Originally published in Business Digest, April 1998

A Great Lake Museum

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

Art Cohn Art Cohn has been a gymnast, a farmer, a lawyer and a commercial diver among other things -- all pursuits (except maybe the gymnastics) that helped him establish and grow the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum into a thriving, non-profit organization with a bright future. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

While Vermonters have known for a long time that Lake Champlain is a great lake, the recent news of its designation (however permanent) as the sixth Great Lake has brought lots of ribbing to the state. Amid that ribbing, though, there’s been loads of attention focused on our lake and its issues — attention that can be parlayed into heightened awareness of how the lake affects the lives of those who live in its basin and the impact they have on the health and future of the lake. And while the idea of sharing Sea Grant status and being at the same table with resource managers from the other Great Lakes is a novel one for many of us, it’s nothing new for Art Cohn. He’s been collaborating with them for some time. “As a group of managers looking to preserve and protect valuable national-level ecosystems, we benefit from being at the same table sharing information and collaborating,” he says.

Lake Champlain is Cohn’s passion. As head of the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum at Basin Harbor, which he co-founded and opened in 1986 as an outgrowth of the Champlain Maritime Society (which he also helped found), he lives the mission of the museum: to preserve and share the rich legacy of Lake Champlain with the public. A mere 12 years from its founding, the Maritime Museum is an institution in all senses of the word, having grown from a one-room stone schoolhouse to a campus with 14 buildings housing historic and scientific exhibits, research, boat-building facilities, preserved artifacts, a museum store and kids’ play spaces plus picnic facilities and an exact copy of the Revolutionary War gunboat Philadelphia, a floating exhibit visitors can actually board. The rapidity of growth has surprised even Cohn, but the thriving of the museum’s programs was expected.

“It’s fair to say that the success of the museum is directly related to the great historical legacy that Lake Champlain contains,” he says. He’s referring not only to the lake history that connects us to our country’s origins, but also to a literal underwater treasure trove of submerged artifacts that he believes is unparalleled in North America. The Philadelphia was only one of a string of archaeological finds the museum has announced. “Every ship wreck and every underwater resource, like the great bridge we found between Mount Independence and Fort Ticonderoga, becomes a new catalyst for scholarship,” he says, referring to the remains of a structure built by Revolutionary War soldiers across the ice in the winter of 1777. “We have right now a backlog of sites and stories, and putting it all together is going to be the great, wonderful challenge of this place, at least in my tenure.” Mapping the lake’s bottom and documenting these sites (before zebra mussels destroy the evidence) is also an urgent priority, along with protecting underwater artifacts from theft and human destruction.

Art Cohn is the perfect person to be doing what he does. Monty Fisher, a co-founder of the museum and now in Montpelier as Northeast vice president of the National Wildlife Federation, says that Cohn’s “unique role centers on three characteristics. One is his depth of knowledge about the lake that is, probably, unsurpassed at this point. And that includes historical and cultural, but it’s also based on his knowledge of people who are around the lake. The second is his communication skills and his enthusiasm for sharing information about the lake to all ages, any audience. And his third characteristic is his tenacity and creativity. He believes in what he’s doing, and he’s creative in carrying through on his vision of the future of the lake.”

Knowing Cohn now, it might come as a bit of a shock to learn that he once had aspirations (or, at least fantasies, he corrects) of being an Olympic gymnast. Growing up in Queens, N.Y., he was captain of his high school gymnastics team and received a partial gymnastics scholarship to the University of Cincinnati, where he attended college. “I was a hard worker,” he recalls, “but I was really too big for a gymnast.” He adds that, after his first year at Cincinnati, he gave up competitive gymnastics and began teaching the sport as a volunteer at a local community center.

