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Vermont Women: Sylvia Bliss

03/20/07 12:00AM
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(HOST) As VPR's week honoring women who have contributed to the life and culture of Vermont continues, we hear from Amy Cunningham, Education Director for the Vermont Historical Society, about Sylvia Bliss, an early 20th century musician, botantist, poet, and writer.

(CUNNINGHAM) I first "met" a fantastic girl named Sylvia Bliss in the vault of the archives at the Vermont History Center in Barre. In that carefully climate controlled basement room that once served as a school cafeteria, I unfolded a tiny blue letter from Toledo, Ohio, dated 1877. It read "Dear Grandma and Grandpa I would like to see you very much but think it's too cold to come there. We wish you to come and visit us." Fast forward six years to the next letter - Sylvia was thirteen, living in Des Moines, Iowa, and proposing a plan to travel with her Iowa neighbors as far as Montpelier Junction so that she could come to live with her grandparents in East Calais.

She described the Vermont banquet that was to be held in Des Moines the next week. The menu included "Hasty pudding and milk, Hull corn, coffee, doughnuts, cheese, and cider." Two hundred pounds of cornmeal and six hundred doughnuts were ordered for the event.

A few weeks later, Sylvia writes back to her grandparents and acknowledges that maybe she is a little too young to make that trip alone. She also reported that she danced two dances at the Vermont Banquet and wore a black silk dress.

I became enchanted with this independent, intelligent, and precocious young girl. I soon discovered as I went further into the files that Sylvia's creative spirit and wide variety of interests stayed strong for the rest of her life. Sylvia studied music at Syracuse University and spent most of her adult life in East Calais; she was an accomplished musician and botanist (Her four hundred specimen herbarium was donated to the Kellogg-Hubbard Library but was lost in the 1927 flood). She wrote and published poetry, essays, short stories and even articles for the American Journal of Psychology, one entitled "The Origin of Laughter." In another, "the Significance of Clothes" she defends distinctive costume as a way to - quote - "clothe our fantasies, moods and aspirations, the angel, the devil, butterfly and flower within us each having its brief hour." End quote.

Sylvia Bliss died in 1963. She is one of scores of Vermont women whose lives are recounted in the documents at the Vermont History Center. Throughout the state, more of these life stories survive in local historical society collections, attics, and in the hearts and memories of descendents and friends. Sylvia's story was preserved and documented through the efforts of Forest K. Davis, who wrote a biography of her (entitled The Bird of Utica ) and later donated her papers to the Vermont Historical Society.

Letters, diaries and other remnants from the past are the puzzle pieces of history and they're the root of my true passion for history: I don't know how many historians or curators would admit it but I will: I'm nosy - I like looking through other people's letters. There really is something powerful about exploring the lives of people who came before us. But we can only know their stories if we make the effort to preserve them.

Amy Cunningham is Education Director for the Vermont Historical Society. Tomorrow we'll hear from Barbara Snelling about her mother, Hazel M. Weil, who lived a life of quiet, willing and uncomplaining service.
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