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Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Plain Talkin'

What the Old Timers Said. Vermonters, such as the ones shown above, frequently used a visit to the local general store to swap stories and discuss the weather. But not too much.

Plain Talkin' in West Newbury. "Oxen were better for breakin' out then horses." This is how Arthur Carleton responded to an interview in 1938. This 1899 photograph shows oxen being used on the Carleton Farm in West Newbury. (West Newbury Women's Fellowship)

Journal Opinion , September 28, 2011

The old Vermonter said, “Oxen was better for breakin’ out then horses for when they’d come to a snag on a stump or a root, they’d ease off. Horses are better for snowrollin.’ Made quite a sight, six-seven pair horses, heavy fellers, too, big rollers squinchin’ over the snow and the rocks tumblin’ and thumpin,’ steam comin’ out o’ the horses’ noses, an’ men a shoutin.”

No, this is not a script for a television parody on rural Vermont life. These comments are taken from a 1938 interview with West Newbury farmer Arthur Carleton for the Federal Writers’ Project. Carleton spoke with the traditional Vermont accent and dialect. This column describes that dialect and how those words are spoken. It also lists some of the words and expressions that were common to this region in years past. As there is a whole raft of them, with tongue in cheek, I only scratch the surface of that task.

The Europeans who settled southern New England were British: English, Scottish and Scot-Irish. Many of the English came from southwestern England and spoke with the accent of that region. Settlers from southern New England settled our region and brought with them the traditional way of speaking. It has been said that the traditional Vermont way of speaking is quite similar to the traditional dialect of East Anglia, on the southeast coast of England. In Vermont, that dialect continued through much of the 19th and early 20th century, especially among those who were most isolated by their rural settings.

Contact with Native Americans and through the unique experiences of Vermont life brought some changes to the traditional vocabulary. Names on the land included traditional native titles, e.g. Ompompanoosuc or Cohase. A farmer in Vermont knew that “apron-off” was the test to determine whether maple sap was cooked enough to be finished syrup and a late snow was poor man’s manure.

Linguists such as Alan A. Metcalf say that Vermont has a “divided linguistic personality.” The Connecticut River valley shares the speech patterns of eastern New England, whereas western Vermont is more like that of western Connecticut and northern New York.

Some examples of the eastern rustic dialect include letter dropping. That means not sounding the “g” from words ending in “ing” (hayin’), swallowing the “r” in words such as farmer (farm-uh) and the “t” sound in words such as bottle (baht-ul).

It also includes adding extra sounds, dragging out or substituting sounds. Calf sounds like “caaf”and idea like “ideer.” Regardless become irregardless. Words that are plural sometimes have an extra “s” sound added. Recall the Ames’s store in North Haverhill. Yes and no are “yup” and “nope. Pumpkin is spoken as “punkin.” Across is pronounced as if it ended with an “ed” or “t” .

This traditional accent has been described by writers from away as droll, twangy, gravelly, flat, slow, clipped, nasal, chewy and even as thick as, “overcooked maple syrup.”

Of course, not all Vermonters spoke this way. Those Vermonters with more education usually lost most, if not all, of any dialect lilt they might have gained in childhood. Immigrants had their own way of speaking, even when speaking in English. The French, Irish and Italian immigrants added their variations to the collective language.

Our region had a strong Scottish presence. Mrs. Robert (Elizabeth) Oliver of West Newbury was interviewed in 1938 by the Federal Writers’ Project. Of Scottish descent, she said: “Aye, I’ve the twa boys and four gels. Ooh, the times we’ve had. I come awa’ t’ this country twenty-eight years past. We furrst wint t’ Michigan where Rabert he’d some o’ his family t’come too. I dinnd like it there. It wasna’ like home t’ me.”

The linguistic division caused by the Green Mountains was also seen in the words used to describe things. Teeter-totters in eastern Vermont were sometimes called see-saws in the western region, fire-flies were lightening bugs, dropped eggs were poached and dish wipers became dishcloths.

The rise of standard English as spoken on radio, television and schools along with the significant influx of tourists and permanent residents from other states have hastened the decline of the more rustic accent. Under the influence of this nationalized language, words that were commonly used have disappeared while new ones were added. For years, I made frappes at the Fairlee Diner, until McDonald’s began to call those ice cream delights shakes. At that time, we had no idea what Tex-Mex foods like enchiladas or burritos were.

UVM Professor Julie Roberts has published several studies on Vermont’s traditional speech patterns. She finds it still exists, at least to some extent, among both older and younger generations of Vermonters.

