Shushan Covered Bridge Museum takes visitors to 1800s, early 1900s (with photo gallery)
WASHINGTON COUNTY David McNitt is a little light on military gear at the moment.
He can tell you about the World War I uniform and helmet at the Shushan Covered Bridge and School House Museum. And the rifle on the wall that probably was fired during the War of 1812.
“We have a cannonball that we think dates back to the American Revolution,” said McNitt, assistant curator of about 8,000 curios inside the unique Washington County building. “It was found in the Battenkill.”
War is a secondary subject at the museum, a showcase for farm and household aids that people used during the last of the 1800s and the first of the 1900s.
“There’s a buckboard that children can climb into,” McNitt said of the sturdy black buggy hooked up to a lifelike, dark brown fiberglass horse. “There are old household items such as washing machines. We have old stoves, we have a lot of old barn equipment such as harnesses for horses. We have a hay rake, we have some firefighting equipment.”
All items have been donated by local residents who found them in their barns or attics.
McNitt and head curator Robert Malay can also talk about the largest object in the collection — the museum itself. The covered bridge, of Town lattice truss construction, was built during the spring and summer of 1858. At 161 feet long and around 20 feet wide, it weighs about 80 tons. It crosses the Battenkill about 11⁄2 miles east of Lake Lauderdale off Route 22.
People would have walked across the bridge. Farmers and horse-drawn wagons would have transported produce over the span. Railroad service used to carry Shushan farm products to New York City on a regular basis.
The bridge was bypassed in 1963, and restored and renovated during the early 1970s. It opened as a museum in 1975.
Schoolchildren have visited in the past. “All they need is a school bus to get them here,” Malay said. “We don’t charge anything here.”
“In fact, we send them home with a pencil,” McNitt added, producing a still popular, old-fashioned writing instrument from a museum desk.
“Kids have a good time here, they really do,” Malay said, adding that donations help keep the museum open. Staffers volunteer their time during the year. Beginning this weekend, the covered bridge and its companion piece — a one-room schoolhouse that first opened in 1852 — will be open Saturdays, Sundays and holidays from 1 to 4 p.m. The complex will close for the year after Columbus Day, although the museum is open by appointment.
Some visitors like to play with the corn sheller. Farmers considered the large wooden boxes necessities during the late 1800s, using a wheel crank to rotate dried cobs inside the sheller. Kernels were removed and deposited into a small bucket; the kernels were then ground into a fine powder.
“They made corn bread, corn muffins, cornmeal mush,” McNitt said. “Today, they’d use it for corn dogs, but they didn’t do that in the old days.”
On Wednesday, a chipmunk was one of two late afternoon visitors. The small rodent seems to know when the corn sheller is in action, McNitt said, and helps himself to stray kernels.
Malay said the old transportation interests most visitors.
“Everybody wants to take a picture of that horse and buggy,” he said, adding that the model from 1850 was built for comfort. It has springs under the carriage, an early suspension system, and its large wooden wheels are ringed with steel.
“Older people just appreciate the stuff they used when they were kids,” McNitt said.
And unlike other museums, where a “hands off” rule is generally enforced, people are allowed to touch the Shushan exhibits. They can feel the fabric of a faded purple beaded dress, a bear fur coat or a feed bag, touch a sewing machine or ice-cutting machine that were modern marvels during the early 1900s. They can feel the weight of the large wooden pegs known as trunnels that were used as “nails” in the construction of the bridge.
Signs for Texaco and the Cambridge Hotel are in the collection. So are early advertisements.
“U long slim stout fat Shushanites,” reads one, painted on wooden planks. “We can fit U all perfect with suits and O’coats.” Proprietor J.H. Potter chose creative grammar to insult and prod his potential customers.
Folks who ran the Great Cambridge Fair of 1909 wanted to appeal to people who appreciated spectacle. And during the early 20th century, anything that flew was pretty dynamic.
“The Strobel Airship has been re-engaged for this year’s fair,” reads a sign, on light-colored fabric.
“This was meant to be placed on a horse and paraded around town,” McNitt said.
Vinegar and molasses jugs, a wheelbarrow, a vintage baseball uniform, milk bottles and a bunch of typewriters are on display. So are models of other covered bridges.
McNitt said new antiques occasionally come to him. He showed off a worn black shoe.
“It’s a lady’s shoe,” he said. “It’s a high top and it’s been repaired a few times on the sole.”