Walk The Line: Morrisville History & Art Tour Designed To Lure Rail Trail Traffic
A new mural going up along the Lamoille Valley Rail Trail encourages trail users to "head up the hill to fabulous downtown Morrisville." And that's just one of the signs that Morrisville is putting its history front and center in an effort to attract visitors.
If you’ve been through the Lamoille County village of Morrisville in the past few weeks, you may have noticed some changes.
There are new bilingual street signs in the historic district, directing travelers in English and French, and a series of museum-quality markers now dot the downtown. Some of them convey surprising information.
"For example, did you know that one of the early inventions of the washing machine happened here on Lower Main Street, in Morrisville?" asks Todd Thomas, the town and village planning director.
Thomas is in charge of the Morrisville History & Art Walk project, which is nearing completion.
He’s already started giving walking tours to drum up interest in the project. Tuesday evening he had more than 20 people and three dogs follow along.
At a stop on Main Street, he addressed the crowd: "Dewey Hickok is one of the early inventors of the washing machine, which happened right here in Morrisville, which almost no one knows about."
Pointing to a plaque with a sketch of the contraption, Thomas said, "So, this is actually the drawing submitted to the U.S. Patent Office in 1887 for kind of the motion that gyrates the clothes in the washing machine."
He noted part of the patent is being used today to develop a device to help people with mobility issues.
While Thomas’s first couple tours have drawn a crowd, he said the project is designed for people to explore on their own.
"We have put together a collection of 23 plaques," he said. "They’re now adorning historic buildings in downtown Morrisville and a couple installations of public art. And there is a green line. It’s a bit of a rip-off of the Freedom Trail in Boston."
Thomas painted that line, with the help of his exchange student. It goes up the sidewalk and across streets throughout the village. They got it done just in time for the town’s revitalization celebration a couple weeks ago.
"You can start on the intersection of the Rail Trail and Portland Street, right here in the heart of downtown Morrisville, and you can walk the green line and follow it around town," Thomas explained. "And on the green line there are arrows — it tells you where to look. And each arrow points you to a plaque which you’ll learn a little bit about the history of Morrisville; you’ll learn about a public art installation. There are really cool things to learn."
Most of the plaques denote historic buildings, but they also tell a story.
"On the intersection of Maple Street and Upper Main Street, there is a Rebel Civil War bell that was stolen in the Battle of New Orleans," Thomas said. "And, as far as we know, this is the only Rebel war bell hanging in Vermont today."
You can’t see the actual bell, just a church bell tower. But there’s a picture of the bell on the plaque.
"So there really is a hidden history here," said Thomas, who walks by the bell every day to work but until this project didn't know it was there. "And these plaques, if you walk the green line, you’ll kind of have that hidden history unfolded for you, learn a bit about the town and about the state."
Many of the plaques also depict historic photos of the buildings.
"We didn’t want to be boring and just put bronze plaques on buildings," Thomas said. "We wanted to tell the story visually. So if you look at many of our plaques … they mostly all have old 1800s photos. And Francis Favreau, our town historian who recently retired and moved to East Middlebury – we miss you, Francis – he helped us find old photos of all these buildings."
If you look closely, you’ll notice a lot of those buildings — in the old photos and today — look more like something out of a western gold rush town than a New England village. Thomas said it’s something you won’t find elsewhere in Vermont.
"Portland Street … was built when the train came to town for the first time," Thomas explained. "So this whole street went up really quickly. So it’s got kind of the false-front architecture, the Italianate architecture you see in the West, if you're out in like the western boom towns … You can find that here in Vermont in Morrisville."
There are still some finishing touches to be put on the Morrisville History & Art Walk. But Thomas said that shouldn’t stop folks from checking it out now and maybe coming back again later this summer.
Correction 6/29/2018 1:34 p.m. The style on Portland Street is Italianate architecture, not Italian architecture. The quote transcription has been corrected.