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Past Perfect 

For Kevin Graffagnino, Vermont history is happening

Published January 7, 2004 at 2:42 p.m.

"Hell" - that's what conservative rag The National Review called Vermont on the cover of its October 13, 2003 issue. In his story, writer Jonah Goldberg - who has never lived in Vermont - claims that Howard Dean and his minions have all but evicted the real Vermonters, turning the state into an "Epcot Center exhibit of Green Socialism."

This trash-talk is all too familiar here. The anti-Act 60 movement said it in the 1990s, the Take Backsters repeated it in 2000. The dialogue has long been part of a statewide conversation over what it means to be a Vermonter. But now that our ex-governor is running for president, a nationwide audience is listening in. At this very moment, researchers from the media and rival campaigns are scouring Howard Dean's papers for gaffes and clamoring for access to his sealed files. The brouhaha illustrates an important point: Historical records are key to understanding the past, and can be useful in shaping the future.

In Vermont, many organizations preserve historical assets, including state archives, library special-collections departments and local history groups. But the Vermont Historical Society, founded in 1838, is the only organization that collects and exhibits documents and artifacts from all over the state. VHS boasts more than 20,000 objects from "precontact times" to the present; 42,000 catalogued publications; 30,000 photos; 8700 broadsides; 1000 maps; and film and microfilm records.

In March 1992, the bulk of this treasure was nearly lost.

Peter Mallary, a 10-year member and former president of the VHS Board of Trustees, recalls the near catastrophe, in which an ice jam on the Winooski River caused flooding in downtown Montpelier. A state legislator from Newbury at the time, he ducked out of a session to check on the VHS materials, located in the Pavilion Building next door. Most of the collection was stored in the basement - below the floodplain.

Mallary found water seeping into the basement - and rising. "We had a disaster waiting to happen on our hands," he says. Mallary rounded up idle legislators and lobbyists, who formed a reverse bucket brigade, evacuating boxes of centuries-old books, daguerrotypes and genealogical information. Remarkably, nothing was damaged. In fact, the flood was a blessing in disguise, because three weeks later a steam pipe burst. "It literally rained in there for 12 hours," says Mallary. "If we hadn't gotten everything out when we did, we would have lost 50 to 70 percent of the collection."

For years it had been apparent that the VHS space was inadequate - its 14,000 square feet housed a museum, a library, offices and the amateurish storage facility. Shortly after the flood, Mallary joined the Board of Trustees, and the organization hunted for a new home.

They eventually found it in Barre - in 2000, VHS bought the former Spaulding School, situated on a hill overlooking downtown. Built in 1891, the imposing Romanesque fortress cost them only a dollar. Why so little? The 60,000 square-foot building had been vacant for five years. Pipes had burst. The floor had buckled. When the restoration began, crews had to enter in hazmat suits. "There was enough rat, bird and pigeon poop in the building to fertilize every farm in the state," recalls newly minted VHS director J. Kevin Graffagnino.

The renovations are now halfway complete, thanks to an ambitious capital campaign begun in 1998. So far, VHS has raised $7.5 million from members, foundations and government grants. The partially finished Vermont History Center, which houses the library, administrative offices and storage, has been open since July 2002. In 2001 the VHS museum on the first floor of the Pavilion Building was closed for renovations. When it reopens in March, it will present an exhibit covering more than 400 years of Vermont history.

Along with its physical facilities, VHS' mission also seems to be evolving. Leading the charge is Graffagnino - a tireless champion of all things aged who says he "burns with a white-hot passion for history." Under his leadership, the Society is reaching out to Vermonters and inviting them to learn, and help tell, the state's story.


When Graffagnino, 49, took the director's job last April, then-President Mallary applauded his arrival in the VHS' Spring 2003 newsletter. "Kevin is arguably the preeminent Vermont historian of his generation," Mallary wrote.

In the accompanying photo, Graffagnino stands among the stacks in the Center's refurbished library. A broad smile suggests his excitement at becoming the administrative head of VHS. Actually, he looks a little crazed - a condition he verifies in a recent interview: "I'd wear a button that says ‘I'm a history nut,' if I could find one," he says.

Sitting behind a desk, Graffagnino doesn't seem all that nutty. His close-cropped brown hair, tie and clearly enunciated speech mark him as a professional academic or a businessman - as CEO of a historical society, he's technically both. But ask him about the Allen brothers and he gets a gleam in his eye. He compares Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys to Hell's Angels, and waxes poetic on old Ira: "This is someone who has nerve, who has guts, who's very, very good at revolutionary politics and intrigue."

