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Friday, March 27, 2009

"No Rum for Me!"

This 19th century poster utilized the mother and child motif to drive home the benefits of making alcohol consumption illegal.
A call for the end to the "failed experiment" of Prohibition (1920-1933) is reflected in this 1920's poster.
Originally published on March 25, 2009 (see new notes attached)
Journal Opinion


“No crime is, perhaps, attended with more evil consequences to society and individuals, than that of drunkenness.” This statement was made by the Council of Censors of the State of Vermont at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It reflects the growing influence of the temperance movement in both Vermont and New Hampshire. While the sentiment was not new, it reflected a changing view toward the use of “ardent spirits.”

Prior to that time in the area’s newly-formed towns, alcoholic beverages were widely used and taverns were common. Frederic Wells, writing in the histories of Newbury and Ryegate, described local attitudes. “Everybody, practically, drank; only here and there was a man who did not drink at all. Intemperance, and all the evils that followed in its train, was regarded with indifference by most, with aversion by some, and with horror by a very few.” Hard cider, apple brandy, potato whiskey and rum were present at most gatherings including town meetings, militia musters, weddings, funerals and even court sessions.

Wells felt that the rough toil of earlier times justified this use. “Their vigorous frames could readily withstand the effects of the stimulants.” There must have been a lot of rough toil in Topsham, for, in 1814, 78 barrels of rum were sold. Wells added that many men who drank cider daily, even when it was hard, “rarely tasted anything stronger.”

The battle against the evils of intemperance was one of the first reform movements in nineteenth century Vermont and New Hampshire. In 1817 the Vermont legislature organized a committee to investigate “the too free use of ardent spirits.” As the movement grew, temperance became increasingly valued as a personal characteristic. Joseph Stowe of Haverhill was one such “staunch temperance man.” In 1825, he would not provide rum for the laborers building his East Haverhill saw mill. The men refused to complete the work and the “country round was scoured before men enough could be got to finish the work.” His life was later threatened when he proposed posting the names of town drunkards.

In towns on both sides of the river the efforts of newly-formed temperance organizations began to have an impact. Abby Hemenway wrote of Bradford, “One of the earliest combined efforts in the State, in favor of temperance, was organized here in 1826…and in the course of 42 years a great deal of evil has been averted.” Three hundred members of a Thetford church voted unanimously, “not to use ardent spirits except as medicine.” Piermont was described as being “remarkable for temperance.”

Vermont was described by author David Ludlum as “a paragon of sobriety.” In 1826 the Vermont Temperance Society was formed. Rev. Silas McKeen of Bradford served for at least a time as its secretary. Subsequently, the movement broke into two factions; those who felt persuasion would bring results, while, the others, felt a law mandating prohibition was needed. When Vermont created a local option law in 1844, several local towns including Topsham and Newbury voted that no liquor could be sold locally. Vermont adopted state-wide prohibition in 1850 followed by New Hampshire in 1855. These laws remained on the books until 1903. Bars and distilleries were legally closed.

There is no doubt, that despite laws to the contrary, liquor was manufactured and consumed in the area. Oh-Be-Joyful recipes were brought back by returning Civil War veterans and adapted to local use. Items in the Bradford Opinion in the 1870’s confirm the existence of home distilleries and cider mills. The following news item appeared in one weekly Corinth news column: “Several illicit distillers of cider brandy in Corinth have been arrested during the past week.…better let that kind of business alone.” Later 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?”

If there was no consumption, temperance groups would have declined. To the contrary, from Lyme to Ryegate, they flourished. In 1866, men and women in Haverhill and Newbury formed local chapters of the Good Templars, an organization dedicated to the cause of temperance.

In 1876, temperance got a major boost in Bradford with the formation of a Temperance Society, followed by local chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the Sons of Temperance. A temperance rally in September 1876 led over one third of the town to pledge not only to abstain from the use of liquor, “…but to use their influence to stop its sale and use among their fellow men.”

There were a number of temperance activities in East Haverhill. A leader was Ellen Ruddick Richardson. Her local activities led her to become president of the New Hampshire Women’s Christian Temperance Union from 1899 to 1918. She spoke widely on behalf of the movement and was recognized nationally for her work.

These efforts to restrict the use of alcohol were met with resistance. Many resented the intrusion of the government into what they saw as a personal freedom. Immigrants, for whom alcohol was an important part of cultural life, saw restrictions as an effort by middle-class Protestants to punish them. Alcohol manufacture and sales were major industries, ones that would be shifted from the law-abiding to illicit businesses. For that reason, bootleggers often favored tighter regulations. The struggle often pitted urban users against rural teetotaling crusaders.

A broad-based crusade was building that moved for states to pass local option laws and even prohibition. Vermont and New Hampshire’s prohibition laws were replaced by local option laws in 1903. At the same time momentum for national prohibition was growing. The first national law had been introduced by New Hampshire Congressman Henry William Blair in 1876, a proposal that never made it out of committee. As Senator, he reintroduced it in 1886 and it was defeated 33-13.

In the first two decades of the 20th century, a coalition of groups pushed for a Constitutional amendment. The Anti-Saloon League with its five million members was a leader in the effort. Their influence was enhanced by the grain shortages experienced during World War I. Congress passed the Eighteenth Amendment in December 1917 and it went into effect on January 16, 1920. Opponents pointed out it was the first amendment to the Constitution that denied a right. The Volstead Act implemented the amendment. It was illegal to manufacture or sell alcoholic beverages in the United States.

In the early 1980’s my Oxbow history classes conducted a number of interviews with elders who were locals in their late teens and early twenties during Prohibition. One question asked was: “How did Prohibition affect you and your family?” What surprised the students the most was that despite what they were reading in their textbook about bootleggers and speakeasies, the most common answer was “Not at all.” Many elders said that no one in their families drank alcoholic beverages. The students heard answers that were similar to that given by one elder from E. Topsham who said “I never drink anything but cold water pure.”

While they spoke despairingly of drunkards in the community, these elders admitted that illegal liquor was available. Stories were told and recently repeated, of bootleggers who would hide “hooch” in innocent neighbors’ outbuildings. In more than one local community, smugglers established a regular delivery route. A heavily-loaded car arrived at a designated time and place, flashed its headlights as a signal and out of the darkness came the customers. Bottles might also be left in culverts or other pre-arranged locations.
Across the nation there was an increase in unsafe black market alcohol and non- compliance with the law.

Alcohol sales were legal in Canada and as a result Vermont and New Hampshire were on the frontline of smuggling. Almost weekly, the United Opinion carried news reports of the efforts by the authorities to enforce the law. In July, 1931, it reported on the attempts at border enforcement. In the previous year, the officials reported that more than 156,000 bottles of illegal alcohol had been confiscated along with 265 automobiles.

Despite this report, the border patrol was overwhelmed and smugglers often made it through successfully. Roads through the area were supply routes between Canada and communities to the south. Elders told of heavy automobiles speeding along these roads, often followed by pursuing enforcers. One resident who grew up on the River Road, now Route 5, told of an incident in which an unfamiliar car careened around his farmhouse to hide behind the family barn. Moments later, a police vehicle sped past, disappearing down the road to the south.

The profit from the smuggling was great. One local purchased 12 quarts of liquor in Quebec for $28 and sold it locally for $90. Liquor was carried in loaves of bread, rigged fire extinguishers or in special tanks slung under cars. Not all smugglers got away. The newspaper carried stores of arrests, including one of an East Thetford smuggler apprehended with 250 bottles of Canadian ale after his car was forced off the road. Crashes were not uncommon and locals sometimes helped themselves to unguarded cargoes.

