People & Places

New Statehouse statue set for dome-topping debut

Calais sculptor Chris Miller uses a chisel and mallet to carve a new statue to top the Statehouse. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Chris Miller knows how 160 years of history has credited the late Larkin Goldsmith Mead with creating the statue of a goddess of agriculture atop the Vermont Statehouse.

Chris Miller knows better.

True, Mead designed the allegorical figure — popularly if not officially known by the Roman name Ceres — when the Montpelier capitol was rebuilt after a catastrophic fire in 1857. But although the artist penned his vision on paper, he wasn’t the one who painstakingly chiseled the dome-topping final product — the carver instead was fellow Brattleboro resident and cabinetmaker Johann Henkel.

How does Miller know? He’s the Calais sculptor who for the past four months has whittled away at a 14½-foot-tall, more than one-ton replacement set for public unveiling this week.

“I completely can imagine what it was like to carve and what they used and went through to make that,” says Miller, who’s wielding the same tools and techniques his predecessor did a century and a half ago.

A capitol-crowning statue was a new idea when Mead — who sparked national headlines on New Year’s Eve 1856 by carving an 8-foot-tall snow angel in the center of his hometown — was commissioned at age 21 to create something classical out of native white pine.

Mead would go on to make a name for himself designing marble statues of Ethan Allen for the Statehouse and U.S. Capitol and a granite tomb for President Abraham Lincoln in Springfield, Illinois. But the female figure he conceptualized for the Montpelier dome was, once conceived on paper and through a plaster model, sculpted by a 22-year-old Estey Organ Co. employee who historians believe deserves his due.

Historic tools and techniques are being used to create the new statue to top the Statehouse. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

“Our research indicates that Henkel actually made the towering wood carved statue,” Brattleboro Historical Society President Joe Rivers writes in the organization’s latest newsletter. “We hope that Henkel will someday receive credit.”

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Blazing sun and blowing snow weren’t kind to the figure, which rotted over the following eight decades. In 1938, the now late Statehouse Sergeant-at-Arms Dwight Dwinell, then in his 80s, saw the need for a replacement and, strapped for money at the end of the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II, decided to do the work himself.

Armed with planks of Ponderosa pine, Dwinell crafted the head and commissioned Montpelier woodworkers Deane Bancroft and Gordon Yeaton to sculpt the body. But the weather proved equally punishing for the second statue, which lasted 80 years before its removal last spring for future display inside the Vermont Historical Society’s museum in Montpelier.

The state contracted with Colchester’s Engelberth Construction to repair and regild the dome — believed to be the oldest original roof in the state — as part of a $2 million restoration project.

Miller, for his part, has been carving a third statue using a 48-inch clay model crafted by Montpelier sculptor Jerry Williams. Considering the project to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the creators have invited the public to view their progress at the Vermont Granite Museum in Barre.

Miller has almost a half-century of experience carving everything from claw feet on wooden furniture to the 9-foot granite sign outside the Barre museum. But he acknowledges the prospect of turning some 3,000 pounds of mahogany into a statue destined for decades of photographs and postcards was daunting.

“I’ve never done anything this size,” he says. “Almost no one has done anything this size.”

Calais sculptor Chris Miller (from left) and Montpelier colleague Jerry Williams stand with a scale model of the new statue to top the Statehouse. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

It didn’t help that Gov. Phil Scott used the public start of the project in September to announce he was set to give Miller and Williams a Vermont Arts Council Award for Excellence this month, and could the statue be done by then?

Miller has worked from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily all fall, chronicling his 80-plus-hour workweeks on such social media sites as Facebook and Instagram.

“A good sharp chisel through wood is just fantastic,” he says. “It’s very soothing. It’s very relaxing. It’s almost meditative. It’s why I’m a carver. It’s just as much fun as you can have.”

Miller occasionally finds himself surrounded by tourists and students, many who ask why he’s sculpting Central American mahogany rather than homegrown pine.

“Mahogany is rot and insect resistant and easier to carve because it’s fairly lightweight and there are no knots,” he replies. “There’s no local wood with the same characteristics. Pine is basically a sponge that will soak up water. Cedar is stringy and has knots. Maple would have killed me it’s so hard.”

The state hopes the result will last nearly twice as long as the first two statues. People can see for themselves Monday at a pizza party from 5 to 8 p.m. at the Vermont Granite Museum and Friday when the statue will be on display at 10 a.m. at the east entrance of the Statehouse, welcomed by Scott at 11:30 a.m. and lifted 100 feet up onto the dome at noon.

Brenda Greika is one of many local residents set to attend. Greika, seeing the dome without the statue this spring, took a Facebook picture of the capitol with a paper Ceres cutout she placed on a stick and photographed so it looked like it was back on top. That, in turn, has inspired others to post similar shots from such places as London’s Buckingham Palace and Paris’ Eiffel Tower on a #CeresOnAStick website.

“She’s been to more places than I have,” Greika says. “I see Ceres as the godmother of everyone in the state — she watches over us. You missed her when she was gone. How can you not want to be there to see her go back up?”

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As for Miller, he’s set to pack up his tools and, like his predecessors, take a place in history.

“I certainly feel a kinship to the original craftsmen,” he says. “I know what they put into it.”

Calais sculptor Chris Miller uses a scale model by Montpelier colleague Jerry Williams to help create a new Statehouse statue. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Kevin O'Connor

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