Not Just History: Old Stone House Museum Renews Broad Education Focus

May 10, 2018

Next week the Old Stone House Museum, in Brownington, opens for the season. And the Orleans County Historical Society’s museum has a pair of new leaders with some big ideas for the popular school field trip destination.

The Old Stone House Museum has been a Northeast Kingdom destination for a very long time. The four-story granite block building was constructed in 1836 by Alexander Twilight to serve as a dormitory for the Orleans County Grammar School, where he was principal. It opened as a museum in 1925.

"The Civil and Natural History Museum was the original organization, which then changed its name to the Orleans County Historical Society," explained Walter Parenteau, the museum's deputy director. "So before it was a historical society it had a much broader range of purpose which included geology and natural history and sort of like earth sciences and I think all kinds of society concerns, with the name 'civil' in there.

"And I think that in a way, that in the coming years, we’ll be moving a little bit more in that direction as we increase, like, children’s programing and that kind of stuff. We’ll actually be re-embracing the past that, at some point they kind of just shifted into history mode."

Tours of the Old Stone House start in the kitchen, where Alexander Twilight's wife Mercy used this hearth to cook meals for Orleans County Grammar School boarding students.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Parenteau and Molly Veysey, the museum's director, were hired to run the Old Stone House Museum last fall, after it closed for the season. Veysey added that the expanded focus involves partnering with other NEK organizations.

"We’re trying to do some collaborations with places like Northwoods Stewardship Center, Siskin Ecological Outdoor Adventures and Fairbanks Museum – collaborate with our other nonprofits in the area which are really heavily focused on outdoor adventure and outdoor activity," Veysey said. "And trying to bring us all together, and working as a unit, is much more effective than standing alone."

Today the museum is much more than the old stone dormitory. There are 60 acres of hilltop pasture, gardens, historic homes, barns, a blacksmithing forge and other structures – all nestled along a maple-lined dirt road.

The museum property spans both sides of this country road, in Brownington.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

In their six months on the job, Veysey and Parenteau have been spending time learning about the organization’s past and planning for its future. It will be a big day for them when it opens back up to the public on Wednesday, May 16.

"I think it could be a really exciting time for the museum," said Veysey. "It has so much inherent potential, and it’s undeniable when you drive in. It’s just magnificent, and it feels like you’re driving back in time."

Due to its past life as a dormitory, the Old Stone House has many small rooms, each with a different theme. This room is dedicated to the museum's antique toy collection.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

It’s fitting that the museum’s future should feature educational collaborations, since its primary buildings were originally part of a school campus.

According to legend, Alexander Twilight built the four-story granite block dormitory by himself, along with a single ox. When he finished with the fourth floor he had to kill the ox, Veysey said, "because he couldn't get it back down."

While that legend can’t be verified, the documented accomplishments of Twilight are perhaps even more impressive.

When he graduated from Middlebury College in 1823, he became the first African-American to earn a college degree. He worked as both a pastor and an educator, before also becoming a lawmaker. In 1836, Twilight was the first African-American to be elected as a state legislator, as well as the only African-American to be elected to a state legislature before the Civil War.

As the Orleans County Historical Society carries on Twilight’s legacy, the buildings he constructed will continue to be houses of learning for years to come.