BY DANA GRAY
Staff Writer, Caledonian Record (thanks for running this story about us!!)
The St. Johnsbury History & Heritage Center is all about digging into the town's past, but this week the digging happening there is a bit more literal.
A Raymond Heath Construction excavator is carving out earth by the bucket-full to prepare the center's property for a new exhibit hall. Dan Heath and crew started the job on Monday, taking advantage of early spring thawed ground.
"There's no reason not to do this now," said Bob Desrochers, board member for the heritage center, on Tuesday while watching Heath at work at the center on Summer Street.
Joining Desrochers to acknowledge the groundbreaking for the building project were fellow board member Susan Gallagher, board vice president Jim Impey and the center's director Peggy Pearl. Together with Heath, they gathered for a photo as Impey and Pearl held up a large drawing of the new exhibit hall sketched by Desrochers.
The center at 421 Summer St. highlights the town's history in a stately Victorian home and a large carriage barn. The new exhibit hall will be located on the property south of the barn.
The new hall is necessary, Pearl said because the current amount of exhibit space isn't enough to showcase important items from the town's past.
She 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. Pearl said the center has over $350,000 raised for the project at this point, and the fundraising is ongoing.
Once Heath has the site ready, RG Gosselin in Derby will pour the concrete base on which to build. Desrochers said the hope is to have the 45x36 structure framed and closed in by next winter.
Among the planned exhibits for the new building 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 space 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.
Go to the center's website at www.stjhistory.org to learn more and to make a donation.
"Keep the support coming," said Pearl.