Intrigued by his undergraduate studies in sociology and “fascinated by the whole topic of how we govern ourselves,” Cohn decided to pursue a career in law. So following graduation from Cincinnati in 1971, he headed back east to Boston College Law School. A short detour to visit a cousin working in a bar on the Maquam Shore of Swanton turned into an entire summer of day work on farms and night work at the bar with his cousin. “I fell in love with the area,” he confesses, “and with the help of the People’s Trust Co. of St. Albans, I was able to buy a small farm. It was a non-working farm near Fairfield with 35 acres, barns and an old farmhouse. All it needed was a little TLC, and that was right up my alley.”

That farm could be said to be Cohn’s first restoration project, and he would continue to call Vermont home, coming up for summers and whenever breaks allowed. “It was quite an effort to stay in school,” he admits. “Both the fiscal challenges and just the desire, now that I had the farm, to be there.” He credits his father for helping him finish school. “He just talked to me and provided me good advice: to finish what you start and you won’t be sorry.”

Cohn did reasonably well in criminal law at Boston College. So when his law professor, Sanford Fox, got hired by the state of Vermont to help rewrite the criminal code, he hired Cohn (still a student) to be one of the background researchers. This allowed Cohn to “deeply delve into the evolution of particular aspects of criminal law in Vermont,” which Fox used to formulate new adaptations. “It was great! I’d go to meetings and listen to the process of the way law gets formed. It was very, very interesting to me.” Following graduation and passing the bar exam, Cohn got a job as a public defender in the Northeast Kingdom.

Since high school, Cohn had been interested in SCUBA diving, a sport he’d encountered at age 16 when he met some ex-Navy divers who introduced him to it. “I loved it!” he exclaims. “I felt like I had come home.” His interest led him to become a diving instructor while he was in law school and, even before the bar exams, he did commercial diving work.

He became disenchanted with his public defender position, realizing that it was the sociological aspect of the law that had fascinated him and not the actual courtroom experience. So when he was offered a job working in the Caribbean as a diving instructor, he made the switch. “I did this for parts of 12 different years,” Cohn says. “I’d work as a diver up here for nine months, then travel to the Caribbean for the winter, which was a way to keep working and also be in a great, interesting part of the world.” Over the years, he was a guide, an instructor, a commercial diver, salvage diver and, for three winters, had a job on St. Croix working for a program called Hydrolab, an underwater habitat run by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “It was just great — satisfying and very challenging. And I was outdoors and in the sea. I was very content.”

It was during this time that he met Annie Erwing, a diving student whom he would date “off and on” for 10 to 12 years. “I was a pretty content bachelor,” says Cohn, “traveling to the Caribbean every winter and working this remote Fairfield farm, and Annie was going to school in the winter and had a life of her own. But with evolution and time — we clearly loved each other — we wanted to get married.” They finally tied the knot in 1990 in Burlington at Isabel’s on the Waterfront. They now have two children, Nathan, age 7, and Genevieve, age 5.

Early in this period, during his summers in Vermont, Cohn also “had the good fortune to meet some wonderful old-timers: Merritt Carpenter, a captain for the ferry company, John Williams, state archivist, and Ralph Nading Hill, a venerable historian.” He says they and others took him under their wing, resulting in the formation of the Champlain Maritime Society in 1980. “I think it’s fair to say that I was involved, as were Monty Fisher and state archaeologist Giovanna Peebles. They deserve the credit for this.”

Within a couple of years, Cohn met Bob Beach, whose family owned the Basin Harbor Club in Vergennes. “He was about my age and had very similar interests, which had been provoked by his grandfather, who was a lake historian,” says Cohn. The pair collaborated on a shipwreck project, one thing led to another, and pretty soon they began talking about starting a museum. The organization borrowed money from a bank to move a one-room stone schoolhouse slated for demolition by the town of Panton to land contributed by the Beach family. “We approached the town and offered to turn it back into a public building if they would allow us to have it. And that’s how the museum came to be and came to be here,” he says. “We opened it in 1986, the Maritime Society merged with the Maritime Museum, and it’s been an unbelievable process.”

