Green Mountain Grab Bag Transcript

Aug 1, 2019

Back to the Green Mountain Grab Bag episode.

Amanda Gustin: And, we’re recording. OK… so, what are we looking at?

Mary Labate Rogstad: We are looking at a cape that was given to us in 1987 that is made of milkweed fluff.

We’ve been producing Before Your Time for almost two years now. And we’ve featured many objects from the collection of the Vermont Historical Society. A tombstone. A jogbra. Parts of a still that Italians in Barre used to make grappa during prohibition. And then there’s this.

Amanda: So… by cape we’re talking like, a shoulder cape.

Mary: A shoulder cape. Right, it’s a pelt like a pelerine

Amanda: There’s a vocab word, pelerine.

Mary: It’s a child’s cape. And it says “made of golden milkweed.” I did a little Googling around yesterday, and gold milkweed is actually a thing. Because this is probably from—we’re not 100 percent sure—but the 1840’s. It really could have changed color anyway.

Usually we start with an object, and then tell stories related to it, to learn more about Vermont’s history and people. But this cape made of milkweed fluff is so singular and, well, strange, that it kind of needs to stand alone.

Producer Amanda Gustin has a confession for registrar Mary Labate Rogstad.

Amanda: So I wonder if we can back up. I’m realizing in this conversation, I don’t actually know what milkweed is.

Mary: What?

Amanda: I know.

Mary: Milkweed is…

Long story short, milkweed is a plant with pretty purple flowers that attract monarch butterflies. It’s also really poisonous. After the flowers fall off, the plant forms seed pods that are full of soft fluff.

Mary: They used it in World War II. But this was obviously a decorative use. Although maybe not because if it has an insulating quality then it would have…

Amanda: Might have actually provided some warmth.

Mary: Some warmth, exactly.

Amanda: I had no idea. So, I guess was thinking, you know I’ve seen this on exhibit and I guess I always thought of it as like a gimmick?

Mary: Oh no.

The milkweed cape was originally made in the 1840s, and then re-cut and re-sewn for a different child in the 1880s. It’s in amazing shape and is a very rare surviving example of something that was kind of trendy in the 1830s and 1840s.

Mary: How many milkweed pods would it take to make this?

Amanda: I was just wondering that. Can we even venture a guess?

Mary: Thousands

Amanda: It’s gotta be in the thousands.

Mary: Yeah.

Amanda:  They’re so tiny and there are so many of them. Can you imagine having the patience to stitch together…

Mary: No, I can’t.

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy.

Our producers—Amanda, Eileen Corcoran, and Ryan Newswanger—have met many smart, funny, and just plain interesting people in making Before Your Time over the past year and a half. So it’s a shame that some of the things we recorded get edited out of our stories. Like this clip of Glenn Eames, the founder of the Old Spokes Home bike shop in Burlington.

Glenn Eames: This is bicycle’s whistle called the Cyclist’s Road Clearer. And it’s stamped right on the side, the “Cyclist’s Road Clearer.” The cyclist would blow this whistle when approaching a crowd of people or whatever. I’ll give a blast on it.

[sound of whistle]

Glenn: And that was pretty effective at clearing the road.

Ryan Newswanger (laughing): It sounds like a train whistle, almost.

Glenn: Exactly.

Ryan, Amanda, and Eileen are traveling around Vermont this summer, reporting a batch of stories that we’ll release in the fall. So we thought it would be fun to share with you some of the clips that we had to leave on the editing floor, so to speak.

Maybe these little nuggets will inspire you to seek out some of the episodes you missed, or listen to some of your old favorites again.

Let’s go back to Ryan, who produced the “Mobility for the Masses” episode about biking history.

Ryan: I’m a bit of a bike nut, and Glenn Eames had spent a hot morning in June – and part of the afternoon as well – showing me his extensive collection of antique and historic bicycles. I loved it.

Ryan: Glenn explained that although bikes have evolved a lot over the years, some aspects of biking have remained the same. Like fighting for space on streets. Or the sense of liberation brought by spinning down the road. As an early cyclist said, “This is what the birds must feel.”

Ryan: But one thing is different: back in the late 1800s, it was very rare to bike alone. Clubs were the way to go.

Glenn: There was a club in Burlington, the Burlington Bicycle Club, which was formed in I think 1883. It would be a group of half a dozen to a dozen or more men—women didn’t ride these high-wheeled bikes—who would wear a club uniform. They wore a uniform that kind of looked like a military uniform, knickers, a white shirt if you will or a brown shirt and colored tie, little hat that looks like a Greek fisherman’s cap. That was kind of the attire.

