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Saturday, March 10, 2018

World War I: Locals At Home

A century ago residents of our area were faced with the impact of World War I and faced shortages, cold weather and influenza. This is a collection of World War I posters that appeal to the general public for support.

Journal Opinion, March 7, 2018 

“We are facing conditions which are unique for this generation in these days of war.”

Harry E. Parker, Editor, The United Opinion

Between April 1917 and November 1918, the United States sent 2 million men to fight “the war to end all wars.” Ultimately, 16,000 Vermonters and over 20,000 from New Hampshire, including hundreds of locals, joined that force. In April 2017, this blog featured an article on that fighting force entitled “Locals Over There.” It can be accessed at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.

This essay deals with impact of the war on the civilian population of the two states a century ago.  As  Parker suggested, the impacts were significant and affected every aspect of daily life.     

Even before America entered the war, demands from European combatants for American goods helped fuel an economic boom in the nation, a boom that was felt in Northern New England. This included a demand for machine tools, textiles, armaments, lumber, shipping and agricultural products.

The national government reversed the traditional policies of laissez-fair. Special boards were given unprecedented control over both the economy and personal life. The federal government took control of telephone and telegraph systems as well as merchant shipping and railroads. Other boards included Fuel Administration, War Industries Board, War Labor Board and Food Administration. Every attempt was made to operate the economy more effectively to meet the demands of “total war.”

In 1917, the federal government established the Committee on Public Information to cultivate public support for the war and “guard secrets of value.”  Thousands of so-called Four-Minute Men appeared at public gatherings with prepared brief speeches, “every one having the carry of shrapnel.” Posters and bulletins and newspaper columns advanced the patriotic fervor.

As with citizens nationwide, local residents embraced the war effort, viewing it as both a moral crusade and a matter of national self-defense. In June 1917, the film “Stand By the President” was shown at the Fairlee Opera House. “Win-the-War” meetings were held locally.  

Support for the war was necessary, it was explained, “because if the Germans should win they will take everything away from the people of America.” Newspapers carried news of German atrocities against neutral nations. It was later determined that British propaganda exaggerated both the threats and the atrocities in order to incite America’s participation in the war. 

Both New Hampshire and Vermont passed legislation to mobilize their citizens and defend against  possible saboteurs. The New Hampshire Legislature led by Governor Henry Keyes of Haverhill set a record for martial legislation, including the registration of aliens, regulation of firearms and explosives and conservation of resources.  An espionage act was passed in Vermont permitting the warrantless arrest of individuals suspected of plotting against the government or giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

Across the nation, the vigilante American Protective League, claiming members in most towns, set out “to run down slackers and seditious aliens.” It was difficult and dangerous to oppose the war. There were few actual cases of antiwar prosecutions in the two states. As in other states, there were efforts to reduce German influence. This led the  Berlin (NH) Mills to change its name to Brown. Newspapers  referred to German measles as liberty measles.     

 Anti-war songs such as “I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be A Soldier” were replaced with songs such as “Over There” in support of the war efforts.   

There was a certain degree of paranoia with accidents or fires sometimes blamed on German saboteurs. Troops were stationed at valley railroad bridges including the ones in Bradford and between Wells River and Woodsville. These bridges were of significance as they were used by troops traveling to Quebec before shipping to Europe.   

Two-thirds of the American cost of the war was financed by loans. A series of Liberty Loan Drives were held. Additionally, these bond drives helped to fight inflation by taking excess money out of circulation.  

Full-page advertisements for these drives appeared in The United Opinion. Vermont raised over $55 million for the five drives. Local communities met the goals set. In 1917,  Bradford raised an oversubscription of $88,000.

War savings stamps were sold with special emphasis on school sales. Vermonters raised $13.90 per capita and New Hampshire followed with $11.78. Fairlee was one of the top three Vermont communities raising $27.43 per capita. As in other communities, locals in Orfordville proudly displayed their Liberty Loan Flag.

The needs of the American armed forces as well as the Allies in Europe led to shortages at home. There were shortages of wheat, sugar, fats and meat. Using the slogan “Food Wins the War,” the government attempted to meet the shortages by altering the diet of the American public.

Americans  were encouraged by food boards at all levels to observe wheatless, meatless and sugarless days. Tremendous quantities of meat and wheat were voluntarily saved for shipment to American forces and their allies overseas. Sugar saved by rationing was used in the manufacture of munitions. In 1918, 50-50 regulations were adopted requiring customers to purchase half their flour from alternate grains such as corn meal, oats or barley flour.

 The public was encouraged to buy local produce to reduce the pressure on the transportation system. Newspapers discouraged hoarding and encouraged families to stretch food supplies and “practice the gospel of the clean plate.” The bumper crop of potatoes in 1918 led to a two-state campaign to use potatoes in place of other foods. One poster encouraged residents to “Be A Potatriot.” 

War gardens were created throughout the two-state area. Parks and front lawns were sometimes plowed up and planted with vegetables. Grange organizations gave canning lessons. In Vermont, the Green Mountain Guard recruited 30,000 boys and girls to assist on farms and gardens. Camp Veil in Lyndonville was established to train older boys in farm work. The U.S. School Garden Army motto was “We Eat Because We Work.” 

 Coal, used as a primary fuel in both homes and businesses, was in especially short supply. Reserved for other war efforts, railroad cars were unavailable  for shipping coal to Northern New England  created the situation. The especially severe winter of 1917-18 setting records for sustained low temperatures compounded the problem. 

According to Haskins’ History of Bradford, starting in late December and continuing to early February there were 40 consecutive days when the thermometer recorded temperatures below zero. On 30 of those days it never got above zero.

Correspondents for The United Opinion from neighboring towns wrote of unofficial temperatures of 35 to 60 degrees below zero.  In Newbury, there were five days when it never rose above nine below zero. Pipes froze and then froze again. 

To deal with the fuel shortages, fuel committees were appointed to deal with distribution in each Vermont community. Rationed coal was “dribbled out to consumers.” It was said “A weekly supply was cause for congratulations; a month’s supply, Heaven-sent relief.” Consumers were encouraged to “save that shovelful of coal a day for Uncle Sam.”

In Dec 1917, the Hanover Gazette reported on the situation in Orford. “A shortage of coal and very little wood for sale has caused considerable anxiety among all classes of people here.” The anxiety was shared by other area residents.

A state program, entitled Cut-A-Cord, encouraged men and boys to seek surplus fuel from Vermont forests. It was so successful that the amount of firewood was doubled during the winter of 1917-18.

Other efforts to conserve fuel included restricting the number of days nonessential plants and places of entertainment could be open. Churches were encouraged to hold union services with other churches.  In January, 1918, school vacations were extended.  For a 10-week period there was even an attempt to have “heatless Mondays.”

To add to the burdens facing locals, influenza struck the area in 1918. The epidemic was part of a pandemic that killed over 100 million. Over one-quarter of Americans became ill and 675,000 died directly or indirectly from the disease. It was known as “Spanish flu.” Local notices in Bradford and Orford claimed that the disease originated in the German army and was “a Kaiser’s contribution to this country.”

