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Thursday, April 22, 2021

Wood There Be


BOBBIN CAPITAL: Between 1872 and 1967, East Corinth's bobbins mills were among the world's foremost producers of bobbins for the textile industry.  Plastic bobbins and disastrous fires such as the one that leveled the Bowen-Hunter mill, pictured above, brought an end to those enterprises. (Courtesy Journal Opinion)

COOPERAGE REVIVED. Prior to the 20th century, most products were stored and shipped in barrels and tubs.  Coopers were valued craftsmen in every community. The Green Mountain Grain & Barrel Company of Richmond, Vermont, has revived this traditional craft. Despite a recent fire in their cooperage, their coopers continue to create barrels. (Courtesy Green Mountain Grain & Barrel Co.)

“From the beginnings of European settlement in North America until the growth of modern industry in the nineteenth century, wood was the raw material most frequently used for fuel, construction, furniture, and countless other articles.” Charles van Ravenswaay, American Antiquarian Society, 1971

I have written numerous columns on wood usage from lumbering, log drives and sawmills as well as houses, barns and furniture made from that lumber have appeared in this space. Those articles can be found on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. This article deals with the production of small wooden items produced before and after the Industrial Revolution. These woodenwares were a major part of shops and factories located within the two-state area.   

A deeply forested wilderness challenged early European settlers. Species of trees included maple, pine, birch, ash, oak, beech, cedar, and poplar. Before farming could commence those trees had to be removed. That harvesting provided the raw material for the manufacture of woodenware. Early residents quickly learned which wood was best-suited for a particular item and which time of year was best to harvest the ideal trees.  

Handmade wooden utensils often “cut, whittled or scooped out” by the homeowner, could be found in all homes. Those included baskets, tankards, wooden plates called trenchers, rolling pins, butter churns and molds, cheese drainers and presses as well as mortars and pestles, dippers, small boxes for sugar, spices and medicine, brooms and scoops. While these wooden items were found everywhere, metal or glass items were more likely found in the homes of the “better classes.” In the yards and barns were wooden troughs, buckets, kegs, barrels, storage boxes, and wooden plows. 

A skilled cooper was a valued craftsman in an early community. Operating part-time as a cottage industry while also farming, they worked to meet the great demand for barrels, tubs and pails. Before the 20th century most items were stored and shipped in wooden barrels. Of different standard sizes, wet barrels of oak were used for liquids such as molasses, cider, liquor or paint. Dry barrels, often made of maple, were used to protect contents from moisture. That ranged from hardware to flour and gun powder. Before metal hoops were used, wooden one, often made of elders, held barrels together.

John Mann, an early settler in Orford, is an example of a farmer/cooper. In 1767, he made pails and tubs to exchange for corn in Newbury.

The factory system that developed in the early 1800s changed the manufacture of these items. Locally, there were small woodenware factories in most towns.

Akin to barrels were tubs and boxes for the storage of butter and cheese. In sizes from 20 to 60 pounds, they were made of wood that would not impart either odor or flavor.  Prior to 1876, Henry Brown & Company produced butter boxes in a factory near the Waits River falls. In 1879, Leavitt & Gage Company of Bradford advertised their square butter boxes as superior to the old-style round ones.

Until the introduction of galvanized tin around 1900, buckets were manufactured from wood. This included sap buckets for the  growing maple sugar industry. Around 1878, one plant in Lyndonville created up to 15,000 cedar sap buckets annually.  Wooden sugar boxes were also in demand.

There was also the manufacture of barrel kits. These were loose barrel staves bundled together and shipped for later assembly.  In 1851, Ransom Aldrich of Newbury moved to Bradford to open a mackerel kit factory to meet the needs of the New England fishing industry. Described as a “decided genius in the manufacture of articles of wood,” he shipped his kits to Boston.  He later expanded his enterprise to include other wooden items, created on machines “he made with his own hand.” In the early 1900s, Proctor Bros of Nashua, NH operated a stave factory north of Bradford village. Their wooden staves varied in length and were used in the making of pails, ice cream freezers and barrels.

 One of the largest woodwork factories was located in Merrimack, NH. In the 1870s, it annually produced 240,000 fish kits and 2,500,000 barrel staves, almost all of which were made from local pine. At that same time there was a factory in Piermont that prepared alders to be used for barrel hoops.

Wooden tub and box manufactures were also found throughout the area. Page’s Box Shop of East Corinth began in 1875 as a blacksmith shop.  In the 1890s, in response to the needs of nearby creameries, they began to manufacture boxes for butter and cheese. Local farmers could rely on them for wooden stanchions, troughs and water tubs. They also manufactured sugar boxes by the thousands and, later egg crates, soft drink containers and even hot tubs. The last operator was third-generation Maurice Page. The operation closed in 1990 after a disastrous fire.

Tubs were also manufactured by Henry Hood of Topsham.  In the 1880s, the shop manufactured 3,000 tubs annually. About the same time, Rodimon’s Butter Tub factory was operating in Piermont.

Other box shops operated, including one in Walcott, Vt. The local newspaper reported “there are few manufacturers of turned wood boxes in the world that make as many as are made here.” Piermont’s Clayburn Brothers Butter Box operation was in business from 1920 until 1945. Stone & Wood Company operated a box mill in Woodsville after 1910. The Woodsville Box Shop manufactured ammunition boxes during World War II and later, wooden beverage boxes.   

Factories manufacturing wooden bobbins also provided employment in the two-state area. In the early 19th century new machinery revolutionized the textile industry. Those machines required millions of wooden bobbins and spools for the woven woolen and cotton threads they produced.  As different machines and stages in the process required different bobbins there were many varied shapes and sizes. Ash, birch, and maple were among the hardwoods used. In 1888, the St. Johnsbury newspaper reported it took one cord of wood to produce 5,000 bobbins.  

Two large bobbin mills were located in East Corinth. The Jackman Company, initially located in Topsham, began manufacturing bobbins in 1872. When that mill was destroyed by fire in 1894, the operation was moved to East Corinth. For a time the company also operated a small mill in Bradford. The bobbins they produced “were specialized for wooden thread, and for many years they made bobbins exclusively for the American Woolen Company.” During World War I, the mill was busy providing bobbins for the manufacture of woolen blankets for soldiers.

Katharine Blaisdell’s history of this mill mentioned that “for every 100 pounds of wood they started with, only 3 ½ pounds of finished bobbins could be produced, due to the drying and shaping of the wood. “ The bobbins were made from rock maple. When plastics began to replace wooden bobbins, business declined and the mill closed in 1969.

The second and larger mill was that of the Bowen-Hunter Company. The company began in 1905 in Ernest Bowen’s small shop. When that shop was destroyed by fire in 1921, Bowen went into partnership with Winthrop Jackman for a short time and then with Harry Hunter. Their mill “became the world’s foremost producer of bobbins for cotton mills.” They had auxiliary mills in West Topsham, Warren and Westfield, VT with a total employment of up to 185.  

In every aspect of woodworking, destructive fires were frequent. Major fires often signaled the end of an operation. That was the case when, on Nov 21, 1967, the East Corinth mill was destroyed by fire.   

Other local bobbin mills owners included F. D. McCrillis and M. D. Coffrin in Groton, Sumner Clifford in Warren, H. S. Sleeper in North Haverhill, Josh Nutter in Swiftwater, Pike and Lavoie in Pike, Warren and Glencliff and R. Beal and Sons in Orfordville. In 1886, the latter produced 500,000 bobbins.