Glenn: They wanted to present a respectable image for cycling when they go out in the road, and they’d ride in formation. Typically, they’d have a captain, a subcaptain, a lieutenant. Most all clubs had a bugler. The bugler would blow a small, it was like cavalry bugle, and he’d blow the calls of “boots and saddles,” which means mount up, let’s go. That was a typical call. I don’t know the calls, but it’s like (imitates a trumpet)…that meant, boots and saddles, let’s go. Slacking the pace, hasten the pace, road obstacle, big hill coming up, tend to your machines, et cetera. So it always lent an air of respectability to it.

For our “Communes and Commerce” episode on business innovation in the 1970s, producer Eileen Corcoran sat down with Fred and Judi Danforth, founders of Danforth Pewter. Fred’s ancestors had created designs using this traditional metal alloy. Here’s Eileen.

Eileen Corcoran: We had a wonderful discussion on everything from what led to getting a license to produce Disney merchandise, to the beginnings of wholesale craft shows and producing “art for the mass market.” I always liked this little bit that didn’t make it into the episode, where they talk about the juxtaposition of their own inspirations and desires for craft and design in the 1970s, with the influence of past pewter makers.

Judi Danforth: So when it came time to really think about being on our own and making our own business, the idea of reproducing anything from the past, even though Fred’s ancestors were very, very prolific, and their work well documented and collected, I had no interest in becoming the old Danforth pewter.

Judi: We hardly talked about that ancestry, for the first few years because, we really wanted to develop our own place in the market and see if we could do it that way.

Judi: So, we were more, I believe, influenced by our own, or inspired by our own desire to make beautiful functional things for today’s home, in 1970’s, than we were making dusty old beer mugs, which is what people think of when they think of pewter sometimes.

Fred Danforth: And you know the other thing about the link to our past, and the material itself is definitely thought of, in many circles, as an old material. It has so much flexibility, so much friendliness to a craftsperson that you can go hundred different directions with it.

Judi: Which we have.

Fred: As our career developed, I knew the basics of my ancestors, but I didn’t know very much and I learned … as I learned more and more about how they conducted their business and how they had to work with huge limitations in the 18th century to create these wonderful designs…it was a second form of inspiration for us, we had our own design ideas, but then to have that in our background just was like … and eventually, I used to joke with people about how I could feel my ancestors on my shoulder or nearby just observing and there were a couple of old collectors who came to visit us and they said, “Your ancestor would roll over in their grave because you’re spinning and they used a cast,” and stuff like that.

Judi: And guess what? They would have been all over it because they were entrepreneurs in their own day and they used every advantage they could or they never would have survived that many years. So I don’t believe that. I think they would have been very excited about new techniques.

Our “Land of Gin and Whiskey” episode about the history of alcohol in Vermont has been one of our most popular. Although our state is now famous for craft beer and spirits, Vermont was one of the driest places in the country for a long time. Here’s Ryan.

Ryan: We were the second state – after Maine – to ban the production and sale of alcohol in 1853. And then like the rest of the country, we were dry – or mostly dry – during nationwide prohibition, from 1920 until 1933.

Ryan: Our nearness to Canada led to rum-running across the border and other adventures during those decades. In this unreleased clip, Adam Krakowski, who has written a book about prohibition in Vermont, explains about “halfway houses.”

Adam: You had Queen Lil up in Richford, Vermont, and she created a tavern on the international boundary. Literally half the building was in Canada, half was in the US. That was one of the ways…we created all the sudden the halfway houses all across the northern border. And halfway houses—for people that don’t know what it is—imagine your home and by chance because of the location, your living room is in Canada, and your kitchen is in the US.

Adam: What you could do is have your back door open in Canada, carry the whiskey, and keep the whiskey on the Canadian side, and have your front door open for people strolling in. Technically, you’re consuming alcohol in Canada and not in the US. It created some pretty fast fortunes for people up on the northern borders.

Amanda Gustin spoke with Laurel Thatcher Ulrich from Harvard University for our “Knitters, Weavers and “Women’s Work episode.

Amanda: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich has long been a hero of mine. The way she thinks about history, the way she looks at objects to tell that history, and the way she puts it all together to share stories about women’s lives that might otherwise be forgotten – it’s just amazing.