The United Opinion of September 27, 1918 reported that local health officials were warned by the State Board of Health that, “the apparent seriousness of the disease makes it necessary that some precautions be taken to limit its spread….patients should be isolated in the home.”  Affected families were told to keep their children from school and family members from public gatherings.

As the disease spread, schools were closed in all area towns and some businesses closed for lack of adequate staff.  By October, the State Board of Health ordered the closing of all public meeting places and prohibiting public assemblies throughout the state.

The disease had  an especially high toll along younger residents. Health workers were overwhelmed by the case load and often fell ill themselves. 

Before the epidemic faded there were over 1,772 flu-related deaths in Vermont and about 3,000 in New Hampshire. Caskets were in very short supply. 

There was also a major shortage of available laborers to work on farms, in factories, mines and forests and in the shipyards of southern New Hampshire. Vermont lost up to one-third of its male workers. This shortage was caused by the number of men who joined the service or sought employment elsewhere.   

Many of those places of work were vital to the war effort. Some factories began round-the-clock production. The government introduced daylight saving time to give additional time for outdoor labor.  In Vermont, over 7,000 women and 1,300 children were part of the labor force, many for the first time. 

One example of the impact of the war on the local economy was the reopening of Corinth’s Pike Hill copper mines. Farmers were able to sell their crops, often at very high prices.

During the severe wool shortage, Orson Clements of Corinth refused to sell his wool to the government at the offered price. It was confiscated at what the government considered a fair price. After Clements’ death, wool he had hidden from government agents was found around his farm. 

As much as possible, volunteers attempted to share the burdens the war brought to the home front.   Virtually every non-profit organization stepped up their work. In addition to the churches of the two states, organizations such as the Boys Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, YMCA, YWCA, Knights of Columbus,  Masonic groups, Granges and the Salvation Army assisted the war effort.

Primary among those groups was the Red Cross. Local Red Cross units were established in area towns where they had not been previously. Red Cross membership campaigns in Vermont resulted in membership increasing from 1,200 to 80,703. The Red Cross provided services ranging from canteens for servicemen at railroad centers such as White River, Jct. to assisting with the wounded in France. 

The funds for those activities were raised through Red Cross fund drives and by programs sponsored by the other organizations mentioned above.  Throughout the valley, plays, suppers and concerts benefited the Red Cross.

The Red Cross also organized shipment of bandages, knitted items and personal care items to the servicemen. They encouraged others to join in this effort.

During 1918, 16-year old Catherine Murphy of Bradford kept a diary entitled “In the Service.” It chronicled her family and school’s support for her brother Pat who was stationed in France.  Pat Murphy and his best friend Fred Louanis enlisted in the service in 1917 near the end of their sophomore year at Bradford Academy.

Catherine’s diary listed the dates when boxes were sent to Pat and Fred, the contents and the postal cost. For example, on Dec. 12, 1918, a 25-pound box containing mittens, stockings, fruit cake, candies, writing supplies and reading materials was shipped at a cost of 55 cents. In the spring, the family send two pounds of maple sugar along with boxes for other Bradford soldiers. 

Her Bradford Academy class sent boxes with similar items as well as shoe laces, toothpaste, soap and handkerchiefs.  Listed in the diary were items the soldiers mailed in return, including French coins, handmade hankies and buttons from German uniforms.

One of the most poignant impacts of the war was the absence of so many young men and women. Families yearned for news of those overseas, even when letters were censored or conditions were redacted. Blue star flags were displayed in the windows of the homes of absent servicemen. Tragically, sometimes those blue stars were replaced by gold indicating a service casualty. 

The conditions borne by the citizens of the two states during the Great War are reflected in the following review of  Vermont’s role published in 1928. “The spirit shown by her inhabitants in days long gone by, still lived in 1917 and 1918 in the breasts of all her stalwart men and women and now, as then and always, Vermonters bear their full burden with an unfaltering and grim determination.”

Little did they know that in just a few years they would be called upon to again bear the burdens of a total war at home and abroad. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Hails to the Chiefs: Washington and Lincoln

FIRST AND SIXTEENTH: Presidents Washington and Lincoln both served the nation at pivotal times in its history. Their lives demonstrated strong moral values, solid judgment and a strong commitment to the union that is America.

By the time Abraham Lincoln entered the 1860 presidential race, he was known as "The Railsplitter." The term, taken from his rural frontier youth, was perhaps more of a campaign gimmick than a serious personal description.  The image is a 1911 Lincoln Day postcard. 

CLOSED FOR BUSINESS. Long before Washington's Birthday became part of a three-day weekend, it was customary for businesses to close on Feb.22.  This poster from the late 1800s celebrates the actual birthday.

Journal Opinion 2/7/2018

“As long as human hearts shall everywhere pant, or human tongues shall anywhere plead, for a true, rational, constitutional liberty, those hearts enshrine the memory and those tongues prolong the fame of George Washington.”  Robert Winthrop, July 4, 1848

Monday, February 19 is President’s Day in Vermont and George Washington’s Birthday in New Hampshire. It will be part of three-day weekend created by Congress and first observed in 1971. It will be a chance to get a good deal on everything from mattresses and automobiles to remainders of winter garments. Conditions seem to indicate a great weekend for skiing and snowmobiling, activities that will draw crowds from down country.

Winthrop’s quote was part of his speech at the dedication of the cornerstone for the Washington Monument. At Washington’s death, Harry Lee referred to Washington as “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” Those words describe Washington’s place in American history.

There is another birthday observed this month. Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809.  In 1903, his private secretary John G. Nicolay recalled “He was beloved by his countrymen because he was the full embodiment of American Life, American genius, American aspiration. A self-made man whose experience proved that the son of the humblest farmer could one day rise to the White House, he wielded frightening power but used it judiciously and without arrogance.”

This column describes the manner in which both Washington’s and Lincoln’s birthdays have been observed since their deaths and how those observations have changed.  

George Washington was born on Feb.11, 1731 in Virginia. With parliamentary adoption of the Gregorian calendar, the date was changed to Feb 22, 1732. He served as commander-in-chief of the American Continental army, as president of the 1787 Constitutional Convention and as the first President of the United States, completing two terms. In his Farewell Address, Washington set forth his vision for the new nation.

As he completed his time in each of those positions, Washington relinquished power. That, in itself, is a testimony to his character. He became regarded as “father of our country.” Washington was the original “American Idol.” He died in 1799 after a career of five decades in public service.

Unlike Washington, Lincoln occupied the national scene for only seven years, from his historic Senatorial debate against Stephen Douglas in 1858 until his death in 1865. Lincoln was elected President as the  candidate from the new Republican Party in 1860 and reelected in 1864. 

His election triggered the Civil War, a struggle that severely tested his leadership. He is credited with saving the Union and freeing millions of slaves with the Emancipation Proclamation followed by the enactment of the 13th Amendment. He was assassinated in April, 1865. As with Washington, Lincoln possessed personal virtues worthy of honor. But these leaders were not infallible. Readers can look elsewhere for articles  on both men’s weaknesses and failures.   

Plans to honor Washington began soon after his death. In 1791, the new capital was named in his honor. One of the first observances was held in New London, NH in 1800. In 1806, a children’s book on Washington’s life was authored by Mason Weems. A total fabrication, it was, never the less, the origin of stories that have helped to define Washington for generations. For example, Washington did not take his ax to his father’s cherry tree.      

