By: Andrew Baughn
It is truly amazing how the Vail Museum on the Lyndon State College campus contains so many original artifacts from the original building, Vail Manor. Leave it to Theodore Vail to not only be the first president of AT&T and turn the telephone into to a successful business, but to also turn a simple farmhouse into a huge Mansion to soon house students of Lyndon State College.
Recently a new addition was added to the museum collection as the railings from T.N Vail’s personal library, which was located in the North Tower of Vail Mansion. The Manor Vail Society installed the railings and the exhibit will open September 27th and remain on display through the end of August 2015.
Reporter Julie Kelly and Photographer Darin Boutet from WCAX Channel 3 News in Burlington interviewed Lyndon Alumni Shirley Jenks Kent ’56 and Michael Thurston ‘74 for a television broadcast produced by the University of Vermont’s Extension Service. The episode aired on WCAX Channel 3 September 22nd at 12:15p.m.
After the Channel 3 was done, I was able to sit down with Thurston who is a member of the Manor Vail Society and not only talked about the new exhibit but shared information about the museum and about what life was like as a student in the manor.
“I’m a member of the Vail manor society and I am also a committee member, which is like a board of directors,” says Thurston.
Q: “How often do you guys meet?”
“We meet once a month.”
Q: “Can you explain this Across the Fence thing a little more?
“Sure um, two years ago two members of our committee went on Across the Fence which is the UVM extension service communities broadcast which is broadcasted by WCAX TV channel 3 in Burlington and we went on as we were in the run up to the opening of this museum, the Vail museum, and we wanted to promote it, to let people know it was happening. The other thing that we did while we were on the broadcast, and the two people that were on the broadcast were Dick Collins, class of ’53, and Joyce Selby Jacobs, I believe she is the class of ‘55, and they were guests on the show that day and part of what they did was out reach, looking for artifacts, looking for documents or whatever viewers might have to get in touch with the college. And there was a architectural salvage guy in east Corinth Vermont and he has got a business called Tiltons Trading Company and he was watching Across the Fence and thought he had just purchased some artifacts from agricultural salvage that might possibly be from Vail Mansion in Lyndonville a month or so before. And so he called the Alumni Office and got a hold of Hannah Manley and then got a hold of us, the committee, and we sent someone over to his place of business and examined the railings sure enough there were the balcony railings from the north tower lobby library from Vail mansion, the original Vail mansion. So we took a vote, negotiated a deal, bought the railings and they have been in storage ever since, and we have installed small portion of those railings in the museum for this years homecoming. That exhibit officially opens Saturday the 27th.”
Q: How old would you say those railings are?
“The tower was built in 1900 to 1901 and those railings, the story that I have heard and I can’t verify this but those railings were made off premises in a woodworking shop on Lebanon, New Hampshire, and then brought to the mansion, and then installed. So it would have been at the end of the construction process, because the finished work is the last thing you do, so I would say roughly 1901 so they are 113 years old. In the museum right now, most of the wood work, any place you see wood work, it is from the mansion. Most of this wood work is from the main lobby. This was in the main lobby of the mansion, the ceiling and the wall panels. If you look at it carefully you will see that it isn’t all original we had to use cleats to counsel scenes and things like that. Professor Darrel Castillo, he was the guy who started the campaign to save a lot of this stuff at a time when it was just going to be given away or thrown away or sold. If it wasn’t for Darrel Castillo there are a lot of things that we wouldn’t have, I don’t think we would have the chairs, I don’t think we would have Vail’s trophy case.”
Q: I understand the manor was destroyed due to safety violations?
“Well really, I think it was cost. It came down to money and just bad timing and the bad timing is the first oil, gas and energy crisis which was in the mid 70’s. People were cruising around with extra cans of gas in the trunk of their car because they were not sure when they would stop and there wouldn’t be a gas station around. And Americans weren’t just used to that and everyone panicked, including the state that looked at this old building which obviously needed some restitution and retooling. And all the students mostly saw was this beautiful building. But what the state saw was a beautiful building, but also a money pit, it was just going to cost so much money to renovate it, and so much money to heat it, so much money to bring it up to the codes. A lot of building codes were just coming into play and the whole rest of the mansion would have to be retooled to accommodate the codes and it would cost a lot of money. Finally it was decided it would just be cheaper to tear it all down and start again. It is really unfortunate. There was even a group of us that really lobbied hard to save a portion of the mansion. And of course the element that we really wanted to save more than ever was the towers because the towers were signature and here we are 40 years after those towers came down and you look at the alumni magazine it is called Twin Tower Topics. So even the college admits those towers were the iconic symbol of the college. So we fought to the nail to try and get them to integrate the towers into the new building and they didn’t hear us.”
Q; I know that the Alumni House is the only remaining piece of original building from around the time when the manor was around, what was that originally, was it always the alumni house?
“When I went to school here it was the infirmary, if you got sick that’s where you would go.”
Q: What about the original Alumni House?
“There is a restoration plan in the books to restore what was the Alumni House and I don’t know if that will succeed because we are in a tight budget climate today, as we were 40 years ago. But I think maybe we learned something 40 years ago and that being pretty much the only original building from the Vail estate.”
Q: “Any memories you can share about your time at Lyndon as a student?”
“I was Program Director, Music Director, and General Manager of the college radio station, it wasn’t WWLR in those days it was WVM. It was a big room over what was called Bole Hall, at the time which was a small theater and in one end of the hall there was a separate room with access to the upper floors, and the room had a pool table which, was also called the game room, and the other room above it was the room with all the radio transmitters, and the room above it we called the Crows Nest, which was the actual studio, where we did the broadcasts. I spent hours and hours in this part of the mansion at the beginning of my broadcast career. When I left the college I had a friend who was heavily involved in the radio station at that next few years I came back a couple of times and helped him do some fundraising and that was when it became WWLR, an open air broadcast FM station.”
Q: What about the Meteorology Major, what was that like in the manor days?”
“Meteorology was brand new and it actually wasn’t part of Lyndon, when I was a sophomore there was a college in Center Harbor, New Hampshire called Belknap College, and it was going belly up and failing and then Lyndon decided to adopt that school and buy out whatever was left. And the students all came from NH to Lyndon and became Lyndon college students of meteorology. So the meteorology department was imported from Center Harbor, New Hampshire. Part of that class was Altitude Lou, or Lou McNally, who was a meteorologist and he broadcasted from many places including from Mount Washington and he was known through the northeast kingdom.”
If you have ever read Cujo, by Stephen King, one of the characters in Cujo is cruising up the interstate on his way home from home coming from the airport in Boston and it is the husband who comes home to find his wife, kid and dog all in trouble, he is listening to Altitude Lou on the Radio.