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Notes from the Field: From Tombstone Quarry to Natural History in Northern Vermont

article-imageRock of Ages Granite Quarry (all photographs by the author)

When my good friend, filmmaker Jessica Oreck, asked me if I’d like to join her on a portion of her cross-country road trip, of course I jumped at the chance. Her new project, This Working Manhas her traveling across the US in search of manual labor jobs which demonstrate “practiced motion, kinetic movement, bodies and forms.” I joined her from Maine to New York, and luckily for me, there was time to stop at a few interesting spots in northern Vermont.

To my great dismay and shame, the night before I left New York, I left my camera at a bar by mistake. I got it back when I returned, but I didn’t have it on my trip, so all of these photos are taken with an iPhone. What a bummer. 

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Our first stop was the Rock of Ages Granite Quarry, where we took a tour of the immense quarry, and the plant where gravestones are made from said granite.

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Jessica is picking out a free souvenir from the scrap granite bin.

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Very near the quarry is Knight’s Spider Web Farm — the only spider web farm in the world. In the 1970s, Will Knight found an abundance of orb-weaver spiders on his farm, and inspiration struck. He built gridded wooden frames which made perfect spots for webs, and the spiders did their thing. 

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Knight harvests the webs by spraying each with white paint, passing a wooden plaque through the wood frame, and then lacquering the whole thing for posterity. The result is a perfectly preserved web, and if you’ve seen my apartment, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that I took one home. 

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By far, my favorite place was the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium. If there’s one thing you need to know about me, it’s that I love. Natural. History. Museums. The older, the better. After years of seeking out these relics of science, I have to prepare myself not to get too excited — I’ve seen some of the most beautiful old collections in the world, and sometimes I am a bit let down when I find old museums that have been poorly updated or overly changed throughout the years. 

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I prepared myself for this at the Fairbanks, but this amazing place met and then far exceeded my expectations. I was blown away from the moment I walked in, and my wonder only grew as I explored. 

The building itself is a stunner, and the collections, housed within their original cabinets and a few very thoughtful reproductions, feel untouched since the museum opened in 1889.

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This “OmniGlobe” is clearly a modern addition, but is has been seamlessly worked into the museum and looks like it has always been there.

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Charming taxidermy specimens full of character are packed into every available space.

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I have never seen a living botanical collection in an old museum like this before; these are “Vermont’s Wild Plants in Season.”

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Zoological specimens are housed on the ground floor. A spiral staircase leads visitors to the upstairs gallery, where an amazing array of ethnographic and geological collections lives.

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There’s a wonderful collection of antique toys, including the curiosity below.

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What? Tell me more, tiny sign! Why must you be so vague?

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The ethnographic holdings, for me, are what make the Fairbanks so special. The collections from various countries are small, but lovingly selected, and each item was clearly chosen for its ability to amaze. From Chinese slippers for bound feet to trap-door spider nests, dried and turned into rattling anklets by an unknown Native American tribe, I was gasping my way down the long aisles. One of my favorites was this beautiful navigation stick chart. The curved strips represent ocean swells — their interactions with islands and one another. Short, straight pieces were often used to show island currents, and cowrie shells indicated the islands themselves.

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I just love this cave diorama.

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For me, the stars of Fairbanks’ collections are the insect mosaics of John Hampson, created in the mid-1800s. Each mosaic was made with around 6,300 to more than 13,500 moths, beetles, and butterflies. They were nearly impossibly to get a good photo of (the image above is an extreme closeup of a much larger piece); the mosaics are absolutely jaw-dropping in person. 

I am already planning another trip to Vermont, this time with my camera and more time to drive around and discover all of the great little museums in this beautiful state.

AN OFFBEAT TOUR OF NORTHERN VERMONT:

ROCK OF AGES GRANITE QUARRYBarre Town, Vermont

KNIGHT’S SPIDER WEB FARM, Williamstown, Vermont

FAIRBANKS MUSEUM AND PLANETARIUM, St. Johnsbury, Vermont


One of the most important things to us here at the Atlas is to always keep traveling and discovering. Notes from the Field are first person reports from the most inspiring trips taken by the Atlas Obscura Team. Read more Notes From the Field here>