Folklore society celebrates 60 years

Williston-based group meets Saturday

May 8, 2008

By Tim Simard
Observer staff

If folklore is the embodiment of beliefs, customs and stories about a region's people, then Ina Isham's work exemplifies the word.

For Isham, an Essex resident, folklore comes easy. She loves history; her state's and her own. As president of the Green Mountain Folklore Society — a Williston-based, statewide organization that helps preserve Vermont's folklore — Isham collects stories and tall tales from all over the state.

Thinking back to her childhood, Isham points out that the convenience store and gas station complex in St. George is not the first of its kind in the small town. Isham said her father owned a store in the 1930s that sold gasoline, groceries and beer in St. George.

"If that wasn't what is considered a convenience store, I'm not sure what is," she said.

Isham's father used to make grocery deliveries around the Champlain Valley after World War I. According to Isham, the delivery business evolved into the convenience store. The store, opened at the end of prohibition, only lasted a few years, as St. George decided to become a dry town.

It's these types of stories that are the basis for the Green Mountain Folklore Society, or GMFS, Isham said.

"It keeps us going forward," she said. "If you don't know where you came from, then you don't know where you're going."

Shelburne resident and GMFS secretary Valerie Chamberlain agreed.

"I think the folklore society's role is to preserve Vermont history from the personal point of view," she said. "We talk about how people lived years ago — rural life, family life, life on the farm."

GMFS is celebrating its 60th anniversary on Saturday, May 10 at Shelburne's United Methodist Church. Vermont Civil War historian and author Howard Coffin is scheduled to speak at the meeting.

Six decades of history

University of Vermont English professor Leon Dean started the GMFS in 1948. He started by collecting stories, both fictional and true, of early Vermonters, and organized a group to remember the state's legends. The society started with only a handful of members, but today has close to 150 members statewide, Isham said, including three of her daughters.

Operating out of Williston, the society meets twice a year and puts out two publications. Meetings center around food and, of course, sharing stories, Isham said.

"I really enjoy the meetings very, very much," Chamberlain said. "I get to meet so many different people with a wide variety of backgrounds and stories."

One of the most popular events during the meetings is the "Gabfest." Isham said society members sit in a circle and share stories about their childhood and the Vermont lifestyle at that time.

"Some people say, 'I don't have any stories,' and I say, 'Yes you do!'" Isham said with a laugh. "It doesn't have to be yours. It could be a grandmother's, a grandfather's, a relative's or a friend's."

She has recently recorded some of the stories from Gabfests, adding the transcripts to recent editions of the society's folklore book, the "Green Mountain Whittlin's." Members also contribute stories to the book. The society also publishes a semi-annual newsletter, the "Potash Kettle," which updates members on recent news and information on upcoming meetings.

A Civil War buff

At each meeting, Isham said, the society tries to get a local historian to talk about the history unique to where the gathering takes place. At the 60th anniversary bash, Coffin, a Montpelier resident, will focus his talk on Shelburne and the Champlain Valley.

Coffin is the author of three books about Vermont and the Civil War: "Full Duty, Vermont in the Civil War," "Nine Months to Gettysburg" and "The Battered Stars." He recently co-authored "Guns Over the Champlain Valley: A Guide to Historic Military Sites and Battlefields."

Coffin said he had five ancestors who fought in the war, and he grew up in Woodstock, where a resident headed up the local war effort. His mother often told stories about her grandfather's time in the war. Those stories had a lasting impact, he said.

For his current project Coffin is finding historical sites in Vermont dating back to the Civil War era. Coffin said his research will take him to every town in the state, and he hopes the GMFS will help in discovering forgotten sites.

"From a selfish point of view, I'm looking for all the help I can get," Coffin said. "From what I understand, I'm going to be walking into a room of very knowledgeable historians."

Membership to the Green Mountain Folklore Society is open to all. Yearly dues cost $10 and include subscriptions to the "Potash Kettle" and the "Green Mountain Whittlin's." For more information on the society and the anniversary meeting, contact Ina Isham at 879-1925 or