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NEK Town Of Brownington Becoming An Unlikely Melting Pot

Charlotte Albright
The Old Stone House Museum in Brownington was once a dormitory for the grammar school built by its African American principal, Alexander Twilight. Today it hosts cultural events; at the other end of the village, Amish families are starting to arrive.

There’s a lot going on this month in the Orleans County town of Brownington. Cultural events abound at the the Old Stone House Museum, the historic home of first African-American to graduate from college.

At the other end of the village, Amish families are starting to move from Pennsylvania into this unlikely melting pot in the Northeast Kingdom.

Alexander Twilight, a biracial Middlebury graduate, was a 19th-century minister, state legislator and the principal of the Orleans Grammar School. Because some children came from distant towns, he built a granite dormitory and a gracious home now called the Old Stone House Museum. Director Peggy Day Gibson has scheduled a slew of summer activities here, from basket making classes to poetry readings.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
Peggy Day Gibson, director of the Old Stone House Museum, and Lisa von Kann, founder of the Back Roads Readings series, are bringing many arts events and craft workshops to the historic site in Brownington this summer.

“And we put forth an alternative to classroom education now. We have a lot of opportunity for hands-on activities, local crafts and artisan skills and it’s fun,” Gibson said.

On July 12, two well-known poets, Baron Wormser and Jane Shore, will read from their work at the Brownington Congregational Church, near the Museum. They’re part of a series launched by former St. Johnsbury Athenaeum librarian Lisa von Kann. She calls it Back Road Readings because she loves traveling through the countryside to hear writers’ voices in an historic, beautiful old building.

“That experience kind of bypasses the intellect and kind of goes heart to heart. The power of language, the power of words, and I think it fits really well, sits really well, into this Old Stone House Museum and Historical Society setting," said von Kann.

And the museum fits just as well in its storied, pastoral neighborhood. Down the road from Alexander Twilight lived another famous educator, Samuel Read Hall, whose elegant mansion has also been preserved. Brownington, once prosperous, is now one of the poorest towns in Orleans County, but Museum Director Gibson says that’s been a blessing for local history.

“You know, poverty is the friend of preservation. People don’t have money to come and remodel all these houses and they leave them the way they usually were. And if the structure is solid it can be restored,” she explained.

Credit Charlotte Albright / VPR
A treadmill by which horses or goats supplied power before the age of electricity is on display at the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington. Not far away, Amish farming families are moving into town, and they too prefer animal power over electric or gas motors.

As you weave your way through tree-lined dirt roads, you almost expect to see a horse and buggy. These days, you just might: three Amish families have bought land in Brownington and more are expected to follow.

I spoke with a bonneted, long-skirted matriach at the farm her family, the Kauffmans, have recently bought. In line with Amish practice, she declined to be recorded or photographed. She said they drive only a horse and buggy and stitch their own clothing from pedal-operated machines. They will farm with animals and raise beef cattle.

Good news, said Old Stone House Museum Director Peggy Gibson.

“We’re always trying to attract animals here, working with equipment, doing things the old-fashioned way. So it’s just really nice to know that they will be doing that in the neighborhood just for their own livelihood.”

And the Amish newcomers, she hopes, will be as welcome in this town as the African-American schoolmaster who set down roots here almost 200 years ago.

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