WW Hall Of Fame: Shelburne Museum– The Seven Weirdest Buildings on The Weirdest Campus in New England
35 buildings on 45 acres and the S.S. Ticonderoga
Two drifters, off to see the world
There's such a lot of world to see
We're after the same rainbow's end
Waitin' 'round the bend
My huckleberry friend
Moon river and me
About 15 minutes from downtown Burlington exists one of the wildest museums on the planet. It’s not remotely under the radar (it’s one of the 3 biggest tourist attractions in Vermont along with teddy bears and ice cream) but it is, without a doubt, an exhilarating execution of a bonkers vision- the vision of Electra Havemayer Webb.
There’s piles of scholarship and history on this place but the quick gist: a daughter of one of the wealthiest families in turn-of-the century America became one of the first and most passionate collectors of “folk art” and “Americana” before such terms even existed. Webb meticulously and voluminously collected handmade objects (duck decoys, horse drawn carriages, paper mache mechanical dolls, hat boxes, etc.), collected weirdo buildings to house these collections (a cottage, stone jail, covered bridge, lighthouse, train station, a fucken BOAT) and then plopped them all down in a bucolic corner of Shelburne, Vermont.
What makes this place extra whackadoo is that there’s no obvious throughline to the collection, only seeming to be the things that caught her eye.
“How can you , Electra, you who have been brought up with Rembrandts and Manets, live with such American trash?”
She once explained to a visitor: “I try to find the art in folk art.”… [the museum] displays its founder’s deep affection for the virtues of ordinary people."
There’s a real humanity here that comes through after a day (or twenty here). You’ll see it too, I promise……
I mean, a 220 foot steamship from 1893 is parked in the grass. Restored in utter detail, The Ticonderoga is set designed so you can peep in about half the cabins, crawl through three decks and feel like some kind of 128-year-old fancy dudebro. There’s newspapers piled in the office and period-correct quilts on the beds in the staterooms and fake apples in baskets on fruit carriages. AND DID I MENTION IT’S A FULLY RESTORED STEAMBOAT SITTING IN THE MIDDLE OF A FARM IN VERMONT. Also Webb bought, disassembled and reconstructed a lighthouse that you can see from the outside decks. Obviously you have to have a lighthouse.
General Store/Railroad Station
These get lumped together because they’re both variations on a theme- perfectly reassembled rooms in their original buildings. Stand in one spot and you’ll get completely lost in the ephemera here- there’s not a detail that breaks the fantasy. Take that Occulus Quest Two!
I don’t know what it is about this place. There’s not a lot to it, some pews, a pulpit, a humble trompe l’oeil mural, a carved organ in the corner. But there’s something in the air here, the ghosts of communities crowded in these very walls beginning two centuries ago. The Temple at Burning Man comparison feels apt and I always hope for a quiet moment here. A sleeper choice but definitely one of my favorites.
Variety Unit aka The Dollhouse
Way more Chucky than Tickle-Me-Elmo these dolls feel mostly evoke the first act of an eighties horror flick. Not sure you could pay me enough to spend the night with these ladies/monkey especially the animatronic 19th-century ones that COME TO LIFE. I love this building with all my weirdo heart.
Who ordered the fully restored Adirondack lodge stuffed to the gills with taxidermied 12 foot bears and mounted elk, moose, ram? Electra Webb ordered them, that’s who.
Blacksmith Shop/Print Shop
These two buildings are the only ones that are performative but not in a Sturbridge Village kinda way. Just a dude, heating up some metal in a 200 year-old blacksmith shop making hooks with a giant hammer, anvil and hot coals. Same vibe in the print shop if you can time it right… take that Hatch Show (which I also happen to love)…
The main feature of this one is a hand-carved miniature Arnold Circus Parade, which stretches nearly the full length of the building’s 518 feet. It’s verrrry easy to get lost in the details of these figurines if you’ve got the attention span and aren’t completely zonked. Save a minute for the last installation too, it’s my favorite:
The Kirk Brothers Circus is a miniature three-ring circus, complete with an audience, comprised of more than 3,500 pieces. Edgar Kirk fashioned the figures over a period of forty years using only a treadle jigsaw and penknife.
I’m skipped over a pile of some of my other favorite installations (the apothecary, the 1750 cottage, private rail car) but mostly as they were closed post-Covid. And I’m sure I’m missing some that I haven’t even seen yet. Always a new discovery here.
Gotta add that the museum grounds are host to my favorite outdoor concert series in New England (!) and my band will be playing here tomorrow if you want to do it all. Sunset vibes.
Thanks for reading, love you talk soon bye