Henry Sheldon and his Museum
Henry Luther Sheldon (1821-1907) was born the youngest of four sons to Samuel Sheldon, a third generation farmer from Connecticut, and Sarah Weeks Sheldon, daughter of a prominent well-educated Vermont family.
Growing up on the family farm in Salisbury, Vermont, Henry was expected to carry his share of the work and to learn practical skills necessary at a time when most things were made at home. That was not enough for his mother, however, who taught him his letters when he was three and had him reading at the age of four. Music was part of Sheldon family life, and Henry later recalled that he built an organ and learned to play it while still a boy. He liked to write, too, and most of his life he kept a detailed diary, now a useful source of information about daily activities in nineteenth-century Middlebury. With some other boys he even formed an essay-writing group. His brother introduced him to collecting autographs, which he obtained by writing to leading authors and politicians of his day.
In 1841, Henry left the farm and moved to Middlebury where he found employment in the post office and lodging in the large brick house that would later become the Sheldon Museum. Henry’s climb to local prominence was rapid. The year after he moved to town, he became the organist at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, a position he held for the next thirty-four years. During those years he worked many jobs, clerking in different stores in Middlebury and Vergennes and serving the railroad as mail agent and station agent. His work for the railroad took him on regular trips to Boston and one longer journey to Nebraska, where he stayed about a year. When gold rush fever swept the country in 1849, Henry was eager to set out for California, but his family’s horror at the idea kept him back.
Early in his career Henry started to invest in real estate, both in Middlebury and as far away as Wisconsin and Nebraska. At various times he was involved in the lumber business, sheep-raising, a marble quarry, a saloon, a general store, a bookstore, and a music store. At home he collected and repaired musical instruments, built furniture and bound books.
Not all of Henry’s business ventures were successful. After the failure of his marble quarry, he wrote to an uncle that “having been unfortunate in business only once, it only remains to try again.”
Henry was in his late 50s when he found his calling as a collector, and, eventually, museum proprietor. His collecting career commenced with the purchase of a Roman coin for one dollar in 1875. By 1880 he had developed an extensive coin collection representing 50 countries over many centuries, which he displayed in cabinets accompanied by biographies of the associated rulers. When the coin collection was as complete as he could afford to make it, Henry turned to antiquarian and historical matters, eventually trading the entire collection to Middlebury College for early Middlebury newspapers.
In 1881 he wrote in his diary: “…I have spent all my leisure the past year trying to benefit future generations by preserving the handiwork of the articles representing all the different occupations of the early pioneers which I have called a Museum. May those who many years hence look at these articles take as much pleasure in doing so as I have in collecting them.”
1882 was an auspicious year. Henry went in with a friend to purchase the brick house on Park Street where he had been boarding. The Moore family took the first floor; Henry and his collections occupied the two upstairs floors. That same year, Henry officially incorporated the Sheldon Art Museum, Archaeological and Historical Society through a formal charter from the State Legislature. The board was to be made up of the vestry of St. Stephen’s Church, with an initial roster of officers that included a President (Rev. William Tilley) and Vice President (Albert Chapman), with Henry holding the other four offices of Secretary, Treasurer, Manager, and Janitor. Middlebury was now graced with what is believed to be the oldest chartered community museum in America. In 1892, the Museum acquired full title to the property, though part of it continued to be rented out.
Henry dedicated the remainder of his life to the Museum. Suffering from increasing rheumatism and deafness, he gave up his organist duties at St. Stephen’s in the 1870s, but continued to correspond with other collectors and historians, sharing information about early publications and newly-acquired artifacts. Most of his time was spent tracking down and acquiring documents and objects donated by local people, binding newspapers, compiling research notes, and showing his exhibits to visitors. He noted several times in his diary that he was collecting items faster than he could organize them.
Although he served as Village Clerk from 1870 to 1895, his deafness continued to worsen and many conversations were carried on by notes. He wrote a poignant description of his increasing deafness, noting the sounds of daily life he no longer heard, such as a clock striking the hours and his own footsteps on the stairs. “Words can be communicated by other means, but not musical sounds. My great loss is services of the church.”
By the end of his life, he had outlived his brothers and most of his friends, and was isolated by his age and deafness. Henry died after a short illness on February 28, 1907, at the age of 86.
The Sheldon Museum was thriving during Henry’s lifetime, but he was only able to leave it $100 at the time of his death. Maintaining the building and its contents was a huge undertaking for the vestry of St. Stephen’s. An elderly woman acted as a caretaker for awhile, but the door was eventually locked and the dust began to gather.
The Sheldon Museum came back to life in the 1930s, when Middlebury College’s W. Storrs Lee and art historian Arthur K.D. Healy inspected the building and started to look at the collection in detail. They were amazed by its quality, and rallied a group of townspeople to help whip the old Museum back into shape again. The Victorian yen for objects lined up in cases had now been supplanted by the 20th century’s passion for Colonial Revival domesticity. Henry, who had written that, “my home is alone but not lonely…with no one to care for me,” would have been surprised to find his collection now arrayed in a historical home setting.
Subsequent decades have seen the Sheldon Museum grow into one of the most professional and well-respected history museums in New England. And thanks to Henry’s good eye for paper records, we live in what one historian has called, “the best-documented community in America.” Collecting did not end with Henry. The Sheldon is constantly receiving donations of objects and documents that enrich our understanding of the past.
Much of the current Sheldon Museum collection came here long after Henry’s time – from wedding dresses to photographs to last week’s newspaper. We anticipate receiving additional 20th century items and look forward to a day when we might be preserving as many letters from the World Wars, for example, as we have from the Civil War. The public wants to learn about the experiences of recent generations, too. The Sheldon Museum continues to evolve as we find innovative ways to make meaningful connections between the past and today.