Take Me Back to Old Vermont. Heavy with nostalgia, this song was written in 1907 by J. C. Jones, music by H. F. Stafford and published by the Vermont Music Company of Rutland. It reflected the spirit of the Old Home movement.
Staged Alarm. At the August 1911 Thetford Pageant, local residents portray earoly Thetford families heading for safety in response to an impending British raid. Over 3,000 people viewed the three-day events staged along the Connecticut River in North Thetford. (Thetford Historical Society)
As printed in the Journal-Opinion on July 27, 2011
“Take me back to old Vermont
Where plenty smiles on every want.
Amid her winding vales, there let me roam,
By her famous pools and rills,
Marble, slate and granite hills,
And best of all, my old green mountain home.”
This is the chorus of “Take Me Back to Old Vermont,” composed in 1907 by Joseph Jones and Harry Stafford. They dedicated it to, “the sons and daughters of Vermont who have wandered from her green hills.” It reflected the mood of the Old Home Week movement of the previous decade.
This column describes how that movement was reflected in local celebrations. In addition to standard local histories, the information is taken from The Hill Country of Northern New England by Harold Wilson and The Vermont of Today, authored by Arthur Stone in 1929.
After 1820, area towns experienced a decline in population. The lure of western farm lands and urban economic opportunities drew many away. This decline raised fear that small towns in the two states were dying. Efforts were made to stem the exodus as well as draw new residents. It was out of these efforts that the Old Home Week idea was born.
It was first proposed in an 1897 article in the New England Magazine by New Hampshire’s Frank W. Rollins. Rollins called on those who had moved to revisit the town where they were born. “I wish that in the ear of every son and daughter of New Hampshire, in the summer days might be heard the persuasive word: come back, come back,” he mused.
The feeling was, Wilson wrote, “The temporary influx would freshen the humdrum lives of those who had stayed at home, and at the same time, bring a little money into the old home town.” In addition to the money spent on lodging, souvenirs and amusements, well-to-do visitors might purchase a piece of property or donate funds for a civic improvement.
This was not the first time that towns held special gatherings. Agricultural fairs, such as the ones held in Bradford after 1852, brought a community together, “and former residents made it the occasion for returning to visit relatives and revive moribund friendships.”
In 1885, Lyme held a major celebration on the common at which some 3000 present and former residents dined under a 325-foot-long tent. In 1897, Haverhill Academy had a grand reunion of alumni to celebrate the completion of the new Academy building.
It was not until 1899, however, that Frank Rollins, acting as governor, recommended that an “Old Home Week” be set aside. With the help of the Grange and the Agriculture Department, the proposal won wide acceptance and the last week in August, was set aside for the observance.
Sixty-five communities, including Piermont, formed Old Home Week Associations and invitations were sent out for the celebration. It was a marked success. Towns spruced up and decorated. Residents and visitors enjoyed parades, speeches, concerts, picnics, banquets, historic performances, and family reunions. Those who could not return because of distance, held observances by gathering in places as far away as California.
An editorial in The United Opinion praised the success of the New Hampshire program: “The idea was a novel one, but as carried out was a great success.” Pointing out that Vermont is famous for, “the men she gives to other states,” the editor encouraged the state to “profit from the example of its neighbor.” He concluded: “Think it over and next summer lets (sic) have a grand reunion of Vermonters.”
That very next year, the Vermont Legislature designated the week in August that included Bennington Battle Day as the state’s first Old Home Week. Governor William Stickney extended the state’s invitation promising: “To all her returning children we shall be glad to share hospitality and divide with them something of the strength of the hills.”
Communities across the state began, “amazing elaborate preparations.” Stone writes: “Vermonters are not given to sudden enthusiasms, so that the wide acceptance of the Old Home Week idea is the more notable, for the scheme was novel.” Forty-five towns including Bradford, Chelsea, and Peacham began early to plan programs. “Strafford started preparations late, but wound up with colors flying.”
Bradford’s Old Home Week was planned for August 11-17, 1901. Committees, including the community’s most prominent citizens, were formed to plan every aspect of the celebration. The Town appropriated $100 and private donations were solicited. One thousand invitations were sent out to former residents and descendants of former residents.
When the week arrived the town was gaily decorated with flags. The festivities began with two services of worship. On Tuesday, Captain Charles E. Clark, “Bradford’s most distinguished and noble son,” arrived to a welcoming crowd. That evening, the first annual meeting of the Bradford Academy Alumni Association was held at the Hotel Low. The week continued with banquets, historic sketches, entertainment, and speeches by residents and distinguished visitors.
As with other towns, these public events were, “…given second place to the private reunions, the renewal of acquaintances with friends and places, the revival of old ideas and affections and inspirations, the seeing again the homes of our youth with the eyes of maturity.”
The United Opinion concluded: “Bradford has, indeed, spent one of the happiest weeks in its history. Crowds of people from far and near have revisited the old home. Those who have returned for this Old Home Week must feel a sense of pride that the old town has neither retrograded nor stood still during the years which have elapsed since their residence here. Instead they return to a town that has kept up with the progress of the times.”
On July 1-2, 1902, an Old Home celebration was held in East Corinth to dedicate the Blake Memorial Library. Three children of Nathan and Susan Blake given the money to buy the land and build in library in memory of their parents. “Church services, picnics, dinners and hours of reminiscences” preceded the dedication ceremony. Long after the speeches were lost from memory, the story was told of the speaker, “who supplied the one moment of hysteria when his false teeth flew out from the grandstand in the middle of his eloquent discourse.”
