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Button, Button – Who’s Got the Buttons? June 2021 History & Heritage

Updated: Apr 18, 2023

St. Johnsbury History & Heritage does! Our doors may have been somewhat shuttered due to Covid, but behind those closed doors, things have been happening. A new exhibit featuring the button collection of Nellie Hoyt Gilman is on exhibit. Neil Brodien, great grandson of Nellie, called to see if we would be interested in the two suitcases that held the buttons. You can imagine my first thoughts as to what we would do with them – most of my generation has grown up with a button box where our mothers’ kept buttons for replacement purposes, but not two suitcases worth! Neil went on to say that his great grandmother had them mounted on cards and perhaps he should send me a picture or two to help make the decision of adding them to our collections. The pictures made the decision easy and so the suitcases were delivered to the History & Heritage Center.

Along with the collection came a Caledonian – Record story of September 23, 1964, in which they featured Mrs. Daniel Gilman of 52 Summer St., surrounded by some of the buttons she had been collecting for 20 years. At the time of this article she was 91 years old and living in the very place that now exhibits her collection. At the time of the story, her collection was reported to be around eight thousand buttons, all mounted on cards. After her passing, the buttons were divided between the two children, Arlene and Steve. Steve’s were sold so we have the ones given to Arlene.

We have a total of 49, 9×12 cards with various artistic designs. Nellie’s grandson, Dan Brodien, helped her with some of the designs as he had an interest in drafting. Nola Forbes, a volunteer at the Center, has been working on the collection, cataloging and making sure buttons were secure. I think it would be safe to say that Nola has become captivated by the collection. She said that often the cards had Nellie’s notes of where she got them and dates. The buttons were sown on the cards, or if they had a loop shank, they were held on the back by pipe cleaners or safety pins. One of Nola’s favorites was the card that held buttons from wedding dresses of family members. There are hand painted buttons, political and military buttons and buttons showing most of the British royal families. The railroad buttons include one that Dan Brodien secured coming home by rail from San Diego. He asked the conductor about a button for his Grandmother’s collection and the fellow cut it right off and handed it to him. For the present exhibit, 36 cards were able to be exhibited.

One could say that the Button Collection of Nellie Hoyt Gilman has come home again. Nellie married Daniel T. Gilman. Daniel and his brother, Fred, (Gilman Bros.) were wholesale and retail dealers in team horses and hay. 1891 saw them move from Barnet to St. Johnsbury, where they bought a livery stable. They were successful businessmen and had a large barn out the present Gilman Avenue way. The home was where Walgeens is today. The second home was the Octagon on Eastern Avenue and then on to Summer Street (History & Heritage). Their daughter Arlene and husband John, along with son Dan had an apartment in the Summer Street home. It was a wonderful surprise to us to find that the Button exhibit is shown in the very room where Nellie spent many an hour working on it.

We are very excited to have our doors open again. Like so many out there, uncertainty caused a great deal of needed caution. We invite you to come and see what our busy volunteers have been doing – the button collection being just one of three new exhibits. We also hope to see you on the 5th of July at 7 when the Town Band will have its patriotic concert on our grounds.

Welcome to this month’s edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.

We are located at 421 Summer Street. WE ARE OPEN! Monday – Saturday from 10 – 4, for the months of June through September. This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home and barn a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. Browse our web site at and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.

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