The clothespin is another of the wooden items that had connections to the two states. Before the 19th century, laundry was hung on bushes or lines with either handmade prongs or no pins at all. In 1853, David Smith of Springfield, VT designed the first spring- clamped clothespin.  A year later, John Smith of Sunapee, NH patented a machine for the slitting of clothespins, the first of a series of clothespin machines.  He was also very successful at producing the pins themselves. A different pin-making machine was patented by two men from Hartland, VT in 1855. 

At first, clothes pins were manufactured in small family-operated factories. In the 1880s, the U.S. Clothespin Company and the National Clothespin Company made Vermont’s Washington County the clothespin center of the nation. In 1899, the St. Johnsbury Caledonian reported “the success of the company could be documented in an order of one carload, or 6,000 gross of pin” shipped to Europe soon. It was reported that during the height of production, the yearly production of pins in central Vermont amounted to 72 million.

After World War I, the industry was challenged as cheap imports from Europe flooded the market. In 1920, one gross of Vermont-made pins sold for 58 cents, while a gross of imported Swedish pins sold for ten cents less. Despite this competition, the two Vermont companies continued to operate. When the National Clothespin Company closed in 2003, it was the last American wooden clothespin operation

 Wooden pegs and dowels were used in construction of everything from structures to furniture and boxes, especially before nails became readily available.  After 1818, inventors, such as Thomas Rowell of Hartford, developed machines for the manufacture of wooden pegs. There were factories in Meredith, NH as well as Bellows Falls, St. Johnsbury, Barnet, and Bethel in Vermont.  In 1874, the latter “turned out 100 bushels of pegs a day.”  In 1897, maple and white birch pegs sold for prices up to one dollar per bushel. Before 1865, wooden pegs were also used in the manufacture of shoes but later replaced by small nails or glue. Despite that, an ad in 1907 called them the “best cure for squeaky shoes.” 

There were dozens of other local woodworking shops. In the 1860s, Charles Smith of Woodsville manufactured shovel handles. Edward Cilley of Piermont turned out hoe handles and ladders. Frank Bradford of Orford crafted brooms. A number of craftsmen including George Eastman of North Haverhill built coffins and caskets. In the 1890s, E.L. Chandler Co of Orleans, VT manufactured wooden piano sounding boards. In Springfield, VT there were several factories that manufactured wooden toys including wooden-headed dolls.

In 1879, H. D. Davis began to manufacture beehive parts in Bradford. Photos of the period show numerous beehives on the hillside north of the village.  Apparently those bees were annoying to the neighbors and, in 1892, the village trustees threatened to prosecute him for keeping bees. Their threat made national news in numerous apiculture magazines. “Beehive” Davis continued to keep bees and manufacture boxes.

Between 1870 and the 1890s, several individuals, including W. H. Leavitt, manufactured window parts as well as door, boxes and tubs in a factory near the fall in Bradford.  There were several shops, including that of Stephen Plant of Haverhill, that turned out baskets. In 1947, the Haldane Company of Groton manufactured boxes for the silverware industry.   

All of these manufactured produces proved “the strength, thickness, security and durability of wood.” Despite the constant threats from fire, foreign competition and economic downturns, these shops provided significant employment for both local men and women. They took trees from the hillsides of Northern New England and turned them into products for homes and businesses.

This is not the last of my columns on wood products.  In the near future I will cover potash, papermaking, bark mills and other local wood-based industries.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Shields Against Crime

 Local Lawmen—Both of the local men pictured above had long-term law enforcement careers, Caledonia Country sheriff Lorenzo Sulloway of St. Johnsbury served from 1878 to 1905 and was described as “a terror of evil doers.” Newbury’s Horace Bailey  served as U.S. Marshall for Vermont from 1903-1914. Any person who broke federal laws would find himself up against “the real thing.”

Before the State Police—In response to increase highway traffic issues, Vermont created a highway patrol in 1925.  This officer, pictured in St. Albans in 1936 was one of the motorcycle unit. The patrol’s limitation to motor vehicle law enforcements and n the inability of county sheriffs to deal with major crimes led to the creation of the Vermont State Police in 1947.  (Library of Congress)     


“Certainly Vermont should have some officers empowered to enforce the laws and prevent crime, and not try to get along longer with a system that simply seems to lock the barn after the horse is stolen.” Letter to the Editor, Brattleboro Daily Reformer, Dec 28, 1920.

     This column examines the history of law enforcement in Vermont and New Hampshire from the Colonial era to the establishment of their state police forces. I have relied heavily on Michael J. Carpenter’s book on the Vermont State Police and the New Hampshire State Police’s Golden Anniversary publication.  Additionally, the material is taken from local publications and online sources.

     The two local law enforcement officers colonial New England imported from England were the constable and the sheriff. Each town had one or more constables as keepers of the peace and marshals of the militia. A town could not be recognized as legitimate unless it had constables to administer punishments and deliver warrants.

     In provincial New Hampshire, constables were authorized to seize lawbreakers, including privateers and pirates. Additionally, they certified weights and measures and oversaw wolf carcasses disposal. In both states, they were authorized to “pursue, or hue-and-cry after Murderers, Peace breakers, Thieves, Robbers, Burglars and other capital offenders.” Responding as a posse-comitatus to a constable’s hue-and-cry was required of every able-bodied man.

      In both Vermont and New Hampshire, constables were also collectors of state taxes. In 1788, the Vermont General Assembly authorized the first constable of Mooretown (Bradford) to collect a 10 shillings tax on each one hundred acres.

     During the 19th century, newspapers mentioned additional duties of Vermont constables. They included warning the poor out of town, transporting prisoners, killing unlicensed dogs, enforcing liquor laws and supporting local police courts. In 1895, the constables of Fairlee and Orford cooperated to prevent “the traveling public from driving over the covered bridge faster than a walk.”

     If there was a town jail, the constable was in charge. Prisoners often escaped. Newbury’s jail was an example of the inadequacy of the local lockups. In 1894, Newbury Constable Weed told the local newspaper, “There is no denying the fact that lawlessness in Newbury village is on the increase.”

     Newspaper reports began to refer to local law enforcers in larger communities as police. Soon after the Civil War, those larger communities began to maintain a police force including a night-watch contingent. These were often full-time uniformed officers. This increase in force was more a response to civil disorder than an increase in crime. 

    In 1898, Woodsville began to have an officer on duty during the night, appointed by the Selectmen, but paid for by the  businesses. The term “chief of police” was first used in reference to the Village of Bradford in 1909. By that time, the title had been used in larger communities in both states for some time.

     The chief law enforcement of the county was the sheriff. The title has its origin in the early English position of shire reeve. Before 1878, sheriffs in New Hampshire were appointed for 5 year terms by the Governor and Council. In Vermont, sheriffs were elected by the Legislature until the Vermont Constitution was amended in 1850 to provide for their election by each county’s voters. In 1870, terms were increased from one year to four.

     The duties of early sheriffs included the collection of debts, criminal prosecution, and punishment of offenders. These punishments, often severe, included whipping, branding, public display in stocks and imprisonment. Early New Hampshire sheriffs also transported election ballots to state officials. 

     Additional duties included sale of seized property, supervision of the county jail and playing a major role in the county court’s operation. Their duties sometimes carried them beyond the boundaries of their county.  

     In 1806, Orange County High Sheriff Mica Barron of Bradford traveled to Lower Canada to apprehend Stephen Burroughs, a notorious counterfeiter. Bankers had engaged Barron for this extra-legal investigation.

     One local sheriff of note was Caledonia County sheriff Lorenzo Sulloway of St. Johnsbury. He held his position from 1878 to 1905, one of the state’s longest continuous sheriff service records.  Sulloway apprehended many notorious criminals in several states, Canada and Cuba. He was described as “a terror of evil doers.” 