In succeeding years, Old Home Weeks, or the more reduced Old Home Days, were held in towns throughout the area. In Pike and East Haverhill, they were sponsored by the Pike Manufacturing Company. In Bradford in 1909, the Fourth of July celebration seemed to be the event of the summer season. Over the years, the Old Home events were incorporated into the annual August Bradford Fair.
The chartering anniversary of area towns became a significant opportunity for celebrations. A century ago, towns across the two states observed their 150th anniversaries with historic pageants. Stone says that 1911 was, “called the pageant year…and marked the real beginning of the pageant as a feature in civic celebrations.” He writes that “the big three of 1911” were Bennington, Hartford and Thetford.
Thetford’s pageant was organized by William Chauncy Langdon, an educator from New York who advocated the use of pageants to promote civic awareness. He was drawn to the project by Thetford camp founders Luther Gulick and Professor and Mrs. Charles Farnsworth. He believed that: “The pageant is a drama in which the place is the hero and the development of the community is the plot.” He was an advocate of the New Country Life movement that called for the revitalization of America’s rural life. His role is the subject of a chapter in David Glassberg’s 1990 study of American historical pageantry.
Langdon worked with a local committee of year-round and summer residents. Duties, including that of assembling a large cast, were assigned to local community groups. Langdon secured a letter of endorsement from President Theodore Roosevelt. It read, in part, “I am much pleased to learn that the people of the town of Thetford are doing all they can to develop their resources under the direction of the University of Vermont and of the United States Department of Agriculture.”
The three-day pageant was held on the banks of the Connecticut River before large crowds. The cast of 500 residents and summer visitors, including youngsters from Camps Hanoum and Aloha, presented a series of symbolic episodes. Scenes described a nostalgic view of Thetford’s history, including its agricultural past, its role in the nation’s wars and the coming of the railroad. One scene predicted a better future for Thetford, including reversals of the previous century’s declines. .
Stone writes, “The best criticism of the whole event was made by one of the most honored citizens of the town. ‘I have lived in this town over seventy years, but this day makes it all worth while.’ ”
A more homegrown 150th celebration was held in Newbury in August 1912. The week was described by a front page article in the Groton Times. “The residents of Newbury have been preparing for this event and Sunday dawned upon that historic town dressed in gala attire, the homes open to cordially welcome the home-coming guests and strangers who came to join in the week’s festivities. Newbury people did themselves honor in this event.”
In addition to worship services, band concerts, and meals served in all sections of Newbury, the community celebrated with the dedication of five monuments. The one to General Jacob Bayley was unveiled on the Newbury village green before a crowd of 3500. A three-act play, “The Difference,” depicting a fictional account of the settlement of the town was presented at nearby Chadwick Hall. Special days celebrated Newbury Seminary and the area’s Civil War veterans. A Grand Reunion Day in West Newbury d
Haverhill held its 150th celebration in September 1912. The Soldiers’ Monument in North Haverhill was dedicated before a large crowd. A historic program was held at the Town Hall and the Village Hall served as a museum. In his remarks summarizing the history of the community, William Whitcher said: “Our heritage is a goodly one. May we transmit it not only unimpaired, but enriched to our children.” The day’s events concluded with a concert.
Orford held a 150th anniversary celebration in August 1915. It started with a parade along the common. Included in the parade was, “a hay-rack carrying about five elderly people” who had been there for the centennial observance in 1865. A banquet was served in a large tent and a ceremony was held in the Congregational Church.
drew a crowd of 600.
Old Home observances evolved after 1915. In some communities, they would only occur
on significant milestones, such as the 200th anniversaries of town chartering in the 1960’s, the bicentennial of the nation in 1976 and the anniversary of Vermont statehood in 1991.
Some towns adopted a different theme for a summer/fall celebration. Beginning in 1925, Fairlee residents worked with “summer people” to hold an annual Fairlee Day. Contests, parades, baseball games and camp activities were included. In 1926, the town used the occasion for the dedication of the Soldiers’ Monument on the Green. Fairlee Day has been held from time to time since.
On August 20, 1932, 400 people gathered in Piermont for the presentation of a “colorful historical pageant.” as part of a weekend of Old Home activities. At its conclusion, the organizing committee offered its thanks to the whole community, “for the success of this undertaking became a matter of great moment to all, and surely deserves to be long remembered in the annals of Piermont.”
Beginning in 1947, Orford used the Fourth of July as Old Home Day. Lyme had an Old Home Day Association from 1948 to 1958. About the same time, Groton began taking advantage of the influx of tourists in October to host Fall Foliage Day. Several towns moved their yearly celebration to Labor Day.
The Upper Valley is in the midst of another significant observance, the 250th anniversary of the Middle Grants. Events began this year and will continue through at least 2015, when Orford and Bradford celebrate the 250th anniversary of their settlements. Fairlee has already set a good example with its July 4th weekend celebration. Thetford will replicate the 1911 pageant on August 12-14 at Thetford Academy. Both towns have published updated histories.
Many of the successful observances mentioned above have common characteristics. They include wide community co-operating and planning, a respect for heritage mingled with a dose of nostalgia and a realistic view of current and future situations, an opportunity for fun-filled get-togethers, a celebration of family and friends and a hearty welcome for the returning visitor or stranger. Whether a local community is an old home or a new one to a town’s residents, these are attributes worth celebrating well beyond festive days.