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Friday, December 22, 2017

Cooking Up A Christmas Storm

PITIFUL HOLIDAY PICKINGS,  Depression-era photographer Russell Lee captured these rural
children eating their Christmas dinner of potato and cabbage. Although not a local family, this scene reflects the plight of many families during the Great Depression. Fortunately, local food shelves help to ease the burden of food scarcity suffered by local families.  Support your local food shelf at holiday time and throughout the year.    (Library of Congress) 

ENOUGH IS BETTER. For many families having a Christmas dinner with family and friends is central to the celebration. When dishes reflect tradition, planning the menu is easy.  Not having to deal with wartimes scarcities and empty chairs is even better.  See additional illustration below.

Journal Opinion  Dec. 20, 2018

“There were plenty of good things left….such as tend to make up a good Christmas dinner, which goes far to show that the barren hills of Vermont will produce food, with a little fixing, to be agreeable to the eye and pleasant to the taste.”  Vermont Farmer, Jan. 23, 1874

By the time you read this column, your Christmas dinner may already be prepared or perhaps it is over with even the leftovers finished. But with some of the holiday season still before us, this column offers you an opportunity to compare your festive experience with those of others who experienced Christmas dinners from colonial days to the 1950s.

Each family, past or present, creates Christmas experiences for itself. Factors such as age, economic status, ethnic heritage and family traditions and even national and world events have an impact on those experiences.

No column limited by the space available here can hope to capture all of the variations found in the assortments that are our nation’s people. Please be tolerant if it does not speak to your family’s traditions. At the same time, celebrate and cherish those traditions and pass them on to younger members of your family and community.     

The Puritans and many of their descendants who settled in our area were opposed to Christmas celebrations. Their objection was based on its connection with paganism and the Roman Catholic Church as well as the unruly manner in which the season was celebrated in Europe. No mince pies, Christmas puddings, holiday ales or goose for them. For settlers, such as those in Ryegate and Corinth, Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day were more festive.

The Pilgrim Church and Church of England descendants were more likely to observe Christmas, holding services and encouraging seasonal charity. Many religious leaders, however, continued to object to the excesses of the carnival-like celebrations that were often typical of the season in many communities around the nation. 

Until the 1820’s, Christmas celebrations were largely public rather than family-oriented. As this began to change, festive foods unique to the season and served within the home became more important. Local markets catered to the holiday demand with traditional foods that helped to make the season special.  By the 1850s Vermont newspapers were carrying references to sweetmeats, eggnog, plum pudding, turkey, and oysters for the family holiday menu.   

 Christmas in wartime is especially difficult. For those in the armed services, Christmas meant being away from home. For the bedraggled troops at Valley Forge in 1777, Christmas dinner was cooked over a campfire and was likely a gruel made from whatever the men could scavenge from the nearby farms and forests.

By the Civil War, the foods of Christmas were well-established in the minds of New Hampshire and Vermont soldiers. Writing from their winter encampments, soldiers celebrated as they could while lamenting their distance from the family holiday table.

Local newspapers reported that for Christmas in 1862, President Lincoln ordered “a great quantity of poultry” for the soldiers in Washington D. C. hospitals. The following year, the Ladies Relief Society of Bradford raised funds for a similar Christmas dinner. The U. S. Sanitary Commission provided Christmas dinner for wounded soldiers from both states.

Also in 1862, it was reported that some members of the 12th Vermont Regiment, stationed in Fairfax, VA, escaped hardtack and salt pork and enjoyed a rich meal of oyster soup, potatoes, good Vermont butter and boiled pork. The meal was topped off with nuts and raisins and “a cocoa-nut cake from home.”

It was a rare respite from grueling conditions.  One soldier wrote “Now that is not such bad living for poor soldiers, is it? Sitting down to a table and eating like civilized men.”

One Union veteran recalled that, during the war, he and two of his fellow soldiers were held prisoner in a Confederate prison. For a time, prior to Christmas, the three managed to save a small portion of their daily rations of three tablespoons of cow peas and a pint of corn meal, so that on Christmas day their meager meal “took on the appearance of a feast.”

In the years following the end of the war, Christmas became even more important commercially.  Vermont newspapers such as the Vermont Watchman and the Bradford Opinion published lists of holiday goods offered by local merchants.  Foods offered included Christmas goose and turkey, canned  and fresh fruits. Since merchants were more specialized in those days, a shopper had to visit several to get the items needed.

In 1876, the Bradford newspaper featured a front-page article entitled “The Christmas Dinner.”  In addition to the items listed above, the menu included oyster soup as well as mince and pumpkin pies and Christmas tarts. 

Published at that time, Jennie June’s American Cookery Book offered an elaborate Christmas dinner menu including mock turtle soup, turkey with necklace of sausage, cranberry sauce, oyster fritters and desserts of plum pudding and tipsy cake followed by fruit and nuts.

Vermont newspaper menus of the 1880’s added other dishes with the note: “Christmas dinner is hardly complete and satisfying unless a roast turkey, in its mammoth properties occupies a conspicuous position on the table.” It also mentioned the folly in “a gorging of dyspeptic sweets and unwholesome food.”

Many of the period cook books and newspaper articles on Christmas food reflect the good fortune of those in the middle and upper classes. The wealthier the family, the more likely the quality and quantity of the foods would be more substantial.

Christmas was always less festive for the poor and homeless.  Newspapers carried stories of the plight of the less fortunate.

 In 1871, the Bradford newspaper included the story of one family whose festive meal consisted of a     5-cent loaf of bread. Another story described a family meal of corn beef, a little box of figs, boiled cabbage and coffee.

During the period after the Civil War, church and civic groups as well as some businesses provided dinner for the indigent. Baskets of food were also distributed by religious groups such as the Methodist churches and Salvation Army. Veteran groups provided meals for the neediest from their ranks. 

The demand for charity was especially great during periods of economic depression. During the panics of 1873, 1893 and 1907, Christmas was, for many people, “just one more day on which to struggle to put food on the table.”

In 1877, the Vermont Board of Agriculture was promoting the raising of geese for the Christmas trade. Still, by the end of the century, Vermont turkeys were becoming nationally known and, according to the Vermont Board, were “prolific.” 

Christmas cookies, candies and cakes were made for home or as gifts. As in the past, some Christmas foods had to be planned or even made days or months in advance. Christmas fruit cakes and plum puddings were best when aged. Rural cooks might make fruit pies in the late fall and store them to freeze in cold attics until the holidays arrived.

The first decade of the following century experienced periods of inflated food prices. In 1908, it was reported that the price of Christmas foods had doubled over the previous five years. Food purchased at local stores and eateries reflected the increases. At the St. Johnsbury House, Christmas dinner was advertised at 50 cents per person in 1908 and 75 cents two years later.

During World War I, the members of the American Expeditionary Force stationed in France  were promised a traditional Christmas meal. In 1917, the ships carrying cranberries and turkey were delayed by threats of German submarines causing the Paris turkey market to be completely depleted. Many of the soldiers stationed in England were treated to a traditional English dinner of beef and plum pudding. 

