At The Museum of Everyday Life:  the charms and trials of dust

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At great personal sacrifice, Linda Elbow refrained from cleaning her house for four months and put some of the results on display.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

At great personal sacrifice, Linda Elbow refrained from cleaning her house for four months and put some of the results on display. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle June 3, 2015

by Joseph Gresser

GLOVER — The Museum of Everyday Life, located in a retired dairy barn just off Route 16 south of Glover Village, opened its fifth season Sunday afternoon in the kind of damp weather that represses the subject of its new exhibit—dust.

In previous years the museum looked through its skewed lens at common items that generally have to be bought — pencils, matches, safety pins, and toothbrushes. Dust is with us whether we like it or not, and the museum’s chief curator, Clare Dolan, offers visitors a chance to examine a multitude of its many aspects.

Samples of coal dust, sawdust, grain dust, and gold dust were elegantly presented under a series of bell jars, along with detailed descriptions of the hazards or benefits each represents….To read the rest of this article, and all the Chronicle‘s stories, subscribe:

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contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

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Book review: Writer exhumes surprising stories from Brighton

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WEB IP bookcopyright the Chronicle May 27, 2015

Island Pond Reflections, by S.J. Campbell. Paperback. 130 pages. Self-published. $19.99.

Reviewed by Tena Starr  

Island Pond Reflections isn’t a scholarly history of Brighton, which has also been known rather charmingly as Gilead, Random, and the less romantic Lot 31.

Instead, Sharon Campbell says in the book’s introduction that she’s written a collection of “true stories and tales long forgotten.”

The stories come from books and newspaper articles and date back centuries.

“They provide a tantalizing glimpse into the lives of the people who lived here and describe the developments that shaped their environment,” Ms. Campbell writes. “Through the centuries Island Pond grew big enough to accommodate a whole host of characters. Their trials and tribulations were deemed worthy of being reported by newspapers in cities as far away as Boston, Seattle, London, and Montreal.”

Ms. Campbell says that Brighton, and Island Pond, the village within the town, was, at one time, quite a diverse place, populated by Italian stonemasons, Syrian storekeepers, and Lebanese Christians escaping religious or political persecution….To read the rest of this article, and all the Chronicle‘s stories, subscribe:

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contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Guide gives rise to the baker within

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WEB bread book covercopyright the Chronicle April 8, 2015

Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, 2nd Edition, by Jeffrey Hamelman, illustrations and photography by Chiho Kaneko; Published by John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Hoboken, New Jersey, 2014; Hardbound, 478 pages; $45.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

For anyone interested in learning to bake good bread or, even better, improving their baking skills, I can unreservedly recommend this book.

I was a lapsed home baker when a good friend gave me a baking book several years ago. The book was useful in some respects, but the recipes were riddled with mistakes, and my return to bread making was nearly cut short.

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When a rock festival takes over a small town…

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WEB shape of the skycopyright the Chronicle April 1, 2015

Shape of the Sky, by Shelagh Connor Shapiro. 242 pages. Paperback. Published by Wind Ridge Books. $15.95.

Reviewed by Tena Starr  

The Northeast Kingdom and rock festivals have a historic relationship, so Shelagh Connor Shapiro’s lovely novel, Shape of the Sky, is not as far-fetched as one might think.

In this book, Resolute, Vermont, population 613, decides to host a big rock and roll concert in order to raise money. Although a fictional town, Resolute is obviously set in Orleans County. It’s small, rural, poor, and populated by characters.

At Town Meeting, the local music teacher mentions that he’s asked Vermont’s most famous native rock band if they’re interested in holding a concert in town.

Predictably, some favor the idea, and some don’t. Yes, thousands of fans would boost the economy, if only for a weekend. And, yes, it’s likely to be messy. Yes, farmers could rent out campsites, and local businesses would benefit from the traffic.

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A look at the internal struggles of an early feminist

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WEB marthas mandala bookcopyright the Chronicle March 25, 2015

by Natalie Hormilla

Martha Oliver-Smith of Albany has written something like a memoir, except it’s not really about herself.

The main character of Martha’s Mandala is another Martha, the author’s maternal grandmother, Martha Stringham Bacon, who went by the name of Patty. Ms. Bacon was a talented artist and writer who lived mostly in the first half of the twentieth century, but you had to personally know her to know any of that. She was better known during her life as the wife of Leonard Bacon, an accomplished writer who won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for poetry for a collection called Sunderland Capture.

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How to bring Town Meeting back to life

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WEB town meeting bookcopyright the Chronicle March 11, 2015

All Those In Favor, Rediscovering the Secrets of Town Meeting and Community, by Susan Clark and Frank Bryan. Paperback. 87 pages. Published by Ravenmark, Montpelier, Vermont.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Frank Bryan is likely Vermont’s staunchest champion of Town Meeting. He studied it for 30 years, and in this book, a tenth-anniversary update of the 2005 original, he and co-author Susan Clark add analysis of another 12 years.

