Lilian Baker Carlisle may not have been born in Vermont, but she was a born Vermonter.
The woman with the captivating smile and tireless contributions to the community where she lived, as well as the state of Vermont, passed away 11 years ago, but a book on her remarkable life will be released later this month after 10 years in the making.
Known as the local expert on Burlington history for over 50 years, Carlisle’s career — which included state legislator, antiques appraiser, speaker and author — began during a time when women with careers were basically unheard of.
“The big thing about Lilian was that she was such a renaissance person,” Sarah Dopp said. “She never wavered from getting involved in any good causes.”
Dopp, 70, is the past president and current de facto chairwoman of the publications committee for Chittenden County Historical Society, an organization Carlisle co-founded, and the two worked closely together for many years.
“I had actually known her since I was a child,” Dopp said. “She and her family were one of the first residents of a neighborhood called Mayfair Park in South Burlington. It was the first residential development after World War II in the state of Vermont, (where) I also grew up.”
Carlisle was nationally recognized for her work cataloging the renowned collection of folk art and artifacts at the Shelburne Museum, where she had her first job. She went on to write articles and books on antiques and Vermont history, including “Vermont Clocks, Watchmakers, Silversmiths and Jewelers, 1778-1878.”
“Everybody who has questions about Vermont silver turns to that book,” Dopp said.
Dopp worked with Carlisle over a span of 10 years on the three-volume “Historic Guide to Burlington Neighborhoods,” saying, “We had wonderful times sitting around her kitchen table, editing those books.”
“There were always homemade cakes and cookies,” she said. “And she lived in this marvelous house overlooking Lake Champlain. It was just a privilege to sit in her living room and hear all the things that she knew. Lilian knew a ton about Burlington history. Her legacy is really being used every day through these books, and (her) other writing.”
That includes the Chittenden County Historical Society’s 11-volume “Look Around” series, which Dopp said are still used today, 40 years later.
“She’s left her historical research everywhere for people to use,” Dopp said.
Rutland writer Joanna Tebbs Young, 44, never got to meet Carlisle before she was hired for what was initially supposed to be a six-month project to write her memoir.
“It turned out to (involve) more in-depth research,” Tebbs Young said. “But it (was) an amazing two years of my life.”
When Tebbs Young met with members of the Chittenden County Historical Society, they handed her a file box teeming with memorabilia Carlisle had saved. In addition, she had amassed more than 50 scrapbooks during her life, covering the years 1925-2006. A sweeping collection that included newspaper clippings, old photos, typed and handwritten letters, telegrams, floor plans, ticket stubs, prize ribbons, souvenirs and more, to be included in the book.
Tebbs Young spent a summer sitting in her garden going through the box, without any idea how the book would end up, “just kind of absorbing (it), and getting to know this woman,” she said.
Born New Year’s Day, 1912, in Mississippi, Lilian Baker married Grafton Carlisle, and in 1946 they moved to Burlington with their two daughters, Diana, and her younger sister, Penelope. Though her husband was a staunch Republican, Carlisle later ran and won a seat in the House of Representatives as a Democrat.
“They figured that out,” Tebbs Young said. “He even campaigned for her.”
Carlisle received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Vermont at age 69, a master’s in 1986 and an honorary Ph.D. in 2005. That same year she was awarded the Center for Research on Vermont’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
“She took one of the first computing classes in the ’60s,” Tebbs Young said. “And she was a grandmother at the time. Everything she did was just to grab hold of the future.”
Carlisle lived to age 94, passing away on July 28, 2006, from a stroke.
“It was a shock, in the sense that she was very vibrant even though she wasn’t as mobile as she had been,” Dopp said. “It didn’t seem as though she was in imminent danger of passing.”
“Although I never did know her, I feel like I do,” Tebbs Young said. “She’s been such an inspiration to me. Her (first) book was published when she was 60. That really struck home with me, this woman had this amazing life and did so many things, but she didn’t try to do it all in her 30s and 40s. “The fact that she worked outside the home, and that she was pro-abortion in the ’60s when that just wasn’t heard of, and she actually lost her seat in the House because of it, she was a woman ahead of her time,” Tebbs Young said. “Which was the key thing I said in the book. She was a mother of the ’50s, which has a certain stereotype, and she just smashed that. She did bake and was very active with the PTA, she always was dressed impeccably, but she was doing that while going into politics and working for herself. She’s an inspiration for women, for writers and for historians.”
Dopp agreed, saying, “She was a force of nature. She was exacting and demanding, also very warm and caring about people. She set standards for people, and that’s not a negative thing. She was one of a kind.”
The book, entitled “Lilian Baker Carlisle: Vermont Historian, Burlington Treasure, A ‘Scrapbook’ Memoir,” was researched, written and designed by Tebbs Young, with photography by Timothy Clemens, under the direction of the CCHS Publications Committee.
“We’ve worked so hard on this,” Dopp said. “It’s really been 10 years from the time we started trying to do this project. This lady is sort of Mrs. Burlington History, but I think people will be inspired by (her) whether you knew her or lived in Burlington or not. She was important to the whole history of the state of Vermont. So it’s a Vermont story as well as a Burlington story.”
The book will be available in Phoenix Books locations and on the CCHS website at cchsvt.org.