Town officials have plans for Stephen Douglas home

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(Host) Stephen Douglas, the famous 19th century politician and debater of Abraham Lincoln, was born in Brandon Vermont.

Town officials there hope to turn the small, white clapboard house where Douglas was born, into a visitors’ center and museum.

That effort got a big boost last month when Brandon officials found out that they’d won almost three hundred thousand dollars in state and federal grants, for the Douglas project.

VPR’s Nina Keck reports,

(Keck) Janet Mondlak, Executive Director of the Brandon Area Chamber of Commerce, opens the small, old fashioned front door.

(Door creaking open and shut)

(Keck) The house, which is right on Route Seven, is faded looking and easy to miss. But inside, visitors are treated to a musty trip back in time.

(Mondlak) “Over in the corner is a chest of drawers that Stephen Douglas built. He was a cabinet maker. He apprenticed in Brandon and in the area before he left for Illinois to pursue politics.”

(Keck) Stephen Douglas was born in 1813. Kevin Thornton, of the Brandon historic preservation committee explains that tragedy struck not long after.

(Thornton) “He was born in this house and the story is that his father had a coronary and dropped the infant in the fire when he was just a few months old, possibly in the room we’re in. And one of the town founders across the street, John Conant, saved the baby from being burnt.”

(Keck) With his father dead, Stephen Douglas’s mother moved in with nearby relatives. And young Stephen trained to become a cabinet maker. Reports indicate he had a rather bleak, impoverished childhood. So, when his mother remarried and moved to Illinois, Douglas went with her.

Thornton, who teaches American history at the University of Vermont, says Douglas became a school teacher in Illinois, went on to study law and entered politics.

He was an Illinois senator when he faced off against Abraham Lincoln in their now- famous debates.

(Thornton) “I think it’s fair to say that Douglas makes Lincoln a national figure because they debate in the Illinois Senate campaign in 1858. Douglas is the incumbent. Lincoln has to define himself in opposition to Douglas and he does so brilliantly. He loses the election in Illinois in 1858, but he emerges as a national figure and becomes president in 1860.”

(Keck) Despite the fact that Stephen Douglas’ ties to Vermont were short lived, Thornton says the fact that he was born and raised is Brandon is part of the town’s and state’s history. And while many today may find fault with Douglas’ political positions, Thornton says he was an important man of his times.

(Thornton) “I think he was an interesting figure because he illuminates so much of what’s going on in mid nineteenth century politics. He’s involved in everything. He articulates his party’s position so well. He really gives us a good look at the strengths and weaknesses of democratic politics in America at a crucial time in our history.”

(Keck) Douglas’ birthplace has been owned for years by the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Janet Mondlak says they recently approached the Chamber of Commerce to take over ownership and make better use of the property. Because of the home’s location, the Chamber decided it would make a terrific visitor’s center complete with public restroom and museum.

(Mondlak) “Brandon is so historic. We’ve got almost 250 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places. You walk up and down the streets and there’s beautiful old buildings. But for the most part the general public can’t go in and see the inside of these buildings. This house was built in 1802. So people will be able to come in and really get a feel of what a nineteenth century home, Brandon home looked like.”

(Keck) Mondlak isn’t sure when the project will be completed. But with over $280,000 in grant money, she says they’re off to a good start.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Nina Keck in Brandon.

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