Not that locals needed to rely on Canadian imports, as some local residents became home brewers and moon shiners. One N. Haverhill resident made wheat whiskey, one glass of which “and you would be crawling out of the room.” The large amount of malt syrup sold by local stores for “making bread”, led the editor of the United Opinion to conclude “that the home brewing industry in Bradford was flourishing…” Homemade brews could result in alcohol content higher than the limit of one half of one percent. Alcohol was also available legally for medicinal purposes and that limitation was so abused as to make it a farce.

The unsuccessful “Great Experiment” ended on December 5, 1933 with the passage of the Twenty-first Amendment. While awaiting ratification of the amendment, Congress amended the Volstead Act to allow for the sale of 3.2 or near beer. Both Vermont and New Hampshire legalized the sale of beer in those towns that voted “wet”. Bradford voted 160 to 96 in favor of the sale in April, 1933. Once liquor sales became legal, each state enacted laws regulating sales. In both states the sale of wine and hard liquor was limited to state-operated stores. Blue laws restricted the hours of sales, with no sales on Sunday. Local option votes continued. Piermont, with its active chapter of the WCTU, voted dry; a practice that continued into the 1960’s.

The government is still working to enforce alcohol prohibition among minors. It has generally been unsuccessful. In 1894, Vermont Catholic Bishop Arthur Hall said, “Prohibition drives underground the mischief which it seeks to cure, making it more difficult to deal with the evil and impossible to regulate the trade.” He correctly predicted the impact of the government’s attempt at prohibition then. We are still grappling with the truth of his statement today.
In 1891, a group of East Haverhill temperance advocates marched up Lime Kilm Road to the local Methodist Church behind the banner that proclaimed "No Rum For Me". (Archie Steenburgh/Nancy Burton) 

Notes added after JO publication:

The United Opinion of Nov.9, 1934 reported that one year after repeal of prohibition, "more bootleg liquor is being distilled in New England...than before the repeal." One official was quoted as saying "the bootlegger has changed modes and methods. Today, the bootlegger stands in his business place and poses as a legitimate liquor dispenser, but actually sells you bootlegstuff." Bootleggers were thus depriving the federal government of $500 million in taxes. The article went on to say that this trend along with more drunken driving accidents was also prevelent in Vermont.
An article in the April 6, 2009 Valley News pointed out that New Hampshire is one of 18 "control" states "that monopolize or partly monopolize alcohol sales. They decided to allow alcohol sales at some point after the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, but they didn't want it to flow too freely.
In New Hampshire, a run for Johnny Walker Red in 1934 felt like a trip to Red China as customers passed written orders to clerks in drab warehouses. Tim Sink, president of the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce, says that system lasted into the 1970s.
'These stores were tucked away in these seedy areas of downtowns' he said. 'It was almost like we were ashamed that they were here.'"

Early Town Meetings:1760's-1880's

"Equally Inaccessible" Newbury's Old Town House, built in 1838 on Scotch Hollow Road, was near the geographic center of the town. Until 1904, Newbury's town meetings were held in this local community center (photo: Glen Godfrey).

Bradford's old Town Hall was built on South Main Street in 1857. Town meetings were held there until 1936. The hall was destroyed by fire after a thunderstorm in 1945 (photo: Bradford Historical Society).

Women were not allowed to vote in Vermont town meetings prior to 1917. We can only guess at what was missed by that exclusion. Pictured at the 1989 Bradford town meeting are Margaret Pratt and sisters Muriel Brainerd and Louise Hutchinson (photo: Tony Dall).

Originally published on February 25, 2009
Journal Opinion

In the next two weeks, local residents will gather for annual town meetings. Officers will be re-elected or replaced, budgets for roads and other operational costs will be decided and numerous articles for the good of the order will be debated. This is a deep- rooted tradition.

UVM Professor Frank Bryan, a native of Newbury, is the leading authority on Vermont town meetings and the author of several books on the subject. In an interview posted on the Internet, Bryan describes this most perfect example of local democracy as, “a legislature of citizens, for citizens, and by citizens.” The first town meetings were held in our local area in the 1760’s. Using information found in local histories, this column deals with the first 125 years of area town meetings. It is during this time that patterns and traditions were established that will be repeated this year.

The first meetings for many area towns were not actually held locally. They were limited to the proprietors to whom the town had been granted and were held as far away as Portsmouth or Bennington. Often land speculators, these proprietors voted on land division and roads to encourage population growth. In Fairlee, Newbury and Haverhill many proprietors actually took up residence. Even after local freemen were allowed to hold regular town meetings, proprietors’ meetings continued to be held. In Newbury these two separate organizations overlapped until 1791. The last proprietors’ meeting in Haverhill was held in 1810.

In the early years only larger landowners were allowed to vote in the town meetings. Since the primary source of income for towns was property taxes, this limitation seemed reasonable. In July 1777, Vermont extended the franchise and opened town meetings to all males twenty-one years or older. The few New Hampshire women of property who had the right to vote lost it in 1784. They did not regaining it until 1878 when the state authorized school suffrage to them. Vermont followed in 1880, allowing the right to vote and hold office in school districts to tax-paying women. It was not until 1917 that Vermont women were allowed to vote in town elections, followed by New Hampshire in 1919. One finds it hard to believe that the lack of a direct vote meant that these women lacked influence in local affairs.

Meetings were held frequently as needed, with locations a topic of discussion. Early meetings were held in larger private homes. In Bradford (then Mooretown) the first meeting was held in May 1773 at the home of Samual McDuffee on the Upper Plain. Corinth’s town meetings were held at Robert Rowe’s inn at the Center.

As there was less separation between church and government, churches served as a meeting place for both. When state laws prohibited the use of tax funds for the support of churches, towns began to erect town houses or halls for meetings. In towns such as Haverhill with multiple settlements, the conflict over the placement went on for years. Whether the building should be in the geographic center or the population center, caused major debate.

In Piermont and Groton, the voters called on outside referees from neighboring towns to make an impartial decision. In both cases the referees’ report were rejected and the voters went on debating the issue, sometimes at adjourned meetings that lasted two or more days.

Newbury built its new Town House in 1839 in Newbury Center, isolated but very near the geographic center of the town (see photo). Used for town meetings until 1904, its isolated location was “equally inaccessible to all parts of the town.” Bradford used the town church (now the Old Church Theatre) for most of the 40 years after 1795. Then after meeting for a time in the elementary school, a Town House was built just up South Main in 1857 (see photo). Meetings were held in this building until 1936 when the meetings were moved to the new Bradford Academy auditorium.

Corinth adjourned their July 1845 meeting to the new $700 Town House. In 1850 Fairlee erected a building that served both as town hall and union church until it burned in 1912. After years of accepting and rejecting proposals, Topsham built its present building in 1854 at East Topsham. The next year, and after similar debate, Orford erected its town house in Orfordville. In 1884 Haverhill replaced its older stone building with a town hall in North Haverhill; dedicating it before a crowd of 1000 residents.

One of the most important pieces of business on the agenda of those early meetings was the election of officials. The offices of selectmen, treasurer, clerk and listers were the most important, their functions being similar to those who hold the office in modern times. All towns elected moderators, constables, grand jurors, town agents and overseers of the poor The redundancy of the names of the men who held these positions show both the power of the incumbency and the willingness of some to spend many years serving their communities. James Whitelaw of Ryegate was town clerk for most of the first fifty years of that town. In 1779 Orford had twenty-six different offices filled by seventeen men; all from a population of only seventy-five.

