Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Dorcas Wright: Brookfield, 1939

The old Brookfield schoolhouse, now a private home. The photograph is by Jessamyn West.

This is part II of Dorcas's memoir about growing up in Brookfield. (Part I is below.) Dorcas is working on an extended memoir, so she considers this a rough draft.

There were about six other children in the village and that first year there were a total of nine students in the village school. No running water, two "two-holers" in the back of the woodshed for toilets (one for girls and the other for boys). Needless to say, no one tried to linger in the johns. A big wood stove heated the building. When that stove was cranked up, if you were facing the stove you were too hot but your back was cold and your feet were always freezing. A few years ago, after we had done a lot of renovating to the schoolhouse, I had a chance to visit with a very old man who had been a student at the village school. Forrest Upham came into the kitchen, looked around, went into the living room, and stood about where the old stove stood. Looking carefully, I guess to see if there was anything left of his memories. "I went to school here, you know. Coldest goddamned place in the world." He was right, you know.

We spent a lot of time by the pond, collecting frog's eggs, fishing and swimming whenever weather permitted. Sometimes we got a surprise dunking when it wasn't planned. Wild apple trees, probably started by cores dropped from some student's lunch, grew by the shore. As kids, we knew where every type of apples grew and remembered our favorites. We had a dress code. The girls wore sweaters and skirts, probably woollen, and hideous long brown cotton stockings held up by garter belts. We wore one outfit for the whole week, changing into work clothes after school to keep our  school clothes clean longer. Baths were once a week on Saturday.

So that was the Brookfield that we arrived at in late august 1939. The family moved into the Fisk house, which Aunt Jessie had purchased from her brother and sister after their mother died in 1935. My father had lived in Brookfield with his grandmother when he was a boy. He used to tell me about being sent by Grandmother Fisk with a basket to dig up freshly laid turtle eggs. She would scramble those eggs and have them for supper. Dad said that they tasted kind of fishy.

Anyway, he was no stranger to the village. We had visited Jessie many times and were not really unknown, but it was hard to be accepted in these small Vermont towns. That first winter my mother and I were terribly lonely. Mom had four sisters and four brothers all living in the Lyndonville area. Dad's family lived in St. Johnsbury. They all were a big part of our lives. The winter was cold. The Fisk house was literally freezing. Plants froze in the bay window while the wood stove was burning. We had a little Scotty dog named Cookie. Somewhere she found a half of a pig's head that had been slaughtered and brought it home. Cookie nudged it under a doormat and was very protective of it. The floor was so cold that the head never thawed and finally Mother was able to get it away from the dog and get rid of it. The only heat upstairs came through a register in the floor. It didn't do too well heating the room, but it was a great place to keep track of what was being said down in the kitchen.

Dad had two hired men to help with all the animals. A young fellow from the Bronx named Tim Tracy lived with us and took care of the horse barn. A local handyman helped Dad in the dairy barn, shoveled roofs and did other jobs that needed tending to. We delivered milk to the village. That was mostly my job. Sometimes I loaded the bottles onto a sled and pulled the sled or hitched up a horse to a big sled. At sometime in those years I had a young pair of steers that I was training to be an ox team.

Perley had improved the ice harvesting business and had bought tools imported from Canada. One tool was a gasoline-powered saw that was self-propelled. The ice was kept cleared of snow, which made for good skating before the harvesting started. The ice block should be clear so that one could read a newspaper through 24 inches of ice.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Dorcas Wright: Brookfield, 1939

Brookfield's floating bridge with the Fork Shop in background.

