American Precision Museum, Windsor, Vermont
Patricia L. Cummings
photos by James Cummings
The American Precision Museum
Founded by Edwin Battison, the American Precision Museum in Windsor, Vermont is rated at one of the ten top places to visit
to learn more about how the Civil War affected Vermont. Current exhibits are titled “Arming the Union: Gunmakers in
Windsor, Vermont,” and “Full Duty: the Civil War Collection of Howard Coffin.” The Robbins and Lawrence Factory,
established in 1846, is known for the manufacture of precise interchangeable machine parts used for gun-making and later for
the mass production of bicycles and other consumer goods.
On Friday, September 7, 2013 we visited this museum that is extraordinary in unexpected ways. Just as one quilt looks
exactly like another to the unknowing, one machine can closely resemble another when one does not know its function or end
product. Clay Washburn, a museum volunteer, made the experience come alive for me when he fashioned two pieces of metal
into other objects, quickly and efficiently. First, he took a round metal disk and using one of the machines, he engraved the
name of the museum, the year (2013) and other information, marking both the front and the back of the piece. Next, working
with another machine that cut grooves into the edges by the repeated up and down action of a cutting tool, he transformed the
round shape into a “gear.” It was magic!
Complete view of the field and area used by the Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania
While the displays of various rifles, shotguns and pistols shall always be of interest to the men who visit the museum, I was
naturally drawn to the paintings that depict the Civil War and the photographs that tell the story without further ado. A
charcoal drawing depicts Union and Confederate soldiers together. The museum signage states that they often shared coffee,
tobacco or newspapers. The scene depicts the Rappahanock River banks near Fredericksburg, Virginia in 1862-1863.
Several paintings in the exhibit are absolutely riveting! One of them inspired us to order Don Troiani’s Civil War book which
features more of his paintings. In one of the paintings, a quilt wrapped around a soldier on horseback is depicted.
A photo of a Civil War encampment at Gettysburg was taken in 1913 and is amazing in length and scope. With today’s
modern camera equipment such a photo could not be made, according to Washburn.
Everyday items used by soldiers include a “pocket Bible,” many of which deflected bullets, if stories I have heard elsewhere
are correct. A soldier’s “housewife,” a small fold-up sewing kit with thread, extra buttons, needles and scissors were carried
by every enlistee. One of those is displayed along with photos of Vermont soldiers, a few letters home.
Ku-Klux Klan robe and hood, an eerie reminder of times past
Of course, I am always keen to see textiles. One glass case holds a reminder of the past that most of us would like to forget:
a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood. This attire was worn by someone who opposed the presidential run of “Al Smith” in 1928.
Alfred Emanuel “Al” Smith (1873-1944), a Democrat, was the first Roman Catholic candidate for the highest office in the
land. Interestingly enough, he was appointed as sub-chairman of a committee to review the factors that led to the horrific
tragedy in 1911 when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned and many workers jumped from upper story windows to their
death, there not being fire engines at the time with ladders that could reach the top floors of the factory.
Lincoln commemorative ribbon sewn onto a 19th century Crazy Quilt
The exhibit cases and walls are full of many unique objects! I am just pointing out some highlights. A very special Crazy
Quilt, with fine embroidery stitches and a variety of types of fabrics that are asymmetrically-pieced, features a
commemorative silk ribbon with President Lincoln’s face. Included on the ribbon is a paragraph from one of his speeches.
The cited words are:
“With malice toward none and charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to
finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
As I was parting, Washburn asked me to think about the factory floor, full of about 100 workers. The smell of lard would
have added to the other odors in the air, as men sweated in the factory with closed windows on a hot summer’s day. Machine
oil was not available then but lard provided a good substitute.
"Housewife" or "Pin Keep" owned by a former Civil War soldier
The factory was part of a mill system that covered New England in the 19th century, with a mill placed on every fast moving
stream. Every little town seems to have had a grist mill and a fulling mill, if not a factory to weave cloth. Eventually, the
southern states were able to gain leverage and compete with factory production in the north when steam power was
Every mill needed a mill stream and this mill was no different!
A visit to the American Precision Museum will appeal to Civil War buffs and those who are interested in America’s Industrial
Revolution, and others who are simply fascinated by machinery or examples of guns. The museum helps to celebrate
Vermont’s spirit of independence. It was the 14th state to enter the Union. Residents always took an anti-slavery stance.
Many homes in nearby Woodstock, Vermont were used to hide slaves being conducted on the so-called Underground Railroad
(not an actually railroad; just a means of conveying slaves to freedom in Canada, via the use of “safe houses.”
The museum is open from May 25 – Oct 31 and is located at 196 Main Street, Windsor, VT 05089
(802) 674-5781. An admission fee is charged and a nice selection of books is offered in the Gift Shop.