Many earlier offices have disappeared or have been reduced to honorary positions. Hay wards, hog-reeve and pound keepers were elected to police animals, especially strays. The duty of Thying men was to police offenders of the Sabbath. Fence Viewers, “Braanders of Hourses”, Sealer of Weights and Measures, Leather Scalers, Weigher of Coal and Shingles provided dispute resolution for local commerce. To this list Topsham added “culler of hoop poles, staves and headings” as well as “inspector of flour, hops and salt.” Some of these offices were held by up to 10 individuals to cover the various districts of a community.

In several area towns, the positions of tax collector and constable were auctioned off, with the office holder to be paid from fees and percentages of collections. Income was not always what the candidate expected and towns struggled with frequent vacancies and financial proposals.

Once officers were elected, town voters turned to the other warned articles. The amount of money to be raised for the operation of local government was debated, with frugality being significant. Poll and property taxes were debated. Roads were a major issue. When the value of currency was eroded by hyperinflation and counterfeiting, taxes were sometimes paid in wheat or labor. Until 1800 Corinth accepted “salts of lye” in lieu of lawful money.

There was little help for local expenses from state or national governments. However, in 1837 Congress divided a large federal surplus among the states, which in turn, appropriated it to the towns. Faced with this windfall, locals had to decide whether to spend the money immediately or invest the money and use just the interest.

Town pound-keepers were authorized to deal with the problem of stray animals. Fines were levied for loose hogs, rams or other stock that could damage property. Dealing with the poor was a perennial concern. Those for whom the town felt no obligation were warned out of town. Between 1805 and 1811, the Thetford town meeting ordered 58 individuals out of town so that it would not be responsible for their relief. In some towns, the care of the poor was auctioned off to the lowest bidder. Later, towns created poor farms and, in some cases, tramp houses.

Local participation in the nation’s wars brought special concerns. During the months following the outbreak of the American Revolution, the towns took action for their defense. Faced with the possibility of invasion, Orford voted a store of three dozen guns, three barrels of powder, 600 weights of lead and 600 flints. Militiamen were made ready. A 1783 Newbury meeting warned those who supported the British cause of “the Displeasure of the town.” Invasion was again threatened during the War of 1812 and towns responded. Topsham men who were honorably discharged were awarded a bonus in grain or neat stock. Because both this war and the later Mexican War were locally unpopular, some towns passed articles opposing the wars at the same time voting bonuses for local participants.

Support for the Union cause in the Civil War and for the high percentage of local participation, was reflected in the town meetings of 1861-1865. Uniforms, bonuses and family support for local men who helped the town meet its enlistment quotas were authorized. As the war wore on, the size of bonuses was increased as an incentive. In Topsham, the surplus fund was used. In several towns the war effort created debts that took years to reduce.

Towns took stands on such social issues as abolition and temperance. More local, but no less thorny, issues were debated. Whether to remain with New Hampshire or join the new Vermont, was a divisive issue for local New Hampshire towns in the 1780’s. Cemeteries were an annual topic of discussion. One year Corinth refused to purchase tools for digging graves but the next year authorized procuring burial cloths. Piermont purchased a town hearse in 1837 and replaced it in 1862, the cost being covered by the sale of cemetery lots. Some towns supported local fire companies, others did not.

A review of town meeting history finds other unusual activities arising. Prior to the arrival of women, the male only atmosphere was more boisterous and the job of the moderator more difficult prior to the arrival of women. In 1828 Corinth’s Nathan Taplin was fined five dollars for striking Joseph Miles in town meeting. In 1831, Piermont selectmen were instructed not to give licenses to play actors or showmen. In 1860, Bradford voted down an article to annex the town to Caledonia County. In 1864 it also dismissed an article to pay several residents for the time lost while confined during a small pox epidemic. In 1869, Corinth voted six special police to deal with the rowdy miners of Pike Hill.

The French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville wrote one of the most insightful analyses of early American society. His work Democracy in America was the result of his 1831 tour. He was amazed at the large number of Americans involved in public affairs. He was especially impressed by New England town meetings. At them, he believed, “democracy makes a more judicious choice than it does elsewhere.” We know from experience that wise and careful decisions are not always the result of town meeting action. But those who support the process believe that over the long run, face-to-face discussions among well-meaning and informed citizens will result in the best decisions for local communities.

Things That Never Were

Sunday Mountain Ski Area was proposed for this 1791 ft. mountain in Orford in
1962. Trail cutting began, but the project was abandoned.

This 1900-era post card shows a fanciful future for Bradford. Similar cards were published for other area towns. Needless to say the subway to Piermont "never was." (photo: Bradford Historical Society)

This 1934 map shows the proposed 260-mile scenic Green Mountain Parkway that was to stretch along the ridge of the Green Mountains. Area towns joined the rest of the state in voting down the proposal in a 1936 referendum (photo: Vermont Historical Society).

Originally published on January, 28 2009
Journal Opinion

January derives its name from the Roman god Janus, the god of beginnings and endings. The gift of seeing both the past and future was his. It is a time of reflecting on the past and making predictions for the future. With that in mind, this column reviews some of the local projects that were proposed, but never came to be.

This column will not deal with national events such as nuclear war or Y2K, catastrophes that were predicted, but never happened. It will not deal with those things that seem beyond proof. Lake Champlain’s mysterious creature Champ might fit that category. Two stories connected with the French and Indian Wars are the existence of Fort Wentworth in Woodsville and silver candlesticks buried in the Wells River area by departing Catholic missionaries. Did these happen? Apparently not.

This column will not deal with hoax. That includes the predictions of a terrorist attack on Bradford village in January 1932, reported in both local and Boston newspapers. It didn’t happen, but will be the topic of a future column. Several failed projects that will not be covered, for lack of information, are those that would have located the state Odd Fellows Home in Bradford in the 1890’s, an airport in Fairlee in 1934 or proposed development in Newbury that encouraged the adoption of zoning in 1969.

It could deal with fanciful predictions that Bradford would someday have a subway to Piermont or a trolley line to Chelsea, but it will not. These were the whimsical suggestions of postcards published for Bradford and other area towns around 1900 (see photo).

It will not deal with current projections. Whether Pierson Industrial Park will fill up with new industry or a sewer line or Bradford Square Mall will ever grace Bradford’s Lower Plain will have to wait to be seen. This column is not meant to hold up to ridicule visionaries who hope to improve their communities, even when the odds are stacked against them.

One of the earliest unsuccessful ventures concerned the location of Dartmouth College. Soon after its establishment in Lebanon, Connecticut, the college decided to relocate to New Hampshire. Many towns vied for it. Representatives of the college reported that “the inhabitants of Cohos on the Connecticut River were universally much engaged to have the school fixed there.” Rev. Joel Mann, son of the Orford’s first settlers stated, in an 1864 speech, that the town’s proprietors met in January, 1770 and voted “…that in case the college should be located in said township of Orford, to give and grant for its use 1000 acres.” They further voted 1000 acres and 100 pounds to Rev. Eleazer Wheelock, the college’s president, if he settled in Orford.

According to Wells' History of Newbury, men in both Haverhill and Newbury joined together to encourage Wheelock to locate in Haverhill. There were several months of negotiations, including lobbying influential parties around the state and "the promise of about 6000 acres of the best land in Newbury, Haverhill, Ryegate and Bath." So successful was this effort that, "The Haverhill party believed the prize already within their reach, when in August, 1770 they were astounded to learn that Wheelock had decided to locate the college in Hanover."