On the home front, the grim realities of war scarcity affected Christmas meals. Cooks were asked to conserve red meat and other foods fueling the war effort. Christmas fell on a Tuesday that year. It was a day designated as meatless and so chicken or turkey were acceptable foods.  

The Great Depression brought hardships for many families. A lima-bean casserole at home or soup from a charity kitchen constituted Christmas dinner for many. For others, Christmas was celebrated in a thrifty manner, with dinner being described as “enough is better than a feast.”  Aunt Sammy’s Radio Recipes reprinted in the United Opinion offered holiday recipes that fit frugal budgets as well as changing tastes.

When interviewed about their experiences during the 1930s, local elders recalled that money was scarce and Christmas meant homemade gifts and homegrown food. That might mean sacrificing the largest turkey or rooster on the farm or making a plump chicken into a delicious pie. For several, the food was rabbit or venison. 

During WW II, the armed services worked hard to provide a traditional Christmas meal to personnel at home and abroad. Those in battle zones were less likely to have all the trimmings. Stateside, canteens provided Christmas meals to soldiers and sailors

At home, rationing meant that Christmas dinners were not as elaborate as normal.  O, loved ones were absent. Christmas staples such as chocolate, sugar and butter were rationed and, although turkeys were not, they were in short supply. The public was encouraged to stay at home and  eat foods produced locally thereby reducing the impact on the transportation systems.

The prosperity enjoyed by many in the post-war period resulted in the expansion of the holiday experience.  Food was central to that experience and so expanded waist-lines were not uncommon.  Traditional foods made for decades continued to be part of the holidays that stretched from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Traditional foods help to make all those holidays special, linking the present with the holidays that have gone before.  For many families, Christmas day began with a special breakfast and, depending on the age of the children, was eaten before or after presents were opened.

At parties and gatherings for employees, club and church members and neighbors and friends, food was central. Every year, newspapers and magazines published new recipes that adapted old favorites to new times.

Ethnic groups have always added their own dishes to their family’s holiday table. Those who fasted before Christmas Midnight Mass, might follow the service with festive goodies.

For others, Christmas dishes included sweet stollen breads, holiday tamales, panettone or meat pies. A family with an Italian heritage might be as likely to serve lasagna and pork loin as turkey. Traditions made the answer to the question of “What shall we have for Christmas dinner?” pretty cut and dried.

For a small minority of local residents, the holiday being celebrated was Hanukkah, an eight-day festival of lights. Special foods might include brisket and short ribs as well as oil-rich potato latkes and donuts.

For many this Christmas, the local food shelf, community dinner or donated basket will be the source of their Christmas dinner. It is estimated that up to 13% of New Hampshire and Vermont families are “food insecure.” That insecurity is made even more difficult in the face of the bounty of others.

One Vermont newspaper observed in 1888: “Heaven has not granted us stomachs according to our wealth and the rich man cannot eat more than the poor man.” But we know that since finances control the food selection, the needy have always had less to eat.

 In 1891, a Londonderry, VT newspaper printed the following: “No conscientious person can enjoy his Christmas dinner if he knows anybody else within reach to be hungry. The consciousness that we have giving food to the needy provides us with the finest appetite.”

Whether this holiday for you is sacred or secular or both, assisting those who face food shortage in your community can add to the blessings of the season. Even if you are too late to help with someone else’s Christmas dinner this year, remember there is a new year coming. That donation to your local food shelf will provide you and yours with finer and more satisfying appetites.


Since the beginning of the 19th century, Christmas dinner has been a perennial subject of cards and newspaper illustrations.  Whether way on military duty or around the family table, Christmas festive treats bring warmth to the winter season.

Union troops open Christmas boxes from home to reveal treats as well as welcome gifts of socks and other article of clothes.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Horseless Carriage Arrives

Below top:  ELECTRIC VEHICLE: In 1895, the United Opinion predicted that electric-powered vehicles would be "the fad of the future." One of the first automobiles in Bradford was this electric vehicle registered in 1909. Despite less vibration, less odor and less noise than gasoline-powered autos, the electric models were eclipsed by Ford's Model T soon after this photograph was taken. (Bradford Historical Society)

Driver Leslie Welch and brother Robert F. Welch pose for a photo with the Bradford-Waits River Stage auto truck around 1917. Providing daily rides and mail service, this Studebaker was decorated with an advertisement for Ladd's Cream Bread.(Bradford Historical Society)

Frank Brigham (left) and Fred H. Bickford show off Brigham's Stanley Steamer.  Twin brothers Freeland and Francis Stanley began producing steam-powered vehicles in 1897 and formed the Stanley Motor Carriage Co. in Newton, MA in 1902.  In 1899, a Stanley was the first automobile to ascend Mount Washington's carriage road. (Bradford Historical Society)
THE WONDER CAR: Manufactured by Maxwell-Briscoe Co of Tarrytown, NY, the Maxwell was one of the first automobiles marketed to women.  Manufactured from 1904-1925, it was nicknamed "the Wonder Car." For a time, this company was one of the top three auto manufacturers in America.

Journal Opinion, November 22, 2017
“The model horseless carriage will no doubt come in time, but before it can come into general use in this country there must be vast improvements in the common roads” The United Opinion, Nov. 8, 1895

The observation from The United Opinion published just before the first automobiles appeared in northern New England. This column describes the first two decades of the transformation that accompanied their arrival.   

Information for this article was taken from period newspapers, local town histories and on-line sources. Several quotes are taken from a series of interviews of local elders conducted in the 1980s by my U.S. History students at Oxbow High School. 

The idea of a horseless carriage was explored for many years prior to their introduction into Europe in the 1880s.

 Three Yankee inventors were among those who explored the horseless carriage during the 19th century. In 1826, inventor Samuel Morey of Orford received a patient for an internal combustion engine. Morey correctly prophesied that the engine would “greatly change the commercial and personal intercourse of the country.”

A decade later, John Gore of Brattleboro created a carriage with a steam engine. It was reported that this “whizz wagon tore up the roads.” Around 1869, Springfield, NH native Enos Clough built a steam-powered vehicle that he displayed in the region. His vehicle, as with the two mentioned above, proved too much for their drivers and ended up wrecked.

In 1895, Charles and J. Frank Duryea of Springfield, MA established the first American gasoline car company.

The first appearances of horseless carriages locally came in 1896. The late Bernard Crafts told his student interviewer that the first one, driven by a Frenchman,  drove through Bradford that year. When, in 1899, the first auto passed through Pike and according to one town history, “it created much interest” 

For many, the first opportunity to see what became known as an automobile was at a circus or fair where it was part of the curiosities.  Others may have attended auto races held around the country for their first glimpse at the vehicle.. 

For the first few years, automobiles were seen as the play toy of wealthy men from down country.  Because of the frightening impact on pedestrians and horses these “devil wagons” were not welcomed locally.

One elder recalled that those she knew considered them to be “a luxury and a nuisance.” She went on to say “Rich folks from Massachusetts drove you right off the road.”

