The Henry Sheldon Museum, a beautifully maintained late Victorian residence in downtown historic Middlebury, is the home and work of an extraordinarily farsighted and discerning collector.
Henry Luther Sheldon (1821-1907) numbered among the first generation of Vermont children to come of age in a non-agricultural world. The youngest son of a third generation Connecticut farmer and well-educated Vermont mother, Henry set his sights beyond the family farm in Salisbury, Vermont from an early age. His accomplished mother had him reading by the age of four while learning the practical skills of farming. He began to keep a diary as a child that would continue throughout his later years, and his love for writing resulted in the establishment of an essay-writing club of Salisbury schoolboys. Henry’s brother encouraged him to collect autographs from the leading thinkers of the day, and this collection would inaugurate a lifelong hobby. At the age of twenty, Henry left the family farm for Middlebury, where he quickly made a name for himself as the organist at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, where he played for over three decades. Eager to immerse himself in the modernizing community, Henry found employment in the newly established Vermont Central Railway, the lumber and livestock businesses, the general store, bookstore, music store, saloon, and at one point, eager to cash in on the Middlebury marble-works, his own ill-fated marble quarry. His work for the railroad allowed Henry to travel, frequently to Boston and even as far as Nebraska. In 1849, he would endeavor to pan for gold in California, only to be detained by his family’s disapproval. At home, in the building that would later become the Sheldon Museum, Henry collected and repaired musical instruments, constructed furniture, and bound books, but it was only in his late fifties that Henry ultimately returned to his childhood passion for collecting, which was resurrected with the purchase of a Roman coin in 1875 for one dollar. An astute curator, Henry displayed his growing array of coins in cabinets containing the biographies of figures pertinent to the collection.
The Henry Sheldon Museum, with a collection spanning over two hundred years of local records, is a must-see for any student of American history. Local newspapers chronicle over a century of national debate, conflict, and politics alongside local occurrences such the arrival of the first daguerreotype photographers in town in the 1840s. Museum Director Bill Brooks is particularly fond of a wood, iron, and leather prosthesis (c. 1770-85) worn by John Preston, who lost his leg during the American Revolution, and from whom comedian Lucille Ball was descended. Assistant Director Mary Manley’s favorites include a painting by James Hope entitled Middlebury Falls (c. 1850), in which a colorful fisherman is set against the backdrop of the falls and town. For archivist Eva Garcelon-Hart, the highlight of the Sheldon collection is a double-silhouette portrait (c. 1815) of Charity Bryant (1777-1851) and Sylvia Drake (1784-1868), a same-sex couple living in Weybridge, Vermont in the early nineteenth century. The object, which is small enough to fit in your hand, is framed in silk and the profiles are encircled by a braid of the women’s hair. This author in particular is partial to the unusual Egyptologist wallpaper that Henry installed in a second story room—evidence that that Victorian craze for Egypt reached even Middlebury, Vermont.
The Sheldon Museum is always looking for student volunteers to assist with school tours, exhibit preparation, and archival work. If you are interested in learning more about volunteer opportunities, please reach out to Mary Manley at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Henry Sheldon Museum
One Park Street
Middlebury, Vermont 05753