Because we were headed to Florida to deal with my parents’ possessions, paying to visit someone else’s assortment of crap was not high on my list of Vermont attractions. But that was before I encountered the extraordinary collection of Electra Havemeyer Webb.
A Compulsive Collector With Very Good Taste
The daughter of a sugar magnate, Electra was born in 1888 and raised by rich, snotty parents who prided themselves on their collection of European and Asian fine art. (And yes, I mean snotty, which goes beyond snobby.) They looked down on those who didn’t share the same appreciation for fine art. Electra, though, had her own ideas. At the age of nineteen, she dragged home a cigar store Indian. “That is perfectly dreadful!” lamented her mother.
Fortunately, Electra ignored her mother. She found beauty in everyday objects, including quilts, tools, household items, ships’ figureheads, and carousel animals. She collected American folk art decades before it became popular, simply because she admired the craftsmanship.
Sharing Her Treasures With The Public
After 50 years of collecting, Electra decided to share her treasures with the public, although she wasn’t sure how they would be received. She didn’t know it, but she had compiled the finest collection of folk art in the world. In addition, she had rounded up an assortment of vintage Vermont structures for displaying her collections, including farmhouses, barns, a church, a lighthouse, and a general store. She even rescued the Ticonderoga, a steamship built in 1906 for Lake Champlain that now sits marooned on a large lawn.
Electra Havemeyer Webb’s vast collection has been called “Vermont’s Smithsonian,” and it deserves the title.
A Few Of My Favorite Things From The Shelburne Museum
If you can get here, and you enjoy folk art, you will love the Shelburne Museum. I love folk art, and up until seeing Electra’s collection, the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown was my favorite. The Shelburne, however, leaves the Fenimore in the dust.
I spent an entire day exploring the collection, and could have easily come back for a second day (entry tickets are good for two days). Alas, we were leaving the area and there was no time. Eric chose to go birding on the day I went to the museum. I know he regretted not going with me after I showed him photos of the fabulous collection of carved decoys.
Just wandering the 45 acres of grounds is lovely. There is so much to see here, it’s really not possible to absorb it all in one day.
The general store contains all of the essentials necessary for life in late nineteenth-century Vermont. The adjacent apothecary shop is fascinating, filled with herbal remedies for both people and animals.
In other buildings, a vast array of folk art is housed. There are at least 150,000 items to peruse, and all are artistically displayed.
Click on any photo for a larger image
The horseshoe-shaped Circus Building was designed to showcase a miniature circus parade that was carved by a Vermont artist over 25 years. It stretches nearly 500 feet, the full length of the building. The Circus Building also houses stunning hand-painted carousel animals from the early 1900s.
Just two miles from the Shelburne Museum is Shelburne Farms. Originally the 19th-century country estate of Electra Havemeyer Webb’s husband’s family (descendants of the Vanderbilts), it’s now a nonprofit environmental education center focused on sustainable farming practices. There’s a 1,400 acre working dairy farm and 10 miles of trails through beautiful forested land along Lake Champlain.
Vermont, of course, is known for cheese. We spent a day exploring the farm, learned about the Brown Swiss cows that graze in organic pastures and are treated kindly, enjoyed the generous samples of delicious cheese (the smoked cheddar was our favorite), and walked the trails, where we found some unique forest creatures.
The trails took us to Shelburne Inn, part of Shelburne Farm and the former country home of Dr. William Seward and Lila Vanderbilt Webb. The furnishings are original and beautiful. For about $500 a night, you, too, can stay at the lodge.
We spent the rest of our time in the area exploring Burlington. It has all of the things we enjoy in a small city…street art, interesting shops, creative restaurants and craft breweries, and a bike trail that runs along Lake Champlain. Our two favorite restaurants in the area: Rustic Roots in Shelburne (chef-owned, farm-to-table) and Honey Road in Burlington (creative and delicious Mediterranean tapas).
Where We Stayed
For our week of exploring Shelburne and Burlington, we stayed at Shelburne Camping Area. The location was great. Although the campground seems dated with lots of permanent rigs scattered about, we were happy with our site on the perimeter. We had full hookups, the management was friendly, and it was our only choice of campground near Burlington in late October. (Thinking of future visits, we biked past the city campground in Burlington. Although it would be a great campground for the convenience of biking the trails, the sites are way too close together. We much preferred Shelburne.)
One More Night In Vermont
Although we could have happily spent more time exploring Vermont, we needed to get moving to finish up our big east coast tour. We spent only one more night in Vermont, at an excellent little KOA near Brattleboro. Although KOA’s are not generally our first choice, and we never partake of any of the activities except for the laundry, we really liked this one. They have friendly goats, which of course, makes any campground better.