     Sheriffs were sometimes called to keep the peace in the face of social unrest. They were called to deal with labor unrest in Bolton (1846), Newbury (1847), Vershire (1883), South Ryegate (1885), and Bellows Falls (1921). In several of these incidents, the Vermont militia was sent to help the sheriff restore order. 

     Some sheriffs were not equipped to fully investigate major crimes such as murder. In 1866, in the murder of George Maxwell of Franconia and in the 1922 double murder in Orford, the sheriff relied on hired detectives from out the state. In the latter case, a fingerprint expert was hired to assist in the investigation.

     Before  state police units were established  in the two states, there were several other law enforcement officers whose jurisdiction was above the local county level. The oldest of this position was that of United States Marshal. The federal government created it in 1789 in support of federal courts and federal jurisdictions. 

     Federal marshals represented the national government throughout the state and were in charge of collecting and distributing information. Until 1870, they were responsible for reporting the census in each state. Until the Secret Service was created in 1865, they were frequently called upon to investigate counterfeiters and smugglers.

     As marshals were appointed by the President, the occupants of the office changed with the results of elections. George Washington appointed John Parker of New Hampshire in 1789 as the first U.S. Marshal for that state. In Vermont, the first marshal was Lewis Morris, also appointed by Washington in 1791.

     In March 1841, William Barron of Bradford was appointed U.S. Marshall for Vermont by President William Henry Harrison. As Harrison only served as President for 31 days, a document bearing his signature is the rarest of Presidential autograph. In 1985, Barron’s letter of appointment with Harrison’s signature was found in the Bradford Public Library’s attic. It was sold to finance improvements to the children’s room. 

    Two other local men were also appointed to the office of U.S. Marshal for Vermont. They were Jacob Kent (1845-1849) and Horace W. Bailey (1903-1914) of Newbury. Bailey received wide acclamation for his service. In 1905, one newspaper editorialized: “Horace is onto his job every time and the fellow who tries to get ahead of Uncle Sam by any crookedness whatever will find himself up against the real thing as long as the U. S. Marshal for Vermont is Horace W. Bailey.”

     The Federal Bureau of Investigation has had officers in Vermont since 1908. Their duties included investigations for the U. S. Department of Justice. Their jurisdiction involved federal crimes, and they were active in interstate crimes and civil unrest.

     From 1920 to 1933, the FBI was joined by federal prohibition agents and U.S. Customs agents in an attempt to enforce national prohibition. Through this area, roads were supply routes for smugglers of illegal alcohol from Canada bound for communities to the south.

     Both states also had officers to enforce fish and game laws. In New Hampshire, towns were authorized to hire wardens as early as 1880. In 1890, the first state enforcement officer was hired, a position that became known as game wardens in 1915 and became uniformed officers in 1926.

     Vermont game wardens were first mentioned in 1899.The state-wide game warden system was established in 1904, and by 1930, the officers were uniformed. In 1921, licenses were required for hunting and fishing. An article in the United Opinion noted that wardens were “considerably worried” about how it would look if they had to arrest female violators.

     With the proliferation of automobiles after 1910, both states had to deal with offenders of traffic laws. Even with the income that might come from local tickets, patrolling the highways was often beyond the constables and sheriffs’ capacity. Coordination between local police was difficult as offenders fled in high-speed automobiles. Added to this was the increase in tourists, events involving many automobiles as well as speeding and drunken driving.

     The idea of a state police in New Hampshire predated these developments.  In 1869, in response to a petition, Governor Onslow Stearns suggested legislation to create a state police force to act where local authorities failed to do so. Suppression of illegal liquor sales, gambling places, and “houses of ill fame” were among the motives. A state-wide vote failed to obtain the necessary two-thirds all-male vote.

     In 1915, the New Hampshire Legislature created a uniformed Motor Vehicle Highway Patrolmen unit to enforce traffic laws. The Attorney General was authorized to employ investigators with the power to enforce laws and make arrests statewide. 

     The idea of a state police was revived in 1931 when a legislative report called for the state to upgrade its “archaic system of policing.” As a result, a State Police Commission was created with 22 uniformed Motor Vehicle motorcycle officers.  A State Detective Bureau, as well as a bureau for criminal and gun purchase records was also established. 

     On July 1, 1937, a law upgrading the highway patrol to a state police force with broad powers went into effect. The New Hampshire State Police was the 15th such organization in the nation.  

    Progress toward a state police force was much slower in Vermont. In 1918, the Vermont Secretary of State’s office was authorized to hire trained motor vehicle inspectors to enforce motor vehicle laws. That first year, Ara Griggs was hired as the one officer assigned to cover the entire state.

     In 1925, despite opposition from sheriffs, a motor vehicle bureau was established with a highway patrol. This 10-man unit, often using motorcycles, however could not deal with criminal violations and was hampered by winter conditions.

     In 1931, a Vermont study committee recommended creating a full-time trained state police force to coordinate enforcement and reduce duplication. Vermonters’ attitudes toward centralized state control, threats to personal liberty, and a strong tradition of frugality coupled with significant opposition from the Sheriffs’ Association delayed action on the proposal. Additional report recommendations in 1935 and 1937 resulted in similar rejection by the Legislature.

     Opponents to these proposals stated they were too expensive and that there was “no crime wave and no crying need” for a state police force. This was despite favorable newspaper backing and support from the Vermont Grange and Vermont Farm Bureau.

     World War II delayed further legislation until 1946. There continued to be considerable criticism of the sheriff system for its ability to deal with the number of serious crimes and questions about their reporting of fines collected. One farmer was quoted as saying: “Getting a sheriff is like trying to raise the dead!!!”

     As is often the case, a serious and widely publicized crime involving one individual caused enough alarm to lead to legislative action. In this case it was the disappearance of Bennington College sophomore Paula Welden in December 1946. This was one of six unsolved missing persons or murder cases in the Bennington area. Despite help from outside sources, the local sheriff did not have the manpower for a successful search.

     Now there was widespread support for a new police force. In Feb 1947, a new bill overwhelmingly passed the Vermont Legislature and Governor Ernest W. Gibson signed it into law. On July 1, 1947, ten years after similar action in New Hampshire, the Vermont State Police became a reality. Vermont was almost the last state to create a comparable force.

     The new force was composed of 48 uniformed officers, many of them with considerable experience as motor vehicle inspectors.  

   The 1920 letter cited at the beginning of this column hoped that a state police force would be “a protector of the farmer’s stock, crops and home, an effective enforcer of our road laws and would make Vermont highways a safe place to travel on again, would adequately, and without a lot of scandal, perform all the duties of private detectives, saving money for Vermont, and beside, perform them in such a way as to not bring the law of enforcement of Vermont into dispute…”

Finally, by 1947, the trained state police forces were on call in both New Hampshire and Vermont. 





Thursday, February 4, 2021

It's Still In The Mail


Rural Free Delivery helped to eliminate isolation felt by many rural families. It replaced "star routes." It open rural areas to being able to buy from catalog and to sell local products. (Courtesy-Arthur Pease) 

”The postal service is for a variety of good reasons made a public function; but that it results in more economical or efficient management, there is not only no evidence to show but all evidence available contradicts.”  Windham County Reformer, Dec. 27, 1901.

     The first part of this postal history analysis was published in December and was posted on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.  It dealt with topics including early postal delivery, rates, and offices. The appointment of postmasters, both men and women, was included as was the issue of Sunday mail delivery.

