Ask a Local: Jim Brangan

Ranging from highly regarded art collections to small historical society museums to shipwrecks on the bottom of Lake Champlain, around here, we have a range of historic sites, museums, and cultural landscapes that’s pretty hard to match, and they’re all part of the beautiful landscape of the Lake Champlain Byway. Let me tell you about just a few of them.

If you find yourself in Burlington, head down to the waterfront to the ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. You’ll learn about the Lake Champlain watershed and the geology, plants and animals found here. Visitors also get an understanding of what life was like for the Native Americans back before Samuel de Champlain came to the area — and you’ll find out how their culture continues to evolve today. They have a replica shipwreck and lots of interactive displays that make learning about our natural and cultural heritage fun. While at ECHO, make sure you go upstairs and visit my colleagues at the Lake Champlain Basin Program Resource Room. Make sure you ask them a question…and make it a difficult one. They’re just about impossible to stump.

Once you’ve had your questions answered, head up the hill to the University of Vermont campus. There, you’ll find the Fleming Museum of Art. The collection at the Fleming is astounding: more than 20,000 works of art and anthropological artifacts displayed in ways that engage, provoke and awe. While you are on campus, check out the Perkins Geology Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center Museum where you can see, among many other things, the Vermont State Fossil: the Charlotte Whale.

Heading south of Burlington on the Lake Champlain Byway brings you through Shelburne, home of Vermont’s two “must see” attractions: the Shelburne Museum and Shelburne Farms. Don’t let the word “farms” fool you — it was a Vanderbilt estate with a barn that looks like a castle and another that could almost fit a football field inside (not quite wide enough, but long enough — including the end zones and goalposts!). Today, Shelburne Farms is home to a host of educational programs, a vineyard, a woodshop, world-famous cheese making, and some of the Valley’s nicest walking paths.

I don’t even know where to begin with the Shelburne Museum. If you like folk art, impressionist paintings, or decorative arts, you should go there. If you are into quilts, antique furniture, or carved duck decoys, you might want to stop in. If you are partial to the circus, locomotives, or steamboats (they dragged the 220-foot long, 892-ton Ticonderoga two miles from Lake Champlain!), you just have to visit. If you love…oh, nevermind! Take my word for it: there is something for everyone at the Shelburne Museum’s 45-acre campus, which hosts 39 buildings, most of which were relocated here from all over New England and New York. If you can “see it all” in one day, please tell me how you did it.

One place you can see it all in one day is Rokeby Museum. The farmstead of the Robinsons — a family of abolitionists, authors, naturalists, and artists — Rokeby tells their story through an intact collection of their belongings, journals and art. Make sure Director Jane Williamson shows you the family’s “hair art’ on the second floor!

The Lake Champlain Maritime Museum campus is a choice destination. There, you’ll learn about the lake’s rich military and commercial history. Make sure you climb aboard the replica gunboat Philadelphia from the American Revolution. If you’re lucky, the replica canal schooner Lois McClure might be in port. In these parts, canal schooners were the 18-wheelers of the 19th century — carrying everything from iron ore to consumer goods.

The Lake Champlain Byway is much more than an automotive route; it’s a pathway to our history and a portal to culture. As you travel through the Champlain Valley, stop into those little historical society museums and historic sites. Take it from a local: you’ll be amazed at what you discover.

Jim Brangan is the Cultural Heritage and Recreation Coordinator at the Lake Champlain Basin Program. He lives with his family in Shelburne.