Weather vanes remain a charming and nostalgic sight in New England, even in our era of modern weather forecasting.
"They’re truly works of art," said Shelburne Museum curator Kory Rogers. "They’re real pieces of sculpture."
Shelburne Museum has a large collection of weather vanes, many dating from the late 19th to early 20th centuries. The museum prominently displays them in at least two buildings on the museum’s campus. The collection includes vanes in the shape of a mermaid holding a mirror and comb, a circus performer, fish, farm animals, boats, and many others.
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"There is incredible diversity in design, even to the point of whimsy," Rogers said. "Whenever I walk by or see a weather vane, I look up and it causes me to focus and reflect upon the past, and actually, on all the great technological advances since their original conception."
At Shelburne Farms, a national historic landmark, market garden manager Josh Carter prefers modern forecasting technology to any insight on the weather he could glean from the elaborate weather vane in the shape of a water monster that watches over the Farm Barn on the grounds.
"I think it’s another example of the care that went into the buildings here," Carter said of the weather vane atop the large barn. "How they were built with exacting detail, and how we still care for the buildings today."
Carter said he relies on weather apps on his smart phone, often checking the forecast at least three times a day. He uses that information to help him determine when to plant or harvest organic produce, he said.
Still, he regards the non-profit’s weather vane as a thing of beauty that reminds him of how farmers long ago would’ve only had the color of the sky, their instincts, and the direction their vane was pointing to tell them what weather was coming.
"I want to yield so many pounds of tomatoes, and so many quarts of strawberries," Carter said of his growing goals. "But I think back in other times, farmers would have had different goals—a different measure of success. And without access to the forecast, they would have way more crop failures. Knowing about the weather is incredibly important to everything we do."
Many weather vanes you may see on roofs today are modern replacements, because for decades now, antique weather vanes have been attractive lures to thieves who were looking to cash in with collectors on the black market.
Fear of theft once moved the city of Barre, Vermont to take down its rare, early 1900s copper vane, which depicts a horse-drawn fire truck. It had stood atop the city’s former fire station.
That weather vane even made national headlines in 2006, when the city received an offer of $500,000 to purchase it. Later estimates indicated the city may have been able to make more than a million dollars to help fund city projects by selling the fire engine weather vane. But the city council at the time decided Barre’s heritage was not for sale.
The Barre weather vane is now a treasured attraction at the Vermont History Center’s Vermont Heritage Galleries on Washington Street in Barre.
It’s worth pointing out that to this day, talented craftspeople still hammer and shape metal into a huge variety of designs, using both molds and one-of-a-kind creativity. Their work ensures some of our most eye-catching buildings will look sharp no matter which way the wind blows.
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