      This column continues to explore the history of the postal service and what it offered, especially in the period before 1950. The interactions between offered postal services and private enterprise, especially as it impacted the development of the government agency, are important areas surveyed here. 

     Before the last decade of the 19th century, a large percentage of the nation’s rural population received their mail by going into town or paying a private carrier to deliver it. In the 1870s, farm organizations such as the Grange began to lobby for free delivery to rural areas.

     As with other postal services improvements, considerable opposition arose from private enterprise, in this case, local storekeepers, express companies, and private carriers. 

     Nevertheless, Congress established Rural Free Delivery (RFD) in 1896, 33 years after that service was available in cities. The first rural route was established in Vermont in 1896 and in New Hampshire in 1898.  Local newspapers in 1901 reported that the program “is popular wherever introduced…meeting with unqualified success.”    

     By 1906 there were 292 routes in Vermont. In New Hampshire there were 202 routes, “and new routes are being laid out as fast as the post office department can arrange for them.”  Locally, rural routes were establish including in Thetford in 1896, Woodsville 1901, Bradford 1903, and Corinth 1905.

     The new service brought an end to many private carrier’s star routes and many smaller post offices. Those private carriers had been awarded routes as lowest bidders. They agreed to provide “due celerity, certainty and security of transportation.” As stars identified each of these three conditions, the privately operated routes had been designated “star routes.”

The introduction of RFD helped to eliminate the isolation felt by many rural families as they could depend on free daily mail delivery. One elder recalled that her family received mail in rural Lyme several times a day,

      Mail order catalogs from companies such as Montgomery Ward and Sears & Roebuck created opportunities to purchase consumer products. Farm magazines offered advice and reported changing techniques. 

     Often, a strong bond developed between the RFD delivery person and the families on the route. In 1965, the United Opinion reported on the retirement party for Corinth’s rural carrier Ernest Flanders.

     In the article, Flanders commented on his 34 years serving the rural patrons on the 28-mile route. He recalled the early winters when the roads were rolled, and horse and sleigh were used.  On Turkey Hill, the snow often drifted, covering the boxes. He remembered carrying a screwdriver to pry open frozen boxes or remove frozen pennies left for stamps.  

     For years, private express companies and rural merchants had also opposed package delivery.  As a concession, limits were placed on the weight of packages delivered by the postal carriers. Wells Fargo, established in 1852 by Thetford native Henry Wells, was one of the most power opponents.

     In 1913, the Parcel Post package delivery system was established. The United Opinion reported, “the parcel post will be the general public’s express.”

      For rural dwellers, this meant receiving free delivery of products and opportunities to mail local products at a lower rate to a nation-wide market.  Eggs, butter, and maple products were among the first items shipped from the area. 

     In 1901, the post system reached a national milestone with 76,945 post offices. The new delivery services, however, caused many smaller post offices to close. New Hampshire had reached its highest point in 1894 with 593 post offices. Closures soon following, although none locally. What at first appeared to me to be a closure was actually a 1912 name change when Warren Summit became Glencliff. 

     In Vermont, several small post offices closed over the years, including Copperfield in Vershire (1892-1906), West Bradford (1831-1837), Bradford Center (1847-1903) Heath in Corinth (1896-1905), Middlebrook in West Fairlee (1852-1855).

      By 1850, the Connecticut and Passumpsic River Railroad was delivering mail to area towns. In 1873, the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad delivered mail along its line as did the railroad company from Boston to Woodsville. By 1887, several daily mail trains were going north and south through the Connecticut River valley. Mail was picked up and sorted enroute. Station masters placed sacks of outgoing mail on a crane so that it could be picked up without stopping. By 1910, railway mail service handled 98% of America’s intercity mail.

     After World War II, Highway Post Offices replaced railroad mail cars with employees sorting mail as these large vehicles moved along.  Nationally, the last railroad postmark was in 1966.

          For many years, mail to Corinth and Topsham arrived on the Bradford stage. Prior to 1908, mail that arrived on the afternoon train was taken by stage to East Corinth where the mail was sorted. It was then taken by star routes to West Topsham and Waits River. That meant that locals could get both long distance and local mail by late afternoon.

     In 1908, there was a dramatic change with mail coming from East Barre. Timely mail such as Bradford’s United Opinion published on Friday would not arrive until Monday. Every time there was a change in delivery routines there were stern editorials and letters to the editor appeared in local papers. 

     In 1925, Congress passed the Airmail Act, a legislative act that allowed contracts with and support for the new commercial airline industry.  Progressive Congressman Clyde Kelly of Pennsylvania was the primary sponsor, an effort that gained him the title “father of the air mail.” Air mail became standard in 1975. 

     The postal system offered postal money orders in 1864. Union soldiers were able to send money home using these pre-paid checks or “money-letters.”  The fees varied with check’s amount, with early rates at 10 cents for amounts up to $10. Not all post offices offered this service at first. In 1867 an announcement appeared indicating that the Bradford office had been added.

     I have noticed patrons continue to use this service out of the local office in Bradford, as the checks are guaranteed. They include local migrant workers sending money home or individuals sending payments.      

     In 1873, the postal service began to issue postal cards imprinted with a one-cent postage stamp. The idea had first been introduced several years earlier, following the example of several European nations. Privacy concerns delayed their authorization. In 1872, the Burlington Weekly Free Press included the following explanation for the delay, “visions of libelous and insulting messages, as well as over curious letter carriers, and post office clerks…seem to haunt the legislative brain.”   

     As the price was half that of a first-class letter, these postal cards were met with an enthusiastic response. In the first six months, the Post Office sold 64 million, with businesses using them as an inexpensive way to advertise.

     Their use peaked in 1950 with 3.4 billion cards mailed. The number has fallen dramatically since. They were referred to as “penny postcards” until the postage was increased to two cents in 1952.  In 1999, the title was changed to “stamped cards.”

     These cards are not to be confused with commercially produced postcards. First produced around 1861, they were allowed to be sent as mail with a two-cent stamp. In the late 1800s, their popularity grew as a quick way to send a message and share a photograph. This popularity was enhanced by the government’s lowering of the postage to one-cent, and because collecting picture postcards became more popular.

     In 1907, the post office allowed a “divided back” card with space on the reverse for both a short message and address.  In 1908, 667 million postcards were mailed. The highpoint was about 1990 with 2.8 billion cards mailed.    

     Another service began in 1911 with the establishment of the Postal Savings System. This was aimed who distrusted the soundness of their local bank or otherwise were unable to avail themselves of the banking system. The postal savings was deposited in designated banks. The program later sold bonds and operated a saving card program. This system was especially successful until the creation of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in 1933.

     It was terminated in 1967 as the number of customers declined. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has recently reintroduced this system as a service to Americans who are underbanked.

    There have been other innovations over the history of the post office system. In 1810 the law required local post offices to be open at least one hour on Sundays.  Sabbatarian opposition to this practice as well as low mail volume have led to changes in this policy. Stamps were accepted in 1852 and in 1863 mail was categorized by class. In 1963 a system of zip codes were adopted.

     As with earlier advancements, the national post office has always had to deal with competition from those who value private enterprise over public services. Another example was the call in the 1870s for the Post Office to offer postal telegraph in opposition to the monopoly held by Western Union.

      Calling a government telegraph system “vastly cheaper,” a Postal Telegraph Bill was introduced. In 1888, a supporting petition bearing the names of 2,332 Vermonters was sent to Congress. As a result of significant lobbying by private enterprise, the bill never passed. For one year during World War I, the telegraph/telephone industry was placed under the control of the Postmaster General.  