A Brief Stop In Montpelier
On our way from Burlington to Brattleboro, we stopped for several hours in Montpelier, the capital of Vermont. It was enough time to tour the pretty capitol building, walk around downtown, and visit the excellent distillery.
Vermont’s state motto is “Freedom and Unity,” which attempts to balance two seemingly opposite ideals: the personal freedom of the individual with the common good of the larger community. Not an easy task, but we can try, right?
At Barr Hill Distillery, raw honey is used to craft gin, vodka, and other spirits. We came away with a bottle of delicious gin.
Vermont, we’ll be back for more! (I don’t mean just for gin.)
Oh no Laurel, I hope Electra didn’t give you any ideas! However, I suppose much of what you two have now could be in a museum in another century. It is, however, very interesting to see huge collections of earlier ways of life. Thanks again for sharing. But keep an eye on Eric’s accumulations!
T and K
Haha!!! Ted, you notice I did not mention our collection of stuff in the storage unit in Ashland that still plagues us. :-( Hugs to you and Kath, we miss you guys!
Thank you for taking me along. What an interesting woman, Electra was.
Good morning, Kathryn. I thought Electra was fascinating, too. She certainly gathered a beautiful collection of folk art! Love to you, I hope you’re doing well.
I love Vermont. It would be a first choice if I couldn’t live on the West Coast. Winter’s are rough though. I spent one summer there when I was 17, and only saw a small amount of the state.
What a beautiful collection Electra Havemeyer Webb gathered. Wouldn’t it be fabulous to eat a dinner on that boat, while on the water. I suppose they used wood for fuel though. Sigh. At any rate, the imagination can appreciate the delight it brought to the people who once rode it.
Thank you for all of the beautiful photos, and positive travel sleuthing.
Sheila, Vermont really is appealing, in so many ways. But as you said, the winters!! I visited many times when I lived in Boston, and as I recall, winter lasted from November through April. Oddly enough, I didn’t even know Shelburne Farms or the Shelburne Museum existed until a few years ago. I’ve learned to become a much better travel sleuth in our full-time travels. I’m so glad you enjoyed the photos. Hugs to you and Bruce, we miss you!
I always learn about things we missed when reading your posts! We too loved the Shelburne Museum and were especially intrigued by the overland transport of the Ticonderoga. We also saw a Grandma Moses exhibit, an artist I never really appreciated until I saw the originals. Still so impressed that you are able to reach back in time and write these fantastic posts. Looking forward to Rhode Island!
Thank you, Janie, for your kind words. All of our photos help me remember all that we did, and as I sort them (and delete hundreds!) the memories come flooding back. Of course, I need to consult the sometimes helpful internet for facts, LOL. I’ll have to look at your blog to see what you wrote about visiting the Shelburne. I always learn something from your posts, too!
My husband and I visited the Shelburne Museum in 1997, and we still talk about it! What a wonderful day we had exploring the collection! We recommend it to friends who are planning visits to New England. Thanks for the beautiful photos.
Sharon, the Shelburne Museum truly is a special place, isn’t it? And to think I almost didn’t go! I waited until our last day in the area because I was reluctant to pay to visit a collection of “stuff” since I knew what was facing me in Florida. But I’m so glad I went, and I would happily return. And Eric wants to go with me this time. Hope you two are doing well!
All your imagery and description of museums, restaurants, breweries, and distilleries is reminding me how much we like those things. I am afraid that we are going to go hopelessly over budget this summer when we finally get back to places that feature those sorts of urban amenities. As fellow minimalists I’m not sure I could handle the Shelburne Museum. Your description alone makes me twitchy. But I do love the story of how the museum’s founder departed so firmly from her family’s ideas about “proper” art. I like a woman who knows her own mind!
Shannon, I know you appreciate all of the cool city amenities, just as we do. We’re excited about our summer plans, and we’re counting on you to alert us to places since you’ll be right ahead of us, LOL! And just think of all of the money we’ve saved since we’ve been on the Forgotten Coast that we now have to spend on fun things this summer! (Except we’ve spent it all on home building and renovations…) Honestly, you would love the Shelburne. I know you enjoy museums, and this is one you don’t want to miss.
Fantastic! And a good reminder to me that the only Vermont I know is the southern part. One of these years we’ll have to go explore all that northern gorgeousness, but for now your blog filled the bill nicely, thanks!
Gretchen, I’ve spent quite a bit of time in southern Vermont (mostly Brattleboro) but had never really explored Burlington/Shelburne. It’s such a great area! You would love the biking trails and everything else. Something to think about for your next epic trip east!