She writes: “All speakers use language as a way to affiliate with (or dis-affiliate from) others. In Vermont, men tend to be more likely than women to affiliate with the traditional, agrarian lifestyle of Vermont, and are, therefore, more likely to retain a stronger dialect.”

Two generations of my students included in their conversations one of the most common grammatical mistakes in the Vermont vocabulary. It is the substitution of “didn’t” for “did, as in: “I went to the movies last night. Well, so didn’t I.” I hear the speech patterns in stores, meetings and when a group of traditional Vermonters gather in their dooryard to chew the fat.

Nothing in this column should be construed to say that I think rural speakers are dumb. I grew up around men with very strong local accents. Woe be it to the person who took that as a sign of ignorance. I recently spoke to Joe Sampson of Bradford about the dialect he picked up from childhood contacts. Sampson is proud of that accent. He says it has served him well in dealing with others, who, because of that accent, underestimated his ability to uphold his side of a discussion.

Just as speech patterns have changed in our region, words and expressions have also undergone change. Bradford historian Harold Haskins, author Charles Edward Crane and Burlington Free Press writer Molly Walsh offer many examples of words and expressions used in times past. Many of them have been part of the vocabulary of my growing up.

Things around the house were called tumbler (water glass), spider (frying pan), nappy (small serving dish), all of which might be stored in the buttery or pantry. If ma had enough gumption (pep) after a day of hard work galore, she might stodge up a suppa. The youngin’ might wait out on the stoop (steps). The folks never thought to splurge by going to a hifalutin’ vittlery, that would be “livin’ high on the hog.” “Thingamajig” was what you called an item when the proper name eluded you. .

Events of life were described in terms that have disappeared. A guy might have a girl on the string and might call her the cat’s meow, that is, quite a rig. But if she was no longer interested, she would give him the mitten. From his point of view, that might be just hunky dorey, water over the dam. A person who died had bought the farm and was dead as a doornail.

Vermonters were careful with their hard-earned money; it was scarcer than hen’s teeth for many. But they might criticize a skinflint (miserly cheat) who was tighter than the bark on a tree. There was little patience for laziness or failure to act with intelligence. One might be described as a bump on a log, too dumb to suck alum and drool or pound sand in a rat hole. There was also contempt for the educated fool.

Individuals might be busier than a one-armed paper-hanger with the itch, independent as a hog on ice, or have a face that would stop a clock. They might be mad as a wet hen, fit as a fiddle, as quick as greased lightning or slower than molasses. There were those who felt bluer’n a whetstone or stood out like a blackberry in a pan of milk. Things might be just a fine kettle of fish or perhaps even fair to middlin’.

There are words frequently used today that would never be used in days past, at least in polite company. What passed for profanity in those days might be expressed by any of the following: land o’Goshen, for the love of Mike, land sakes alive, my stars and garters, shucks, my soul and body, fiddlesticks, jeezum crow or the more profane hell’s bells.

They knew proverbs of vernacular advice. Living close to the edge, many Vermont farmers recalled the adage: Half your wood and hay you should have on Candlemas Day” (Groundhog Day). Others included: least said, sooner mended, mind your p’s and q’s and let every man skin his own skunks.

With “Silent Cal” Coolidge as an example, Vermonters became known for being laconic in their speech. The expressions are, in a way, examples of that. They create a familiar picture in the mind with a simple simile or metaphor. While some may not be much of a hand to talk, I have spent too many sleepy evenings waiting for my Vermont-born father to finish discussing a deal to say that all Vermonters are short on speech. I have, over the years, enjoyed stories told by my elders, often in the greatest detail, even if the incident occurred decades before.

I always encouraged my students to talk with the elders they knew. I will never forget the terse response that one elder East Corinth resident gave to the student question: “Did you ever go to a city?” The reply was: “Went once. Didn’t like it. Never went back!”

Even for those who are short on speech, the weather is always a topic for discussion. There is of course, the old saying about weather in New England: “If you don’t like it wait a minute.” Rain before seven, done by eleven or fog goes up the mountin’ a-hopping, rain comes down a droppin’ might be a guide to a farmer planning his day. Seasons bring days that are hotter than the hubs of hell or colda than your grandma’s preserves.

Writing this column as summer draws to a close, I am thinking there might be frost on the pumpin’ tonight. I should look to see what the bands on a wooley caterpillar coat are as a predictor of the harshness of the coming winter and know that when there’s snow on Moosilauke, it will be in my dooryard in six weeks.

Tradition has shown that many Vermonters display a terse sense of humor, “that loves understatement.” It lives in the dry comment or retort. Forty years ago, Dartmouth professor Allen Foley collected some examples of that humor in a book entitled, What the Old-Timer Said (to the Feller from Down-Country and even to His Neighbor—when He Had It Coming!)

