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Historic Heroes On Display At The Justin Morrill Homestead

Visitors to the Justin Smith Morrill Homestead in Strafford are getting a rare chance to see American icons normally found only in the National Capitol. Morrill was the U.S. Senator famous for the legislation launching land grant colleges. He’s less well-known for another accomplishment: creating Statuary Hall, where each state is represented by two statues.

At the Morrill Homestead, photographs of the statesmen—and a few women—are displayed in an eye-catching way.

Justin Morrill’s legislation creating Statuary Hall was signed by Lincoln on July 2, 1864. The south had seceded from the union, and peace was still a year away. Don Kennon, Chief Historian of the United States Capitol, says Morrill wanted to carve out lasting unity from chaos and carnage.

“Remember he’s doing this during the Civil War and the nation is fractured, you know brother fighting brother, but he sees Statuary Hall as something, after the war it’s going to unite the nation by each state being able to select two statues of their leading citizens,” Kennon said.

Statuary Hall is one of the most popular stop on the Washington D.C. tourist trail. But this summer, it’s the statues—as photographs—that are doing the traveling.  Laura Trieschmann is Vermont’s Historic Preservation Officer.

“It really allows people who don’t get to Washington to come and see what the inside of the U.S. Capitol looks like, and it’s really a rare and special opportunity to do that,” Trieschmann said.

Michael Caduto, Executive Director of the Friends of the Justin Morrill Homestead, has created an appealing photo gallery in the education center—a former horse barn—but he’s also done something more unpredictable.

Cardboard cutouts of a couple of statues, nearly life-sized, casually stand around the barn, as if to greet visitors.

“And then you turn and there’s Rosa Parks seated looking quite defiant as she might have on the bus when she wouldn’t give up her seat and just behind her as if supporting her or putting her forward is Abraham Lincoln with his hand out towards her in a gesture of some connection,” Caduto said, leading visitors to the back of the barn.

Around the corner, Vermont’s cardboard luminary wears clothes he might not really have chosen if he really were spending the summer in his Green Mountains.

“So what we’re looking at right now is Ethan Allen full size, maybe slightly less than life size, standing on his plinth, looking magisterial with his epaulets and frilly lace on the front of his outfit,” Caduto said.

He smiled.

“I’m not sure how he would feel given his reputation as a fighter being represented permanently this way in Washington.”

The other statue Vermont sent to Statuary Hall in the nineteenth century is not quite such a household name, so he doesn’t appear as a cardboard hero in Strafford. Capitol Historian Don Kennon has to check his files for information about the conservative, anti-slavery statesman named Jacob Collamer.

“I don’t know a great deal about him, I’m not a Vermonter. But he was a colleague at one point in the Senate of Justin Morrill,” Kennon said.

And he was apparently well-known at the time. But now? Some states do replace figures that have lost their charisma. For example, Alabama replaced a native son named Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry, an officer in the Confederate Army, with Helen Keller.

The statuary exhibit runs through October 13, and  it isn’t the only reason to stop by this landmark off the beaten track. The picturesque rose-colored cottage is furnished pretty much as Morrill and his wife left it, with ingenious kitchen inventions and a lush garden.