Despite the fact that these towns were closer to the natives the college was to serve, Hanover apparently had closer ties to the college trustees, and its offers were more generous. Rev. Mann declared how strange it was that Orford’s offer was not accepted considering how beautiful it was as compared to “the unsightliness and destitution of attractiveness of the place where the college now stands.”

Unfulfilled projects are often characteristic of economic bubbles. This is especially true of transportation booms. The United States experienced a canal building era beginning in the 1780’s, highlighted by the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. That enthusiasm was felt in Vermont with the opening of the Champlain Canal in 1823. In 1825 the Connecticut River Company conducted surveys from Hartford, Connecticut to Barnet for the purpose of “removing all impediments” and thereby allowing small steamboats to use the river over the 219-mile distance.

The projected cost was $439, 827 for 17 miles of dams, locks and short canals. This proposal included $9,725 for a dam and canal opposite Bradford, $66,486 for “improvements near Newbury” and $19, 286 for a canal in Barnet. The report mentioned that “above Barnet the obstructions are very formidable.”

At about the same time, Wells’ History of Newbury reports, Boston capitalists “sought to gain the trade of the north country by constructing a canal from the Pemigewasset river in Wentworth to the Connecticut river in Haverhill, after improving the channel of the river as far as Wells River.” John McDuffee of Bradford surveyed the route in 1825. The difficulty of the project and opposition from the merchants of Haverhill Corners were enough to prevent this project from being built. There were also proposed canals to be built from Wells River to Lake Champlain and from Barnet to Canada. However, the railroad era began and these canal projects were shelved.

The railroad boom brought its own ill-fated projects. In 1860, Vermont chartered the West Fairlee Railroad Company, rechartering it is again in 1868. Topsham Sketches notes that in 1872, “the town voted to issue bonds for the ‘so-called’ West Fairlee R. R. provided it went through Topsham. This road was to pass from Fairlee up the Waits River through Topsham, then through Waterman Gap to South Barre.” Corinth also subscribed to the railroad and offered to buy capital stock of $40,000 if the line ran through Corinth. The History of Corinth, Vermont describes the venture as a “pipe dream.”

Proposals were also made to connect the main line in the Connecticut River valley with the copper mines in South Strafford and Vershire. In 1809, the operators of the Elizabeth Mine in South Strafford proposed constructing a line up the Ompompanoosuc River valley as a way of reducing the cost of shipping ore and supplies. The Vershire proposal started from Ware’s Crossing (present day Ely) and went around Lake Fairlee. All of these proposals were subsequently determined to be too expensive.

Haskins’ History of Bradford refers to “The Railroad that Never Was”, an 1893 proposal to build a railroad from the Black Mountain Granite Quarries to Bradford. The United Opinion of June 1893 reported that a special town meeting was held in Bradford at which $15,000 was voted to aid in the construction of the line on the condition that the company “build and maintain its principal granite shed” in town. The venture, Haskins concludes, “never caught on”, and the investors lost their money. That same year, according to Blaisdell’s Haverhill history, the French Pond Granite Railway Company was chartered. It was to haul granite from Briar Hill to Woodsville. Although a route was surveyed, other means of transporting the granite were used and the project was abandoned.

Examples of highways that were never built include the Green Mountain Parkway. This parkway, modeled after Virginia’s Skyline Drive, would have bisected Vermont along the heights of the Green Mountains (see map). It would have been financed largely by federal New Deal funds. The authors of Freedom and Unity, A History of Vermont refer to it as “one of the state’s most bitter public controversies.” The State Legislature authorized a state referendum on the proposal at the March 1936 Town Meeting.

The United Opinion of February 28, 1936 dismissed the arguments that the parkway would raise taxes or just benefit the western side of the state. One letter to the editor in that same edition stated that it seemed to be “too good an investment for good hard headed Vermonters to turn down.” But turn it down they did, 43,176 to 31,101. Locally, all towns voted against the parkway. It was the closest in Bradford: 120 yes and 126 no. Topsham had the largest percentage voting no, 128 to 37 yes.

The 1960’s saw area proposals for growth in the recreation and second-home markets. One such proposal was to build the Sunday Mountain Ski Area at a 1791 ft mountain in Orford. In a recent interview Ernest Gstell, who now lives in Wildwood, Florida, said that his company purchased 200 acres to begin the project around 1962. They also purchased the home of Johnny and Julie Guyer at the corner of Archertown and Indian Pond roads (see photo). With large equipment, and under the supervision of a Connecticut engineer, workers began to cut and mulch trees on the north side of the mountain for the lift line and trail system.( see photo) Lift foundations were in the works, when “Dad got ill.”, Gstell said. As his father was a major backer of the project, the company was sold to Boise-Cascade. Orford never got its ski area, to the dismay of some but not others.

Probably the largest building project was proposed by Boise-Cascade when it purchased the Lake Tarleton Club property in 1969. They wanted to develop over 4500 home sites with recreation facilities that included a ski area and a Robert Trent Jones 18-hole golf course. The appeal would be to the second-home market.

Concerns were raised by area residents about its environmental impact. Julia Fifield of Orford recalls that she and Bradford environmentalist Lucy Bugbee attended a hearing to express concerns about the proposed discharge into Eastman Brook and the Connecticut. Fifield remembered that a project spokesman said he would gladly drink a bourbon and water using the effulent from the project’s sewage treatment plant. The January 22, 1970 edition of Bradford’s North County Journal summed up the feelings of citizens who attended one of the information meetings as: “consensus of opinion seemed to be that the project would be a plus for the area.” However, the falling housing market and environmental concerns doomed the project. In 1977, a new owner’s smaller proposal for the property met a similar fate.

Not all projects since 1965 have to do with housing or transportation. School districts have been proposed, districts formed and then realigned. All present area union schools evolved through these stages before they opened. One short-lived study would have created what might have been called the Mt. Moosilauke District, a large interstate proposal encompassing a number of area towns.

Outside businesses have studied the area, but chose, for one reason or another, not to locate here. In 1975, Parsons and Whittemore, an international conglomerate, raised the prospect of building a huge pulp and paper mill in the area. It would have employed 1500 workers and brought a $20 million tax assessment to the host town. At meetings that February, both Piermont and Haverhill voters approved their town as a possible site. Richard McDanolds of North Haverhill indicated in a recent interview that his farm was considered as .a possible site for the mill.

One Bradford project that drew considerable interest was the building of a community swimming pool. Various proposals were made, beginning in 1967. The Community Club proposed a pool to be located on Memorial Field. The project was placed on hold. It was revived again in 1970. In both cases there were federal and state funds and community support. However, the fear that operating costs would exceed the community’s ability to support it, led to the demise of the proposals. Several generations of Oxbow High students believed that the courtyard at the school was really meant to be a swimming pool. Not so.

Looking back over these incomplete or failed attempts, it is interesting to consider the impacts if the outcomes had been different. What would a Dartmouth College and Sunday Mountain Ski Area in Orford, a huge second-home development in Piermont, a huge paper plant in Haverhill or Piermont and a Green Mountain Parkway have meant? Certainly not all would agree with the words of John Greenleaf Whittier, “For all the sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these ‘it might have been.’”

Christmas Memories 1659-1959

Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas" was first published in 1823 and is now more commonly known as "The Night Before Christmas." Moore's poem helped to establish Santa Claus as shown in this vintage illustration.

This 60-year old Christmas greeting from United Opinion publisher John Drysdale and editor Edward Schriftgiesser and their staff expresses best wishes for the 1948 holiday season.

