By MICHELLE MONROE
SOUTH HERO – The South Hero Bicentennial Museum may have been closed during the pandemic, but its volunteers still kept busy. The museum reopened this week with a number of new exhibits.
“It looks completely different,” said Cathy Merrihew, a member of the museum board and one of the volunteers who put together the new exhibits.
One of those exhibits focuses on the history of agriculture in South Hero, with farm implements, photos, and maps showing the farm locations.
There is also a quilt from the Fifield family which dates from 1939 or 1940 with the name of every resident in the town embroidered on it.
Another new exhibit is dedicated to what life is like on an island, including boating, fishing and hunting, with a section dedicated to the steamboats which traveled Lake Champlain in the 1800s.
One of those ships, the Phoenix, caught fire on Sept. 15, 1819. Rescuers went out from South Hero to retrieve the passengers. A map shows the Phoenix’s planned route and where it traveled that day. Merrihew was able to secure a print of a painting of the Phoenix burning from the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum.
The display includes dishes used on some of the ships and stateroom keys. “We’ve had more fun learning about these,” said Merrihew.
The basement was opened as a display space in 2018. It contains equipment from businesses which operated in South Hero, and items from South Hero households. A sewing machine powered by the feet of the sewer sits in one corner. Another clever item allowed the family dog to run on a treadmill which could then be used to operate some basic types of equipment, such as a butter churn.
A bean sorter from the South Hero Bean Company was also powered by the operator who pushed a foot press to cause beans to fall onto the sorter. The worker then removed the chaff before sending the beans down a shoot and into a pail.
Corn was also canned in South Hero under then name Maine’s Finest Corn from 1915 to 1930 when earwigs began destroying the local corn crop.
The most successful South Hero business from the period, according to museum president Terry Robinson, was a creamery that made butter.
The manufacturing businesses were all located near South Hero’s train station where trains stopped regularly from 1900 to 1960.
The museum itself was built in 1925 as a library by Susan Landon in honor of her son who survived World War I only to die of pneumonia in France before he could return home.
In 1974, Folsom School added a library and the town library was moved there to join the school library.
Two years later a group of town residents decided to convert the library building to a museum as a part of the bicentennial celebrations.
Twenty years later, another group of town residents took over the operation of the museum, explained Robinson. When they were on longer able to open it one summer, Robinson, a former social studies teacher at Folsom, volunteered.
“I just loved the history” of South Hero, she said.
“You don’t do too bad for someone from New Jersey,” commented Ron Phelps, another member of the board.
The latest crop of volunteers took over in 2017. They started making changes on the main floor, adding a research area for visitors to use, as well as some new displays.
They then opened the downstairs for the first time, allowing them to display more of the items which had been donated to the museum.
The current board isn’t inclined to rest on their laurels. A cabin from the South Hero Inn has been moved to a location across the street. It’s the next restoration project for the board. It’s one of three cabins added to the inn by Lillian Robinson Axtell. John Roy suggested the museum save it, and Phelps figured out how to move it from a local farm where it had been used as a child’s playhouse.
The museum is open Wednesdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. or by appointment. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule an appointment.
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