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The Bennington Museum offers a fresh take on the history of the town

All these exhibits are contained in a gallery of only 300 square feet, providing a focused experience that is likely to lead you to think of Bennington, and perhaps history itself, in new terms.

“A History of Bennington” is the cheeky title of a modest but provocative exhibit newly installed at the Bennington Museum. Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys are conspicuous by their absence. The New Light faithful who settled Bennington in the 1760s aren’t there either. What is going on? The answer begins with the words of James Baldwin displayed on a wall as you enter a small gallery on the Museum’s ground floor: “History … does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”

The present demand for equality and visibility by groups whose stories and struggles have often been omitted or downplayed in traditional histories and museum displays lies behind initiatives such as this one. To find this exhibit in the heart of the village of Old Bennington, whose main street is lined with white Colonials and topped off by the Bennington Monument, is part of its subversive appeal. In Bennington, as in other historic towns, the times are a-changin’, and history is changing with them.

Two charming visored caps with veils made by the mother of one of the women who joined in a civil union in the year 2008, eight years after Vermont became the first state to recognize same-sex partnerships. Photo by Phil Holland.

The objects on display are the stars of the show, beginning with two charming visored caps with veils made by the mother of one of the women who joined in a civil union in the year 2008, eight years after Vermont became the first state in the nation to recognize same-sex partnerships; the couple married a year later, when Vermont legalized gay marriage. The first Pride march in Bennington took place in 2019, as a poster for the event witnesses. A photograph of two women who were prominent in Bennington’s summer colony in the late-19th century shows that same-sex partnerships are nothing new in town.

Evidenced by this photograph on display in the exhibit of two women who were prominent in Bennington’s summer colony in the late-19th century, although they only became recognized by the state in 2008, same-sex partnerships are nothing new in town.

Most military stories revolve around men. A large bread bowl, said to have been used by Mary Tilden Dewey to bake loaves for soldiers who fought at the Battle of Bennington, tells a story of courage and patriotism from a different angle. The bowl perches on a stand next to a Navy uniform worn by an Arlington woman who served as an intelligence and personnel officer in the WAVES in the 1950s and ’60s until limitations on women’s service cut short her military career.

This large bread bowl, said to have been used by Mary Tilden Dewey to bake loaves for soldiers who fought at the Battle of Bennington, tells a story of courage and patriotism from a different angle. Photo by Phil Holland.

Sometimes, history can be rewritten by simply turning a page. The account book from Stephen Fay’s Catamount Tavern, famous for its place in early Vermont history, has been exhibited by the Museum before, invariably turned to an entry where Seth Warner and his Green Mountain cronies ordered rounds, perhaps while plotting against the Yorkers or the British. Now it shows visits to the Tavern in 1771 and ’72 by “Capt. Solomon Indien.” What brought to Bennington this prominent member of the Stockbridge Mohicans who would go on to fight with the Patriots in the Revolution? It might have been the matter of land, for southwestern Vermont was Mohican territory at the time of the arrival of Europeans in the area, and the town had appointed Fay and two others to negotiate a settlement with the tribe a few years before.

The account book of Stephen Fay’s Catamount Tavern shows visits to the Tavern in 1771 and ’72 by “Capt. Solomon Indien.” Photo by Phil Holland.

Even doors can be repurposed. When the Catamount Tavern burned in 1871, some few parts were saved, including an imposing set of doors that formed part of the Museum’s original collection at its opening in 1928, typically displayed as the doors that had seen Stark, Warner, Allen, and other Revolutionary-era heroes pass through. Now they are displayed, shut, next to a bill of sale for Margaret “Peg” Bowen, enslaved and sold by Stephen Fay in the 1770s. The doors of opportunity that were closed to Peg are also the doors through which she may have passed far more often than those heroes.

The doors to the famous Catamount Tavern displayed, shut, next to a bill of sale for Margaret “Peg” Bowen, enslaved and sold by Stephen Fay in the 1770s. Photo by Phil Holland.

Two other exhibits reference Black themes. Begun in 2014 and ongoing, the “I Am Vermont Too” photo-story project, focusing on the lives of BIPOC Vermonters, is represented by three photos by Sha’an Mouliert. A portrait of Lemuel Haynes, the biracial Calvinist and Revolutionary War veteran of West Rutland who once preached from the pulpit of Bennington’s Old First Church, hangs by a display of his printed sermons.

You may have heard about Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup and other remedies of the latter-19th and early-20th centuries that were spiked with alcohol, opiates, and cocaine (think Coca-Cola), but the dimensions of their use and abuse, especially in the state of Vermont, are nonetheless shocking. In 1900, we are informed, Vermonters consumed an estimated 3,300,000 doses of opium every month, not counting patent medicines. Empty bottles, druggists’ books, and a harrowing letter describing a suicide are on display. No less grim are two tiny, masterfully embroidered scenes by Ray Materson, an outsider artist who turned to embroidery in prison while serving a sentence for armed robbery, using yarn teased from old socks. In one, an abused woman despairs while her child looks out on an idyllic scene of maples hung with sap buckets. In another, three exquisitely stitched syringes spell “VT” against a backdrop of ski mountains.

A masterfully embroidered scene by Ray Materson, an outsider artist who turned to embroidery in prison while serving a sentence for armed robbery, using yarn teased from old socks. Photo by Phil Holland.

All these exhibits are contained in a gallery of only 300 square feet, providing a focused experience that is likely to lead you to think of Bennington, and perhaps history itself, in new terms. Collections Manager Callie Raspuzzi, who conceived and mounted the show, notes that the idea is not to replace but to enlarge our understanding of the past, and connect it explicitly with the concerns of the present. Visitors to the Museum who wish to behold Ethan Allen’s bar tab from the Catamount Tavern need not fear; it is displayed in a glass case on the second floor. “A History of Bennington” is on view through the end of the year.

Edge contributor Phil Holland lives in Pownal, Vermont. He’s the author of a book on the Battle of Bennington and serves on the Vermont 250th Commission’s Education Committee.

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