The museum’s rapid growth has created an exciting time. “We were just immersed in potential and opportunity and public interest,” says Cohn. “So our growth was by intent, really, it was by almost necessity. On the one hand, it’s fair to say it’s been wonderful and dynamic and very exciting. On the other hand, it’s also been occasionally stressful and very challenging. We’re a non-profit museum and get no formal public support, so we rely very much on other people who have a similar interest.” Right now, the museum has nearly 1,000 members and a growing corps of volunteers that currently numbers about 75. It employs 12 full-time people and, in summer, that number rises to 25 to cover programs and research projects.

What’s truly astounding is the fact that, according to Cohn, the potential growth curve doesn’t show any signs of diminishing. “We’re sitting here in 1998 trying to chart a course for the next century, and the opportunities are almost overwhelming,” he says. These include a management study on a second Revolutionary War gunboat that’s just been discovered (it’s one of eight known to have been in the fleet). The museum has just been asked by the Navy Museum in Washington to lend them its “Revolutionary War and the Champlain Valley” exhibit for next winter; other jurisdictions have requested consultations on underwater resource management; there’s consideration of potential expansion into Burlington on the waterfront in conjunction with the Lake Champlain Basin Science Center and the University of Vermont research laboratory project; a book will come out in May on horse-powered ferry boats of North America; and the museum has re-published The Steamboats of Lake Champlain.

Cohn and the museum are strong advocates of Vermont’s Underwater Historic Preserve Program, which currently includes five sites. They’re working closely with Vermont to facilitate the addition of a sixth site this summer and are discussing, with New York, the creation of its first site. “We’ve done the archaeological documentation and feasibility on these sites,” he says, “but it’s the states’ responsibility to designate a preserved site. We certainly are advocates for these resources, both for their preservation and, based on federal and state law, also public access.” But, he admits, there’s no precedent for these kinds of programs or for the management of these resources, so Lake Champlain has been in the forefront. Somehow, Cohn also finds time to write guest essays for projects like This Lake Alive! a 502-page interdisciplinary handbook published by Shelburne Farms as a basin-wide resource for teachers and parents.

Meanwhile, back at the museum, there’s work to do in preparation for the new season. Beginning Monday, May 4, the museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week through the third week in October. Among exhibits to get ready are a small craft exhibit building with all kinds of historic small vessels, ice boats, canoes, dugout canoes and rowing vessels used in the 19th and early 20th century; a preservation building that houses the pilot house for the Steamboat Reindeer and some other larger objects; a nautical archaeology center with exhibits about shipwrecks and research that’s ongoing, a film about the lake survey and the survey results to date; a new exhibit called Virtual Diver that will let visitors use a touch computer screen to explore underwater shipwrecks; a Revolutionary War exhibit building; a blacksmith’s shop; two boat-building facilities; and, of course, the Philadelphia. There’s also a year-round conservation laboratory where people can watch the work being done on historic artifacts and the process of preservation. Besides member contributions, Cohn says that the museum has received terrific community support from such organizations as the Lintilhac Foundation, the Freeman Foundation, Lane Press, Vermont National Bank, Green Mountain Power Corp. and IBM, to mention just some of the larger funders.

It’s obvious Cohn’s schedule is a busy one. Even a labor of love makes you tired. He makes time for family and his diving, although he admits that, in the last couple of years, he’s had to schedule himself out — say he won’t be at the office for a period or that he’ll be in on weekends. “I was just a young man when I started this,” Cohn says. “I’m not young any more. If all goes well, I could be here another 10 to 12 years. But it’s interesting, at some point, you start to see that you’re going to have to pass the baton, and I’m actually hoping I do that well. It’s an important part of what anybody does, when they care about a system and care for its long-term survival and future. We’ve put together some very interesting, user-friendly information in a pleasant way and we’d love for people to come see it. It’s rewarding for us to hear people walk away saying, ‘That was a really neat experience.’ ”