Happy 250th Birthday!

(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listservs on 8/12/2011.)

Today, August 12, 2011, is Thetford’s 250th birthday.  Norwich’s was a few weeks ago.  I posted the first of my reflections on the histories of our towns nearly a year ago.  I’ve posted one each week for the whole of our towns’ semiquincentennial year.  (I loved that word a year ago, and I still love it now!)

Today, in the midst of the birthday bash, I’ll consider what these historical reflections have meant to me.  I have said many times that my writings are a description of what I found between my two ears: they are the direct result of my experiences here in the Upper Valley for nearly four decades.  Just last Monday somebody said, “Thanks for all the research you do!”  I responded, “Research!?  I don’t do no stinkin’ research.”

Here’s today’s fun fact: I lied.  Although I don’t DO research at the time I am writing, I definitely have DONE a lot of research in the past.  And then I stored it between my ears.  And I have now written about it before my brain could turn to mush.

And, for me, the funnest fun fact of all has been that my research over the last four decades has primarily involved listening to people, or watching people, or learning from people.  In every one of my vignettes you will find embedded stories about history that I have learned from real people.  You have, of course, noticed that I have rarely mentioned names, except for a few persons who are no longer alive.  But there were no made-up people “telling” me stuff, nor was there stuff that I made up.  Real people have told me that they have read my reflections and recalled our real conversations from five, or ten, or twenty-five years ago.

I have, of course, kept my beady eyes (and flapping ears) open over the years.  I have tried to take what people have told me and then looked around our communities to see how their stories fit in.  A land surveyor told me about the Vermont/New Hampshire boundary markers, and I went and found some.  Then I read the Supreme Court case that established the boundary.  The Orange County Forester told me about the red-pine seeding program in the 1930s, and I observed the pines in several places in Norwich and Thetford.

The point is, I guess, that I have come to appreciate how much I have relied on people to learn about the histories of our towns.  And these have been just regular people living regular lives.  And the regular lives of regular people involve hurricanes and floods, interstate highways, roads, railroads, mines, telephones, ice houses and ice rinks, fences, and cemeteries, and all of the normal stuff of regular lives.

I have also heard many comments about my postings from regular people, in our two regular towns, over the past year.  So often I have heard how something I wrote stirred some special memory for them, or answered some question they had wondered about.  I have been, I must say, touched by the sincerity of the comments I have received.

History is like literature: there can be many points of view.  Take Ecclesiastes 3:1 in the Bible.  It starts out “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”  Google “every thing there is a season,” and you’ll turn up at least a dozen different translations of this well-known passage.  Different people, regular people, interpret the same words in many different ways.

But I like King James’s translation, the one I quote above: “To every thing there is a season.”  And now, as our towns’ bicenquinquagenary year closes, the season for my little notes draws to a close as well. 

It has been a pleasant task indeed, each Wednesday, to write these reflections.  Thank you, all of you, so much for reading them.

Happy Birthday, Norwich!  Happy Birthday, Thetford!

Dan Grossman – dan@dg123.com.

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 11:21 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Poor Farm

(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listservs on 8/4/2011.)

I typically don’t do requests.  It would cramp my style. If I write about a subject that someone has requested, I run the risk of their knowing something about the subject.  They might be able to tell the difference among my facts and know that some are true, some may be slight misinformation, and some may be totally made up.  I’m not saying they are; I said they MAY be.

But, hey, requests to write about “Poor Farms” have been filling my e-mail box like offers from Nigerian royalty to split “$30 millions of dollars U.S.” with them.  So, without claiming to actually KNOW anything about “Poor Farms,” I’ll say a few words as we close out Thetford’s 250th year.

Thetford has a “Poor Farm Road,” and so does Norwich.  Now, I can guarantee you that there are no “Poor Farm Roads” in suburbia.  Given the chance to name a road “Mapledell Passage,” or “Poor Farm Road,” developers will choose “Mapledell” 100% of the time.  But here in the real world, many towns have a Poor Farm Road, just as many have a School Street, or a Church Street, or Dump Road (oops-my bad-“Solid-Waste-Transfer-Facility Road”).  Towns have roads by those names because there was a dump, or a church, or a school, or a poor farm on that road.

