History is in good hands

‘The roots of St. Johnsbury’ on display

  • 6 min to read
Peggy Pearl

Local history has been a calling for St. Johnsbury’s Peggy Pearl. She was recently awarded the Local Historical Societies and Museums Individual Achievement Award.  

Peggy Pearl moves about her office on the second floor of the St. Johnsbury History and Heritage Center, sifting through piles of papers, stacking albums of postcards, and shelving various books. She finally sits behind her desk, which is covered in notes, and swivels around to look out the bay window behind her. She laughs when she explains that this is the first time in her career that she has had an office above ground.

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “We are not makers of history. We are made by history.” Pearl and her team of dedicated volunteers confirm this philosophy through preservation and education.

Prior to starting the center, Pearl had worked in the basement of the Fairbanks Museum as the director of educational programs for over 30 years.

“I’ve never been able to look out windows and have sunshine.”

Pearl is getting more than sunshine as she and her team embark on their journey to preserve local history. She’s also getting recognition. This past October, The Vermont Historical Society acknowledged all the work Pearl has accomplished for the center with their Local Historical Societies and Museums Individual Achievement Award.

When asked about the award, Pearl almost blushes and turns away, flustered and humble. She firmly believes that it is the community behind her that deserves the acknowledgement. Jennifer Paine, who has worked alongside Pearl from the beginning and who, along with Sue Gallagher, is responsible for nominating Pearl, says, “There’s no one more deserving. It’s incredible what she has done. And she will say it wasn’t me who did this, it’s the whole group. But it never would have happened without her.”

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The History and Heritage Center established its current location, 421 Summer Street, in 2014. Prior to this, if one wanted to see St. Johnsbury’s historical collections, they would have to visit the Fairbanks Museum. But over time, the museum acquired more and more holdings, which resulted in less space to store and exhibit the items. The board and administration decided to focus on natural history, meteorology, and astronomy. The local historical artifacts would no longer be a part of their mission. There was talk that these items would be offered up to historical societies around Vermont.

At this point, Pearl had been working at the museum for 30-plus years. She thought: “Wait a minute. St. Johnsbury has a huge place in history. And it should be our story to tell. It should not go anywhere else. And so,” she laughed “began my retirement.”

The first whisperings of the History & Heritage Center began in 2009 and 2010. By 2011, Peggy, along with Paine and Jackie Dadourian, had taken up residence at the Summer Street School, generously donated by Jim and Loraine Impey. Their plan was this: amid boxes and historical artifacts that they had begun to acquire from the museum, they began looking for a permanent location to set up their historical center.

“These artifacts are the roots of St. Johnsbury and they explain who we are and what we have,” says Pearl.

And these artifacts are no small thing, they represent the Fairbanks family influence, which gave economic and cultural rise to St. Johnsbury. They are also tokens of the industrial revolution. The invention of the platform scale, which took place right here, with Fairbanks Scales, sparked a company that spanned the world, and in turn, gave us the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, the Fairbanks Museum, the St. Johnsbury Academy, and the YMCA.

For Pearl, it was not acceptable that this historical collection go elsewhere.

When Pearl and her team began searching for an appropriate home for the items, she wasn’t sure they would be able to do it. She knew the size of the collection, that wasn’t the problem. And although accused by many of being idealistic, she assured me that she knew, in reality, that it would be a big uncertainty. One reason for this, she pointed out, was that St. Johnsbury already has a lot of important nonprofits. She wasn’t sure if adding another one would work.

“But the bottom line,” she explained, “was that we had to do it.”

And so, with the help of Dick Axelrod, a former attorney, they were able to take the first step of establishing themselves as a nonprofit. And one potential location was the vacant armory building. It seemed a workable space and it was conveniently located on Main Street, between the Athenaeum and the Fairbanks Museum. However, they began to see a different story. By this time, the space had been shuttered. Water and heat had been turned off. Pipes had burst and the floors had buckled, and there was asbestos.

It took lots of looking to find the History & Heritage Center’s current building. What sold them on the yellow farm house on Summer Street, was the barn.