Their research indicates that Town Meeting is in some trouble — no surprise — but they’re by no means announcing its demise. Instead, they suggest a number of ways to shoot a bit of adrenalin into Vermont’s system of direct democracy.

Primarily, they are opposed to moving toward Australian ballot, which they argue, is, indeed, a death sentence for Town Meetings. And they provide evidence that fiddling with the time, or the day, does not necessarily increase attendance. In many cases, moving from a Tuesday daytime meeting to a weekend or evening meeting has decreased participation because, as the authors point out, while many people don’t want to lose a workday to attend Town Meeting, even more don’t want to give up leisure time.

The primary reasons for decreased attendance are the size of a town and the issues on the Warning, the authors say. The bigger a town gets, the smaller the percentage of attendance. And if a Town Meeting Warning has little of consequence on it — few issues that affect or captivate voters — they’re more likely to stay away.

“While it is doubtful that there was ever a golden era of Town Meeting when nearly everyone turned out every year, attendance was much higher in the early days than today,” the book says. “Even well into the twentieth century it was much higher than it is now. Given the difficulties of life (from hugely longer workdays and work weeks, to much poorer transportation systems, to remarkably greater potential for sickness and poor health generally) one is struck by how complete Town Meeting democracy was in the past.

“Those who believe that people are much busier today than they were in the past (and that includes most commentators on modern life) have an incomplete understanding of history. What we really mean when we say we are busier today is that we have different priorities.

“Consider the little town of Craftsbury in the Northeast Kingdom as it was in 1840. So difficult was transportation over and through its rocky hillsides, it took 12 separate school districts to educate the children. The majority of the people farmed. They kept 333 horses, 1,718 cattle, 3,166 sheep, and 658 swine. They produced 47,906 pounds of potatoes and 14,398 bushels of oats along with 5,705 bushels of other crops, 3,171 tons of hay and 35,412 pounds of sugar. Meanwhile, they ran two gristmills, a hulling mill, two carding machine operations, ten sawmills, two fulling mills, three carriage makers, and one oil mill.

“Fewer than 1,200 women, men, and children accomplished all this. If you’ve ever worked on a small farm, or in the woods, you know that these people not only worked hard, they worked smart. Their lives were fully as complex and demanding, perhaps even more complex and demanding as ours today.

“If they can do it, we can do it, too.”

The Northeast Kingdom isn’t much plagued by the biggest hindrance to Town Meeting attendance — population. Only Newport and St. Johnsbury are big enough to reach the tipping point where attendance, or lack of, can be attributed to size, according to the authors’ formula.

But Town Meeting is affected everywhere by loss of local control. Issues, and whether voters have control over them or not, are at the heart of attendance in small towns, the authors assert. And Vermonters have had increasingly little say in much of what matters to them most.

For instance, under the current school funding system, cutting a local school budget does not necessarily translate into a tax decrease.

“The most reliable predictor of Town Meeting attendance, besides population size, is what’s on the Warning,” the book says. “Examples abound, but let’s visit one meeting in the Northeast Kingdom town of Holland after a particularly bad winter had deteriorated the town’s roads. Imagine this meeting’s discussion about whether to switch from an appointed road commissioner to an elected one. Combine this discussion with the fact that a challenger was running against a key select board member on this issue. The result: The attendance normally predicted for a town this size was exceeded by 100 percent.”

This book goes so far as to say that an item should be included on the Warning each year specifically to grab people’s attention. It suggests something like an item saying alcohol be banned within town limits. While that’s a bit of a stretch, the point is made.

Town Meetings are important not just because they give people a chance to practice hands-on governance, but also because of the community they provide, the authors say. And in neither case does moving toward Australian ballot help, they argue.

“In a well intentioned effort to include more people in decision making, an increasing number of Vermont towns are destroying their town meetings in the process.

“The Australian ballot is quick, easy, private, unaccountable, and most important, simple. It is also deadly.

“In a way, the Australian ballot is worse than deadly because it doesn’t kill Town Meeting quickly. And the execution is dishonest. We are told it will save Town Meeting, while the reality is that it poisons it and lets it die slowly….

“It leaves a town with neither a legislature nor a Town Meeting. In doing so it compromises the actions of the select board or school board, which must anticipate how the community will react to an issue and then submit this best guess to a winner-take-all decision.”

Also, the authors say, flexibility is forfeited because the ability to make amendments is lost. School boards may watch an entire budget go down because a compromise on one issue isn’t possible. Projects that could have been saved with a bit of tinkering are rejected because tinkering wasn’t an option.