Things were different back in the day.  Social services were minimal.  It was hard to deliver social services on a statewide or federal basis without good communication and good transportation.  Some of the most pressing and basic societal needs had to be dealt with on the local level.  Families took care of their relatives who were old, or ailing, or who had mental health problems.  Neighbors supported each other in these efforts.

The problem came when you didn’t have any relatives.  Or they didn’t much like you. Or you had alienated them.  Or you were just too much for them to handle.  Then society as a whole, represented by Ye Olde Towne Governmente, had to step up to take care of things.  Until a very few decades ago—say the 1960s—towns used to have an officer known as Overseer of the Poor.  It was his (and I say “his” because that IS a true fact: you had to be of the male persuasion to hold almost any town office up until the last 50 years—more’s the pity) job to deal with the poor.

“Poor” was a functional definition: you didn’t have any money.  Now you could be in the position of not having any money for a variety of reasons.  You might be too old to work.  You might be affected by memory loss.  You might be chronically ill or be physically disabled.  You might have any of a number of incapacitating mental illnesses.  Or you might just be lazy.  Your family would love you and give you three hots and a cot even if you were affected by any of these conditions.

But if you lacked a family then it was “Off to the Overseer of the Poor” with you.  The Overseer would deal with your situation in a variety of ways.  In Norwich and Thetford, I’ll bet if the Overseer didn’t know you, and you didn’t seem to be “from around here,” and were a bit confused, they might load you into a wagon and take you to Hanover and leave you on Main Street.  New Hampshire had overseers of the poor, too.  Harsh but effective. 

If you were poor, and had no family, and weren’t too troublesome, the Overseer would try to place you in a home.  People would take in citizens who were “on the town.”  The Overseer of the Poor would pay a weekly stipend to care for them.  The citizens being placed in homes would be elderly or people with manageable afflictions.

But it would be hard to find a home placement for an older citizen with severe memory loss, or who was very ill, or who was severely incapacitated, or who had significant mental illness.  In the late 19th century Vermont built the state hospital at Waterbury to care for mentally ill citizens who were violent or totally out of touch with their surroundings.  But the state hospital did not take mentally ill people who, though they could not cope with daily life, were not dangers to themselves or others.

So, for these citizens, most towns had a poor farm.  The Overseer of the Poor oversaw that, too.  If the Overseer couldn’t make a private placement, he brought the citizen to the poor farm.  Which was, conveniently enough, on Poor Farm Road in most towns.  There the person who was “poor” was cared for by people who were willing to do the work, but who had no training or expertise.  Which, come to think of it, probably described most of the people who worked at the state hospital in Waterbury, too. 

All right, class: Let’s close our eyes and conjure up a picture of our town’s poor farm!  Ooooh.  Pretty grim.  One set of residents who were very old.  Another set who were very ill.  Another set who had severe physical incapacities.  And another set who had incapacitating mental illness.  But, on the other hand, the town WAS doing its best to care for these citizens.

How did the “farm” part of “poor farm” fit in?  Well, the placement of these facilities in both Norwich and Thetford was a couple of miles away from the villages.  They were out with the working farms.  I think they were placed well outside the villages because the residents of a poor farm who were mobile probably could be troublesome to neighbors if they were in a village.  I’m sure the facilities had a big garden, but these residents wouldn’t be very good at farming.  I suspect that “farm” was just a euphemism.  It was better—and nicer—than any of a number of pejorative terms that could be applied.

Poor farms are no more because the state and federal governments have taken over the responsibility for those citizens who need that kind of help.  The buildings are gone from the old poor farms because they were probably built on the cheap and collapsed when they stopped being used.  But we still have the signs at the end of our Poor Farm Roads to remind us that there was a time when each town had to figure out a way to care for ALL of their citizens and a “poor farm” was significant part of that care.

