Welcome to the March 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. At the present time, the Center is open Monday through Wednesday from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. thanks to a wonderful staff of volunteers. This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. The carriage barn is a work in progress but the horse drawn vehicles and the ice cutting exhibit are ready for your visit. Progress is happening on different projects in the Center with two closets being readied as exhibit spaces; reception area having maps hung and a new case filled with early St. Johnsbury artifacts; stain glass windows lit and basement storage improved with lighting, shelving and climate controls. The Carriage Barn has a wagon platform scale up and weighing while other scales wait for their place in the exhibit space. Check out our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.
In the front room of History & Heritage can be found what most presume to have been a rocking horse. This was given to the Fairbanks Museum years ago by Albert Salt whose family lived on Route 5 across from the Baptist Church. Many saw this horse as they passed by the R. J. Salt residence for it was on a rocking horse stand and was on their lawn for years. Bought for their son Albert when he was three, the horse had been one of three carousel horses purchased by Mrs. Salt’s brother when they were being let go. It was made over as a rocking horse for Albert. But it wasn’t the horse that brought the carver out of the shadows; it was a rooster.
Appearing on the cover of the Spring 1951 issue of the Craft Horizons magazine was a four foot rooster. This piqued the interest of Cornelia Fairbanks, librarian at the Athenaeum as the origin of this piece was said to be St. Johnsbury, Vermont. Her efforts turned up yet another picture of this merry-go-round mount; this time it was in a newly published book entitled Index of American Design by Erwin O. Christensen – copyrighted by the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. Cornelia learned that the book was a Federal Art Project of the W.P.A. “Its function was the pictorial recording of the articles in daily use, in this country, from early colonial times to the close of the nineteenth century.” As you might guess, this book was ordered for the collection of the Athenaeum. Still no name of the craftsman was available, not even from its owner at that time in New York.
Next to enter the search is the Caledonian-Record in an article appearing August 3, 1951, entitled “4-Foot Rooster’s Paternity Sought.”
“There’s something of a mystery, about a gorgeous looking red and white rooster in the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum: he’s a cocky well-groomed fellow with every feather just so, and he looks as if he were ready to trot right off. And that is just the way he should look, because he is a merry-go-round rooster.
He is not in a cage, but in a beautiful big book-just where you would expect a rooster in an athenaeum to be. And he has a whole page to himself. No one knows who made; but he was made in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, so the book says, and he is supposed to be a nineteenth century rooster.
No one knows much about his background; but he probably came from good Vermont stock, a sturdy Green Mountain tree, perhaps. The book says that he is made of pine, and stands four feet high and was painted by Howard Weld.”
Three days later, August 6, 1951, the identity was revealed by staff writer for the Caledonian, Catherine Hershey Oldham, (wife of former Headmaster at St. J. Academy), and it was Edmond Brown. In her story, she also told of the beautifully carved oak pulpit and the baptismal font carved by Brown for Notre Dame des Victoires Church. My question is who carried the baptismal font to safety when the church burned for today it can be found in the balcony of St. John’s on Main Street!
Edmond was born in Kingsey, P.Q.Canada on February 16, 1870. As a young man he made his way to St. Johnsbury where he married Lea Cloutier, daughter of Mr. & Mrs. Joseph Cloutier. To this union were born five daughters. He was a cabinet maker and Mrs. Oldham reported that he worked for Joseph Brunelle a contractor and also in Collin’s (Lynch) work shop. His personal carvings were done in his home on Clarks Avenue near Maple Street, later moved to Pearl Street until the Browns moved to West Hartford, Connecticut in 1918. In Wethersfield, Conn., the Historical Society has pieces of his work in their collection.
There is a picture is of Caroline Brown, the youngest of the five, riding a rooster on the merry-go-round. The zebras, the sleighs, the rooster and the other horses have all disappeared from that ride made so lovingly by their father. It is told that the whole family took an interest in their father’s carving of the carousel animals; when he finished a mount he would hand out sandpaper and they would go to work smoothing it down and their mother did the painting. Five years were spent completing the project in his spare time.
Today a great granddaughter has an “owl” bed – where an owl perches on the headboard overlooking the sleeper. In her telling of the bed and a couple of other pieces she has – she wonders where those talents went! One granddaughter had in her possession the pocket knife and other simple tools he used but were lost in an auction years ago.
If the horse at the History & Heritage Center could talk, what a story would unfold of a craftsman and his family in St. Johnsbury. Each piece at the Center has a story to tell which reveals a piece of our Town’s history.
P.S. Since this article came out in the paper, I obtained more information via Joyce Salt Racenet. Joyce and Albert were brother and sister. Along with a younger sister, Edith, they made up the Salt family on Route 5 north. Joyce remembers that her uncle bought three of the horses for one dollar each. When this sale took place the horses had been in storage as the Browns had left town for Conn. Rockers were added to the horse so they could “ride” and it could be seen on the lawn in the summer and then stored in the shed for the winter. The tail was kept in place by donations from the Whitehill Farm next door but when they no longer kept horses, they had to resort to the tail of a cow, which was much curlier!!