In the early 19th century, Washington Birthday celebrations were commonplace. It’s annual observance was second only to the Fourth of July as a patriotic holiday. In 1814, Vermont’s Jefferson county was renamed in honor of Washington, as much in opposition to the former as admiration for the latter. The centennial of his birth in 1832 was marked by nationwide festivals.

In 1844, the Whig Party of Vermont called for a meeting in every town for this “auspicious day.” The Vermont Phoenix editor wrote “the name and character of Washington are the inheritances of our whole country.” In 1848, construction of the Washington Monument began. In 1851, the suggestion was that Feb. 22 was a day set aside as a day for reading Washington’s Farewell Address and seriously reflecting on his duty to the country and to the world.”

Two years later, the northern portion of the Oregon Territory was named Washington Territory, a title it kept when it was admitted to statehood in 1889.

During the Civil War, New Hampshire and Vermont troops observed Washington’s birthday as a general holiday. One soldier described “the roar of cannon fired in salutes filled the whole land.” The reading of Washington’s Farewell Address became an annual event in the United States Senate.

In 1870, federal offices in Washington began closing for the holiday. In New Hampshire and Vermont, Washington Balls were held in 1871. But in 1873, a Rutland editor decried “the very little recognition” and suggested that “the few flags which were displayed served, however, to take the curse off of business.” In 1874, the highest peak on the Northeast was renamed Mount Washington.  (May have been called that as early as 1784 in honor of General Washington.) In the centennial year of 1876 “observances were more elaborate than usual.”

The next year, the editor of the St. Johnsbury newspaper wrote “People love a holiday, and so long as Washington’s birthday furnishes them with the pretext for stopping work, putting on their best clothes and seeing processions, so long will Washington’s name be a motto for the festival.”  Neighborhood newspaper columns often mentioned visitors who came to spend Washington’s Birthday with local families.  

In 1885, the federal observance of the holiday was expanded to the whole nation. Locally, Washington’s Birthday continued to be a major social and political holiday, especially when it occurred as part of a weekend. During the 1880s, the birthday was celebrated with musical presentation, lyceums and suppers, often as a fund-raising event.  It was common for George and Martha Washington to make an appearance in appropriate costumes.

In 1889, a Birtheve dance was held at the school house in East Corinth and another at the Parker House in Woodsville. Newbury’s Tenney Library hosted a special program. It was generally the custom for local schools to hold programs honoring Washington. That year, Newbury students were allowed time off. One youngster, writing of a cold afternoon trip to Bradford during this free time, expressed the wish that Washington had been born in June. 

Because of his connection to their histories, the Daughters of the American Revolution, Masonic groups and the Improved Order of Red Men paid special attention to Washington’s birthday. Church services were devoted to his memory, with special emphasis on the anniversaries of events such as his inauguration. While businesses, banks and post offices closed for the holiday,  businesses did not specifically mention the anniversary in advertisements. 

In the period before World War I,  Washington’s Birthday celebrations continued to be very common. In 1909, participants at a North Thetford social “partook of the cherry tree.” At Newbury’s Chadwick Hall a colonial costume ball was held.  Social events often featured Washington Pie,  a filled cake similar to Boston cream pie.  

Despite the early observances of Lincoln’s birthday, celebrations of the martyred President’s birth never achieved the high emphasis of Washington’s. The closeness of the two birthdays along with the rise of Valentine’s celebrates made Lincoln’s somewhat less important socially. Besides, Lincoln’s role in the Civil War was still fresh in the minds of many southerners.

In 1867, New Jersey became the first state to declare it a holiday  but efforts in the early 1870s and again in 1881 to make it a federal holiday were unsuccessful. 

 Major efforts to honor the Great Emancipator were made by African-American groups.  Lincoln’s birthday and the Feb. 14th birthday of Frederick Douglas were the origins of February as Black History Month.  

 At the same time, observances were being held by local and state Republican party organizations and veterans groups throughout Vermont and New Hampshire. As with Washington, local Grange organizations used Lincoln’s life as the topic for programs. In 1895, the Vermont Young Men’s Republican Club gathered 1,000 participants in Burlington for “rousing celebration” to mark Lincoln’s Birthday. When the birthdate fell on a Sunday, it was common for sermons to be dedicated to the life of Lincoln.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, many businesses began to close on Feb. 12, especially in the 11 states where it was a legal holiday. Increasingly, newspaper notices began to mention the two birthdays together.   

Locally, it was common for one group to take Washington’s Birthday as an occasion for an annual event and, rather than compete for the public’s attention, another would take Lincoln’s. In 1912, the Vermont legislature passed a resolution calling for all schools to hold Lincoln Day exercises.    

During World War I, the Red Cross used the two birthdays in a special drive to gain school-age members.  In 1918, the American Alliance called for a national loyalty campaign in February.

A review of The United Opinion and other Vermont newspapers reveals that celebrations of both birthdays continued after 1920.  Illustrated syndicated columns on the lives of the two presidents appeared frequently. 

 In 1923, along with reports of terrible roads and illness, the newspaper reported social events along with the comment “Washington’s greatness is everywhere acknowledged.” A dance in Fairlee was “well attended.” Reports of the newly dedicated Lincoln Memorial in Washington were prominent.

The next year, Bradford’s Doe Brothers sponsored a Lincoln Essay Contest, the newspaper had major articles on the lives of the two presidents and dances and church services were held everywhere including in Orford and Thetford Center. This was the pattern that continued through the years especially when there was a major commemorative event.  

The 1932 bicentennial of Washington’s birth was just one such occasion. The President and Governor encouraged Vermonters to use the occasion for community service. In Bradford, a community program filled the Congregational Church. If there was a pattern to the celebrations in the 1930s, it was that Lincoln’s day was observed by meetings and Washington’s by dances. 

During the early years of  World War II, the nation was reminded that the two presidents faced “elusive victory, low morale and a series of misfortunes” but met them with “brave resistance.” In 1944,  Christians and Jews observed Brotherhood Week during February and the local paper carried the following: “We are blessed to have a national government which give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance.”

As early as 1920, Washington’s Birthdays became associated with winter carnivals in the two states. By the early 1940s, February 22nd had become a major ski holiday, especially when it adjacent to a weekend or during school vacations. In 1948, The United Opinion reported that all area hostels were overwhelmed with skiers. As conditions at many major ski areas were icy, local conditions were some of the best in New England. Corinth’s Northeast Slopes had it best year in its 12-year history.  

The late Dorothy Cole recalled when large ski groups came to stay at the Cole Lodge on the Lower Plain in Bradford in the 1950s around the February holiday. Guests would sleep and eat at the Lodge and ski at Northeast Slopes.  

In 1968, the federal government enacted the Uniform Monday Holiday Act. Beginning in 1971, Washington’s Birthday was moved to the third Monday in February. The Act did not combine Lincoln’s birthday with Washington’s. Despite public perceptions to the contrary, the Act did not create a holiday entitled President’s Day. However, a number of states use that term or some combination of the titles Presidents, President’s, Washington’s and Lincoln’s. A few states still honor Lincoln’s birthday as a separate holiday.  In New Hampshire, it is officially Washington’s Birthday, despite the use of the term President’s Day on some official state calendars and in general usage. 

