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Monday, December 20, 2021

How Sweet It Is

SANTA'S SWEET GIFT. Individual boxes of hard Christmas candy were distributed by Santa Claus at the conclusion of school and church Christmas programs in area towns.  In the late 1940s and '50s, the Orford school held their holiday program at the Orford Congregational Church and, at the end, the long-anticipated visitor arrived with boxes of candy for each child. 

YOUNG COOKIE MAKER. Thirteen-year-old Madi Benjamin of Bradford shows off her Christmas cookie creations.  She lives with her grandparents, Bob and Pat Benjamin, and is an accomplished baker with her own baking tools.  She shares her cookies with family and friends, especially those wo are housebound due to Covid. (Courtesy photo Pat Benjamin) 

Journal Opinion Dec 15, 2021

We are in the season of sweet tooth cravings! For many, Christmas sweets are a significant part of the memories of years past. They, like the gifts and traditional foods, reflect the bounteous joy of the season.

This column describes how some sweets become traditional holiday treats. Stories submitted by area residents, internet sites, and newspaper archives provided background. 

This is the fifth in a series on the history of the holiday season. For those interested, the following can be found by using the search feature at “In Times Past” larrycoffin.blogspot.com.  Christmas Memories 1659-1959; Cooking Up a Christmas Storm; The Best Christmas Gift Ever and Old New Year’s Ways.

The much-maligned fruit cake is one of the oldest examples of sweets connected to the holiday season.  The tradition of giving cakes made with dried fruit and seeds goes back to a Roman winter festival.

Immigrants from European nations brought their versions of holiday fruit cakes to the New World. The English style of dark cake, the Italian panettone, Scottish Dundee cake, and the German stollen are just four Christmas cakes. Before 1900, these cakes were considered both a luxury and a way of preserving expensive ingredients.

It was the English version that Bradford’s United Opinion was referring to in 1888: “Good fruit cake, like fine wine, grows better with age; the cake concocted before Christmas so far from deteriorating, will become richer and more melting as it and the holiday season together draws to a close.”

In the early 1900s, ingredients were more accessible, and fruit cakes were mass- produced.  As the quality was reduced, one source referred to them as a “dry lump of disappointment.”

Some love fruit cake and others pass it up. Bradford’s Penny Perryman shared that her mother made fruit cakes to great reviews. She mentioned that she was “very confused as I got older and heard jokes” about fruit cake. 

Other traditional holiday cakes included the alcohol-laden tipsy cake, the torte-fruit Christmas cake, and the nutty New Year’s Cake. In 1876, the Bradford Opinion mentioned eating the latter ensured happiness in the new year.

Akin to these cakes were the traditional holiday baked or boiled puddings. Stir-up Sunday was a day in the late fall when puddings were boiled and put away “to mellow and ripen.” The term plum was a generic term for dried fruits. For some families, plum pudding was as “important to Christmas as the lights in the tree.”

Figgy puddings are better known as Christmas puddings in America. In 1888, Bradford’s United Opinion featured a recipe made from suet, raisins, currants, and citron and steamed for five to eight hours. Carolers asking for a figgy pudding is mentioned in the 1939 carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” 

Christmas pies were standard desserts for the holidays.  One Vermont editor ranked mince pie as the top standard Christmas dessert. Another suggested all any man needed for Christmas was a mince pie and a new pair of slippers.  Mince pies are made from apples, raisins and suet, although there is also a recipe for green tomato mincemeat. Preparations were often made well in advance.

While apple pie is a favorite dessert for Christmas, pumpkin is not far behind. At least three favorite Christmas carols link pumpkin pie with the happiness of home and holiday celebrations. Some sweet enthusiasts list raspberry, cherry or pecan pie as their favorite Christmas dessert memory.

The holiday would not be complete without cookies. A recipe for Christmas cookies was included in the first American cookbook published in 1796.  Coriander sugar cookies could be made six months beforehand and stored in earthenware jars in the cellar.

In the late 19th century, cookie cutters became available, and cookies were made in the shape of bells, stars, and reindeer. Gingerbread cookies had been baked before, but now they were created in shapes such as decorated men, dogs, and horses. Some were eaten, while others became Christmas tree decorations.

In the 1930s, children began leaving cookies and milk for Santa.  About that same time, Christmas cookie exchanges became popular. 

Bakeries and stores also offered cookies for Christmas.  A 1932 ad for Darling’s store in Fairlee featured Sunshine Cabinet Cookies for “Kiddies’ Xmas Tree” That edition of Bradford’s United Opinion reflected the economic hardships by encouraging its readers to “make [their] dollars count.” It added, “Don’t let adult cares be reflected in Children’s Christmas happiness.”

Fairlee’s Marjorie Green recalled the wonderful ginger St. Nicholas-shaped decorated cookies made around 1948 by her local New Jersey bakery. Buying several was a holiday treat. She said she has tried to duplicate these cookies in Vermont. 

The Bradford Public Library currently has a display of wooden molds used in the making of Springeles, a traditional Christmas cookie of Europe’s German-speaking region. These molds have been collected by Anita Fahrni of West Newbury and will be on display for the next month.   

I received several emails from area residents that spoke of the role of candy in their Christmas memories.  For them, “visions of sugar plums” did actually dance in their heads. 

Sugar plums are pieces of candy made with hardened sugar in a small round shape. Plum refers to the shape. They can be made with dried fruit, nuts and spices. In 1802, Confectioner Stephen Delaney of Portsmouth offered commercially made sugar plums. In the mid-19th century, sugar plums were often used as tree decorations.

Clyde Watson of Etna recalled her older sister making sugar plums from large red grapes dipped in egg whites and sugar and used as decorations.

Other candy associated with the holidays included homemade fudge, peanut brittle, molasses taffy, maple candy, and bourbon balls. Charlotte Williams of Fairlee recalled a late 1950s memory of family- made bourbon balls. She described them “as a not-too-sweet mix of baking cocoa, a little flour, a little sugar, and plenty of chopped walnuts.” Doled out on Christmas morning for “a delightful sweet/bitter bite, and what a lovely fiery warmth in the pit of my tummy afterward!”

Several recalled commercially-made candy, including Peach Blossoms. The New England Confectionery Company of Revere, Massachusetts, made these peanut butter candies wrapped in a crunchy shell.

Florence Welch of Newbury said her mom would always purchase a can of Peach Blossoms, even on a tight budget. Patsy Belknap of Bradford said her mom’s first present for her dad every Christmas was a can of the candy. “He savored them well into the New Year.” She said.

Ribbon candy was another popular choice. This sticky wavy candy was made for years by hand by formed strips around the maker’s thumb. In 1886, dentist Dr. P. B. Laskey, a Massachusetts inventor, patented a mechanical candy crimper.

Candy canes are the number one non-chocolate holiday candy. Many of them are purchased first as tree decorations. These sugar sticks were introduced into America around 1847. Until they were made by machine, they were entirely white.

Living in a candy store may be a dream for some kids, but “it’s lots of work,” said 89-year old Phidias Dantos of Hanover. He was born into a family that operated a general store in Andover, Massachusetts. When they made their annual supply of Christmas candies, it was “full gear ahead” for all.

 Dantos recalled how the candy room had to be refurbished before beginning the production. He described how they made ribbon candy by preparing the sugar mixture in large copper kettles. They used up to 1000 pounds of sugar annually.

Wearing heavy gloves, they poured the hot candy slurry onto a large marble-covered bench. After passing through a machine his father had made, it was curled by hand. Broken pieces were saved to be made into peanut brittle.

They also produced candy canes. When his father died in 1952, Dantos worked alongside his Uncle Pete until 1960. He said in the 60 years since,  he has only enjoyed ribbon candy once.  

Donna Garone of Orford said her favorite memory about Christmas sweets was tied to the candy display at Hill’s Five & Ten in Bradford. To great joy, her Dad brought home chocolate covered peanuts, malted milk balls and non-pareil. She carried that tradition until Hill’s no longer sold penny candy.

At festive events such as school or church programs, Santa distributed small boxes of hard candy and candy canes. His appearance was a highly anticipated event and usually occurred at the conclusion of the program.

 I am told by my Jewish connections that a few sweets are specifically connected to the Jewish winter festival of Hanukkah. The most specific is chocolate gelts. These are foil wrapped candy coins given as presents, especially to children. They are often used in conjunction with the Hanukkah game of dreidel.

