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.)