The three-day weekend continues to be a major boost to retail sales and the tourist industry and are a major contributor to businesses’ bottom lines.  Several retired teachers told me they felt that school emphasis on the birthdays lessened after 1971.

There are constant daily reminders of Lincoln and Washington. Their images are on stamps and currency. Their names are on everything from streets, highways and city names to mountains, counties and one state. Their image is on numerous statues and engraved on Mt. Rushmore.  While Washington has more place names, Lincoln is the topic of more books.

Major films such as Spielberg’s Lincoln, books such as Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War and the recent local arrival of the statue of Lincoln at Saint-Gauden’s National Historic Site in Cornish renew public awareness of Lincoln. In the weeks ahead, both names will be attached to repeated television and newspaper ads.

Washington and Lincoln are relevant to us today because their lives demonstrated strong moral values, solid judgment and a strong commitment to the union that is our nation. Their contributions serve as examples of how a single individual can make an enormous difference in the futures of all Americans.

Local Lincoln historian David Puritt recently wrote “Abraham Lincoln’s birthday should be celebrated annually because he holds an absolutely unique and desperately needed positive place in our history.”  One could easily substitute Washington’s name in that sentiment. Hail to both these great men. 

Friday, December 22, 2017

Cooking Up A Christmas Storm

PITIFUL HOLIDAY PICKINGS,  Depression-era photographer Russell Lee captured these rural
children eating their Christmas dinner of potato and cabbage. Although not a local family, this scene reflects the plight of many families during the Great Depression. Fortunately, local food shelves help to ease the burden of food scarcity suffered by local families.  Support your local food shelf at holiday time and throughout the year.    (Library of Congress) 

ENOUGH IS BETTER. For many families having a Christmas dinner with family and friends is central to the celebration. When dishes reflect tradition, planning the menu is easy.  Not having to deal with wartimes scarcities and empty chairs is even better.  See additional illustration below.

Journal Opinion  Dec. 20, 2018

“There were plenty of good things left….such as tend to make up a good Christmas dinner, which goes far to show that the barren hills of Vermont will produce food, with a little fixing, to be agreeable to the eye and pleasant to the taste.”  Vermont Farmer, Jan. 23, 1874

By the time you read this column, your Christmas dinner may already be prepared or perhaps it is over with even the leftovers finished. But with some of the holiday season still before us, this column offers you an opportunity to compare your festive experience with those of others who experienced Christmas dinners from colonial days to the 1950s.

Each family, past or present, creates Christmas experiences for itself. Factors such as age, economic status, ethnic heritage and family traditions and even national and world events have an impact on those experiences.

No column limited by the space available here can hope to capture all of the variations found in the assortments that are our nation’s people. Please be tolerant if it does not speak to your family’s traditions. At the same time, celebrate and cherish those traditions and pass them on to younger members of your family and community.     

The Puritans and many of their descendants who settled in our area were opposed to Christmas celebrations. Their objection was based on its connection with paganism and the Roman Catholic Church as well as the unruly manner in which the season was celebrated in Europe. No mince pies, Christmas puddings, holiday ales or goose for them. For settlers, such as those in Ryegate and Corinth, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day were more festive.

The Pilgrim Church and Church of England descendants were more likely to observe Christmas, holding services and encouraging seasonal charity. Many religious leaders, however, continued to object to the excesses of the carnival-like celebrations that were often typical of the season in many communities around the nation. 

Until the 1820’s, Christmas celebrations were largely public rather than family-oriented. As this began to change, festive foods unique to the season and served within the home became more important. Local markets catered to the holiday demand with traditional foods that helped to make the season special.  By the 1850s Vermont newspapers were carrying references to sweetmeats, eggnog, plum pudding, turkey, and oysters for the family holiday menu.   

 Christmas in wartime is especially difficult. For those in the armed services, Christmas meant being away from home. For the bedraggled troops at Valley Forge in 1777, Christmas dinner was cooked over a campfire and was likely a gruel made from whatever the men could scavenge from the nearby farms and forests.

By the Civil War, the foods of Christmas were well-established in the minds of New Hampshire and Vermont soldiers. Writing from their winter encampments, soldiers celebrated as they could while lamenting their distance from the family holiday table.

Local newspapers reported that for Christmas in 1862, President Lincoln ordered “a great quantity of poultry” for the soldiers in Washington D. C. hospitals. The following year, the Ladies Relief Society of Bradford raised funds for a similar Christmas dinner. The U. S. Sanitary Commission provided Christmas dinner for wounded soldiers from both states.

Also in 1862, it was reported that some members of the 12th Vermont Regiment, stationed in Fairfax, VA, escaped hardtack and salt pork and enjoyed a rich meal of oyster soup, potatoes, good Vermont butter and boiled pork. The meal was topped off with nuts and raisins and “a cocoa-nut cake from home.”

It was a rare respite from grueling conditions.  One soldier wrote “Now that is not such bad living for poor soldiers, is it? Sitting down to a table and eating like civilized men.”

One Union veteran recalled that, during the war, he and two of his fellow soldiers were held prisoner in a Confederate prison. For a time, prior to Christmas, the three managed to save a small portion of their daily rations of three tablespoons of cow peas and a pint of corn meal, so that on Christmas day their meager meal “took on the appearance of a feast.”

In the years following the end of the war, Christmas became even more important commercially.  Vermont newspapers such as the Vermont Watchman and the Bradford Opinion published lists of holiday goods offered by local merchants.  Foods offered included Christmas goose and turkey, canned  and fresh fruits. Since merchants were more specialized in those days, a shopper had to visit several to get the items needed.

In 1876, the Bradford newspaper featured a front-page article entitled “The Christmas Dinner.”  In addition to the items listed above, the menu included oyster soup as well as mince and pumpkin pies and Christmas tarts. 

Published at that time, Jennie June’s American Cookery Book offered an elaborate Christmas dinner menu including mock turtle soup, turkey with necklace of sausage, cranberry sauce, oyster fritters and desserts of plum pudding and tipsy cake followed by fruit and nuts.

Vermont newspaper menus of the 1880’s added other dishes with the note: “Christmas dinner is hardly complete and satisfying unless a roast turkey, in its mammoth properties occupies a conspicuous position on the table.” It also mentioned the folly in “a gorging of dyspeptic sweets and unwholesome food.”

Many of the period cook books and newspaper articles on Christmas food reflect the good fortune of those in the middle and upper classes. The wealthier the family, the more likely the quality and quantity of the foods would be more substantial.

Christmas was always less festive for the poor and homeless.  Newspapers carried stories of the plight of the less fortunate.

 In 1871, the Bradford newspaper included the story of one family whose festive meal consisted of a     5-cent loaf of bread. Another story described a family meal of corn beef, a little box of figs, boiled cabbage and coffee.

During the period after the Civil War, church and civic groups as well as some businesses provided dinner for the indigent. Baskets of food were also distributed by religious groups such as the Methodist churches and Salvation Army. Veteran groups provided meals for the neediest from their ranks. 

The demand for charity was especially great during periods of economic depression. During the panics of 1873, 1893 and 1907, Christmas was, for many people, “just one more day on which to struggle to put food on the table.”

