opened as a business and cultural center. Over 1,500 attended to view the work masterminded by Ray and Tina Clark.
Journal Opinion, November 27, 2013
“What I know from my studies and from my life is that there is no such thing as a true event. We know dates and times and locations and participants but accounts of what happened depend upon the perspective from which the event is viewed.”
William Kent Krueger
As I reread the 1980-1984 editions of the Journal Opinion I was also reading the novel mentioned above. Krueger’s closing comment on the events depicted in his story was a reminder that the article you see before you is largely colored by the perspectives of both the newspaper and this writer. There were events and trends that one or both skipped that others would have highlighted.
The Journal Opinion during this period frequently reported on property lost to fire. Some were businesses including the Copeland Factory and Our Place Restaurant in Bradford, the Hearthside Candle and Gift Shop in Fairlee and several country stores. The Woodsville-Bath covered bridge and Union 36 Elementary School were targets of arson. Bradford’s Low mansion and Corliss Tavern, both historic structures, were destroyed.
There were numerous home and barn fires. Often livestock was lost. Remarkably there was no loss of life either among residents or firefighters. Those impacted knew the feelings of loss that are experienced by losing one’s possessions.
Local volunteer firefighters often fought fires in the face of water shortages, dangerous conditions, remote locations and extreme temperatures. They held regular training sessions and sought support from voters for new equipment. New firehouses were built in Ryegate Corner and West Topsham.
The area was impacted by the national recession of the early 1980s. In 1982 unemployment nationally was 10.8%, with Vermont and New Hampshire unemployment rates at 6.6% and 7.6% repectively. At the same time there were periods of record inflation with 18% increases. Higher food prices meant that it took $87 a week to feed a family of four. By 1984 the economy had recovered and the two states were reporting some of the lowest unemployment in the nation.
Higher energy costs added to residents’ concerns. The newspaper reported in 1980: “Virtually every gas station has priced their gas over one dollar a gallon.” Home heating oil prices and electrical rates went up and people were encouraged to turn their thermostats down. Car pooling was encouraged and the new Stagecoach service offered local public transportation.
Several hydroelectric projects were created to offer some replacement for electricity from fossil fuel plants. Central Vermont Public Service rebuilt the Bradford dam and new dams were built on the Passumpsic River in East Barnet and on Eastman Brook in Piermont. There were proposals to replace older dams at Boltonville and on Dodge Falls between Bath and Ryegate.
The impact of these changing economic conditions was mixed. In 1980 Real Homes discontinued its planned Lake Tarleton development. Subdivisions in Newbury, Woodsville and Fairlee were shelved for economic or environmental reasons. For a time Lyme placed on hold plans to expand Bayne Stevenson’s complex at 13 Dartmouth College Highway.
Huntington Construction had mixed success in developments in Bradford and Thetford. Mountain Lakes residents purchased their defunct ski area and Haverhill sold 30 lots in that development in a major tax sale. One development that came to a sudden halt was one planned for Bradford’s Hackett Hill when its developer was arrested for dealing drugs and using the money to purchase the property.
A number of new businesses opened but subsequently closed or moved. They included the Agway Plant, Bankware, Crossroad Pharmacy and Maska in Bradford and Haverhill’s Burndy Manufacturing. Valley Floors and Shur-Auto Parts also opened and remained. The renovated Opera Block in Woodsville offered new senior housing and the Grist Mill in Bradford became a business and cultural center.
There was concern over police protection as crime rates increased. Lyme hired its first full-time police chief, Orford’s police chief battled citizen concerns over performance and Bradford tried to figure out its police security. In April 1981 the Village’s long-time chief “Mem” Martin was fired. Makeshift attempts to fill the position resulted in security officers with little training and reliance on the Vermont State Police Eastside Cluster. There was a prolonged fear that a fully-manned Bradford police department would cause costs to escalate as they had in Haverhill.
Controversies kept some residents on edge for much of the period. Military maneuvers held locally in 1983 brought protests by antiwar activists. Warren had a “missile crisis” when it was suggested that its Redstone rocket be moved to Derry, NH. The use of animal traps caused concerns for animal rights activists. Legislative efforts to raise the drinking age, adopt the Equal Rights Amendment, raise taxes and reform the state’s blue laws all brought strong local reactions.
Two issues raised at local town meetings attracted national attention. In 1982 many towns in Vermont and New Hampshire voted for a nuclear weapon freeze. Piermont, Orford, Lyme, Fairlee, Ryegate and Bradford were among them. At the Bradford Town Meeting, the majority voted favorably when highly-respected resident Jim Perry advanced the motion with the comment “I’m not sure it will do any good, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.” The next year towns along I-91 discussed articles calling for a halt to “secret” shipments of nuclear waste from Canada through the local area. CBS News covered the discussion at the Thetford town meeting.
There were other environmental concerns. As in the previous decade, wastewater treatment and solid waste disposal continued to be issues for local communities. Local Vermont towns sought to find a permanent landfill option. A proposed landfill near West Bradford was denied, a landfill in Thetford was thought to be polluting local drinking water and in Newbury two landfills operated. Volunteers in Bradford opened a bottle redemption center and wind and solar power were being explored.