Originally published on December 24, 2008
Journal Opinion

Christmas “is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty…by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling…” That is Puritan Cotton Mather’s condemnation of Christmas. From New England’s earliest days to the present there have been mixed feelings about how Christmas has been observed and how those observances have changed.

In 1659, Puritans outlawed Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. For them it was a compromise holiday adopted by the early Church to win converts from among pagans who celebrated the winter solstice. According to Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, the Puritans also objected to the unruly manner in which the season was celebrated in Europe characterized by “rowdy displays of excessive eating and drinking, aggressive begging and mocking of established authority.” Nissenbaum describes how Christmas was “transformed from an unruly carnival season into the quintessential American family holiday.” These changes are reflected in the way in which Christmas has been celebrated in our local area.

While the Puritan opposition continued long after its ban had been repealed, descendants of the Pilgrims preached on the religious essence of Christmas They held services with carols and encouraged seasonal charity. These are practices that had become part of the religious life of other denominations in America. Many religious leaders continued to object to the excesses of the carnival-like celebrations that were often typical of the season in many communities around the nation.

There was a continuing “battle” over the celebration between religious and secular activities. But, as Nissenbaum notes, “Unlike today, all of these were public rituals…no intimate family gatherings or giving of Christmas presents to expectant children…it was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one.” Changes to that began in the early 1800s, the result of activities of a group of New York gentlemen, including John Pintard, Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

These Knickerbockers were moved by both the plight of the urban poor and the “acute social threat” of gang celebrations characterized by violence and home invasions. They encouraged more socially acceptable Christmas rituals. Irving’s writings described child-centered family celebrations and Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” created Santa Claus much as we picture him today. While some parts of society wanted to have Santa as the “Lord of Misrule, master of the Christmas carnival,” he survived as the kindly maker of toys for children.

The giving of gifts and charity were encouraged by commercial interests. The first Christmas advertisements began to appear in New England newspapers in the 1820’s.

Santa Claus was included to encourage sales. Almost as quickly as these promotions began to appear, so did concern that to avoid spoiling their children, parents needed to balance indulgence with restraint.

The “invented tradition” of Santa Claus in a domestic gift-centered setting encouraged the use of the Christmas tree after 1830. Evergreens had been used as Christmas decorations for centuries. Public Christmas trees were used in Vermont by the 1850’s, if not before. By the time of the Civil War, Christmas had become a legal holiday in many states and was firmly established as both a religious and domestic celebration.

Local newspapers from the latter half of the 19th century reflect the growth of
the Christmas season. While Bradford’s National Opinion had only a few seasonal advertisements in the 1860’s, local columns told of Christmas Festivals from West Fairlee and Lyme to Newbury and Woodsville. A Christmas Eve service at the West Bradford Methodist Church featured “a Christmas tree, well-filled with fruits of all kinds.” In a custom that continued in some towns until the 1920’s, families would exchange presents in this community setting. Santa Claus appeared in Orford at the Congregational Church in December, 1871 “along with a large lot of presents for all.”

In the years that followed, Christmas meant that area merchants took full advantage of Christmas sales. In 1874, a front page article announced that “Agents for Santa Claus have been in Bradford and called upon most of the traders in town and left a large quantity of goods suitable for Christmas and New Year’s presents.” A later edition reported that M.P. Warren of Fairlee “Just returned from Boston and it is surprising what Christmas gifts you can buy for 10 cts.”

Newspapers went on to report a relatively new practice: “Many of the citizens of Bradford had Christmas trees at their homes.” Another new practice was the use of picture post-card type greeting exchanged between family and closest friends. Donation parties were held for ministers to supplement meager salaries. Prudent in its reporting, the newspapers did not mention any public or private rowdy alcohol-fueled behaviors, although they probably did exist locally.

A number of local elders have shared their Christmas memories for this article. These memories reflect Christmas among rural families and of a simpler time. For many, Christmas was a religious observance. That included Christmas Eve services at local churches as well as public or Sunday school programs. With religion very much a part of the public school, singing of Christmas carols and nativity pageants were common. Some remember the grade-by-grade promotion from pageant cherobs to the roles of Mary and Joseph. Eris Eastman of Bradford recalls elaborate performances with “spoken pieces” in both Corinth’s Town Hall and Bradford Academy’s auditorium. .

Christmas trees were harvested on family or neighboring farms. Whether set up in advance or on Christmas Eve, these trees would be secured by two small boards nailed together. Decorations were often homemade, strings of colored paper, popcorn or cranberries and gingerbread men. Earliest trees often had candles that were lighted under close supervision and with a pail of water close by. The United Opinion of 1909 mentions that the Piermont church had given up candles “less Santa Claus’s whiskers catch on fire.” Stockings were hung to be filled with small gifts and fruit. Children were admonished to be good, for bad children might receive just a lump of coal or a rotten potato.

Some families observed such traditions as fasting before Midnight Mass, followed by feasting on festive goodies. Food was very much a part of the season for all. Cookies, fruitcake, candy and suet pudding were all part of the celebration. Whereas some had homegrown turkey for Christmas, ninety-eight year old Eunice Collins of North Haverhill recalls that her father would sacrifice the largest rooster on their farm for dinner. Dorothy Gibson Stevens of Wells River tells of a delicious chicken pie made annually by her grandmother.

Harold Haskin’s History of Bradford reports that colored lights in homes came into use in the l920’s in those areas that had electricity. He writes “It would have been deemed unseemly to have attempted any sort of display to emphasize oneself or one’s home.” The first electric lights on an outdoor tree were on a lawn on South Main Street. By the 1930’s most business districts and some village homes were colorfully lighted.

Money was scarce and therefore gifts were simple and usually homemade. Robert and Priscilla Fadden of North Haverhill, recall Christmas as they were growing up in Piermont in the 1920’s. Robert recalls that he received homemade gifts such as knitted items or a homemade toy. Some store-bought items such as pants or gloves were purchased in Bradford. Priscilla recalls the Piermont school pageant and tree at the town hall, but also recalls that “slow but sure, gifts began to be given at home.” Her birthday was December 24, but she didn’t recall receiving a double bounty of gifts.

Lucy Dutton Farley of Wells River recalls that in the 1930s, Christmas was a simple time. Homemade gifts and homegrown food were among her favorite memories. Her family joined others for free movies at Woodsville’s Tegu’s Theatre complete with small gifts. Roley Moore of Woodsville has similar memories: of rabbit for Christmas dinner and a whole fifty cents to spend on gifts for his mother, brother and grandparents. Ten cents for each left young Roley with a dime to buy a game for himself, something he purchased after bargaining down the price at a local store.

Those were depression times and as in the periods after World War I and the Flood of 1927, there were calls for donations to help the less fortunate. The amount of anticipated gifts depended on the fortunes of one’s family, with a bag of marbles or small doll being a major gift for some. Roy Tyler, born in Haverhill in 1920 and now of Orford, recalls that when his family lost their farm in McIndoe Falls, their Christmases were “lean.” In contrast, Eris Eastman recalls that her Taplin Hill family was able to provide “lots of gifts at home.”

The United Opinion of December 23, 1938 stated “Nineteen thirty-eight has been a year full of struggle…brought much suffering and anxiety to many people. As we wish our friends a Christmas of good will may we go forward with a determination to make the New Year happier than the old year.“ But the years to come would be darkened by world war and the separation of many from their loved ones.