In 1877, the Vermont Board of Agriculture was promoting the raising of geese for the Christmas trade. Still, by the end of the century, Vermont turkeys were becoming nationally known and, according to the Vermont Board, were “prolific.” 

Christmas cookies, candies and cakes were made for home or as gifts. As in the past, some Christmas foods had to be planned or even made days or months in advance. Christmas fruit cakes and plum puddings were best when aged. Rural cooks might make fruit pies in the late fall and store them to freeze in cold attics until the holidays arrived.

The first decade of the following century experienced periods of inflated food prices. In 1908, it was reported that the price of Christmas foods had doubled over the previous five years. Food purchased at local stores and eateries reflected the increases. At the St. Johnsbury House, Christmas dinner was advertised at 50 cents per person in 1908 and 75 cents two years later.

During World War I, the members of the American Expeditionary Force stationed in France  were promised a traditional Christmas meal. In 1917, the ships carrying cranberries and turkey were delayed by threats of German submarines causing the Paris turkey market to be completely depleted. Many of the soldiers stationed in England were treated to a traditional English dinner of beef and plum pudding. 

On the home front, the grim realities of war scarcity affected Christmas meals. Cooks were asked to conserve red meat and other foods fueling the war effort. Christmas fell on a Tuesday that year. It was a day designated as meatless and so chicken or turkey were acceptable foods.  

The Great Depression brought hardships for many families. A lima-bean casserole at home or soup from a charity kitchen constituted Christmas dinner for many. For others, Christmas was celebrated in a thrifty manner, with dinner being described as “enough is better than a feast.”  Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes reprinted in the United Opinion offered holiday recipes that fit frugal budgets as well as changing tastes.

When interviewed about their experiences during the 1930s, local elders recalled that money was scarce and Christmas meant homemade gifts and homegrown food. That might mean sacrificing the largest turkey or rooster on the farm or making a plump chicken into a delicious pie. For several, the food was rabbit or venison. 

During WW II, the armed services worked hard to provide a traditional Christmas meal to personnel at home and abroad. Those in battle zones were less likely to have all the trimmings. Stateside, canteens provided Christmas meals to soldiers and sailors

At home, rationing meant that Christmas dinners were not as elaborate as normal.  O, loved ones were absent. Christmas staples such as chocolate, sugar and butter were rationed and, although turkeys were not, they were in short supply. The public was encouraged to stay at home and  eat foods produced locally thereby reducing the impact on the transportation systems.

The prosperity enjoyed by many in the post-war period resulted in the expansion of the holiday experience.  Food was central to that experience and so expanded waist-lines were not uncommon.  Traditional foods made for decades continued to be part of the holidays that stretched from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Traditional foods help to make all those holidays special, linking the present with the holidays that have gone before.  For many families, Christmas day began with a special breakfast and, depending on the age of the children, was eaten before or after presents were opened.

At parties and gatherings for employees, club and church members and neighbors and friends, food was central. Every year, newspapers and magazines published new recipes that adapted old favorites to new times.

Ethnic groups have always added their own dishes to their family’s holiday table. Those who fasted before Christmas Midnight Mass, might follow the service with festive goodies.

For others, Christmas dishes included sweet stollen breads, holiday tamales, panettone or meat pies. A family with an Italian heritage might be as likely to serve lasagna and pork loin as turkey. Traditions made the answer to the question of “What shall we have for Christmas dinner?” pretty cut and dried.

For a small minority of local residents, the holiday being celebrated was Hanukkah, an eight-day festival of lights. Special foods might include brisket and short ribs as well as oil-rich potato latkes and donuts.

For many this Christmas, the local food shelf, community dinner or donated basket will be the source of their Christmas dinner. It is estimated that up to 13% of New Hampshire and Vermont families are “food insecure.” That insecurity is made even more difficult in the face of the bounty of others.

One Vermont newspaper observed in 1888: “Heaven has not granted us stomachs according to our wealth and the rich man cannot eat more than the poor man.” But we know that since finances control the food selection, the needy have always had less to eat.

 In 1891, a Londonderry, VT newspaper printed the following: “No conscientious person can enjoy his Christmas dinner if he knows anybody else within reach to be hungry. The consciousness that we have giving food to the needy provides us with the finest appetite.”

Whether this holiday for you is sacred or secular or both, assisting those who face food shortage in your community can add to the blessings of the season. Even if you are too late to help with someone else’s Christmas dinner this year, remember there is a new year coming. That donation to your local food shelf will provide you and yours with finer and more satisfying appetites.


Since the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas dinner has been a perennial subject of cards and newspaper illustrations.  Whether way on military duty or around the family table, Christmas festive treats bring warmth to the winter season.

Union troops open Christmas boxes from home to reveal treats as well as welcome gifts of socks and other article of clothes.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Horseless Carriage Arrives

Below top:  ELECTRIC VEHICLE: In 1895, the United Opinion predicted that electric-powered vehicles would be "the fad of the future." One of the first automobiles in Bradford was this electric vehicle registered in 1909. Despite less vibration, less odor and less noise than gasoline-powered autos, the electric models were eclipsed by Ford's Model T soon after this photograph was taken. (Bradford Historical Society)

Driver Leslie Welch and brother Robert F. Welch pose for a photo with the Bradford-Waits River Stage auto truck around 1917. Providing daily rides and mail service, this Studebaker was decorated with an advertisement for Ladd's Cream Bread.(Bradford Historical Society)

Frank Brigham (left) and Fred H. Bickford show off Brigham's Stanley Steamer.  Twin brothers Freeland and Francis Stanley began producing steam-powered vehicles in 1897 and formed the Stanley Motor Carriage Co. in Newton, MA in 1902.  In 1899, a Stanley was the first automobile to ascend Mount Washington's carriage road. (Bradford Historical Society)
THE WONDER CAR: Manufactured by Maxwell-Briscoe Co of Tarrytown, NY, the Maxwell was one of the first automobiles marketed to women.  Manufactured from 1904-1925, it was nicknamed "the Wonder Car." For a time, this company was one of the top three auto manufacturers in America.

Journal Opinion, November 22, 2017
“The model horseless carriage will no doubt come in time, but before it can come into general use in this country there must be vast improvements in the common roads” The United Opinion, Nov. 8, 1895

The observation from The United Opinion published just before the first automobiles appeared in northern New England. This column describes the first two decades of the transformation that accompanied their arrival.   

Information for this article was taken from period newspapers, local town histories and on-line sources. Several quotes are taken from a series of interviews of local elders conducted in the 1980s by my U.S. History students at Oxbow High School. 

The idea of a horseless carriage was explored for many years prior to their introduction into Europe in the 1880s.

 Three Yankee inventors were among those who explored the horseless carriage during the 19th century. In 1826, inventor Samuel Morey of Orford received a patient for an internal combustion engine. Morey correctly prophesied that the engine would “greatly change the commercial and personal intercourse of the country.”

A decade later, John Gore of Brattleboro created a carriage with a steam engine. It was reported that this “whizz wagon tore up the roads.” Around 1869, Springfield, NH native Enos Clough built a steam-powered vehicle that he displayed in the region. His vehicle, as with the two mentioned above, proved too much for their drivers and ended up wrecked.

