Holding down the fort

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A map made by Anne Parkinson guides readers through Fort Ethan Allen. Small numbers on each building indicate the page number in which they are discussed. (Map by Anne Parkinson)

Author pens first book on Fort Ethan Allen

William Parkinson jumped from his chair in earnest last Wednesday, dashing out of the room to fetch an artifact he recalled when retelling a particularly amusing anecdote.

“This said ‘Fort Ethan Allen’ so I had to buy it,” Parkinson said with a laugh as he rolled a wooden barrel into his office. The tub once transported 50 pounds of coffee to the base, he said, pointing out the shipping address painted on the side.

The post commander’s home was one of the most lavish on the Colchester/Essex base. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Parkinson soon launched into a subsequent story, then another — calling ‘Don’t get up!’ over his shoulder each time as he scrambled to pull another piece of history from his collection.

Bemused, his wife, Anne, leaned across the table.

“A little bit passionate?” she asked rhetorically. Indeed.

Parkinson, the curator and executive director of the Fort Ethan Allen Museum, has just published the first book to focus exclusively on the historic base straddling the Essex and Colchester town line.

“Step By Step: A Walking History Tour” takes readers on a geographically-guided journey through the buildings of the fort, some of which were constructed before the turn of the 20th century.

The Vermont military base was approved by the federal government in 1892 thanks to a pair of influential legislators, Parkinson said, and sits on a portion of the parcel once owned by Ira Allen — Ethan Allen’s youngest brother.

Parkinson started keeping running notes for his book 20 years ago when he carved out his space on the base and purchased a group of buildings on the Essex side of the property.

Fort Ethan Allen had always fascinated Parkinson, a Vermont history major and antiquarian book dealer by trade with a long, graying beard. He especially cherished one postcard that showed the birds eye view from the prominent water tower.

William Parkinson looks around a shed at Fort Ethan Allen once used to store gunpowder. The author recently penned the first history book that focuses exclusively on the Colchester/Essex base. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

So, when the buildings pictured in that very photograph went up for sale, Parkinson jumped.

“I added it to my collection,” he said. “Everybody said, ‘You can’t do that, that’s crazy! A bunch of old buildings to add to your Vermont book collection?’ But we love being out here!”

While they call Hinesburg home, Parkinson says he and Anne spend the vast majority of their waking hours at the old pump house that now hosts their museum and office space.

Inside, the neat little space is populated with panoramic photographs, cavalry horse show trophies and military uniforms. Quirkier items include a napkin depicting the menu of the Fort Ethan Allen Thanksgiving feast in 1902.

Parkinson spends at least an hour a day on sites like eBay looking for memorabilia.

When researching for his book, he added newspaper clippings to the to-do list, looking for mentions of the fort in archives posted to the U.S. Library of Congress website. That research was supplemented with a variety of original written materials produced by the fort and the brief mentions in already-published history books.

A framed antique rule sheet posted on the wall reads: “Loiterers and disrespectable characters will not be allowed in or around the pump house or water tower.”

But things weren’t always so orderly. The pump house had sat vacant for 50 years when Parkinson gained ownership. Just one window had every glass pane intact, he said, the rest boarded up with plywood.

When base operations ceased at the fort in the ’60s, military officials offered up the remaining architecture to Essex Jct., Colchester, the University of Vermont, St. Michael’s College and the state.

Any buildings not spoken for were auctioned off to the public — some selling for as little as $15, Parkinson said. Essex took the water tower and pump house, but almost immediately switched operations to the Champlain Valley Water District in South Burlington, he said.

Flipping through an old photo album, Parkinson pointed out the restoration work to which each of his five children contributed. They strived to keep things historically accurate where possible, bending to fit necessary modern conveniences.

It’s a philosophy Parkinson applies to historic restoration off his property, too.

Colchester town officials approached him earlier this year as they began replacing sidewalks on their side of the fort, wondering why the original concrete was far wider in the areas immediately before the barracks.

The expanded area, Parkinson explained, was needed to hold the 200-plus men that gathered for morning inspections each day. It’s a feature Parkinson told crews they didn’t need to duplicate.

“I lean toward the practical when it comes to historic preservation because I’ve seen too many projects where, if you’re an elitist in historical preservation, the project gets dumped.

“So what’s better?” Parkinson asked. “Is it better to save the building and put modern windows in it, or is it better to let the building fall down?”

Later that afternoon, Parkinson drove along the path through the fort as described in his new book, painting a vivid picture of life in the 1900s.

Parkinson owns this small series of sheds, once used to store whale oil and kerosene. (Photo by Michaela Halnon)

Some present-day features make the imagining a bit easier. Several local radio stations use the old band barracks, the former post hospital has become a nursing home and the carpentry shop is occupied, fittingly, by a carpenter.

Parkinson all but giggled as he threw open double-layered doors to the small, former gunpowder shed he now uses as storage. All of his buildings have a placard above the entry, commemorating its original use.

“Look at the woodwork in here — this is just a shed to hold gunpowder, but look at the way they finished the inside. It’s gorgeous!” he exclaimed, pointing to the wood paneling stained a deep chestnut brown. “There’s even built-in bookcases right there, and this was just to store gunpowder.”

Not all of the buildings are so well preserved. One horse stable was converted to a shed of sorts, the front panel torn entirely off. Others have failing roofs and crumbling foundations, much to Parkinson’s chagrin.

The occasional jogger or mother pushing a stroller interrupted Parkinson’s in-car tour, each moving past the military buildings without a second look. On the steps of the post chapel, a woman munched on a sandwich. Nearby, another flipped through the pages of a book.

Though he supports building owners’ right to do as they wish with their property, Parkinson said the disinterest can be saddening. Most Fort Ethan Allen residents and businesses have no idea the history they’re living amongst, he said.

“Of the museum collection, I bet you far less than 10 percent is locally bought,” Parkinson said. “People take for granted what’s there, what’s beside them.”

“Fort Ethan Allen Step By Step: A Walking Tour,” is available at Barnes and Noble, Phoenix Books and the Fort Ethan Allen Museum. For more information, visit http://bit.ly/2vk0Ye8.