Dorcas is one of several residents from the neighboring hamlet of Brookfield who have joined our group over the past few months. She moved there in 1939, when she was eight and her father was hired by her Great Aunt Jessie—Jessie Fiske, that is, the original owner of Green Trails. Dorcas is working on a fascinating portrayal—part history, part personal memoir—of life in the little village, which happens to be one of the most charming in all of Vermont (she now lives in the former schoolhouse). She begins with a little historical background:

Brookfield in 1840 was a bustling town. There were seventeen mills at that time powered by the water from the outlet of Colt's pond. The town had a large hotel, a boardinghouse, a barbershop, and three stores. In the center of the village there was a factory for making forks for the farm. I have heard a story about a village resident that worked in that building for forty years. It was said that his shoes had worn grooves in the floor. I spent five years working in that building when it was a restaurant. I never saw those grooves, but I think that I left some of my own.

Continuing down the stream was a sawmill and a creamery where milk was collected. The cream was separated, and the cream was sent by rail to be sold in Boston; the milk was returned to the farmer to be fed to the calves and pigs. The butterfat of Jersey cows was higher than any other breed, and that was why the Jersey cows were so prized in Vermont.

A very necessary business was a blacksmith shop for shoeing the horses and repairing wagons. Brookfield had several businesses in town that made chairs. Dropping down the stream, there was another sawmill, a grist mill for making flour, a cider press, a tannery, and a grinding mill that ground bones to mix in with plaster for finishing the inside of houses. At the bottom of the stream was a pipe organ factory. Colt's pond also was a major source of business. Every winter, when the ice got twenty or so inches thick, it was cut into blocks, moved to the icehouse. There it was packed in sawdust and the shipped by rail to the Boston markets. This was a big winter industry until the 1940s.

This Brookfield had only the ice-cutting business remaining when my family moved here from Lyndonville, Vermont, in 1939. Harold and Clarice Gage, two-year-old Deborah and I came to live in the Fiske house and manage a summer resort for my Great Aunt Jessie. She was the first woman professor of botany at the new Douglas College, which was the woman's division of Rutgers. Miss Fisk was also head of the seed lab for the New Jersey Department of Agriculture for thirty years. She researched the care of the best kinds of grasses for golf courses. She also worked with the New Jersey state police on the weed marijuana. Jessie also ran a riding school, which allowed her to pursue her ardent love for horses. In the summer of 1932 Jessie brought her horses and four students to her mother's house in Brookfield. The students were all named Mary and became known as the four Mary's. The plan was to spend the mornings riding horseback and studying the local weeds. In the afternoons a swim in the pond was just what the Mary's needed. Jessie and the students were fed at Ella Benham's, which was the next house up at the beginning of Ralph Road. This house is now the residence of Ed Koren, who is well known as a longtime cartoonist for the New Yorker magazine. His long-haired depictions of native Vermonters are highly recognizable and dearly loved. (More after the jump.)


Friday, September 17, 2010

Loraine Chase: Grandfather Morse

Grandfather Morse.

The Hale Street writers' childhood memories are filled with grandparents, who were an integral part of family life before World War II. Grandfather Morse was no exception. He was Loraine's only surviving grandparent, her grandmother Morse having died shortly after the birth of Loraine's mother, and she spent a lot of time with him. The exquisite photograph above was taken in the 1920s (Loraine was born in 1926). I love the way it overflows with gentleness and affection, despite the formal setting. Loraine's memories of "helping" her grandfather around the farm remind me of Charles's memories of Grampa Small (click here). Loraine writes:

My only surviving grandparent lived with his oldest daughter and her husband on a farm in Moretown, Vermont. It was a beautiful white farmhouse with wraparound porch and surrounded by nasturtiums. I had a swing and a beautiful wicker doll carriage which I wheeled my around. I recall the milking cows and the garden attended by my grandpa. I guess I thought I did something to help him, but it was mostly about keeping company. I also recall the ice house with sawdust packing.

Grandpa hitched up Dot and took me riding in a horse cart similar to Amish. We purchased items at Ward store and after returning home I was treated to a juicy cherry chocolate.

I remember the hot haying task, piles of hay pitched onto the hay wagon by pitchfork. Aunt Etta made a special spice tea for the workers.

Close by I had two much older girl cousins and I became very close to them. One of them came to live in Barre with us to attend Spaulding High School, as there was no high school in Moretown. The other girl attended Waitsfield.