Dr. J. H. Lindsley of Burlington may have owned the first Vermont automobile. It was a one-seat Stanley Steamer. Charles C. Warren of Waterbury was the first Vermonter to register an automobile. In 1899, this auto enthusiast purchased a Haynes-Apperson.

Dr. Adrian Hoyt of Penacook was not only the first person to own an automobile in New Hampshire, he actually built it. He went on to briefly manufacture both steam and electric vehicles.

The local residents who owned the first automobiles were usually professionals or businessmen. By 1905 that included: John Stevens and Dr. Henry Lee of Wells River. They owned a 1903 Oldsmobile Steamer and a Stanley Ste4amer, respectively. W. T. Jackman of, Corinth had a 1904 Oldsmobile with a steering lever. Dr. Henry Stearns of  Haverhill Corner drove a Orient Buckboard made by a Waltham, Massachusetts company. The United Opinion editor Harry Parker of Bradford had a Maxwell Runabout. Dr. Walter Gustin owned the first automobile in Thetford. But the newspaper only described it as a “red car.”

Other early adopters included Paul Lang of Orford.  Nellie Smith and brothers George and R. H. Symes Brothers  of Wells River had automobiles  So did  Hial Cotton and James Whitcomb, both of Post Mills.   Dr. Ezra. C. Chase and his son Dr. Daniel R. Chase purchased an automobile for professional calls.

Soon after the automobile’s introduction, several businessmen offered autos for sale or rent, provided chauffeur services and made winter storage available.

According to 1980s interview with local seniors,, many thought these purchases were a waste of money. There continued to be the fear that automobiles would frighten horses. The late Helen Carr of Bradford recalled that one man’s  horse was so frightened of Harry Parker’s auto that he would call the editor to see when he would be out and about so that he could avoid a confrontation on village streets.

Across the nation there was anti-automobile legislation. In Vermont, this was encouraged because most drivers were from out of state and sometimes intoxicated. From the very beginning of automobile’s appearance on the state’s roads, there was a movement to limit their access to public roads. Automobile  opponents advocated for the construction of highways specifically for their use, much as railroads had done. 

In 1894, an act was passed by the Vermont Legislature that required those in charge of steam-propelled vehicle using a public street or highway to have a person at least one-eighth of a mile in advance to “notify and warn all persons…and at night such person shall, except in an incorporated village or city, carry a red light.“ This law was repealed in 1900.

A leader of this anti-automobile movement was Joseph Battell, owner of the Middlebury Register. He used his newspaper to highlight his views. Accidents in which automobiles injured pedestrians and carriage passengers were referred to as “the homicidal orgy of the motor car.”  

Battell encouraged local governments to prohibit automobile traffic from their roads. Apparently, he owned much of Camel’s Hump and offered to give it to the state if automobiles were banned from the area’s roads.

In 1904, there was legislation introduced that limited access to public roads. Corinth’s representative supported this legislation, saying, “It is not safe for a woman to drive a horse in the highway, when one of these devilish contraptions came along.” It did not pass. 

Throughout the period, many were ready to make jokes or derogatory remarks about automobiles. Driving his horse past an auto mired in mud up to the body, a Vermonter might say “get a hoss” or “I’aint all pie with one of them things.” 

In 1904, the Vermont Legislature passed a law calling for auto registration. New Hampshire passed a similar law in 1905. Both required a small registration fee and, several years later, added a license plate requirement. That first year there were 373 vehicles registered in Vermont and 532 in New Hampshire.  

Newspapers of the period reported on the number of registrations annually. Nation-wide, in 1915, there were 3.6 million registrations, an increase of 1.06 million in just one year The number reflected the phenomenal growth and vigor of the new industry.

Following are some of those reported figures for Vermont: 1907-1400 vehicles; 1909-1658, 1912 4,283, 1914-8,262, 1915-11,499, 1916-15,350. By this time, Vermont was one of the leading states in the number of automobiles per capita.

New Hampshire experienced similar increase in the number of registered vehicles growing to 10,819 by l915. In both states the figures included a small number of motorcycles and later trucks. 

There was an attempt to regulating speed. In 1909, New Hampshire set the limit at 8 mph in urban areas and 20 in rural.  Vermont’s limits were 10 and 25 for the same areas.  Both still has rules regarding the horses, with New Hampshire requiring that auto drivers “must stop upon signal from horseman and stop engine upon request.”  

Automobile enthusiasts organized the Granite State Automobile Club in 1900-1902 followed by the American Automobile Association in 1902 and the Automobile Club of Vermont in 1903.  These organizations promoted the rights of automobile users, provided maps, held road contests and rallies and “maintained a social club devoted to automobilism.”

Events were held to encourage automobiles. In 1899, the first “climb to the clouds” was the an auto trip up Mt. Washington. In 1903, Burlington auto enthusiast Horatio Jackson, accompanied by a mechanic and a pit bull, completed the first transcontinental trip in a two-cylinder 20 HP Winton nicknamed “Vermont.”  

Auto shows were held in St. Johnsbury, Montpelier and Burlington. Glidden and Munsey automobile tours visited local communities These introduced the public to the wide variety of vehicles available.  

Automobile organizations also promoted  road improvements.  Dirt roads got dusty in the summer, muddy in the spring and impassable in the winter. The organizations, joined by cycle groups, lobbied both state and the federal governments for funds for road construction. 

Good roads were important to farmers anxious to get their products to market in a timely way as well as an attraction to tourists. Newspaper articles indicate that, for a time, New Hampshire devoted more funds to tourism than Vermont. In 1916, the Federal Aid Road Act was passed giving funds to states for road improvement.

Several attempts were made to manufacture automobiles in the two-state area, but failed. In fact, during the period the number of automobile manufactures in the nation began to drop dramatically from a high of 253.

While familiar vehicles such as Olds, Overland, Maxwell and Buick were owned locally, it was Henry Ford’s autos that became popular. In 1903, Ford introduced the Model A and over the next several years marketed other models. 

In 1908, he introduced the Model T, the first really popular car for the general public. Initially offered at $850, Ford’s use of the assembly line allowed the price to drop within the reach of the average working man. By 1915, more Fords were registered in Vermont than any other make.  

As the price of automobiles dropped and their uses became more evident, Vermonters began to purchase new or used vehicles. Improvements such as headlights, pedal controls, steering wheels, running boards and improved motors making vehicles more reliable, safer and easier to operate. 

In 1916, installment sales were introduced by the makers of moderately priced cars.  One Newbury column read “Several of our staid and dignified citizens have the automobile bug buzzing, and are contemplating purchasing a machine.”

 As automobiles became more common, support businesses began to appear. Hotels catered to the motoring public. Railcars hauled new vehicles to local dealers. Garages for repairs and fuel opened.  Steam and electric powered vehicles were largely replaced by gasoline and there were many dealers who provided this fuel to the motoring public.   

A typical news item appeared in The United Opinion in 1912 announcing that Harry E. Davis had opened the Bradford Auto Garage and was “prepared to do all kinds of repairing and has for sale gasoline, oil accessories and supplies.”  Local stores and catalogs offer goggles, hats, dusters and other items needed by the motoring public. 

