Students seek answers about mysterious black doll

Stella Halpern of Island Pond bought this handmade doll at a house auction in East Burke in 2003.  It’s very old, and she wonders if it might have been owned at one time by a runaway slave child on her way to freedom.  The doll has been donated to the Old Stone House Museum, and students at the East Burke School are researching the house and the doll.  Photo by Tena Starr

Stella Halpern of Island Pond bought this handmade doll at a house auction in East Burke in 2003. It’s very old, and she wonders if it might have been owned at one time by a runaway slave child on her way to freedom. The doll has been donated to the Old Stone House Museum, and students at the East Burke School are researching the house and the doll. Photo by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle, October 9, 2013

by Tena Starr

Stella Halpern is hoping someone will solve a mystery for her.  What was a very old, battered, handmade black doll doing in the rafters of a house in East Burke?

Mrs. Halpern bought the doll in 2003 at an auction of the home’s contents.  She has since donated it, along with the rest of her collection of homemade black dolls, to the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington.

“I love old auctions,” said the 92-year-old Mrs. Halpern.  “We were sitting there, and they were down to practically nothing, and the auctioneer sent for a complete thorough search.  They had found this little black doll hidden in the rafters in the attic.”

Mrs. Halpern bought it for $5.

“I didn’t buy it because of the price,” she said.  “I bought it because my curiosity was aroused.  It’s a handmade sock doll, made from black socks.  It was in an old house in white Vermont and has to have historical implications.”

It’s not very likely that a white child of the time would own a black doll, Old Stone House Museum Director Peggy Day Gibson noted.  Also, she said that when the owner of the house was remodeling he found a penny dated 1851 in the walls.  Sometimes, in older homes, a coin was put in the walls to date the time of construction.

In view of the coin and the apparent age of the doll, Ms. Halpern wonders if the house could have been a stop on the Underground Railroad, and the doll owned by a black child on her way to freedom.

It was found in a part of the house that can only be seen from one angle.  Also, the outhouse for this particular house was in a walkway between the house and barn, so a person would have been able to slip out of the attic and use it unseen from the outside.

Stella Halpern with the doll she bought at auction ten years ago.  She’s sure the handmade toy has a story and hopes the Old Stone House Museum and students at the East Burke School figure out what it is.  Photo courtesy of Peggy Day Gibson

Stella Halpern with the doll she bought at auction ten years ago. She’s sure the handmade toy has a story and hopes the Old Stone House Museum and students at the East Burke School figure out what it is. Photo courtesy of Peggy Day Gibson

“If they hid someone in the attic no one would know because they could go down and do whatever they needed,” Ms. Halpern said.

The doll is handstitched out of stretchy black stockings of a type a woman might wear.  One of them is stamped with the word “elastic” in red.  Its dress is a flowered orange print, stained with age.  It has no face and was clearly much used.

“I think that was a well loved doll,” Ms. Day Gibson said.

She said that most people consider that escaped slaves would be safe once they got to anti-slavery Vermont, so it would be unnecessary to hide.  But the Fugitive Slave Act, passed in 1850, required that runaway slaves be returned to their masters.

“People were obligated by law to turn them over to slave hunters, who did come up here from Boston,” Ms. Day Gibson said.

She said the doll was found in a part of the house that would have made a good hiding place since it was not visible from the outside except at a certain angle.

The museum, along with students at the East Burke School, plan to find out what they can about the doll as well as the house and its history and see what they can come up with in way of explanation.

The very old, handmade black doll Stella Halpern recently donated to the Old Stone House Museum was found in the rafters of this house in East Burke in 2003.    Photo courtesy of Peggy Day Gibson

The very old, handmade black doll Stella Halpern recently donated to the Old Stone House Museum was found in the rafters of this house in East Burke in 2003. Photo courtesy of Peggy Day Gibson

“We want to authenticate the clothes to find out if they are, in fact, from a pre-Civil War period,” said Yvonne Woodcock, principal at the East Burke School.  “Also, we want to research the house and if it was part of the Underground Railroad.  I know this area was part of the Underground Railroad.

Fabric historians can date the fabric the doll is made of, and its clothing, Ms. Day Gibson said.

The red stamp that says “Elastic” and something else, not quite decipherable, could be a company stamp, and it might be possible to track down that particular firm, and thus come up with a timeframe, Ms. Woodcock said.

She said six students will be doing the research, which they expect will be extensive and include finding any possible correspondence and looking at other Vermont stations in the Underground Railroad to see if those homes share characteristics with the East Burke house.

“We’re very excited about this project,’ Ms. Woodcock said.

Ultimately, the doll will be exhibited at the museum.

Stella Halpern donated her entire collection of handmade black dolls to the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington.  Here are some of them.   They come mostly from the South, Mrs. Halpern said, since it was more unusual to find black dolls in the North.     Photo by Tena Starr

Stella Halpern donated her entire collection of handmade black dolls to the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington. Here are some of them. They come mostly from the South, Mrs. Halpern said, since it was more unusual to find black dolls in the North. Photo by Tena Starr

Ms. Halpern said she has been to all 50 states with her husband, and has long collected dolls, originally for their three daughters, as well as because of her own personal interest in handmade things.

“People don’t realize how much handmade toys say about the culture,” Ms. Halpern said.  “Civilizations come and go.  Everyday people are more important than anybody.”

The fun of owning interesting old things is that they can be passed on to a historical society where, hopefully, someone will set out to find the story behind the item, she said.

Ms. Day Gibson said the doll and its unlikely presence in East Burke has piqued her interest in the history of race relations in northern Vermont, which she believes were complex.  She said there are homes in the area that are thought to have been used to hide runaway slaves and other contraband.

She’s interested in hearing from readers who have their own stories about secret rooms or the Underground Railroad in this area.

The isolated border crossings in Essex County would have been perfect for slipping people across the border, she noted.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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