I got passed around in the family and at my uncle’s farm I enjoyed floating a little boat in a watering trough. I played a lot of croquet games. My cousin and I cooled off in the river.

One of my cousins was a telephone operator in Waterbury where I had another aunt. I spent time with Aunt Minnie and my cousin, and we attended some Gene Autry movies when her time allowed. I remember “Don Fields and His Pony Boys” country music. He was heard from radio WDEV Waterbury. I enjoyed the music and enjoyed dancing by myself when listening.

Loraine Chase: Mother and Dad

Plainfield, Vermont, 1931.

Loraine grew up in Plainfield and moved to Randolph in 1952 after her husband accepted a job with the local feed store. The following is excerpted from "Mother and Dad," a tender portrait of a hardworking couple who turned a Depression-era family loan into a memorable mom-and-pop business. Loraine's recording of "Mother and Dad" is included in the exhibit now on view at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury.

I was born in Montpelier September 26, 1926, when mother was 26 years old. We lived in an upstairs apartment on Main Street in Montpelier in 1927 at the time of the flood. Dad was working for a furniture store on State Street. I was told mother panicked when the water kept rising up the stairs. She went across the hall to speak to an elderly tenant and he scolded her for being there without her baby. In due time, she saw Dad coming home in a boat.

From Montpelier, we moved to a little cottage in Barre. Dad was then working for Standard Oil. I attended kindergarten there. I have some memories of playmates living in back of us.

My brother was born five years younger than me. I have been told that when the landlord came to attend me when Mother went to the hospital, I was standing up in a chair by the counter and I told her I wanted to fix supper for Daddy.

We moved to Plainfield just before time for me to start first grade. We rented an apartment and Mother told me the woodwork was all painted blue and that was her mood there. Mother was always worried and I think Dad was an optimist. He borrowed money from my grandfather to start a service station. My grandfather regretted he had not loaned all his money, because he lost when the banks failed during the depression. Dad built a small building and it became our home and place of business—a Gulf service station. He built a garage with a grease pit where he sold tires and serviced cars. He had some previous training in Detroit.

I recall the black woodstove with reservoir and the metal tub that my brother and I took our baths in. The icebox was on the outside on a little porch. The milkman delivered milk to our front door early morning and the cardboard tops rose up high from the glass bottles in the winter.

Mother was a wonderful cook, and she made lots of homemade bread and most wonderful sticky buns. Her claim to fame was her brownies, which I think she sold two for five cents. People purchased them to send to their servicemen overseas during World War II. No package baking then. She also sewed with the treadle machine. She made me a winter coat and matching hat with a fur ball on the top.

Before I was in high school we had a nice house built there. That house had a nice sun porch. Mother turned that into a little ice cream parlor and sewed sandwiches and of course brownies. That grew and became a small convenience store.

Dad had a green thumb, and he made a rectangle picket fence with a trellis. He had beds of various flowers there near the road. He also had a hedge of cosmos that grew tall and full along the driveway by the house. He produced a vegetable garden and mother canned many preserves. My parents worked very hard seven days a week.

During the war, Dad went to work in the Windsor machine shop, and mother held the fort and pumped gas, which was then rationed.

My dad had some health problems, and he just passed out occasionally. Mother and us kids rubbed his arms and legs and he came around. The doctor never knew what his problem was, but in due time, I never knew of that happening. Eventually, they physically needed to sell the business.

New home.

Dad built a nice house in East Montpelier, where they lived for several years, and he tore down an old barn to build a very nice camp at Nelson Pond. It was next to the Chase camp. Happy families. Dad found the spring there which was used by some other campers.

After selling the East Montpelier home, they lived at camp in the summer and rented in Barre winters. Mother did housekeeping for some homes in Barre. They eventually rented an apartment back home in Plainfield.