Local farmers stood ready to help motorists mired in mud. My Dad told me that  one enterprising farmer in Central Vermont made sure that a dip in the road near his farm remained muddy well beyond the normal mud season. He offered assistance to swamped travelers for a small fee.

Local newspapers carried news notes describing when citizens purchased an automobile especially when it was one of the first in the community.  Items mentioned family visits, business trips and tours of the White and Green Mountains by locals and tourists. They also described accidents involving automobiles and horses or railroad trains or when one “turned turtle” on a sharp curve.

Elders who were interviewed recalled some of the first automobiles in the area. While their families did not purchase an automobile until years later, many recalled experiencing their first auto ride by 1908.

They recalled rushing to the home or school windows to watch cars go by, maybe as often as twice a day. Gladys Jesseman said she was “afraid of the contraption,” whereas Fannie Eastman loved them as they “opened up a grand new area for me.” Alice Hood said that the Model T was “wonderful” and could get her from Corinth to Bradford more easily. 

Others tell stories of those who, use to handling a horse, would shout “whoa” instead of applying the brakes on their vehicle when they wanted to stop or slow down. In Fairlee in 1912, 100-year old Sallie Wilson, “active for her years,” went for her first auto ride in her nephew Lyman Robie’s “buzz wagon.” Going along smoothly, she began to realize it was a new mode of travel and kept saying to her nephew “Lyman, where are the horses?”

The first mention of an automobile in a Vermont newspaper was in 1895. It predicted the “passing of the horse.” Twenty years later that prediction was coming to pass. In 1901, a Barre newspaper editor wrote “Automobiles may be practical sometimes, but at present a man can travel about as comfortably and certainly more cheaply on foot than he can in a horseless carriage.”

Ed Peters of Bradford, whose family had raised Morgan Horses for decades, told my student interviewer that the arrival of the automobile devastated their business. Local harness and wagon makers faced the same challenges.   

As society is confronted by new technological advances, there will always be those who predict that eventually come to pass and those that will not. There will be those who embrace the new and those who resist. Likewise, new innovations bring new challenges, especially to those whose occupations are tied to the outmoded practices. It was so with the early automobile and it will continue to be with future innovations.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Under the Auctioneer's Hammer

"Having Sold My Farm" was a normal message for farm auctions flyers.  In this 1908 case, the farm property and homestead was being offered under the auctioneer's hammer.

West Fairlee auctioneer Bill Godfrey was profiled in this 1953 magazine cover.  Godfrey spend nearly 60 years in the auction business. .

George Clement of Landaff conducted more than 3,000 auctions during his career. They were held under tents and in his own auction barn.  Auctioneer Archie Steenburgh began his auction career with Clement in 1971.

Since 1956, Herb Gray has continued the family auction tradition begun by his father Carlton. This 1960 photo shows Gray auctioning rabbits.  He is now best known for auctioning automobiles and machines.

During his 30-plus years as an auctioneer, Chuck Eaton of West Fairlee has help non-profits raise more than a half-million dollars at charity auctions.  Even in his retirement he continues this worthwhile practice. (Carolyn Coffin) 
As usual at this season of the year much property is changing hands under the hammer of the auctioneer. It is mostly personal property, however; but little real estate is being sold.” Bradford Opinion, October 21, 1876

 New Englanders have always used auctions to sell real estate, personal property, crops and other commodities. Auctions offer a quick way of transferring ownership and has been used as such since ancient times.

This column describes local auctions since the early 19th century. It includes stories from the careers of several famous local auctioneers. Katharine Blaisdell’s books, town histories, online sources, periodicals and interviews with local auctioneers are sources of information.

When property owners faced foreclosure, downsizing, retirement, the death of a spouse or the desire to move to better territory, they turned to the auctioneer to help dispense with their goods and property. Auctioneers distributed handbills and posters describing the contents of the sale.

Local communities also used auctions for other purposes. The auctioning of ferry rights and church pews were a common practice. In early Newbury, funds for a new townhouse came from the sale of the pews to the highest bidders. The new owners paid with 903 bushels of wheat, equal to $3,250. While these pews went to the highest bidder, sometimes the purchasers were those who offered the least amount in a descending reverse auction.

In several local communities prior to the establishment of town farms, the support of the homeless poor was offered at auction in town meeting and “struck off to the lowest bidder.” Well into the middle of the 19th century, some school districts auctioned off the board and room of the local teacher in the same manner.

The most frequent mention of auctions in Vermont newspapers prior to the Civil War was in articles condemning the sale of slaves in Southern auction houses. 

Early auctions were usually held in the owner’s yard, barn or home.  Until the 1930s, it was customary for owners to provide lunch. Traditionally, this was Vermont crackers, cheese and lots of hot coffee, served to a largely male crowd.

Earlier, refreshments might include liquor. A handbill for an 1832 Haverhill auction mentioned that “a barrel of choice whiskey would be opened for the benefit of the purchasers.” 

Auction offerings were sometimes not what they seemed. Although reputable auctioneers make every attempt to describe items accurately, older newspapers  have many stories of items sold otherwise.

After 1830, eastern cities were plagued by mock auctions, also known as Peter Funk auctions. The unsuspecting were lured into an auction in which shills placed in the audience bid up prices on counterfeit or defective items. When the victim made a bid, the fraudster would promptly close the sale.

In 1838, The Vermont Phoenix included an article entitled “Another Auction Shave.” John Barton of Strafford was the victim who lost $29.70 at a New York City mock auction. To reassure customers, several Vermont auction advertisements in the 1860s stated, “The public is assured there will be NO ‘Peter Funk’ operators at our Auction Sale.”      

Even legitimate auctions are staged events. The experienced auctioneer knows that everything from the introductions of the staff, the cadence or pace of the bidding and the use of stories and humor are techniques useful to the sale. As one experienced auctioneer put it, “A good story now and then helps keep the people in good humor and also keeps their minds on the sale.”

Each local town had at least one licensed auctioneer during the 19th century and into the early 20th. Advertisements and news items in local newspapers list some of them as follows. Bradford: Ellis Bliss, J. H. Gilman, John Peckett and C. F. Smith; Ryegate: J. D. McAllister and J. H. Moore; Newbury: John Bailey Jr; Corinth: E. Clough; Lyme D. R. Mativa; West Fairlee: C.O. Burnham, George W. Cook; and Fairlee: Charles Kemp. 

During the Civil War, colonels in Union regiments were in charge of selling confiscated property. It became the custom for post-war auctioneers to adopt the title of colonel. While there were New Hampshire and Vermont auctioneers who used this title, I could find only one local auctioneer who did. He was Col. Aaron P. Gould of Piermont who was active around 1872. Gould was listed as the colonel of the 13th New Hampshire Regiment in 1844.

There have been a number of local auctioneers whose careers spanned decades and whose reputation is still well-known.  

Beginning with his first auction in 1903, Dan Perry of Barre presided over close to 6,000 New England auctions during his 60-year career. As with many auctioneers, Perry used that skill to augment other businesses. His auctioneering was an outgrowth of a real estate business. For many years, he owned a Ford dealership in Barre.