In 1895, Charles and J. Frank Duryea of Springfield, MA established the first American gasoline car company.

The first appearances of horseless carriages locally came in 1896. The late Bernard Crafts told his student interviewer that the first one, driven by a Frenchman,  drove through Bradford that year. When, in 1899, the first auto passed through Pike and according to one town history, “it created much interest” 

For many, the first opportunity to see what became known as an automobile was at a circus or fair where it was part of the curiosities.  Others may have attended auto races held around the country for their first glimpse at the vehicle.. 

For the first few years, automobiles were seen as the play toy of wealthy men from down country.  Because of the frightening impact on pedestrians and horses these “devil wagons” were not welcomed locally.

One elder recalled that those she knew considered them to be “a luxury and a nuisance.” She went on to say “Rich folks from Massachusetts drove you right off the road.”

Dr. J. H. Lindsley of Burlington may have owned the first Vermont automobile. It was a one-seat Stanley Steamer. Charles C. Warren of Waterbury was the first Vermonter to register an automobile. In 1899, this auto enthusiast purchased a Haynes-Apperson.

Dr. Adrian Hoyt of Penacook was not only the first person to own an automobile in New Hampshire, he actually built it. He went on to briefly manufacture both steam and electric vehicles.

The local residents who owned the first automobiles were usually professionals or businessmen. By 1905 that included: John Stevens and Dr. Henry Lee of Wells River. They owned a 1903 Oldsmobile Steamer and a Stanley Ste4amer, respectively. W. T. Jackman of, Corinth had a 1904 Oldsmobile with a steering lever. Dr. Henry Stearns of  Haverhill Corner drove a Orient Buckboard made by a Waltham, Massachusetts company. The United Opinion editor Harry Parker of Bradford had a Maxwell Runabout. Dr. Walter Gustin owned the first automobile in Thetford. But the newspaper only described it as a “red car.”

Other early adopters included Paul Lang of Orford.  Nellie Smith and brothers George and R. H. Symes Brothers  of Wells River had automobiles  So did  Hial Cotton and James Whitcomb, both of Post Mills.   Dr. Ezra. C. Chase and his son Dr. Daniel R. Chase purchased an automobile for professional calls.

Soon after the automobile’s introduction, several businessmen offered autos for sale or rent, provided chauffeur services and made winter storage available.

According to 1980s interview with local seniors,, many thought these purchases were a waste of money. There continued to be the fear that automobiles would frighten horses. The late Helen Carr of Bradford recalled that one man’s  horse was so frightened of Harry Parker’s auto that he would call the editor to see when he would be out and about so that he could avoid a confrontation on village streets.

Across the nation there was anti-automobile legislation. In Vermont, this was encouraged because most drivers were from out of state and sometimes intoxicated. From the very beginning of automobile’s appearance on the state’s roads, there was a movement to limit their access to public roads. Automobile  opponents advocated for the construction of highways specifically for their use, much as railroads had done. 

In 1894, an act was passed by the Vermont Legislature that required those in charge of steam-propelled vehicle using a public street or highway to have a person at least one-eighth of a mile in advance to “notify and warn all persons…and at night such person shall, except in an incorporated village or city, carry a red light.“ This law was repealed in 1900.

A leader of this anti-automobile movement was Joseph Battell, owner of the Middlebury Register. He used his newspaper to highlight his views. Accidents in which automobiles injured pedestrians and carriage passengers were referred to as “the homicidal orgy of the motor car.”  

Battell encouraged local governments to prohibit automobile traffic from their roads. Apparently, he owned much of Camel’s Hump and offered to give it to the state if automobiles were banned from the area’s roads.

In 1904, there was legislation introduced that limited access to public roads. Corinth’s representative supported this legislation, saying, “It is not safe for a woman to drive a horse in the highway, when one of these devilish contraptions came along.” It did not pass. 

Throughout the period, many were ready to make jokes or derogatory remarks about automobiles. Driving his horse past an auto mired in mud up to the body, a Vermonter might say “get a hoss” or “I’aint all pie with one of them things.” 

In 1904, the Vermont Legislature passed a law calling for auto registration. New Hampshire passed a similar law in 1905. Both required a small registration fee and, several years later, added a license plate requirement. That first year there were 373 vehicles registered in Vermont and 532 in New Hampshire.  

Newspapers of the period reported on the number of registrations annually. Nation-wide, in 1915, there were 3.6 million registrations, an increase of 1.06 million in just one year The number reflected the phenomenal growth and vigor of the new industry.

Following are some of those reported figures for Vermont: 1907-1400 vehicles; 1909-1658, 1912 4,283, 1914-8,262, 1915-11,499, 1916-15,350. By this time, Vermont was one of the leading states in the number of automobiles per capita.

New Hampshire experienced similar increase in the number of registered vehicles growing to 10,819 by l915. In both states the figures included a small number of motorcycles and later trucks. 

There was an attempt to regulating speed. In 1909, New Hampshire set the limit at 8 mph in urban areas and 20 in rural.  Vermont’s limits were 10 and 25 for the same areas.  Both still has rules regarding the horses, with New Hampshire requiring that auto drivers “must stop upon signal from horseman and stop engine upon request.”  

Automobile enthusiasts organized the Granite State Automobile Club in 1900-1902 followed by the American Automobile Association in 1902 and the Automobile Club of Vermont in 1903.  These organizations promoted the rights of automobile users, provided maps, held road contests and rallies and “maintained a social club devoted to automobilism.”

Events were held to encourage automobiles. In 1899, the first “climb to the clouds” was the an auto trip up Mt. Washington. In 1903, Burlington auto enthusiast Horatio Jackson, accompanied by a mechanic and a pit bull, completed the first transcontinental trip in a two-cylinder 20 HP Winton nicknamed “Vermont.”  

Auto shows were held in St. Johnsbury, Montpelier and Burlington. Glidden and Munsey automobile tours visited local communities These introduced the public to the wide variety of vehicles available.  

Automobile organizations also promoted  road improvements.  Dirt roads got dusty in the summer, muddy in the spring and impassable in the winter. The organizations, joined by cycle groups, lobbied both state and the federal governments for funds for road construction. 

Good roads were important to farmers anxious to get their products to market in a timely way as well as an attraction to tourists. Newspaper articles indicate that, for a time, New Hampshire devoted more funds to tourism than Vermont. In 1916, the Federal Aid Road Act was passed giving funds to states for road improvement.

Several attempts were made to manufacture automobiles in the two-state area, but failed. In fact, during the period the number of automobile manufactures in the nation began to drop dramatically from a high of 253.

While familiar vehicles such as Olds, Overland, Maxwell and Buick were owned locally, it was Henry Ford’s autos that became popular. In 1903, Ford introduced the Model A and over the next several years marketed other models. 

In 1908, he introduced the Model T, the first really popular car for the general public. Initially offered at $850, Ford’s use of the assembly line allowed the price to drop within the reach of the average working man. By 1915, more Fords were registered in Vermont than any other make.  

As the price of automobiles dropped and their uses became more evident, Vermonters began to purchase new or used vehicles. Improvements such as headlights, pedal controls, steering wheels, running boards and improved motors making vehicles more reliable, safer and easier to operate. 

