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Monday, April 15, 2024

Wrong Side of the Law Part Three


The Orange County Courthouse in Chelsea was built in 1847 in the Greek Revival style by master builder Horace Carpenter.  He also built the Caledonia County Courthouse in 1856 in St. Johnsbury. County courthouses were the site for the adjudication of criminal and civil cases, often with juries composed of county residents. 


This is the third part of a series on crime in the area before 1950. Part one in January covered counterfeiting, horse and auto theft, and prohibition. Part two in March covered robberies, drugs, and adultery.

 In 2020, this column also featured a three-part series entitled “Murder Most Vile.” All of these columns can be found at larrycoffin.blogspot. com or in the archives of the Journal Opinion.

This column deals with assault, animal cruelty, vandalism, black marketeering, domestic abuse, and debt imprisonment. It covers area news items from the early 19th century to 1950.    

Assaults reported in local newspapers during this period ranged from misdemeanors to felonies and from fisticuffs to murderous assault. Some resulted in fines, others in imprisonment. 

Several cases of assault and battery occurred at local election meetings. In March 1875, there was an altercation at the Orange town meeting. Three men attacked Fred Harriman and seriously injured him.

A United Opinion report in 1889 noted that “some years” before, a “party of ruffians” murderously assaulted the clerk at the Corinth District 2 school meeting. As more women were permitted to vote in local meetings, disruptions became less likely.

 On July 2, 1901, Ray Perkins of Orford was seriously injured “as a result of a tussle with a gang of fellows he discovered loitering about the farm where he was employed.”  Perkins was severely wounded. The entire community was “aroused” and a posse formed. The desperadoes, however, made good their escape. 

A newspaper search for assault or brawls, resulted in fewer than one might imagine. Drunken scuffles rarely rose to the level of breach of the peace. If an alcohol-fueled tussle at a Saturday night dance resulted in a black eye or bloody nose, it was usually forgotten on Sunday.

Some actions that are not initially criminal become so as societal attitudes changed. Cruelty to animals is one of those. Prior to the early 1840s, there were no laws regulating the treatment of domestic animals. What a man did to his animals in the privacy of his home was not a legal concern.

Most households had animals, including horses, dogs, and farm animals. Since horse and dog-drawn vehicles were in full public view, it was difficult to hide abuse. There was also organized animal cruelty, such as dog or cock fighting.

New Hampshire and Vermont passed laws against animal cruelty in response to a growing humane movement. Laws carried fines and jail sentences. At first, charges could only be brought against a person for cruelty to animals belonging to another. These were considered offenses against private property with punishments of imprisonment and/or fines “at the discretion of the court.”

New Hampshire’s animal protection law was passed in 1843, and Vermont followed in 1846. Within several decades, these laws were amended to include animals abused by their owners. The Vermont Humane Society was established in 1898.

In 1871, Newbury’s Aurora of the Valley carried an editorial about Keene, NH. “We are almost daily pained at the sight of some uncalled-for abuse.”

 As the animal rights movement gathered support, cases were heard in municipal courts with punishments dependent on the judges’ attitudes. The following are some of those cases. 

In 1903, William Morris of Burlington was fined $14.60 for “driving a horse in a pitiable condition. The court ordered the horse to be shot.  In 1926, a Vermont man received a suspended sentence of six months for leaving “his horse out in the winter cold without a blanket.”

In 1948, a Strafford man was fined $25 and given a suspended 60-day sentence for neglect of his farm animals.

Domestic violence was another “crime” that often remained hidden until the last third of the 20th century.

 As with animals, a man’s family was his property, and what he did in the privacy of his own home was outside of the law. 

Liquor often caused “ruffianly brutality, “a phrase used to describe domestic violence. The Vermont Union newspaper concluded that “with no liquor, there would be no wife beating and no cruelty to little children.”

The following are several cases of spouse abuse reported in local newspapers. There were undoubtedly many more, as victims often did not come forward. In the 19th century, child abuse and spousal rape were not considered crimes and, therefore, not reported.

Courts did not hand out consistent punishment for those found guilty.  In 1876, a Vermont man who “whaled his wife” for not having his breakfast ready, as reported by The North Star, was fined $20. In 1885, a New Hampshire man was fined one cent and costs for wife beating.  He went to jail rather than pay the fine.

In the new century, punishments intensified. In 1901, an Essex Vt man got a 90-day jail sentence. A Bethel man was sentenced to 1 to 3 years. Despite local feelings that this sentence was too lenient, Vermont Governor John McCullous pardoned the man. .

In 1907, a Lamoille County court sentenced a man to 15 months in jail, and in 1919, a Rutland man received a two-year sentence. 

Not all courts were as severe. In 1933. a Rutland court handed down a sentence of 10 days, and in 1939, the same court punished a third-time offender with a 30-day sentence.  In 1947, a man who threw a cup of hot coffee on his wife and then beat her got a fine of $10 and costs. 

It was not until the 1970s that laws against domestic violence began to take effect.    

Debtors prison sounds like something from a Dicken’s novel. One could be imprisoned in New Hampshire and Vermont for debts owed.  Essentially, “it inflicted punishment on those men whose misfortune was made a crime.”

Debtors could be jailed for debts as low as $1. In 1825, one man was confined in the Danville debtors’ prison for 14 years.

The Prison Discipline Society, a reform group, estimated in 1831 that more than 4,000 Vermonters served time each year for debt, in some cases for less than $5.

An imprisoned debtor would be released if supporters paid the debt or if he took the poor debtor oath, stating that he did not have sufficient assets. That was the equivalent of declaring bankruptcy. In practice, debtors’ prison sentences were an incentive to disclose hidden assets.

The reform movement to eliminate imprisonment for debts was successful, first for women in the 1820s, and for men in Vermont in 1838 and in New Hampshire in 1840.

In the years after, persons could still be jailed for non-payment of a civil award. This court order, known as a “close jail certificate or execution,” made the news in three cases in 1949-1950.

The first involved two veterans who were imprisoned in Rutland for indefinite terms for non-payment of an award stemming from automobile accidents.  One of the two had been held in a German prison camp. Veteran groups came to their rescue.

In 1950, the nation’s attention was turned to the case of Hattie Cooke of St. Albans.  The mother of six was imprisoned for non-payment of an auto damage suit of $1,966. She was released after 143 days when she promised to seek employment and make payments.

 “Vandalism is a crime, punishable by fines and free board in an institution.” That is how The United Opinion responded to break-ins in Newbury’s public buildings in 1929. In 1944, The Caledonian-Record added, “Vandalism, hoodlumism, and sloth must be put down by whatever punishment is required,”

Between 1870 and 1950, there were frequent reports of vandalism, “both hostile and malicious.”  It was often accompanying Halloween and the Fourth of July celebrations and carried out by older boys.

Public buildings, cemeteries, signs, and vacant buildings were the targets. In some cases, extensive damage was reported. If the vandals were apprehended and made to appear in local municipal court, they were rarely punished by more than a stiff reprimand and required retribution.   

One exception to this treatment was handed out to two older North Danville men for their 1931 Halloween prank. They removed the planking from a local bridge, creating a serious safety issue. They were sentenced to two to five years of hard labor in the state prison.  

In March 1932, the infant child of Charles and Anne Lindbergh was abducted from his bedroom. It was called “the crime of the century.” The kidnapping and the search for, capture, trial, and execution of the abductor Bruno Hauptmann made headline news in all the local newspapers. Many asked, were local children in danger of being kidnapped?

In July 1931, two children were seized from their front lawn in Strafford by two men. Word was broadcast around the area. Subsequently, their father turned himself in. No criminal charges were pressed.

Sixteen-year-old Charlotte O’Brien of Concord, VT, was held for five days by Kenneth Ingalls, a lumberjack and farmhand, at a location within yards of her home.  He was described as a “jealous suitor.” Ingalls received a prison sentence. He was later given probation but committed suicide. 

At least one category of criminal activity was short-lived. Whenever a product is made illegal, black marketing is inevitable. During World War II, the Office of Price Administration (OPA) enforced rationing on a number of consumer goods to control inflation and equalize distribution. These ranged from sugar, coffee, and meat to tires and gasoline. Americans were issued stamp-filled ration books to be used when purchasing rationed items.

