Rutland’s Historical Society, a priceless resource

Anthony Edwards / photo

Rutland Historical Society Anthony Edwards / photo

POLICE REPORT…

Rutland (1905) — George Chaffee, a successful Rutland business man, has been fined for going 10 mph on Center Street!

Chaffee, who constructed the Playhouse — the Paramount Theater— in 1913, and who built and lived in the exquisite structure we now know as the Chaffee Art Center on South Main Street, was one of the first automobile owners in town. And he was also a speed-demon. Well, well.

 

It’s little stories like this that bring history — and the people who make up our past — alive and relevant to our own time. Despite being a history major in college, my knowledge, i.e. memory, of many facts and dates has evaporated into the mists of time. But the stories? The little threads of human-ness in the larger quilt of history, those I remember.

“History needs to be a story, not just facts and data,” says Jim Davidson, curator of the Rutland Historical Society.

How does one find such stories? Research committee member Mickey Kelly knows. Scanning, with both his eyes and a portable scanner, one of the huge — I mean massive — bound tomes which dwell in the basement of the Historical Society’s Center Street location, Kelly tells me he is looking for an obituary from 1913 in response to a request from a community member. “Train accident in North Clarendon. She was thrown right over the engine,” he says.

TAKING THE TOUR

In the basement’s moisture-controlled room — organized, managed and fully catalogued by board member Bob Ranftle — bound copies of the Rutland Herald date from 1846 to 1952.

In this room of times gone by also reside two old street lamps, one painted with the words “Bates House,” and even a wicker casket, final resting place to — thank goodness! — only a mannequin.

On the main floor — in a room available to the public for research and the presentations the Historical Society offers — displays on the wall give a brief overview of Rutland’s history with facts, photos and in cases below, physical pieces from each time period, such as a lady’s shoe from the 19th century and a 45 RPM record from the late 20th century.

Leaning against the wall is a beautifully detailed, half-circle stained glass window saved from Memorial Hall, which was demolished to make way for the current post office building. Constructed as a memorial to Rutland’s Civil War soldiers, it also housed the city’s first public library in the basement.

Upstairs at the Historical Society, rows of metal bookcases hold document boxes and bound volumes of business records, municipal court records dating from 1893, maps, school registers with handwritten attendance books from 1900 to 1963, and before and after photos of now demolished or renovated buildings.

There are also scrapbooks and photo albums donated by individuals. Davidson tells me about one family’s albums which include photos from 1916 right up to the 1960s, including one which he was particularly excited about of a boy on a bike in Western Union uniform in the late 1800s or early 1900s.

One treasured possession of the Historical Society is a set of books written between 1780 and the early 1800s — the oldest in the collection — by an early Rutland resident, one Lemuel Haynes.

Although it was chartered in 1761, the first permanent resident did not settle in Rutland until 1770. A fort, which became the Vermont Military Headquarters during the Revolution, was built in 1778. Outside the fort, the town of Rutland was divided east to west according to religious affiliation.

In 1783, Haynes started his 30-year leadership of Rutland’s Calvinist West Parish (West Rutland). A former slave of biracial descent, he was the first black person in America to serve as pastor of a white congregation. Writing and speaking out against slavery, he became an influential African-American religious leader, even receiving an honorary Master of Arts degree from Middlebury College in 1804 — the first of its kind ever granted to an African American.

The east section of Rutland was the realm of Congregational minister, scholar and a founder of the University of Vermont, Rev. Samuel Williams. Also a writer, in 1794 he founded Vermont’s oldest still-published newspaper, the Rutland Herald, and also wrote the very first history of Vermont.

Following in the history-loving footsteps of this Rutland native, Davidson, a retired history teacher, calls himself a “professional historian” with a “passion for the past.” He has been involved in the Rutland Historical Society since its inception in 1969.

HISTORICAL BEGINNINGS

Originally spearheaded by the Rutland Business and Professional Women, a fledging society was established with the help of a group of approximately 30 Rutland residents. Their first home was at 101 Center St., an 1825 building that housed the First Bank of Rutland, and later, until 1969, a church. Donations of historical artifacts and documents began coming in, slowly building the collection of today.

In 1993, after a timely bequest came through, the Historical Society was able to renovate and move into their current location, an 1860 firehouse owned by the city at the corner of Center and Nickwackett Streets.
Speaking of which: Nickwackett?

