Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica holds a leather bucket used by the Brattleboro Fire Department in the 1800s.
Fran Lynggaard Hansen/The Commons
Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica holds a leather bucket used by the Brattleboro Fire Department in the 1800s.

Where did this come from?

Brooks Memorial Library seeks new homes for some of its collection of art and artifacts accumulated over the years

BRATTLEBORO — “Look at this,” says Brooks Memorial Library Director Starr LaTronica as she holds up a well-preserved leather bucket. “This is one of my favorite items in the library.”

The object, about 25 inches in length, has a name inscribed in gold on the front - J. Goodhue - along with the numeral 2.

LaTronica smiles with the delight of a history lover.

Some firefighters told her about one object - “one of the original Brattleboro Fire Department buckets. Each home was required to have one outside their door with their name and street number etched on it,” LaTronica explained.

When the fire bell was sounded, the homeowner was supposed to grab the bucket - always filled with sand - from the front door and go to the fire.

After throwing the sand, the homeowner would fill the bucket with water and become a member of the bucket brigade. After the fire was extinguished, the bucket would be returned to the owner whose name was inscribed.

“If you were found to be home and you didn't attend the fire, you were fined,” says LaTronica, with a grimace.

The original Brooks Memorial Library, when built in 1842, replaced the home of J. Goodhue, the likely original owner of the fire bucket. The stone Victorian building, still remembered with great fondness by older locals, featured three floors and two reading rooms with floor-to-ceiling stacks that held, at the start, 5,000 volumes.

That's not all that was gifted. In Brattleboro Remembers, one in the Voices of America series of local histories from Arcadia Books, the late Hazel J. Anderson, a lifelong resident and longtime member noted that “the library also served as a museum with historical artifacts and paintings displayed in the gallery on the third floor. […] The painting of the Prodigal Son in its impressive location [was] on the back wall.”

Now the sheer number of donations has overwhelmed the library's ability to display them.

The library's board of trustees has debated what should be done with such items that the library and, appreciating the fact that residents place a high value on local history, is now trying to re-home these items.

“We want to be very transparent,” Trustees President Ann Varilly says. “We want people to understand that this will be a very long process. It's going to take a lot of time.”

She says that in the process, “we're being very careful and cautious.”

“It's important to us that all these items are treated in a caring and thoughtful way,” Varilly says.

As described in a news release, the trustees are “working closely with an independent fine arts consultant as well as experts at the Vermont Historical Society to navigate the technicalities and logistics of what is formally called 'deaccessioning,' with the explicit intention to ensure items that significantly relate to Vermont are retained within the state.”

Finding new homes

Approximately 150 items have no logged information that identifies their importance or who donated them.

LaTronica explained that, in the last 136 years, “People have always viewed our library as a trusted source and repository of history. We've amassed quite a collection of things that have been donated because they are beautiful, and the hope was that by donating these objects, they could be enjoyed by many people.

“These donated objects reflect what people have valued through the centuries,” she added.

“We have a lot of unsolicited souvenir vases and figurines, for example, collected from people's travels that were donated which have no significance to Brattleboro or Vermont,” LaTronica said. “Most of these unidentified items have been kept in storage because the library lacks the space to display them.”

LaTronica walks around a private storage room tucked in a far corner of the library. It is chock full of paintings, chairs, candlesticks, vases, sculptures, collectibles, and artists' gifts.

“Look at this,” she says as she pulls a silver object off the shelf.

The shining, rectangular silver piece is etched with a complicated swirling design.

“We have no idea what this is, who donated it, or when,” she says sadly. “While [it is] beautiful, we don't have any information about the piece.”

Because of the lack of documented local connection, “We'd rather give it back to the family of the donor, or to a place where its history can be appreciated,” LaTronica says.

Both Varilly and LaTronica are quick to remind the public that the treasures most valued at the library aren't going anywhere.

The History Room will still be in the library, and there are plans to make the many historical photos available for viewing when some of the other artifacts find new homes.

The Snow Angel by Larkin Mead isn't going anywhere. The painting of the Prodigal Son is staying right where it is. The dinosaur tracks and the Mammoth tusk are staying at the library,” she says smiling reassuringly, though she notes that currently the dinosaur tracks are being housed in the staff lounge while they wait to be installed on a brick wall for safety's sake.

The consultant will assist the library in relocating the unidentified objects to places where they can be viewed and enjoyed.

By early 2024, after as many objects as possible are re-homed, a list of what remains will be made public so that people can be informed about the remaining artifacts. The unclaimed items will eventually go to a public auction, with proceeds used to preserve the remaining items in the library's collection.

“Here's a good example,” says LaTronica, as she points to a wooden box which holds some kind of file and scissors. “I wish we knew where this came from and why we have it.”

She picks up a faded piece of thick paper that states, “china brought from england to brattleboro in 1793.” It accompanies delicate dishes - a dinner plate and a dessert plate - that feature a gentle, pale pattern in purple on a white background.

“In 1793, these dishes were a very exciting thing to see, and I'm sure the public appreciated it at the time,” says LaTronica. “If anyone in the public has a claim on them, please do let us know.”

LaTronica continues walking around the room. A brass candlestick sits next to a souvenir cup from England commemorating the reign of Queen Victoria. A huge painted portrait of Jacob Estey sits against a wall.

“This portrait will be given to the Estey [Organ] Museum,” says LaTronica. “They are very happy to have it. This is what I mean by re-homing items,” she says, smiling.

In the corner, ornately carved wooden chairs from the original library building feature oak leaves, flowers, and George Brooks's initials in the center.

“These chairs will be restored,” says LaTronica, calling the set “another one of our treasures that we'll never part with.”

“Here's a happy story,” she says, brightening as she points to a bust of a Victorian male.

“We've discovered that this man was from Middlebury,” LaTronica says. “We didn't know who he was or why he was famous, but people in Middlebury do, and he will be going back home soon!”

The library hopes “that all these items will find good homes like this gentleman,” she says.

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