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Vermont's Art Recovery Team Searches for Drenched Documents

State of the Arts


Bradley Bender was feeling joyful on Saturday, August 27, as he presided over celebrations of the 250th anniversary of the twin towns of Danby and Mt. Tabor. Less than 24 hours later, he was “in grief at the loss of a loved one.”

Bender is president of the Mt. Tabor-Danby Historical Society, which lost almost its entire collection when Irene-engorged Mill Brook swept away the society’s 180-year-old building.

Bender is still hoping to find two filing cabinets, one of which weighs 1200 pounds, that contain irreplaceable records and photographs. Among them are the diaries of William Pierce, a 19th-century Danby merchant who “recorded everything that happened in town,” Bender says. Also missing are documents related to the life of Silas Griffith, a lumber and charcoal baron whom Bender describes as “Vermont’s first millionaire.” The society’s building itself, which was destroyed by “trees acting as battering rams and boulders acting as cannon balls,” was once the home of Pearl S. Buck, winner of the 1938 Nobel Prize in Literature.

The only item salvaged as of press time is a 19th-century blacksmith’s ledger. Bender, an artist with training as a paper maker, is drying out its 200 pages and will soon begin restoration work.

Professional curators and art conservators are, meanwhile, offering assistance under the auspices of the Vermont Cultural Heritage and Art Recovery Team. Preservation Trust of Vermont is likewise conducting a survey of damaged historical buildings around the state. Paul Bruhn, the trust’s director, says that, while there has been substantial damage to such structures in all flood-ravaged towns, “the buildings we have looked at so far are all in retrievable condition” — except for the Pearl Buck House in Danby.

M.J. Davis, a restorer of works on paper and a founder of the Art Recovery Team, similarly reports that “so far it doesn’t seem too bad.” The West Hartford Public Library lost most of its holdings to Irene’s fury, but its supervisors “are doing everything right” in their efforts to salvage books and other items, Davis says. The worst losses appear to have occurred in Waterbury, where many state records were destroyed, notes Jackie Calder, curator of the Vermont Historical Society and coordinator of the Art Recovery Team.

Any Vermont institution with art objects or memorabilia damaged in the floods can get free advice or referrals from the team, Calder says. “We would especially like to hear from churches, which are often repositories of important historical records,” she notes.

Response-team members “feel we need to be invited” by institutions that sustained damage, Davis adds. “People are under such stress right now, they may not be emotionally ready” to seek help from restorers, she says.

In cases such as Danby’s, Calder points out, there isn’t much her team can do for “a community that has lost a part of its memory.” But the past may not be entirely obliterated, she adds. The state historical society has records from Danby and Mt. Tabor in its own collection, as does the Bailey/Howe Library at the University of Vermont.

Cultural institutions seeking information on salvage work can contact Jackie Calder at 479-8514 or