Doughboys and Flyboys: Sheldon Museum Commemorates Middlebury’s Contributions to WWI


MIDDLEBURY — Since the end of July, Middlebury’s Henry Sheldon Museum has been home to the exhibit “Doughboys and Flyboys: WWI Stories by Vermonters from the Home and Battlefront.” The culmination of over a year of work by Executive Director William Brooks and museum staff, Doughboys and Flyboys highlights the stories of Addison County residents who were in the service during WWI. The exhibit will be accompanied by a series of “noon-time talks” throughout October and early November.

Timed to align with the 100th anniversary of the Nov. 11, 1918 armistice, the Sheldon exhibit focuses on the stories of four Middlebury residents. Brooks explained that the inspiration for the exhibit came from the centennial and his personal connection to Middlebury’s WWI history. His grandfather, Dr. Jacob Johnson Ross, once the head of the college’s physical education department, served as a flight surgeon for the US 17th Aero Squadron during the war. 

“World War I is a huge subject matter — how was I going to approach this exhibit?” said Brooks. “[I] decided to advertise to people in the area who had relatives in the service.” 

Along with Ross’, three other residents’ stories are featured in the lower level of the exhibit: Stephen A. Freeman, longtime head of the French department at the college, Middlebury resident Waldo Heinrichs and former Middlebury Professor of German Werner Neuse.

Enter the Sheldon Museum’s primary exhibit room, and you’ll be greeted with a bounty of WWI artifacts. Vintage posters line the walls, advertising war bonds or decrying the “Hun,” while exhibit cases dotted with century-old documents, diaries and photographs await perusal. The museum’s upper level is a visual treat, filled with pristinely preserved artifacts on display, including helmets, a stretcher and even an original Luger P08 pistol. Walk into the back room, and you may feel a chill down your spine as papier-mâché-swathed faces peer at you from the opposite wall.

These eerie faces make up part of Brandon-based artist Fran Bull’s art installation “In Flanders Fields,” inspired by Canadian army doctor John McCrae’s poem of the same name. The poppies that to this day “blow between the crosses, row on row,” in the fields of the Somme are brought to life in the installation by the visitors themselves. Museum attendees are encouraged to write thoughts on red squares of paper provided at the entry and stuff them into gaps in the papier-mâché figures, reinforcing the poppy imagery central to McCrae’s poem. The dark shadows of carrion-bird figures hung from the ceiling accompany the ghostly faces, with the somber ambiance further supplemented by sounds of battle emanating from a speaker near the entryway.


The family history of Middlebury residents Karl and Diane Neuse is deeply rooted in the first World War, and, interestingly, connected to both sides of the conflict. 

“My father didn’t talk much about the First World War,” said Karl. “[He] was drafted at the age of 16 into the German army, [and] his father was killed on the Russian front in 1914,” Karl said. 

A professor of German at Middlebury College for 37 years, Werner Neuse saved his wartime diary and passed it along to his children. Karl’s sister provided a translation from the original German before loaning it to the Sheldon Museum. Diane’s grandfather, William H.H. Childs, who served on the other side of the conflict in the American Field Service and the U.S. Army Ambulance Service, is featured in the same exhibit case as Werner Neuse. 

“I had given the museum some postcards that my grandfather wrote from the front to his future wife and her family,” she explained. Although Diane never met her grandfather, she remembered the intense family stories of his painful respiratory issues stemming from poison-gas injuries during the war. 

“He was so severely wounded,” she said, that it was extremely fortunate that “he was from a family well-enough-to-do that he didn’t have to work [after the war].”

On Wednesday, Oct. 10, Middlebury Vice President for Academic Development and Professor of American Studies Tim Spears will be giving one of the featured talks on WWI. He will focus on his ongoing study documenting the national cemetery system and the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC). As Spears outlined, the inspiration for his project of visiting and photographing American cemeteries began while traveling in France.

“I didn’t really know a lot about American World War One cemeteries in France, and so … I started looking into the history of it, all the while conscious of the fact that what was really drawing me to these places was the visual landscape,” he explained. 

After completing a photography workshop in Sante Fe to learn new techniques, Spears began his project in earnest. 

“There’s no comprehensive treatment of the ABMC,” he said. “I’ve written an article on this part of my research, which I’m now trying to get published.” Having visited over 80 national cemeteries in the U.S. as well as many sites in France, Spears noted, “I was being drawn to these places because I like taking pictures. I’ve been trying to figure out how to balance my interest in photographing these sites with the historical aspects of the project.”

The Doughboys and Flyboys exhibit will remain on display at the Sheldon Museum until Armistice Day. The Sheldon’s “Noon-time Talks” series began with a poetry discussion by Professor Jay Parini on Tuesday, Oct. 2. A full list of talks is available on the Sheldon Museum’s website.

A thorough exhibition of some of Middlebury’s most interesting WWI stories, “Doughboys and Flyboys” explores the impact of such a large-scale conflict on a small town like Middlebury. Diane Neuse truly felt the powerful message behind the commemorative aspect of the exhibit. “[I] was on the verge of being overwhelmed by the art that went along with the show,” she said. “WWI was horrific, and what did we learn? We just continue to do it again, again, and again, it seems … and for what?”

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