CHESTER, Vt. – A grand opening ceremony on Saturday, Oct. 28 celebrated the town’s newly renovated, historic hearse house and museum – a triumph for a building whose survival was in jeopardy as recently as 2014.
It was a lovely afternoon, the latest warm afternoon in a long string of unseasonably warm afternoons this autumn. As a breeze tossed around drifts of dry leaves, Chester Select Board Chair Arne Joynas broke the ribbon on the new museum, eliciting applause from a supportive crowd.
During her opening remarks, Lillian Willis, co-chair of the Chester Townscape Hearse House Subcommittee, described the hearse house and its museum as “unique in Vermont, possibly the country…who knows? Maybe even the world.”
The white-painted wooden structure, about the size of a single-car garage, accommodates a historic, horse-drawn hearse, complete with its original set of wooden runners for wintertime travel over snow. The hearse is separated from the “educational foyer” and its informational displays by a glass-and-wood partition.
A few years ago, the hearse house’s future seemed bleak. It was dilapidated, and the town was considering razing it altogether. “While it was not kept up very well, it was still a landmark at the very center of Chester,” said Willis.
And it was an element within a larger historical context, she explained. “It was a fitting part of the theme here with the Brookside Cemetery [and] the public tomb, where bodies are stored during the winter and where people have to wait until the ground thaws in the spring.”
Community members and organizations stepped up to save the hearse house, raising funds and volunteering. The breadth of the joint effort was evident in the long list of thank-yous delivered by Willis during the ceremony. Chester Townscape members – several present in the crowd identifiable from their matching hats – were singled out for gratitude. Other recognitions ranged from the town itself (the Chester Trustees of Public Funds provided $5000 toward the project) to smaller – but still vital – contributions. A special thanks was reserved for Hans Forlie, who visited the building “nearly daily” according to Willis – to handle an infestation of mice.
By necessity, the hearse house and its mini-museum will be a seasonal attraction; there’s no heat. The hearse house and its educational foyer will be open 1-3 p.m. on the weekends of Nov. 4-5 and Nov. 11-12 before shuttering for the season.