Jewish families might also enjoy the following sufganiyot (jelly donuts), hamantaschen (small filled cookies), and halvah (sesame fudge-like candy). These, along with sugar or honey cookies in the shape of stars or dreidels, cheesecake, and filled chocolates, might be purchased or made at home.

Wars had a significant impact on Christmas sweets. During the Civil War, men received boxes of candy, cookies, and warm socks.  In 1862, George Benedict of the 12th Vermont Regiment wrote in his diary about boxes of goodies including “raisins, apples and coco-nut cake just sent from home.” He went on, “some soldiers received no special treats.”

Similar packages of homemade goodies were sent to troops in France during World War I.  Companies created special packages containing fruit cake and other treats that could be mailed to service members. One company’s ad mentioned “Send Your Soldier Boy a Liberty Cake,” For $1, including postage, a 24 oz. fruit cake could be sent abroad.

While sugar was not rationed during World War I, there was great pressure to conserve. In November 1917, candy makers were feeling the sugar shortage and they reduced their offerings. There were ads from confectioners in Vermont newspapers that year. The sentiment was “children should have candy!”

In 1942, sugar was the first food to be rationed, and chocolate followed. Service members received hard chocolate in their government rations. In 1941, the Mars Candy Company created M & M’s based on a similar product supplied to troops during the Spanish Civil War. They were heat-resistant and easy to transport and were exclusively produced for military rations. 

As a result, there was a severe shortage of chocolate on the home front. The emphasis on a homemade Christmas extended to making, as nearly as possible, traditional Christmas sweets.  A December 1943 United Opinion edition offered candy recipes to “S-t-r-e-t-c-h” rations points. They included recipes for Christmas fruit balls and marshmallow prunes.         

 When in 1823, Clement Clarke Moore wrote “the stockings were hung by the chimney with care…,” children had been hanging stockings for Santa for some time.

For many years, Christmas presents consisted only of what would fit in a stocking. That might include an apple or orange, some nuts, and hard candy. By 1884, oranges from Florida began to appear in Vermont. In 1888, Christmas oranges were being offered for sale at Beiley’s Store in Newbury. About that same time, boxes of California crystalized fruit were also available.  

 A 1912 article in The Country Gentleman described the contents of a common stocking: “homemade candy tied up in bright paper, a few sugar cookies and an orange.”  

About 1908, the California Fruit Growers Association began a mass marketing campaign to link their oranges with Santa Claus. During the Great Depression, many families could not afford to buy holiday presents. An orange was an exotic treat. 

Another exotic treat was dried dates. Dean Whitlock of Thetford wrote, “My favorite holiday sweet treats were stuffed dates.” They were made by filling pitted dates with shelled walnuts or pecans and sugar.  

For many years, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” produced “the smell of Christmas in America.” In urban areas, street peddlers roasted chestnuts. Eaten warm, they are described as sweet and buttery.  Chestnuts were also used in cakes and as stuffing for the Christmas turkey. Mixed nuts along with roast cashews were also available at holiday time. 

From Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day, many people feel they gain weight due to the sweets consumed. The despair prompts many New Year’s resolutions. With best intentions under siege, Christmas cookies, pies and other treats are challenging to resist. Despite that, how sweet it is.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Five Who Served

THEY CALLED "STEVE." During the 1945 battle for Okinawa, wounded Marines were told to yell "Steve" to summon corpsman Steven Seminerio. Japanese soldiers were calling "corpsman" and then shooting the responding Americans. (Courtesy photo) 

LIBERTY SHIP GUNNER.  During World War II, Haverhill's Earl Aremburg served aboard Liberty-class ships making several transatlantic passages transporting soldiers, equipment and supplies.  Attacks by German submarines and planes made the trips extremely dangerous. (Courtesy photo)

 Journal Opinion  Nov 10, 2021

Thursday, Nov 11 is Veterans Day. It was initially established as Armistice Day to commemorate the end of World War One on the same day in 1918. In 1954, the observance was renamed and expanded to honor all who have served in our nation’s military.   

In observance of this day, five veterans were interviewed for this column. They all served in the nation’s military between 1943 and 1953.   They are all in their nineties. They all have ties to this area. Their service details exemplify the varied experiences of many other veterans. They all participated by sharing their stories which are presented in chronological order.  

Ninety-five-year-old Earl Aremburg, of North Haverhill, recalled he and his friend Joe Dyke joined the Navy right after his 17th birthday in Sept 1943. He trained as a gunner in Norfolk, Virginia and, was assigned to a 35-man unit on the SS Hannis Taylor, a Liberty-class cargo ship.

Aremburg’s first transatlantic trip was in a convoy of 100 ships carrying troops, equipment, and supplies to the Mediterranean. During the 30-day trip, the ever-present danger from German submarines was significant and the convoy lost a number of ships. Liberty ships, he recalled, “sunk like a stone” with considerable loss of life. Especially dangerous was when the convoy went through the Strait of Gibraltar as it had to go single file.

The Hannas Taylor was assigned to carry cargo around the Mediterranean from North Africa to Naples and at least one trip back to the States. On that trip the ship’s cargo was largely damaged equipment that he referred to as “junk.”

He recalled that perhaps some of the older men suffered more from homesickness and fear than he did. But he did remember experiencing fear during the German nighttime bombings of the port of Naples in the spring of 1944. The vulnerable ships were under total blackout. He recalled the Army’s response with searchlights spotting the enemy bombers overhead.  

Returning to Baltimore, Aremburg was transferred to a second Liberty ship whose mission was refueling ships enroute to North Africa. After the end of the war in the European theater, he was shipped to the Pacific in anticipation of the invasion of Japan.  He was transferred from gunner to machinist aboard the aircraft carrier USS Manila Bay.

 After the Japanese surrender, the carrier was used to return troops to the States for discharge. Because of his low point score, Aremburg was not discharged until Jan 1946.  The Adjusted Service Rating Score was used by the services to determine the order in which service members would be discharged.  Points were granted based on a number of factors, including length of service.

Upon discharge Aremburg traveled by train from San Francisco to Boston, arriving back in Haverhill in April, 1946, just 20 years old. He remained in the Marine Reserve, but was not called for further duty.

Post-war, Aremburg  and his son Ray were well-known for their co- ownership of Blackmount Equipment in North Haverhill and for his activities in the local veterans’ post.      

Jan 31, 1944 was Steven Seminero’s 18th birthday and the day he enlisted in the Navy. As he had been a  pre-med student at Boston University, he was assigned as a corpsman with the 6th Marine Division. That June, he was shipped to Guadalcanal to prepare for the invasion of the Japanese island of Okinawa.

Seminero recalled, “We invaded Okinawa on Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. I was in the first wave that landed. At first, there was no combat, but as we moved south, it became more difficult. Four thousand of our men were killed and many more wounded.” 

He said that three corpsmen sent in before him were killed. “The Japanese were calling ‘corpsman’ to lure them and then kill them.  So my platoon leader ordered the men to call ‘Steve’ if they needed me. I was told later that while I was crawling uphill toward a wounded man, bullets were flying all around me, but I was totally unaware of this.” During combat, Seminero was promoted to Pharmacist Mate 2nd Class.

The division was in Guam preparing for the invasion of Japan when the atomic bombs were dropped. “As we thought of the invasion as a suicide mission, we were most relieved.”  The division was then assigned to Tsingtao, China, to process surrendering Japanese forces. 

Upon discharge, Seminero returned to Boston University under the GI Bill. Upon graduation, he married his wife Marilyn and entered seminary.  For 42 years, he served Methodist churches in Massachusetts, retiring to Marilyn’s family home in East Haverhill in 1992.  He is well known in the area, having served as interim minister in several area churches.  They now divide their time between East Haverhill and Concord, MA.   

Seminero said that after discharge, he tried “to forget the war and get on with my life. I never talked about it until the fifty-year observance of the end of the war.” At a program on the Okinawa battle in 1995, he responded to an invitation from the speaker to share his experiences. This interview continues that sharing. 

In 1944, 17-year old Alan Stahl answered his nation’s call and joined the Navy.  He was sent to school to train as a motor machinist. He was assigned to the newly-minted LST 900, a 328-foot tank landing ship.

