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Monday, February 13, 2017

Ten-Year Retrospective

Journal Opinion Feb. 8, 2017

\Ten years ago, the editor I approached of the Journal Opinion about creating a column on local history. I had just retired from teaching at Bradford Academy and Oxbow High School.  From the beginning of my teaching career, and before “placed based” lessons became popular, I included local studies in my courses.  I was also the president of the Bradford Historical Society.


This is my 106th article in the series. Previously, topics were taken from local history within the circulation area of the Journal Opinion and rarely focused on events in a single town. Generally, columns examined communities from Lyme and Thetford north to Groton, Ryegate and Woodsville. They compared the similarities among the communities and contrasted the differences.


 In addition to this newspaper, the articles were published on a blog to reach a wider audience. Some of the articles have appeared in other publications as well as two books to benefit the Bradford Public Library. I hear regularly enough from readers to know that there is an enthusiastic audience for articles on local history.  


The material for the pieces is taken from town histories, newspaper achieves, interviews with local residents and online sources. The assistance of the Journal-Opinion staff as well as several faithful proofreaders helped to fashion the articles into finished products.


Excerpts and summaries from some of the most popular columns over the past 10 years follow. The titles have been included, along with quotation marks, so that those who are interested may access the full article on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.  


 “No Rum for Me!” was published in the Journal Opinion in March 2009.The battle against the evils of alcohol was one of the first reform movements in 19th century Vermont and New Hampshire and increasingly temperance became valued as a personal characteristic. Locally, hundreds of residents took pledges “not to use ardent spirits.” 


In the 1850s, both states adapted state-wide prohibition. These efforts were only partially successful as there were local reports of illegal distilleries and cider mills. Many resented the intrusion of the government into what they saw as a personal freedom.


In the first two decades of the 20th century, a coalition of organizations pushed successfully for a Constitutional amendment to make the manufacture or sale of alcoholic beverages illegal national-wide. As before, it was unsuccessful and the “Great Experiment” ended in 1933. 


When interviewed by my students about this prohibition, their elders recalled that while there were those who drank illegal alcohol, many in their families did not drink at all. They also spoke despairingly of drunkards. The article concluded with an 1894 statement by a Vermont religious leader who suggested that prohibition just “drives underground the mischief which it is seeking to cure.”  

This article has the most hits of any on my blog. Only when I found that the title was also a lyric in a popular reggae song did I understand why so many online searches accessed an article about this locale’s 19th century temperance movement.  


As flu season arrives each year the number of hits on “Influenza and Other Epidemics” increases.  Published in November 2008, this piece describes the various epidemics affecting residents since European settlement. It deals with the outbreaks of smallpox, spotted fever and influenza that ravished local communities. It also deals with endemic diseases such as tuberculosis, a disease that caused up to 20 percent of the mid-19th century deaths locally.   


I chose that topic because it was the 90th anniversary of the 1918 pandemic of Spanish flu, outbreaks of which lead to as many as 100 million deaths world-wide. As this “unwelcomed visitor” spread, normal life was disrupted locally. Hundreds of area residents became ill and dozens died.


“Fore No More” was published in the middle of the golf season in 2008. It describes six local golf courses that no longer exist. Included are both designer courses and links that were little more than pastures. The former includes the courses at the former resorts at Lake Tarleton and the Mt. Moosilauke Inn in Warren.   


The best pasture course was the Wells-Wood Golf Club in Wells River. Jack Graham of Woodsville told me: “It was a short informal course, just pasture land with New England rocks and lots of sand and pastured cows…you got a preferred lie if your ball landed in a cow patty.”


Other abandoned courses include those at the former Bonnie Oakes Resort in Fairlee, Shady Shade on Lake Fairlee in Thetford and on Pike’s Back Bay Road. The article included interviews with golfers, caddies and greens keepers for some of these courses. 


The article that continues to bring the most online comments is entitled “Going to Summer Camp.” It was published in July 2010. As summer approaches and interest in summer youth camps increases so does the number of online hits for this article.  


From the beginning of the 20th century, residential youth camps have flourished in the Upper Valley. Those who established these camps were pioneers in the camping industry. Camp Farwell on Halls Lakewas highlighted in the article. It may be the oldest camp for girls in the nation. 


Of all the local pioneers, the extended Gulick family receives the most credit. That family established Camp Aloha on Lake Morey in 1905 and is still recognized for their role in the Aloha camps. Camp Pemigewasset in Wentworth, founded in 1908, is the oldest summer camp in the country under the same continuous family ownership and management.  


Those who attended camps or worked in or around them shared their memories with me for the article and in the comment section of the blog.    


Sometimes there is so much local information for a topic that it leads to several chapters, each published as a separate article. Major village fires is one of those topics.