“A Black Market,” The United Opinion reported, “is any violation of price or rationing regulations.  Buying above ceiling, deals and purchase of counterfeit stamps to cover staples sales or get more than their share, sale of meat without collecting ration stamps, all of these things constitute black marketeering.”

With shortages and price freezes, violations of the controls were mentioned in local newspapers. In November, 1942, widespread violations of gasoline rationing were reported. About that time, OPA inspectors ran an automobile check in Woodsville and found 15% in violation, especially among out-of-state motorists. 

In January 1943, all pleasure driving was banned. There were assurances that the “rumors of prosecution for use of gasoline in going to and from church are ridiculous.”

There were stories of “unscrupulous persons selling goods at exorbitant prices regardless of the law.”  As with other prohibitions, charges were brought against dealers rather than consumers.

Even after peace, rationing continued, and local sentences were handed down for illegal tire and gasoline sales as well as “under-the- counter bread sales.”

Several conclusions can be drawn after reviewing newspaper reports of local actions that were on the wrong side of the law during the period before 1950.

When searching for reports of particular felonies, relatively few were found. Crimes elsewhere, especially in urban areas, were fascinating to readers. It might also be assumed that actions that could have risen to the level of felonies were either unknown or underreported. Changes in attitudes changed society’s perception toward what was considered a crime.  

Most locals were law-abiding and had little tolerance for attacks by outsiders on their property or residents. In the 19th century, locals were willing to join a posse to pursue those who broke the law.  

Most felonies were perpetrated by men, and alcohol often played a role. Women were frequently victims, and violence against them went unreported. The closeness to neighboring states and Canada which had laws dissimilar to those of New Hampshire and Vermont created problems for local law enforcement.  

With the exception of those actions covered by federal law, efforts to deal with criminal actions were mainly in the hands of local law enforcement and local courts. This began to change with the creation of state police in New Hampshire in 1937 and Vermont in 1947.        

Perhaps, at some time in the future, I may revisit this topic and focus on the period after 1950 to see if these conclusions continue

Friday, March 15, 2024

Wrong Side of the Law Part Two

 Journal Opinion March 6, 2024

This is the second part of a three-part series on crime in the area before 1950. Part one can be accessed by searching In Times Past, larrycoffin.blogspot.com. It covered counterfeiting, horse and auto theft and prohibition. This column deals with crimes involving robberies, drug violations, and adultery. 

The information is from local newspapers, town histories, and online sources. Orford historian Art Pease generously allowed me to use some examples from his research.

Before establishing a uniformed state police force in New Hampshire in 1937 and Vermont in 1947, the county sheriff was the primary law enforcement officer. A growing number of local police officers, game wardens and private detectives augmented this official.  Federal law officials included U. S. marshals, customs officers and FBI agents.

Criminal Court cases were tried in the county courts with both grand and trial juries selected from the legal voters of the county. Violations of federal statutes were remanded to federal courts. Newspapers carried reports of court sessions.  

Newspapers also reported break-ins at area banks and other businesses. In part one of this series, I wrote of the capture of William Warburton, known as Bristol Bill.

In 1849, he and his gang of counterfeiters were apprehended in Groton. Warburton was also charged with the possession of “burglarious tools for breaking open stores, banks, etc.”   

At trial in Danville, witnesses testified that Warburton and his comrades had considered breaking into a number of area banks. In the winter of 1849, they attempted a night-time robbery of the National Bank of Newbury.

Bank cashier Oscar Hale testified at trial that Warburton had attempted to giant cutters to cut into the bank iron vault door. Warburton was found guilty only on the counterfeiting charges and sent to prison.

That was not the last time the National Bank of Newbury made the news.  In September 1874, a gang of thieves attempted a night-time robbery. According to the North Star account, the gang jimmied a window and, using explosives, attempted to break open the vault. They were successful only in their escape. 

To avoid robbery attempts, that bank’s cashier never carried the bank keys at night but distributed them to several locations.  An attempted burglary the following year in barre illustrated the point of that practice.     

On July 6, 1875, a gang of thieves, including notorious bank robbers George Miles and Peter Alphonsos, invaded the home of Charles King, cashier of the National Bank of Barre.

They tied up his family and then led King to the bank. The thieves entered the building and the vault using the keys from King’s pocket.  However, as the bank had recently installed a chronometer or timed lock they were unable to access the safe. “No one,” King said, “could open it until morning.”

The gang departed with only a bundle of unsigned bank notes. Barre historian Paul Heller wrote of what followed. The local constable sent telegrams to neighboring towns informing them of the gang’s escape.

Orange County Sheriff John Bailey of Wells River took up the chase on a southbound train from the local area.  He captured one of the four who had jumped from the train. The other three escaped.

The bank hired Bailey, who, along with a Boston detective, followed leads to New York City where they apprehended the remaining fugitives.

Newspapers began to use the term yeggs or yeggsmen in reports about professional safecrackers. This pseudonym originated around 1900 and was popularized by the Pinkerton detectives.  It was taken from John Yegg, a well-known professional thief. 

During the night of Aug. 5, 1905, an out-of-state gang, part of a “desperate class of burglars,” attempted a bank heist in Newfane, VT. This yeggs gang used explosives to break open the vault at the Windham County Saving Bank. The noise awoke the neighborhood, which led to an armed response. One of the four professional safe breakers was captured and the others fled.  By January 1906, all were in custody.   

Banks were not the only targets of burglaries. Businesses and private homes were marked for break-ins.  In May 1873, The Bradford Opinion reported the following concerning Orford: “Thieving is getting quite common in this town.”

 What was happening in Orford was occurring in all local towns in varying degrees before 1950.  What follows are samples of such incidents.

The Opinion continued its description of the situation in Orford in August 1874. “As considerable thieving has been going on in town for the past two years, the public will be relieved in knowing that some of the parties now stand a promising chance to learn by law that such work is altogether wrong and reprehensible.”

Within two months,  the responsible gang of thieves had been captured. They were held in the Haverhill jail, tried at Grafton County court in Plymouth, and remanded to the state prison in Concord for terms of 4 to 5 years.

In the summer of 1925, local newspapers reported that “the entire countryside has been aroused” by a series of robberies. Notorious burglar and jail-breaker Stephen Hoppe led the gang.  Hoppe had escaped from a Maine jail and began the spree in Warren on June 24. This was followed by break-ins at the Newbury town office, and then at several locations in Lyme, Woodsville, and Fairlee.

The newspapers reported, “A posse of 50 men led by Fairlee and Orange County authorities were pursuing a band of robbers, last seen fleeing toward Bradford.” The gang of yeggsmen escaped.

 In August, Hoppe was shot while trying to burglarize a store in Proctorsville.  He was tried and given a 14-year prison sentence at Windsor State Prison. He escaped twice. In 1928, he was given a life sentence in Massachusetts for the slaying of a patrolman.

In November 1930, Doe Brothers store in Bradford was robbed during  the night by three men. They stole guns, silverware, watches, and clothing.

The three were captured in Albany and returned for trial. One of the men was still wearing a suit of clothes stolen from the Bradford store. They admitted that they were just passing through Bradford with a carload of liquor and realized there was no nighttime police. They received eight-year maximum sentences for a whole series of burglaries.

 Changing social morals has an impact on what is considered a crime. One example of that is divorce. Before 1840 there were few divorces granted in New England, and many were for adultery.

After 1860, states began to add circumstances for which divorce could be granted. While Vermont was not as quick to add circumstances to the law, desertion, cruelty, and refusal to support were added as causes.

Divorce was considered a social weakness, and there remained “a strong sentiment of indignation” against it. Newspapers began to include names and dates in court reports, probably to the embarrassment of the parties involved. 

Adultery continued to be the cause of marital breakups. In Vermont, there were 571 divorces granted in the five years after 1861, with 175 being for adultery.  

Generally, adultery lead to a civil case resulting in a divorce, often with alimony granted to the injured party.    

However, when other circumstances, such as intolerable severity or non-support, were added it was considered criminal.