Perry was known for his Yankee droll and ready wit. He knew how to work a  crowd and is quoted as saying that a good auctioneer “can see the bids coming many times before the bidder says a word.” In addition to home and farm auctions, Perry conducted many livestock auctions.

During the Great Depression, the number of auctions declined. Perry wrote “the few people who had the courage to put on sales were heartbroken at the prices their property would bring.”   

In the Midwest, neighbors would sometimes come to the rescue of a farmer facing foreclosure and enter a winning bid of only a penny for each item. The next day all the equipment would be returned to its owner.

The only example that I could find that came close to this “penny auction” practice was one conducted by Perry in Corinth in 1913. The local newspaper reported that the night before the auction the farmer’s barn burned to the ground. The auction was held and the remaining items brought “exceptionally high prices.”

Legendary local auctioneer Bill Godfrey of West Fairlee began working with Perry in Wells River in 1923 and continued conducting auctions until retiring in 1981.

Ron Strickland wrote about Godfrey in his 1986 book Vermonters: Oral Histories. He referred to Godfrey’s many talents as an “auctioneer, neighbor, farmer, funeral director, story-teller and humorist.”

Godfrey presided over as many as 60 auctions each year “attired in a straw hat; a bow tie; an impeccably starched button-down shirt; a vest, with pocket watch; black lace-up boots; and perhaps, as protection against manure, a pair of overalls.”

Strickland quoted one of Godfrey’s admirers: “Godfrey gives the crowd the feeling that he is a conspirator in the dangerous, daredevil process of bidding, whereas the no-nonsense commercial mood created by many younger auctioneers subtly alienates the audience.”

Another auctioneer who got his start with Dan Perry was Carlton Gray. In 1947, Gray founded the East Thetford Commission Sales and the Monday night livestock auctions were a local institution until the operation closed in 1992. He brought to the operation his experience as a farmer and trader of livestock. His wife Beulah was, in the words of their son Herb, “the backbone of the operation.”  

In 1956, Gray sent his two sons, Larry and Herb, to auction school in Iowa. The family conducted numerous farm auctions during the years of dairy farm decline in Vermont and New Hampshire. “Having Sold Our Farm” was the headline on many auction notices. Herb remembered that his father once told him “we are selling ourselves out of business.” Herb says there are few farm auctions any more.

Carlton retired in 1976.  About that time, the Grays began equipment sale at Gray’s Field in Fairlee, a practice that continues currently. For the past 23 years, Herb has been conducting the weekly Connecticut Valley Auto Auctions in Hartford.  Rather than going out of business, the Gray family continues the tradition to a third and fourth generation of auctioneers.

Around 1957, Peter Gallerani opened Gallerani’s Commission Sales in West Bradford and held Thursday livestock auctions year-round. In the early 1970’s his son Paul brought out his father. In a recent interview, Paul described the atmosphere of the auction. He said that the buyers were primarily men who knew each other and humor was part of the interplay. The only woman he recalled was Liva Sinclair who owned a large dairy farm in Bradford. Paul acted as ringmaster for the auctions and recalled how important it was for him to know the bidders and the value of the animals being sold. 

George Clement of Landaff was another local career auctioneer. His first auction was in 1933 and over his career he conducted as many as 3,000 sales. Some were held in tents, or later, in his own auction barn. His auctions included a number of hotels and businesses, the most famous being the contents sale of the Mount Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, NH.

In 1971, Archie Steenburgh began attending Clement’s auction and gradually became involved. He became a partner and then bought Clement out.  His wife Martha and his son Joshua are both important members of the team that conduct over 30 auctions annually.

One of the most important auctions is the Steenburghs’ Annual Labor Day sale held in East Haverhill.  The 2017 auction celebrated 45 years in business.  Hundreds bid for consignments of antiques, art work and other high-value items.  As with other auctions, handbills and posters have been replaced by online sites and cell phone bidding. 

Two other auctioneers who started at about the same time are Chuck Eaton and Ernie Stevens. Eaton went to auction school in 1983 and continued holding auctions until 2014. In the early years of his career, he and Ernie worked together at the Ely Commission Sales auction house.  Eaton then established his well-known auctions at his Elmwood Farm barn in West Fairlee. 

In a recent interview, Eaton talked about the auction experience.  He said auctions are “like a play, with two weeks of rehearsal.” Being familiar with the items allowed the auctioneer to carry out the performance with accuracy and  speed. At the end of the day all is gone.

Prices for items fall somewhere between wholesale and retail. While dealers have to consider potential resale prices, avid collectors sometimes bid prices for rare items above fair market. The uninitiated may fall victim to the “winner’s curse” and pay too much.

As with some other auctioneers, Eaton has conducted a number of charity auctions. Over his career he has helped various non-profits raise more than a half million dollars. 

His auction barn is quiet now, the business having been taken over by his associate Uriah Wallace. Wallace has held a number of auctions and estate sales at  Elmwood Farm, the Bradford Community Center and onsite at private homes. 

For the past 44 years, Ernie Stevens has been holding commission sales. Beginning in West Canaan, NH, he then began holding sales in Ely.  In 1992, he moved his Ely Commission Sales to Bradford. 

In a recent interview, Stevens recalled that he had no formal training as an auctioneer.  Sitting in his auction house surrounded by items collected in anticipation for one of his twice-weekly sales, Stevens said that his auctions attract about 160. He quipped that some come just for his wife Carol’s mac and cheese.  

Despite the title, very few items are sold on commission. Stevens has built his business around purchasing entire households and so most of the items sold are his own. He commented that the bottom has fallen out of the furniture market and what were once a family’s heirloom pieces are not getting the prices of yesteryear.

 While most local auctions are of the ordinary type, there have been several that lasted for more than one day, drew crowds from around the nation or even from foreign countries and offered very valuable and often extraordinary items. 

These include the 1970 sale of the purebred Holstein herd of the Mallary Farm that brought a crowd of 2,000 to Fairlee; the Gray’s auction of animals from Fairlee’s Rare Bird and Animal Farm also in 1970, the nine-day auction of the contents of Freddie Miller’s iconic store in East Topsham in 1990, the East Orange auction by Christie’s of New York of the gold bullion and vintage automobiles from the estate of A. K. Miller in 1996 and the two-day auction by Archie Steenburgh at the MacDonald farm in Topsham in 2004.

Auctioneers have been described as the “oldest recyclers in the world.” Attendees find them more  fascinating and entertaining than eBay or Craigslist. With a good auctioneer, they can also be a history lesson on personal possessions. With luck, you may find that one item you have been looking for to complete your collection, furnish your home or add to your livestock.


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Capt. Clark, The Oregon and Company G

KEEPING WATCH OVER DOWNTOWN BRADFORD: Since 1926, this statue of Capt. Charles Edgar Clark has stood in Memorial Park near the Bradford Public Library. In bronze and granite, it honors the hero of the Spanish-American War and his leadership of the battleship Oregon.  Those who raised the public funds for the statue believed that Bradford-born Clark stood for "what is best in private and public life."

