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Vt's attic

06/18/07 12:00AM By Vic Henningsen
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(HOST) It's only Monday, but commentator Vic Henningsen is already looking ahead to the weekend. There's an old saying that "you can't go home again" but - thanks to the Vermont Historical Society - this weekend he says you can.

(HENNINGSEN) Remember exploring the family attic? Trying on old uniforms; skimming 1920's straw hats like Frisbees; sorting through picture albums; wondering who collected clocks and lovingly preserved a portrait of Woodrow Wilson - as kids this kept us busy for hours.

Last year around now we did it again - at the Vermont Historical Society's History Expo in Tunbridge.

Local historical societies, museums, preservation organizations, re-enactors, old time contra dancers - all kinds of groups - brought thousands of us face-to-face with Vermont's past by experiencing hands-on history. It was like exploring the attic of an entire state.

Walking in last year, I talked with a squad of Civil War infantrymen. On that humid afternoon they looked as uncomfortable in their wool uniforms as their ancestors must have at Gettysburg or Cedar Creek all those years ago.

Past the area where kids played games from the 1880's, lay exhibits of local historical societies and preservation organizations. Each commemorated something different and the variety told me just what an interesting place Vermont was - and still is. Notable Vermont women; copper mining; tanneries; war heroes; one-room schoolhouses; covered bridges; church steeples; sugarhouses; old roads; old kitchens; old bicycles; old sleds; old radios: if it's old and it happened in Vermont, you could learn about it here. Who knew that a single bushel of Early Rose seed potatoes, developed in Hubbardton, was once worth money enough to buy an entire farm? Who remembers today labor-saving devices like the small-animal-powered treadmill, made in Northfield, used to separate milk and churn butter. It was operated, the sign says, by pony, sheep, burro, or - in a pinch - your family dog. Further along I checked out heirloom animals like Romney sheep and Red Devon milking oxen, bred to withstand the harsh conditions of Vermont's hill farms.

And there was music of all kinds. My favorite came from the Estey Organ Museum's 1882 Pompadour parlor organ, completely equipped with organists eager to lure unsuspecting passersby into a group sing. That's how we entertained ourselves on those long winter nights before electrification. I joined heartily in "Columbia the Gem of the Ocean" before wandering off to listen to a pitch for Dr. Kendall's Spavin Cure (good for man or beast).

Sure, the present slipped in. One of the kids in the brass ensemble, exquisitely outfitted in period dress, had green hair; and, yes, those Whitcomb's Rangers from the Revolutionary War seemed to be leaning against a 1940's jeep while eating Ben and Jerry's, but so what? Different pasts collide with each other and with the present all the time. Why not here?

In fact, seeing all those people having a great time gives new meaning to William Faulkner's observation, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past." It sure isn't. Not when we've got Vermont's attic to explore in Tunbridge.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian. You can find a transcript of this commentary and more information, at vpr.net.

For additional information on Vermont History Expo:
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