After amphibious landing exercises in Hawaii, the ship sailed in convoy to Okinawa in June 1945. When asked about the impact of the extreme heat of a Pacific summer, Stahl recalled that as machinists, they were able to get some relief by rerouting some of the air conditioning meant for the officers.

As a Machinist’s Mate, his duties included checking equipment such as the ramp doors and generators. During the invasion of the Japanese-held island, he and his fellows shipmates  were involved in unloading Marines along with their equipment.  One of his duties was to operate the smoke machine that helped provide cover from enemy fire. Something went wrong, and the machine blew up. “It went straight up into the air…I got hell from the Captain.” he recalled.

After Okinawa, the ship prepared for the invasion of the Japanese homeland.  When asked about the use of the atomic bombs to end the war, Stahl said most of the men he knew at the time thought it was “the right thing to do.”  In October 1945, his ship sailed to Tokyo Bay to discharge occupation troops.

Subsequently, he was transferred to the USS LST 875. At this point, the thought uppermost in the minds of most of his buddies was how many points they had accumulated.

After being discharged in 1946, he and his new wife Barbara drove to Oklahoma, where he attended the engineering program at Oklahoma State under the GI Bill. Most of his working experience was for AT &T.  They purchased a farm on South Road in Bradford in 1961, using it first as a vacation spot and then as a retirement home. They now live in Savannah, GA, near their family. 

Hans “Buck” Trede of South Ryegate was born in Germany in 1929. Two years later, his family migrated to America and settled on Long Island. He left the horticulture program at Farmingdale State College in 1950 to join the Marines. After training, he was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Philippines Sea as part of a contingency of 80 Marines. The carrier task force was ordered to the Pacific in response to the North Korean invasion of South Korea. 

In Dec. 1950, the United Nations forces at Chosin, North Korea, were in retreat as the Chinese entered the conflict. The Philippines Sea was at Hungnam to assist with the evacuation of troops and civilians.  Trede was assigned to a launch to go ashore.  During one sortie, he suffered a non-combat injury to his leg that sent him to the sick bay. There he developed pneumonia and was treated with penicillin, to which he suffered a severe reaction. 

After recuperating at the naval hospital in Beaufort, SC, Trede was reassigned at the sea rescue naval base in Bermuda. His duties there were varied, from security on the Tender Pier and main gate to guarding the ammo dump. Additionally, in dress blues, he escorted officers to ceremonies and social events.

Trede wanted an early discharge to return to college, but the appropriate date would be three weeks after the start of the semester.  Luckily, Trede had a sympathetic sergeant who  arranged for him to remain in the Corps for those three weeks and still begin college in the horticulture program. 

Trede moved to South Ryegate about three years ago to live with his daughter. In his retirement, he crafts beautiful furniture. “There is no such thing as an ex-Marine,” he says and proudly carries his Marine identification card in his wallet. Thinking back over his military service, he stated, “They were the best experiences I ever had.”

Bradford’s Leonard Dobbins was drafted into the Army in 1951, at age 21. He was assigned to the 141st Light Tank Battalion and trained at Fort Hood and in the Mojave Desert. In 1952, his portion of the battalion left New Orleans for an army base in Hanau, Germany.  Dobbins recalled that another portion was sent to the war in Korea.  It was just “chance” that gave him the European assignment. 

The battalion was located in the American Sector of what became West Germany. Their presence was part of the American response to the developing threat of Soviet expansion. As it was assumed that tanks would be part of any action, maneuvers were held regularly to keep them battle-ready. But Dobbins concluded that his peaceful tour “was a very safe assignment.”

 Hanau had been almost totally destroyed by Allied bombing during the war. Dobbins recalled that while there was a great deal of reconstruction going on, there was still evidence of the economic repercussions of WW II on the civilian population. 

He remembered seeing a German woman using a horse and cow to plow her field. At night, he would see kids going through the garbage from the mess hall, searching for food. 

While relations between the military and the local population were generally good. However, Dobbins recalled the damage the battalion’s large tanks did to roads and buildings at civilian crossroads when the tanks were unable to maneuver the sharp corners easily.

Dobbins had been a carpenter prior to being drafted and was assigned to be a battalion carpenter. After returning to Bradford, he used his enhanced skills as a local carpenter/contractor and continues to do at age 91. He married his wife Evelyn in 1954, and they still live on Dobbins Lane in Bradford. 

As with the other veterans interviewed, he mentioned the excellent care he has received at local VA hospital and of the many veterans met through American Legion functions.      

 In 1995, Oxbow High commemorated the 50th anniversary of the end of World War Two by inviting over 50 local speakers to recall their experiences for the students.  Speakers included soldiers, airmen and sailors, factory workers, a UFO entertainer, a German civilian who recalled Allied bombing, and a man dropped behind the lines in Southeast Asia with the task of organizing locals against the Japanese.

As that generation was aging, that was about the last decade in which such a collection of such locals could be held. We owe a lot to that generation, especially to those who served in the military.      

Several years ago, my wife and I were having lunch with Alan and Barbara Stahl at a local dinner on Tybee Island, GA.  When I went to pay the tab, I was told that a stranger had paid for their lunch in gratitude for Alan’s service. Earl Aremburg recalled similar incidents at local restaurants and the young people who asked about his service. 

“Thank you for your service.” On Veterans Day, 2021, that message continues to be appropriate not only for those who served in World War II, Korea, and during the Cold War, but for the many who followed as well.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Fruits of the Harvest


(Courtesy: Vermont Tree Fruit Growers Association)

Journal Opinion 10/6/2021

“How many farmers go to the store or tavern and spend their leisure time talking about their neighbors and cursing the book farming.  How much better it would be for them to stay at home and cultivate their apple trees.” Noah W. Hardy, Granite Farmer, 1851.

This column explores the history of wild and domesticated fruits, berries and nuts in New Hampshire and Vermont. It will not deal with garden crops such as potatoes or squash, or field crops such as wheat, oats, and corn.   

I draw on the observations of those who have written, on the subject in newspapers and agricultural reports in times past especially prior to 1930.

Both wild and domesticated plants are climate dependent. In New Hampshire, the growing season is longest in the southern section, especially near the Seacoast. Southern Vermont, as well as the Champlain Valley, have more frost-free days and are more likely to see expanded fruit and berry production. 

Even within local areas, there are microclimate zones that have somewhat different growing season. As cold air is heavier it tends to settle in the valleys whereas warmer, lighter air rises. Hillside farms were often a better location for fruit crops that required a somewhat longer season. 

One of the most important fruit crops in the area has been apples. With only crabapples native to North America, larger apples were brought to North America by European migrants. From the earliest settlement, apple trees and orchards were planted. According to The History of Newbury, apple trees were planted in Newbury and Haverhill in 1763 and, by 1770, “their fruit had become quite plentiful, while as yet there were not trees in bearing elsewhere, nearer than sixty miles.” 

Zadock Thompson’s 1842 review of Vermont horticulture reported that apples were the “most important and abundant fruit, and is found to flourish in all parts of the state.” Farmers in both states experimented with different types of apples, often grafting new varieties to old stock. Apples were often grown specifically for eating, cooking, drying or cider-making.

 The extensive orchards produced an immense quantity of apples. Most of these were made into cider and cider brandy. Prior to 1840, Daniel Eastman of West Newbury owned an orchard as well as a distillery. He produced up to 1,200 bushels of apples and 30 barrels of cider brandy. In the 1880s, James Hunter of Ryegate operated an apple jelly mill producing over 5 tons of jelly and other products. 

The value of apple orchard products in New Hampshire doubled between 1850 and 1860. The New Hampshire Board of Agriculture promoted the planting of apple trees in the belief that the state was just right for them.

 Charles E. Hardy of Hollis, NH, is an example of an apple producer who followed their advice. He began to market Baldwin apples, with each individual fruit wrapped in paper and packaged in air-tight barrels. AT the height of his production, he sold 1,150 barrels of apples for $2,500. 

By the 1860s, there may have been as many as 600 varieties of apples grown in Vermont.  My 2nd great grandfather Clark Harris of Wilmington, VT, won repeated prizes at the Windham County Fair for exhibiting the largest variety. In the 1870s, he entered up to 46 varieties of grafted apples.  

Many of those older varieties have disappeared. There are groups in both states actively looking for any remaining heirloom apple trees. Janice Brown’s blog on New Hampshire history has an extensive article on missing New Hampshire heirloom apples. The list includes Granite Beauty, Dinsmore, Jewett’s Red, and Lafayette.  The latter was developed in Chester, NH in 1824, to recognize General Lafayette’s triumphant return tour of the nation. 

