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Grant to fund in-depth exploration of Champlain Valley history in the 17th and 18th centuries

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By ANDY KIRKALDY

ADDISON – A $250,000 grant given to the Chimney Point State Historic Site in Addison, the Bixby Free Memorial Library in Vergennes, Vermont Public Television and the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation will fund a major archaeological effort along Lake Champlain, an hour-long documentary, new exhibits for the Bixby and Chimney Point, and a program that local teachers can take into their classrooms.

The grant will fund an in-depth exploration of Champlain Valley history in the 17th and 18th centuries as part of a regional effort to celebrate the 400th anniversary of French explorer Samuel de Champlain’s visit in 1609 to the lake that now bears his name. He was the first European to visit Lake Champlain.

The grant was jointly awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The Vermont project received one of only 13 grants the IMLS and CPB awarded from among 68 applicants, and was one of four given the maximum $250,000, according to state preservation officials.

Chimney Point site administrator Elsa Gilbertson said the two-year local project, dubbed “Lake Champlain Voyages of Discovery: Bringing History Home,” will focus on Native American and French settlement at a crucial time in international history, when Lake Champlain became a flashpoint in the worldwide conflict between the French and English.

Gilbertson said Lake Champlain both provided a vital transportation link between European colonies in what are now Canada and the United States and played a central role in the lives of the area’s original inhabitants.

“Sometimes we think the history of this area really beings with the American Revolution, but this program is also intended to show Native Americans were here for thousands and thousands of years,” she said. “There was an amazing amount of human activity here before the Revolution.”

Bixby Librarian Rachel Plant, who will handle the project’s public relations and work with Gilbertson on it, said she hopes the effort will give the library a chance to publicize and preserve the wealth of historical materials the library possesses.

Plant, who worked with Gilbertson on the grant application, believes the library will have a chance to expand the historical part of its mission, both through a funding boost the effort should give the Bixby and through the contacts she and the library staff will develop with historians.

“It’s just straight across the board so many wonderful opportunities for us and the citizens of Vergennes,” she said. “It’s opening up a gateway for us … once these relationships are set in motion.”

BIG DIG

Gilbertson said about half the grant money will be used for an archaeological study of lakefront from Panton to Bridport, the first area in the Champlain Valley settled by the French in the 18th century. Chimney Point, roughly at the midpoint of the settlement, earned its name because when the English finally drove out the French the departing inhabitants burned their homes, leaving only the stone chimneys behind.

Gilbertson said property owners along Lake Champlain will be asked to allow experts to examine and map cellar holes and depressions that now mark where French homes once stood.

Volunteers will also take a fine-tooth comb to the D.A.R. State Park in Addison, which is known to have been the site of French homes.

Although many areas have been studied under the Vermont law that requires developers to fund archaeological digs on their property, Gilbertson said such larger investigations are rare.

“This is the first big project in a long time where it’s more proactive and systematic,” she said.

Materials and information created from the archaeological effort will be developed for classroom use, along with Bixby materials, and kept at the library.

MEDIA MESSAGES

The grant will also fund an hour-long documentary on Lake Champlain history to be produced by filmmaker Caro Thompson and her company, Broadwing Productions, and Vermont Public Television. A state press release said the film, “will encompass the region’s indigenous Iroquois and Abenaki cultures, Samuel de Champlain and early French settlers, and later immigrants from Britain and elsewhere.”

A shorter version of the film, scheduled for completion in 2008, will be used at the Chimney Point museum to introduce visitors to that era in regional history, joining a planned exhibit there based on the archaeological effort. 

The film will be broadcast on Vermont Public Television, and could also gain a much wider audience: Gilbertson said it will be offered to other institutions and public television stations.

Also planned is an interactive Web site the press release said will offer a “virtual experience of the archaeological investigations and other historic places from the time.” The Bixby will get a new computer to allow that site to be displayed there.

Plant said the library and its staff will also create the “outreach kit” that will be offered to teachers and families, host programs related to the effort, and work with the film crew, including providing historical materials.

LASTING IMPACT?

Plant said she hopes the effort will allow the Bixby to better handle what she said is a treasure trove of materials, including, for example, all the company papers from the Monkton Ironworks, a key firm in the shipbuilding effort that gave Vergennes a major role in the Revolution and the War of 1812.

That work will in turn enhance what the library can offer its host communities, she said.

“There’s so much in that history room. It’s such a collection, and we could do better by it.” Plant said. “It’s a mining expedition in some ways. We find nuggets of information, and we don’t know how important they are until they can be seen by the experts in the field … and then we can get the trickle-down effect.”

Gilbertson said historically that it is “just amazing what went on here in our own back yard that ended up having international repercussions,” and that once the project is complete and that history is better known that the Chimney Point site can get a similar boost through the grant.

The larger goal of the effort ties in with the regional mission of the 2009 celebration of de Champlain’s visit to the area; Vermont, New York and Quebec are all focusing on that quadricentennial.

“This is supposed to help generate excitement for it, and this project will all be ready when 2009 rolls around,” Gilbertson said. “And then, of course, it will have a lasting life after 2009. So it’s a lasting thing we’re doing here. It will put Addison County and the rest of the Champlain Valley on the map again.”

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