BENNINGTON — The headdress of eagle feathers and horsehair set out for display at 520 Main St. looks like something one might see in a museum, as do the moccasins, black and white photos, and a dress adorned with beads and seashells. These items have an unexpected story behind them, and a local connection.
Francis "Shep" Jones, 79, of Bennington, said they belonged to his grandparents, specifically his grandfather, Francis Henry Shepard, who was born in 1875 in Mason City, Iowa.
Shepard would eventually become a railroad engineer and design electric locomotives that so impressed the Blackfeet Tribe that they chose to present him and his wife with traditional regalia, and make Shepard an honorary chief.
What they gave him, along with many more items owned by Bennington residents, are on display for the month of November at 520 Main St. Local filmmaker Fidel Moreno said the title of the exhibit is "Mending the Sacred Hoop, Healing the 7 Generations." It will be open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, noon to 8 p.m. on Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. It coincides with National Native American Month. Ted Bird, of Hoisington Realty, secured the space — next to Allegro's — and it's also being supported by Southern Vermont College and the Bennington Center for the Arts.
Jones told the story, during a small gathering on Wednesday, of how his grandfather came to be honored by the Blackfeet. His grandfather, Shepard, was a fairly precocious teenager. He graduated high school a few weeks before turning 15 and went to Chicago with his uncle to work for the Chicago-Milwaukee Railroad
"He was very soon engaged in the electrification of the passenger cars, putting lights in. That was a brand new idea back then," said Jones.
Shepard went to MassTech — Now MIT — but was injured during his second year there. After recovering, he returned to the workforce, joining Westinghouse Electric.
"He was an expert in railway electrification, and he supervised the electrification of a number of tunnels including the Baltimore Tunnel, and a tunnel in the Swiss Alps," said Jones. "He was working for Westinghouse probably 30 years, but he became the head of the heavy traction division of Westinghouse. That's the division that manufactured and designed railway locomotives."
He said his grandfather obtained numerous patents for electric locomotives, which were better at crossing the Rocky Mountains than their steam counterparts because they could recover energy while going downhill.
"The Blackfeet were very impressed by this mammoth piece of equipment and wanted to honor the creator," Jones said.
They specifically asked for Shepard, not the president of the rail company.
"He (Shepard) and my grandmother traveled out to Idaho, basically Glacier National Park area, and were honored by the Blackfeet. My grandfather was adopted as an honorary Blackfoot chief," he said.
His grandfather was presented with the headdress that's now on display, while his wife received the beaded dress. A number of pictures were taken of Shepard and his wife receiving the regalia from the Blackfeet chiefs.
The items were passed to one of Shepard's daughters, who passed it to her daughter.
"We eventually lost contact with those folks," said Jones. Recently he sent a letter to a relative he thought might have the items, a one-in-500 chance, he said. Monday he got a phone call from a cousin once removed who, it turns out, had the regalia.
"She was very cooperative and willing to dig this stuff out of her closet and send it through UPS the next day. It came this morning," Jones said.
The collection on display also includes 54 black and white photographs taken around the turn of the century. They're being lent by Bennington resident Bob Wilson.