 In January 1877, William Arnold was tried for adultery in Orange County Court. He was accused of having an affair with Mrs. Rosanna Whitney in a tryst witnessed by two boys. He was found guilty and sentenced to 5 years in Windsor State Prison. The Vermont Supreme Court apparently upheld the penalty.

 As the punishment was deemed very harsh, the Orange County state’s attorney and members of the jury petitioned the governor to pardon Arnold. Arnold died in prison before a pardon could be granted.

In 1924 Eddie Brown, a local man, was charged with the crime of adultery, and after pleading guilty was sentenced to 4-5 years in Windsor.

At that same time a couple from Newbury were charged with the crime of adultery and released on bail. The man was subsequently found not guilty, and the case against the woman was dropped.

In 1929 a Corinth couple was found guilty of adultery and received prison sentences for not less than a year at Windsor and Rutland Women’s Reformatory. In 1931, a man and woman from Strafford were sentenced to 1-2 years in prison. 

In most of these cases newspaper reports did not mention the extenuating circumstances that led to the prison sentences.

Sometimes, legal notices gave more details.  The courts dealt with physical altercations between married couples, resulting in jail time for the perpetrator.

 For example, in 1905, the Orange County court granted a divorce to a Randolph couple based on intolerable severity, neglect and refusal to support. This was just one of a number of similar cases.

In 1949, a Chittenden County man was given 90 days in jail for non-support, and a Corinth woman was arrested for “alienation of affection.”

Part one of this series dealt with violations against prohibitions of alcohol and marijuana. But those ware not the only drugs society has struggled with.

Another prohibition that has led to lawlessness is that against opium. In the early 19th century there was little evidence of opium addiction. However, as the movement against alcohol use began to restrict access, there was increased use of opium.

Available from physicians and druggists, and in patent medicines, there was unrestricted access to opium, morphine and codeine. 

In 1915, to adhere to the new national anti-narcotics law, Vermont passed the first drug law limiting access to narcotics.  

Almost immediately, the smuggling of narcotics from Canada increased to meet the needs of addicts. One newspaper reported in 1915, “A smuggler could secret in his overcoat pocket enough morphine for 10,000 “fiends.”

By 1918, smugglers were making numerous trips to and from Canada. In 1919, two men were captured in Newport with several suitcases “filled with morphine and kindred drugs estimated to be worth $100,000” on the urban black market.

This was part of the increase in illegal narcotics that led to “a wave of addiction.” Virtually all the reports of smuggling linked the drugs to addicts in New York and southern New England

In May 1922, an editorial in The United Opinion suggested there were about 250,00 drug addicts nationwide and “the drug habit is causing serious alarm these days.”

Despite this local alarm and numerous newspaper articles about drug activity nationwide, there were few arrests of Vermonters as drug addicts. Those that were arrested were confined to Waterbury State Hospital for treatment. At least one Vermont physician was arrested for illegal prescribing practices.  

A bold headline in the Rutland Daily Herald in March 1924 reported the seizure of $60,000 worth of bootleg narcotics being smuggled by an international drug ring. 

The following year, a Burlington speaker on the war on opium smuggling spoke on drug addiction in Vermont. He stated that the Champlain Valley was “the gateway of the North for smugglers.” 

The illegal traffic of narcotic drugs through Vermont continued through the period before World War II. Smugglers captured by federal enforcement officials were tried in federal courts throughout the state.

In 1933, William and George Nichols of Barre were found guilty of selling heroin to federal agents. On appeal, they were released because of entrapment. 

In 1940, a Bureau of Narcotics spokesman reported “illegal sale of narcotic drugs has been no problem in Vermont since 1931.”

While the availability of illegal drugs declined during World War II, there was a resurgence of smuggling nationwide in the post-war period. 

In 1947, the U.S. Border Patrol considered a reduction of personnel along the Vermont-Canadian border. One official reported that the patrols have “managed to keep smuggling down to an inconsequential trickle.” Of greater concern was smuggling along the border with Mexico and other ports of entry.

A review of area newspapers from 1860 to 1950 confirmed that Vermonters were less likely to be involved in criminal activity than the residents of other states, especially those with large urban centers.

 It also established locals’ interest in criminal activity when nearby or elsewhere. Local headlines were often boldly sensational even when the news was not from the local area.  As with news outlets today, bad news sells.

What was initially a two-part series on criminal activity in Vermont now has expanded into three. Next month, the series will include assault and battery, black marketeering, fraud, and other illegal activities.

Windsor State Prison served as Vermont's maximum security prison for men convicted of felonies.  It operated in that town from 1809 to 1975. It was also the location for executions.  In its latter period of operation, it was described as "ancient, decaying and depressingt."


Friday, February 9, 2024

Wrong Side of the Law (Part One)


Counterfeiter William Warburton, nicknamed "Bristol Bill" operated out of a house in Groton.  In 1849 he and his gang were arrested and their printing press and coper plates seized. 
During Prohibition, Vermont was on the frontline for smuggled Canadian liquor. In this photograph, U.S. Customs officials pose at the Swanton border in 1923 with captured alcohol. ( Courtesy of the Vermont Historical Society)  

Journal Opinion January 24, 2024

This is the first of a two-part series on crime in the area before the 1950s. The information is from local newspapers, town histories and online sources. Orford historian Art Pease generously allowed me to use some examples from his history of crime in that community.

I have not included murder in this series, as I completed a three-part coverage of that crime in the past.  That is posted on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com under “Murder Most Vile.”

In this column, I explore some examples of counterfeiting, horse and auto theft, and violations of alcohol and marijuana prohibitions. 

Before establishing a uniformed state police force in New Hampshire in 1937 and Vermont in 1947, the county sheriff was the primary law-enforcement officer. A growing number of local police officers and game wardens augmented this official. Federal law enforcement officers included U. S. marshals and FBI agents.

From the 18th century well into the 20th century counterfeit money was a chief crime.

Counterfeiting of local bank notes added to the mistrust of currency in early New England.  Counterfeiters not only printed fake bank notes but altered real bills to manipulate the face value.  It was difficult for the average person to distinguish between the real and the bogus.

Counterfeiters also altered or fabricated replicated coinage. Sometimes, it was as simple as paring off the silver from the edge of coins. To prevent this coin clipping, later coins had a reeded or ridged edge which they continue to have today.

 In 1874, the Bradford Opinion carried the story of Devil John Martin, an early Bradford resident. Using a nearby cave for his operation, Martin and his gang melted down old teapots and other items to create coinage. They also counterfeited currency. This may be just a good story, as I could find no other references to Martin.

While some counterfeiters escaped punishment, others did not. In 1795, Vermonter Seba Beebe had his right ear cut off and his forehead branded with a “C” after being convicted of counterfeiting.  

In 1804, the Thomas Call gang operated out of a private home in New Boston, New Hampshire  They were apprehended with as much as $20,000 in fake currency and tried. Call escaped from jail and was spotted in Lebanon, NH. Soon after, it was reported that he drowned.  

Three other notorious counterfeiters operated locally. The first, Stephen Burroughs was described as a “most shrewd and accomplished villain.” In 1806, Orange County’s Sheriff Mica Barron of Bradford traveled to Lower Canada and apprehended Burroughs. 

In 1808, Augustus Bartlett was caught with counterfeit $10 bills and, after a trial in Caledonia Superior Court, was sent to the newly-opened Windsor Prison. At that time, about one-half of the convicts there were counterfeiters. 

In 1849, counterfeiter William Warburton, nicknamed “Bristol Bill,” and his partner Christian Meadows operated with their gang out of a house in Groton. Recognition of a gang member by a local bank employee led to the arrest of the entire gang, Their printing press and copper plates were seized.

In 1865, the U.S. Secret Service was created to deal with widespread counterfeiting.  At that time, as much as one-third of all currency was bogus. The number of newspaper notices of counterfeiting declined in the late 19th century.  But it did not disappear completely.

In 1933, The United Opinion noted that the Secret Service reported that counterfeiting had increased due to the rise in unemployment due to the Great Depression.   “When we have hard times, we also have more counterfeiting,” the report declared. “More counterfeit has been seized since 1929 than in any other period.”