My mother died at age 69 of heart failure. She was borderline sugar. Dad was alone for 10 years. He attended the Plainfield Senior Center and often took walks. He did very well to keep the spirit with a broken heart.
Mother and Dad.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hangin' with Bob, Greg, and Jack

Bob Hooker, at the Vermont Folklife Center.

Spent the day yesterday in Middlebury with Bob Hooker, Greg Sharrow, and Jack Rowell, hanging the Hale Street Gang's "Portraits in Writing" exhibit, which officially opens on Friday, just in time for the town's Art Walk. It felt like Christmas, opening up all the cartons. First to go up were Charles and Ruth, above (we thought it would be nice to put brother and sister together). Jack took this photo of them and Bob as a sneak preview, since most of the writers won't see the exhibit until October 2, the day of our reception.

Also this week, Alex Hanson from the Valley News had lunch with the Tuesday group. The room where we meet has become so cluttered with debris (the remnants of last year's Christmas bazaar, supplies for discontinued art projects, old photographs that nobody can identify) that there is barely enough room for us anymore. We managed to squeeze enough to accommodate both Alex and Jack, who stopped by just as Emilie was ringing the dinner bell and was easily persuaded to stay for some shepherd's pie. I don't know what Alex made of it all, but I guess we'll find out on Saturday when we pick up our copy of the Valley News. He's probably wondering how we get anything done in all the chaos.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Estelle Therrien: Plenty of Dancing and Laughter

Estelle grew up on Voghell Road in Randolph. She now lives at Jocelyn House, in Randolph village, and is a regular at the senior center, where she likes to play mah-jongg. We are thrilled to have her in the Tuesday group. Many of her early memories concern the French-speaking community to which her family belonged. She titled the following "Thoughts As I Grow Older," but I thought that seemed too somber for a piece about dancing, partying, and drinking moonshine:

All the French People Partied at the Drop of a Hat

This is not a day-to-day journal, it's just my thoughts as I grow older and all my friends and neighbors are dying off. There is nobody to talk to about the farm, Abbotts, Blairs, the little house on the hill. It is strange; I don't want to let it get me down in the mouth, and mind you, I won't, God willing.

Dancing! Square dancing! Loved it, especially the swing around! My Dad was a great dancer; I loved it when he was in our square. At one party, he came over and took my hand and led me onto the floor; it was one of the best dances I shall always remember. It was at a wedding reception, before I was married, and it was in an old farmhouse, which was where all the parties I ever knew were held. All the French people had parties at the drop of a hat, usually Sunday nights.

Especially in the winter it was so cold! At that time there wasn't any Prestone for cars, so they let all the water out of the motors so they wouldn't freeze. After the party they would have to fill them up again, but they sure didn't seem to mind. The wives would heat the water in a big boiler on the stove (wood, of course). By the end of the night it was warm or boiling. The men put on their war mackinaws, mittens and hats, then each one had a pail to carry the water. Very exciting! Then the women and children would run to the cars, wrap themselves with blankets and snuggle down for the ride home. No heaters in cars! Everybody had such a good time, but they still had to get up 'round five o'clock in the morning. I often wondered if my parents stayed up, because the parties lasted till quite late. Then, too, they always had a little moonshine, which was passed out in an ounce glass, everyone taking their drink in turn, out of the same little glass. That's all they had at one time, but of course it was handed out quite often. But nobody seemed to get drunk, as there was a lot of singing; everybody would take turns singing a song, and there was always plenty of dancing and laughter.

One Monday morning my sister and I were sorting clothes to do the washing, talking about the most recent party and the new family that had moved into town. Now we were talking about the men in the family, who were all good looking. I was telling my sister that Homer was the best looking, but what a name! We both laughed, but my father said in his soft voice, "Never laugh at a man's name, as you might be having him for a husband." And I DID! My sisters in Massachusetts always sent our letters to Mr. and Mrs. Omar Therrien. That was the French way to spell and pronounce his name. They didn't approve of his American version. But he stubbornly held onto the name he was baptised with: Homer Therrien.