Amanda: Getting to talk to her for our episode on fiber art and women’s work was a huge deal for me and I could’ve listened to her for hours. I’ve pulled some of my favorite pieces from our conversation that didn’t make it into the final podcast, and I hope you enjoy listening to her and thinking about women’s work and history too.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich: I remember years ago visiting my father’s sister, who I admired a lot. She’d been a schoolteacher, and she could do almost anything. She was in her 80s, and I asked her how she was doing. She said, “Well, I’m doing fine. I haven’t been doing much work lately.” I looked at her because she had just shown me all the things she had canned from her garden and dried. She prepared dinner, and I thought, what did she mean? Then, I realized she was talking about needlework, that work and needlework were kind of synonymous. You know, what are you working on now meant what crocheting project or what sewing project are you working on? She did beautiful crocheting, as did my grandmother. And work, when you say, “What are you working on,” it sort of implied, “What kind of needlework project are you involved with?”

Amanda: I realized when she said that, that I had heard members of my own family talk about work, and women’s work, and needlework in exactly the same way.

Laurel: When you think of quilting, the explosion of interest in quilting as abstract art, where kind of go beyond folk art to display the work of women in a rural enclave with very few economic opportunities using scraps of fabric, often fabric salvaged from piecework that they were doing for Sears Roebuck and others, creating these incredible designs and very, very powerful artistic works. So the boundaries between the vernacular and the professional artists are constantly being pushed.

Laurel: I think that tension between busy hands and inspired artists, I think it persists, and maybe it faces us a little bit today if we go to a quilt show, for example, or we go to a Museum of Contemporary Art. What are we attracted by, the vision, the concept, the design? A lot of time, I think we are also really intrigued with the persistence of someone with a vision who can realize a brilliant concept through a very meticulous and laborious effort.

Laurel: I think some of these little projects that survive to the present, even if they’re fairly simple. I mean, you make something that might last, might last beyond your own lifetime, so I don’t think it’s entirely, even at the basic domestic level, persistence. I think there’s a lot of pride in mastery of a skill and creating something that might exist beyond your own lifetime.

Finally, for our “Tales Behind the Tombstones” episode, Ryan visited a stone carver in Barre, Heather Milne Ritchie, and talked with retired Marlboro College music professor Stan Charkey.

Ryan: Stan regularly walked his dog in a graveyard in Brattleboro, and became inspired by the old epitaphs written on the stones there. In our episode, he told us about two boys who drowned, and were buried together in the cemetery.

Ryan: In that same cemetery is the ornate grave of Colonel James Fisk. It’s a favorite of Dan Barlow, a reporter who has aimed to “explore and photograph all of Vermont’s historic, artistic and spooky cemeteries.” Dan tells the story of Colonel James Fisk.

Dan: Colonel James Fisk, I like to call him Vermont’s Donald Trump. He was born in the mid-1800s. His father was a traveling salesman, and so he got into that business. Then at one point joined the circus as a young man. While he was in the circus learned the art of the con, and used his abilities as a con man, as a showman, and quickly established himself in the business world, especially in New York City.

Dan: He owned an opera house in New York City. He was all over the tabloid newspapers. He was married but also known for his very public affairs that he was having. In fact, he ended up being murdered by one of his business partners after he tried to rip off this business partner, and they were both having an affair with the same woman. So his business partner shot him outside of the opera house. His body was brought back to Brattleboro where he wanted to be buried.

Dan: So this is an over-the-top, flamboyant man, loved women, loved wealth, loved showing off how much he loved women and loved wealth. So his gravestone in Brattleboro is a 12-foot tall obelisk. Then on the four corners of the obelisk are statues of topless women, each one holding some symbol of his empire when he was alive. It’s a striking statue and kind of something you might see in Europe, you’d think, as opposed to downtown Brattleboro, Vermont.

Before Your Time is presented by Vermont Humanities and the Vermont Historical Society. This episode was produced by Ryan Newswanger, Amanda Gustin, and Eileen Corcoran, with help from Abra Clawson.

Thanks to our guests: Mary Labate Rogstad, Glenn Eames, Judi Danforth, Fred Danforth, Adam Krakowski, Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, and Dan Barlow.

Before Your Time comes out every month. Search for it and subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts. And if you like what you hear, tell a friend to check it out. You can find photos, videos, and artifacts related to this month’s episode on our website, before your time dot org. Thanks for listening!