Foley was a frequent speaker at gathering throughout the valley. You may actually have had the opportunity to use one of his favorite retorts when asked: “Lived here all your life?” to which you respond, “Not yet!”

Foley writes: “Yankees from the hill-country are noted for responding to questions by asking one of their own, as epitomized in the exchange: “How’s your wife?” a neighbor inquired. “Compared to what?” was the canny counter query.”

Personally, my ear is tuned to hear the words spoken with a traditional way either in myself or others. I have been addressed as Mr. Mawdratah and have addressed others as Mister Man or Lady Jane. While I may not know what it means to be a ringed-tailed snorter or to bust a gusset, I do know what it means to feel like I have been dragged through a knothole, have too many irons in the fire or be pulled in forty-‘leven different directions.

Readers will undoubtedly have examples of the local dialect, accent and humor from both sides of the river. Those parts of our language help to define our traditional culture in a voice that is different and to many, more familiar. Hearing that voice brings back memories of local folks we have known in our past, in both rural and village settings. And while this article has not listed the whole kit and kaboodle, for now, its nuff said!

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

More Mining Mania

The buildings of Copperfield village in Vershire surround the Ely Copper Mines in the 1888 photograph (UVM Special Collections)

The Crushing and Flotation Mill at the Elizabeth Copper Mine
in South Strafford around 1907. (UVM Special Collections)

Granite workers are shown in one of the stonesheds of the Ryegate Granite

Works (1880's). About this time the workers began to organize a local

labor union. (UVM Special Collections)

The Concentration Mill at the Pike Hill Copper Mine in Corinth.

(UVM Special Collections)

Workers at the Pike Hill Mine were housed, along with their families, in these

shanties near the mine. (UVM Spcial Collections)

Some of the businessmen and workers gather at the site of the Fairlee

Granite Works on the north slope of Sawyer Mountain. The company was founded in 1893 and went out of business after 1895. (Fairlee Historical Society)

As published in the Journal Opinion, August 31, 2011

In May, this column was devoted to the mining and quarrying activities of the western portion of Grafton County. It described activities ranging from the quarrying of soapstone in Orford and whetstone in Haverhill to the gold fields of Lyman. It included the history of successes and failures, valued commercial enterprises, cruel financial hoax and crushed dreams. You can find that article by going to "Mining Mania in Grafton West."

This column describes similar activities in adjoining sections of Vermont. It includes the lead, slate and gold mining ventures of the region, as well as the granite and copper enterprises in Orange and Caledonia counties. Those interested in more complete details are directed to Katharine Blaisdell’s Over the River and Through the Years, Book Four and Collamer Abbot’s Green Mountain Copper.

In 1848, the Boston Mercantile Journal ran an article entitled “Discovery of a Lead Mine in Vermont.” It reported that, “a truck load of bar lead” had arrived in Boston from Thetford, attracting “considerable attention.” The article described the mining operation, saying that the lead “appeared to be inexhaustible” and that two men could produce a ton of lead in a 12-hour day. It concluded by stating the belief that this shipment from Thetford was, “the first lot of New England lead ever brought to market.”

According to Thetford historian Charles Hughes, this mining enterprise was started as early as 1812 with the establishment of the Orange Mineral Company. The mine was located northeast of Thetford Hill.

An 1824 description stated: “The ore is rich, yielding 75 per cent of pure lead, but the vein is small, and has been pursued to the depth of 23 feet.” Small quantities of silver were also being taken.

The State approved the establishment of the Vermont Lead Company in 1849, but by 1861, the Vermont State Geologist indicated that the one hundred foot shaft and adjoining buildings were abandoned. In 1872, his report spoke of the, “ill success of the Thetford hill mine … taken tribute from men expecting riches from mining should prevent any further rash expenditures in this section.”

There was also an early soapstone quarry in East Thetford, “worked before 1855.” In 1845, the State Geologist described, “an irregular bed of soapstone about eight feet thick which has been quarried.” Hughes writes: “Since this quarry was soon abandoned, it does not appear to have been a profitable enterprise.”

Just north of North Thetford was the quarry of the Howard Slate Company. Incorporated in 1855, this company produced “remarkably tough roofing” for a number of local buildings. Hughes writes that in 1857, the company, “employed four men full time at a weekly wage of $35.75.” An 1862 report on the geology of Vermont states: “No quarry in the State is more favorably situated than this [for] an unbroken face of slate stands boldly up, as if inviting capitalists to unlock this storehouse of hidden wealth.” Apparently the company began to have difficulties by 1866 and there is no mention of the quarry in the 1888 county gazetteer.