BULLDOG OF THE NAVY: The USS Oregon played a pivotal role in the American victory over a Spanish fleet at Santiago, Cuba on July 3, 1898. That role, after its historic 15,000-mile voyage around South America, popularized both Capt. Charles Clark and his vessel with the American public. (Bradford Historical Society)  

OFFICERS AT CAMP THOMAS: Bradford-area Company G of the First Vermont Regiment was stationed at Camp Thomas, Chickamauga Park, GA in 1898. The company was led by (from l to r) 1st Lt. Moses Brock of West Newbury, Capt. Herbert T. Johnson and 2nd Lt. Sullivan W. Emerson of Bradford. Despite being ready, the regiment never saw battle, except for harsh living conditions..(Bradford Historical Society)  

Journal Opinion  July 26, 2017
“Only the men who were with him on July 3 know what kind of man he is in the heat of battle—always what we call a ‘good captain’ in the navy; none of us thought him as good as we found him on that glorious 3d.” St. Johnsbury Caledonian, August 3, 1898.

Why would a small town in landlocked Vermont have a splendid statue of a naval hero overlooking its town center? Why would that hero be from a generally forgotten short conflict rather than a Union soldier or a hero from one of the world wars?  Certainly, there are heroes from those other conflicts worthy of being honored in bronze and granite. 

The statue is of Capt. Charles Edgar Clark, a Bradford native, one of the three widely-recognized heroes to emerge from the Spanish-American War of 1898. The statue, financed by public subscription, was dedicated on October 12, 1926 before a large crowd that filled the downtown.

This column describes Clark’s links with Bradford and Vermont and his connections with the battleship Oregon and the Battle of Santiago Bay. The details of the Spanish-American War and the role played by local men in that short conflict are covered.

Clark was born in Bradford on August 10, 1843 in a house that still stands on South Main. He was the son of James and Mary Clark. He attended the district village school and Bradford Academy until he was 16 years old.  

His father was a book binder and, about this time, attempted to publish a school textbook. The venture was not successful and he lost heavily. The family moved to Montpelier where the demand for books was greater and there achieved success. 

Clark’s father was a friend of Sen. Justin Morrill and when young Charles expressed an interest in attending West Point, they contacted Morrill. The senator had already made his annual appointment to the military academy, but offered an appointment to the Naval Academy. Clark passed the required examination and entered as a midshipman in 1860 just as the Civil War broke out.

As the war developed, the Naval Academy was moved to Newport, R. I. In 1863, Ensign Clark was assigned to a sloop attached to the blockade squadron under Adm. David Farragut.  Clark’s ship participated in the Battle of Mobile Bay and other Gulf of Mexico encounters. He received steady promotions and by 1868 was lieutenant commander. The next year he married Maria Louise Davis.

In 1894, Clark was in command of a fleet of 12 ships in the northern Pacific on patrol against seal poachers.  In San Francisco, on March 19, 1898, Captain Clark was given command of the Oregon, the greatest battleship afloat. His nearly 40 years of naval experience fitted him for this responsible position. 

Two days later, they sailed south with orders to join the American fleet off Santiago, Cuba. The trip around the Horn and the dangerous waters of Tierra del Fuego was an estimated 14,900-mile voyage. It included stops at foreign ports to resupply and refuel.

Bradford’s John Fatherley describes this dangerous voyage in his book “The Vortex.”  He writes that the challenge of the voyage was “not a reasonable expectation.” Additionally, there was the apprehension created by the possible Spanish threats posed by both the torpedo boat Temerario and the Cape Verde Fleet, either of which could have seriously damaged or destroyed the Oregon.

Clark and the ship met the challenge in record time. After a two-month news blackout, the ship’s arrival at Key West was met with public acclaim. The voyage highlighted the need for a canal across the Isthmus of Panama.

What Clark was sailing into was a war with Spain. This conflict had all the elements that could conceivably promote popular support among Americans. It was fought for very clear reasons including self-defense and the welfare of Cubans, suffering under Spanish colonial rule.

The sinking of the American battleship Maine in Havana harbor with the heavy loss of life on February 15, 1898 led to a declaration of war against Spain. Spain was an aging colonial power with control over Cuba and the Philippines and it was there that the war centered.

The war that followed was short, filled with dramatic American victories and heroes and few American casualties. It was, in the words of Secretary of State John Hay, “a splendid little war.” In less than a year, America gained both an enhanced reputation as an emerging world power and a far-flung empire. 

The naval phase of the war outshone the army’s. Vermont provided two of the heroes, Clark and Commodore George Dewey. Dewey commanded the American squadron at Manila Bay in the Philippines. On the morning of May 1, the American fleet crushed 12 ships of the Spanish fleet without the loss of a single American ship and only slight injury to a few American sailors.

The second major naval victory was in Cuban waters. The Oregon had taken up station with the American fleet off Santiago Bay to blockade the Spanish fleet. On July 3, the Spanish tried to escape. The timing caught the Americans generally unprepared for battle.

With engines ready, the Oregon was able to move quickly in pursuit, and with guns blazing began a running fight with the escaping fleet. The battle, in which the Oregon played a decisive role, was over in a matter of hours. The entire Spanish fleet was destroyed or captured.  As with the Manila battle, no American ship suffered serious damage and only one American life was lost.

 The official reports and the popular press gave the Oregon and Captain Clark the highest credit for the extent of the victory.  For its historic voyage and battle participation, the battleship was given the nickname “Bulldog of the Navy.”

The war was successfully completed within months and America obtained Cuba, Guam, Puerto Rico and the Philippines as spoils of war. In a nation still haunted by the memories of the Civil War, this war helped to create a unified sense of patriotism as the nation entered a new century.

Clark was not the only man with local ties to go to war with Spain.  Vermont was assigned a quota of 654 and filled it with a regiment of 1008 men and officers.  The First New Hampshire Infantry included about the same number of volunteers. 

American troops on the ground experienced the war quite differently. On April 29, The United Opinion reported that the Bradford Guards was seeking new members to fill their ranks. “This was a warlike order and caused some excitement in the village.”  The Guards included men from Bradford, Piermont, Orford , Newbury, and other area towns. Four Dartmouth students also enlisted.

On May 6, the Bradford Guards marched down Main Street to board a train for Fort Ethan Allen.  Under the command of Capt. Herbert T. Johnson of Bradford and 1st Lt. Moses Brock of West Newbury, the 84 men and officers became Company G of the First Regiment of Infantry, Vermont National Guard.  The regiment left Vermont for Camp Thomas at Chickamauga Park, GA on May 24. The New Hampshire men joined them there. 

This is as close to combat as these men came. What followed was a disappointment for these eager troops. The booklet on their assignment reads: “It was there that the Vermonters put in nearly three months of monotonous inactivity, weary waiting and suffering from climatic diseases and fevers, which constituted their patriotic sacrifice for their country.” Both regiments returned home never having seen battle. 