Next week is Thetford’s 250th birthday!

Dan Grossman, dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 6:05 am  Leave a Comment  

The Green, Green Grass of Home

(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listservs on 7/28/2011.)

Here we are 12,998 weeks into Thetford’s existence.  Only two more weeks until the big Two-Five-Oh.  And I’m wondering this: How much grass did they actually cut around their houses in, say, the 1830s?  And how did they do it?

Nowadays, everybody has 60-inch mowers that’ll mow a couple of acres in no time.  But in the early days of our towns, until about 1850, there weren’t any lawnmowers.  I read that the first lawnmower was made in Britain in 1830, and that the first lawnmowers were patented in the United States in the 1860s. 

A lot of the old houses in our towns sit quite close to the road.  They would have had smallish yards.  But we can all think of very old houses that sit well back from the road.  They had at least the potential for having a big yard.  We also have the various greens and commons in our towns.  And what about the Hanover Green?  That’s about 10 acres of grass that had to be mowed on some periodic basis.

Around each house, some area was kept as lawn, I would expect.

Now historians, being learned and important, don’t spend much time documenting small stuff like how big the yards were in 1837.  (I know this, of course, because I just tried to google me up some lawn-mowing facts, and came up empty.)  Painters of townscapes and landscapes painted whatever they thought looked good, or whatever they thought would sell, so we can’t know from paintings how much lawn was actually mowed.  Nor is it easy to learn the methods of mowing grass used by early Thetfordians and Norwichians (or whatever it is one calls denizens of our towns).

I, for one, always look at questions like this, where we don’t seem to have much good, solid information as an opportunity, not a problem.  I can then feel free to fill in the blanks!   Who can judge whether the blanks are filled in correctly?  So, with lawn mowing, why don’t we just try to fill in the blanks?

Larger areas like the commons and greens in towns would have been mowed by animals, I’d imagine.  A lot of these big areas used to have fences around them.  Animals could be parked there, and they would eat the grass down.  If there were no fence, the beasts could be tethered and moved around.  My wife and I used this very method to mow the railroad bank that we lived next to in East Thetford in the 1970s.  We tethered two goats on the bank, and moved them every day.  Here’s today’s fun fact: You’ve got to tether goats with a chain because they’ll eat right through a rope.  It never happened to me, but I know a guy it happened to.

Maybe people just mowed around their houses with animals. But then you have the, ahem, what-goes-in-must-come-out factor.  If you brought all your sheep and cows near to your house to mow the grass, pretty soon it would be fetid and stinking.  Dampens the mood of a garden party, that does.

I also imagine that people used various steel blades to mow grass.  We all know that scythes were used for cutting long grasses.  (What, you want another fun fact?  Here’s one-or maybe it’s two: a “scythe” is the metal blade used for cutting grass and hay.  The scythe is attached to a handle, formerly wooden, nowadays aluminum, which is called a “snath.”  “Snath” is one of my all-time favorite words.  I have two wooden snaths and an aluminum one.  I have two scythes, a scythe for brush, which is shorter and wider, and a scythe for grass, which is longer and thinner.  I do use my scythe on one of my snaths each year to very nicely selectively cut down the individual thistles and milkweeds in the field in front of our house without having to cut the whole field.)

But if you tried to use a scythe to cut 4-inch grass down to 2-inch grass, as your Toro lawnmower does, you’d be all like, “Lucy, we have problem!”  I find it hard to cut grass shorter than about a foot with a scythe.  Maybe there were thinner, sharper scythes back then.

It’s possible, too, isn’t it, that when people thought of “lawn” in 1837, they thought of grass that was 4 or 5 inches long, rather than 2.25 inches long.  I know there were a lot of times when our kids were small and we had a lot of things going on that I thought of 5-inch grass as being a perfectly acceptable lawn!  If you were not playing baseball (which hadn’t been invented in 1837), nor soccer (ditto), nor golf (which had been invented, but wasn’t played much around here), you wouldn’t care if the grass was longish.

