BENNINGTON — The 250th anniversary of the Battle of Bennington might be eight years away, but Jonah Spivak says planning for a series of statewide events culminating with the 2027 Battle Day celebration shouldn't be put off any longer.
Spivak, who briefed the Select Board recently on those planning efforts, also urged residents to begin thinking big about local initiatives that that could have a lasting impact on the Bennington area — something that would add to the experience of visiting historic sites like Monument Circle, the Bennington Museum and Old First Church.
A dream proposal he would love to see, Spivak said, would include construction of replicas of the Catamount Tavern, a hangout of the Green Mountain Boys and other American contingents around the time of the battle; a storehouse like those that were targets of the raid by British and Hessian troops — the catalyst for the Aug. 16, 1777, battle; the original village meeting house and other 18th century features of Bennington.
In effect, he said, this could create an interpreted historical experience for residents and visitors to Bennington and significantly enhance the town's existing attractions, like the 306-foot Monument.
More modest proposals that have been discussed, Spivak said, include recreating something of the camp Gen. John Stark, who led the American forces during the battle, established off what is now called Harrington Road.
That site is in a high open field from which "Hessian Hill," where the main position of the enemy commander, Lt. Col. Friederich Baum, was visible.
Today, a marker in that field is engraved with a famous troop-rallying quote from Gen. Stark:
"There are the Redcoats and they are ours or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow."
Baum's Hessian and British troops had been sent by overall British commander Gen. John Burgoyne to search for supplies to support the army's advance from Canada toward Albany, N.Y.
But the decisive defeat at Bennington occurred amid a flood of reinforcements arriving from the Continental Army and from around the colonies, and Burgoyne eventually was confronted near Saratoga, N.Y., where in October he surrendered his entire force to the Americans.
In fact, Spivak said, there are dozens of sites in Bennington County and in what is now part of Walloomsac, N.Y. — site of the Bennington Battlefield Park off Route 67 — where new markers, small monuments or recreated colonial structures should be considered.
Additional interpretive features, he said, would enhance understanding about an event important to both Vermont and the nation.
Another idea, he said, is to have tours on special rail cars along the track that runs near Route 67 from North Bennington into Walloomsac and cuts through major sites of the battle.
Recent historical and archeological research, he added, has greatly expanded understanding of exactly where and how specific events occurred over the days of the confrontation, ending on Aug. 16, and those locations should be preserved and/or marked.
"People think this is a long way off, but it's not," Spivak said of efforts to establish a statewide commission to plan events in Bennington and elsewhere in 2027.
He said those discussing the effort at the local level recently decided "it is time to really start informing the public" and calling for suggestions and support.
The reason for the planning push, Spivak said, is that the Legislature will have to first approve a statewide commission to consider anniversary proposals and report back the following year.
Bills seeking to create a commission, sponsored by state Rep. Mary Morrissey, R-Bennington, and Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, and supported by the county delegation, were considered in committee over the past two sessions but have yet to receive final approval and reach the governor's desk.
Revised language now in the bill seems to have wide support in both chambers, Spivak said this week, but even if the bill is approved in 2020, the commission's report would not be issued until the following year — and then would likely need further approvals and/or funding before specific event plans can be finalized.
In addition, he said, national celebrations marking the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 2026, will spur events around the country, and Vermont should coordinate with those efforts whenever possible.
For instance, he said, the historic "76" or Bennington Flag, which is associated with the battle seems a logical choice to be a representative image for the national celebration — such as on a commemorative stamp.
Funding sources also might flow to Vermont for its own celebration because of the national events a year earlier, he said, but only if the state has its planning done in time to make such requests.
And there should be a role for neighboring states, including New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut and New York, all of which sent troops to Bennington, he said.
Spivak said he has heard expression of support for the commission proposal and the events from Gov. Phil Scott, Historic Preservation Officer Laura Trieschmann, the Bennington Historical Society, the local legislative delegation and numerous other individuals and organizations.
In its current version, the 250th anniversary commission would have nine members from geographically diverse regions of Vermont who have a background or strong interest in Vermont history.
Two would be appointed by the Speaker of the House, two by a Senate committee, a member each from the House and Senate, appointed by the governor; the Vermont Historic Preservation Officer or designee; executive director of the Vermont Historical Society or designee; and the executive director of the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, or designee.
Spivak, a former president of the Bennington chamber, said the idea for the 250th "was the brainchild of the chamber" several years ago.
What is seen as a year of events marking anniversaries from that fateful year also will include celebrations marking the Vermont Declaration of Independence [as a republic; Vermont became a state in 1791], which was signed in Westminster Jan. 15, 1777; the Battle of Hubbardton, on July 7, 1777, part of the same British invasion from Canada that led to the Bennington battle in August; and the adoption of the Vermont Republic's constitution on July 8, 1777, in Windsor.
Other events from that year also could be remembered in 2027, Spivak said, such as a British occupation of Castleton, which occurred around the time of the Hubbardton battle.
A capital town
Spivak also points out that Bennington was considered the capital of Vermont for a time during 1777, and he speculated that had the British captured the town, the effect could have demoralized the rebels following decisive defeats of the main American army in New York and New Jersey the previous year.
As it turned out, the Bennington victory helped stall the until-then successful British advance along the Hudson Valley toward Albany, N.Y., and Burgoyne's eventual defeat and surrender shocked the superpower British and convinced the French to join the war on the American side.
Needless to say, anniversary events will be planned at several historic upstate New York sites as well, creating greater interest in those in Vermont.
Spivak said he envisions a year's worth of events, culminating locally during a 2077 Battle Day parade that includes representatives from every Vermont community, creating the largest parade in its history.
In planning for the anniversary at the local level, Spivak said his ultimate goal as a way to memorialize the historic battle would be to first re-establish the colonial-era road that extended from Monument Circle — the path of which is visible today — to the site where it once crossed the Walloomsac River on a covered bridge.
The town, he said, still has a right-of-way along the old roadbed, and the stone bridge abutment on the side facing the Monument remains in place.
Stressing that none of these ideas are in the serious planning stage and that no funding is currently on the horizon, Spivak said he nevertheless hopes to at least spur ideas and efforts from others around the region.
Spivak said this vision would be one way to memorialize the event almost on the scale of the construction of the 306-foot Bennington Monument, which was commemorated in 1891.
The construction of the monument actually required razing some existing structures, he said, while the site he is referring to for an imagined collection of colonial-era buildings is mostly open or wooded land, some of which is owned by the town.
The opposite bank of the Walloomsac at that point in near the Morse industrial park, he said, where there is open land for visitor parking that could take some of the traffic stress off Monument Avenue and nearby streets during peak tourist season, while exciting even greater interest in Bennington's rich history.
Spivak said that ideally three or more buildings could be constructed using 18th century methods and tools, and the covered bridge could be recreated — allowing visitors to in effect walk or travel by a horse-drawn conveyance over the bridge and into another century. They could then follow the ancient roadway up to the north side of the Monument, where the beginning of the old roadway is clearly visible.
Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien