TUNBRIDGE, Vt. -- Historical societies everywhere preserve what's special about their towns, but too often these stories are locked away in buildings that are seldom open. In Vermont, however, those tales are aired and swapped annually for two days --June 26 and 27 this year -- all in one place, the Vermont History Expo in Tunbridge.
I didn't know what to expect last June when I parked on a grassy meadow amid a sea of cars with green Vermont plates. Folks streaming through the gate all seemed to be chatting like long-lost cousins.
Within the fairgrounds, this spirit was infectious. Men teetered by on high-wheel bicycles and stilts. Music from the main stage mixed with the sounds of cannons, and a chamber music trio in a gazebo played to picnickers. Inside several long, barnlike exhibit halls and seemingly dozens of tents, no one was selling or even pushing anything. Everyone was talking.
''People come to Vermont to talk to people," says Addie Minott of the Guilford Historical Society, one of the 106 volunteer-run societies that will be exhibiting at Vermont History Expo 2004. True or not, probably nowhere else will flatlanders ever have the chance to talk with so many Vermonters.
Vermont history, it turns out, isn't about battles and dates but about who and what is interesting enough to remember, and to talk about. Stop by the Guilford booth, and Minott will show you pictures of the theater curtains painted for village granges and town halls all around the state by Guilford-born Charles W. Henry. Between 1895 and 1915, Henry painted 85 curtains picturing local scenes and some exotics, like the Roman Colosseum. On display will be photos of Henry's family members playing musical instruments, which they did before they put on the plays.
At the Cambridge, Vt., booth, Ronnie and Georgina Little will want to talk about Cambridge-born Lucy Wheelock, founder of Wheelock College, and about composer Myrtie Wallace and the letter in which John Philip Sousa wrote to her: ''If you spend your time writing music, you will be queen of marches and I will be king."
At the Glover booth, Elizabeth Day will describe what happens each summer on the hill behind her house. Between 1798 and 1850, this was the Parker Settlement. Now it's just 20 cellar holes in which budding Glover archeologists have unearthed a number of artifacts, including a genuine clay pipe or two. Campers and coordinators will want you to start a similar project in your town.
''You have to poke your way around and skip the things you're not interested in," cautions veteran expo-goer Tina Wood of Weathersfield. There are so many exhibits, Wood says, that this year, 28 historical societies will gather together in Memorial Arena, exhibiting under the seemingly un-Vermont theme of ''Extractive Industries." The most elaborate exhibits will be about granite and marble, but Weathersfield will be showing off its limestone kilns, and at the Gaysville/Stockbridge booth, children will pan for gold. A number of historical societies will describe their copper mines, and former miners from Strafford will be there. Vermont's last copper mines closed in 1958.
Strafford also happens to have one of Vermont's most photographed commons, site of the Justin Morrill Homestead, one of the state's premier historic sites -- which at this expo will be represented by croquet players in 1870s dress. Anyone can join the game, as long as they observe the 19th-century rules. (Morrill Homestead's annual croquet tournament is July 18 this year.)
The many historically correct games to choose from include ''Kitty Kitty Corner," beanbags, stilts, and hopscotch as well as a treasure hunt. Children of all ages will also want to head for the Heritage Animal Barn with its historically correct livestock, the kind raised by Vermont's settlers.
Many of the 30 history-related Vermont museums plan hands-on displays and the Civil War Hemlocks, along with the women of the Comtu Falls United States Sanitary Commission (precursor of the Red Cross) who assisted at their encampment, are a talkative as well as noisy lot ( cannons are fired off at regular intervals). There are presentations on a variety of topics, including Vermont's African-American soldiers in the Civil War, and genealogy searches, with specialists standing by on computers, are ongoing. Main Stage performances, meanwhile, will range from the W'Abenaki Dancers to the 30-female-voice Barre-Tones.
Special events vary from day to day as well as hour to hour, a reason to come both Saturday and Sunday. Anyone in period dress is welcome to march in the big Expo-on-Parade Saturday at 1 p.m., and on Saturday experts will appraise your attic treasures 11 a.m.-3 p.m. On Sunday, you can share box lunches with prominent Vermonters like artist Mary Azarian, filmmaker Jay Craven, and state governors past and present.
It's difficult to believe that less than a decade ago, Vermont historical societies seemed content to limit their publicity to the hours and contact numbers posted on their doors.
''A group in central Vermont asked our help in raising their visibility in 1998 and, luckily, at the same time, Cabot Creamery was looking for an appropriate way to celebrate their 80th anniversary" recalls Martha Nye, development director of the Vermont Historical Society. In 1999, Cabot sponsored a Vermont Historical Weekend during which 38 local societies and the state historical museum held open houses. Visitors navigated between them using a booklet, ''Passport to Vermont History."
''It was an enormous success, much bigger than we'd bargained for," recalls Sandy Levesque, who was hired to orchestrate the weekend. ''Some 9,000 people turned out."
Afterward, however, criticisms poured in. Volunteers at the museums involved complained they didn't get a chance to visit other museums, visitors grumbled that they spent too much time traveling among the museums, and historical societies throughout the state fumed that they hadn't been included.
''So we decided to centralize the event and invite all the societies to exhibit in Tunbridge," says Levesque, who continues to direct the expo. Tunbridge is an obvious venue. Two hours from every corner of the state, with a 20-acre fairgrounds cupped in a natural bowl and a bend in a river, it is ringed by hills. Moreover, nearly every building in the village is on the National Register of Historic Places.
In the last five years as the expo has grown, so have Vermont's historical societies, from 170 to 184, not bad for a state with just 251 cities and towns. The Vermont Historical Society itself is also on a roll. Last year the society moved its offices and library into a splendidly renovated 1891 building in Barre, designed by Lambert Packard, one of Vermont's foremost architects. In March, a vastly expanded and far livelier state history museum replaced former exhibits in Montpelier's reconstructed Pavilion Hotel.
Most small rural historical societies are run by volunteers and are open relatively rarely, usually on summer Sundays. Now, however, they are all listed in the free ''Passport to Vermont History," updated annually for the expo. You can pick up a passport anytime, but only at the expo will you discover reasons to go places you never knew existed and, after the expo, once you get there, you'll have friends.
Christina Tree is a freelance writer in Cambridge. She is co-author with Sally Johnson West of ''Vermont, An Explorer's Guide" (Countryman Press).