     The struggle between private enterprise and public control of the postal system continued. In 1907, one Vermont newspaper raised concerns over transferring some postal services to private companies by writing, “Do we want the postal services placed in the hands of such private greed?”  In 1913, another Vermont newspaper referred to the postal system as “an immensely expensive luxury.”

     But support for the public service was expressed by Congressman Clyde Kelly who called the postal system “the people’s thoroughfare…its record in the past is the inspired promise of its betterment in the future.”

     That struggle between private and public continued unabated. The 1970 Postal Reorganization Act created the U.S. Postal Service, a government-owned corporation with what was purported to be a more business-like model. At the same time its statement of purpose recognized the role of the service in binding the nation together with service to all areas and communities.

      “Small rural communities frequently center around their post office.” This comment appeared in this newspaper at the time of Piermont’s postmaster Gloria Randall’s retirement in 2004. The internet, private delivery systems and changes in our rural personal interactions, have dated this statement. Delivery to rural patrons cost more than to urban homes. As questions about the future of the U.S. Postal Service are raised, is universal six-day rural postal service a thing endangered? The answers to that question will have a profound impact on the postal service in our area. .   

Monday, December 28, 2020

It's In The Mail (I)


SOUND THE APPROACH--In the late 18th century, post-riders made weekly trips to deliver mail to outlying communities.  They often carried a tin horn which would be sounded, loud and sharp, as they approached any village or home for which they had mail.  In those days, the recipient rather than the sender paid the postage. 
WHAT'S DELIVERED? Mail was delivered from the old Bradford Post Office, located on Main Street, from about 1884 until 1949. The office was then relocated to the current location on Barton St. The building now houses the Colatina Exit and there are entirely different kinds of deliveries made from that historic building. (Courtesy Bradford Historical Society)  

“Whether great or small, a post office was the visible form of the Federal Government in every community and to every citizen. Its hand is the only one that touches the local life, the social interests, and business concerns of every neighborhood.” John Wanamaker, Postmaster General, 1889-1893.

     In 2019, the United States Postal Service reported that it delivered 143 billion pieces of mail to 160 million addresses, of which about 46 million were rural.  Additionally, it operated 31,000 local post offices.

     That year at least 1.3 billion of those pieces of mail were Christmas cards, and many of the packages held Christmas gifts. In 2020, about 64 million were ballots, representing a pivotal role in the recent General Election.

     This column, the first of two, explores the development of the postal system, including its impact on local communities. The information comes from newspapers, books and online sources on the history of both the national postal system and those of our two states.

     Mostly, private carriers were responsible for mail service before the American Revolution. If someone was going to a distant community, they might notify neighbors of a willingness to carry letters. Delivery was slow and often not reliable. 

     In 1776, John Balch was appointed post-rider to deliver mail from Portsmouth to Haverhill, once every two weeks. At this time, riders announced their arrival with the blowing of a horn.

     The first postal route in Vermont was established in 1783 and included mail delivery from Brattleboro to Newbury. Early mail routes changed over time, sometimes replaced by different ones.

     For a time, the independent republic of Vermont maintained its own postal system. But in 1795, the federal government took possession and postal routes to Newbury and Haverhill were established. Mail was distributed to area towns from those two locations until more post offices were established.

     At the beginning of the 19th century, express wagons or coaches replaced individual riders. Stagecoach lines were encouraged by the federal postal subsidy.  Prior to 1845 inland mail was given to the lowest bidder who agreed to provide “due celerity, certainty and security of transportation.” As stars identified these three conditions, these privately-operated routes were designated “star routes.”

     Post offices were located in taverns, stores, or private homes. Some postmasters profited by taking subscriptions, selling books, or from the increased traffic in their place of business. The income from the sale of stamps or collecting postage was small. In 1801, the postmaster in Newbury received a quarterly salary of just $5.64.  But in return, postmasters were allowed to send their own mail free-of-charge.

     While early offices might be a table or, in the case of East Thetford, the slots on a tavern’s stair banisters, larger offices evolved with oak window units with numbered locked post boxes.

     The number of post offices locally increased dramatically with openings in Orford (1794), Haverhill (1794), Bradford (1804), Thetford (1807), Lyme (1812) and Piermont (1814). At one time both Thetford and Newbury had six each, somewhat unique in the state. Haverhill also had six. The ones in Newbury included Newbury Village, South Newbury, West Newbury, Wells River, Boltonville, and Newbury Center.  Later openings included Warren (1820), East Topsham (1823) and Woodsville (1853-55, 1860).

     Postal rates were very high and based on the number of sheets in the letter. Newspapers were much cheaper at 1cent each for delivery under 100 miles. To avoid the higher costs, letter writers put as much as possible on one sheet or wrote in the newspaper margins. “Ingenious people contrived to evade postage by means of dotted words or letters in newspapers,” a practice that was made illegal in 1847.

      Two years earlier, there had been a significant change in postal rates. Articles in Vermont newspapers extolled the system of uniform rates used by Great Britain. The adoption of a uniform rate regardless of distance allowed the profits from urban post offices to offset the higher cost of mail distribution in rural areas. One newspaper went so far as to say “No greater revolution ever accomplished the good for humanity” as that which resulted from this common postage.

     Congress authorized the first US postal stamp in 1847. Stampless letters, with the postal cost paid by the receiver, were phased out.  The use of stamps was made mandatory in 1855.  These adhesive stamps bore the likeness of an American president or statesman. In the 1890s, realizing the possibility of increased revenue, commemorative stamps began to be issued.

     For a time there were incorrect suggestions that a private stamp introduced by Brattleboro postmaster Dr. Frederick Palmer in 1846 was the first American stamp. Palmer introduced this stamp for use from the Brattleboro office only to “overcome the annoyance of the system, or lack of system, in regard to the payment of letter postage.”

       They were used until July 1, 1847 at which time the Post Office Department ordered all unused Brattleboro stamps to be destroyed.  In 2000, an 1847 letter with two Brattleboro stamps sold for $100,000 at a New York auction.. It was described as being among the most outstanding examples of rare stamps.

     During the administration of President Andrew Jackson (1829-1837), the practice of presidential appointment of postmasters became common. That meant that a change in the political party in the White House brought about a flurry of dismissals and new appointments of party supporters, sometimes causing local resentment. The Bellows Falls Times reported in 1866, “the Union Postmaster at Bradford has been removed and a bitter copperhead appointed in his place.”

     The impact of this immense patronage was evident in 1885 when Democrat Grover Cleveland assumed office. Republicans had enjoyed the privilege of appointments since Abraham Lincoln was president. Newspapers reported, “there’s a great rush for Federal offices in Vermont…as many as 25 sound democrats were given postmasterships in the Green Mountains.”

     Cleveland lost re-election to Republican Benjamin Harrison, but successfully ran for re-election in 1893. These changes were reflected in Bradford postmasters. Democrat Asa Dickey (1886) served during Cleveland’s first term but was succeeded by Republican Harry Parker (1890).

     Cleveland’s second term resulted in Democrat George Dickey assuming the postmaster’s role but in 1897 Republican Trescott Chase took over.  He remained in office for 16 years until Democrat Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1912. Similar shuffling was experienced in other area towns.

      For many years the Democratic Party’s primary function in Vermont was to provide appointees when there was a Democratic administration. The practice of postal patronage came to an end in 1971. 

     Postmasters were generally men. In 1862 one national magazine suggested “female postmaster is a monstrous combination in our taste.” Nevertheless, by 1878, there were 72 female postmasters in the nation, and in 1881 there were 14 in Windham County, Vermont.  The number continued to grow and, by 1893, there were 6,335 women postmasters with other women serving as clerks and carriers.