One of the earliest hill town orchards was begun in East Corinth in 1870.  By 1920 it belonged to Julian Dimock, who through new plantings and grafting of old ones, had enlarged it to 1,600 trees. His fruit became well known in part because of aggressive advertising. One example: “Dimock Apples: You can eat them in the dark!”

The orchards of Bennington’s Edward Hamlin Everett overshadowed all others. A wealthy entrepreneur, Everett established Southern Vermont Orchards in 1910.  The orchards included 75,000 apple trees with 65 varieties, 3,000 plum trees and 2,000 quince trees. It is reported that his orchards were the largest privately owned orchards in the world.  Everett died in 1929.  A modern Southern Vermont Orchards now has 300 acres of the site.   

While apples grew abundantly, there has been questions about the growing of peaches outside of the warmer parts of the region. In 1842, Zadock Thompson, using his Lake Champlain garden as an example, wrote that while little attention had been paid to peaches, “good ones could be raised.” 

In 1869, a report in the New England Farmer suggested peaches were an unreliable crop, with New Hampshire coastline growers getting just one good season in three. As hardier varieties were developed it was reported that “peaches are hard to grow as far north as the Green Mountains, but if they will grow at all they are the very best.” Ads for those hearty varieties began to appear in Brattleboro and Burlington newspapers around 1870.

In 1916, future Senator George Aiken of Putney wrote, “It is not generally known that peaches can be grown in Vermont, yet in Windham Country there at several orchards of a few hundred trees each.”

I placed a question online inquiring about growing local peaches. There were a several positive responses and an invitation from Jean Carlan to taste some of the 150 pieces of fruit she had gathered from her two trees on Bradford’s Main Street.     

Wild grapes were another fruit that grew in abundance and gathered in late September. Known for their “piquancy of flavor,” they had a low sugar content and a sour taste. Early settlers used them for jellies and preserves.

In 1849, the wild grapes were so prolific, “when the season arrived, it was as common occurrence for boys to take a basket on their arm and go out a graping, as it is to go after blackberries.“ noted one contemporary.

In 1850, an article in the Granite Farmer stated, “A little attention to our wild grapes may discover some new variety that could prove to be valuable.”  Actually, the year before a nurseryman in Concord, MA, had taken a wild grape variety and crossed it with an established grape to produce the Concord grape.  This technique helped the delicate variety to evolve into a hardy one, adapted to colder climates.

Growing up in Orford in the 1950s, there were “wild” Concord grapes on our boundary trees.  Perhaps a bird had dropped a seed years before. In addition to swinging on the large vines, we enjoyed the fresh fruit and the grape conserve jelly my Mom made.  

If space allowed, this column could have described other fruits, including wild red and black cherries and pears, found in warmer sections. Improved varieties of these fruits were later available commercially, as were plums, quince and currants. 

The history of strawberries in the area is significant. Wild strawberries are native to the area and both indigenous people and European settlers found them to be a special treat as they are among the first fruits to ripen.

Between 1834 and 1851, nurserymen in New England developed berries that are the ancestors of most modern varieties. About 1875, William Smalley of Bradford experimented with a quarter acre of strawberries on his Lower Plain farm. His experiment was successful and, by 1884, he was producing 1,000 bushes of the fruit annually.

By 1888, the number of growers in Bradford had increased to 11. Maitland Jenkins purchased his father’s farm on the Lower Plain in 1893 and became known as the Strawberry King.  Strawberries were shipped by train to the White Mountains, Boston and New York. Even strawberries produced in neighboring towns were often advertised as “Bradford strawberries.”

Those interested in a more complete history of local strawberries can access a 2007 article on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. 

As early settlers cleared the forest, wild berry bushes grew up in thickets and along woodland borders, providing a “plethora of free berries.”  These included red and black raspberries, elderberries, gooseberries, thimbleberries, high bush cranberries, blueberries, teaberries or perhaps even the elusive checkerberry.

Picking wild blackberries became a rewarding pastime for many. The bushes were often in the most unexpected and neglected locations. The picker who found these locations while “aberrying” would often keep them a personal secret. 

 In Corinth’s so-called  South America district, there was great blackberry country. The town history mentions that Corinth people went there to pick bushels of blackberries for home use and sale. 

“It is ridiculous to be shipping blackberries into Vermont in carload lots,” one 1899 observer wrote, “when they grow well all over the hills and can be raised in the garden almost without effort.”

Wild blueberries have been harvested by indigenous people for centuries. New settlers found these berries in both states.  Wild berries were referred to as low blueberries or low bush blueberries. 

By 1913, wild blueberries had been over picked. This led the US Department of Agriculture to encourage the cultivation of high bush berries.  Around 1916, wild blueberries and wild currants were destroyed in many places as they were thought to be contributors to white pine blister, a disease that endangered the forestry industry.  

In 1864, an article in The Vermont Transcript had reported, “Our country farms are the best gooseberry growers.”  The berries were used for pies, chutney, jams, and cordials.

By 1878, improved specie were being planted in home gardens.  Vermonters were advised that gooseberries were easily grown, required little attention, and produced quantities of fruit “no matter how much they were neglected.”

But by 1907, when gooseberries were thought to contribute to white pine blister,  New Hampshire state foresters were given the authority to remove gooseberries and wild currents from private property to avoid the white pine blister.  Gooseberries are still illegal in New Hampshire.        

While many of the fruits mentioned above are currently grown commercially in New Hampshire and Vermont, nuts are not. These include walnuts, chestnuts, butternuts, beech-nuts, acorns, and hazelnuts. These were found wild in various amounts with acorns being the most plentiful.

Indigenous people relied on these nuts as an important source of protein. Settlers followed their examples, except that they often used wild nuts as feed for pigs. Pigs were often allowed to roam free during the fall to root for the fallen nuts. Nut-finishing gives pork a sweeter taste.

The meat of butternuts is hard to access, but their sweetness compensates for the difficulty of cracking them and the “untidy nature” of the trees. Butternut trees were quite common in the two states. In 1917, The Caledonian reported that the largest butternut tree in Vermont was found at the Doe residence in Bradford village.  It was reported to have a circumference of 11 feet and its 76-foot crown reach half way across the adjacent main street. 

This “backyard delicacy” was especially tasty when used in maple fudge. In the 1950’s, my Uncle Elroy Coffin of West Brattleboro was a major commercial producer of this delicacy. After 1978, a butternut canker began to infect trees in both states and the trees suffered high mortality rates, especially in Vermont.

All of the trees and plants mentioned above were susceptible to the yearly variations of the weather. Exceptionally cold winters, such as that of 1816, killed them. June frosts in 1859 killed the apple crop with almost one-half of the orchards in Vermont either dead or dying. Hurricanes, such as the one in 1938, caused widespread destruction of fruit trees.

Climatologists and horticulturists are warning of the impact of climate change on traditional fruit growing practices. Warmer winters do not produce the “chill” that is essential for apple production.  An extremely hot day can cause burn on sensitive fruit. Extreme variations in rain fall also impact the growth of fruit. Changing climate can also encourage invasive diseases, plants, and pests that can harm orchards and wild plants.

But for now, whether foraging for wild treats, picking in commercial orchards, or gathering that which you have grown in your back yard, the fruit  of the harvest is something to treasure. Enjoy. 

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Late Summer Fun

MOUNTAIN HIKING:  In the mid-1890s, this group of local residents prepared to climb Mt. Moosilauke.  Several trails and a carriage road made this a popular hiking location. The Prospect Hose on the summit was built in 1860. Late renamed the Tip Top House, it was destroyed in fire in 1942. (Bradford Historical Society)

CROQUET SET MILL: Croquet was introduced in the United States in the mid-1860s and became very popular. In 1888, the Roy Bros woodworking mill was established in East Barnet and at its height manufactured 40,000 croquet sets annually.  The mill was damaged by several floors and fires and ceased production in 1938.

For many years, Bradford's swimming hole was located at the Baldwin Bridge and the Waits River. Swimming lessons were a popular feature of this community pool.  

A month or so is left of official summer, less so if you are looking to a new school year. Still time for a column on the history of summer and fall activities. Not all seasonal activities are included.  Baseball, softball, summer fairs and auto racing will be dealt with at another time.