Davidson tells me that this is an Abenaki word meaning “place of the squirrel.” (Ah, that explains the puzzling choice of a squirrel mascot in the Halloween parade.)

“We gather the nuts of history, squirrel them away so we can share them,” Davidson says.

And it is quite a nest of squirrels gathering and sharing the nuts over there. The list of board and committee members is impressively long. And the information available is mind-blowingly vast. I ask what makes it all possible in an all-volunteer run organization.

“A fortuitous confluence,” Davidson says.

Pointing to former president Carolyn Ranftle’s IT and data-entry background and Bob Ranftle’s space-management, Davidson says, “It’s the coming together of talent and variety of skills.”

OPEN DOORS

Although gathering and sharing information since 1969, it was what happened in February 2005 that “changed everything,” according to Davidson. That was when the website (www.rutlandhistory.com) came online.

“We have this beautiful front door,” Davidson says, gesturing to the centerpiece of the building’s façade, which replaced the former ugly garage doors. “But the real front door is the website.”

Claiming it as having the best web presence in the state, Davidson says, “this Historical Society has become global. Rutland is becoming global through the Internet and we’re at the front of that.”

Becoming digitized in 2008, a photocopier-scanner and, thanks to grant from IBM, a smaller scanner is used to send copies of fragile papers, large maps and other images straight to the computer. For example, a gorgeous collection of Dr. George Marshall’s photos are now available on the website.

Another scanning project, in partnership with the Rutland Free Library, has placed all Rutland High School yearbooks online. Next on the list are Mount St. Joseph Academy’s yearbooks — so far they have uploaded 1939-1952.

Ranftle, who moved to Rutland from New Jersey in 2007, has become instrumental in the continued success of the website and the searchability of the Historical Society’s collection. If it wasn’t for the dedication of board members like Ranftle, so much would remain buried and lost in document boxes and files.

According to Ranftle, she and her husband became involved with the Historical Society because she saw volunteering as a “good way to learn about the community.”

She, with help from other volunteers, such as now-board member, Ron Hemenway, has managed to document and catalog every box and file in the collection. The “Finding List” — which will eventually be online — is a cross-referenced resource of where to find what.

While every single piece of paper or photo is not individually documented — they realized they’d never finish if that was the goal — all subject areas with dates are searchable. Once the box/book/file containing the era and area of interest has been located, a researcher can look through for specific material.

Personally working through three shelves of backlogged material, Hemenway says, “I’m proud that we have become so organized.”

“You learn so much and it’s so interesting, it grows on you, Ranftle says. “When you see progress, you want to do more.”

Agreeing with Davidson, she says, “The website is a major accomplishment.”

Another incredible resource is the Society’s web-based program, “Historically-speaking.” Continuing his metaphor of the website as a door to the Society, Davidson says this show — filming its 130th episode this week — is the “side porch.” A completely searchable inventory of these fact-filled shows, featuring different historically savvy guests, is available online.

The Society’s “Quarterly,” published since 1970, each featuring a specific topic, is another ongoing project. Written by local history buffs, they are distributed to members as part of their yearly fee ($10 per year). Back copies are available in print or online.

Pam Johnson, president as of November 2013, has been involved as a volunteer and board member for at least the last six years. “For a small organization, we do an excellent job. We’ve worked hard to keep up with the times,” she says.

Explaining that the organization receives emails every week from people looking for family information or from students doing research, Johnson sees the importance of the Historical Society to the community. “There’s a wealth of information we can share with the community.”

“Success breeds success,” Davidson says as he speaks of the future where he sees one challenge faced by the Historical Society as their ability to market their existence on the Internet. “We need to let people know the ways to use the info online,” he says.

But above all, he sees it as part of their job to make Rutland history known and available in a way very different from how many may have learned it in school: To make it a story. “We have to organize and relate data into an understandable story,” Davidson adds.

If you want to know a story about Rutland’s past, “please contact us,” Johnson says. “We’re here to help. History needs to be shared.”

To check out the wealth of information that is available online, visit http://www.rutlandhistory.com. To visit in person, the Rutland Historical Society’s hours are Monday 6-9 p.m., Saturday 1-4 p.m., or by appointment.

If you’re interested in donating time and/or financial help to Rutland Historical Society, call (802) 775-2006, or email president@rutlandhistory.com.

Originally published 1/15/14 Rutland Reader | (c) Joanna Tebbs Young

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