Back to the future: historical society turns a corner


Friday, Aug. 29, 2008 

MANCHESTER — The small stone wall is well hidden now, partly concealed by the leafy vegetation that has grown up around it and snug against a mound of earth that has almost buried it. But at one time it formed one wall of a small canal, dug to draw water from the Batten Kill to help power local mills and factories, when the town was variously known as the "North Village" or "Factory Point."

Small hints like this remain of Manchester's former industrial era in various spots around town. They speak of a time about 150 years ago when water-powered mills finished marble and made an array of other products. Some are still there, hiding in plain sight, says Victor Rolando, a member of the Manchester Historical Society.

"The lay of the land is ideal for this series of canals," he said. "You have to think like a 19th century industrialist —the canal system was set up before the era of electric power and was gravity-fed."

Rolando said the parking lot alongside the Sirloin Saloon off of Depot Street was the site of a lot of industrial activity back then. Old maps show one canal line crossing present day Depot Street and ending up behind McDonalds, linking to a stream that ran east from there, he said.

"There are a lot of remnants of history still around, you just have to know what you're looking for," he said one day last week while poking around in the underbrush at the edge of the Sirloin Saloon restaurant's parking lot. "It was a very industrialized area and because of that it's very interesting — there's a lot of turnover of land and earth."

Rolando has led walking tours of that stretch of the Batten Kill and will be leading another one of an early settlement known as North Winhall on Sept. 6. He'll also be giving a presentation on 200 years of charcoal making on Sept. 17, when the society holds its annual meeting, where it will elect a set of new officers for the coming year.

Programs like that have been a staple of the historical society in recent years and have drawn interest to the group, which has helped chronicle the history of Manchester for the past 111 years. But lately the society has been going through a period of transition, and the last year or so has seen the society trying to work its way through the loss of a couple of key members, a move of its display of local artifacts from the Mark Skinner Library to the town hall, and the election of a new board of directors and a slate of officers.

The organization has been a repository of the nearly 250-year history of Manchester since its founding in 1897, and after a long period of time when things were going well and they were receiving recognition from the state for the quality of their work, the society finds itself at a crossroads.

Now there's light at the end of the tunnel, said local architect Bill Badger, the society's vice-president who has been serving as the de facto leader of the group since the resignation of their president, Sarah Fitz, last April. Fitz had already, as a service to the society, stayed on as president several months after she should have been able to step down, Badger said. Elections had not been held last year so the former officers were not replaced. The entire board were lame ducks that had overstayed, by necessity, their terms of office, Badger said.

The society has been thinking hard and discussing what its mission and purpose should be, and how it can attract new members, he said.

"The main challenge is to get a new board constituted, then figure out where the society should go in terms of what it offers and finding a home base," he said. "We've made some progress. The key is going to be getting some new people at the September annual meeting."

That meeting, set for mid-September, will produce a new slate of officers and board directors that will help propel the society forward in new directions, he said.

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The society has always had its ups and downs, but about 25 years ago got re-invigorated by local businessman Oscar Johnson and had two other members, Mary Bort, the curator of its collection of artifacts, and Bob West, the program director who led the special programs such as the walking tours, contributing mightily to the organization. Then, in the space of a year, both passed away, leaving the void the society is only now beginning to fill, he said.

Bort, a local historian of some distinction, was a regular contributor to the Journal for many years, and oversaw the archives and artifacts. West ran the society's programs so well that the group received recognition from the state for having among the best programs in Vermont, Badger said.

"It (the programs West ran) were very consistent, year after year, always something people could count on," he said.

Now, the society is also going to have to move a set a display cases it has had installed in the downstairs room of the Mark Skinner Library, that had once been given over to the society for meetings and displays, Badger said.

The society also has a storage area there — which it will continue to be able to use. But the downstairs room is being increasingly used for children's programs, and the large plate glass display cases were too risky to stay in the vicinity where small children were gathering, said Head Librarian Ellen Boyer.

"The display cases were a safety issue," Boyer said. "When this was brought to our attention, the board (of directors) felt they would be negligent if they didn't address it."

The cases were moved to Manchester's Town Hall and will be restocked with display pieces from their collection by mid-September. They have been set up in the large multipurpose room where the town boards hold their meetings, Badger said.

In some ways, up until a few years ago, things may have been going almost too well, Badger said.

"We had a home at the library," he said. "There was no need for alternatives, no need for creative thinking.' But we've come up with a good solution."

In the storage room at the back of the large downstairs room where the display cases will no longer stand, Judy Harwood, the society's new curator, continues to catalogue their collection of artifacts. Gray cardboard boxes line the walls, holding photographs, old 19th century glass negatives, signs of long gone businesses and establishments, musical instruments, a set of dental tools.

There's a belt buckle from an old local volunteer fire department, and a set of hat frames.

"Bonnet Street was named because there were three milliners that used to be there," she said.

Harwood wants to get the catalogue of the artifacts listed on a computer record; right now it's still in the form of handwritten notes. She's not sure of how many individual pieces there are in storage, but clearly there are many of them. And people can call her or anyone in the historical society if they want to donate more items to ensure their preservation, she said.

"There's all kinds of great things here, treasures and ones that are unknown," she said. The history of Manchester is so interesting."


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