Early New England residents brought their recreational activities and attitudes from Europe. Summer activities included foot racing, nine-pin lawn bowling, and games that were forerunners of modern shuffleboard and baseball. Recreation, such as husking bees combined work and play.

The Puritan ethic considered play and idleness “the devil’s workshop.” Except for the youngest, there was little time for play. Leisure was a privilege of the upper classes. Farmers who toiled from first light to dark in the summer had little time, energy, or inclination for leisure activities.

The introduction of labor-saving machines in shops and on farms reduced the number of hours in the average workweek. These changes reduced the 1860 average workweek of 70 hours to 62 by 1890, 55 by 1910 and 43 by 1940. Shortened hours meant that adults had the time for involvement in fun activities. These advances did not always apply to farmers who to this day often toil 80 hours a week during harvest.

Many of those initially involved in the listed activities were likely to be tourists or residents in the middle and upper classes, especially when expensive equipment or fees were involved.  Golfing and cycling are examples of these.  When the activity did not require elaborate equipment, others were more likely to be involved.

When Americans began to have more leisure time, they often engaged in recreation that could be described as working at play. Just sitting around doing nothing was often equated with laziness. 

Golf was introduced into New Hampshire and Vermont in the late 19th century, with the Dorset VT club opening in 1886 and the Hanover Golf Club opening in 1899.  In 1929, the United Opinion reported, “Vermont, like Scotland, is a country built for golf.  Vermont is the Golfer’s Country.”

Locally, there have been nine golf courses, some public, others private.  Some were closely connected with tourism and others involved community interests. They were both designer courses and just pastures that doubled as links. Three remain open, including Bradford and Lake Morey, both established in the early 1920s.  Blackmount Golf Club opened in 1996.

The six that have disappeared include the Pike Manufacturing Company course which opened in 1900; Lake Tarleton Club, 1909: Mt. Moosilauke Golf Club in Warren, early 1900s; Shanty Shane on Lake Fairlee, 1911: Wells-Wood Golf Club in Wells River, 1925: and Bonnie Oakes Resort on Lake Morey established in the early 1960s.

At one time or another, all of these courses have been open for local golfers.  Details on these courses can be found on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com.

For the young caddies, playing mumblety-peg in the caddy shack while waiting for an assignment, golfing was work. Sometimes, caddies, such as those at Lake Tarleton, had a chance to get in a round in the evening or going for a swim on a hot day. 

Swimming has been a traditional summer activity since the earliest settlers.  Swimming for recreation rather than just a way to bathe became more popular in the 18th century, especially among men and boys. 

By the latter part of the 19th century, women and girls were increasingly allowed to swim in mixed company. Their outfits consisted of long dresses or bathing gowns. Men wore wool shorts and tops, and only in the 1930s did men start to go topless.

It was not uncommon for boys to dam up the local brook for swimming. In 1897, Frank West Rollins recalled his New Hampshire youth when, as boys, “we divested ourselves of every stitch as we ran, and with a yell of delight, disappeared in the soft waters of the swimming hole.”

Swimming was also a major activity at the many youth camps and hotels that offered urban residents a respite from the summer heat. Swimming lesson programs became more common in the 1950s for local children.   

Hall’s Pond, Baldwin Bridge, Flat Rock, Ticklenaked Pond, and Lake Morey are among the swimming locations that called young and old alike for refreshment from the summer heat.    

With hundreds of ponds, lakes, and rivers, the two states are a mecca for other water-borne sports.  Fishing and boating are two of those. Fishing for food by local residents has existed for centuries, beginning with our Native Americans predecessors.

As early as 1837, the sport of trout fishing was tempted rural and urban fishermen alike. In 1842 Vermont historian Zadock Thompson wrote, “when the country was new all our waters swarmed with fish of various kind.’” Fish such as salmon and shad were so abundant in the Connecticut River, “they could be taken in any quantities desired.”  He went on to warn that while still plentiful, the erection of dams, pollution and reckless fishing was having an impact on the fish population.

In 1867, the local newspaper reported that four persons from Bradford took about 400 pounds of fish from Fairlee Pond.  In the years that followed, Lake Morey had a reputation for being able to catch “boatloads of suckers” with horned pout being so plentiful that “anyone can catch as many as he wishes for in an hour or two on a summer evening.” By 1898, Lake Morey was depleted of game fish, a situation also true of Hall’s Pond.

Both states passed legislation establishing fish commissions, and regulations and fish hatcheries to deal with this depletion. In 1907, with millions of trout and salmon fries released, it was reported, “when it comes to fishing, New Hampshire is emphatically in the front ranks.”

About that same time, there was news of the Wells River Fish and Game League. This group owned three nearby well-stocked ponds from which, on one morning, a small group caught 40 pounds of trout. 

In the 1950s, the fish taken from the Connecticut River were impacted by the river’s pollution. The efforts to reduce pollution in the two states made waterways better fishing locations. One only has to drive near local lakes and rivers to notice the number of fishing activities.         

Recreational boating and camping have also been a prominent local summertime activity. From 1892 until his death in 1930, Capt. Edgar Lucas and his steamboats provided tours and other services to the cottages and camps on Lake Morey and Lake Fairlee.   Similar steamboats plied Lake Groton to service local camps. These lakes celebrated boating with an annual boat parade. 

Youths from area camps were a significant portion of early boating on area lakes and rivers. For many years, the late Lloyd and Lucy Bugbee maintained a free canoeist camping site near their Bradford home at the Connecticut’s Eel Pot Ledge. Most of the patrons of that site were from youth camps or vacationing tourists. The site was later moved to Bradford’s Memorial Field’s Waits River access.

The building of Wilder Dam has enhanced opportunities for both canoeing and powerboating on the Connecticut River.

Summer fun has included bicycling since the 1870s. Cycling clubs began with the Vermont Wheel Club in 1884.  Bicycle shops began to open locally in the 1890s to meet “the desire among the youth and older ones to own a wheel.”

Bike touring became popular in both states, with some residents taking extended bicycling vacations. For many, a day-tour was enough. Cycling had a liberating impact on many women, giving them “a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.” Youngsters also experienced freedom as bicycles allowed trips for adventure.

 Young boys were more likely to take to village streets. Bradford historian Harold Haskins recalled “boys, whose only desire was to ride as fast as possible, regardless of the safety of pedestrians.” Several locals shared their own “dare-devil antics” in my blog article entitled “Pedaling Along.” 

One activity that required only minimum equipment was the game of horseshoes. Derived from the ancient game of guoits, it involved pitching horseshoes approximately 40 feet toward a rod in order to score points. 

Introduced into New England by English settlers, this game of skill “requires a good eye, an intuitive sense of direction and the knack of giving the shoe a spin that holds it flat when landing.” Success is a “ringer” with a “leaner” getting partial credit in points.

Competitions using mule shoes were played in Union camps during the Civil War.  Returning soldiers brought the game home. This game was played in the backyard for fun or in serious competition on a prepared court.

Especially after 1920, horseshoes became a regular part of local celebrations. Women sometimes participated.  Leagues were established, and teams travelled to competitions. Obituaries of many local residents mention a life-long interest in this sport.

There are other summer lawn games that were played locally in times past. The very social game of croquet was introduced into Vermont during the mid-1860s. In 1865, one Vermont newspaper mentioned that the game was “making rapid progress in the affections of the community.” The following year croquet sets were offered for sale. The game was especially popular in situations that allowed the mingling of young couples.      

The game saw a resurgence in the 1930s and was played on many local lawns. Since the late 1970s, it has been played competitively at tournaments in both states. 

The Roy Brothers’ mill of East Barnet became known for the hundreds of thousands of croquet sets it manufactured. Beginning in 1888, this river-side mill manufactured sets from birch, maple, and other local hardwoods and sold them through national catalogs. In 1924, the mill employed 50 local workers and manufactured 40,000 sets.  Fires and floods brought an end to the enterprise.  

Lawn tennis was introduced into the United States in 1881.  In 1884, Frederick Billings set up a tennis court at his Woodstock property. That same year, New Hampshire’s first tennis court was built in Waterville Valley.  By 1894, an annual Vermont lawn tennis tournament was held, and local clubs were being established.  Many of the first state tournaments were held in St. Johnsbury.

Players in the early years of the game competed with white balls, wooden racquets, long shirts for the women and long pants and ties for the men.

