(Host) Ethan Allen and the early settlers of Bennington will be brought to life by their modern-day counterparts this weekend. More than a hundred people will help the Bennington Museum celebrate the battle that bears the town’s name.
VPR’s Susan Keese reports.
(Keese) On a field in Bennington, near a busy road, close to the New York border, these people are re-enacting the town’s proud past. They’re getting ready to stage a pageant. It was last performed – in a much longer version – in 1927.
(Stephen Perkins) “It had over 1,000 people in it. It had 600 National Guardsmen in uniforms from all the wars up to World War I, streaming across the field. Horses, cattle, sheep, pigs – you name it, it was in the pageant. They actually built a rail spur to the pageant grounds so that all the people that came to visit Bennington could ride the train up to the pageant grounds.”
(Keese) Stephen Perkins is a curator at the Bennington Museum. The pageant, which happens this Sunday, is part of a year-long celebration of the museum’s 75th anniversary.
People who know a bit of history often point out that the Battle of Bennington wasn’t even in Vermont. It was fought across the border in what is now New York state. Stephen Perkins:
(Perkins) “My answer to that is that it was the battle for Bennington. The Battle of Waterloo didn’t take place in Waterloo either. But Waterloo was the closest town.”
(Keese) The Battle of Bennington, which took place in August 1777, wasn’t a big strategic victory in the American war for Independence. But it was a moral victory. The British Army was moving south through the Champlain valley toward Albany. They needed ammunition and supplies, and Bennington was known to have a large supply depot. So they sent a detachment to raid the depot.
The people of Bennington defeated them with help from Massachusetts and a division from New Hampshire led by General John Stark. The town’s own Green Mountain Boys, who’d been fighting farther north, appeared at the last minute and saved the day. The rest is history, with a bit of mythology thrown in. Perkins says the battle was poorly documented. But in Bennington it’s always been the subject of stories.
The genesis of these stories, and their importance to the town, is the subject of an exhibit Perkins created for the Bennington Museum. It’s called, “The Battle of Bennington: How an Event Defined a Community.”
(Perkins) “One story is that all the pewter in Bennington was melted down and made into musket balls. Another is that – we have a couple of nice copper wash basins in the museum – and they were supposedly in the Catamount Tavern and they were used to wash the wounds of the injured in battle.”
(Keese) Perkins says the museum has many artifacts that have nothing to do with the battle, except for the stories families attached to them. In the 1920s he says, when industrialization was happening fast and times were changing, people were hungry for links to the past.
Graeme McKenna directs the pageant. He says it doesn’t pretend to be historically accurate.
(McKenna) “To be able to be up here on this hillside, 150 some odd yards from the audience with cannon fire going off and fireworks coming out of the forest and muskets going off, it’s again the spectacle of the event here.”
(Keese) Much of the pageant takes place before the battle. It starts with the first farmsteaders arriving, in a wagon drawn by a real horse.
“We did not expect you so soon. How did you stand the journey?
“Oh we are stiff and sore…”
(Keese) The action shifts to the land wars between New Hampshire and New York. The violence that ensued shaped the Green Mountain Boys into a fighting force that McKenna says just sort of stumbled into the revolution.
In this scene Ethan Allen, played by Joe Phillips, harangues his neighbors to take up arms to defend their land.
(Phillips) “Our soil must become a battleground for independence!”
For Vermont Public radio, I’m Susan Keese in Bennington.