In 1937, the newspaper carried the report that a New York gang that had been operating in Vermont had been apprehended. They were responsible for one-half of the counterfeit funds in the nation.

Of course, counterfeiting was not the only crime. Throughout the 19th century there were frequent reports of horse theft. It was a serious offense as personal horses were both a family’s mode of transportation and essential to farming and businesses.

 Some horse thieves were accomplished professionals and others quite amateurish. An example of the latter occurred in May 1856 when a young man from Lyndon Center “helped himself to a horse in Waterford.” He took the horse to St. Johnsbury and attempted to sell the horse to Hiram Hill. It turned out that the horse was Hill’s. Despite a quick getaway across the Passumpic River, the thief was caught and convicted. 

In January 1860, John Leger, “a notorious horse thief” who had recently been released from Concord State prison, stole a horse and sleigh in Charlestown, NH. Notice of the theft was sent by telegram to towns up and down the valley.

Fairlee Police officer Kibey, having received the telegram about the theft, recognized Leger and arrested him. He held the thief until officials from Charlestown arrived.  Leger was notorious enough to have his arrest carried in most Vermont newspapers.

 After the 1850s, Anti-Horse Thief Associations formed in several western and southern states. These groups developed methods for apprehending those who stole horses and other animals and lobbied for strict punishments.  Despite western stories to the contrary, they did not lynch horse thieves. I found no evidence of similar organizations in Vermont or New Hampshire. 

Edward Montague, a “noted horse thief,” was arrested for theft and held in the Grafton County jail in August 1872. He had stolen teams in both Orford and Lebanon. Montague confessed to having taken 17 horses within the last year and about 80 in the previous three years’ time. This was not his first arrest, as he had previously been arrested in New York for obtaining funds under false pretenses.

In 1896, Frank Emery was captured in Rutland. The 45-year-old man had been stealing horses for most of his life and had spent a good deal of it in prison.  Horse thieves were getting up to 6 years of hard labor at that time.

In 1894, horse thief Charles Rufus Young was given ten years at Windsor. He was released for good behavior and again began to steal horses.  He was re-arrested in Rutland in 1903 but died “as a result of injuries received when captured.” In all, he stole at least 75 horses and spent decades in jail.  

Local newspapers carried many news items about the theft of other animals, including cattle and chickens. They were primarily stolen from backyards or barns. In 1871, three residents of Orford were apprehended for stealing sheep. Thefts increased during hard times, when food shortages forced individuals to turn to robbery. 

The arrival of the automobile and the decline in the number of horses after 1913 led to the following editorial in the local newspaper, “The thief seems to be a permanent member of society varying his field to keep abreast of the inventions. We used to have the horse thief, then came the bicycle thief, and now the automobile thief has appeared.”

In 1913, the Opinion featured several notices warning people to lock their cars. It went on to suggest, “The auto thief has many things more his way because all he needs to know is how to drive a car. He can then make a quick getaway…” 

Some cars were “simply misappropriated, sometimes by persons who needed a ride and, sometimes, by joy riders…who left the car after a night of pleasure.”

 It was reported in the mid-1920s that “about 92% of all stolen cars are recovered, although many were damaged.” This recovery rate resulted from “organized co-operation and unremitting effort on the part of automobile clubs and the police.”

As with other crimes, there were organized gangs of auto thieves. One unlucky bunch was apprehended in Groton in December 1927.  They had unfortunately stolen the car of a retired sheriff in Montpelier, resulting in “an exciting man-hunt.” They were found with the “loot” from a Bradford break-in and lodged in the Caledonia Jail. 

In the early 1930s, automobile theft rings operated in Vermont. One gang operated a “stolen car racket” in which they brought stolen cars from Massachusetts.  In August 1931, one such car was found in Wells River. The FBI reported that 70% of auto thefts were by individuals under 25.  

And then there was alcohol.

“No crime is, perhaps, attended with more evil consequences to society and individuals than that of drunkenness.” This statement from the Vermont Council of Censors in the early nineteenth century reflected an attitude that, as its support grew, led to a state-wide prohibition on the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in Vermont in 1853 and New Hampshire in 1855. In 1918, the Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and the resulting Volstead Act extended this prohibition nationwide.  

There is no doubt that, despite these laws to the contrary, liquor was manufactured and consumed in the area, creating a whole group of outlaws. Prohibition just drove underground what had been widely practiced beforehand.  Except for actions resulting from public drunkenness, only those who manufactured or sold alcohol were actually considered lawbreakers.

Several articles about illegal activity appeared in the Bradford Opinion in the summer of 1879. In the Corinth column was the following, “Several illicit distillers of cider brandy in Corinth have been arrested.” The following week this notice appeared, “Our correspondent concludes that West Fairlee Center is getting to be a dangerous place for peaceable people. Is it on account of cider brandy leaking down through Bear Notch?”

That August, three businesses in Bradford, including the Trotter House and the Vermont House were investigated for the sale of intoxicating drinks.  By the time investigators arrived, all evidence of this illegal activity vanished.   

Alcohol sales were legal in Canada, and as a result, Vermont and New Hampshire were on the frontline of smuggling. The United Opinion carried news reports of illegal activities and law-enforcement responses almost weekly. 

Elders interviewed by students in my Oxbow history classes told stories of bootleggers of illegal alcohol hiding “hooch” in innocent neighbors’ outbuildings. In more than one local community, smugglers of Canadian alcohol established regular delivery routes.  A heavily loaded car would arrive at a designated time and place, flash its headlights as a signal, and out of the darkness would come the customers.

While efforts were made to interrupt smuggling at the border, smugglers made their way along local supply routes to markets south. Elders told of heavy automobiles speeding along local roads, often followed by pursuing enforcers. 

Some smugglers were apprehended. In May 1927, a car with 375 bottles of Canadian ale was captured at Wells River. The individuals were brought to court in Bradford and the contents were destroyed by being poured off the Bradford bridge into the Waits River.  

Even after Prohibition came to an end, smugglers, to avoid federal taxes, still moved large amounts of Canadian liquor through northern New England. One “rum-running fraternity” operating out of East Barnet and Lyndonville, used stolen cars.

The other prohibition that received local news coverage was that of narcotic drugs, including cannabis.   In 1915, Vermont prohibited its sale for recreational use. In the 1930s, there was increased publicity against marijuana. Several Vermont newspapers carried the warning that “its most diabolical use has been in the form of cigarettes which have been sold by unscrupulous peddlers to high school students.”

Patches of wild marijuana were found in several Vermont towns and in neighboring New York. Despite the statement by officials that “though investigations failed to disclose any traffic in the drug in the State, there was a campaign against this “Devil’s Weed.” This included local programs to inform citizens. 

The 1936 film “Reefer Madness” reflected the image that the use of marijuana was likely to cause insanity, with its user becoming “a raving maniac.” The film was shown in Vermont theatres in 1940, including at Barre’s Opera House.

In 1947, Vermont adopted the Uniform Narcotic Drug Act that included a mandatory prison sentence of one to five years for the manufacture, sale or possession of narcotics including marijuana. After the 1960s, the growing and use of marijuana became a local issue. By the early 1980s, the region had become “a garden spot for marijuana cultivation.”     

 The next chapter in this series will include a section on legislation to deal with Vermont’s opium epidemic as well as the crimes of arson, assault, robbery, and black-marketing. Look for it in late February.


Saturday, December 23, 2023

Sing a Song of Christmas

 Journal Opinion Dec 20, 2023

The North County Chorus rehearses for a performance in a 2012 photograph. The chorus, founded by the late Harry Rowe of Wells River, has been a Christmas season mainstay for decades in the Twin States.

At the 2013 Annual Christmas Tree Lighting Events, sponsored by the Piermont Town Common Committee, Piermont Village School students led by music teacher Laurel Dodge, sung carols around the Christmas tree and decorated the tree with ornaments. 

“Beneath the familiar melodies and words, Christmas songs reveal a portrait of the American psyche past and present, wishing simultaneously to embrace nostalgia, commerce, charity, carnival, romance, and travesty.” Ronald B. Lanford Jr. A Cultural History of American Christmas Songs.