In the 1880s, Italian immigrants introduced New England to the Italian lawn bowling game of bocce. Italian clubs in cities such as Rutland, Barre, and Manchester had bocce courts. The Burlington’s club bocce courts drew families on Sunday afternoons for pleasure and competition.  Because of its varied ability level appeal and minimum equipment required, bocce remains one of the most widely played games in the world. 

The first badminton club was established in America in 1878. It became especially popular in the 1930s.  Badminton clubs were established in both states and offered the game for both recreation and competition. Inexpensive sets allowed families to set up the game in local backyards.

More recently, volleyball, corn hole, and Frisbee could be added to this list of summer lawn games. The Valley News recently had an article on the British game of cricket being played in the Upper Valley. 

Hiking and walking for pleasure was “a relatively new concept” in the late 19th century. Local hikers have been drawn to local mountains in both states for excursions since then. In 1886, it was reported that a large local group climbed Mt. Moosilauke. “This mountain,” the report concluded, “is gaining a deserved notoriety as a popular resort.” In 1860, a small hotel was constructed on the summit and groups accessed it by several trails. 

In 1910, the newly-formed Green Mountain Club began the construction of a hiking trail along the ridges of the Green Mountains.  The 270-mile Long Trail, completed in 1930, was the “first long-distance wilderness hiking trail in America.”

In 1921 the Appalachian Trail was proposed. Composed of existing trails and new paths, it was completed in 1937.  The 2,190 mile trail includes 151 miles in Vermont and 160 miles in New Hampshire and bisects our area on its way from Maine to Georgia. 

More could be listed as seasonal recreation activities. In addition to what might appear to be work-like activities, there are always lounge chairs and good books.  Whatever your passion, play on. Winter is coming.


Thursday, July 22, 2021

On The Stage

This undated photo, probably from the late 1930s, shows a group of Bradford, Fairlee and Newbury men in performance at the Bradford Village Hall. (Bradford Historical Society)

Between the 1890s and 1950s, local groups and professional traveling companies performed blackface minstrel shows.  This poster was for the 1947 VFW minstrel show in Fairlee.  With few citizens of color to correct it, the racial stereotypes portrayed gave audiences a negative impression of African Americans. (Fairlee Historical Society) 
The Old Church Theater, the Tabor Valley Players and the Parish Players are three repertory community theater groups that have entertained local audiences over the years. This image is a publicity still from OCT's August 2012 production of "Anne of Green Gables," directed by Gloria Heidenreich.  Pictured are (from l to r) are Mia Easton, Scott Johnson and Melissa Mann, who is directing this summer's "Alice in wonderland." (courtesy photo) 

Another community repertory theater company combined the talents of theatre lovers from Topsham and Corinth between 1976 and 2000.  The photo above shows the cast of "The Fantasticks." (Courtesy photo)
Journal  Opinion July 14, 2021

“Little has been written of the theatrical history of Vermont; yet that little state encompasses a colorful theatrical past.” Dr. George B. Bryan, UVM Dept. of Theatre, 1991.

This column examines the theatrical history of our local area.  It defines theater in the broadest sense to include both professional and amateur performances on a stage. Examples include productions with local talent as well as those from away.  It includes student productions and what might be referred to as high- or low-brow amusements.

Bryan’s article on theater history mentions that there were theatrical productions and traveling musicians in Vermont by the American Revolution. However, from the beginning attitudes were mixed, with some hostility to outside performers. Perhaps that is because performances were often held in taverns and even on the Sabbath.  For many of the “moralistic contingent,” theatre was considered “a public nuisance and offensive against the state.”

 In 1836, the Vermont Legislature passed strict anti-theater legislation and the region entered “a state of artistic repression.” The so-called Bell’s Law remained on the books until 1880, but while performances were curtailed, there was a growing tendency to ignore the restrictions.

After 1880, there were new or  improved facilities dedicated to performances, both amateur and professional. They were locations for local talent, vaudeville stock companies and classical performers. In some cases, these were public town or village halls and, in others, they were private Opera Houses. Woodsville Opera House was built in 1892. Fairlee, Groton and Bradford’s theatre venues were referred to as “opera houses.” 

Railroads sometimes offered reduced rates for those attending shows. In 1907, the Woodsville production of “Under Two Flags” was so popular that a special train ran from Groton.

The Chautauqua was a popular form of entertainment in the years after 1904.  Founded in western New York in 1874 as an educational and social movement, it expanded into programs that brought tents to local communities before 1930.  It was described as a “cross between a campground and a circus.”

In 1915, Chautauqua toured the area, with week-long events in Bradford and Woodsville. The United Opinion published a special edition and the Bradford town center was decorated in anticipation of the “rare treat” of lectures, music, stories and magic performances. It returned for several years after, with the 1921 schedule also including one on the common in Newbury. The 1922-26 editions included a Junior Chautauqua held in the afternoon for the area children. The one held in Wells River included ballet along with other performances.

Several local entertainers were regulars in the Chautauqua tours.  From 1895 to 1937, Charles Ross Taggart of Newbury portrayed “The Man From Vermont” on the Chautauqua circuit. He was a gifted musician, humorist, and ventriloquist. Perley Klark and Luvia Mann, both of Woodsville, also added their musical talents to the tours. 

The late Clara Aldrich of Bradford told one of my student interviewers that the Chautauqua shows under tents behind the Bradford Academy “furnished us with good entertainment which was needed in those days.” 

One once-popular form of theatrical entertainment flourished in northern New England. The history of blackface minstrel shows holds a legacy of racial stereotyping.

Minstrel variety shows began nationally as early as 1828. As the term “minstrel” referred to traveling performers, early newspaper notices of “minstrel shows” may not have been blackface performances. However, after 1890, professional blackface minstrel shows toured the two states. Several were African American groups for whom the shows offered a significant means of income.  

There were also local minstrel shows, using local talent and performers in blackface. In 1893, the Apollo Club Minstrels of Montpelier appeared in Woodsville to an overflow crowd.  In 1896, there were two, the “Newbury Minstrels’ Big Black Show” and the Bradford Lady Minstrels. Bradford Academy students presented a similar show on several occasions. 

By the 1920’s, minstrel shows were fairly regular local events. In 1922, the Modern Woodmen’s show had 37 men in the chorus. As with the professional groups, these local productions included dancing, singing, jokes, tableaus, slapstick routines and “a plantation skit.” Those shows performed by whites, often in blackface, portrayed African Americans men as “stupid and lazy and black women as rotund and genial.”  Local men performed all the roles including that of the end men whose role was to engage in “comic repartee with Mr. Interlocutor.”

As late as the 1940s and 50’s, local men’s groups such as the Bradford and Fairlee firemen and VFW held regular minstrel shows as a fundraising activity.

With few citizens of color to correct it, the mocking racial stereotypes portrayed in the typical blackface minstrel show left a lasting negative impression. Dr. Byron concluded, “Vermont heartily supported minstrel shows long after their popularity waned in other places.” As local shows were discontinued after 1960, the controversy over blackface shows centered on UVM’s Annual Kake Walk. The 80-year old tradition came under considerable criticism and, after considerable discussion and attempted adaptations, it was dropped in 1969. 

But minstrel shows were not the only form of amateur and professional theater to thrive in the 20th century. 

After 1915, the Nellie Gill Players of Plainfield, VT toured the area, offering their annual productions to full houses. Manager Nellie Gill was a professional actor and utilized local talent in the plays. The review of the 1921 tour that included Fairlee, Bradford and Newbury, “guaranteed you’ll go home with a smile that won’t wear off.”

Burlesque was the “frisky cousin of vaudeville.” This gaudy adults-only show was not common in the area, although there were notices of such performances in Woodville.   Risqué shows, such as “The Whirly Girly Music Show” that toured Barre and St. Johnsbury in 1912, were sometimes found in local fairs. Under the charges of “moral indecency” such shows were dropped from fair offerings by the early 1980s.     

There have been many other plays offered by local organizations, including the following: Rebekahs of Woodville drama at the Haverhill Town Hall in 1897; Rebekah Lodge  play presented in the Bradford Village Hall in  1910; Bradford Eastern Star farce “How the Story Grew” in  1912;  Orford PTA presentation “Aunt Susie Shoots the Works”  in 1948.

