The Newtown Pentacle

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Monday

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Day two in Burlington, Vermont. Our Lady of the Pentacle and myself found a great little diner in the downtown historic district – Henry’s – where we had a hearty Vermont breakfast (I had the “Lump” – two pancakes with bacon and eggs sandwiched between them) and a gallon or so of hot coffee. We had two destinations picked out, neither of which we knew too much about. Our overriding goal for this vacation – the first we’ve had since Covid began – was to spend as much time outside and exposed to nature as we could possibly manage. Last week, I described the northern peninsular area that defines Burlington’s interface with Lake Champlain – the Intervale – where the Ethan Allen Homestead and the Winooski River can be found.

On the southern end of Burlington is Shelburne, and Shelburne Farms. It’s about a 20-30 minute drive from Downtown Burlington, and offers not just hiking trails but also a dairy farm and several other working fields.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Now – as mentioned – I had no idea what this place was going to offer, and when the view above popped up – my first statement was “Who the hell were these Shelburne people”? That castle pictured above is the barn. We came here for the odd chance that Our Lady of the Pentacle might be able to interact with farm animals, and whereas I knew in advance that this nearly 1,400 square acres property (that’s nine Sunnyside Yards, Queens peeps) was operated by a non profit, I wasn’t expecting to see a megalithic example of late 19th century Queen Anne Tudor Revival architecture.

Who built this place? Who were they? I had already begun to do the math on this as we walked along the curiously meandering and perfectly sited pathway cut into the grass. Had to be railroad, thought I. Maybe timber, but probably railroad. They also had somebody noteworthy lay this place out… Everything was “just so” and placed exactly where it should be, and the path placements seemed intuitive somehow. The logic indicating you should go one way or another seemed familiar to me. Hmmm…

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Let’s start with the Bridegroom, who was an extremely impressive fellow but the less important member of the family who built this place. Actually, a less important family would be a more accurate way to describe the situation, but it’s hard to look down your nose at the Webbs. William Seward Webb studied undergraduate medicine in Europe and graduated from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1875. A wealthy and distinguished family were the Webbs, and his siblings include railroad executives, Yale lawyers, and even Civil War General Alexander Stewart Webb. His grandfather was a member of George Washington’s staff. Another line of his family is connected to the Dutch era of NYC. They were highly placed and respected members of NYC society.

Saying that, Webb still married well.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It all started on Staten Island in 1794. The farm boy was born into dire poverty and started working as a child on shallow two mast cargo boats called Periaugers that would carry goods and passengers back and forth from Pike Slip in Manhattan to St. George on Staten Island. In 1810, the farm boy borrowed $100 from his mother to buy his own boat. By the 1850’s, the farm boy controlled every boat in NY Harbor in one way or another, and via the Erie Canal – a significant amount of the shipping activity on the Hudson River and Great Lakes. When the farm boy died, in 1877 – two years after William Seward Webb graduated medical school, he had amassed a fortune of more than $100 million. He had also started a rather successful rail road business. That’s about two billion dollars in modern money, incidentally.

That farm boy was Cornelius Vanderbilt, aka the Commodore. William Seward Webb married his granddaughter – Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

It seems that the Webb/Vanderbilt union was a happy and productive one, with four children. Eliza Osgood Vanderbilt Webb inherited ten million dollars from her grandfather’s estate, and used her financial largesse in pursuance of creating Shelburne Farms. The overall property is just under 1,400 acres, which involved the buying and incorporation of dozens of smaller farms into a single property. They closed public roads, turning them into internal lanes, and hired architect Robert Henderson Robertson to design and build the grandiose structures on the property. For the landscape and overall design of part of the property – covering about 3,800 square acres, they hired Frederick Law Olmstead – the designer of Central Park in Manhattan.

Shelburne Farms is on the National Register of Historic Places, and is a National Historic Landmark District.

Holy smokes, we just came here in the hope of petting some goats and possibly milking a cow. We somehow blundered our way into a Vanderbilt mansion.

– photo by Mitch Waxman

Incorporated as a non profit educational organization in 1972 by the Webb’s descendants, Shelburne Farms is open to the public for recreational and educational pursuits and they have all sorts of programming going on here during normal times. I was told they do fairs here, and you can theoretically book sections of it for private events like weddings.

Seriously, last thing I expected to find myself doing in Burlington was considering… Staten Island…

More tomorrow.


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In the Shadows at Newtown Creek,” an 88 page softcover 8.5×11 magazine format photo book by Mitch Waxman, is now on sale at blurb.com for $30.

Written by Mitch Waxman

October 4, 2021 at 11:00 am

Posted in AMTRAK

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