July 2016: The museum confirmed that key oddball items we saw in their collection are no longer on display. No petrified boy, no stuffed cat. You won't even find the headless dinner party.
Middlebury is a college town. It's likely that some of the young people who have passed through Middlebury have gone on to fame, but the community's most famous inhabitant is Henry Sheldon (1821-1907), the town clerk, a lifelong bachelor, and a first class pack rat. His keen eye for weird junk would have been an asset to the nearby Shelburne Museum, but, unlike Electra Havermeyer Webb, Henry Sheldon was not wealthy. So instead of preserving steamships for posterity, he preserved ticket stubs and his own extracted teeth.
Sheldon opened his museum in a 3-story downtown house in 1882. It must have been a grand collection of nonsense in its time. Today, however, the Henry Sheldon Museum Of Vermont History, still in the same house, devotes so much space to Vermont History that there's not nearly enough space for Henry Sheldon, at least in our opinion.
Most of Henry's oddball collecting has been compressed into one room, which still offers tantalizing glimpses of what must have been -- and perhaps still is, in a storage unit somewhere -- a much larger collection.
We were told, for example, that two of the museum's more noteworthy displays were a mousetrap that kills mice by drowning them in a cylinder of water, and a pair of Calvin Coolidge's baby shoes. We couldn't find either, but we did spot a cigar holder made from a chicken leg; a hook embedded in hind quarter of cow; an adult-sized cradle, built for a woman named Aunt Patty, who "was said to have been not right in the head;" and "a Cornwall lady's cat" stuffed by a Middlebury College student in the 1890s.
One excellent exhibit is the small "petrified Indian boy," discovered by a party of rabbit hunters in 1877, purchased it for a hundred barrels of whiskey, and exhibited in Boston until it was exposed as a fraud, whereafter it was exhibited in Canada. Sheldon bought it and put it on display in 1884, but it scared local schoolchildren so much that he moved it to the basement. Even today, it's hit or miss whether you'll see it, since it tends to shuffle between exhibits and storage status. When we visited, he was partly shoved under a glass cabinet.
The museum's most famous artifact, never actually exhibited, was the mummy of the 2-year old son of an Egyptian king. Henry Sheldon bought "Amum-Her-Khepesh-Ef," sight unseen, and was so disappointed in its drippy and tattered condition that he never displayed it. It is now buried elsewhere in town. [more on the Mummy]
Though not maintained solely to cater to the likes of us, the Sheldon Museum is a worthy stop. Check at the ticket counter what oddities are currently exhibited. And on the way out of town, pay your respects to the Mummy.