On display at the Western Illinois Museum as the Artifact of the Month for July is a weathervane that once graced the steeple of the United Methodist Church located at 114 East First Street in Vermont, Illinois.
The first question that springs to mind is: how did a seven and a-half foot tall weathervane from a church steeple end up in a museum? As with any good question, there is no simple answer.
Museum records state that in 1978, the weathervane came to the museum from Eph Mercer’s store in Vermont. The museum acquired a number of items from the store after Eph Mercer died in 1976, when the store was closed.
Filled with not only merchandise, but also his personal collection of widely assorted antiques, Eph’s country store was locally famous. From brimming jars of penny candy to a cigar store Indian, the store was jam packed with all sorts of items from the past, like kerosene lamps, dolls and photographs. And yes, even a church steeple weather vane was on display in the store. But, another question arises as to how did Eph Mercer get possession of this very heavy, wrought iron church weathervane?
John Bybee, a member of the Vermont United Methodist Church and local historian, was able to discover the story of how the weathervane came to be in Eph Mercer’s store by speaking with Whitney (Whit) Mercer, of Vermont Illinois. Whitney Mercer is the son of Eph Mercer. (Explaining Eph Mercer’s name, Bybee notes that, “His …proper name was Clifford C. Mercer, [but] everybody called him Eph.”)
According to Bybee, “Whit said it [the weathervane] was in his Dad's store for several years. [As to how it Eph Mercer got it, Whit said] One day, workmen were making repairs to the church steeple and were going to just drop the weathervane to the ground and junk the pieces. Eph was in his garden, which adjoins the Methodist Church property to the East. He told the workmen not to drop the weather vane; he would climb the steeple and bring it down himself. The workmen lowered the vane down to Eph with a rope but the "E" was damaged. Jack Smith, a local blacksmith made a new "E" with a torch, out of a block of steel and charged Eph perhaps $2-3 for the job. Far as Whit knows, the vane was put up about 1880-1881.”
So, a wrought and cast iron weathervane, standing about seven and one-half feet tall was rescued from destruction by the quick thinking of an avid collector. Luckily, the weathervane was preserved by Mercer at his store, and then eventually ended up at the museum, now preserved for future generations to enjoy.
According to the local publication, “A Century of Methodism in Vermont, Illinois”, construction of the Methodist Church began in the fall 1864 and was completed in the summer 1865. In the church history, there is no mention of the installation of a weathervane atop the steeple. The exact date of when the weathervane was erected may never be determined.
The church history notes that through the years, renovations and repairs were made to the church and in 1965, a new roof was added and the belfry was repaired. It is possible that in 1965, when the belfry was repaired, Eph Mercer rescued the weathervane.
A photograph from sometime before 1965, when the building housed the Methodist Episcopal Church, shows the steeple with ornate decorative railing and what might be a weathervane. Currently, the Methodist Church has no decorative railing on the steeple and there is only a lightening rod at the top.
The history of weathervanes goes back to ancient times. Historical documents record the use of weathervanes by the ancient Greeks as aids in weather prediction. The word “vane” comes from the Old English word “fane” meaning flag. In medieval times, castles would fly banners or flags to show archers which way the wind was blowing.
Before the age of the Weather Channel, weather forecasting was a more down-to-earth endeavor. Knowing which way the wind was blowing was useful in predicting future weather conditions. To show the direction of the wind, most weathervanes have the points of the compass and an arrow. Mounted so it can swing freely with the wind, the pointer shows the direction of the wind.
Some historians believe the explanation of the popularity of weathervanes on top of church steeples can be traced back to a papal edict from the 9th century A.D. Rome declared that every church in Christendom had to be adorned by a rooster (cockerel), a symbol to remind Christians of Peter’s betrayal of Christ as it states in Luke 22:34. Throughout Europe, there are to the present day, many church steeples decorated with weathervanes in the shape of roosters.
A famous historical example of a weathervane in the shape of a rooster is found in the Bayeux Tapestry, made 1066-1077. In the tapestry is a scene showing a steeplejack climbing the spire of the newly constructed Westminster Abbey with a rooster weathervane in hand, about to install it on the spire.
In the United States, the “Golden Age” of weathervanes was the latter-half of the 19th century. As the nation was growing with new states filling up with small towns, each settlement erected public buildings. Putting a weathervane atop the highest municipal building became a point of civic pride for many communities.
Besides roosters, all sorts of designs of weathervanes adorned town halls, firehouses and churches throughout the country. Exotic animals, running horses, angels, banners and pendants were fashionable. The banner style weathervane lent itself especially well to decorative ironwork, as the Vermont Methodist Church weathervane illustrates.
The Celtic braid design of the Vermont Church banner style weathervane is uniquely and unusually intricate.
Vermont was a prosperous place in the 19th century with seven pork packing firms, mills, tanneries, brickyards, hotels, and businesses. Successful businessmen built impressive homes and the town flourished. Along with notable residences and thriving businesses were a number of churches to serve the booming populace of Vermont. Knowing the rich history of Vermont, it comes as no surprise that one of its tallest buildings, the Methodist Church, would be adorned with such a large and imposing weathervane. This weathervane survives as a vivid reminder of the heritage of Vermont.
From an essay by Heather Munro