There have been at least three repertory theatres in the area that have presented one and three-act productions.  The Thetford Parish Players began their production-filled history in December 1966.  Organized by Ed and Gillian Tyler and David and Linda Strohmier, their first production was “The Long Christmas Dinner” by Thornton Wilder.  It was held in the First Congregational Church on Thetford Hill, thus the name “parish players.”

This volunteer-based company continued to produce plays, sharing the nearby Eclipse Grange Hall with the local Grange organization. When the Grange disbanded in 1992, the theatre group acquired the building. According to the Parish Players website, the group presented 350 local talent productions in the first 50 years of their history.

The Tabor Valley Players was established in 1976 by Jim and Gloria Heidenreich and other local talent from Corinth and Topsham.  Using a $50 donation from theatre lover Maurice Page, they produced “Aaron Slick of Punkin’ Crick” in East Corinth’s Mason Hall.  This play had been first produced during Corinth’s bicentennial in 1964. The Players produced it again in 1990. The second production directed by Jim Heidenreich in the fall of 1976 was “The Devil’s Disciple.” 

As the reputation of the Players spread, actors from the area joined them for their productions. Those offering included comedies, musicals, and serious drama. There were as many as 20 productions including one-act play performances. 

 Most of these shows were in the East Corinth Mason Hall, but other venues included the Bradford Academy and the Topsham Town Hall. Lack of performance spaces in Topsham and Corinth because of changes in the Mason Hall and the Topsham Town Hall were major cause of the Players falling apart. Their last performances were as about 2002 as part of the Corinth Coffeehouse.    

The Old Church Theater was housed in the building that had originally been the Bradford town church. Over the years the building had been used as a venue for public meetings, a movie theatre and a fraternal meeting hall. In 1970, the Connecticut Valley Jaycees sponsored a repertory theater with college students, most of whom came from the Mid-west. After the students departed, interested locals kept the Bradford Repertory Theater alive, with at least one production using the Oxbow auditorium.

In 1984, Maryalice Klammer and Dominique Buffair, transplants from New York City, found the empty theatre too much to bear and began the Old Church Theater. The first production was “Finian’s Rainbow.” The group has continued to present summer theater in the old building for nearly four decades. They have presented children’s shows each year and provides child actors training.  All participants from directors and actors to technicians are primarily drawn from the Upper Valley and has often shared their members with both the Tabor and Thetford groups. Currently the OCT building is undergoing extensive renovations causing the company to temporarily move their productions to the Lower Plain. The current summer program will feature two plays, one of which is a children’s production.

Amateur talent shows with local performers have entertained area audiences. Sometimes these shows involved competition for prizes or just bragging rights.  Examples included Orfordville Grange annual show at the Town Hall, Fairlee Fireman’s Follies in the decade after 1958; “ The Mama’s and Papa’s Show” presented by the Bradford Pre-School Mothers Club in the 1970s; Tri-Village Firemen shows in the 1980s in West Topsham; Oxbow’s FBLA club talent show that began in 1974 and continued annually for years and Cottage Hospital Auxiliary talent show that began in 1991.

Traveling and local choral groups have been a part of local performances since before the Civil War. As early as 1877, Grand Concerts were held.  These were large-scale works for soloists, chorus and orchestra. Choral union societies were formed throughout the valley after 1895 and made presentations from Groton to North Thetford.

 At the other end of the musical genre spectrum were the traveling cowboy shows that came to the area as early as 1952. The Ernie Lindell show and the Doc Williams show were two that were in the area beginning in the 1950s. These shows performed in various local sites including Orford’s Bedell Barn and the Fairlee Town Hall.

The vocal tradition is kept alive by local groups such as the Thetford Chamber Singers, Full Circle and North County Chorus.  The latter, established in 1947, is, like the others, a mixture of trained voices and others who just share the joy of singing. It continues the Grand Concert tradition. 

As a result of theater’s popularity, it is perhaps not surprising that snake oil salesmen sought to exploit the medium. Occasionally, a medicine show would visit and with entertainment came a sales pitch for an astounding cure-all. In 1901, the London Medicine Show offered a week of shows in South Ryegate to “very good and well pleased audiences.” In 1921, the Pawnee Indian Medicine Company offered West Fairlee a show along with a “liver and kidney renovator.”

Unlike those performances, others came without a sales pitch. Local schools have a tradition of introducing students to dramatic productions. In addition to frequent one-act competitions, senior plays have existed in local high schools since about 1900. In 1906, Thetford Academy’s seniors presented “Little Valley Farm.”  Two senior plays I especially recall are the Orford High production of “For Pete’s Sake” and the Bradford Academy’s class of 1967 senior play “The Mouse That Roared.” I was a lead in the former and the director in the latter. For “Mouse,”  the house was filled for several performance with a total of over 700 spectators.  These plays were often staged between major sports seasons and had the added benefit of drawing a class together for their final year.   

I am sure that I have only touched on the many and mixed examples of performances that have delighted audiences over the years.  Venues such as Alumni Hall in North Haverhill, the Corinth Coffeehouse, and local churches as well  as area commons continue to offer performances spaces. An overriding characteristic of all of the different entertainment I have mentioned is that volunteers made them happen. Volunteers were the producers, performers and production workers.  The proceeds from many of these productions were used for good works in the local community.

Recently Gillian Taylor remarked “I can’t wait for my cherished Parish Players to burst forth from under this coronavirus rock with new lines, new loves, and lots of laughter!” She expressed the attitudes of all those who love live presentations everywhere and of all types. Let the curtains go up on new productions, concerts and performances. Break a leg! 

Thursday, June 3, 2021

More Wood There Be


The Bradford Veneer & Panel Co. was founded in 1909.  Over the years it offered  lengthy  employment for many local residents. The photo above is taken in the late 1950s and shows the log piles prepared for processing. (Courtesy: Bradford Veneer & Panel Co.)   

The two photos above show logs being prepared as pulp for the paper industry.  After 1865 paper mills in the two states began to used pulpwood rather than rags for the making of paper.  

“It is claimed that our boastful civilization is built upon iron, but I want to tell you that we are very largely dependent on the products of our forest for our existence. The average Vermonter… is always dependent upon and supported by the products of the forest.” Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ Annual Report, 1917

In April, I wrote a column on woodworking in the Two-State region. This included items ranging from bobbins and clothespins to barrels and tubs. This column will continue the topic of the historic manufacturing of products from the region’s extensive forests.

In order to farm, the early white settlers had to clear trees. The easiest way was to burn the cut wood either on the spot or in their home fires.

For these settlers, the earliest cash crops were the potash and pearl ash they made from the resulting wood ash. 

Ashes were soaked in water and drained to create lye. One recipe called for passing water “through a barrel of hardwood ash over and over until an egg can float in the residue.” It was then evaporated in large kettles into potash. The lye was also used for soap production.

Nearly every settler had a crude ashery to create these so-called salts. Some communities established larger public asheries, a practice that often led to privately-owned businesses with more expensive equipment. Those factories refined potash into pearl ash for use as leavening in cooking.

These salts ,in high demand,  were exported  on rafts down the Connecticut River, for buyers to wash raw wool or in the production of other products.

Once farmland was cleared and the production of lumber became more profitable, the local potash industries faded.

In early Corinth, Daniel Cooke of Cookeville operated both a potashery and a tannery. The latter made use of bark, another forest-clearing byproduct.  

Bark mills processed bark, roots, and branches into a fine powder known as tanbark. At the beginning of the tanning process, hides were soaked in pits with a mixture of water and tannin made from the tanbark. After six months or more the hides were processed into leather. Oak and hemlock were especially good for this use. In 1827, there were two bark mills in Haverhill and a number in other area towns.   

Timothy Shedd of Wells River and Oliver Hardy of Bradford were early 19th century tanners whose operations included this tannin process. Workers used a tanner’s spud to peel the logs. In the 1890s, new machinery was used in bark mills that ground three cords of bark an hour. Tanbark was also used for insulation, especially in ice houses.

Harvested wood’s most continuous use was the heating of buildings and the cooking of food.  In the 1740s, Benjamin Franklin created a metal wood-burning stove as an improvement to the open fireplace. Its successors were known as Franklin stoves. In the 1830s, cast iron kitchen stoves and parlor stoves were introduced.

These stoves lightened the workload by raising the cooking level to waist-high and significantly saved on firewood. By the 1880s, wood supplied two-thirds of industrial and residential fuel.  In 1906, the first widely-used hot air wood furnace came on the market.