In 1916, installment sales were introduced by the makers of moderately priced cars.  One Newbury column read “Several of our staid and dignified citizens have the automobile bug buzzing, and are contemplating purchasing a machine.”

 As automobiles became more common, support businesses began to appear. Hotels catered to the motoring public. Railcars hauled new vehicles to local dealers. Garages for repairs and fuel opened.  Steam and electric powered vehicles were largely replaced by gasoline and there were many dealers who provided this fuel to the motoring public.   

A typical news item appeared in The United Opinion in 1912 announcing that Harry E. Davis had opened the Bradford Auto Garage and was “prepared to do all kinds of repairing and has for sale gasoline, oil accessories and supplies.”  Local stores and catalogs offer goggles, hats, dusters and other items needed by the motoring public. 

Local farmers stood ready to help motorists mired in mud. My Dad told me that  one enterprising farmer in Central Vermont made sure that a dip in the road near his farm remained muddy well beyond the normal mud season. He offered assistance to swamped travelers for a small fee.

Local newspapers carried news notes describing when citizens purchased an automobile especially when it was one of the first in the community.  Items mentioned family visits, business trips and tours of the White and Green Mountains by locals and tourists. They also described accidents involving automobiles and horses or railroad trains or when one “turned turtle” on a sharp curve.

Elders who were interviewed recalled some of the first automobiles in the area. While their families did not purchase an automobile until years later, many recalled experiencing their first auto ride by 1908.

They recalled rushing to the home or school windows to watch cars go by, maybe as often as twice a day. Gladys Jesseman said she was “afraid of the contraption,” whereas Fannie Eastman loved them as they “opened up a grand new area for me.” Alice Hood said that the Model T was “wonderful” and could get her from Corinth to Bradford more easily. 

Others tell stories of those who, use to handling a horse, would shout “whoa” instead of applying the brakes on their vehicle when they wanted to stop or slow down. In Fairlee in 1912, 100-year old Sallie Wilson, “active for her years,” went for her first auto ride in her nephew Lyman Robie’s “buzz wagon.” Going along smoothly, she began to realize it was a new mode of travel and kept saying to her nephew “Lyman, where are the horses?”

The first mention of an automobile in a Vermont newspaper was in 1895. It predicted the “passing of the horse.” Twenty years later that prediction was coming to pass. In 1901, a Barre newspaper editor wrote “Automobiles may be practical sometimes, but at present a man can travel about as comfortably and certainly more cheaply on foot than he can in a horseless carriage.”

Ed Peters of Bradford, whose family had raised Morgan Horses for decades, told my student interviewer that the arrival of the automobile devastated their business. Local harness and wagon makers faced the same challenges.   

As society is confronted by new technological advances, there will always be those who predict that eventually come to pass and those that will not. There will be those who embrace the new and those who resist. Likewise, new innovations bring new challenges, especially to those whose occupations are tied to the outmoded practices. It was so with the early automobile and it will continue to be with future innovations.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Under the Auctioneer's Hammer

"Having Sold My Farm" was a normal message for farm auctions flyers.  In this 1908 case, the farm property and homestead was being offered under the auctioneer's hammer.

West Fairlee auctioneer Bill Godfrey was profiled in this 1953 magazine cover.  Godfrey spend nearly 60 years in the auction business. .

George Clement of Landaff conducted more than 3,000 auctions during his career. They were held under tents and in his own auction barn.  Auctioneer Archie Steenburgh began his auction career with Clement in 1971.

Since 1956, Herb Gray has continued the family auction tradition begun by his father Carlton. This 1960 photo shows Gray auctioning rabbits.  He is now best known for auctioning automobiles and machines.

During his 30-plus years as an auctioneer, Chuck Eaton of West Fairlee has help non-profits raise more than a half-million dollars at charity auctions.  Even in his retirement he continues this worthwhile practice. (Carolyn Coffin) 
As usual at this season of the year much property is changing hands under the hammer of the auctioneer. It is mostly personal property, however; but little real estate is being sold.” Bradford Opinion, October 21, 1876

 New Englanders have always used auctions to sell real estate, personal property, crops and other commodities. Auctions offer a quick way of transferring ownership and has been used as such since ancient times.

This column describes local auctions since the early 19th century. It includes stories from the careers of several famous local auctioneers. Katharine Blaisdell’s books, town histories, online sources, periodicals and interviews with local auctioneers are sources of information.

When property owners faced foreclosure, downsizing, retirement, the death of a spouse or the desire to move to better territory, they turned to the auctioneer to help dispense with their goods and property. Auctioneers distributed handbills and posters describing the contents of the sale.

Local communities also used auctions for other purposes. The auctioning of ferry rights and church pews were a common practice. In early Newbury, funds for a new townhouse came from the sale of the pews to the highest bidders. The new owners paid with 903 bushels of wheat, equal to $3,250. While these pews went to the highest bidder, sometimes the purchasers were those who offered the least amount in a descending reverse auction.

In several local communities prior to the establishment of town farms, the support of the homeless poor was offered at auction in town meeting and “struck off to the lowest bidder.” Well into the middle of the 19th century, some school districts auctioned off the board and room of the local teacher in the same manner.

The most frequent mention of auctions in Vermont newspapers prior to the Civil War was in articles condemning the sale of slaves in Southern auction houses. 

Early auctions were usually held in the owner’s yard, barn or home.  Until the 1930s, it was customary for owners to provide lunch. Traditionally, this was Vermont crackers, cheese and lots of hot coffee, served to a largely male crowd.

Earlier, refreshments might include liquor. A handbill for an 1832 Haverhill auction mentioned that “a barrel of choice whiskey would be opened for the benefit of the purchasers.” 

Auction offerings were sometimes not what they seemed. Although reputable auctioneers make every attempt to describe items accurately, older newspapers  have many stories of items sold otherwise.

After 1830, eastern cities were plagued by mock auctions, also known as Peter Funk auctions. The unsuspecting were lured into an auction in which shills placed in the audience bid up prices on counterfeit or defective items. When the victim made a bid, the fraudster would promptly close the sale.

In 1838, The Vermont Phoenix included an article entitled “Another Auction Shave.” John Barton of Strafford was the victim who lost $29.70 at a New York City mock auction. To reassure customers, several Vermont auction advertisements in the 1860s stated, “The public is assured there will be NO ‘Peter Funk’ operators at our Auction Sale.”      

Even legitimate auctions are staged events. The experienced auctioneer knows that everything from the introductions of the staff, the cadence or pace of the bidding and the use of stories and humor are techniques useful to the sale. As one experienced auctioneer put it, “A good story now and then helps keep the people in good humor and also keeps their minds on the sale.”

Each local town had at least one licensed auctioneer during the 19th century and into the early 20th. Advertisements and news items in local newspapers list some of them as follows. Bradford: Ellis Bliss, J. H. Gilman, John Peckett and C. F. Smith; Ryegate: J. D. McAllister and J. H. Moore; Newbury: John Bailey Jr; Corinth: E. Clough; Lyme D. R. Mativa; West Fairlee: C.O. Burnham, George W. Cook; and Fairlee: Charles Kemp. 