In past Decembers, I have written columns on the general history of Christmas as well as specific themes such as, Santa Claus, Christmas foods, gifts and Christmas pageants and parades. They are posted on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. have only included enough bi

This column about Christmas music. It exlores the roots of sacred carols and the development of modern Christmas songs.  How residents listened to and performed these musical pieces is included.

I have only included bits and pieces to remind readers how hard it is to imagine the Christmas season without favorite sacred and secular holiday music

Many of the most popular Christmas carols were brought to this country by European migrants. Favorites such as “O Come All Ye Faithful,”” Good King Wenceslas,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “Good Christian Men, Rejoice” have been part of their Christmas festivals for centuries. 

In the 19th century, there was renewed interest in Christmas songs and carols. “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” (1849) and “Away in A Manger” (1885) reflected a religious theme, while “Jungle Bells” (1857) was a rare secular piece.

“Silent Night, Holy Night” was written in 1818 by Austrians Franz Xaver Gruber and Josef Mahr. It was first performed in America in 1839.Many touching stories are connected with this carol, including it being sung simultaneously by French, German and English soldiers during a temporary 1914 Christmas truce in World War I.

In 1943, Bradford’s United Opinion reprinted the story of a group of American sailors on Guadalcanal. Their ship had been sunk, and they found themselves on the island during the battle with only the supplies provided by adjacent Marine companies.

But on the Sunday before Christmas, “the men stood in the mud and listened as the band played carols. It had rained the night before and the jungle was moist and hot and steaming, and the moisture had its effect on the instruments. But the band played and the men sang, Silent Night, holy night…it was a long way from Bethlehem to the South Pacific.”

Before the early 20th century, Americans purchased their favorite Christmas music on sheet music or Christmas music books to play in their own homes. It was not uncommon for groups to gather around the family piano or sing in choral groups. Advent and Christmas church services included traditional carols sung by the congregation and choirs.

 In the 1920s, community members gathered around the Community Christmas tree at Memorial Park in Bradford or on the Common in Lyme. Going caroling around local villages was often mentioned in the Opinion.

In 1927, Bradford carolers serenaded shut-ins, as did Newbury’s Sabbath School’s children in 1928 and Fairlee girls in 1931. In 1955, the Methodist Youth Fellowship of Bradford continued a tradition that is still performed area groups today. 

Well into the late 20th century, community notes in the Opinion mentioned the singing of Christmas music by members of local clubs during December meetings. These included Women’s Clubs and Church organizations. 

Public school students of all ages were involved in Christmas pageants and festivals. Significant in these was the group singing of Christmas music. 

Beginning in the 1880s, Christmas cantatas were offered in many local towns.  A cantata is a narrative piece of music for voice and instruments. It usually includes solos as well as choral numbers. Pieces include both sacred and secular music.

Church choirs, youth and school choruses as well as community groups offered these holiday programs. Soloists included talented locals and visiting guest performers. 

Newspaper notices of rehearsals, performances and reviews of Christmas cantatas were commonplace after 1888.  The notice of the upcoming 1897 East Corinth production of “Santa’s Surprise” mentioned: “The whole piece is very nice and promises to be one of the nicest Christmas entertainments given in this place for a long time.”

In 1951, the Bradford Congregational Church chorus took their “Christmas Bells” cantata on the road. When they performed in West Fairlee Center on Dec 16, the audience was appreciative but small, as the temperature was 28 degrees below.  

Performances were in town halls, school buildings and churches. Sometimes, chorus groups from several towns would combine their talents. In 1963, Bradford Academy and Woodsville, Wells River and Haverhill High Schools choruses combined to present two Christmas concerts.

Of all the local choral groups, the North Country Chorus stands out. This year’s Christmas program was their 75th. Their first Christmas concert was held on Dec 1, 1947 at the Littleton Methodist Church. 

Within a month, the group formally organized, and the first Christmas North County Chorus concert was held in the Woodsville Methodist Church in 1948. That year’s performance of Handel’s “Messiah” was the first of many times the group included that oratorio in their annual holiday program.

In 1951, Wells River’s Mary Whitney Rowe became conductor, continuing until 1994 when her son Alan Rowe took over. In 1957, Bradford’s Katrina Munn and Warren Geissinger became accompanists. The group performs in a variety of venues around the area.

Another group that performs locally during the Christmas season is the all-women Pine Hill Singers.   Formed in 1996, the rehearsals are held in Littleton. This year’s program included “music, both classical and traditional, from across continents and centuries, of winter light and snowy landscapes.” The director is Judy Abbott and Anita Bonnevie is the accompanist.

The Upper Valley Voices, previously known as the Thetford Chamber Singers, also offers a holiday concert in Thetford and Hanover. Approximately 25 area singers perform a program of holiday-inspired music from the Renaissance to the present day.  Kevin Quigley is their director and Henry Danaher is the accompanist.

The early focus on formal and informal group singing, changed with the introduction of the radio, phonographs, motion pictures, and later, television and the internet. Americans were more likely to listen to Christmas music than to sing it. 

Recordings of Christmas music were first heard on wax cylinders. In the 1890s, disc records were introduced. Companies, such as Victor Records, offered Christmas music to be played on record players. In 1909, a Burlington Free Press advertisement listed Victor’s recorded version of “Silent Night.”

The first radio broadcast of a Christmas carol was in Dec 1906. Engineer Reginald Fessenden played “O Holy Night” on his violin in a transmission heard only by ship radio operators along Massachusetts’s Atlantic coast. 

Commercial radio began broadcasting in 1920.  As the number of stations increased, they included Christmas music in their programming.

Between 1935 and 1953, the radio program  “Your Hit Parade” was broadcast every Saturday night. It was also a television program from 1950 to 1959. The radio program coincided with the introduction of some of the most well-known Christmas songs.

 These included “I’ll Be Home For Christmas” (1943), “Let It Snow” (1945),” The Christmas Song” (1946), “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (1949), “Frosty the Snowman” (1950), and “Silver Bells” (1950). All of these are still included among the most frequently played holiday songs.   

There was a Bradford Five and Ten advertisement in December 1948 for holiday records. They featured artists such as Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, Gene Autry, and Fred Waring. 

One of the top Christmas songs since its introduction is Judy Garland’s song “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” Written by Ralph Bane and Hugh Martin, it first appeared in 1944 in the MGM film “Meet Me In St. Louis.” The film was shown locally in 1945, including at Tegu’s Orpheum in Woodsville. 

No contemporary Christmas song was proven more popular  than the one  written by Irving Berlin and introduced by Bing Crosby on his NBC radio program on Christmas Day, 1941.  Entitled “White Christmas,” it was written for the film “Holiday Inn.” By October, the song was number one on Your Hit Parade where it stayed for 10 weeks.

It was the number-one single in 1942, 1943 and 1944.  In 1943, it received the Academy Award for Best Song. It holds the distinction of being the world’s best-selling record, with over 50 million sold.

 “White Christmas changed Christmas music forever, both by revealing the high potential market for Christmas songs and by establishing the theme of home and nostalgia that would ring through Christmas music evermore,” wrote Dave Marshall and Steve Propes in the book about the song.

The original film was remade in 1954 as “White Christmas,” and unlike the original film, was placed, but not filmed, in Vermont.  The popular movie, starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Vera-Ellen, and Rosemary Clooney, was shown at the Bradford and Fairlee movie houses and at the Woodsville and Fairlee drive-in theaters in 1955.

I spoke with three radio stations about their Christmas music schedule.  Waterbury’s WDEV went on the air in 1931. After December first, they begin to “sprinkle” Christmas music into their schedule.

WYKR’s Teresa Puffer said they begin selections the day after Thanksgiving and build up to an all-Christmas music program from noon on Christmas Eve until midnight on the 25th. They did try starting on Thanksgiving Day, but got a negative audience reaction. 

 Helen Lyons, musical director for Vermont Public Classical, mentioned that the station follows about the same schedule. However, in addition to classical selections and orchestra holiday pops, the station includes Hanukkah music.   

