In Vermont, the year 1927 is primarily remembered for the great flood in November – the most devastating event in the Green Mountain State’s modern history.
But it was also the year of Vermont’s sesquicentennial, or 150th birthday. Although the event was marked with a pageant in Bennington on Aug. 16, there were other celebrations and remembrances of the founding of the Vermont Republic. There were also two commemorations that originated from the federal government in Washington, D.C.: the issue of a two-cent postage stamp and the minting of a silver coin.
While the red stamp, featuring the likeness of a Green Mountain Boy at the Battle of Bennington, was met with relative indifference by Vermonters, the silver 50-cent piece was eagerly anticipated.
Intended to raise money to underwrite the expense of the sesquicentennial festivities, the half dollar was distributed and sold for $1, with the profit accruing to the Vermont Sesquicentennial Commission.
A striking example of beautiful coinage, the coin is prized today by numismatists and collectors of Vermont memorabilia. Its design and production, however, was marred by disagreement and controversy.
Commemorative coins have been a popular way to acknowledge historical events and anniversaries since the 1892 Christopher Columbus tercentenary. In 1925, a 50-cent coin was issued to raise funds for the carving of the Stone Mountain memorial in Georgia. It featured portraits of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The following year a U.S. Sesquicentennial coin featured the likenesses of George Washington and President Calvin Coolidge – the only time a living president’s portrait appeared on either a coin or a postage stamp.
The Senate bill authorizing the production of the Vermont commemorative coin was introduced in 1925. Initially, it called for the production of a silver 50-cent piece and a gold $1 coin, but was later amended to limit the issue to the half-dollar. The legislative intent was to memorialize the Battle of Bennington and the formation of the Vermont Republic, since both events occurred in 1777.
The Republic, which lasted until 1791, when Vermont was admitted to the Union, was largely the brainchild of Ira Allen. When the bill was brought to the House it was further amended, in pork-barrel fashion, to include the minting of two more 50-cent coins: one honoring the 75th anniversary of California’s statehood and the other commemorating the centennial of Fort Vancouver in the state of Washington.
The same year the coin legislation was introduced, a commission to plan events around the celebration was named. The group included various notables such as author Dorothy Canfield Fisher, poet Dan Cady, Gov. Redfield Proctor and John Spargo, famous as an erstwhile socialist and founder of the Bennington Museum. The commission readily accepted the challenge of planning the coin and easily decided to honor Ira Allen with the obverse or “heads” side; and a tribute to the Battle of Bennington on the reverse or “tails” side. They also approved the assignment of Sculptor Sherry Fry for the design.
In the years preceding World War I, Fry had established a formidable reputation as an up-and-coming sculptor. He had studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts but more importantly had been a student of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the eminence-grise of American sculpture. Fry, it is interesting to note, had pledged his artistic abilities to the war effort, enlisting in the American Camouflage Corps in 1917. Sadly, according to the June 2003 Numismatist, “Fry’s concepts were uninspired, with a stiff, though technically accurate bust of Allen on one side, and a rendering of the monolithic Battle of Bennington monument on the other. Charles Moore, Chairman of the U.S. Commission of Fine Arts noted, ‘The Commission felt that Sherry Fry had it in him to produce a very handsome coin and that he had not done so.’”
Giving up on Fry, the commission offered the assignment to another Saint-Gaudens acolyte, Charles Keck who had executed a 1915 coin tribute to mark the opening of the Panama Canal. That small gold coin featured a laborer in a workman’s cap on the front and two dolphins circling the “one dollar” designation on the back. The issue was not nearly as impressive as the Vermont coin, but perhaps the design was limited by the small size of the piece. A sculptor of some national repute, Keck’s statue of Stonewall Jackson in Charlottesville, and his tribute to Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, accrued to his stature.
Keck’s initial proposal for the commission featured a portrait of Ira Allen on the front, or obverse, and a depiction of Fay’s Tavern in Bennington on the reverse. Fay’s Tavern also was known as the Catamount Tavern – a stuffed panther was mounted on a platform atop a tall post in front of the building. The famous tavern was where Ethan Allen planned his assault on Fort Ticonderoga, and where the Vermont Council of Safety was convened in 1775. Although the commission loved Keck’s design, the feds nixed it.
They wrote to Keck entreating the artist, “Could you not introduce a catamount or something of that sort that will enable you to take some satisfaction in the coin as a work of art?”
To this, the Vermont group offer a mild rebuke: “It appears to us that the Fine Arts Commission is overstepping somewhat outside its legitimate sphere,” wrote Spargo. “Frankly, we prefer the tavern which means something historically, to the catamount or any other meaningless motif whose sole justification is pictorial quality.”
Nevertheless, Keck prepared three more sketches for the reverse, none of which featured the famous tavern. Two drawings portrayed the catamount, one striding and one climbing a rock. The third depicted an array of Revolutionary War symbols and flags. The federal officials selected the walking catamount. On June 17, 1926, they approved the design with Ira Allen on the obverse and the catamount on the reverse. If one examines the coin carefully, one can see the artist’s initials between the cat’s left hind leg and tip of its tail.
In January 1927, 40,034 coins were produced at the Philadelphia mint. The half-dollar coins were sold at one dollar a piece ($1.25 by registered mail) by the Bennington Battle Monument and Historical Association. One could also purchase the collectible heirlooms at various banks around Vermont.
For some reason, the coin did not sell as well as anticipated. It is possible that it was difficult to persuade Vermonters to pay $1 for a 50-cent denomination and, if any purchasers were waiting to buy them as Christmas presents, the flood waters that November could have “dampened” their enthusiasm.
Eventually, 11,892 of the commemorative half-dollars were returned to the mint to be melted down.
A simple calculation indicates that just over 28,000 were sold and, of those, many are available from coin dealers and online auction sites. Most of the ones available show moderate to heavy wear, indicating that the market for these pieces was not numismatists but, rather, everyday Vermonters who enjoyed owning a keepsake that extolled the uncommon history of the Green Mountain State.
Discriminating collectors, according to Dennis Hengeveld “are aware that this coin has the highest relief of any of the early commemorative coins struck by the United States Mint, which has led to common weakness on the central portions of the design, especially in lower uncirculated grades. A sharply struck and fully defined Vermont fifty-cent piece is quite a scarce coin, but fortunately for collectors, most dealers seldom ask a premium for such quality pieces.”
Today, one may purchase a Vermont sesquicentennial coin from $200 to $1,000, depending on grade and condition.
Paul Heller is a writer and historian who lives in Barre.