Ok, while I can’t take credit for the Thai restaurant you mentioned in your last post, I am pretty sure I can definitely take credit for Honey Road! We loved that place too! And the Shelburne, man, what a treat that place is. You certainly captured the eclectic variety of “stuff” she collected. If only every hoarder’s collection was so interesting. Alas… not so much. As you know. :) I wish we had gone to the farm too. We certainly missed out. Hell, I’d pay the cost of admission just for that smoked cheddar you mentioned.
There’s so much to love about Vermont and this post just adds to the list. “Gin Austen.” Ha!!
Haha, so THAT was the restaurant! I know you recommended a bunch of restaurants for us in D.C., too, so when I get to that post I’m just going to give you credit for everything, Laura. :-) I’m so glad I decided to go to the Shelburne (I think you helped convince me I should go when I was wavering). It really was fabulous, and so unlike the collection I had to sort through from my folks. :-( Speaking of gin, that gin from the Montpelier distillery was fantastic! I had my own Gin Austen party.
Oh, wow, you just made me rethink my “stay at a USACE campground for two weeks in VT” strategy because this is the year I’m hitting up every museum I find (I didn’t plan it that way, it just kind of is happening…). Just shot a reservation request off to Shelburne Camping, now I wait to see if they have anything in mid-August. Fingers crossed!
Hi Annie! So good to hear from you. And yes, you definitely want to go to the Shelburne. As you can see from Laura’s comment, she agrees. I hope you can get a site at Shelburne Camping. It’s perfectly located for exploring both Shelburne and Burlington. I look forward to reading your account of the museum—be sure to plan for two days!
I have to echo Shannon’s comment about all that stuff making me twitchy, but hey, that’s me and this is about YOU, and you liked it, and that’s what counts! Local smoked Cheddar? Yes, please! Goats in the campground? Yes, please! Beautiful places to walk around and enjoy beautiful scenery? Yes, please! If I ever get to Vermont, I’m going to figure out a way to walk around in beautiful places with a goat while eating smoked Cheddar.
Well, that would be a fun way to hike! With a goat and smoked cheddar. I’m betting you could figure out a way to do that, Joodie. I’m kind of surprised that you wouldn’t be interested in the Shelburne. It’s such a gorgeous 45 acres, and everything is handcrafted and artistically displayed. Not your usual museum at all. But hey, we all love what we love, right? :-)
As soon as I saw that round barn I knew exactly where you visited!! Number one museum in the country to me and I’m bummed we’re missing Vermont this trip because I couldn’t wait to go back. Don’t you just love that little rocking goat?? Your pics are wonderful, thanks so much for taking me back. A lovely stop in Montpelier. Brattleboro is home to a great series of novels we read when we were in the area.
Jodee, the Shelburne is definitely one of my favorite museums. I loved how beautifully everything was displayed, and I think Electra made wonderful choices. That little rocking goat was one of my favorites (you know me, I love everything goat related!). I know you must be disappointed to not be visiting again this summer. It’s definitely in our plans for a return trip, and Eric won’t miss it next time! I need to find out from you the novels that take place in Brattleboro.
I didn’t get very excited about the massive folk art collection you wrote about. Until I saw those horses. I. WANT. THOSE. CAROUSEL. HORSES. Especially the beautiful appaloosa. Hahahaha. What a dork. There I was just leisurely scrolling through your photos and wondering what the appeal is of wooden ducks and cute little toys. And then those horses popped up and I was totally sucked in. And then on top of that, it’s in Vermont, one of my favorite states. Sigh. Thanks for sharing. Once again I learned something with your blog!
Hahaha!!! You are hilarious, Janet! I laughed out loud when I read your comment. I want those carousel horses, too! Especially the appaloosa. The carving and painting of those horses was just gorgeous. There were dozens of different animals from the carousel, but the horses were my favorites (and the goats, but I didn’t post photos of those). :-) Vermont is a wonderful state and we plan to do more traveling there. I’m so glad to hear from you! Thanks for keeping in touch, I hope all is well in your life.
Anytime someone mentions the Shelburne, an image of the big round barn in your header photo comes to mind. I love that barn! The grounds are enchanting and I enjoyed the feeling of strolling through Vermont’s history when we were there. The photo of the Ticonderoga’s dining room provides a peek into another era, and it wasn’t hard to imagine guests dressed in their finest enjoying dinner as the tour boat plied the waters of Lake Champlain. You always give such delightful tours, Laurel – thank you!