South Ryegate, Wells River and Woodsville all developed wastewater projects during this time. Fairlee, Piermont village and Haverhill Corner worried about water pollution. Open burning at dumps in Orford, Warren and Piermont continued to raise concerns. In 1983, the state ordered these dumps closed and then issued a reprieve.
Schools continued to be of high interest and controversy. Increased student population, higher school costs and teacher contracts issues were constant topics for discussion and debate. A proposal to enlarge Bradford Elementary School brought initial rejection. Thetford and Orford voters continued to debate about where to send their high school students. In the end, Thetford Academy retained its town’s designation and Orford High School remained open.
Posters depicting Soviet Communist leaders in one Oxbow classroom caused a short-lived tempest that was noted in an edition of Playboy magazine. Legal suits by Oxbow and Blue Mountain against the manufacturer of their faulty roofing material were finally settled with both schools getting large damage payments. Discipline policies and the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco concerned school personnel, parents and students.
Countering these school controversies were articles about the great things happening in area schools. Many classrooms were alive with innovative programs and special projects. Computers, initially labeled as “a plaything,” began to find a place as teaching and administrative tools. Local schools produced challenging science fairs and theatrical productions. Athletic teams won division and state championships with regularity.
Adult organizations also took an active role in community affairs. Lions Clubs, Jaycees, PTOs, Grange, Masonic, church and veteran organizations joined merchant groups to improve life in their respective towns. Their fund-raising ideas were as normal as chicken pie suppers and as unique as bath-tub races.
Bradford’s Midnight Madness was mimicked in the Wells River-Woodsville 11th Hour Sale. Groton’s Foliage Festival, Fairlee’s Lobster Dinners and Bradford’s Wild Game Supper as well as the Connecticut Valley and Haverhill Fairs were held annually. Bear Ridge auto racing and slo-pitch softball games continued to attract the attention of loyal fans and participants.
In addition to the fires mentioned above, the local area suffered some of the most disastrous floods in a decade. In these and other situations, communities responded generously to the plight of their neighbors. In 1982 a local man needed a heart transplant and the area residents raised $49,000 so that he could have the successful operation. In 1984 a 10-year old Fairlee child needed blood platelets to combat her leukemia and dozens of local residents went to Boston to provide them. Her battle was ultimately unsuccessful. Annually Operation Santa Claus transformed the local generosity into Christmas gifts for needy children. Regular blood drives met ambitious goals as did other service efforts.
Each year death by accidents, crime and disease robbed local communities of residents. Auto accidents were common. AIDS made national headlines during the period and took the life of at least one local resident. Many residents died of old age.
At the risk of ignoring many who experienced a life well lived, I mention just three local elders who died during this period. They exemplify the idea that the spirit of a small town is often personified by its long-time residents. Their concerns often determine the town’s priorities and their efforts are the town’s achievement.
One was Lucy Bugbee of Bradford, known as the “fern and flower” lady. She was a dedicated environmentalist before most knew what that meant. The second was W. Putnam Blodgett also of Bradford, a dedicated public servant who, with his wife Charlotte, amassed a large collection of historic items. The Blodgetts’ collection forms a major part of the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock, VT.
The third was Charles Pike of Fairlee, that town’s last living WW I veteran. Charles and his wife Mamie lived on a farm opposite the Fairlee Diner. He was a hoarder, the caretaker of the neighboring tramp house, a storyteller and one who could claim that he had bested Carlton Gray in a cattle deal. As I child often went to the Pike home. I thought of them as being very old, but now realized they were younger then than I am now.
Town government and elections continued to make news. While most discussion reflected “good sense and civilized conduct” there was just enough rebellion, especially over budgets, to remind local officials of voters’ concerns. Town planning and zoning seemed to have lost some of the edge that had characterized their role during the 70s. History was made when Democrat Madeline Kunin was elected governor of Vermont in 1984.
Another topic that had less news coverage was farming. Those farms still in operation struggled with the creation of new marketing strategies and a surplus of milk. While Future Farmers of America and 4-H clubs continued to be popular, the number of young people going into farming declined. Some farms were doing very well and there were news reports of outstanding production and model farming. In 1983 Dustin White of Corinth was named Vermont Dairyman of the Year. He, along with his wife Jane, had turned a rundown hill farm into a model one.
There are a number of items that do not fit into any of the above categories. They include the introduction of Cable and satellite TV, Channel 31, ATMs, Cabbage Patch Kids, PAC-Man, Rubik Cubes and PCs. A Laotian refugee family came to Bradford and stayed for a while. So did the measles. Country Singer Doc Williams and Chubby Checker came to the area for an evening. Robin Williams and a cast of Hollywood personalities arrived during the winter of 1982 to produce a movie, but left when essential snow came “too little, too late.”
All of the topics mentioned above and many more were covered by this newspaper. In 1984 a letter to the editor reproached it for not covering school and community events. The Editor’s response: “Are you sure you are reading the Journal Opinion?” This article is a mere hint at the local news so adequately covered.
In 1980, as the decade was at its opening, the editor of the newspaper suggested with foresight that “the decade of the eighties reminds us that things are no longer the same as they used to be.” Now we can look back at the 80’s with even sharper hindsight to know that he was so right. As we look back at the hopes, dreams, accomplishments and disappointments of this period, we might ask the question posed by the Old Testament prophet: “How does it look to you now?”