September 21, 2022 ST. JOHNSBURY — Promoters of the town’s past have more items and stories of historical note than they can showcase within the current Summer Street spaces. So they’re adding more space. The St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center is expanding with the construction of a new exhibition hall, built on the property at 421 Summer St., where the center offers exhibits highlighting the town’s rich history in a stately Victorian home and a large carriage barn. The center’s director, Peggy Pearl, and board member Bob Desrochers discussed plans for the new building on Tuesday and offered a view of what it will look like in a drawing done by Desrochers.
“I had to dust off my old Ray Frey drafting skills,” said Desrochers, founder and former owner of Fairbanks Mill Inc. (The late Frey served as an art and mechanical drawing teacher at St. Johnsbury Academy, in addition to serving as track and field coach with such success that the Academy’s outdoor track is named after him.) Pearl and Desrochers said the center’s current amount of exhibit space isn’t sufficient to tell all the important stories from the town’s past. As it is, they said they feel they may be trying to showcase too much in the carriage barn now. “It’s starting to look higgledy-piggledy out in the barn,” said Pearl. (Higgledy-piggledy: in confusion or disorder) In particular, there’s no more room for larger historical items. Pearl said the need for new exhibition space has been discussed for a while, and when a gift of $50,000 came to the center through the death of one of Pearl’s high school classmates, the board decided there was sufficient seed money to move forward with the plan for a new building. Pearl reached out to additional members of the Class of 1965 and with their help nearly doubled the initial gift. The building will be 1,600 square feet with an open ceiling design. The project will also include landscaped pathways on the grounds, the addition of outdoor artifacts unaffected by the weather and a small addition to the existing main building to offer additional bathroom facilities. The expected cost to do everything is about $550,000. Groundbreaking is set for next spring. It’s expected that trade students at the Academy will have an opportunity to work on the project. Heat pumps will help control the internal climate. Pearl said the center has about $300,000 raised for the project at this point, and the fundraising is ongoing. “We’re counting on that support,” said Pearl. Use of the new space is already envisioned because Pearl and center board members and volunteers have identified significant contributors to St. Johnsbury’s past that they haven’t been able to adequately showcase, Pearl said. Among the planned exhibits are stories and items that highlight French Catholic influence on the town, including granite pillars that were salvaged from the former Notre Dame church on Prospect Street that was destroyed by fire in 1966. Another exhibit will focus on The Caledonian Record, which began in 1837 in the town. Part of that exhibit will include an old-fashioned letterpress the newspaper has and will gift to the center for display. Additional plans in the new exhibition hall call for an exhibit that communicates the town’s industrial beginning at Arnold Falls on the Passumpsic River, an exhibit highlighting the early sheep industry, the impact of the railroad and blacksmithing. Within the new space, said Desrochers, “We’re going to tell a story.” On Saturday, the center will host on its grounds the Fall Festival of Traditional Crafts from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. At noon, officials will announce the plans for the new exhibition hall to those people gathered for the event, which will feature demonstrations of a spring pole lathe, the use of a blacksmith’s forge by Civil War re-enactors, pump log boring, handmade shingles, toys & games, and more. There will also be live music. There will be an opportunity to donate to the center’s new project at the event. Online giving is also available on the center’s website: www.stjhistory.org