Fred Webster isn’t an artist, I guess. He writes, he builds things, he does a mean clog, he dreams big dreams. He’s an old farmer. His real passion, however, is collecting. And in his collecting I see the soul of an artist. In fact, he’s as driven and passionate as any artist I’ve ever encountered.
Fred grew up in Coventry in northeastern Vermont and has lived most of his life on the family farm there with a hiatus for agricultural college and a stint during World War II in China. He raised nine children, mostly by himself. He and his second wife, Vivian, live together amiably. She seems to understand his profound need to connect with the past, to collect an odd specimen of a carriage or another dog power even when there’s not enough money to pay the electric bill.
I don’t know how many years Fred’s been at work on his life’s work, but he’s taken apart two enormous barns, hauled them to his property, reconstructed them and filled them with hundreds of tractors, plows, cultivators, harrows, manure spreaders, seeders, reapers and threshing machines, scythes and mowers, hay rakes and hayloaders, balers, potato diggers, corn planters, horse powers and dog powers, wagons, wheelbarrows, milking stools, and a few carriages, sleds and looms. In another smaller outbuilding, he keeps tools-hammers, saws, planes, screw drivers, chisels, wrenches and numberless items whose names and uses no one but another collector could know and then, not always. At one time, he also had a schoolhouse he’d brought miles over Webster Road, and set up with its desks, blackboard, piano and bell. He’d bring old-time school teachers to the place and invite the public to enjoy school again the way they remembered it. One night the schoolhouse burned, but everything else survived and Fred began to talk of finding another schoolhouse somewhere, someday.
When we first met, Fred and I were both on the board of the county historical museum. The Old Stone House Museum was the establishment agricultural Museum. It had many fewer artifacts; the staff knew much less than Fred did; but it had an endowment and people who understood that education had to be orderly if it was to be supported and accessible. Fred’s place, on the other hand, was a mess, at least to the likes of most of us. Many of his artifacts were missing parts, falling apart, ramshackle, but to Fred every one of them was a story he could tell and would if anyone asked. He had no written records on much of the content, although he struggled continually to make records and notes that would explain everything about all of it.
From Fred’s point of view, the Museum board was bureaucratic and stultifying. When they talked about acquiring a historic barn, they talked about writing grants. They talked about legal problems and insurance. Fred just wanted to go get it and fix it up.
I was warned, quite rightly – and I only did it when I’d collected parents’ and teachers’ permissions – not to take children to Fred’s chaotic Museum because the place was dangerous with holes in the floors, and falling walls. At Fred’s Museum, the kids played with the artifacts. Fred didn’t have any insurance.
The board had romanced Fred in hopes of changing him, but to no avail. So he left the Board and gave up his hopes that the Old Stone House would take over his collection, preserve it and use it. However, Fred and I remained friends and he often came to help with programs for kids. Since he had a salacious sense of humor, akin to that of a twelve-year old boy, I had to keep a close eye on him, but we always had fun. And the kids always learned something from the old man with the pale blue eyes.
I call Fred an artist because of the way he touches the tools he’s collected, the way he talks about the most complicated and the simplest of them. He collects the way it felt to do things in the past, the heft of a shovel, the pull of a wheel, the movement involved in milking a cow from one kind of stool or another. He’s a choreographer of the way we moved then, and the way we move now. He’s a story-teller.