Swanton Historical Society seeks to engage youth

By Tom Benton

Staff Writer

The Facts

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SWANTON — The Swanton Historical Society’s annual meeting last night might have seemed as alien to urbanites as a subway to country folk.

It happened at the Swanton Railroad Depot Museum on South River Street, and began with guitarist Jim Branca singing folk songs and telling jokes while the 20-plus attendees ate maple creemees donated by Swanton’s own Maple City Candy — all on a track-side platform where locals waited on their train in another century.

Members of the Swanton Arts Council created history-themed art to celebrate the meeting. Attendees wandered between three display stands of paintings and ink works, digesting art at the same time they digested free maple creemees.

The historical society’s vice president, Glen Gurwit, said the society’s official meeting would begin 30 minutes into the gathering. It did — at 30 minutes, on the dot.

Gurwit stepped in for President Ron Kilburn, who was away on his annual family canoeing trip “in faraway northern Quebec.” The trip was booked a year ago, Gurwit explained. “Ron apologizes,” he said.

Gurwit noted Kilburn had left him “a script.” “You know Ron,” he said. “Everything’s prepared. I don’t want to be like Trump with the teleprompter, but I’ll do my best to get through what he wants you to know.”

It wasn’t much. The historical society elected its leaders for another year — Kilburn president, Gurwit vice president. Newcomer Elisabeth Nance, who was not in attendance, was elected secretary, and Gary Langlois was re-elected treasurer.

Gurwit thanked Polly Paré, who has held multiple positions in the historical society since 2000 — chiefly secretary. “That means so much more than just being secretary,” Gurwit said. It meant recording video and audio for all historical society events, “showing up at everything, whether there’s three people or 35 people there.” It meant handling all inquiries the historical society receives through their website, questions like “How many bridges does Swanton have?”

It also meant attention to details like holiday decorations, and creating certificates for “the little train engineers who come at Christmas time.”

Paré, firmly placed in the society’s history, received avid applause.

The group then elected the society’s trustees — Jason Barney, who would wind up dominating the meeting, Rich Kelley and Bruce Spaulding. Gurwit encouraged people to submit recommendations for the historical society’s one, long-open trustee position.

“Twelve meetings a year, sometimes boring, sometimes fun,” he pitched.

Gurwit read Kilburn’s characteristically animated description of the historical society. “We are a historical organization seeking to survive during times when some people prefer to yield to the temptations of the social media, rather than engaging in face-to-face conversation and discourse,” Gurwit read. “There are many who prefer to gaze at, and interact with, small, handheld electronic devices — rather than visiting the museum, and gazing with rapture at historic photographs, artifacts and memorabilia, which remind us of earlier times.”

Kilburn’s writing put forth what became the evening’s theme. “Our challenge is to continue to make this be relevant and interesting in modern times,” Gurwit read. “We can do it if we resolve to do so.”

Afterward, Gurwit said, “That’s pure Ron Kilburn, but I pretty much agree. It’s just a struggle these days. Wherever I go, to the record collectors and the phonograph collectors and the old car collectors and the historical society — to see somebody under 40, who’s really interested, is unusual. A lot of us, who have all these good memories and knowledge, are wondering who will take over.”

Hope came in the form of trustee Barney’s presentation. His slideshow summarized the state of Swanton backwards from 2015 to 1515.

Barney isn’t under 40. He’s 41. But he’s also a local teacher whose students, he said, have been engaged by Swanton history.

He showed photographs of Swanton in 1915, when Merchants Row was lined with tall, sheltering trees.

Around that time, an explosion at the local International Explosives Company (IEC) took the life of its general manager, Dr. E. M. Funk. Because the IEC was working on supplies for World War I, Funk’s death is considered the first casualty in America caused by the war.

Barney showed the Johnson map, one of the oldest known Swanton maps. It shows Swanton circa 1816, when Merchants Row was considered a “mall.”

Swanton’s population was approximately 2,000 people at that time. It was one of the most populous towns in the state, Barney said, equivalent to today’s Burlington.

All Barney’s history prior to the 1800s was based around the local natives, who used birchbark canoes to traverse Lake Champlain. Barney said Swanton had some of the earliest instances of sunflower cultivation in the United States.

Shortly before Barney finished his presentation and the meeting adjourned, he told the audience about his young students’ enthusiastic re-creation of early native battle implements.

There were reassured smiles all around.