Historian Ginger Gellman: Mining the Archives of Vermont's Ever-Surprising Past
Here's a Trivial Pursuit question: when did we declare war on the Axis powers in World War II? The answer would be December 7, 1941, right? Well...yes and no. History tells us that the State of Vermont declared war on September 14, 1941 -- nearly three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. "And it came about," Time Magazine rather cattily noted, "because Vermonters like to be sure they are going to get paid for their services."
Earlier that year, the Legislature had passed a law requiring that Vermonters in the military be given a $10 monthly bonus while at war. State Representative (and WWI veteran) Donald Norton argued that a state of war already existed between the United States and Germany. His colleagues in the House and Senate agreed.
Governor William Willis proclaimed himself "stumped" but signed the bill anyway, people snickered about the "London-Moscow-Montpelier" axis, and 5,990 active-duty Vermonters got a nice little check from the state, three months before the war actually began.
This was just one of the intriguing facts Jerico author and historian Ginger Gellman uncovered while putting together "Historic Photos of Vermont," released by Turner Publishing Company earlier this year. Through more than 100 photographs, she traces the journey of the state from the early days of the Civil War to the 1970s.
Gellman's personal journey hasn't taken quite long as the one she documents in the book, but has been an interesting ride nonetheless. A native New Englander, her life took her to the other side of the continent and back, and has evinced a wonderful determination to find a true passion in life: history.
She grew up in southern Maine where, she recalls, "everything we did involved using all that land we had at our mercy: capture-the-flag games that covered 30 acres of land; skating on the big puddle where the drainage system spilled out; sledding down our driveway; playing baseball and kickball in the street; rolling Matchbox cars through tunnels we'd dug with our hands in the sand-filled center of our cul-de-sac."
She left New England at age 17 to attend Princeton University, graduating in 1993 with a BA in experimental psychology. Although she loved psychology "I had no desire to use [my degree] as a counselor, and I had no desire to go to grad school to work on the long, drawn-out experiments that seem to come with the experimental field."
Instead, she accepted an offer from the J. Walter Thomson advertising company to come to work for them in New York. Having considered herself something of a country girl, she was eager to try living in the city, and "living in New York City in my early 20s was an incredible experience. I wouldn't give it up for anything." Later, she spent six years with JWT in San Francisco.
But after a decade in the field she had "never really been in love with," she cut back her work-week and spent the extra time exploring other career paths "including," she says "massage school, a wedding cake business, and food styling!" When the dot-com bubble burst in the late '90s she decided to pack her bags and come back East.
Vermont was a chance ending point -- what was left when Gellman considered the other New England states. "Maine was where I'd grown up, [there are] no major cities in New Hampshire, Massachusetts equals Boston; Connecticut equals New York." She settled in Burlington in the summer of 2001 and began taking on freelance work.
Over the next four years, she continued her "search for a passion" worked at a non-profit-run carpentry-themed summer camps for girls [and] as a bread baker at O Bread on Shelburne Farms.Finally, she pursued two interests that chrystalized her fascination with history: she considered applying for the historic preservation program at UVM and took classes in graphic design at Champlain College.
As she reviewed the application for the UVA program, she realized that "I wanted to know about the people who lived in the buildings, not so much the buildings themselves. I wanted to know the stories." Then there was a history of graphic design course where she had to create the text and design for a book on a historical figure in the field. "When I finished the project I realized I'd been much more energized about doing the research and writing the paper than coming up with a graphic look for the book."
Gellman says that recent events, especially our entry in war in Iraq in 2003, also shaped her desire to learn more about history and "to find a better context for our present time. Had we gone through things like this before? How was our present the same or different?"
Gellman entered the graduate program at UVM in 2005. "If I could be a student forever, I would!" she says. "Partly because I connected with the discipline of history later in life, I didn't have a lot of background and had a lot to learn. I took classes that were all over the map: foreign relations history, history of slavery, social history of religion, 19th and 20th Century India, Colonial America..." Colonial history and the vibrant era known as the Early Republic (roughly 1780-1830) became her main focus, and she developed a "particularly soft spot" for local history.
Her graduate advisor, Dr. Jacqueline Carr, offered her what was an invaluable observation. "You're interested in beginnings," Carr said. Gellmen realized this fit well with her sense that history is more than a recitation of dry facts. It can also be a spiritual journey, as she puts it, asking the thorniest of philosophical questions: How did we get as we are?
Gellman's thesis focused on the social history of Burlington from 1790-1810 and "it felt incredibly fun to go to [the] Fletcher Free Library and read through the minutes of town meetings," she recalls, noting that there are always mysteries in this kind of research, like "who [was] Peter the Frenchman and why [were] he and his family "warned out" of town so many times." She also enjoyed the moment where the past and the present came together. After tracking the professional life of a sign-painter named John Storrs, she went to visit his gravestone in the cemetery on Elmwood Avenue.
After graduating in 2007, she went to work at the Burnham Library in Colchester, where she handles graphic work and publicity. "The community is interested and engaged, the space is gorgeous, and the staff is a lot of fun," she says. "I really enjoy serving that community."
Recently, she's taken on more writing. She co-authored a chapter with local archaeologist and historian Scott A McLaughlin for "Lake Champlain: An Illustrated History," published by ECHO and Adirondack Life this spring for the quadricentennial. And through an ad on Craigslist, she found Turner Publishing, which has been putting out photo-rich local and regional histories since 1984.
Usually, Turner provides a set of 150-200 digital photographs from a variety of archives, but because they were having trouble finding material "I was in the happy position of getting to select nearly three-fourths of the photos myself." She only had about a month to find the photos and write the captioning, meaning many long and happy hours in Special Collections at UVM's Bailey-Howe Library and the State Archives in Montpelier. With the help of the Vermont Historical Society, she put out a call for photos to historical societies around the state, yielding submissions from well over a dozen sources. "If I'd had my druthers, I would have done the whole book that way: asking local historical societies to send their best unpublished pictures for the book."
It was through these photos she learned of the "London-Moscow-Montpelier axis" and that Montpelier was only the third location in the U.S. to initiate a Shriners Temple. Others offered clues of stories yet to be told. "[I] found a photo of a woman, a seamstress, in front of her storefront in...I think it was Barre. I still want to know more about her."
Wherever her history takes her next, the past will continue to inform her present. She notes that visual reminders are all around us, in the architecture and layout of our communities, the stone walls in our fields, as much as in the treasures of our museums. "When I drove my car back into New England after six years in California, I felt a sense of recognition at the landscape, the trees, the buildings," she says. "In some sense, the things that make New England are 'home' to me -- including the history of this place."
Originally published in Vermont Woman, October 2009, p 27