     There were concerns about women carriers being married and also whether they should be asked to deliver mail to saloons or other unseemly places. While they were sometimes referred to as postmistresses, that was never their official title. One early female postmaster firmly states that she was not to be known as “any man’s mistress.” Retired Piermont postmaster Gloria Randall says she and her predecessor Marjorie Wardrop used that retort, offering in a friendly fashion, to those who considered calling them “postmistress.”

     In 1810, federal law required local post offices to be open on Sunday for at least one hour.  This hour usually coincided with the end of church services. Exceptions were made if there was no new mail. Post offices located in taverns gave men a convenient opportunity to check to see if there was mail on Sunday.

     Sabbatarians opposed commercial activities on the Sabbath and, by the 1840s, were lobbying for Sunday closures. The belief was “the practice was contrary to the laws of God.” In 1845, Montpelier’s Vermont Watchman included editorials in favor of suspending Sabbath mail, but a proposal before the US Senate was rejected. 

     By 1848, Sabbath mail had been mainly been discontinued in New England. But by the 1880s, the St. Johnsbury newspaper reported that when mail was delivered on Sunday, the number of towns where the post office is open “is much greater each year.” By that time, Bradford’s office was open for at least a half-hour each Sunday, beginning at noon.

     In 1912, Sabbatharians were joined by labor groups to advocate for a six-day workweek. The Postmaster General ruled that local post offices “shall not be open on Sunday for the purpose of delivering mail.”

     To the best of my knowledge, this rule continued until 2013 when Sunday delivery of packages to large metro areas commenced. Currently, regional distribution centers operate, the Postal Service conducts online options and local offices may allow access to lobby boxes on Sundays, but there are no retail operations.

     When I went to mail several Christmas packages at the Bradford Post Office on Dec 9, there was a notice that the dramatic increase in mail volume was a challenge to the Postal System. I hope that your holiday packages and cards were sent in a timely fashion and have arrived safety to brighten the darkness of the season and help to meet the challenges of this extraordinary year.













Thursday, December 3, 2020

Epidemics in Our Past


The following is an article I wrote in 2008.  With the current pandemic in mind, I am reposting this article. If we think this is unsettling, imagine how locals felt in during even more disastrously  epidemics in the 19th century and early 20th century when thousands died in Vermont and New Hampshire.    

Originally published on November 26, 2008

Journal Opinion.

November, 90 years ago, was a month of mixed blessings. That Thanksgiving month, 1918, brought peace to a world racked by the Great War. The war had touched every home in the area with shortages of goods and the absence of family members. But several months earlier another unwelcome visitor had entered many homes. It was influenza, the Spanish Lady. By November, the number of ill was in decline. By the time the epidemic had run its course, it killed over 5000 residents of Vermont and New Hampshire.

Illnesses caused many deaths in every decade of our area’s history. Until the middle of the 19th century, there was relatively little knowledge of their causes. Existing medical practices and folk remedies, while used with some success on minor illnesses and injuries, were ineffective against serious illness. Local cemeteries are filled with the victims of both epidemics (rapid outbreaks of contagious diseases) and endemic diseases (diseases normal to an area). Many common diseases of the past are largely unknown today. Many current diseases were called by different names.

The most devastating epidemics occurred among the Native Americans upon contact with Europeans. Lack of acquired immunity to infectious diseases such as scarlet fever, smallpox, influenza, measles and diphtheria led to death rates of up to 75%. Some indigenous groups experienced death rates from illness and war of more than 90%, leading to their virtual destruction as a cultural entity.

Zadock Thompson, in his 1842 history of Vermont, suggests that many earlier outbreaks of disease were caused, “by the sudden changes of temperature to which our climate is subject.” He lists outbreaks of smallpox, scarlet fever, influenza, dysentery, and typhus as regular deadly visitors to early Vermont homes. “In 1804, an influenza or catarrhal fever and canker rash produced considerable mortality along the western part of the state.” The latter disease scourged Corinth in 1804 causing 30 deaths.

Between 1805 and 1812, there were periodic outbreaks of spotted fever. In some eastern Vermont towns, 20 to 30 deaths per town from a single outbreak were not uncommon, “calculated to produce the utmost alarm.” In 1810, 57 deaths from this disease were reported in Peacham. Wells’ History of Newbury mentions that during an 1815 outbreak of spotted fever in Warren “whole families were swept away, and entire neighborhoods were depopulated.”

The largest number of deaths from a single epidemic in Vermont history occurred in 1812-1813. Lung fever, a form of pneumonia, broke out among soldiers stationed in Burlington and then spread rapidly. Death frequently followed within hours of the onset of the disease. Thompson wrote that the death toll from the disease “was estimated more than 6000 deaths, or one death to every 40 inhabitants.”

No less disastrous was the “Vermont epidemic” of 1842-1843, when a disease similar to St. Anthony’s fire (erysipelas) caused thousands of deaths. This disease was a skin infection marked by swellings and fever and was often fatal for young people and pregnant women. Nineteenth century Vermonter Abby Hemenway wrote, “A large portion of the population was clothed in mourning.” (One reader of the original article told me that her grandmother died of erysipelas.

Because the name of the disease sounds so much like syphilis, the cause of her death was rarely mentioned by the family.

An examination of the death records of 1857-1866 for Newbury and Bradford gives insight into fatal diseases common to the area. Of the 700 deaths recorded, 20 percent were from consumption (tuberculosis). An additional 9 percent was from typhoid, that disease being especially devastating to the Newbury family of John and Esther Douse. Other causes of death included various fevers, congestion of the brain, suicide, war and accidents. Infant mortality was evident at a time when one observer wrote “that a newborn infant in the United States had less chance of surviving a week than did a man of 90.” The area seems to have escaped the diphtheria epidemics that caused hundreds of deaths in Caledonia and Washington counties during this period.

During the Civil War, deaths from disease outnumbered battle deaths. This was the result of large numbers of men gathered together in unhealthy conditions and without acquired immunities. The first Vermont soldier to lose his life in that war was Bradford’s Benjamin Underwood who died at Fortress Monroe, VA, a victim of the measles. At the same time, George Lougee of Fairlee died of “quick consumption”, the first of five Fairlee men to die of disease during service.

Diseases led Hartford historian William Howard Tucker to note the high mortality rate in counties along the Connecticut River during the second half of the nineteenth century. He listed consumption, pneumonia, typhoid and heart disease. The Sanitary Visitor, published in 1889 by the Vermont State Board of Health, condemned the New England farm practice of locating wells too close to barns, cesspools and other sources of contamination. To avoid the resulting diphtheria, typhoid and lung diseases, Vermont began an active campaign to deal with contamination.

In 1894, the nation’s first epidemic of infantile paralysis or polio occurred in the Otter River Valley of Vermont. There were 123 cases and 18 deaths. Thereafter, summer often became the “polio season.” An outbreak in 1914-1918 led to 583 cases with a 17 percent fatality rate, a tragedy that would be frequently repeated until the wide use of Salk vaccine after 1955.

During the 18th and 19th century, there were frequent outbreaks of influenza or la grippe. In the 1890s, there were widespread epidemics of influenza that, according to the reports of the Vermont State Board of Health, directly or indirectly caused “great mortality.” In January, 1891, the United Opinion reported, “Colds and the grippe have become epidemic in this vicinity.” The Orfordville reporter wrote, “Johnnie Cochran is sick with fever, making eleven of Mr. Cochran’s family who have been sick with the same disease.” In 1895, 7 of the 30 deaths recorded in Newbury were from influenza.

