Past Times: Stories from the Sheldon's Past

1909: The Champlain Tercentenary

By Jan Albers

This article appeared in the Addison Independent in June 2009 and is published here with permission.

It would take a very unplugged person not to have heard that 2009 is the Quadricentennial of Samuel de Champlain’s visit to his self-named lake. Commemorative events and exhibits crowd our summer calendar, providing us with numerous opportunities to learn more about our region’s French and Native American heritage. North Americans do not have many opportunities to look back 400 years.

Commemorations like this one stimulate a curiosity about the events of previous increments, so it seems like a good time to look into how our predecessors celebrated Champlain’s first appearance in Vermont history. The Sheldon Museum is the primary repository of local newspapers, so it is quick work to pop down to the archives, step back a century and read the news from the 300th anniversary summer of 1909.

The July 9 edition of the Middlebury Register is filled with breathless accounts of the Tercentenary festivities. (Take a short pause here to muse on why it wasn’t called a ‘tricentennial.’) The celebrations were focused in Vergennes, where a crowd of over 5000 enjoyed the “biggest, grandest and most successful celebration in its history.”

The smallest city was decked out in “an artistic arrangement of bunting, flags, banners and festoons,” with “two large arches erected on Main Street…embellished with flags, foliage and portraits of heroes.” Heavy rains hit the night before, so that “Several inches of mud on the street made very poor marching for the parades.” Yet spirits were high as eager people poured into town. Cars were still a novelty, so the program could not begin until “after the morning trains had arrived.”

Most Vermonters of this era would have been taught the comforting fallacy that, at the time of European settlement, “there were no Indians living in Vermont.” However, even their schoolbooks could not expunge native people from the Champlain story or its commemoration. During the morning program, “the Algonquin Indians gave a brief exhibition on the Bixby Memorial Library site.” It was the era of the cigar store Indian, where the sight of native people might be admired as ‘exotic,’ while their culture was undervalued. On this occasion, our condescending observer remarked that their program “proved very interesting, due more to the unique dresses and makeups of the performers than to their performances. The Indians were in full war paint and feathers all day and presented a very striking appearance on the street.”

The afternoon was dominated by a huge parade, including the Vergennes and Middlebury town bands, “Indians in Costume,” “Woodsmen in Costume,” ‘pageants’ featuring the “Court of Henry IV of France and Champlain and Indians in Canoes,” floats from the local granges and other civic and church groups, business floats (including the ‘Ryan Firm’), honor guards and marching boys from the Industrial School. No American historical commemoration could be complete without a float featuring George Washington, “mounted Heralds and Cowboys,” Indians on horseback and, for the grand finale, the intriguing sight of “Uncle Sam Twins.”

After the parade there were choirs and speeches in the park. The keynote was given by Vermont-born John Barrett, ‘ex minister to Siam.’ Lest we pay too much attention to Champlain, he reminded his hearers that, “while it is proper to honor a great foreigner, we should give first place in our thoughts at this time to national and world problems.” He was followed by Congressman Foster, whose audience must have wondered at his statement that Champlain’s visit “sounded the death knell of French domination in American.” How silly of us to think that it was the beginning of French domination.

Middlebury College President John Martin Thomas turned the spotlight back to Champlain in a talk at the evening banquet, praising him for his skills as a navigator, a writer and a Christian. He was relieved to be able to report that “There is nothing to keep back in the life of Champlain. He was a practical Christian and his personal character bears the fullest investigation.”

While Vergennes enjoyed its glorious celebrations, the local paper also reported on other events in the region. Burlington threw a three-day extravaganza, beginning with a parade of “decorated automobiles, in which the children from the Providence Orphan Asylum and the Home for Destitute Children were given a ride through the flag-draped streets of the city.” A line of cars was a great novelty, made more glorious the next day, with a procession of thirty decorated automobiles, “each carrying young ladies representing the various States of the Union.” Tens of thousands turned out to witness the running of a full marathon, baseball games, bands and orators.

The second day was officially designated “French Day in Burlington,” with speeches in French in City Hall Park. They were followed by more parades and floats and a wonderful “Champlain regatta” in the harbor, ending with fireworks from the breakwater. Burlington was filled with visitors from Montreal, reveling in this rare acknowledgement of French culture.

Sadly, the evening was marred by a single tragic event. Around 9:15 p.m., young Hector Mongeon of St. Hyacinthe, Quebec, was riding his bicycle up a brightly illuminated College St. when a car approached him “at a terrific speed.” It hit him with great force, sending him flying to the pavement, and then sped off without stopping. The badly-injured boy was rushed to Mary Fletcher Hospital, where he died the next day.

The car was quickly identified by bystanders as the limousine of Vermont Governor George H. Prouty. Prouty’s joyriding new chauffeur, William Benware, was taken into custody, where he offered the lame story that he had stopped to help the kid but no one had noticed him. The Governor was not in the car at the time, being otherwise occupied with President Taft and a number of foreign dignitaries on a tour of Fort Ticonderoga. On this otherwise glorious day, poor Hector Mongeon gained the distinction of being the first person hit and killed by an automobile in the state of Vermont.

The show went on with a final Patriotic and Fraternal Society Day, featuring hoards of proud citizen marchers. For those who were getting ‘paraded out,’ the day’s highlight came with the spectacular launching of a manned airship. As the giant balloon floated slowly southward, hundreds attempted to follow it down Shelburne Road, where it lost oxygen and came to a gentle, though unanticipated, stop in a woman’s garden. This satisfying marvel was followed by a final grand fireworks display over the harbor.

Most everyone seemed to agree that the Champlain Valley had done itself proud for Champlain’s 300th anniversary. As is so often the case, there were a few naysayers. An anonymous commentator in the Middlebury Register grudgingly admitted that the “dear, sleepy old town—excuse me, we should have said city” of Vergennes had to be commended for its great celebration. He couldn’t help adding that “Vergennes can do things when she tries but she doesn’t try very often.” Meow.

Middlebury’s 1909 eclipse was not going to be repeated when the 350th anniversary rolled around in 1959. Middlebury College art historian Arthur Healy was put in charge of the college town’s “Lake Festival.” Under his leadership, thousands would come to see Sherry Underwood’s troupe of sixteen area children do French, Indian and pioneer dancing, among other exciting performances. But that’s another story.