Thank you, Mary! I’m so glad you enjoyed our Vermont tour. How fun that you’ve also been to the Shelburne Museum. That big red barn is pretty iconic, isn’t it? I also loved strolling the beautiful, peaceful grounds and appreciated how thoughtfully the thousands of items were displayed. It was easy to imagine cruising on the Ticonderoga! I’m glad Electra had the foresight to preserve so much of Vermont’s history and American folk art.
In addition to touring some great museums with y’all in this post, I enjoyed seeing all of the craft beers and distilleries you managed to uncover…send me in! Great stuff and great pictures. We spent only one night in Burlington on our last trip to New England but greatly enjoyed the shops and sights. Thanks for taking us back! Joe
Joe, I hope you have Vermont in your plans for your trip to New England next year. I think you would really like the Shelburne Museum and Farm—and, of course, the craft breweries. There are so many to try, it seems like we barely scratched the surface! The Barr Hill Distillery was unique in using local honey as part of the fermentation process. It makes some mighty fine, smooth spirits!
New England is a wonderful place to be in the fall. I don’t believe there is a bad spot. We did not visit the Shelburne Museum while in Vermont, but I am so glad you did this terrific blog to share. Electra’s name fits her personality perfectly! Of course, my favorite place in Vermont is the Cabot Cheese factory and the sample area…haha!! I’m sure there probably isn’t much sampling right now since pandemic hit. Thanks for the tour! I’m looking forward to RI. We never stopped there on any of our trips. I was only in the state in my younger days.
Pam, I think you would have loved the Shelburne! Not only is the collection fabulous, but the grounds are gorgeous—and I really enjoyed learning about Electra. It must have taken a lot of strength of character to go against her family traits of snobbishness and exclusivity. I know how much you love good cheese, and I know you would have also enjoyed Shelburne Farms (and ALL of the samples!). I hope the pandemic hasn’t stopped cheese sampling forever.
Don’t worry, you didn’t miss much in Rhode Island, LOL.
Loved reading about your time in Vermont. I didn’t spend much time in Burlington when I visited my friend in Plattsburg. It looks just like your kind of place for sure. This time, however, I won’t be hunting out all your fun sites. We will be with friends in Vermont, first on Lake Champlain on the Vermont side at their lake house, and then near Dorset at their beautiful timber frame house on 640 acres overlooking the valley, including a couple of ponds. Yeah, hard life, I know. My friend, Jeanne, a botanist I worked with years ago, just happened to meet a guy doing fieldwork in the middle of nowhere. Neither of them had ever married, and they were both close to 50. They married, it is a true fairy tale. Side note, he just happened to be a multi-millionaire…LOL something about IBM money. A wonderful guy who worships the ground she walks on. I adore Jeanne, you may have seen her showing up in my blog over the years. I flew to Vermont for their wedding in October of 2014. So I am really really really looking to the Vermont portion of our trip.
Sue, what a great story! How fun it will be for you to spend time with a good friend in Vermont. Not only will you be reconnecting with a dear friend, but you’ll be in such beautiful places. Your plans sound idyllic. I look forward to reading all about it—be sure to take lots of photos!
Love snotty goes beyond snobby. LOL! Perfect!
Her collection of buildings is fantastic. I love the one that is your header. And the Ticonderoga! That’s amazing – seriously. Who has that much money? I guess Electra and other descendants of the Vanderbilts.
I loved the Fenimore when we were doing the Fingerlakes, so I know I would really love this. It was on my list for Vermont but ended up being nearly 100 miles on way from both places where I was staying. Sounds like another trip to Vermont doesn’t it? Since you didn’t get to come back for your second day. I propose we go back together. And of course stay at the lodge. :)
Absolutely love the apothecary cabinet. What a beauty.
The hummingbird mural in Burlington is outstanding.
If you went back to the area would you stay again at the Shelburne or are there other places that could be booked potentially? Since I wasn’t in the north of Vermont and usually avoid cities, this was a very interesting post for me. Gin Austen – what a hoot. Her fans are a crazy bunch. Do you belong to “the Austen Society”?
Sherry, I loved the Fenimore, too, but the Shelburne was like the Fenimore x 100! I would definitely like to go back, and I like your plan. :-) If I couldn’t stay at the Shelburne Inn (LOL) I would stay at Shelburne Camping Area again. It was much more appealing than the city campground in Burlington. I’m sure there are other campgrounds in the area, but those were the two closest for what we were interested in doing. I think you would also enjoy Burlington, and I know for sure you would enjoy Shelburne Farms! I don’t belong to the Austen Society but I thought the bookstore event was brilliant.