Out & About: Justin Morrill Homestead reopens for season ‘After the Flood’

By LIZ SAUCHELLI

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-10-2024 6:14 PM

STRAFFORD — Justin Morrill Homestead, the state historic site in Strafford, is gearing up to reopen this spring, nearly a year after floodwaters damaged it.

Last July’s rainstorms caused a tributary of the Ompompanoosuc River that runs through the 6.19-acre property to overflow. Underground flooding damaged the basement of the site’s Education Center — and everything inside including a refrigerator and signs. It also destroyed archival materials the Strafford Historical Society stored there.

The site closed to visitors for the remainder of the year, which forced the Friends of Morrill Homestead — a nonprofit organization that organizes programs on the site as well as helps maintain the grounds and gardens — to cancel its events.

The grounds and gardens also remained closed for months, as state officials continued to survey the extent of the damage the underground flooding caused. The gardens eventually reopened late last September, allowing volunteers to prepare them for the colder months.

Kumari Patricia, incoming director of Friends of Morrill Homestead the Friends and outgoing director Tracey McFadden returned in April to their office space in the basement of the site’s Education Center, despite its current lack of heat. They still need to install a new HVAC system.

“It’s a little chilly but not unmanageable,” Patricia said.

Because the books and artifacts formerly stored there need climate control provided by an HVAC system, they have not yet returned to the site, State Historic Preservation Officer Laura Trieschmann wrote in an email.

Collections belonging to the historic site and the historical society are still with conservators, who have worked to repair items. Collections that were not damaged by the flooding have been stored at the Vermont State Library and the Vermont Archaeology Heritage Center, both in Barre.

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The stream bank and two accompanying stone bridges, which were destabilized in the flooding, remain closed to visitors. The instability makes them unsafe for people to walk near them.

“We have met with many experts from the state and national agencies to ensure we get the right directions for what is needed to restore/repair these historic elements,” Trieschmann wrote, adding that the state is installing improved safety fencing at those spots. “We wish to err on the side of caution until things are fixed.”

The site is set to open Friday, May 24; Friends of Morrill Homestead will host a “Wake up the Garden” gathering from 1 to 4 p.m. this Saturday to prepare the grounds for the spring.

The group has also planned a full summer of programs, including summer camps and a tapestry felting workshop scheduled for inside the Education Center Saturday, June 15.

“I think it’s safe to say all of these events will not be affected by the stream being closed,” said Patricia.

Volunteers are also keeping last year’s flooding in mind as they plan this year’s events. Jon Stableford, a member of the Friends’ board of directors who has organized the annual “Gallery in the Garden” art exhibition for around a decade chose “After the Flood” as this season’s theme. The exhibition, which features 14 artists, will open Friday, July 5.

“As we started planning and thinking about it there was always this question of would we be able to do it at all?” Stableford said, noting that last year’s exhibition was cut short by last year’s flooding. “It was so personal to me, the closing of the show and what happened to the site in that time. ‘After the Flood’ just seems appropriate.”

Jennifer Brown, one of this year’s featured artists, is painting something specifically for the show.

“I always tell the artists I hope if we have a theme, that they won’t take it too literally that they’d do what they want to do. If it’s an inspiration, that’s good,” Stableford said.

For more information about the Friends of Morrill Homestead and information about upcoming events, visit morrillhomestead.org.

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at esauchelli@vnews.com or 603-727-3221.