Mineral operations in nearby Fairlee were of limited success. In 1857, the Fairlee Slate Company was incorporated. Its quarry was located northeast of Lake Morey, on the land of Amos Waterman. The quality of the slate was reported to be, “unobjectionable, and the quantity inexhaustible.” But as the quarrying required the removal of overlying rock from a relatively inaccessible location, the company soon failed.

Nearby, at the north end of the lake, there was a gold and silver mine on the property of Mrs. S.A. Davis. The United Opinion of May 28, 1897 reported that Professor N. A. Bibikov had “been engaged by St. Johnsbury parties to examine properties in that vicinity.” The 1902, the State Geologist reported, “gold in the value of $9 per ton and silver $30” were found there. It was reported in 1914 that a small quantity of gold had been taken from the mine, but apparently it cost more to get it than it was worth.

The north slope of Fairlee’s Sawyer Mountain was the site of another unsuccessful quarrying attempt. In 1893, a group of local businessmen incorporated the Fairlee Granite Works. Blaisdell quotes a local newspaper from that year: “The Fairlee Granite Works now have a good carriage road to their quarry and are rapidly getting into shape to do a large business. Dealers throughout the country are speaking highly of the quality of the stone.”

The United Opinion editor Harry Parker wrote, “As Bradford’s future growth and prosperity depends upon the success of this enterprise, all public spirited citizens should be willing to lend it aid and assistance. We believe it will prove a profitable investment for the stockholders.”

An article in the August 16, 1895 edition quoted a quarryman: “I never put my foot in a quarry where stone can be quarried for as small an amount of money as it can be there.” It might be noted that Parker was the president of the company.

This optimism was not to last. The quarry produced unusual dark blue granite, but as it was of inferior quality and quantity, the company closed after 1895. The granite water box that, for many years, faced the center of Bradford village, bears “Fairlee” in raised letters on it, an advertisement for the ill-fated company.

Granite was also quarried in Topsham for a short time. There were two small quarries, one south of the Ryegate line and one at the western foot of Pine Mountain, in the northeastern corner of the town. This latter quarry was owned by Isaac Ricker of Groton. The quarried stone was hauled to the railroad depot in Groton. The State Geologist reported that the Pine Mountain Granite Company quarry, “is being vigorously worked,” and had been for several years. He reported that the stone was of good quality and of varied color and grain. But, by 1909, the quarry “had been idle for a number of years.”

The Ricker quarry was at the south end of a deposit of granite that extended into Groton and Ryegate. Quarrying of that granite had a profound impact on the economic and social history of those two towns.

Mister Glover’s Groton describes the history of that town’s granite industry. The first quarry was opened on the Hatch farm in the southern part of town during the early 1890’s, the beginning of, “what was to become Groton’s dominant but short-lived industry.” Its potential attracted considerable attention, but an 1899 article in Granite, the industry magazine, indicated that its future depended on the influx of a considerable amount of new capital.

“Three principal quarries supplied the stone, much of it comparable in quality to Barre granite, and used extensively in monumental work for cemeteries. The decline of the industry was hastened, however, by the discovery that much of the stock quarried was unfit and had to be discarded.” By World War II, the quarries had closed, although several stonesheds continued to operate.

As early as the 1790’s, granite was quarried at Ryegate’s Blue Mountain for both local construction and export. Around 1800, a proposal to build the state prison in Ryegate included having inmates work in the quarries. Local opposition caused the prison to be built in Windsor.

In the period after the Civil War, the demand for monuments and gravestones and the building of the Montpelier and Wells River Railroad in 1873 increased the market for local granite and eased its delivery.

The May 14, 1897 edition of The United Opinon mentioned the Ryegate Granite Works shipped a large monument to Philadelphia and the company had, “quite a gang of men at work on the mountain and considerable granite is being taken out every day and brought to the sheds.” This “gang of men” may have numbered over 300 in the quarries and stonesheds. Many of them were Italian immigrants who added their talents as skilled stonecutters to the original Scottish workers.

Those workers organized a branch of the Granite Cutters’ National Union in 1885. The company resisted by threatening to blacklist members. It resulted in a series of court battles and community upheavals, but eventually the company recognized the organization.

A 1906 report indicated that Ryegate granite was, “growing in favor each year.” The 1913 History of Ryegate reported: “For the past few years about two carloads of finished granite are being shipped from South Ryegate each working day valued at about $10,000 per month.” Subsequent years brought a decline in the operations. The high processing cost of stone that did not have the quality of neighboring Barre and the Great Depression caused the failure of several of the remaining quarries. According to Ryegate historian Dwight White,
the last quarry closed in the early 1990s.