At one point 15 years or so ago we thought we’d plant a few things around our house.  We engaged an expert, and the first thing she said was, “Do you LIKE to mow grass?”  We were mowing about an acre and a half every week.  I didn’t really like it; it just seemed like the thing to do.  She suggest reducing the mowed area by two-thirds.  Now we mow about half an acre every week.  The rest of that area is still open because I mow it once or twice a year with a big mower (and keep the thistles at bay with a scythe).

I suspect that grass was just a lot longer before mowers got so powerful, so fast, and so cheap.  People in those days just thought that longer grass seemed appropriate in the circumstances.  Nowadays we mow great swaths of lawn down to a few inches every week because THAT seems appropriate to us in our circumstances.

So that’s how I would fill in the blanks. 

And to wind up, here’s a true story: When I got my first scythe in the early 1970s, I asked the guy across the road if he would show me how to use it.  He had mowed with a scythe for many of his 70 years.  The first thing I said to him was, “Harold, I’m having a real hard time making this thing work.  I can’t find the switch to turn it on.”  (No, I am NOT that dumb.  I was joshing him.)  He snatched the snath from me and made a comment that indicated that he DID think I was that dumb.  Then he began to mow, with the most effortless, elegant swing, learned with decades of practice, and he showed me how to use a scythe.

Dan Grossman, dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 6:03 am  Leave a Comment  


(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listserv on 7/22/2011.)

Our granddaughter Nora Adelaide Miller was born last Wednesday night at almost exactly the moment I hit “Send” to put my posting on this listserv.  Within a few minutes, she was photographed for the first time.  In a few hours, her picture was on Facebook (as was mine, holding her).  Nora’s world is one in which photographs are instantaneous.  She will be able to see exactly what everyone and everything in the whole world look like, in almost real time.  She will have exact and exhaustive photographic evidence of every move she has made since last Wednesday.  (Recent example on Facebook: “Nora in her cloth diaper.”  Our daughter’s going green with the diapers.)

But we have very, very few exact photographic representations of our towns over the years.  The first photograph was produced by French inventor Joseph Nicephore Niepce in 1826, more than 60 years after Thetford and Norwich were chartered.  The first photograph was exposed for 8 hours or more!  It took another 30 years before photography was practical.  So, for about the first 100 years of our towns’ existence, there weren’t any photographs.  I haven’t seen many painted or drawn pictures, either.

It is, therefore, hard to know what things actually looked like around here 100, 150, or 200 years ago.  Mostly one can only imagine what things looked like before photography.  If you have ever seen a painted portrait of a modern governor or president or some other living person, doesn’t it always seem that the painting isn’t quite right?  We have all seen photographs of these people from so many angles in magazines and on TV that only an exact replication will do.

But if painted portraits of people seem to be a bit off, don’t you wonder if paintings of buildings and towns and landscape from the 1800s were a bit off, too?  And here’s something I bet you didn’t know: the way portraits were copied before photography and xerography were invented was by hand.  A painter propped the original on one easel and painted a copy of it on another.  My wife has portraits of two very severe looking old gals from the 1840s, and some expert told her that they were copies painted in about the 1870s.  (What would we do without “experts.”)

And if the originals were a bit off from the actual, then the copies must have been a little further off, wouldn’t you think?

At the 500th anniversary of Thetford and Norwich in 2261, people will know exactly what our towns looked like in 2011.  They will be able to see what I looked like, and they’ll be able to find pictures of our granddaughter Nora and see what she looked like.  They will be able to see exactly what our cars looked like, what our computers looked like, what every corner of our houses looked like.

But we can’t know all those details about 200 years ago in Norwich and Thetford because we have no photographs.  We do have some surviving artifacts.  And we have many surviving buildings.  But the artifacts are relatively few, and the buildings have been altered and renovated so much that their original owners would hardly recognize them.

