Shelburne Museum: Landlocked Ship
The Shelburne Museum is a grand collection of stuff. It's New England's version of Harold Warp's Pioneer Village in Nebraska, or the Hawk Museum in North Dakota, or Henry Ford's Greenfield Village in Michigan. This place is so big -- 39 buildings (and a boat) scattered across 45 acres -- that it uses a jitney bus to haul people around. Twenty-four of the buildings (and the boat) were also hauled, from someplace else to here.
Electra Havemeyer Webb created the Shelburne Museum, opened to the public in 1952. Her father was Henry O. Havemeyer, founder of the Domino Sugar Co. He died in 1907 and left her a bazillion dollars. Electra, who had just turned 18, immediately began buying stuff -- cigar store Indians, quilts, whatever caught her fancy, and she kept shopping for over 50 years. By the time of her death she had grabbed over 80,000 items (today's museum boasts an inventory of 150,000 items). Electra never earned a penny in her life; she is celebrated for the way she spent money.
Do people celebrate you for the way you spend money? Now you know one reason why the superrich are better than you.
If the exhibits displayed at the Shelburne Museum are indicative, Electra Havemeyer Webb's tastes were traditional. There's no treasury of torture equipment, no shrunken heads, no old pets stuffed and mounted into goofy dioramas. However, Electra had a bottomless bank account. She could buy almost anything. And her excesses are what make the Shelburne Museum fun.
The imposing 1901 Round Barn is ticket booth and orientation center for our day of exploration. Attentive staff recommended the exhibition of duck decoys, and the historic quilts ("Art of the Needle") -- and interpreted our blank expressions correctly. We were directed to the jitney.
Taking the round trip is a good start to get your bearings, assuring you won't miss entire sections. But after riding by the Settler's House, Covered Bridge, Stagecoach Inn, Schoolhouse, Weaving Shop, Meeting House, and a dozen other structures, we realized it was hopeless. Each building contained art galleries, artifacts, historic displays... not really our thing, even if we had an entire day to spend here.
We opted for the obvious wonders...
Grandest of all is the Ticonderoga, the only surviving vertical beam sidewheel steamship in the U.S., 220 ft long, weighing 892 tons.
Electra made the Ticonderoga her own Fitzcarraldo. She bought the ship, then had it dragged two miles from Lake Champlain to her Museum, where it now rests in a miniature valley that she'd ordered dug for it. Why put a ship in a hole? "When you see a ship," the tourguide told us, "you don't see it WAY UP THERE."
Electra had a model of the landlocked ship in her home, set in a model hole, and would add or remove spoonfuls of dirt until she was satisfied that its position was just right. She'd then order her workmen to remove or add dirt to match. The workmen pointed out that each of Electra's spoonfuls equaled five dumptrucks of dirt, but she did not care. The superrich can make anything happen. She paid the cash, and lesser beings moved the dirt -- and an 892 ton ship....
In order to complete her nautical tableau, Electra then bought the Colchester Reef Lighthouse and had it placed near the steamship, among an arrangement of ocean-worn boulders.
We were intrigued by an Eisenhower era plywood cutout family, and sign posts that pointed through a tall hedge to something called the 1950s House. We foolishly anticipated finding a California ranch filled with rocketship motifs, a kidney-shaped pool, and turquoise and pink furniture. Turns out that the signs are misleading a bit (to retro zombies like us); it's a "1950 house," which means it is really a 1940s house, tiny and weather-worn. It was on the property when Electra Havemeyer Webb bought it, and she kept it here.
Later, we passed through the 21st century avant-garde "Collector's House" -- but no rocketships there either.
Next stop was the Electra Havemeyer Webb Memorial Building. Built seven years after Electra's death, its interior is an exact replica, with the original furnishings, of her luxurious Park Ave. apartment in Manhattan. The high-ceilinged, two-story dwelling displays original works of Impressionist art, inherited from her parents, right on the dining room and bedroom walls. "Where else can you see work by Degas and Monet displayed like THIS?" the guide asked us.
A weathered Adirondack log cabin between the steamship and the Shelburne Railroad Station -- which Electra also bought and had moved here -- is named Beach Lodge. It's packed with stuffed dead animals, including a huge Alaskan Brown Bear shot by Electra when she was 50 years old. "She stood her ground and felled this charging bear without the help of her terrified guide, who had fled in fear," an accompanying sign reveals. "The bear had the distinction of being mounted by the most skilled taxidermist of the time, James L. Clark, a renowned curator at the American Museum of Natural History."
The horseshoe-shaped Circus Building features no stuffed dead animals, but it is the repository of two vast miniature circuses. A sign notes, dryly, "In the early 1900s miniature circuses were popular as hobby projects." But the works here were the product of feverish brains, not casual hobbyists.
The first was whittled by Edger Kirk of Harrisburg, PA, over a period of nearly 50 years. "Working at night, after 12 hours a day on the railroad, Mr. Kirk cut the figures for his circus from scrap lumber on a treadle-operated jigsaw, then completed the carving with an ordinary penknife."
The second, even more compulsive, stretches 525 feet and has over a thousand animals.
"Begun in 1925 by Roy F. Arnold of Hardwood, VT," a sign explains, who "whittled all the figures by hand with a jack knife." It's an amazing parade that goes around the entire curve of the building. Don't miss the Seal Elephant, or the Bluebeard Tableau -- part of the "Children's Fairyland" procession -- which features Bluebeard, raising a big scimitar, about to split a kneeling, imploring woman in two.
The lesson of the Shelburne Museum appears to be this: If you're rich enough to buy anything, buy big. Paintings on a wall? Ho-hum. But entire buildings, a steamship, and the lifetime output of obsessed artisans? Now that's something.