While coal replaced wood in most urban areas, local rural residents continued to use wood as a fuel. My parents burned wood harvested from our wood-lot in the Archertown section of Orford. We remembered two adages regarding that use. “Wood warms you three times, when you chop it, when you stack it, and when you burn it.” Wise users of wood check their remaining pile on Groundhog Day to make sure at least half remains for the rest of the heating season. 

It recent years, more efficient wood-burning stoves, pellet stoves, biomass power plants, and outdoor furnaces use firewood and the byproducts of wood manufacturing.

Local sawmills processed a significant portion of the harvested trees. As soon as towns were chartered, they often offered rewards to any who would build the first sawmill “to supply the inhabitants with boards” for homes, barns, and bridges. Surplus timber and logs were shipped to market, first on the Connecticut River and then by rail. 

The introduction of new machinery such as the circular saw, increased lumber production significantly. By 1840, there were over 1,000 sawmills in Vermont. In 1848, Dennis Lang of Barre began to make major improvements in sawmill machinery “that would eventually revolutionize the world’s sawmills.” He and his partners established the Lane Manufacturing Company in Montpelier. One of their mills boasted it could cut over 4,000 feet of spruce per hour.

 By 1855 there were at least 12 sawmills in Newbury, and their operation “nearly stripped the town of its timber.” Trussell’s Mill in Orford, built in 1866, produced 1 million board feet of lumber and 100,000 shingles annually. The depletion of harvestable timber, economic uncertainty, and foreign competition have caused the closure of many sawmills. In 2021, there were about 39 sawmills in New Hampshire and about 70 stationary or portable ones in Vermont.

Those interested in more complete coverage of this topic may find the 2013 column entitled “Smell of the Sawdust” on my blog at larrycoffin.blogspot.com. Use the search feature to locate the column. 

In addition to lumber, many sawmills also produced clapboards and shingles. John Peckett of Bradford began his career in 1810 rafting shingles and lumber down the Connecticut River. In 1854, he opened a Bradford mill manufacturing shingles and lumber. About 1865, J. G. Blood purchased a saw and shingle mill in North Haverhill. In 1879, a shingle mill on Hall’s brook in South Newbury produced 50,000 shingles annually. 

In 1874, the Lang Manufacturing Company developed a new clapboard machine.  The Washington County gazetteer, published in 1889, mentions at least two clapboard mills that produced over a million feet of spruce clapboards annually.

Veneer is another product that used lumber from the two states. Historically, veneers were cut by hand. In the 1820s new machines allowed the wood to be cut uniformly thin. This made it possible to use valuable wood such as mahogany go further by gluing it to native  species such as maple or birch. Veneer was used in furniture, boxes and wall paneling.

In 1909, George Church and Burton Hooker established a veneer mill on the Waits River in Bradford. At that time, the St. Johnsbury newspaper reported: “The capacity of the mill is about 8,000 to 10,000 feet of veneer a day, which requires about 2,000 feet of lumber.” Fire partially destroyed the plant on Sept. 16, 1012, but its owners reported that it “will be repaired and ready for operation by the first of November.”

 In a 1914 advertisement for a used power chipper, the company reported business “is very quiet. The outlook for business is poor.” By 1917, reports mention “lumbermen are rushing logs” to the Bradford Veneer & Panel mill. These logs were stored in huge outdoor piles, kept soaked before peeling. This was one of a number of veneer mills in Vermont and New Hampshire. As with many other woodworking operations, locals often found life time employment in the shop and yard. Although with a smaller staff, this mill continues the long tradition of working woods.   

In addition to the veneer, this mill also produces plywood. The practice of gluing veneers together was introduced into the United States in 1865. Used as a general building material, the standard size of 4 x 8 feet was adopted in 1928. 

Veneers were also a valuable part of the local furniture industry.  From the early years of settlement, part-time furniture makers produced all types of household furniture. These makers “took full advantage of the color and grain of local woods” including yellow birch, white pine, butternut, cherry, ash, and various types of maple.  More expensive furniture combined these materials with more exotic and expensive materials such as mahogany.  Veneers were often combined to created “rich multi-dimensional patterns.”

 In 1804, Israel Willard opened a chair and bedstead factory on Roaring Brook in Bradford. The following year Stephen Adams of Haverhill began making furniture using local birch and pine. David Beal began manufacturing chairs in Orfordville in 1837, at first by hand and later with a turning lathe. John Osgood, a Haverhill clockmaker, used cases made by Dudley Carleton of Newbury that were crafted from local wood such as butternut and cherry. From 1840 to 1878, Isaac Howe’s shop made chairs in South Newbury.

After the Civil War, furniture was more likely to be mass-produced. Examples of those businesses include Hale Furniture Co. of East Arlington, VT established in 1879, or the Cheshire Chair Co of Keene, established in 1869. It was reported that the latter produced 600 to 800 chairs each month. Those wishing a more complete history of local furniture makers may read my 2015 blog posting entitled “Furniture Makers: Plain or Elegant” at the site mentioned above.

By the early 20th century, pulp and paper made from wood pulp combined to be Vermont’s single largest industry. In 1907, Vermont had 28 companies that turned out pulp and paper with over 1,400 employees.

Early paper mills, such as those located on the Wells and Waits Rivers, first used rags to manufacture paper. After the Civil War, the ground wood fibers from pulp replaced the scarce supply of rags. In 1819, the Monadnock Paper Mill was established in Bennington, NH and, after 1865, converted to pulp. In the same way, the                        paper mill in Wells River, established by Bill Blake in the early 1800s, used rags at first. Later, after a number of ownership changes, it became known as the Adams Paper Company. About 1916, it began to use pulpwood for its paper production. It closed in 1981.

The Ryegate Paper Company established its paper and pulp mill in 1903. In 1913, it was producing 20 tons of ground pulp and 25 tons of newspaper daily. The company built housing for its scores of workers in East Ryegate.  It closed about 2002.

Between 1894 and 1900, consumption of pulpwood increased by over 50 percent.  In 1919, an article in Barre’s Times Argus warned of the depletion of Vermont forests from the manufacture of newsprint. “So great has been the draught made upon the reserves of spruce that only through reforestations will it be possible to meet future demands.”

There were similar connections between pulp and paper in New Hampshire. In 1868, W. W. Brown established the Berlin Mills Company.  By 1903, its mills in Berlin and Gorham were producing 200 tons of paper per day. By 1917, using pulp from Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, and Quebec, it was the largest operation of its type in the world. In Groveton with its paper board mill, Berlin and Groveton were paper company towns, with a distinct sulfur odor. While they survived the economic downturns of the 20th century, environmental concerns and foreign completion lead to their closure in the first decade of the new century.

The Vermont Maple Sugar Makers’ report mentioned above concluded that residents were surrounded by wood products throughout their lives. At the end, early residents of both states were likely to be buried in a pine coffin made by a family member or local carpenter. Wells’ 1913 Ryegate history concludes: “Carpenters also made coffins, which were not finished ready for use as they are now but when one was needed the local carpenter was provided with measures and instructed as to the expense which might be incurred.”

About 1826, E. H. Farham of Newbury made furniture as well as coffins. Later in the century, A.P. Shaw and George Butler of Bradford also offered them.  In the 1888 Orange County Gazetteer coffin makers were listed in Newbury, E. Corinth, Topsham and West Fairlee.    

This concentrated use of native woods had a negative impact on both states.  By the 1850s, 45% of New Hampshire’s forests were depleted. When railroads opened the northern section of that state to logging, further depletion occurred. By the late 1800s, 80% of Vermont’s forests were gone.  This deforestation led to erosion and flooding as well as an impact on forest animals. Factories polluted air and waterways. Workers often faced dangerous working conditions.

Reforestation, conservation efforts, and government regulations have turned some of this around. Today, New Hampshire is 85% forested and Vermont is 80%, the direct opposite of the earlier number. Waterways run clearer.  

Woodworking has been one of the most important manufacturing industries for both Vermont and New Hampshire. Beginning with individual part-time crafters, both states developed industries that employed many workers creating items from paper and bobbins to clothespins and furniture. Wooden works first met local needs before expanding to markets away. Many of these crafts still employ workers today making furniture, tubs, and veneers among other products. As in the past, they often use native woods.