I asked readers in an informal survey how they felt about Christmas music.  Favorites ranged from popular selections such as Jingle Bells and Away In a Manger” to less well known selections from “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and singles “Mele Kalikimaka” and “Fairy Tale of New York.”

When asked what selection made them cringe, respondents listed “I saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus,” “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The latter was described as both a song of inclusiveness and one of “blatant bullying.”

Asked about when radio stations and stores should begin broadcasting Christmas music, most respondents were opposed to starting too early, generally meaning before December 1.  Some felt the effectiveness of making the season bright, wore off after weeks and weeks of repetition.  Those who supported music being played at all, favored the all-Christmas day programming.

Some respondents glowed in their feelings about Christmas music. For them, it made the season and t reminded them of earlier times.  One told me he remembered listening to them with his grandparents, and when he hears Christmas music, it made him think of them.  Several spoke of memorizing a wide selection and singing them either in organized groups or alone.  

Others were very critical of how Christmas music is foisted on unappreciative listeners. One wrote that music on the radio or in stores yearly remind her that “not all folks celebrate the holiday, and the music only serves to divide us more.”

There are others for whom Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas” (1957) has a deeper meaning as Christmas music reminds them of those they have lost or of unhappy holidays of their past. 

As a reminder that Christmas music has different meanings at different ages, I attended Christmas Eve services in the mid-1970s when Rev Robert Robb of Piermont would ask for their favorite carols. Snuggled between Little Town of Bethlehem and the candlelit finale  “Silent Night,” a small voice might ask for “The Santa Claus Song.”

Katherine Babbott of Thetford Center shared the following story. Her family was attending their church Christmas singalong. Carly, the children’s favorite babysitter, was in charge and invited those gathered “to raise their hand and request a Christmas song.

Our little boy twin, age 4, raised his hand and politely proclaimed, ‘Please sing the ABC song!’ at which point Carly said ‘Ok, let’s sing the ABC song!’ It was a special moment in our church and our lives when the choir and congregation responded in a rousing chorus of the ABC song. There were many smiles and tears at the beauty and innocence of the moment.”

Even while wondering if the annual onslaught of Christmas music may be too soon and too much, many cannot imagine the Christmas season without it.  Whether its background music in the stores, television specials, radio broadcasts, or songs by local performers or selections from their home collection, many find themselves humming or singing along to their favorite song performed by their favorite singers.

And having a Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Early Village Firefighting: Hard Lessons Learned


Organized around 1896, the volunteer Wells River Hose Company was equipped with hoses and a hose cart that members pulled to the scene of village fires.  Before hydrants were available, bucket brigades supplied water to be pumped.  It was typical of early organized firefighting in communities in both NH and VT. They were gradually replaced by fire engines. (Horace S. Symes)

A "great conflagration" destroyed the center of Newbury Village on June 14, 1913. It razed over 25 building on the Newbury Common and along adjacent streets. As a result of this fire, a village water system was installed within several years. (Newbury Historical Society)

Fire Sweeps Bradford. fire hoses snaked through Bradford's Main Street during a major downtown fire over 75 years ago. The east side of Bradford's business district was partially destroyed by a fire on Dec. 17, 1947. A number of area fire departments fought the fire using lines of hose pumping water from the Waits River.  Only the Bradford Fire Department could use village water as the hydrants, at the time, did not have standard-size connectors. (Bradford Historical Society) 

In the past, village centers in our area have been impacted by major fires. This column describes local fires between 1848 and 1953 that destroyed multiple structures and dramatically altered the appearance of the communities when they occurred. The emphasis is on the role of volunteer firefighters and the obstacles they faced.

Before the early 19th century, the only effort in respond to fires was spontaneous. Each household was expected to have a fire bucket handy. When a fire broke out, a bucket brigade was formed and water was passed from a nearby well or cistern in an attempt to quell the flames.

Slowly, a little more organization and preparation took hold in firefighting. Private fire companies were organized in larger communities. In Vermont the first efforts were in cities such as Burlington (1808) and Montpelier (1814). In New Hampshire, companies appeared in Concord (1807) and Keene (1808). In some communities there were more than one company.

 These were volunteer organizations with little, if any, support from local governments. Belonging to these quasi-fraternal companies was considered “a mark of social standing.” Competitive drills were held between companies, and parades gave volunteers a chance to show new uniforms and equipment.

Some large local businesses and insurance companies sponsored fire companies. The Estey Organ Company in Brattleboro and the Vermont Mutual Fire Insurance Co. of Montpelier are examples.

Larger towns began to provide tax support for equipment and hose houses. In some cases, volunteers were exempt from poll taxes. In 1852, Manchester, NH began to pay volunteers $5 a year.

 Hose companies deployed hand or horse-drawn hose carts from hose houses to the scene of fires. The hoses would be attached to hydrants if there was a municipal water system. If not, bucket brigades kept water supplied to the handpumps.

About this time, two innovations were introduced. They were steam-powered engines with greater water pressures and  chemical engines. The latter relied on a soda-acid chemical reaction in the engine that created increased water pressure.

In the early 20th century, there was a move to a paid department and motorized hose and ladder trucks in the largest communities.

The following are examples of major local fires and the impact of firefighting techniques.

 On April 19, 1848, a fire broke out in Haverhill Corner that destroyed a major portion of the business district on the west side of Main Street.

“The only defense was a long line of men and boys, old and young, standing in line from the reservoir on the South Common, passing buckets of water down to the fire.”

Notwithstanding this effort, the fire spread rapidly, fanned by a strong northerly wind, and was only stopped by tearing away small adjoining structures, creating a fire barrier.

Eight buildings were destroyed in what was called “one of the most destructive fires every witnessed in this section of the country.”

One newspaper article suggested that villages needed cisterns supplied with fresh water and a plan to “procure a good engine with apparatus, fire hooks, etc.”

In the morning of February 19, 1883, a fire broke out on Bradford’s Main Street. Described as “the great fire and a terrible conflagration,” the fire destroyed ten buildings on the west side of the business district.

There was no municipal water system and the supply of water was limited. Firemen used a hand pump to get water from cisterns until the supply was depleted.  It was reported that some even used snow to help suppress the flames.

As was the custom among firefighting in those days, saving the flaming buildings became secondary to containing the spread of the fire to other structures. The buildings north of the fire were saved only by being “enveloped in wet carpets.” 

Within two hours, the flames were under control. Only the fact that the winds calmed save the entire business area from being swept away. 

The United Opinion praised the heroic work of Waitsville Fire Engine Company firemen. They operated out of the firehouse on South Main Street. They “worked like heroes and to them in large measure is due the staying of the flames.”  Also mentioned was the work of Bradford women who helped remove items from threatened buildings.

Within a year, the brick Union Block and Stevens Block replaced the destroyed wooden buildings.  However, it was not until 1892 that the newly-formed Village of Bradford created a municipal water system with hydrants.

On September 26, 1892, a severe lightning storm caused the worse fire in the history of the village of Wells River.

“A large part of Main Street went up in flames,” reports recounted. Nine building were consumed, Including the Wells River House, livery stables and several other commercial buildings. The Wells River Hose Company, equipped with only a hose cart and supported by a volunteer “pail brigade,” fought the fire.

 The Woodsville Hose & Ladder Company and the Barnet Fire Company rendered assistance. The firefighters were hampered by the lack of a water system but helped by the continuing heavy rain.

The devastation provided a terrible lesson. Within two years a private water system was created for the village and hydrants were installed. Efforts were made to enhance the Hose Company with additional equipment.   

On December 5, 1912, a fire on the west side of Main Street destroyed Fairlee’s Opera House, library, and church. The entire town responded to the urgent ringing of the church bell. With no water system, only hand fire extinguishers were available against the rapidly developing fire. There was fear that the fire might spread to the nearby Morey Mountain.

Word was sent to surrounding towns and a total of 150 firefighters finally brought the fire under control. Within days, plans to rebuild the destroyed buildings began.

