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Folklife center pens new page in its history

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July 5, 2007

By JOHN FLOWERS

MIDDLEBURY — As a place dedicated to preserving history, the Middlebury-based Vermont Folklife Center (VFC) is creating some of its own.

The center will spend this summer welcoming a new executive director in a new building that will feature new technology aimed at helping Vermonters and tourists better appreciate its vast archive of recorded interviews, exhibits and educational programs chronicling the history and people of the Green Mountain State.

It will be somewhat of a bittersweet transition for the VFC, as it will be losing its founding executive director, Jane Beck. Beck took the helm of the organization when it was formally established in 1984.

The center — dedicated to preserving and presenting the folk arts and cultural traditions of Vermont — found its first home in Middlebury’s Painter House on Court Street in 1988. But the organization soon ran out of room for its exhibits, artifacts and archives, to the point where it moved to larger space in the former Masonic Hall on Court Square in 1999. Continued growth prompted VFC boosters to recently acquire even larger space — in the historic John Warren House at 88 Main St. Monday saw Beck and other VFC officials moving furniture, archives, supplies and other center materials into a space that will provide 50 percent more room than was available at the old Masonic Hall.

Beck hopes the VFC will be ready to reopen in September. When it does, newly-hired Executive Director Brent Bjorkman will be at the helm. Beck has decided to leave to write a book on the Turner family of Grafton, Vt. Alec Turner was a slave on a plantation before coming to Vermont, and Beck had the privilege of interviewing some of his descendants — including his daughter, Daisy Turner, who died in 1988 at the age of 104. Beck interviewed Daisy Turner for more than 60 hours, recording many riveting stories and anecdotes about her family’s history, from day-to-day chores to their outlook on life.

Beck expects to take three or four years researching and writing the book. She simply couldn’t lead the VFC at the same time, she said.

“I think this is a perfect time for somebody else to come in who is younger and more energetic,” Beck said.

She added she believes that Bjorkman will “move the organization to the next level.” He most recently served as an associate with the American Folklore Society in Columbus, Ohio.

Efforts to reach Bjorkman by e-mail were unsuccessful as the Addison Independent went to press.

Beck will look back fondly on her experiences with the VFC. She personally conducted around 1,000 interviews of Vermonters; those tapes are part of the approximately 4,000 hours of recorded chats with farmers, stone carvers, trappers, loggers, legislators, teachers and everyday people that form the backbone of the VFC archive. These records will ensure that Vermont traditions, stories and dialects will live on.

“It’s been terrific,” Beck said of her experiences. “I had a better education, talking to people throughout Vermont, telling me about their lives. It has been a unique education.”

Beck compares her interviews to a “patchwork quilt” that unites the many different personal stories that contribute to Vermont’s unique history and folklore.

“You get personal histories and you also get attitudes and values, which you don’t always get with written materials,” Beck said of one-on-one interviews.

Asked what she will miss most about her job at the VFC, she responded without hesitation — the interviews.

“Many I have interviewed over the years I now consider friends,” said Beck, who will continue to reside in Ripton.

Even as she cleans out her desk, Beck is helping set up the VFC offices and amenities in the John Warren House. She walks past a series of listening stations, at which visitors will be able to access hundreds of recorded interviews through iPods. A large screen plays a portion of a recorded interview with Daisy Turner.

She passes her hand over a quilt image that is being projected onto a desk in one of the VFC public rooms. She touches a patch on the projected quilt, and as if by magic, a series of photos and quotes relating to Vermont schools rolls across the table.

She gestures to the VFC’s new “Heritage Shop” and educational classrooms that will provide added goods and services for visitors — all in a high-profile location in downtown Middlebury.

“It’s wonderful for us to be right on Main Street,” Beck said.

Barbara Cate, chairwoman of the VFC board of trustees, said Beck will be greatly missed.

“Obviously, the legacy that Jane has built for all times is a treasure for Vermonters and all those who come to visit Vermont,” Cate said. “She has ensured the permanency of her body of work by being a very effective fund-raiser as well as a folklorist.”

As for Bjorkman, Cate said he will be counted on to lead the VFC into the future. The organization will look to digitize its records to make them accessible on-line.

“We’re very excited,” Cate said.

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