But it was in 1918-1919 that area residents really felt the impact of influenza. That outbreak was truly a pandemic with estimates of world-wide fatalities as high as 100 million. Over one-quarter of Americans had the illness and 675,000 died directly or indirectly from the disease. It may have first appeared among troops along the Eastern European Front, but for propaganda reasons was underreported. It was known as “Spanish flu” because Spanish newspapers were the first to openly report the epidemic. The most deadly wave of the flu came in the fall of 1918. There was a major early outbreak at Camp Devens in Massachusetts, where a number of local men were in training.

Vermont historian Michael Sherman of Montpelier has written and spoken widely on the impact of the disease on Vermont. He writes that “A public notice from Bradford, VT, in early October 1918 repeats widely circulated claims that ‘it probably originated in the ranks of the German Army and in prison camps.’” A report from Orford called it “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 “unwelcome visitor” spread, schools were closed in all the area towns. The October 4 edition of the United Opinion reported that several area businesses, including the bank, closed for lack of adequate staff. It listed 21 Bradford residents who were seriously ill. In Topsham, the post office was moved to the home of J. R. McLam, as the postmaster had the grippe. Sherman writes “On October 4, 1918, finally recognizing its inability to deal effectively with the raging epidemic, the State Board of Health issued an order closing all public meeting places and prohibiting public assemblies throughout the state.”

The next week’s edition of the Bradford newspaper included the following front-page announcement, “The Opinion force is decimated by sickness and otherwise, and the local happenings being confined almost entirely to sickness and death notices, unprecedented in our long years of experience in publishing this paper, is our excuse for lack of local items this week.” The “otherwise” to which Editor Harry Parker referred included the death of his 27-year old son Lee, who had died of influenza at the Navy base in Norfolk, Virginia. Owing to the epidemic conditions only close family members and friends attended his funeral service, held at his parent’s home on Wrights Avenue.

As with young Parker, the disease had an especially high toll among younger residents. Of the nine influenza deaths listed in the Newbury records, the ages of the deceased range from infants to age 41. The average age of death among the eleven Bradford victims was 33. Doctors, nurses, and pharmacists were overwhelmed by the case load, often falling ill themselves. The Opinion paid tribute to William Welch, a popular Bradford druggist, who died after spending long hours filling prescriptions even after he fell ill. Caskets were in such short supply that the Bradford undertaker reused one ornate casket for funerals until the handles of the casket finally fell off.

Marcia Casais, a descendant of Bradford's Low family responded to this column with the following story: Her uncle, Kenneth Low, was stationed at Camp Drum and became ill with the flu. He was placed in a ward in which a coffin was placed under each patient's bed in anticipation of death.

Because doctors were unable to cure the flu, many families tried other remedies including Vick’s VapoRub, new to the national market. One source reported that “some tried gargling with bicarbonate of soda, boric acid and chlorinated soda. A few took sugar laced with turpentine or kerosene.” Others tried aromatic remedies including garlic, onions or camphor balls. More effectively, gauze face masks were issued to those dealing with the public and frequent hand-washing was recommended.

In 2006, Mike Leavitt, U. S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, summed up the impact of the epidemic on the two states: “The pandemic’s arrival was sudden, its spread was rapid, and its toll was shocking. Those who were fortunate enough to escape the flu were struck with the tragic experience of watching friends suffer and loved ones die.” Sherman concludes that the number of ill in Vermont was greater than the 43,735 reported cases, “many not being reported on account of the overworked situation of the physicians.” New Hampshire, which suffered the least of the New England states, still recorded 3,000 deaths.

The epidemic gradually faded. In early November, the state-wide closing order was lifted.
By spring, 1919, the flu had simply run out of potential new victims. Influenza would come again in the ensuring years, but never with such an impact. But recently, health officials have raised the specter of another epidemic. The interdependent global network makes it both possible and likely to be widespread.

In October 2008, the Vermont Department of Health urged residents to prepare for a possible worldwide flu epidemic. Health Commissioner Wendy Davis added “And we think it’s not unlikely that it could occur fairly soon.” Public health officials say that during a flu pandemic, families won’t be able to go to work, school or the store. Families are urged to stock enough food for two weeks.

Laura Stephenson Carters prefaces her 2006 Dartmouth Medicine article on the subject with the comment, “If an influenza pandemic strikes again, it could be cold comfort to know that lessons learned from the 1918 flu epidemic may offer more help than modern medicine.”

“I had a little bird, Its name was Enza. I opened the window, and in-flew-enza.” This is a children’s rhyme from the pandemic of 1918. As Carter writes, “Enza was anything but a cute little bird. She was vicious. She was violent. She was a killer.” To which it can be added, she is incurable and she is still very much around.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Just Passing Through

 Journal Opinion  Nov. 25, 2020

YANKEE PEDDLER.  Well into the late 19th century, peddlers such as this one in Thomas Waterman Wood's 1872 painting carried everything from tools to domestic necessities to rural homes.  State laws tried to prevent unscrupulous transient swindlers from defrauding honest people on both farms and village streets. (Terra Foundation)

THE TRAMPS ARE COMING!.  In the 1870s, newspapers warned "the tramp evil" would terrorize rural homes.  In his 1879 political cartoon James Albert Wales depicted the panic and havoc wroth by one of the "hordes of vagabonds" on village dwellers. (NY Public Library)

“Question about so many tramps traveling in our streets, able bodied and some of them young men getting their board and lodging out of benevolent people…when they could be at work.”  Bradford Opinion, April 17, 1875.

     The above was a letter to the editor of the Bradford Opinion from a reader in Fairlee. It began a series of letters regarding the number of tramps in the area at that time. This column deals with several itinerate groups that made the local news in times past. These, often unwelcomed groups, include transient poor, gypsies, peddlers as well as tramps. 

     Every town is on a road to somewhere else.  There are always people just passing through. In previous columns I wrote about transients and short-term visitors. Readers can find my columns on short-term visitor such as summer campers, tourists and commune dwellers on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. There is also an article on hotels and taverns that catered to wagon drivers, railroad workers and other commercial travelers.

     To these groups we could add families in wagons headed to or from northern parts of New England, runaway slaves seeking freedom in Canada and migrant workers seeking short term employment. Passengers on stagecoaches or railroad and passenger cars pass through give only a brief glance at our hometowns. Even stranded hitchhikers wish only to pass through.

     Prior to the establishment of town poor farms in the 19th century, the transient poor were given the heave-ho by New England towns. Voters did not want the expense of supporting those who moved from another town, a situation that often caused hard feelings.  

     In New Hampshire, the practice of “warning out” newcomers who had no visible means of support began as early as 1641. This practice continued after New Hampshire became a state.

     In 1787, Vermont granted the right to towns to exclude strangers while supporting their own improverished residents and a number of local towns used that option. Between that year and 1816 when the law was repealed, Newbury warned 21 different families. Not everyone who was warned left town, but they were ineligible for town support. 

     Ever since the middle of the 19th century, every economic downturn has created homeless individuals. Generally men, these homeless vagrants have been called  bum, hobo or tramp. While the titles are often used interchangeable, some online sources make the following distinctions. A hobo is a migrant worker or homeless vagrant, a tramp is one who is homeless but will seek or do work if forced to and a bum is one who will not work at all. 

     In the decades following the Civil War and again after 20th century conflicts, legions of unemployed veterans tramped the roads or hitched rides on railroad freights cars. Many of these men could be described as walking wounded.

     During the economic depression that began in 1873, the term “tramp” became used for a vagrant with not visible means of support. Newspapers reports warned of “the tramp evil becoming a terror to rural homes.”

