Lebanon’s History in Pictures
As an Enfield native, Nicole Ford Burley has a special connection to the Upper Valley and its history. With a background in medieval art history and research administration, Nicole is well-positioned to serve as the Lebanon city historian, chair of the City’s Heritage Commission, and curator for the Lebanon Historical Society. Nicole’s volunteer and professional roles converged recently to inform the writing of her first book, Images of America: Lebanon (Arcadia Publishing, 2023), now available online through the Lebanon Historical Society website, at the Lebanon libraries, and at local bookstores.
William Bliss (1815–1853; standing at left) moved to Lebanon at the age of 7 and enrolled at West Point at 14. He was chief of
staff to Maj. Gen. Zachary Taylor (seated) and became Taylor’s private secretary after the general became president of the United States in 1849. William Bliss was a talented linguist able to read 13 languages, and he taught mathematics at West Point. He fought in the Mexican-American War and participated in the forced displacement of the Cherokee people. Bliss died of yellow fever at the age of 37, and the US Army named the El Paso military post Fort Bliss in his honor.
Surrounded by iconic cultural and academic institutions such as Dartmouth College, the Enfield Shaker Museum, the Cornish Colony, and St. Gaudens National Historic Park, Lebanon’s history and relevance in the Upper Valley might be easy to overlook. However, Lebanon’s location along the Mascoma River was significant for the Western Abenaki Indians, who lived close to the land for farming, fishing, and traveling the land and waterways in all seasons. The arrival of European settlers eventually served to position Lebanon and West Lebanon as centers for agriculture, commerce, and industry. This pattern continues today with Lebanon steadily earning livability, recreation, and business-friendly accolades since 2008 when Forbes magazine ranked the City as the #1 least vulnerable town in America, and Bizjournals named Lebanon a Top ‘Dreamtown’.
Writing a book about Lebanon’s history wasn’t exactly on Nicole’s agenda when she and her family returned to Lebanon after a decade of living and working in the Boston area. Getting involved in the Lebanon community was a priority for Nicole, and the book opportunity naturally arose in alignment with her appointment as the City Historian. With a young child, the time commitment required over the year of writing the book was a challenge, but not the biggest one.
“The hardest part of writing the book was paring down which images to include,” says Nicole. “Nearly all the images came from the Historical Society’s vast collection.”
Working within strict guidelines set by the publisher, it was a little tricky to pull the correct images to tell Lebanon’s story spanning more than 10,000 years. “I really wanted a narrative shape to the book,” she adds. “Picking the right images to tell that story was challenging. There were many images I wanted to include, but they didn’t fit into the final structure of the book.”
In researching images housed in other collections, Nicole was surprised by the quality of the available images and the generosity and enthusiasm of the organizations she contacted. “I worked with the Vermont Historical Society and they provided a wonderful portrait of Ammi Burnham Young.” Young was a Lebanon-born architect who designed the First Congregational Church in Lebanon and went on to design custom houses and courthouses around the country, as well as many Dartmouth buildings and the Second Vermont State House. Nicole continues, “I received a fantastic image of Phineas Gage from Dominic Hall, the curator at the Warren Anatomical Museum at Harvard.” Gage is still considered a medical marvel for having an iron rod driven through his skull and surviving for many years.
The time period covered in the book was Nicole’s decision. “It was really important for me to capture Lebanon’s history even before the Western Abenaki people settled here. I leaned on images of the natural features of Lebanon, as well as maps, for that component.”
The book’s timeline begins around 11,000 BC when the first humans came to the area. “Images of Lebanon’s pre-history are more like place settings, and they build a foundation for 10,000 years of history.” For the first Abenaki settlement, Nicole obtained an impressive image from the Archives de la Ville de Montréal of an early Abenaki couple. There are a total of 204 different photographs in the book, each with a well-researched caption contributing to Lebanon’s story. “I am at the point now where I can look at the book from an evaluation perspective. I’m quite happy with how it turned out, but it could have been twice as long. I could easily do another book with an entirely different set of topics.”
Writing the book deepened Nicole’s understanding of Lebanon’s history. “It required me to think about all the different facets of Lebanon’s history, and in particular the architectural and building history, and it also reinforced my understanding of how neighborhood-focused Lebanon has historically been. I also had to expand my thinking about the City’s recreation and athletic history.” Historically, like many Upper Valley towns, Lebanon was made up of village centers (Lebanon and West Lebanon) and surrounding regions like Hardy Hill and Poverty Lane. “An entire history could be done about each neighborhood,” says Nicole.
It was important to make sure West Lebanon was well represented, according to Nicole. “It’s natural to focus on Colburn Park and the center of the city. In the Mascoma and the Mills chapter, I included references to the Connecticut River, and I tried to include as many of the geographic areas as possible. West Lebanon could still have its own book!”
In her day job, Nicole manages research grants as the senior manager of research administration for the Institute of Human Development and Social Change at New York University. She has also worked with biomedical engineers and in cancer research, and is currently focused on education and working with students in inner-city schools. “One of the most exciting projects we’re working on is supporting a version of Sesame Street in Arabic,” says Nicole.
Writing the book fit well with Nicole’s professional training. “I knew I wanted to do it right away, but it was incredibly ambitious. I discussed the idea with the Historical Society because the majority of the photos were coming from our collection. The group felt that we had such a great collection, so why not share it.”
Nicole credits her predecessors at the Historical Society with setting up and maintaining strong organizational systems for the papers and artifacts in the society’s collection. “Previous curators and custodians have done a great job,” says Nicole. “Robert Leavitt (a previous long-time City Historian) was before my time being involved in Lebanon’s history, but he wrote extensive reports on houses and scribbled notes on tiny slips of paper to remind himself to come back and expand on different aspects.” Nicole first came across Robert Leavitt as a college student. “The most inspirational thing about him was that his commitment to Lebanon’s history was transcendent. You can’t touch anything in Lebanon’s history without encountering him. I try to have that same level of commitment.”
One of Nicole’s primary interests is the history of individual buildings. “I love looking at the photos of buildings throughout different eras – when a building was built, how it has changed. The most common request we get is from people who have just purchased a house and want to know more about it.” Nicole and her Historical Society colleagues look through the Society’s document collections and deeds, researching previous owners and other information related to the house to share.
Community support for the book has been gratifying following a successful launch party in September. “I’ve been blown away by how many people have expressed interest and enthusiasm for the book. We sold 115 copies at the launch and the Historical Society inventory was completely sold out.” The publisher takes care of supplying the major vendors and author appearances at local bookstores.
Nicole hopes the book will have a positive impact. “My major hope is that people will develop a better understanding about Lebanon’s history. I wanted it to be readable for people with as many interests and perspectives as possible.”
For more information or to get involved in volunteering with the Lebanon Historical Society, contact Nicole Ford Burley firstname.lastname@example.org.