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A tribute to Fred Webster

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The Old Stone House Museum & Historic Village lost a longtime friend and ally with the passing of Coventry native Fred Webster on January 17, just 39 days short of his 100th birthday.

Fred was born on February 25, 1921, to the late Percy and Hazel (Jackman) Webster. He grew up in Coventry and attended local schools — graduating from Orleans High School and the University of Vermont, class of 1942.

Fred was a World War II veteran, having served in the U.S. Navy, behind the lines in China, during the Japanese occupation.

After World War II, Fred had a long career as an educator serving high schools in Hinesburg, Saint Albans, Hardwick, Orleans, the Lake Region school district, and in Coxsackie, New York.

Following his retirement, Fred enjoyed sharing the history of Coventry and pursuing his passion for collecting historical agricultural implements and machinery.  He was featured on the television program American Pickers and was inducted into the Vermont Agricultural Hall of Fame.

At the Old Stone House museum in Brownington, Fred served on the board of directors, was a volunteer, and acted as an invaluable resource to countless staff over many years — helping with agricultural exhibits, Old Stone House Day, Time Travelers Day Camp, the Collectors’ Fair, and the Antique Engine Show.

“He was a collector to the core,” said former Orleans County Historical Society director, Peggy Day Gibson.  “He took down a barn and moved it to his farm and kept building out from there as his collection grew. The entrance into the barn was a steep ramp covered with corrugated steel. Underneath in the barn cellar was his collection of bulkier items like manure spreaders lined up according to date, with the remaining manure and hay still in them.”

Retired education director Susannah Bowman recalls him this way:  “Oh, I certainly remember Fred — he was pretty memorable.

“During my years as education coordinator at the Old Stone House, one of my favorite projects was researching historical Vermont agricultural practices then designing education demonstrations based on what I learned. Early 19th-century Vermonters mostly came from other New England states…so their methods reflected that. But tools and methods had to be adapted to stump farming, shorter seasons, marauding moose and such.  So, I went to Fred’s collection with Rick Currier more than once to see what it could tell us.

“Hay rakes were made with local materials, harrows adapted to the smaller rougher plots of arable land, wooden spades with metal edges… Fred had them all.  And he enjoyed explaining what they were, how they worked, where he found them and frequently cautioning us not to fall through the weak spots in the labyrinth of rickety barns he built to house his amazing collection.

“Rick and I gave a few of his pieces a second life by reconstructing similar artifacts for visitors to see at the museum.  But I think the most fun I saw him have was when he came to Fall Harvest Day and got to use our own rehabilitated 19th-century fanning mill, winnowing rye grain that we grew at the museum that summer. Some of us were in 19th-century costume and Fred was grinning like one of the kids while he turned the fan crank, clouds of chaff flying hither and yon — the whole machine clanking, shaking, and rattling away. I finally had to suggest to him that students waiting in line wanted to try, too.

“So, Fred was a great resource for us. He wanted his extensive collections to remain together to illustrate the whole story of Vermont agriculture.”

“I remember both he and Bob Williams setting up farm related games for the kids on fall or spring school days,” longtime board member and Orleans County Historical Society President Courtney Mead recalled. “They would set up milk cans for the kids to pass to each other, as would have been done at a dairy plant (rolling on the bottom edge from one person to the next).  It would be boys vs. girls. He asked me at the end of the day (when I was packing up my forging equipment) if I thought it was fair that they would fill the cans that the boys had to roll partially with water, and the ones the girls used were empty!  Sly guy!

“His favorite joke was to ask the kids, ‘You want to hear a dirty story?’ (The adults would be like, ‘Oh no,’ rolling their eyes.) Of course, the kids would say, ‘Yes!’

‘Six white horses rolled in the mud. The end,’ said Fred.”

What may be the sweetest story about Mr. Webster comes from Tanya Sousa and does not have anything to do with the museum but says an awful lot about the kind of person he was.

“Mr. Webster sprinkled life lessons into his driving education with complete comfort and openness,” Ms. Sousa said. “There was a school dance coming up, and one of the girls in my class commented to a friend that she hoped a certain boy would not ask her to hit the floor because he was ‘gross.’  Mr. Webster overheard, and calmly addressed the situation.  ‘Put yourself in a boy’s place,’ he said. ‘It’s up to them most of the time to do the asking, and it takes so much courage to step out and say the words. It is crushing and embarrassing to be rejected in front of everyone. This is not marriage. This is not forever. It is just a dance.  If he is not behaving badly toward you, just say yes.  Just dance.’

“The words struck me. From that day on, even when I was out as an adult on my own, I graciously accepted when asked to dance.  As long as the person asking was behaving respectfully towards me, I danced. It was not difficult to let them know politely that it was just a dance, either.

“I recalled those nuggets of wisdom that he shared as much as the safety rules of driving well.”

We last saw Fred at the Collectors’ Fair in Newport in February of 2020, just eleven days before his 99th birthday.  He had driven himself and brought his scrap books and memoirs to share with the crowd, giving rather one-sided conversations — maybe because he could no longer hear very well or perhaps because he had so much to say.

Let’s remember Fred with these two words: just dance. — from the Old Stone House Museum.

 

 

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