     In July 1875, the following appeared in the Bellows Falls Times: “Crimes by tramps have become so frequent…that soon people will have no other resource  left but to treat them as outlaws generally.“

     In May 1878, “a tramp enraged the wife of Roswell Cora while she was alone in her house at West Fairlee because she refused him some cider.” He was arrested and confined in the tramp house in Bradford.   

     The threat from “hordes of vagabonds,” caused both states to pass severe anti-trump laws with imprisonment threatened. Some of the leading proponents of these measures had local connections.

In New Hampshire, Gilman Marston of Exeter was the primary sponsor of the bill.  Marston was born in Orford in 1811. Ellis Bliss, Jr. of Bradford played a similar role in Vermont’s 1878 tramp law. Bliss had been Bradford’s overseer of the poor for 21 years and in 1878 had 518 tramps coming to him for food and lodging. 

     These stringent laws caused the number of tramps to decline briefly in both two states. The St. Johnsbury Caledonian printed a “letter” from one tramp to another that closed with the following. “U won’t ketch me in this stat again…ceep clere of Vermont for it iz not a good hum for a sensitive tramp.”

     However, the number of tramps subsequently increased with each economic downturn. In 1898, the United Opinion reported “Tramps are getting very thick.” In 1905, Piermont used its jail “to provide a suitable place for criminals and tramps.” Each year, local towns appropriated funds for the care of tramps. 

     In 1909, when Groton offered tramps “a loaf of bread and can of salmon or piece of cheese” and allowed them to stay in the jail, the editor of the Groton Times warned “if this continues, Groton will be the tramp’s headquarters and the village at their mercy.”

     During the Great Depression the number of unemployed vagrants again increased. In 1932, the town of Newbury fed and lodged 1,421 tramps. Fairlee’s overseer of the poor maintained the town’s tramp house at the north end of Main Street. It was recalled that “tramps jumped the train at the dump site to get food and other items offered by the town residents.” The town provided a meal of bread and beans and one-night shelter.

     Tramps were known to write messages on telephone poles advising others who traveled from town to town in search of odd jobs and meals. Some might warned of local police, whereas other messages told of places that offered assistance.

     One of those messages must have directed men to my parents’ house on Bridge Street in Orford.  They were never turned away. I recall one late afternoon that a disheveled looking man came to our back door asking for food. My Mom was preparing supper and offered him some stew. He politely replied that he hoped for raw ingredients that he could take back to what might be known as a “hobo kitchen.”

Martina Day Stever recalls that during the Great Depression, tramps often stopped by the family farmhouse in Piermont “to ask if there was any work they could do for a meal.”  There was always, she recalls, wood to chop or other work to do. Her grandmother always fed them and they were never afraid of the men who came to their door.  

     Another group of transients common to the area was the door-to-door peddler. In the early 1800s, both New Hampshire and Vermont gave local authorities the power to license hawkers and peddlers. Well into the early 20th century, local peddlers carried goods from local stores to rural locations. These along with honest peddlers of everything from tools to domestic necessities in established territories were a welcomed sight to isolated homes.

     But there was serious concern about unscrupulous transient swindlers, most of whom apparently ignored the law. In the 1850s, there were warnings about itinerant liquor peddlers “who retail their wares from the bottle.”   

     In the 1870s, local newspaper articles warned against the infestation of “innumerable swindlers…who are busily engaged in defrauding honest people, particularly farmers.” The Bradford Opinion carried the following warning against street venders in the village: “Things are not always what they seem.” 

     In the 1880s, both states attempted to only license peddlers who had lived in the state for at least a year. However, these laws were overturn by Federal courts as discriminatory against citizens of other states.

     While improved transportation to village stores and the rise of catalog sales put an end to many itinerate peddlers, some legitimate door-to- door sales were continued locally by Watkins, Grand Union and Sunbeam. Unfortunately, as late as this year, there were warnings in both states against swindlers who visited homes to sell everything from home security systems to property repairs.

     One group of scammers that have targeted the two states in recent years offering home repairs are generally considered to be gypsies. One large such families has visited the area, traveling with new pickups and travel trailers, and selling scam-related driveway and barn roof repairs.

     Most Roma or gypsies first came to the United States in the late 1800s. While newspaper accounts may have confused actual Roma with Native Americans, the following is a summary of reports about groups identified in town histories and vintage news reports as gypsies. The terms Roma or Rom did not appear in earlier Vermont newspapers. 

     While most reports are of travelers, one large extended family of gypsies were living more or less permanently near Barrington, NH as early as the 1840s. Known for their basket making, the so-called Leather Family was described by a reporter in 1871 as “a hard looking lot.”  The reporter was there to write a report on two murders suspected to be connected to the group. 

     In the 1890s, gypsy caravans in elaborately painted wagons and tents were seen in area towns. They were known to camp on the outskirts of villages. In Haverhill, a band of about 40 camped at the end of the Bedell Bridge for the summer buying and selling horses. In Bradford, south of the village. One farmer north of Bradford met a gypsy woman on his front steps where he traded chickens for homemade lace.

   Corinth’s history includes the following: For years each summer great bands of gypsies camped on Cilley Flats when the East Corinth Fair was held. “They were not allowed to swap horses on the fairground and would lure any perspective customers to their encampment for a drink of hard liquor which was banned in the town.”  It was “Yankee cunning against Gypsy slyness,” and, when the gypsies won, “they departed quietly in the night before violent physical action could be taken.”

     Newspaper reports referred to the gypsies in the most negative of term, creating a lasting stereotype. They were called “bloodsucker of organized society,” pickpockets or kidnappers of children and chickens. The threat that “strolling gypsies” would kidnap white children was mentioned in Boston as early as 1794. This continued to be an accusation, but no cases of child abduction were ever proven.

     Around 1917, a band of about 25 gypsies traveled through the area flash mobbing local businesses.  In May, six women from the band overpowered the owner of a local store in Barnet and seized his pocketbook. Three carloads of the band descended on Barre stores, grabbing items and money. When the band caused problems in Orange, someone telephone Wait River where “the storekeeper locked up his store and hid.”

    In 1926, “several automobiles with Gypsy occupants, men, women and children, were detained in the street…pending the return of $65 taken by a Gypsy fortune teller” from a local man. In 1935, a Bradford man lost $22 when a gypsy woman who claimed to be a healer picked his pocket.

In 1927, the infamous Eugenics Survey referred to as many as 430 “Gypsy Families” in Vermont. But according to the study, these were Vermonters “with dark skin due to an admixture of negro and Indian blood.”

     In July 1930, Bradford merchants were alerted of a similar band and organized to repel them. Police escorted this band to the New Hampshire border where they were met by state police and “furnished a through escort to the opposite state border.”

     In the mid-1960s, the Vermont State Police placed merchants on Bradford’s main street on alert of a gypsy band and some closed prematurely. The general feeling was that local towns were inhospitable as “gypsies had outlived their welcome.” About that same time, the roof and drive scammers made another visit to the area, a visit that has been repeated several times since.   

       Within the past two years I have finished three projects focusing on the ancestors of my wife and myself.  Each one goes back at least 12 generations to those whom initially came to New England as part of the Great Migration.

      As I looked at the hundreds of our ancestors, I came to know about those who settled in a location and stayed and those that frequently moved on to new locations. There were even several who were “warned out” of town.  

     So while this column deals with groups of transients, individuals who just passed through our area, I am inclined to think from the perspective of generations and centuries, we are all fairly transient. While we may linger more or less than others, we are truly just passing through.