Carol Tyler recalls the deep feeling of loneliness when she and Roy were separated by his service in the Army, “with letters few and far between.” She recalls seeing the l942 film Holiday Inn with its Vermont location in which Bing Crosby sang Irving Berlin’s A White Christmas. In 1942, the United Opinion noted the government discouragement of the public use of electric decorative lights at Christmas because of “the use of critical materials, consumption of electric power, and possibility of attack…”

The prosperity of the post-war years had its impact on Christmas. But as before, each family fashioned its own traditions. Perhaps it was saving in a Christmas Club or the arrival of packages from distant relatives. Shopping was at the overflowing stores in Bradford, Wells River or Woodsville. There was the Sears and Roebuck catalog and the Saturday Evening Post with its Rockwell Christmas cover. Putting up the Christmas tree with glass ornaments, icicles and hopelessly twisted strings of lights was part of the ritual. One might receive Tinker Toys, Scrabble or a Barbie. If good, Santa might bring a Radio Flyer wagon. For many adults there were parties. The religious significance of the holiday was observed. Radio and later television programs such as Father Knows Best or Leave It To Beaver told of Christmas practices beyond the scope of many local families.

In asking area residents of age to reflect on the changes to the Christmas season, the response is of one voice. They are disparaging of the commercialization, the lack of authenticity and appreciation of gifts given. They despair over their grandchildren’s extensive wish lists. They look back to simpler times, with memories often made misty by changing circumstances.

What is interesting is that such negative reactions to the changes in the celebration of Christmas have been with us for more than a century and a half. But then, just imagine the darkening days of winter without the holiday. We would, out of seasonal despair, create a similar festival. Remember, that despite the hassle, there is in the holiday, the traditional and heartfelt wishes for peace and good will toward others.

Influenza and Other Epidemics

Spanish influenza caused the deaths of 100 million people world-wide in a major pandemic in 1917-1920. This 1918 illustration from the St. Louis Globe Democrat depicts the horror.

This photograph of a nursery for well children of parents sick with Spanish influenza is the only known photograph of the impact of the epidemic in Vermont, The nursery was in the First Congregational Church in Burlington (photo: Vermont Historical Society).

This monument is for influenza victim Lee Parker who died at the Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Virginia in 1918. Parker was the son of Harry and Sara Parker, editors of the United Opinion and one of 11 from Bradford who died from the illness.

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.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

1848: Arrival of the Railroad

Steam locomotive pulls a single passenger car south out of the Bradford village station. It was not uncommon to have three trains each way daily (photo: Bradford Historical Society).
This 1853 double-decker bridge connected the Boston, Concord & Montreal line in Woodsville with the Connecticut and Passumpsic Wells River.
A Boston, Concord and Montreal steam locomotive.

The 38-mile track of the Montpelier and Wells River RR was constructed in 1873 (photo: Baldwin Memorial Library).
Copper ore mined in Corinth was hauled to Bradford to be shipped to manufacturing centers. This train is stopped between Bradford and Fairlee (photo: Bradford Historical Society).
 Railroad cut north of Newbury Village
  1896 Railroad Pass, Montpelier and Wells River Railroad
1914 postcard of Wells River Station



Originally published on October 8, 2008  republished Valley News, Feb. 21, 2015
Journal Opinion

In 1854, Henry David Thoreau wrote “the whistle of the locomotive penetrates my woods summer and winter.” By then, residents of our area were quite familiar with that sound. The railroad came six years earlier. The first train arrived at Bradford’s Calcutty location (Piermont Crossing) on October 11, 1848.

According to accounts of that day, the Connecticut and Passumpsic train was greeted by large crowds and a 28-gun salute, one for each of the 28 miles between White River Junction and Bradford. The anticipation had been great. Sixteen-year-old Julia Ann Davis of Bradford wrote “for months, little else had been thought or talked about.”

The line continued to be built, reaching Bradford village several days later. The company’s directors held their Third Annual Meeting in Bradford on October 31, 1848. Their report to the stockholders outlined plans for the line. By early November, the railroad was opened to Wells River, McIndoes in October, 1850 and St. Johnsbury a month later.

The Connecticut and Passumpsic Rivers Railroad Company was first chartered in 1835, rechartered in 1843 and organized in Wells River in 1846. The plan was to build from the junction of the White River to the Canadian border and a connection to Montreal. The first tracks were laid in Norwich in July, 1848. Officers included president Erastus Fairbanks of St. Johnsbury, vice president Asa Low of Bradford and directors Henry Keyes of Newbury and later Joseph Sawyer of Piermont.

It was the Low’s influence that led the railroad to build on the Vermont side of the Connecticut River. The decision to build on the New Hampshire side had been the subject of a large meeting at the Carlton Hotel in Orford, but the Vermont supporters won. For villages such as Bradford and Wells River, that made a tremendous difference in their futures. Equally significant was the decision to build the line on the flood plain at Bradford rather than through the village.

The second railroad to reach into the area was the Boston, Concord & Montreal. The line came up from Concord, through Plymouth and reached East Haverhill in the fall of 1852 and Woodsville in May, 1853. According to Katherine Blaisdell’s History of Haverhill, the route was one laid out fifty years earlier by John McDuffee of Bradford for the Coos Turnpike. Despite a battle over the extension of this line into Vermont, the BC&M connected with the Passumpsic at Wells River in May, 1853. This connection was made possible by building a double-decker bridge across the Connecticut; with rail traffic using the top level and highway traffic, the lower.

The White Mountains Railroad Company was chartered in1848, to take advantage of the lucrative mountain tourist trade. It opened a connection along the Ammonoosuc River between Wells River and Littleton on August 1, 1853. Progress beyond that connection was slow. Rail service did not reach Lancaster until 1870 and Groveton two years later.

In 1849, the Montpelier and Connecticut River Railroad Company was chartered to connect Newbury to the Vermont Central line at Montpelier. Frederic Wells’ History of Newbury mentions these plans included having the line cross the Connecticut at South Newbury and “pass up the valley of Hall’s brook, to South Ryegate.” As nothing came of this plan, the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad was chartered in 1867; work began in 1871 and the thirty-eight mile track was opened between the two communities in November, 1873.

This local growth of railroads mirrored the enthusiasm for railroads within the two-state area and throughout the nation. By the time the first construction in Vermont took place at Windsor in 1848, there were 8,000 miles of rail laid in the nation. At the beginning of the Civil War, there were 21,625 miles in the North and 9,001 in the South.

A recent visit to the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Georgia helped this writer to understand the significant role of rail in both Southern defense and Union victory. After the war’s end, railroad track mileage grew exponentially for the rest of the century: 1870-52,922; 1880-93,267; 1890-163, 597 and 1900-193,346.

The construction of these rail lines was not without controversy. As with the building of the interstate highway a century later, some towns competed to have access while others avoided it. In New Hampshire, Orford avoided, while West Fairlee and Topsham in Vermont wanted to be included. An initial proposal to link the two to the railroads never went beyond that stage. Rail locations increased nearby land values. The location of a depot could shift the economic center within a town.

One such controversy erupted in 1875 when the Connecticut & Passumpsic was petitioned to open a depot at the Piermont Crossing. The February 20, 1875 edition of the Bradford Opinion reported when the President of the company testified that in order to comply with the petition they would have to close the Bradford village depot, it “created quite a stir among the citizens of our village.”

As rail junctions, both Wells River and Woodsville became major railroad centers for the area. According to Blaisdell, Woodsville saw tremendous growth due to the railroad. In the 1880’s and 1890’s, “new office buildings, engine houses and enlarged freight yards were built. At the same time, Woodsville kept all available workmen busy building houses, schools, stores and streets for its ever-increasing population of railroad workers.” The number of passengers changing trains in Wells River led to the growth of that village as well.