 “The Terrible Conflagration,” a description of the major Bradford fire of 1883 published ten years ago this month was my first column.  Ten buildings near the west side of Bradford’s main street burned on the morning of Feb.19. Two of the three major brick blocks are replacements for those destroyed structures.


In December 2007 and January 2008, two additional articles entitled “Village Fires” described the way in which structure fires dramatically changed local villagescapes.  Significant fires altering West Fairlee, Newbury, Haverhill, Topsham and Wells River were covered..  


The history of local mining was another topic provided enough material for several write-ups. They are entitled “Mining Mania in Grafton West” and “More Mining Mania: The Vermont Side” and were published in May and August 2011.


Drawing from local histories and online sources, the articles explored major mining successes such as the copper fields of Orange County and mica, whetstone and soapstone quarries in Grafton County.


Unsuccessful attempts to mine gold and silver were also mentioned as were the hoaxes that sometimes accompanied those attempts. Additional examples of mining include iron ore in Warren-Piermont, granite in Fairlee, Groton and Ryegate and limestone in Haverhill. Once major industries in several local communities, mining has disappeared as deposits were deleted or replaced by more lucrative deposits elsewhere.  


Between April 2007 and May 2015, I wrote six articles on the role of local soldiers in the Civil War. “Call to War” recalls the role of the Bradford Guard in the opening battles when the hope for a short conflict was still present.


During the 150th observance of the Civil War, I wrote four pieces on major battles in which there was a significant number of local men. These are “Antietam: A Most Bloody Day,” “Gettysburg: Furious Field of Fire,” “Wilderness of Woe” and “Cedar Creek: A Valley Victory.”


The concluding article was “Unending War” published in May 2015. It deals with the continuing impact of the conflict on the soldiers upon their return home.


These articles are good examples of the research that is involved with topics of this kind. It required going through company lists to locate the names, ranks and role of local soldiers in these battles specifically, and in the war, generally.  It also meant reading widely on each battle and then integrating the two efforts into an effective presentation.   


Three articles deal with the changes in local population. “Upper Valley Exodus” describes the 19th century growth and subsequent decline of local population. Reasons for the outmigration are explored. That was followed by “Men of the Exodus” and “No One Lives There Anymore.” The latter deals with the local neighborhoods that became uninhabited as families moved away.  


From time to time, authors of other books, articles and blogs have asked to use material or photographs from the series and offer a link to the blog. One example of this is the 2009 article entitled “October 1759 Rogers Rangers.” One reenactment group listed this on their website as a resource and two authors have asked to use the materials for publications.


This article covers the career of Major Robert Rogers and the 1759 attack by Rogers Rangers against the St. Francis native village in Canada. Hotly pursued by French troops and native warriors, the Rangers made their harrowing escape through our region, nearly starving in the process.  


There were several topics that brought back personal memories of growing up in Orford and Fairlee like “Barn Dance Nights” which recalls local dance halls. It is one topic I stopped researching because those interviewed continued to recall more dance sites than I had room for in the article. “Plain Talkin” described the traditional dialects spoken by many Northern New Englanders, including many I have known during my lifetime.


While many of the pieces concentrate on the period before 1950, ten articles entitled “Decades of Change” covered 5-year spans from 1960 to 2006.  For each of those I reviewed all the editions of the Journal Opinion for the period and included in the article major local events and changes in society and economics.   


The other 74 articles include a wide variety of topics.  The history of the women’s suffrage movement is described in “Women Suffrage: A Radical Notion.” The history of local doctors is the topic of “What Ails You?” The bicentennial of James Wilson’s first globe is included along with Samuel Morey and other local inventors in an article on “Yankee Inventors.” 


Several titles invite the curious to discover what is meant by the title. “Church, Town and Disestablishmentarianism,” “Let’s Take A Walk” and “Things That Never Were.” are three that may warrant a look. 


There are still many topics to explore. Articles waiting to be written include ones on women’s work, organizations, architecture, pets, origins of old saying, early automobiles, local participation in World War I as well as police, roads and cost of living. As with articles I have written on sawmills and steeple clocks where the topic was the result of a suggestions, I am open to hints for future topics.  Suggestions may be sent to me at lccoffin@charter.net.


In 1841, the Rev. Grant Powers, early historian of the Upper Valley, wrote of the settlement of the area. He interviewed elders and wrote of “things grave, things trivial, and things important, and this with a view to present as nearly as possible, to the present and future generations, the circumstances, views, feelings, habits and customs” of those who live here.


He went on to write: “Let every town have its stated historian, who shall delight in his duties, whose object shall be to collect facts of the aged, and by all other means Providence may afford him; to record passing events of an interesting nature.”


This, in our times, is the purpose of these articles and describes the role I have undertaken. They are the way in which I continue to be a teacher, now to a much wider audience. I hope that you, the reader, will agree that I have taken to heart Power’s challenge and will join me in honoring and preserving the history of our section of the Upper Valley.