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Greene: A Prodigious Memory

06/28/11 5:55PM By Stephanie Greene
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(HOST) In looking up an old family friend recently, commentator Stephanie Greene was reminded of just how ephemeral - and precious - memory can be.

(GREENE) Esther Munroe Swift, a sixth generation Vermonter, was born in New York by accident when her very pregnant mother took a day trip across the border and gave birth. But she can be forgiven this small lapse, as she has since devoted her adult life to studying and archiving Vermontiana in many forms.

For twenty years, Esther researched Vermont to write her monumental Vermont Place Names, traveling to all of the state's 255 civil entities, plus mountains, and rivers. She discovered there's a town named after an original settler's dog, and one whose name was decided in a wrestling match.

The book was originally published by the Stephen Greene Press in 1977 and is now distributed by the Vermont Historical Society.

Then, for 19 years, Esther worked for the Billings Farm Museum, as a librarian and archivist, collecting information on Vermont Yankee farm techniques and organizing old photos so they were accessible to the public.

Her most recent project was through UVM's Landscape Change Program, in which citizens are invited to consult old photos of Vermont, and photograph the area as it appears today. She was working on it into her early eighties.

Her granddaughter, Katherine Kelly, also a librarian, gives a stunning example of just how encyclopedic Esther's knowledge of Vermont could be. Someone presented her with a photo of downtown Montpelier, suggesting it could have been taken during the first two decades of the 20th century. What did she think? Esther not only pinpointed the week the photo had been taken - it was right after a flood - she could name the people on the street.

In 2007 Esther received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Center for Research on Vermont.

Bob Benz at the Billings Museum remembers her refrain: "You'd better write things down - and organize them so that other people will be able to follow and access the information."

I remembered her as a close friend of my parents, and recently went looking for her. Her phone had been disconnected, but the very helpful town clerk in South Royalton forwarded my inquiry to her lawyer.

I called him and found out that she is now in an assisted living facility, and the family was selling her books, thousands of them, that weekend at her home, the historic General Stevens House. Not only that, they were looking for a home for her collection of Vermontiana, some 180 books, gazetteers and pamphlets. Did I know of any place that might want them?

Of course I couldn't resist the sale, and after a delightful conversation, the family directed me to the outbuilding where she stored most of her collection. There were so many beautiful books in good condition, I bought too many.

Sadly, Esther's prodigious memory is no longer what it once was, her collection of Vermontiana is up for adoption, and Bob Benz's words about saving information haunt me.

I so hope a good home will be found for this Vermont treasure.

(NOTE) In case you're wondering, the town whose name was decided by a wrestling match was none other than Barre.  The story about the town named for a dog is probably just that - a story - but it nevertheless showed up in an early gazetteer.  That town is Dover.
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