Graffagnino traces his love of old stuff back to his childhood in Montpelier, where his family moved from upstate New York when he was 8. While other kids were playing baseball, he was haunting museums and antique auctions. The first historic item he acquired, at age 12, was a hand-painted ceramic perfume bottle from the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. He got it from a friend who had found it in his grandmother's house. "I was just fascinated by it," Graffagnino says. "And he charged me a quarter for it. I still have it at home, and if the house ever burns, it's one of the first things I'm saving."

Graffagnino's passion for the past led him to study history at the University of Vermont, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees. Then, in 1978, he took a job in the university library's Special Collections department. Within a year he joined the VHS Board of Trustees - at 24, the youngest person ever to do so. During his 17-year career at UVM, Graffagnino rose to department head, meanwhile commuting to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to earn his Ph.D. A prolific scholar, he penned dozens of books and articles about Vermont history.

Eventually, Graffagnino's career led him out of Vermont. In 1995 he became the library director at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, which has a collection of 3.6 million printed materials. Four years later he moved again, becoming the director and CEO of the Kentucky Historical Society. There he managed 92 employees and a budget of $7 million. His new position at VHS is actually a step down, in a sense - with 15 employees and a $1.4 million budget, it's comparatively small. But for Graffagnino and his wife, it was a welcome opportunity to come home.


It was a great time to return. Graffagnino happily notes that he gets to work in "a history palace." He lists the History Center's renovation highlights as if showing off a new car. There's the original American chestnut wainscot that the contractors recovered in the foyer, and original pressed-tin ceilings throughout the building. Graffagnino is particularly fond of two sets of stained-glass windows in the library stacks room. Perched atop the main windows, the stained-glass panels were hidden by an industrial foam drop-ceiling. Their discovery was a complete surprise. "No one had seen those windows for 60 years!" Graffagnino exclaims.

The new basement storage space is equally impressive. VHS Librarian Paul Carnahan gives me a tour of the area. He swipes a passkey over a sensor, then pushes the button to summon the elevator. When we reach the basement, the doors open onto blackness, and he flips on the lights.

The first thing I notice is a loud hiss - the building's climate-control system, Carnahan explains. Temperature is maintained at 61 degrees, with 30 percent humidity. The boxes and books sit on enormous movable metal shelves that glide along tracks built into the newly poured concrete floor. Carnahan invites me to move them. I turn a small, three-pronged metal handle at the end of one stack. The entire wall of boxes glides noiselessly to the side with roughly the same amount of effort as opening a can of tuna. "I don't know how many thousands of pounds you can move," comments the bespectacled librarian.

What we're moving is the history of Vermont. Carnahan lifts a large, leather-bound book that practically creaks when he opens it. The ornate calligraphy on the title page identifies it as Acts and Conventions and State Papers, 1775-1791. Carnahan turns the pages carefully, until he finds what he's looking for -- a copy of the act of Congress that admitted Vermont into the Union. The paper, which early archivists sealed onto the page, is dated February 18, 1791. It's signed by Thomas Jefferson.

Wearing white cotton gloves, Carnahan pulls out a few more treasures: a book of hand-drawn maps of Lake Champlain, circa 1779; a box of the earliest known photographic images of the state; a first edition of Ethan Allen's page-turner, Reason the Only Oracle of Man.

This is all really cool, but I prefer the items in MSS 24. The plain cardboard folder contains three envelopes and some papers from Sylvester Bird Rockwell of Middlebury, a businessman who penned "hygenic verses" extolling vegetarianism. His colorful envelopes are covered with pithy sayings such as "Cows were not made to be eaten." A 21st-century flatlander? Nope - the paper is dated 1880.

Though the general public isn't allowed into the vault, anybody can request to see these fascinating historical materials, Carnahan explains. Use of the library costs $5. This is not to say the public will ever see all of it; the library will attract mainly serious history-heads.

But Graffagnino acknowledges that historians aren't the only audience VHS serves. "We can't exist and thrive solely on the history nuts like me, or the genealogists alone, or the Civil War reenactors alone," he says. "We'd be serving less than 1 percent of the state's population." That's why VHS has equally ambitious plans for its Vermont History Museum.

Over the last three decades, hundreds of thousands of school children have filed past the museum's display cases in the Pavilion Building, including the mounted Catamount, reportedly the last one shot in Vermont. The new exhibit, "Freedom and Unity, One Ideal, Many Stories," is scheduled to open in March. In designing it, curator Jackie Calder says she drew on feedback from people who claimed that history was boring. "We were always hearing from people who had horrible experiences with history in high school," she says. To make the past seem less dry, Calder and her team "tell individual stories as much as possible, weaving those into a chronological history of the state," she says.

