“Steve, we’re essentially at your home base this week,” Mike Hoey said. “So what brings us here?”
“We are, Mike; we haven’t really talked about our building,” Vermont Historical Society executive director Steve Perkins said. “Maybe because I work here all the time, I just take it for (granted) — but (it) obviously (was) not built as a history center. Let’s talk a little bit about its history. We’ll go inside, where it’s a little bit warmer, and I’ll show you some beautiful pictures.
“This was originally the school for the City of Barre. It was built in 1890, but just to back up again and think about the City of Barre — it was a very cosmopolitan place. Of course, as the granite industry boomed, the rail (lines) linked that to the rest of the world. Immigration to this part of Vermont really kind of exploded — and from a diversity standpoint, many different languages being spoken in the city, lots of families, and lots of kids needing an education.
“So, they had what was called the Barre Academy, which was roughly on this site, a private school, and also the Goddard Seminary, which was where the Barre (Municipal) Auditorium is now — but quickly found that they needed something bigger.
“They knocked down the Barre Academy and built what we have here — or, the first half of this. It was called the (Spaulding) Graded School, and it was meant to serve all of the students of Barre. When it was put in, it was so very modern that they had a very modern heating system. It burned…human waste.”
Hoey interjected, “Aha!”
“It took the human waste from the students who were going to school here and burned it in an incinerator to then run the boilers to heat the building,” Perkins noted.
“Compost, let’s call it,” Hoey said. “A genteel fashion.”
“Well, the neighbors didn’t particularly care for the smells emanating from the smokestack,” Perkins continued.
“Gee, I can’t imagine why,” Hoey said sarcastically.
“So it was turned over to coal pretty quickly,” Perkins observed. “It just grew and grew and grew, and by 1900, they’re like, ‘oh, no! We need to add more!’. And by 1904, they had added another whole wing to the building because it was growing so much. It ultimately became just a high school. Many, many people called this their school. It served as a high school until 1964, and then it served as a middle school until 1995.
“The Vermont Historical Society took it over, and we did a full restoration of the building, millions of dollars later, to turn it into the Vermont History Center. Some of the features of this building that were kept intact is all this wood paneling you’ll see.
“If you look closely, you can still see where kids put their names on it. You can see where book bags were hung. But it’s made out of American chestnut, a tree that you really can’t even find anymore because of chestnut blight.”
“The grand nature of the staircases within the building is really a sight to behold,” Hoey said. “As someone that grew up attending, for a couple of years, an elementary school in western Massachusetts in a building very much like this one, they certainly strike a familiar note for me.”
“Yes, and they’re beautiful and they’re grand — but if you think about access, that’s really difficult,” Perkins said. “We’ve got this big building; we had to put in an elevator that stops seven times to only go up three floors. We did receive some Congressionally-designated funds to do what’s called an open-storage installation. A lot of the artifacts that I often bring you down to see, Mike, in our climate-controlled vaults — we’ll be able to get them right here on the first floor.”
“Looking forward to seeing quite a few of these things, right out here before us where we are right now,” Hoey said. “Sometime in the near future.”
“Absolutely,” Perkins concluded. “Hopefully, in the next year or so.”