The Barre Daily Times editorialized, “One would think that the loss there of its chief building would cause a village like Fairlee to give itself sufficient fire protection, and perhaps it will. Likewise, many another village which has been resting in fancied security about the same as Fairlee did, apparently”

About 1919, the Fairlee Fire Company was formed and was gifted a 1914 fire engine. Orford’s fire company had been in existence for decades and, by 1922, was known as the Orford Chemical Engine Company. The two neighboring companies supported each other as well as other area towns. 

An example of this cooperation occurred in November 1922 when the United Opinion building on Bradford’s Main Street caught fire. Initially, it looked as though this fire would do to the east side of the street what the 1883 fire had done to the west side.

The alarm brought a quick response from the local hose company, who together with volunteers, fought the flames. Outside assistance was called for and the Orford and Fairlee Chemical Companies responded.

At one time, the local company had four streams of water on different parts of the building. The Chemical Companies’ efforts confined the flames to the single building.  At the time, successes were few and far between.

“The ‘great conflagration” that destroyed the center of Newbury village on June 14, 1913 was one of the most devastating fires in the area’s history.  Beginning in a blacksmith shop, the fire, fanned by brisk winds, spread to adjacent buildings.

The village was without a water system and “totally unprepared to cope with so large a fire.” The United Opinion’s coverage of the fire described how, “the men fought valiantly but had practically no weapons that were adequate. While men were fighting the fire away from their own homes, they would turn and see these same homes burning fiercely, so rapidly did the fire spread.  For a time, it appeared as if the entire village might be destroyed.”

 The fire destroyed over 25 structures on the Newbur yCommon and along the adjacent streets. The historic Methodist church was saved when horses were used to pull away the adjoining wooden sheds. There was help from neighboring towns, “but the reinforcements arrived only to stand by as helpless.”

The newspaper went on, “When the buildings are again restored, it is safe to say that Newbury will have a town water system before many years.” In August, rebuilding had begun to replace the destroyed buildings. 

Although the need for a reliable water source was recognized, it was several years before a system was created with a storage reservoir and a series of hydrants appropriately spaced throughout the village. 

The volunteers began to develop a fire department with equipment and a hose house. By 1919, five hose houses were placed around the village.

No community has been more permanently affected by fire than the village of West Fairlee. At the turn of the 20th century, it was a “bustling place, with several general stores, a hotel, a drug store, a jeweler and a several large commercial blocks. This activity was in major part due to the nearby copper mines. 

 Three fires between 1908 and 1917 caused most of those buildings to disappear with few replacements. “West Fairlee Burned” was the headline in The Opinion report on the fire of September 29, 1908 night. “It was a hard fire for that little village as it completely wiped out the business portion of the place.”

West Fairlee had no organized fire department, little or no water, and no fire apparatus, so all that could be done was to let the fire burn itself out. Four companies from neighboring towns responded to the call for help, but arrived too late.

On September 25 of the following year, a second fire started in the Whitney Block and spread along Main Street. There was still no organized fire protection. In 1917, a third fire destroyed the Eastman block and two residences.  While some buildings were built on the vacant lots, the face of West Fairlee village was changed forever. The lessons of having inadequate fire protection were learned, and in 1921, a volunteer fire company was organized.    

No community was safe from disastrous fires. On September 6, 1934, a fire destroyed Piermont’s library and Gould’s store and damaged several residencies.

Five departments from surrounding towns responded to assist the Piermont volunteers. By the time the Fairlee and Bradford Chemical Companies arrived the fire in the library building was out of control. South Ryegate and Warren companies also came, but too late. A pumper from Hanover, using water from the nearby stream, “was largely responsible for checking the flames.”

The first newspaper mention of a Piermont fire department was in 1936.  In the years after that, the department responded to calls for help in the several of the communities that had helped them in 1934. 

“Fire Sweeps Bradford In the Worst Disaster on Record” was the headline that described the blaze that gutted the east side of Bradford’s business district on December 17, 1947. Six businesses, including three grocery stores, were destroyed in the section north of the Post Office, now the Colatina Exit. High winds fanned the blaze. 

The Bradford Fire Company responded to the alarm and was aided by departments from Wells River, Piermont, North Haverhill, Woodsville, and Fairlee. When the Hanover Department arrived, their highly-trained personnel were given charge of the combined efforts. Even high school students on their way to school, were pressed into service, pulling hoses.

The out-of-town firefighters were delayed in using their hose because the Bradford hydrants did not have standard-size connectors. Four lines of hose to the Waits River pumped water on the flames.  The newspaper reported, “It was with superhuman strength that the firemen were able to stop the flames” short of the Post Office and the rest of the business district.  “Down But Not Out” was the familiar refrain as plans were quickly made to rebuild the destroyed buildings.

On Friday, July 31, 1953, a fire broke out that threatened to wipe out the village of Waits River. The fire started in the Flint Brother’s Bobbin mill along the north side of the Waits River. A “gusty wind” sent the fire up the hill to envelope the general store and threat the nearby church.

As the village had no fire company, equipment from neighboring towns augmented by a privately-owned engine from East Orange and passing motorists fought the blaze. Workers at mills in Bradford and East Corinth were released to join the fight.  Embers spread forest and grass fires several miles away. 

The Waits River fire was an expensive lesson, but without it, public interest might never have been aroused sufficiently to enable the Tri-Village Fire Association to become a reality. 

 Hundreds of local individual structures have been destroyed by fire in the past 250 years. Some have been important business or public buildings; others have been homes or barns.

What is essential to the fires mentioned above is that there was no loss of life. What is to be recalled is that, in most cases, towns people rallied to support those who suffered loss. They also supported the development of modern fire companies.  What is to be celebrated is that many looked beyond the immediate disaster to rebuild their village centers. They learned from lessons, hard learned.         

Thursday, October 5, 2023

From One-Room to Consolidation


School Wagon: Contrary to stories that students had to walk to school uphill both ways, Bradford student had four horse-drawn school wagons in 1901. The one pictured delivered upper elementary and BA students to the Woods School Building on Main Street. (Bradford Historical Society)

Little District Schoolhouse circa 1897. Built about 1883 at a cost "not to exceed $350," this one-room schoolhouse served Topsham's Cunningham or Watson Hill District. It was still in operation as late as 1911. The tall student in the white dress in the center of the front row is Nettie Wright (Pierson) the author's wife's grandmother. (Town of Topsham)   

“Selectmen of towns to have a vigilant eye over their neighbors, to see that none of them shall suffer so much barbarism in any of their families as not to endeavor to teach their children and apprentices so much learning as may enable them to read perfectly the English tongue.” NH Provincial Legislature, June 14, 1642

Education was crucial in early New England as it enabled people to read the Bible. By 1777 New Hampshire and Vermont required primary schools in most towns.

 In 1782, Rev. Gershom Lyman spoke before the Vermont Legislature expressing, “the belief of the majority of Vermonters when he referred to ignorance as ‘a natural source of error, self-conceit and contracted, groveling sentiment.’”

Randolph Roth’s study of the early Connecticut River Valley of Vermont found education in high regard.  “Education promised to create an electorate that would chose its representatives wisely.” Roth concluded that by the turn of the 19th century, “the valley had one of the highest literacy rates in the world, approximately 95 percent for men and 85 percent for women.”

That high rate of literacy was fostered at least until the beginning of the 20th century in small, usually one-room, district schools. The following includes just some local examples of this historic practice.

 In local towns, such as Bradford, Orford, and Corinth, the earliest schools were held in homes or barns.  In 1770, Orford voted to hire its first schoolmaster. In 1773, Haverhill established its first primary school. East Topsham built it first schoolhouse around 1810.  

 In 1782, Vermont provided that towns could create neighborhood self-funding and self-governing school districts. New Hampshire followed suit. Each district was “a little independent commonwealth with certain defined boundaries.”

In local towns, the number of districts increased with population growth, especially in previously unpopulated areas. Haverhill began with 4 districts in 1786, added 5 more by 1815, eventually reaching 20. By the early 1800s, Bradford was divided into 17 districts and several fractional districts. The latter were districts that shared a school with adjoining towns.  

The district was responsible for the construction of a schoolhouse, usually within walking distance from most homes. Sometimes, property for a new school was donated by a local landowner as property near the school increased in value. Terms of up to 12 weeks were held 3 times a year, with timing determined by farming practices.   