Harold Haskins adds: “Life in camp had been hard. The food was bad, the heat and humidity was worse, sanitation was almost non-existent, medical supplies and services were woefully inadequate, and the daily routine of camp life, without the hope of the excitement and challenge of battle was irksome indeed. Malaria, dysentery and even yellow fever, worse in Cuba but bad enough in our South, left life-long effects on many a soldier.”

 Vermont lost 33 men from disease, New Hampshire 32. Although a significant number of  men from the Bradford area suffered from illness, none perished.

The United Opinion had supported the war and the paper was filled with patriotic symbols and articles.  Letters from Company G were a regular feature.  Despite the disappointments, veterans and area residents felt pride in their role in the war effort. 

In 1899 and again in 1901, Clark was honored during a visit to Bradford. He spent a portion of that visit with students gathered at Bradford Academy and later met old friends and other area residents at an evening reception.  

In a September 1901 speech before the Reunion Society of Vermont Officers, Vice President Theodore Roosevelt said: “You have a right to be proud of Captain Clark. In all of the history of the Navy, I can remember hardly anything so romantic as the trip of the Oregon, which arrived in time to give the finishing stroke to the last remnant of the Spanish fleet.”

As the leader of the Rough Riders, Roosevelt was another hero of the war and this speech was given just days before he became acceded to the office of President upon the death of President McKinley.  

In 1902, Clark was promoted to the rank of rear admiral and he retired in 1905. His fame mellowed and waned with a dignity that seemed typical of the man who sought no glory for himself. The Oregon, after being the subject of much national attention was, like the admiral, gradually retired from active duty.

At the time of his death in 1922, an editorial in the United Opinion stated: “We the people of Bradford feel that ‘Capt’ Clark belongs to us and that he is one of our greatest gifts to the nation’s service.”

 In 1926, funds were raised to erect the statue of Clark to be placed in Memorial Park, north of the Library.  Personal contributions were supplemented by fund-raising dances and other events.  In requesting funds, the Bradford Memorial Park Association wrote: “All the best traditions of valor, modesty and patriotism are symbolized by this man, a son of Bradford…In honoring him we honor all our patriots in all wars and of peace.  He stands for what is best in private and public life.”

The Memorial Park had been created in 1921 and featured a granite monument with bronze tablets listing Bradford’s veterans from the Revolution, Civil War and Spanish-American War, along with a flag pole and a cannon from 1863.

The sculptor of the five-foot seven-inch bronze statue was Magnus Urdahl of Boston.  It was made in the foundries of Albert Russell & Sons in Newburyport, Massachusetts. The pedestal is of Barre granite with bronze plaques commemorating Clark’s accomplishments.

On Tuesday, October 12, 1926 more than  four thousand people, including Clark’s widow and many dignitaries, watched little Virginia Cole unveil the statue. It was described as being a “truthful reproduction” of the man. Buildings in the area were professionally draped with patriotic bunting and the U.S. Marine Band played. In the words of Opinion editor Harry Parker, it was “Bradford’s red-letter day.”

In 1900, the Vermont legislature commissioned portraits of both Clark and Dewey to be hung in the State House in Montpelier. When the Oregon was decommissioned, one set of its gangway headboards were donated to the Bradford Academy and are displayed inside the front doors of the Academy Building.

For many years the athletic teams at Bradford Academy were called the Admirals and the year book was known as The Admiral.

A display of Clark-Oregon memorabilia is located in the Bradford Historical Society’s museum on the third floor. This includes a large portrait of the Captain painted by Ruth Jewett Burgess about 1902.  The museum is open Fridays from 10 am to noon, June through October or by special appointment. 


Sunday, July 2, 2017

Privy To Indoor Plumbing

VILLAGE PRIVY: This privy is adjacent to the woodshed in a Bradford village home. Perhaps those using this "necessity "were expected to bring an armload of wood into the nearby kitchen. Unused for decades, this little room featured an electric light, decorative wall paper and a child-size hole to the right of these two adult ones.   

SIZED FOR CONVENIENCE: This three-holer featured a small, medium and large seats to accommodate the needs of an entire Vermont family.  The pit below would have been mucked out once a year and the contents spread on nearby fields. (Green Mountain Timber)

GROWING UP IN GROTON; Theresa Cassady Shepard grew up in a farm house without electricity near Groton village.  From 1918 until she left to be married in 1927, she knew what it was to use a privy in the shed, have a chamber pot under her bed and take a bath in a tub in front of the kitchen stove. (Meroa Benjamin)

STANDARD SANITARY: In its 1911 catalog, the Standard Sanitary Mfg. Co. offered "sanitary and modern plumbing fixtures." By that time, newly constructed homes were expected to have modern indoor plumbing rather than the outmoded backhouse privy and wash tub.  
“The sanitary equipment of the house is an all-important matter, as there is no other feature of the home which will afford more comfort and be so conducive to perfect health as good plumbing.”             St. Johnsbury Caledonian, May 23, 1906

From the beginning of human activity, each society has developed norms regarding the disposal of human waste and the cleansing of the body. Some early civilizations developed elaborate structures to meet those needs and others were far more informal about it.

This column surveys the use of the outhouse in rural Vermont and New Hampshire and the development of indoor plumbing. It also describes changing attitudes toward bathing that lead to the development of bathrooms. 

Colonial New Englanders avoided bathing as it opened one to “the ravages of various diseases.” Washing up or sponging off meant cleaning hands and face. That, combined with infrequent changing of clothes, meant that they were “blissfully unaware of their own stench.”

Most families had an outhouse, called a privy after the Latin term for private. Even village homes had  privies until municipal sewage systems were developed in the late 19th century.  Area farms were more likely to rely on outhouses into the 20th century.  It some cases, the privy was attached to the house and in others located a short distance away as a protection against well water pollution and smell. This facility, often featuring two or three holes, was located over a pit. 

Once a year the farmer would muck out the pit, mix the excrement, sometimes called night soil, with something like sawdust or wood ashes and spread it on the fields as fertilizer. Farmers Almanacs from the 1840s encouraged this practice because the so-called poudrette was “universally wasted.” 

The author of a letter in an 1876 edition of Vermont Farmer wrote: “I have seen the manure from a family of eight sufficient to enrich four acres of land fit for any crop.”

A dangerous problem was created when the privy was located near drinking water sources. After 1870, the Vermont Board of Health warned against diseases such as typhoid, diphtheria and dysentery that were being contracted by farm families when sewerage entered their water source. 

In 1871, the report of the Board included the following: “At the bottom of the garden, or even further away, stands a temple of defame, the common privy. From this establishment arises in warm weather the vilest smell imaginable; while in winter, cold air blasts through loose boards and also up from under the seat, causing infinite discomfort and danger.”

The New Hampshire Board of Health’s 1885 report added: “The privy is a detestable and dangerous necessity.  It is so near the well as to pollute that, so near the kitchen as to lend an odor to that, and so near enough to the parlor to remind us of what is unpleasant.” The report went on to suggest improvements that might mitigate these problems. 


Until the introduction of toilet paper, privies often had a pile of corn cobs or catalogs and almanacs available. Cobs were used only when fresh or when boiled to soften them. Publications such as the Sears Roebuck catalog were free and widely available. When changes were made in paper manufacturing in the early 1930s these publications were less suitable.

