BRATTLEBORO — From Abenaki petroglyphs and the first known African American poet, Lucy Terry Prince, to Nobel Laureates like Saul Bellow, Jody Williams, Rudyard Kipling, and a pantheon of colorful characters along the way, writers and the words they have written have shaped the Brattleboro area into something special.
Now, a product of a multi-year National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) backed exploration of People, Places and History of Words in Brattleboro, Vermont offers a new way to make these creators' stories accessible to all: the Brattleboro Words Trail, community-created audio stories linked to places in and around the region.
The public is invited to listen to these stories on their phones while viewing large, hand-carved clay maps commissioned for the Trail at “Exploring Our Storied Landscape: Brattleboro Words Trail Murals, Maps and Sound,” a multimedia exhibit opening Friday, May 7, at 118 Elliot (118 Elliot St.), with a rain date of Saturday, May 8.
An opening reception will take place behind the facility from 4 to 8 p.m. The exhibit will remain through September, and a larger Summer Trail exhibit will open July 2 at 118 Elliot.
Visitors can download the free Brattleboro Words Trail mobile app or visit the project website to hear audio pegged to sites featured on the murals and maps.
Among the 45 tour sites, listeners can hear the story of Dr. Robert Wesselhoeft and the writers who stayed at his famous water-cure at today's fire station. Down the block, they can hear how T.P. James, purportedly channeled Charles Dickens to “complete” the recently-deceased writer's last novel. Up the hill, listeners can hear Nobel Peace Laureate Jody Williams' story at the Green Street School, where the Trail placed a plaque in her honor.
Another 52 sites on the regional mural offer biking or driving destinations throughout Windham County and into New Hampshire, as well as one very important site just over the state line in Massachusetts.
Free printed maps made from the murals feature Abenaki place names alongside contemporary names. Thanks to Zak Grace, maps will be illuminated at night so passersby can interact with the exhibit even when the gallery is closed.
The state of Vermont plans to highlight the Trail on its Vermont Vacation website, and the Trail team will help with its own marketing push.
“In harnessing its community's creativity to tell the diverse and entertaining stories that make this town a nationally significant literary hub, the Brattleboro Words Trail is an exceptional resource and attraction for tourists and locals alike, offering multiple destinations around an intriguing central theme for those who seek a unique Vermont experience,” says Commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing Heather Pelham.
The Brattleboro Words Project was a collaboration of the Brattleboro Historical Society, Brooks Memorial Library, Brattleboro Literary Festival, Write Action, and Marlboro College led by a 14-person project leadership team, but its products will go on to be managed at two state-wide organizations.
The Trail's new advisory board includes former Words Project leadership team members William Edelglass Ph.D., Shanta Lee Gander, Starr LaTronica, Rolf Parker, and Lissa Weinmann, who will oversee the project's continued development with the support of the Vermont Folklife Center.
“The Vermont Folklife Center's focus on ethnographic interviewing, oral history and community audio-making opens up amazing opportunities for the future of the Words Trail,” Weinmann, director of the Brattleboro Words Project, said.
Weinmann led a mostly volunteer audio production team, including Reggie Martell, Sally Seymour, and Donna Blackney, with final mastering from Dave Snyder at Guilford Sound.
The team worked with more than 140 community members to contribute to audio segments for the Trail. Research and audio development is ongoing, with a couple of the regional sites still under development.
The Trail welcomes those who wish to help with the more than 20 sites already identified for future work, or those who may have ideas of their own.
Project partner Joe Rivers headed up the student audio production for 15 of the 97 sites as part of an ongoing collaboration between the Brattleboro Historical Society and the Brattleboro Area Middle School. Several other area schools participated in audio creation, work that continues at BAMS and that organizers hope to expand to other schools.
“The Brattleboro Words Trail provides a true model of how communities can come together to explore the hidden histories that often exist in plain sight,” says Trail Advisory Board member Shanta Lee Gander, who produced an audio segment and wrote a chapter on Guilford's Lucy Terry Prince, the nation's first African American poet, for Print Town, the book recently published as part of the Words Project.
Mural artist Cynthia Parker-Houghton, lead designer at Natalie Blake studios, used sgraffito to carve the two large clay murals of Windham County and Downtown Brattleboro with eight ceramic portraits of key personalities on display.
“The landscape unifies all the histories and stories,” Parker-Houghton said. “We will add markers to the regional and downtown maps for each new story as the project expands.”