Mainly we take what information we do have from history, and then fill in the blanks with our imaginations.  The copied portraits of my wife’s ancestors are profiles of their heads and shoulders.  That’s all we know about these old gals, and we have to extrapolate, and interpolate, and just plain guess at the rest of the details of their lives.

Will analyzing “history” be any different a hundred years from now when historians will be working with a wealth of exact details? 

I hope not.  I hope that Nora and her descendants will be able to use their imaginations and fill in details about me (a little more hair on the top would be nice) and about the milieu in which we live.

In just three weeks, Nora will be one month old—and Thetford will be 250 years old!

Dan Grossman, dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 6:02 am  Leave a Comment  

Sentinels of History

(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listservs on 7/15/2011.)

“Anthropomorphism.”  That word is one of many I learned in 13 years of Catholic schooling.  It means giving human characteristics to something that is not human.  Mickey Mouse is an anthropomorphized mouse.  A tree that can walk or talk or think is an anthropomorphized tree.

As I sit writing this, we await news of the birth of our third grandchild.  We expect she or he (we don’t yet know which it will be) will be born in the next few hours.  I think of all I have seen and heard and experienced in my time, and wonder what she or he will experience in the coming decades.

Back to anthropomorphism.  Our grandchild will be able to walk and talk and see and hear her or his way through history.  She or he will be able to talk and write and consider the history that passes by.  Our grandchild will share the world with some sentinels of history that, oh! if they could talk, would have tales to tell.

There was an elm tree on the east side of Route 113 on Thetford Hill that recently succumbed to Dutch elm disease.  It is at the top of the hill, just before the road pitches down to head toward Thetford Center.  It stood there, stolid, for well over 150 years.  (Perhaps by now the most recent owners of the ground in which it stood have probably counted its rings.)  What a vantage point from which to watch tens of thousands of children go back and forth to school.  To watch a million or more cars pass by.  To watch soldiers go off to serve and, we hope, return some years later.  To watch babies come home from the hospital.  To watch funeral corteges carry people to the cemetery in Thetford Center.  If that elm tree could see and hear and talk, what stories it would have to tell.

Some of us built a trail at Thetford Academy 20 years ago.  We came across a huge oak tree near the edge of the fields.  It wasn’t in the best place to accommodate our human plans for trails and fields and drainage ditches.  We asked someone who knew about such things, and he said the oak was about 200 years old.  It probably took root in about 1800, he thought.  It was, therefore, the oldest living thing at Thetford Academy, Vermont’s oldest secondary school.  There was some discussion about getting out the old Stihl (Andreas Stihl invented the chainsaw about 85 years ago) and dropping that oak to get it out of the way of progress.

Talk about anthropomorphism!  That old oak spoke to me.  It reminded me of the times when it stood all alone in a hay field.  It was there, illuminated by the glow, when Thetford Academy burned flat to the ground one November night in 1942.  It watched the red pines set out in the nearby State Forest grow from seedlings in the 1930s.  It watched thousands of students run and jump and play and fool around and smoke and—well—you get the drift there.  It watched me scurry from the hornets I stirred up with my mower.  We decided to keep the oak, and it stands there still, raining down so many acorns each fall that they have to be blown away, lest runners slip on them.

One Saturday I checked out a racket in the trees behind our house.  High in a hickory tree a parent raccoon was peeking from a knothole.  Three baby raccoons were climbing, very tentatively up the tree.  The parent was making quite a racket, accompanied by some squirrels who weren’t thrilled to have the raccoon in the tree.  As near as I could tell, the parent was teaching the babies to climb.  I watched for quite a while.  The raccoons did not live in the tree and I did not see them after that Saturday.

A few months later, the wind blew the hickory down.  (Pop quiz: What is the most northern county in Vermont in which hickories grow?  You guessed it: Orange County.  The county forester told me our hickories are some of the northernmost he had seen.)  That hickory was well over 24 inches at the stump.  I worked it up into firewood.  I carefully cut out the knothole in which I had seen the raccoons and gave it to our oldest granddaughter.  She made it into a fairy house.  I made a smooth cut as near to the ground as I could.  I counted the rings.  There were well over 100.