“Using the Australian ballot instead of a Town Meeting is like creating an ice sculpture by taking one great swing at a block of ice with a sledgehammer instead of carefully applying a chisel with care over time,” the book says.

And informational meetings don’t fill the void because Vermonters don’t just want to talk about things, they want to do something about them, the authors say.

“The golden key to participation is to give citizens real power and real decisions to make,” the book says.

“Unlike the polling booth, Town Meetings can be exciting, interesting, and fun. They bring politics to life. Here laughter is often heard. Here we meet neighbors we haven’t seen for ages. Here we learn that Bill Stone over on the North Road is having trouble in mud season, too. Here we discover that the town library is offering a new program for our kids. Here, most of all, we get to see ourselves in the full light of real democracy.”

To improve Town Meeting, the authors suggest the following:

Highlight the issues. Select boards should creatively publicize certain items so people are aware of what’s happening. Develop a relationship with the local newspaper editor, they say, and ask for help getting the word out about major issues.

Arrange for childcare. “Happily one of the most important methods proven to increase Town Meeting attendance is also relatively simple: provide childcare during the meeting. Statistics show that this can improve attendance measurably, especially among women.” Generally, a local organization such as the Girl Scouts or the parent teacher association provides the childcare and benefits from any donations parents might like to offer.

If possible, skip microphones since they increase people’s anxiety about speaking in public.

Eat. The best-attended Town Meetings include food.

Build the agenda carefully. If a meeting drags on, people will leave, particularly after a meal, so if the most important items are voted on at the end of the meeting, fewer people will vote.

Include elements of celebration.

Susan Clark is a community facilitator and Frank Bryan is a University of Vermont political science professor emeritus.

The book is available at local bookstores or from www.vtinstituteforgovt.org for $9.95 plus $2.50 for shipping. To inquire about municipal or nonprofit pricing, or bulk orders, contact the Vermont Institute for Government at (802) 223-5824, or sclark@sover.net.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, subscribe:

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Novel brings Haitian slave children to light

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WEB review gold exchangecopyright the Chronicle February 11, 2015

Reviewed by Tena Starr

The Gold Exchange, Exposing Haiti’s Child Slavery System, by Susan Belding. Paperback. 273 pages. Published by Willoughby Gap Press. $8.14 on Amazon.

Susan Belding (who many of you would know as Susan Ferland) is a former Lake Region Union High School English teacher. She now lives in Florida, where until last month, she continued to teach, although to a quite different student body than the Northeast Kingdom’s. Many of her students have been Haitian, and those students inspired her to write The Gold Exchange, a young adult, coming of age novel that takes a look at Haiti’s deplorable restavek system.

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Stories reflect beauty, complexity of Vermont

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WEB review vermont fictioncopyright the Chronicle January 21, 2015

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Contemporary Vermont Fiction, an Anthology. Edited by Robin MacArthur. Published by Green Writers Press. Paperback. 226 pages. $21.00.

Vermont has a lot of writers. In fact, I’ve heard, or read, that it has more writers, per capita, than any other state.

What editor Robin MacArthur has done with this anthology is collect some of the best work of some of the best of them. The book includes pieces by Howard Frank Mosher, Julia Alvarez, Castle Freeman Jr., Wallace Stegner, Annie Proulx, and Bill Schubart, as well as from at least a half dozen perhaps less familiar, but no less moving, writers.

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An easy read to fuel those spring dreams

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WEB woodchuck gardeningcopyright the Chronicle December 23, 2014

The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening, by Ron Krupp. Published by Whetstone Books. Paperback. 247 pages. $18.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Yes, it will be months before we see anything besides a Christmas tree that’s green, but it’s never too early to start thinking about spring gardening. Seed catalogues will start arriving in January, and gardeners will pore over them, planning for the coming summer harvest.

The Woodchuck Returns to Gardening is a follow-up to Ron Krupp’s The Woodchuck’s Guide to Gardening, and it has sound advice about seeds. Not surprisingly, Mr. Krupp heavily relies on many of the old standbys that have stood the test of time, such as Provider green beans.

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Biography pays heed to Governor Robinson

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WEB mello bookcopyright the Chronicle December 17, 2014

Moses Robinson and the Founding of Vermont by Robert A. Mello. Published by the Vermont Historical Society, 2014. 450 pages with footnotes and bibliography. $34.95

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre

Robert A. Mello is a better historian than he is a biographer. Perhaps that’s because his writing lacks the flair we look for in reading about people whose lives merit a biography. Still his recent biography of Moses Robinson and the role he played in Vermont’s formative years has arrived at a fortuitous moment.

In 1789, Vermont’s second election for governor was thrown into the Legislature as neither candidate had achieved a majority, as required by the state’s Constitution.

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