Gandin Brothers is the only stoneshed remaining in Ryegate. Its president, “Butch” Gandin indicates the company remains in business, despite foreign and domestic competition, by creating a nitch in the monument industry. Using granite from Asia, Africa and North America, the company manufactures monuments that match earlier ones.

The most significant mining operation in Orange County was of copper which was discovered there as early as 1793. In 1817, President James Monroe visited Strafford. His visit highlighted the national importance of copper mining in Orange County. Copperas, a chemical used in dyes and other industrial and agricultural uses, was the first product of the mines. By the 1830s, smelting furnaces had been erected and copper was produced, continuing despite ups and downs through the 1870’s.

The Elizabeth Copper Company was formed in 1883 and, over the next few years, extensive improvements were made. Falling copper prices and a major fire caused the mine to be closed from time to time. During World War I and II, the demand for copper led to increased production and employment. In an ad in the August 6, 1943 edition of The United Opinion, the company sought 100 additional workers, offering $48.43 for a 63 hour week. Workers would be supplied with a room for $1 per week and meals for fifty cents each. It also offered a new health insurance policy as a bonus.

Several attempts were made in the postwar years to revitalize the Elizabeth mine and in 1954-55, it was producing over 8 million pounds per year with over 200 workers. Its closure in 1958 brought an end to the longest operating copper mine in the nation.

Copper was also discovered in the southeastern corner of Vershire about 1812. The coming of the Connecticut and Passumpsic River Railroad allowed ore to be more easily transported out of the region. In 1853, the Vermont Copper Mining Company was formed by New York investors. By the 1870’s the operation had become a “boom copper camp” of Irish and Cornish miners. The town of Vershire was officially renamed Ely after Smith Ely, principle owner of the mine.

The Copperfield village included a giant smelting shed, roasting beds, a large store that contained a library, offices and meeting hall, two churches, sawmill, gristmill, school and over 50 dwellings. At the peak of production, the village had close to 1000 inhabitants, with over 800 workers. In 1880, the mine produced 3.5 million pounds of copper.

From its very beginning these copper enterprises were at the mercy of market conditions. A decline in the economy meant a decline in copper prices. When new sources of copper opened in the west, Orange County was no longer the nation’s leading copper producer. Additionally, the Ely mine was plagued by legal and management issues. Even when copper prices soared during the Civil War, the company was nearly bankrupt. While the 1870’s saw good times for the company, by 1882, it was again deeply in debt and unable to pay its workers.

In July 1883, the situation led to the so-called “Ely War.” Faced with worker unrest, the company’s acting president, ex-governor Roswell Farnham of Bradford asked Governor Barstow to bring in the state militia. The first to arrive was the Bradford Guard. The arriving guards found no riotous armed mob, but rather workers desperate for wages and supplies. After sharing their rations, the guardsmen marched back to the railroad. Despite attempts to revitalize the mines, they closed and in 1905, Copperfield was dismantled.

At the other end of the copper vein were two mines at Pike Hill in Corinth. The work began there about 1847 and was continued by the Corinth Copper Company and other firms. Roswell Farnham described the operation: “Those were days of prosperity for the Corinth and Union mines and their success gave life to all the business of the town.” Ore from the mines was transported to the depot at Bradford.

Farnham concluded, “Everyone made money except the companies that owned the mines.” As with the other mines, the Pike Hill operations were at the mercy of the market and closed and reopened several times, closing for good after WW I.

Neither Bradford nor Newbury had any mining or quarrying activities. About Newbury, historian Frederick Wells wrote in 1902: “Its hills have not yielded any mines of useful ore or precious metals. There are no quarries here to furnish the stone for the walls, or rich marbles for the costly adornment of great edifices in the cities.” Businessmen from both towns did, like Editor Harry Parker and Governor Roswell Farnham, invest their money and serve as officers in a number of these enterprises. The Bradford Savings Bank and Trust Company failure in 1898 was caused, in part, by its investments in the Ely copper mines.

All that remains of these mining and quarrying operations, other than several stone crushing sites, are abandoned flooded quarries, overgrown mines and piles of slag. Pollution from the abandoned copper mines has led to them being designated as Superfund sites by the EPA. Cleanup has already cost millions of dollars. Neighborhoods that once thrived are reduced or abandoned.

I close part two with the same sentiment as in part one, for it is no less true in Vermont: “That is not to say that the hills that hosted these mines and quarries no longer have treasures to offer. Abandoned mining roads have become hiking trails. Mountain sides offer sites for recreation and forestry operations. Seasons are heralded by their changing colors. And for those of us who have grown up in their shadows, they provide the reassurance of having a horizon against which you can rest your eyes.”