Joseph Gayetty created the first commercial toilet paper in 1857 and it was advertised as “the greatest necessity of the age.” The Scott Paper Company offered the first rolled toilet paper in 1879. In 1882, the St. Johnsbury newspaper advertised six packs of toilet tissue for twenty-five cents. In the early 1890s toilet tissue was being manufactured by Bradford’s Waits River Paper Company and Wells Rivers’ Adams Paper Company. Toilet paper fixtures were stocked in most hardware stores.

By that time, in many households, the toilet and bath were moving indoors. More homes were being built with bathrooms featuring flush toilets connected to indoor plumbing systems. The earlier problem of venting sewer gases was being solved by new valve designs. There were still those who felt that the additional construction cost of a bathroom did not make sense.

Water closets in ordinary homes began to be mentioned in Vermont newspapers after the 1870s. Prior to that time they were only found in upscale hotels and the homes of the wealthy and the ads for them were from Boston plumbing outlets.   

 In the 1880s, water closets featured a high 10-gallon tank suspended above the toilet and operated by a pull chain. In the 1920s, the tank type toilet was introduced, reducing a flush to five to seven gallons.  Sears Roebuck offered a basic “modern water closet” for $11.95.

Running water usually meant a gravity feed from a spring or well into a box or tub in the kitchen. By 1900, earlier log pipes were being replaced by ones made of lead.  An advertisement for a Vermont farm for sale in 1900 mentioned “running water to the house” as a positive feature. That was a definite advantage over the handpump in the yard.  

For many, bathing still mean a washtub in the kitchen.  Many bedrooms were equipped with a wash stand or dry sink that held a porcelain pitcher and wash basin and towel rack. The earlier prejudices against bathing were replaced by the realization of the value of washing to prevent disease. Soap designed specifically for bathing was introduced.  

By the late 1880s, companies such as Mott Iron Works began to advertise claw bathtubs. By then the ritual of the Saturday night bath was observed by many. That made sense in anticipation of Sunday church services and weekend visitors.  

I interviewed two individuals who grew up in local farm houses and confirmed what is described above. Eighty-nine-year-old Theresa Cassady Shepard of Bradford grew up three miles from the village of Groton. From the time she was born in 1928 until she was married and moved to a farm in Piermont in 1947, Shepard lived in a home without indoor plumbing or running water. This condition was primarily the result of not having electricity.

The family backhouse was a two-holer attached to the backside of the woodshed.  Each bedroom had a chamber pot. When the pit began to smell, her mother or father would apply lime or sawdust. She said that every Spring her father would remove the back of the pit and using a wagon and horses would carry the contents to be spread on the hayfield.   

Bathing was usually accomplished in a large galvanized tub set in the kitchen. Water was heated in the reservoir attached to the wood-burning kitchen stove. The tub only held several inches of water.  Asked if it was Saturday night ritual, she said that you took a bath “when you couldn’t stand yourself.”   After she bathed and went off to bed, her father would use the same water for his bath. 

Otherwise, bathing was with a wash cloth and a basin of water for a daily washing up. Water came from a large metal container with gravity feed. Sometimes in the summer, the well would begin to dry up and the family would have to prime the handpump in order to get water for the house.   

The 1940 census revealed that nearly half of American houses lacked piped hot water, a bathtub or shower, or a flush toilet. Census figures showed that about 29 percent of households in Vermont did not have flush toilets. In New Hampshire, it was about 25 percent of household. 

One of those homes was near Sunday Mountain in Orford. The second interview was with a woman who lived there from the 1940s to the early 60s. She told me they had running water to the kitchen and to a tub in the bathroom, but no flush toilet. Cold water was piped into a holding tank above the kitchen. From there, water flowed into a tank next to the wood stove to be heated.

 “Luckily, the outhouse was located off the bathroom that included an enclosed passageway through an unheated area in the back of two sheds. It was a well-crafted two holer on the east corner of the house that looked like a small addition. So that we didn’t have to make the long trek at night, each member of the family was provided with a chamber pot under the bed that was emptied each morning.”

During two recent speaking engagements, I asked for comments about privies and indoor plumbing. Descriptions of the outhouse facilities varied. One person mentioned their childhood outhouse was wall-papered with the same gold paper as the living room.

Some participants responded by telling about the fear of snakes, bees and flies and the need to carry a “spider switch” when visiting the privy. They told of pranks played against the unsuspecting, especially at Halloween. When the topic of wintertime visits was raised, the universal response was “you did what you had to do.”  

Those who lived in villages and cities had to deal with sewage on a larger scale and public health concerns led to the decline of urban outhouse. Homes and businesses began to be required to connect to municipal sewer systems. After installing a municipal water system in 1891, the Village of Bradford turned to the issue of a sewer system to replace individual cesspools.  One result of not having a proper sewer system was the loss to Ludlow of the proposed Vermont Odd Fellows’ Home in 1895.

The first vote to create a village system failed at a special Village meeting in 1896. It was not until 1927 that the Village voted to construct a sewage system.

As with most municipal systems, raw sewage was flushed into nearby waterways. In the 1950s, the Connecticut River was being described as the “world’s best landscaped sewer.”  Until Bradford’s sewage treatment plant began to operate in October, 1978, the nearby Waits River received the village sewage.    

In 1903, the Vermont Board of Health report contained the following description of the situation in Ryegate: “several sewers running, one down Main street and the others which empty into the bed of the river as it formerly ran…a most filthy and unwholesome place.”

 In 1972, and after the State passed legislation to deal with pollution in the state’s waterways, Ryegate voted to acquire land in both East and South Ryegate for sewer treatment sites.

Wells River and Woodsville both used adjacent rivers for sewers until the early 1980s when a treatment plant was built in Woodsville to serve those two villages and portions of North Haverhill.

Until these improvements were made, nearby rivers and lakes were often so polluted as to make them unusable for drinking water. Woodsville Water Works, begun in 1885, suspended using the Ammonoosuc as a source of drinking water in 1906 because of sewage and industrial waste from upriver towns.

Advancements in sewage treatment were also reflected in home facilities. By 1960, the number of New Hampshire and Vermont homes without a flush toilet was less than eight percent.  That was less than half the number of a decade before.  

Nationwide, a high percentage of all new homes have 2 or more bathrooms. The National Association of Home Builders has found that buyers like the number of bathrooms “to roughly equal the number of bedrooms.” While that may not be as common in the Upper Valley, selling a house without at least a second half or full bathroom is difficult. High-end bathrooms now feature spa-like amenities such as elaborate tubs, luxury showers, heated floors, accent lighting and duel-flush toilets.   

There are a number of titles given to what use to be called “the necessity.” The toilet, john, lavatory, or the head, the facilities, the loo and the powder room. The latest AARP Bulletin reports that June is National Bathroom Reading Month. 

Regardless of what you call the little room and whether or not you have a stack of reading materials nearby, consider how far we have come from the cold and drafty privy in the backyard and the skimpy warm water in a tub in the kitchen. Give regular thanks for that.