St. Johnsbury, Vermont

St_Johnsbury_Welcome_SignA few weeks ago, driving up to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont to attend a wedding, we stopped in St. Johnsbury and enjoyed not only a great lunch but also two marvelous historic attractions.

To appreciate these attractions in their proper place, however, we need to go back to 1823, when a man named Thaddeus Fairbanks built a foundry in the city and began turning out cast iron plows and stoves.

Business was good, and Thaddeus was soon joined by his older brother Erastus.

But Thaddeus had a restless mind, and before long the company had expanded to include a hemp growing enterprise. And it was in that business, while weighing bales of hemp, that Thaddeus saw the need for an improved scale.

So he devised and built one, more accurate than any made before. Going one step further, he made a scale that sat at ground level over a pit, thus eliminating the step of lifting heavy goods.

Thaddeus patented his improvements and before long the scale business had outstripped the other Fairbanks businesses. Younger brother John joined the company. Orders started coming in from all over the country—and then from all over the world!

Eventually, Fairbanks was the biggest employer in the state.

And when the Civil War started, Fairbanks Scales were the best-known American product in the world.

Two years after the war ended, the company was manufacturing 4,000 scales a month. And by 1880, the company was making an astounding 80,000 scales per month.

But the Fairbanks family, at one point the wealthiest family in Vermont, couldn’t hold on to its company!

In 1916, the company was sold to Charles Hosmer Morse, an employee who had been born in St. Johnsbury and worked his way up.

Renamed Fairbanks-Morse Scale Company, the company has survived to this day, though along the way there have been more mergers, divisions, spin-offs and buyouts than you can shake a stick at.

Today, Fairbanks Scales is headquartered in Kansas City, and it still makes a wide variety of scales, including animal scales, bench scales, floor scales, forklift scales, health sales, parcel scales and railroad scales.

Also, the company still has a modest operation in St. Johnsbury.

But there are three other big reasons to remember the Fairbanks family in St. Johnsbury today.

The first is Fairbanks Academy, a school that was founded by the three brothers, in part so that their own children would be well educated. Today the school has 930 students in grades 9-12.

The second is the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, which was founded in 1871 by Horace Fairbanks, son of Erastus. Horace was elected governor of Vermont in 1876 and served one term, but his greatest legacy is the beautiful Athenaeum, shown in this photo from 1906.

athenaeumInitially stocked with 9,000 books, the Athenaeum added an art gallery in 1873, which was dominated by a canvas, ten by fifteen feet, of “The Domes of Yosemite”, by Albert Bierstadt. It’s an impressive painting up close, with an impressive history as well.

NYC financier (once treasurer of the New York Stock Exchange) and railroad tycoon LeGrand Lockwood commissioned the painting by Bierstadt in 1867, paying an astronomical $25,000 for it (roughly $410 million today). In 1869, however, Lockwood’s fortunes were devastated by the collapse of gold prices, and after his death in 1872, the painting sold at auction for just $5,100.

It was then bought by Horace Fairbanks, who made the painting the star attraction of the Athenaeum’s addition. Illuminated by natural light from the overhead skylights, and surrounded by custom-built oak paneling, today it’s simply magnificent.

Respecting the Athenaeum’s rule that digital copying is not allowed with permission, I’ve refrained from including it here.

But you can see it there.

Technically a private library, the Athenaeum gets an annual appropriation from the town and serves as the public library of St. Johnsbury. If you’re in the neighborhood, I recommend a visit.

The third reason to remember the Fairbanks family is the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium, which was founded in 1889 by Horace’s brother, Franklin Fairbanks.

fairbanks-museumFranklin’s greatest passion was natural history, and his museum is chock full of the flora and fauna and curiosities that Americans of a century ago flocked to see—and some still do. Attractions include bird trees (with stuffed birds wired onto the branches) numerous mammals (including a musk ox and a polar bear), miscellaneous swords, a Samurai warrior, curiosities from the South Seas and—most fascinating to me—the bug art of John Hampson.

Born in England in 1836, Hampson emigrated to America and settled in Newark, New Jersey. He once worked for Thomas Edison. But he’s famous—or at least notable—for collecting thousands of common insects, butterflies and moths and arranging them into two-dimensional works of art.

john-hampson-artEach work contains between 6,000 and 13,000 bugs, and each took from three to four years to complete. Hampson completed nine in all. His daughter inherited the collection, and when her estate tried to sell them, the only museum interested was the Fairbanks.

john hampson bug artA bit creepy for some viewers, but memorable!

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