Early schoolhouses lacked many of the amenities of later schools. Initially, students sat on benches and, later, in straight-back desks. At first, there were no blackboards, globes, or teaching supplies.

Student were expected to bring their own textbooks, which often meant little uniformity in books. Students brought wood for the stove to heat what were often cold, drafty buildings. Schools were without running water for drinking or toilets.

Initially, only Vermont taxpayers who had school-age children were expected to pay on a per-student basis. The early practice of allowing taxes to be paid in labor or produce was abandoned and, by 1864, all property owners were expected to pay school taxes.

A district school committee made decisions about school operation., including securing a teacher, usually at the lowest possible price. “The system was the occasion of more local quarrels than anything else in town.”

In many local towns, the population peaked in the 1850s, and Vermont schools had an average of 38 students. In 1860, there were 2,591 school districts in Vermont with a reduced average of 29 scholars in grades 1-8. In 1867, Vermont required attendance for students up to 14 years of age. While district students could stay beyond 16 years of age, few did.  In 1854, New Hampshire had 2,294 district schools.

As the population continued to decline in the latter half of the 19th century, the average number of students also declined.  In 1884, there were 103 Vermont district schools with six or fewer students and 420 districts with between 6 and 11. School were sometimes closed briefly until students were available or closed permanently.  Reduction in the number of students in a district school did not result in a similar reduction in fixed expenses.

These factors led to a decline in the number of district schools. In 1900, there were just over 1,500 district schools in Vermont, by 1920, there were 1,000, and by the 1950s, about 500.  Abandoned school houses were often dismantled or sold. By the beginning of the 21st century, the number of one-room schools in the two states had dwindled to single digits.

This was especially pronounced in rural districts that became underpopulated. The one-room school in Orford’s Quintown district is an example. In 1894, there were only seven students, the following year, five, and by 1900, it was abandoned.   

Until the late 19th century, there were no state certification requirements for teachers.  Generally, anyone who had completed the equivalent of high school could be hired as a district school teacher.   While there were men hired as schoolmasters, most teachers were women.

In early Newbury, teachers received 50 cents a week. Teachers were expected to board with families either on a weekly or full-term basis. In some districts, the housing of the teacher was bid off to the lowest bidder, which did not always provide the best of accommodations for the educators..  

 This was the description of one early Newbury teacher: “She was not incompetent, however, having learned through her own efforts to read and write. She also knew a little something of the science of numbers and taught successfully.”

The academic demands on teachers were significant. In 1867, the teacher in the District 12 school in Bradford village taught 45 pupils 25 different subjects in an ungraded one-room school. 

A good teacher was one who could keep order “even if preserved with a rod.” Historian Steve Taylor described the discipline as varying from “chaotic to dictatorial.”

During the winter term, big farm boys often created discipline problems for younger teachers.  Some years ago, an elder told me of a local school that had a problem with a number of boys who “broke up the school,” including driving teachers away.  A new teacher arrived and, placed a large whip over the blackboard, stating her intention to use it as necessary.  She taught successfully for decades. 

The district school was a center of local activity, and school affairs were newsworthy. In February 1876, The United Opinion carried an article on the “excellent and successful” winter term of West Fairlee’s District 4 school. It had 27 students under the instruction of Miss Lydia Smith,” an able and experienced teacher.”  

Samuel Reed Hall opened the first teacher training or normal school was opened in Concord, VT in 1823. He also operated a similar program in Plymouth NH after 1837. Over the years that followed the Civil War, both states operated normal schools that provided teacher training and increased certification requirements.

Beginning in 1885, both states passed a series of acts setting standards for school buildings, allowed women to vote in school affairs and adopted a policy of town-wide graded school districts with consolidated schools located in the centers of local population.  In 1919, the NH state started a program to improve underperforming schools. 

In the late 19th century, both states began to reconsider the self-financed neighborhood district.  In 1884, Vermont enacted a law encouraging towns to adopt the township system of schools. Newbury voters voted twice not to adopt. In 1894, the state mandated the town system. The takeover closed some district schools, whereas other were kept and improved. 

This town-wide control encouraged the consolidation of schools. In 1895, Bradford built a new brick primary school on South Main and placed grades 4 through 8 in the newly-constructed Woods School Building. These locations served until a new elementary school was built in 1952 at which time the last district school, located in Goshen, was closed.

In 1890-92, the Vermont Legislature passed legislation to equalize school funding, improve teacher training, and consolidate school administration.  These efforts were enhanced by further legislation in the 20th century.

A state-wide property tax, designed to use moved funds from wealthier communities to assist poorer ones, passed with the support of rural legislators. Their numbers were more influential because each town had one representative, regardless of population. Orange County schools were among those which benefited the most from this new tax. 

That tax remained in effect until 1931. From then until it was re-established in 1997, the cost of local education again depended on local property taxes.   

In 1892, hundreds of local Vermont school districts were wiped out when the State replaced them with a single town-wide district.  Known by its detractors as the Vicious Law, this placed the responsibility for public education in the hands of a town school committee.   

As the district schools served a neighborhood, children who lived within two miles walked to school.  As these local schools were discontinued, some town districts provided school wagons. In 1902, Bradford students were transported in four school wagons. Pulled by two horses, these canvas-covered wagons had two benches running lengthwise.

On nice days, the canvas was rolled up. Often, boys had to get out and walk up the steepest hills. In the Spring, all but the smallest might be required to walk as the muddy roads became almost impassable.     

Little Elizabeth Miller didn’t have to walk from her North Road home to the West Newbury school because her family had the horse named Pete. When Elizabeth started school around 1915, her family hitched Pete to a wagon to transport her to school. After dropping his passenger off, Pete found his own way home.  Bradford’s Douglas Miller recalled his mother’s story, adding that the afternoon trip didn’t work quite so well. His mother had to walk home.

Newbury’s Aroline Putnam and Bradford’s Margaret Drew began school in West Newbury in 1941 and recently spoke of those school days. They said there were usually less than 30 students in the one-room school.  Grace Whitman was the teacher and conducted group lessons, sometimes with the help of older students. The school did not have running water so, it was carried from a nearby farm. There were two privies, one for boys and one for girls.

 Drew agreed that it was a “wonderful little school.” She recalled there were few discipline problems. She remembered that sometimes boys would hop the tail of the milk truck to get a ride to school.  

In 1947, Putman, Drew, and the two other girls that made up their class, transferred to the Newbury Central School. Whitman told them she had taught them all she could.  When asked if she thought most children got a good education in a one-room setting, Putman thought they did, but it “depended on the kids and their parents.”  Having served the district for 75 years, the school closed in 1970.

In some districts, one-room was replaced by two-room buildings. East Haverhill resident Marilyn Seminerio recently related stories of her experience in a two-room school in Chesterfield, NH in the years after 1935.

She said there were fewer than 25 students, but they were divided into grades one through four and five through eight.  Instruction was often ungraded, with courses such as history and geography offered in alternate years. Her teacher heated soup on the top of the wood stove for those students who could not walk home for lunch. 

How communities handled the consolidation of their elementary schools varied.  Where there were several village centers, separate schools existed longer.  Wells River maintained a separate school system long after the rest of Newbury consolidated. 

When Thetford’s new elementary school opened in 1962, it replaced district schools in Union Village, North Thetford, East Thetford, Post Mills, Rice’s Mills, and the Stevens District. 

 Several village schools were maintained in Corinth and Topsham until Union 36 opened in 1972.

In 1898, a new two-story Orfordville School was built to accommodate students as many of the town’s district school were phased out.  In 1901, Fairlee voted to build a new two-story building at the south end of the village.  This was used as the elementary school until a new building was built in 1956.

These are just examples of the continued consolidation of school districts. Since the 1960s, town school districts have merged in a number of configurations. 

Those interested in the further history of the one-room district schools that once operated in their neighborhood are encouraged to go to their town’s history book. Most have extensive descriptions. My article on the early history of area high schools can be found on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. It is entitled School Bells: Academies & Seminaries 1790s-1890s.