Irish workers were brought in to build the railroads, often with just picks and shovels. Admiring their work, Julia Ann Davis wrote: “We have seen the Irishmen with their carts filled with rocks and dirt and have heard their blasting, working their way through places which seem wholly impassable to us. Many of the workmen have lost their lives.”
The Vermont Watchman & State Journal of May 11, 1848 included the notice that Daniel ODonald of Stanstead or vicinity was so badly hurt on the railroad in Bradford on Monday, that he died the next day.  He was only 14 years of age.  His body was carried by stage north for interment by his friends.  Apparently he was an inexperienced worker and sat between two carts of dirt and fell off leading to his death. 

Their work was essential, but their presence created controversy. Wells relates how a “horde of men, women and children of that nationality invaded the town, where their brogue and actions excited aversion and fear.”

Once the lines were complete, they provided employment in operations and maintenance for many of these new immigrants as well as established families. Until engines began using coal, thousands of cords of wood were cut from area forests to fuel the steam locomotives. This offered employment for lumbermen and farmers and contributed the deforesting of Vermont.

It was not unusual for the companies to have money worries. Unanticipated construction delays, storms ruined rail beds and periodic recessions caused business downturns, affecting profits and dividends for investors. Periodic uncertainly plagued all rail lines well into the 20th century.

There were also train wrecks. The Bradford Opinion of March 27, 1875 reported that the Boston to Montreal express train on the BC& M “was thrown from the track Saturday night just North of Pike’s station.” Spreading of the rails was the cause. In December, 1878, the express freight train from Boston, with two engines, went into the river near Wentworth, the accident caused by the trestle having been swept away. On April 17, 1884, the north-bound night train hit a large stone on the tracks at Fairlee Mountain and was completely wrecked. The New York Times reported that “the engineer and fireman were badly bruised, but none of the twenty passengers sustained serious injury.” The Times also reported an accident in Woodsville in July 1897, when a fright train was wrecked by a washout, resulting in the death of three men.

Two head-on collisions occurred in 1876 on the Montpelier end of the M & WR. Both were “caused by an error on the part of a 16-year old assistant switchtender.” No one was seriously hurt in either accident. Later that year, the railroad began using a new telegraph line to improve the operational safety. Since most of the tracks were single lines, it is amazing that there were not more such collisions. Wagons and animals that collided with locomotives usually lost.

As was true in the nation as a whole, area railroads had tremendous social, economic and political impacts. Displacing stage, wagon and river traffic, they greatly increased the ease and speed of travel and communication. With connecting lines, the area was opened to diverse markets at a fraction of the previous cost. Copper ore from the mines at Union Village was shipped from the Ely station. The July 22, 1876 Bradford Opinion reported that 15 cars loaded with ore from the Union mines of Corinth left Bradford.

Industries grew up along all the lines, often with their own sidings. There were special stock and poultry trains and cars that carried wool, lumber and manufactured goods from the area. Refrigerated cars for butter, cheese and later fluid milk as well as berries and vegetables used ice cut each winter from area lakes and ponds. The same trains returned with manufactured products from all over the world for local consumers.

Blaisell’s Over the River and Through the Years and Robert C. Jones two-volume Railroads of Vermont provide details on the economic impact of area railroads. In the former, it was reported that “in just one week in September, 1894, William Ricker shipped from Woodsville, 1000 sheep, 290 swine, 144 calves and 27 cattle.” Mail shipment was also a major part of the rail’s impact. Letters mailed in the morning often reached their destination on the same day.

Passengers enjoyed regular and special excursion trains to and from the area. Special events such as the World Fair in 1876 and Montpelier’s Admiral Dewey homecoming in 1899 required additional trains. Through much of the period and on any given day, one could select from up to four trains in each direction. In each town, station wagons met trains and provided local transportation for salesmen and tourists. Students often rode the train to attend school in neighboring villages or for athletic meets and class trips. Even circuses came by train. It was the way to travel.

The growth of the railroad network made life different and in many cases, better. Rural areas were connected to urban, section connected to section, creating a period of change not seen again until the coming of the interstate highway system. The impact of rail transportation was felt in marriage patterns, spread of disease, migration, influence in government, home heating, building techniques and employment. Even the concept of time changed with the adoption of “railroad time” to deal with the uncertainty of local clocks. In 1883, universal standard time became official.

T. D. Seymore Bassett describes the impact of the railroad in a 1981 article in Vermont History as: “the largest Vermont enterprise until well past 1900; reoriented everything it touched, and it touched everything.” He went on to write, that railroads “transformed the human outlook. Their dominance over society and politics as the century wore on became as complete in Vermont as over transportation.” The whistle and cannon shots that announced the coming of the railroad 160 years ago this month, echoed through the years with the changes wrought by the railroads of our area.

Hurricane of 1938

Many old orchards, such as this apple orchard, were ruined by the fierce winds of the Hurricane of 1938 (photo: Farm Security Administration).

Millions of board feet of lumber was processed from the "windthrow" in area forests. Lakes and ponds were used for emergency storage of the logs (photo: Farm Security Administration).

The trees in front of the North Haverhill Elementary School lay in splinters from the hurricane's winds (photo: Dr. Edwin Blaisdell).

A South Pleasant Street home in Bradford (top) narrowly escaped the kind of damage done to the Brock House on the Bradford-Newbury line (photos: Bradford Historical Society).

Trees lay like giant jackstraws across Bradford's Main Street on the morning following the Hurricane of 1938 (photos: Bradford Historical Society).

Originally printed on September 17, 2008
Journal Opinion

“A gust of wind picked me up, carried me two or three feet off the ground for 50 feet and set me down gently, unharmed”. That was Dr. Edwin Blaisdell’s experience with the “big blow,” the Hurricane of 1938. That childhood experience of 70 years ago is mild by comparison to that of other residents. The Eastern Seaboard Hurricane or the Great New England Hurricane of 1938, it was one of the most destructive storms to strike the area, caused major damage throughout the Northeast. Damage was especially high in coastal areas where winds reached 80-100 mph.

Six hundred and eighty Northeast residents lost their lives, 30,000 were injured and 93,000 were left homeless. Sixteen hundred homes and businesses were destroyed along with major loss of livestock, automobiles and boats. There was major damage to forests, fruit groves and crops, caused by both wind and soggy ground. In Vermont and neighboring New Hampshire, the damage was second only to the 1927 flood and, in fact, more widespread. Total damage from the storm was estimated at $600 million in 1939 dollars.

The storm hit with little advanced notice. Early predications had it well offshore, heading for the North Atlantic. Instead, the category 5 hurricane turned toward the northeast at 60 miles per hour and hit Long Island in the mid-afternoon of September 21st. Advancing with little warning, it entered Connecticut near New Haven, flooding major cities. Charging north along the Connecticut River, it then veered northwest across the Green Mountains with Burlington in its sights. While the full force of the storm was diminished by passing over land, the local area lay in the windy eastern danger zone. Damage was greater in the Connecticut River valley and on the adjacent mountains than on the western side of the state. Rainfall, added to the significant rainfall of the previous week, caused considerable flood damage. Some towns even suffered greater flood damage than they had in 1927.