During the Civil War, colonels in Union regiments were in charge of selling confiscated property. It became the custom for post-war auctioneers to adopt the title of colonel. While there were New Hampshire and Vermont auctioneers who used this title, I could find only one local auctioneer who did. He was Col. Aaron P. Gould of Piermont who was active around 1872. Gould was listed as the colonel of the 13th New Hampshire Regiment in 1844.

There have been a number of local auctioneers whose careers spanned decades and whose reputation is still well-known.  

Beginning with his first auction in 1903, Dan Perry of Barre presided over close to 6,000 New England auctions during his 60-year career. As with many auctioneers, Perry used that skill to augment other businesses. His auctioneering was an outgrowth of a real estate business. For many years, he owned a Ford dealership in Barre.

Perry was known for his Yankee droll and ready wit. He knew how to work a  crowd and is quoted as saying that a good auctioneer “can see the bids coming many times before the bidder says a word.” In addition to home and farm auctions, Perry conducted many livestock auctions.

During the Great Depression, the number of auctions declined. Perry wrote “the few people who had the courage to put on sales were heartbroken at the prices their property would bring.”   

In the Midwest, neighbors would sometimes come to the rescue of a farmer facing foreclosure and enter a winning bid of only a penny for each item. The next day all the equipment would be returned to its owner.

The only example that I could find that came close to this “penny auction” practice was one conducted by Perry in Corinth in 1913. The local newspaper reported that the night before the auction the farmer’s barn burned to the ground. The auction was held and the remaining items brought “exceptionally high prices.”

Legendary local auctioneer Bill Godfrey of West Fairlee began working with Perry in Wells River in 1923 and continued conducting auctions until retiring in 1981.

Ron Strickland wrote about Godfrey in his 1986 book Vermonters: Oral Histories. He referred to Godfrey’s many talents as an “auctioneer, neighbor, farmer, funeral director, story-teller and humorist.”

Godfrey presided over as many as 60 auctions each year “attired in a straw hat; a bow tie; an impeccably starched button-down shirt; a vest, with pocket watch; black lace-up boots; and perhaps, as protection against manure, a pair of overalls.”

Strickland quoted one of Godfrey’s admirers: “Godfrey gives the crowd the feeling that he is a conspirator in the dangerous, daredevil process of bidding, whereas the no-nonsense commercial mood created by many younger auctioneers subtly alienates the audience.”

Another auctioneer who got his start with Dan Perry was Carlton Gray. In 1947, Gray founded the East Thetford Commission Sales and the Monday night livestock auctions were a local institution until the operation closed in 1992. He brought to the operation his experience as a farmer and trader of livestock. His wife Beulah was, in the words of their son Herb, “the backbone of the operation.”  

In 1956, Gray sent his two sons, Larry and Herb, to auction school in Iowa. The family conducted numerous farm auctions during the years of dairy farm decline in Vermont and New Hampshire. “Having Sold Our Farm” was the headline on many auction notices. Herb remembered that his father once told him “we are selling ourselves out of business.” Herb says there are few farm auctions any more.

Carlton retired in 1976.  About that time, the Grays began equipment sale at Gray’s Field in Fairlee, a practice that continues currently. For the past 23 years, Herb has been conducting the weekly Connecticut Valley Auto Auctions in Hartford.  Rather than going out of business, the Gray family continues the tradition to a third and fourth generation of auctioneers.

Around 1957, Peter Gallerani opened Gallerani’s Commission Sales in West Bradford and held Thursday livestock auctions year-round. In the early 1970’s his son Paul brought out his father. In a recent interview, Paul described the atmosphere of the auction. He said that the buyers were primarily men who knew each other and humor was part of the interplay. The only woman he recalled was Liva Sinclair who owned a large dairy farm in Bradford. Paul acted as ringmaster for the auctions and recalled how important it was for him to know the bidders and the value of the animals being sold. 

George Clement of Landaff was another local career auctioneer. His first auction was in 1933 and over his career he conducted as many as 3,000 sales. Some were held in tents, or later, in his own auction barn. His auctions included a number of hotels and businesses, the most famous being the contents sale of the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, NH.

In 1971, Archie Steenburgh began attending Clement’s auction and gradually became involved. He became a partner and then bought Clement out.  His wife Martha and his son Joshua are both important members of the team that conduct over 30 auctions annually.

One of the most important auctions is the Steenburghs’ Annual Labor Day sale held in East Haverhill.  The 2017 auction celebrated 45 years in business.  Hundreds bid for consignments of antiques, art work and other high-value items.  As with other auctions, handbills and posters have been replaced by online sites and cell phone bidding. 

Two other auctioneers who started at about the same time are Chuck Eaton and Ernie Stevens. Eaton went to auction school in 1983 and continued holding auctions until 2014. In the early years of his career, he and Ernie worked together at the Ely Commission Sales auction house.  Eaton then established his well-known auctions at his Elmwood Farm barn in West Fairlee. 

In a recent interview, Eaton talked about the auction experience.  He said auctions are “like a play, with two weeks of rehearsal.” Being familiar with the items allowed the auctioneer to carry out the performance with accuracy and  speed. At the end of the day all is gone.

Prices for items fall somewhere between wholesale and retail. While dealers have to consider potential resale prices, avid collectors sometimes bid prices for rare items above fair market. The uninitiated may fall victim to the “winner’s curse” and pay too much.

As with some other auctioneers, Eaton has conducted a number of charity auctions. Over his career he has helped various non-profits raise more than a half million dollars. 

His auction barn is quiet now, the business having been taken over by his associate Uriah Wallace. Wallace has held a number of auctions and estate sales at  Elmwood Farm, the Bradford Community Center and onsite at private homes. 

For the past 44 years, Ernie Stevens has been holding commission sales. Beginning in West Canaan, NH, he then began holding sales in Ely.  In 1992, he moved his Ely Commission Sales to Bradford. 

In a recent interview, Stevens recalled that he had no formal training as an auctioneer.  Sitting in his auction house surrounded by items collected in anticipation for one of his twice-weekly sales, Stevens said that his auctions attract about 160. He quipped that some come just for his wife Carol’s mac and cheese.  

Despite the title, very few items are sold on commission. Stevens has built his business around purchasing entire households and so most of the items sold are his own. He commented that the bottom has fallen out of the furniture market and what were once a family’s heirloom pieces are not getting the prices of yesteryear.

 While most local auctions are of the ordinary type, there have been several that lasted for more than one day, drew crowds from around the nation or even from foreign countries and offered very valuable and often extraordinary items. 

These include the 1970 sale of the purebred Holstein herd of the Mallary Farm that brought a crowd of 2,000 to Fairlee; the Gray’s auction of animals from Fairlee’s Rare Bird and Animal Farm also in 1970, the nine-day auction of the contents of Freddie Miller’s iconic store in East Topsham in 1990, the East Orange auction by Christie’s of New York of the gold bullion and vintage automobiles from the estate of A. K. Miller in 1996 and the two-day auction by Archie Steenburgh at the MacDonald farm in Topsham in 2004.

Auctioneers have been described as the “oldest recyclers in the world.” Attendees find them more  fascinating and entertaining than eBay or Craigslist. With a good auctioneer, they can also be a history lesson on personal possessions. With luck, you may find that one item you have been looking for to complete your collection, furnish your home or add to your livestock.