Red Letter Days: Shirley Murray and the Journals of Lila Webb

Curator of Collections

Volunteer Shirley Murray standing in front of portrait painting of Lila Vanderbilt Webb
Shirley Murray in front of a portrait of Lila Webb, Tea Room at Shelburne Farms Inn, 2017.
“In her own words in her journals and diaries, we listen to her voice as she tells her story, which can be an inspiration to women of all generations. The undaunted courage of this wise, compassionate woman can teach us all how to survive the valleys as we cherish the beauty of our own mountaintop experiences.”

–Shirley Murray, 1999  

Shirley Murray, a long-time volunteer at Shelburne Farms, had a life-long passion for teaching, learning, and making connections with everyone with whom she came in contact. She taught kindergarten, English as a second language to mothers and children of many countries and cultures, and later, journal writing workshops throughout New England. 

Her connection to Shelburne Farms began when she arrived to volunteer as a tour guide in a fledgling volunteer program begun in 1986. That same year, she was introduced to the journals of Lila Webb. Farm staff Megan Camp led her up to the Farm Barn turret to show her two cardboard boxes covered in dust and bird droppings. But Megan knew the treasure inside them. “Lila’s journals are in here!” she enthused, carefully revealing the bound volumes within the boxes. The contents of those two simple boxes would occupy Shirley Murray for the next 17 years as she read, transcribed, and audio-recorded nearly 61 years of Lila Webb’s journals and diaries. 

Eliza (Lila) Osgood Vanderbilt began composing her daily activities at the age of 16, and continued to do so throughout her lifetime, in journals that varied in format, color, size, shape, and binding over the years.  As the youngest daughter of William H. Vanderbilt—one of the world’s wealthiest men at the time of his death in 1885—Lila’s early diaries provide a glimpse into the daily life of a privileged adolescent girl in the Gilded Age. 

Most entries chronicle her day-to-day activities, but a few journals take the form of love letters. Lila married William Seward Webb in 1881 and together they used their enormous wealth to purchase and consolidate 32 farms into a single 3,800-acre agricultural estate they called Shelburne Farms. As Shirley aptly stated, “Shelburne, Vermont became [Lila’s] beloved home for fifty years. It was her sanctuary where she felt and awed in the beauty of the sunrises over Lone Tree Hill and the sunsets over the Adirondack Mountains across Lake Champlain in New York State.”

When Lila Webb was thirty-six years of age, on December 17, 1896, she reflected on her motivation for journaling. She wrote:  

“My notes are very desultory and detached, but they are for personal use. They help me get through the many sad and dreary ones [days] which are sure to follow, but let us thank God for the red letter days when they come.”

Borrowing from Lila, Shirley spoke often of red letter days in her own life: the days, occasions, and people that brought her joy and delight. And like Lila before her, Shirley would annotate her own journal entries using a red pen to bold those wonderfully memorable days.  

Transcribing Lila’s journals was a labor of love. Shirley began with a scrapbook that Lila compiled in 1875 when she was just 14 years old, and continued through to Lila’s last journal entry on May 18, 1936, just two months before Lila’s death. Along the way, Shirley took copious notes, grew intimately familiar with the tutored and elegant pen strokes of Lila’s handwriting and became, in effect, Lila’s friend.  

As a passionate “journaler” herself, Shirley discovered in Lila an equally devoted writer and chronicler of life. And as a retired teacher, Shirley found herself learning lessons from Lila about ways to keep a journal; even ways to live a life and more importantly, how to remain buoyant and afloat among life’s complexities. 

Shirley Murray passed away in May 2021 at the age of 93. Shelburne Farms is deeply grateful for her decades of dedication and friendship, and for her generous gift to Shelburne Farms' endowment through a planned giving bequest in her will.  Shirley has left a lasting legacy that will help Shelburne Farms continue to pursue its mission far into the future. 


stairs leading to turret of Farm Barn filled with cardboard boxes and books.
In 1986, Shirley climbed these stairs with Megan Camp to discover all these archival boxes in the turret of the Farm Barn. Two of those boxes held Lila Webb's journals.

Pages from one of Lila Vanderbilt’s earliest journals/scrapbooks — written when she was a young girl in 1875.

hand-written pages inside Lila Webb's journal, 1904
Pages from a much later journal of Lila in 1904, when she was a wife and mother. On Monday, September 19, 1904, she wrote, "My boy leaves me tomorrow for Groton School. It requires all the courage I have to let him go.  I am sure it is best for him. I can only hope and pray it is a wise decision, for I feel that the responsibility of it lies with me, and should it not be for his good, I could only have myself to blame. He is too fine a boy to run any risk of being spoiled by too easy house training, but it just breaks my heart to give him up."

Seward Webb penciled toujours fidele—always faithful—on the rib of Lila’s fan, a memento from an arranged weekend gathering of society’s young and eligible adults in August 1878, near Saratoga, NY. (In this studio photo from that weekend, Lila is in back row, second from right, holding the fan. Seward is gazing at her.)  In 1986, this memento was discovered in an old box of curtains. Its significance would have been lost had Shirley not shared this information from the journals within days of the discovery—one of the coincidences and “en moments” Shirley would encounter while working with the journals.

The "T........   F.......", at the beginning of the second line of Seward's inscription on the fan, was the shortened form of "toujours fidele"  that he used in his correspondence with Lila. His longer inscription reads, "a pipe, a pipe, a kingdom for a pipe."


Submitted by Janice Heilmann on Wed , 03/2/2022 - 08:44 AM

This is a wonderful tribute to a lovely and ebullient woman who was always positive and forever curious. She shared her enthusiasm for Lila and the Farm wherever she went. It was impossible not to feel her love for her subject too.

Submitted by Kathy V on Sun , 05/15/2022 - 12:04 PM

Throughout my years as a tour guide at Shelburne Farms, Shirley's talks on Lila's journal were the most meaningful to me.

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