A number of sources, including R. A. Scotti’s Sudden Sea, speculate on why the storm hit with so little notice, catching residents unprepared. The Northeast generally escapes direct hits by hurricanes. Not since the Great September Gale of 1815 had Vermont experienced such a storm. This particular storm moved very rapidly, and usual weather reporting sources “lost the storm.” This was caused in part because ships that normally report on a storm’s progress had been warned away. Therefore, radio stations and newspapers were unable to spread warnings to those areas that would be affected. An article by E. S. Clewes, written in 1939, suggested that news about the weather was ignored as reports concentrated on attempts to prevent the outbreak of another European war.

The September 23, 1938 edition of The United Opinion described the storm as it hit the area. “By five o’clock, the wind had attained a high velocity and whole trees, to say nothing of branches, began to obstruct the main streets and put a stop to traffic. Power lines were taken down by the falling trees and light and power were completely gone when an early darkness set in. Darkness, rain and hurricane winds of cyclonic intensity prevailed until 9 o’clock when the winds abated. To add to the fear and discomfort, the moan and whine of the hurricane frayed already overtaxed nerves. Roofs were ripped off and tossed aside like kindling wood and hard old maples were uprooted like field flowers.”

Each town had its examples of significant damage. Area reporters at the time, and later town histories, chronicled the storm’s victims. Churches and other buildings throughout Haverhill and Newbury suffered damage. The grove near the Grafton County Farm known as Thousand Pines was gone. Flooding damaged crops in the riverside meadows. Roofs disappeared. In Bradford, the main street was completely blocked by fallen trees (see photo) and damage to buildings was significant.

In Fairlee, on the road around Lake Morey, trees were “crossed and crisscrossed like giant jackstraws, with considerable damage to lake cottages.” The high tension wires that run through Fairlee "were crumpled and twisted incomplete wreckage." In East Thetford, Huntington Dance Pavilion was just one of the buildings destroyed. The local paper reported :"Huntington's dance hall was litterally made into k indling wood and strewn across the railroad track and highway".
West Topsham’s general store had its roof blown away. The Woodsville Times reported that the main street of Wells River “looked like an upside down forest.” In many communities, schools were closed for up to two weeks. There were similar reports from all the surrounding towns, with more than 100 buildings receiving significant damage. In Orford a tree crashed on a car driven by a Mr. Evans of Wentworth, N. H., killing him and injuring the other occupant.

The storm and the resulting damage are clearly etched in the memories of older area residents. My late father-in-law, Harry Martin, recalled the damage to his father’s farm on the Bradford-Newbury line. He said that “he looked up and the barn roof was gone, hay uncovered”. Damage to the horse barn dumped hay on the animals below, resulting in the death of three work horses. The adjacent Brock house was left in “shambles” as the roof was blown away and set down in the owner’s garden (see photo). Papers from the attic of that home were found strewn over neighboring fields the following spring.

Peggy Pierson, eight years old at the time, recalls trees in her grandfather’s woods were “broken off like matchsticks.” Her husband, John, said his family had to reinforce the front door of their home with a 2x4 in order to keep it from blowing open. Elisabeth MacDonald of Topsham said the sky turned yellow and the wind was “frightening.” Her family’s apple orchard and sugar bush were ruined. As many fences were down, neighbors’ cows wander, but her father kept his herd in the barn. Newton Bolles of Fairlee, tells of a 3-story barn filled with hay and cattle at his home place in East Barre, lifted 14 feet off its foundation with little damage.

If there was anything to be thankful for, it was that the damage was less than that experienced in areas south. One local newspaper reporter wrote “It was a terrible night for everyone. When morning came, to see trees uprooted all around us was a sight we never shall forget. We are all so thankful that no one was hurt in our little village.” Not all towns were so lucky, with Vermont reporting seven storm-related deaths. The late John Smith of South Newbury suggested that his father’s fatal heart attack was caused by the enormous damage to his woodlands.

The residents immediately set about clearing the roads, repairing damaged buildings and restoring power and communication. Dartmouth Outing Club recruited 1000 students to help with clearing roads. In Lyme, as in other towns, it was reported that the supply of window glass was used up. Two thousand telephone workers were sent to the Northeast from around the nation to help with the repairs. Service was gradually restored to the hard hit railroads. The local reporter for the River Road in Piermont commented in October that “time took the bad taste of September away.”

But many orchards and sugar bushes would never be restored. Damage to woodlands was either permanent or took decades to recover. There was “a windthrow” of billions of board feet of lumber, some splintered beyond use by the force of the storm. In the largest timber salvage project in history, more than half of the damaged trees were harvested from private, state and federal lands. Hundreds of men were hired by the Works Progress Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and Forest Service to work in the woods, moving downed trees and reducing fire dangers. Most of that work was done with hand tools and teams of horses. A plan was created to provide for the storage of lumber instead of saturating the market or leaving it to insect attack, disease or rot. To preserve them, softwood logs were stored in many “wet-sites” including Post Pond, Muddle Turtle Pond, French Pond, Woods Pond and Lake Tarleton.

Throughout the area, salvage saw mills were opened to handle the lumber, reviving the depressed forest industry. Lewis Woods, who was in charge of a large mill in Piermont, is quoted in that town’s history: ”The Gould Field site produced the largest amount in New England of any dry site … a bit over six million feet. In a radius of 10 miles of Piermont, approximately 25 million feet of salvage timber was sawn into lumber by the operation of seven saw mills.” The Northeastern Timber Salvage Administration operated mills in West Newbury and on Roaring Brook in Bradford. Haskin’s History of Bradford states that the project “revived temporarily the faltering sawmill operations in this area.” Saw mills in Lyme turned out millions of board feet of lumber from the water-soaked logs. One logger was quoted in Lyme’s Patterns and Pieces, saying it was “like cutting wet towels.”

Additionally, those area mills producing wood products were in full operation. Bowen-Hunter’s bobbin mill in East Corinth was reported as “running at full capacity” with an increased workforce as was a shingle mill and veneer mill in Bradford. Lumber was used to repair or rebuild buildings and produce wood products. Some was requisitioned for the war effort during World War II.

Another aspect of the forest recovery was the prevention of forest fires. Esther Eastman, who now lives in Newbury, worked for the WPA as secretary to Ed DeGraff. He was in charge of the Forest Service’s fire hazard section for Vermont. She recalls working on the damage maps and noticing that Newbury had suffered the most forest destruction of any town in Orange County. Roads were constructed and firebreaks created. Lookouts, including one on Wright’s Mountain, watched for forest fires. Eastman says while she could recall no major fires, an outbreak would have created fires similar to those experienced recently by California. Blaisdell says his father worked for the Forest Service in New Hampshire and recalls that several mountains burned, the flames fueled by the “slash and blowdown.”

All of this additional work came near the end of the Great Depression with its high unemployment. When viewing the damage left by the storm, one area lumberman was reported to have said: “FDR’s been trying to create work for five years and God Almighty has created all the work we need in half an hour!”

The Hurricane of 1938 was a 100-year storm for our area. That means that in any year there is a one percent chance of a repeat. In a 1965 article on the storm, Harold Haskins wrote “in the West Indies, the natives call it ‘huracan’-the evil spirit.” From this hurricane and others since, we have learned the meaning of a hurricane, its dangers and consequences. We know that weather reporting services will make us aware of pending storms early. We have learned how to prepare for one from recent hurricane disasters on the Gulf coast. However, as the editor of The United Opinion wrote that on September 21, 1938, “Mother Nature has again demonstrated her supremacy over human beings.” In the ensuing years, we have done little to mitigate that supremacy or conquer that evil spirit.
Hurricane Damage on Main Street, Fairlee, VT (Courtesy Robert OLeary)