One such story is that of William Scott, the "sleeping sentinel." Scott was slated to be executed for falling asleep while on guard duty for the Union Army, but he was pardoned by President Lincoln. "He was a folk hero, in a weird way," says Amy Cunningham, VHS Director of Education. She takes me on a tour of the unfinished exhibit, which recreates several historical environments. Museum visitors will enter a 17th-century Abenaki dwelling, constructed on-site using bark lashed to maple saplings with deer hide. They'll be able to sit at the bar at the Green Mountain Tavern, listen in at a tent revival-meeting, and browse newspaper clippings in a World War II-era living room.

Visitors will also be able to try their hand at some archaic tasks. Cunningham points out the small room off the tavern, where people can try to turn cream into butter. "They can get a glimpse of how damn hard everyone was working," she suggests.

When they get tired, visitors watch a 15-minute film about fostering democracy. It features three issues that have forced Vermonters to grapple with their interpretations of freedom and unity: the anti-slavery movement, women's suffrage and civil unions. Cunning-ham concedes the footage of the civil-unions debate has "definite potential for controversy," especially in this election year.

In any case, the democracy film will likely accomplish the VHS museum's main objective: helping Vermonters connect the state's past to its present. After the walking tour, visitors will be invited to contribute their own stories and to comment on recent newspaper headlines.

The Society is also promoting dialogue through programs in Vermont communities. The VHS offers local historical societies lectures and workshops in historical preservation techniques and helps them plan for the popular Vermont History Expo. Launched in 2000 in Tunbridge, the June event draws 8000 to 10,000 people. Last summer's Expo featured booths from more than 100 historical societies, celebrating various aspects of their towns' stories. Examples: "Mink Ranching in Worcester, 1925-1975" and "Believe It or Not - It Happened in Windham County."

VHS' Community History Project matches historical societies with students. In one such collaboration, Leah Benedict, a Peacham middle school teacher, helped her students catalogue and create an Internet database for Peacham's barns. The kids interviewed barn owners, drew and photographed the barns, and constructed model barns with toothpicks and marshmallows. "It was a great way for kids to learn a variety of skills, but have it place-based about their town," says Benedict.

The kids also met Lorna Quimby, the president of the Peacham Historical Society. She led them into the town vault and showed them how to research primary sources such as property deeds and livestock records, confirming what they read in their history books. One boy told her, ‘You know, this is just like solving a mystery.' And I thought, he's got it," Quimby says.


The Vermont Historical Society doesn't just help local groups; it depends on them, too. Many individuals are members of both. They're the history buffs, the ones who know the names of the other Allen brothers. Graffagnino loves to meet them. He travels to society meetings and gives history lectures, or presents a slide show on VHS history.

"It's people who never throw anything out that create collections," he tells a mostly elderly audience at the Hardwick Historical Society. "All you packrats out there, you people are doing God's work," he says with a smile.

Though he's there ostensibly to introduce himself and report on VHS' progress, Graffagnino is really selling them a grand vision, and he needs them to buy it. VHS is nearing the end of Phase I of its capital campaign - only $2 million to go towards a $9.5 million goal. This will finance the major History Center renovations and the Pavilion exhibit. The price tag for Phase II - to complete additional classroom, gallery and auditorium space in the History Center - will run $3 to $4 million more.

It will be awhile before this task is, you know, history, but Graffagnino is already looking ahead. He hopes to expand the Society's focus on applied history. And he would like to see VHS become "more active and more activist in a non-partisan way," sponsoring discussions on current topics, while providing a historical framework. "There are very few contemporary issues that we argue about in Vermont that do not have a historical component," he says, citing school funding, road building, and balancing the need to balance environmental and economic concerns.

Graffagnino clearly hopes Vermonters will become as curious about their own history as the national media will be over the next year. "Knowing something about your history has an impact," he insists. "If society can't remember itself and doesn't know how it got where it is, there's no way to have a very decent road map for going forward in the future."

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About The Author

Cathy Resmer

Cathy Resmer

Deputy publisher Cathy Resmer is an organizer of the Vermont Tech Jam. She also oversees Seven Days' parenting publication, Kids VT, and created the Good Citizen Challenge, a youth civics initiative. Resmer began her career at Seven Days as a freelance writer in 2001. Hired as a staff writer in 2005, she became the publication's first online editor in 2007.


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