history teacher Joe Rivers, research and document key historic points of interest in a podcast they produce for the Brattleboro Historical Society.

The podcasts highlight unsung and underappreciated facets of history and place, and the students have produced more than 180 episodes.

“We're practicing place-based learning in the classroom and bringing lessons to life through a contemporary storytelling medium,” Rivers said. “Students are excited to be using technology and podcasts to showcase their research.”

The Words Project is working to expand this learning model to other area public schools and the community at large.

With the guidance of the project, classrooms and community-based research teams are producing place-based historical podcasts based on specific locations along the Brattleboro Words Trail.

Geographic coordinates can help listeners link audio to specific locations via their smart phones using a web-based platform and mobile app and downloadable maps for audio-enhanced exploration of the points of interest.

Trail audio will channel the creative energy of area musicians and artists to make the sites come alive with sound. The Words Project's technical director, Reg Martell, is heading up website development and is teaching tech literacy to students through classroom trainings.

Project leaders expect at least 30 sites will make up the initial iteration of the Brattleboro Words Trail. However, community contributions to the Words Trail website will continue even beyond the Project's formal end in 2020.

Several existing institutions, such as the Kipling home, the Estey Organ Museum, and the School for International Training will benefit from being part of the Project by adding an audio dimension to enhance their public outreach and educational efforts.

The Project also highlights the writings and histories of peoples who have been marginalized, according to William Edelglass, professor of philosophy and director of environmental studies at Marlboro College, who serves on the leadership team.

“We believe that this collaborative research and sharing of humanities work will help make Brattleboro a more inclusive place where everyone feels a greater sense of belonging,” Edelglass said.

State officials predict that, in addition to strengthening the community, the project has the potential to attract more tourism to Windham County. Biking-trail maps in particular are expected to provide new outdoor opportunities for locals and visitors alike.

Place-based learning

A good trail site for the project is one that is associated with writing produced in the Brattleboro area, or with writing that sheds light on particularly interesting or relevant aspects of Brattleboro area history.

Several local writers are working with the Words Project to build connections between writers and place, such as Joyce Marcel (John Kenneth Galbraith and the Moore Free Library in Newfane), Tim Weed (James “Thunderbolt” Wilson and the Round Schoolhouse in Brookline), Rolf Parker (printer/author T.P. James, who claimed to be able to channel the spirit of Charles Dickens, and Elliot Street in Brattleboro) are among 18 research teams.

Literary figures such as Henry David Thoreau, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Saul Bellow, John Irving, Jody Williams, early novelist Mary Wilkins Freeman, and many others will also be included.

Sometimes the connections to the study run deep, as in Leadership Team member Stephanie Greene's leading work on her family's history with the Stephen Greene Press.

Project scholars and experts guide classroom and community teams through two school years to research the stories and people associated with sites, illuminating them through the lens of history, literature, philosophy, religion, art, culture, language, social geography, and education.

In support of teachers and students joining the larger community effort, workshops will offer professional-development credit hours to train educators in research methods, website material preparation, podcasting, and creating handmade books.

Participating schools receive trainings, one-on-one support, and new digital recording equipment provided by Guilford Sound. The key Project sponsor also helped build a recording booth for public use at Brooks Memorial Library.

Of course, there are also some challenges related to connecting key figures to actual sites. A site for Marlboro author Tasha Tudor (1915–2008), revered in Asia for her children's books and gardens, is a case in point. Some historic houses belong to new owners whose privacy must be respected, Weinmann said, noting that such concerns are carefully considered.

A book about words

The Project's scope extends directly into traditional print media through the publication of a book whose working title is Brattleboro: A Print Town.

For well over 100 years, Brattleboro was nationally recognized as a “print town,” and in A Print Town, more than 15 authors with local connections are looking to bring to life the region's vibrant printing and publishing past.

Spearheaded by Brattleboro area writers' organization Write Action, the book will open with an overview of Native American communication methods that preceded the arrival of European settlers. The story continues into the Colonial period of 1797 and progresses through the Industrial Revolution to the area's role as a book composition, design, and printing hub, to the digital era in which we live today.

“Write Action had been talking about creating a book on the fabulous and little-known printing and publishing history of Brattleboro, but the Project gave us the boost we needed to not only celebrate the past but catalogue the kaleidoscopic array of writing and publishing that continues today,” said Arlene Distler, co-founder and board member of Write Action and member of the Word Project leadership team.

Readers will be introduced to the wide variety of women and men who made print and publishing history. The dramatic changes in technologies over time will be documented, in addition to featuring graphics and photos from published works.

Key people within the industry and inside stories from local work sites will capture the vibrancy of the literary landscape, Distler said.

Commons Editor Jeff Potter is editing the book, which will be published in the fall of 2019.

Literary festival involved

Through its collaboration in the Word Project, organizers of the Brattleboro Literary Festival hope to support outreach to schools and to many others in the area.

The Festival's first effort with the Project was in MILES - a mobile, interactive literary exhibition space that highlighted the life of Lucy Terry Prince, author of the first extant poem by an African American, a freed slave who lived with her husband on Abijah Prince Road in Guilford.

“It's very exciting to be able to bind together the many important parts of Brattleboro's literary history and to reignite an interest in books and literature,” said Festival Director Sandy Rouse.

This year the festival presented a play about local literary figures Royall and Mary Tyler, kicking off the festival's weekend of activities, which included an exhibition on the Tylers at Brooks Memorial Library.

Royall Tyler's 1787 play The Contrast was the first to be mounted in the new United States; George Washington attended its opening as part of his inaugural celebration. Mary Tyler published the country's first known child-care manual.

Additionally, The Brattleboro Museum & Art Center's Mara Williams will commission a new exhibit linked to the Project's themes upon its completion in Fall 2020.

Citizens can get involved

The Project is encouraging involvement from citizens, who are encouraged to attend a free roundtable discussion, held monthly each second Thursday. Each discussion features a new site or aspect of the Project and is facilitated by site research experts and scholars.

The Project is also actively seeking sponsors and foundation grants.

“The NEH matching grant is just that - a one-to-one match of funds the Project must still raise,” Weinmann said, adding that she and a handful of other leaders are working hours well beyond the small stipends they receive.

She said at least half of the total Project budget of approximately $500,000 over a 3 1/2-year period has so far come from in-kind donations. The rest has come from businesses, small grants, and many individual donations.

For now, she said, the focus is on harnessing the love and creativity of the community to keep the work going. The Project seeks more writers, musicians, artists, and photographers to help bring Trail sites to life - and community members who can brainstorm ways to leverage the Words Trail to promoting biking, tourism, and economic development within the area.

But project leaders see something much more profound at the heart of it all.

“We hope that the Brattleboro Words Project can help us develop a deeper understanding of, and responsibility for, our shared place,” Edelglass said.

“A deeper understanding of the passing of time may help us understand the fragility of our ways of life, of our economy, culture, and social practices.

“A deeper appreciation of the written word, and all the social systems, language, education, capital, technology, and material goods necessary to support a culture of writing, may help us be more attentive to the power of words.”

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