Their next problem was they had no money.

Peggy and Paine joked, “If we got 250 people to give us a $1,000 apiece…”

And that’s exactly what they did. They established a goal and then formed their 250 Club where they asked people for a thousand dollars. They also received smaller donations along the way. A $60,000 grant from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board put them over the top, so that they had the funds to not only purchase the property, but retrofit it as well.

Once they had purchased the property, they realized how much work the barn needed. They worked with St. Johnsbury Academy’s building trades and electricity programs to get things started.

H&H wanted to use part of the barn to serve as a permanent exhibit for a gigantic platform scale. A grant from the Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation enabled them to work on the end of the barn that would allow for this.

Right now, the barn has a St. Johnsbury Water Wagon, a horse-drawn hearse, an E&T Ide coal wagon, a popcorn wagon, a Handy ice cutting exhibit, Ryan’s slays, and the original wagon the Fairbanks used to come to St. Johnsbury from Brimfield, Mass. And on the far end to the right, they now have a permanent platform scale. In time, the center plans to put the Fairbanks wagon on it. Earlier in November, they hung a pattern from the old plant, one of the largest ever made, above the scale. It’s 22 feet in length. These patterns were used over and over again.

These artifacts are “really symbolic of what happened in St. Johnsbury,” said Pearl.

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In order to protect and display the collections, H&H partnered with Lyndon Woodworking. Once they had the cabinets, they displayed Civil War artifacts in two rooms, their Fairbanks Scales collection in another, and devoted a smaller room to “What’s New” items that have come from outside of the Fairbanks Museum collection.

Pearl explains, that in time, she is confident, “people will realize this is a place that preserves things.”

There are many items from the museum that are not yet on display. It may seem an unusual place to store important historical items, but thanks to a Cultural Facilities of Vermont grant and the expert advice of conservator Rich Kerschner, they were able to control the conditions of the basement to continue optimal preservation.

This is important, because storage space is a necessity. There needn’t be space to display everything; rotating exhibits keep people coming back. For example, next year, they’re going to have a room that depicts the 80 years of the St. Johnsbury Players, which, she says “will be a great piece of St. Johnsbury history, we’re looking forward to it.”

One of the more difficult parts of getting the History & Heritage Center up and going is simply getting people in the door. Nestled a street back from Main Street, it takes some intention to find the building. And the concept of “build it and they will come,” is going to take time.

Pearl mentioned Board Member Denise Scavitto, a teacher at the St. Johnsbury Academy. She handles their website and Facebook page, and she laughed as she explained that they rely on Denise’s tech skills.

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Looking towards the future, one thing Pearl would like to see happen is a relationship between H&H and the St. Johnsbury School. She thinks it is important the students understand the history and value of their hometown.

“If you plant the seeds in a young person, they’ll grow.”

Pearl’s idea is not new. When Paine taught her first and second graders, Pearl would come in at least once a year to do a special educational program. At first, the topics may seem a bit unusual. Paine laughs as she lists dirt, laundry, logging, and covered bridges as a few examples.

“You’re thinking, these are first and second graders,” says Paine. “Logging won’t hold their attention.”

But she did.

“She always makes a connection to what is happening now,” Paine explains. “For example, the children got to touch the pieces, look them over. Even with covered bridges, by the time she was done, they knew the different structures of covered bridges.”

There has been continued success with keeping this spark alive with St. Johnsbury Academy. Students work on their freshmen year capstone projects and, in the process, explore the town and its history, and this is important.

Pearl explains that, “it’s important because, you don’t have to know names and dates and all that. You need to know where you were to know how you got to where you are today. You don’t realize that there was a time, where someone at a [switchboard] plugged you in to talk to someone. If you don’t know that, you don’t know what your portable phone is all about.”

“If people don’t understand these things,” she says. “Then they’re not going to take care of them, and appreciate them.

If you haven’t been to the St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center, they will be partaking in the Victorian Holiday Open House 1-4 p.m. There will be coloring for the kids, and an opportunity to check out exhibits, the barn, and the platform scale.