That hickory had stood there since about 1900.  I could tell things from the distance between rings.  Wider spaces between the rings meant it was getting a lot of light and water, and things were going well for it.  Thin spaces between the rings meant it was being overtopped by competing trees, or it was being stressed in some way.  Here again was a tree that had watched the fields become forests.  It had “felt” a member of the family that owned our land for about 90 years fasten barbed-wire fence onto it.  Then it grew around that fence.  It watched as the interstate highway made its way north, about a quarter of a mile to the east.  It, too, watched red pines be set out in the 1930s in our woods, a hundred yards away.  It watched turkeys almost disappear from Vermont, then it watched them return and forage under it for hickory nuts.

We like to anthropomorphize trees and animals because they are alive.  We dream of combining our abilities to see and hear and think with their ability to live longer periods of time.

I hope our new grandchild (will that phone EVER ring with the news) will have lots of big, old trees in her or his life to anthropomorphize.

Dan Grossman, dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 6:00 am  Leave a Comment  

Where Even Kings Must Go on Foot

(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listservs on 7/7/2011.)

Somewhere in my vast reading of Classic Comics 40 or 50 years ago, I came across the line “The carriage stopped because the king had to go where even kings must go on foot.”  I’ve remembered it for all these years under the heading “Best Euphemism For ‘Going to the Bathroom.’”  It’s a great euphemism, but it’s really hard to fit into conversations—and, Lord knows, I’ve tried.

I got to thinking.  Look at any Currier and Ives print or Grandma Moses painting or painted bird’s eye view of a town from the 1800s.  None of them show what the signs on the interstate highways call “Comfort Facilities.”  That is, although it is common knowledge that people used outdoor “facilities” (or just the outdoors) for most of the 250 years our towns have been in existence, but the pictures from those times show nary an outhouse.

And what about Mary Ingalls and Laura Ingalls of the “Little House in the Big Woods” books?  As far as I can recall, there’s no mention in all those books about going where even pioneer girls must go on foot.  And these are books that are famous for Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ability to make descriptions of ordinary life fascinating.  (Or, some say, Laura’s daughter Rose’s ability to superbly re-write her mother’s basic stories.  Who knows?)

It’s interesting because, until a very few years ago, there were residences in our towns that did not have indoor toilets.  I know for a fact that one elderly resident in Thetford did not have indoor facilities as recently as 1981.  I’m sure there were others.

This is a subject that is the first one addressed when a settlement is established.  As soon as you identified where you would build your house, you would identify where you would put the outhouse.  And then you would dig a hole there, because you’d be needing it by tomorrow, at the latest.

Disposal of human waste was quite a problem, even in the country.  Without plentiful running water, it was not possible to flush.  In the winter time, it could be a MIGHTY chilly trip to the outhouse in the middle of the night.  In the summer, things could become a bit fetid around the hole.  But it was just part of life, so people dealt with it.  But they did not paint pictures about that part of life, nor write about it.

So, channeling the inner junior-high-school boy in me, I’ll write some about it.  In the earliest days of our towns, people used the great out-of-doors.  Building your log cabin was hard enough, without having to build an outhouse, too.  One could use a chamber pot or bucket inside the house, if one so chose, and then dispose of it somewhere outside.

Since the subject is thoroughly egalitarian, rich people had to deal with it too.  In the finer houses, there might be a privy built into the end of the carriage barn or at the end of the sheds.  That would be used in the warmer months, if there was not an outhouse out in the yard somewhere.  Another privy might be in the sheds but much closer to the house for use in the colder months, when the . . . ahem . . . aromas were held down by the cold.

People are no different from horses or cows.  What they leave must be mucked out.  So there would be a hinged door on the side of the facilities in the sheds or barns for periodic clean-out.  With outhouses, they would dig the hole as deep as they could.  Then they would slide the outhouse, which would be on skids, over the hole.  The hole could be used until—oh, you can figure it out.  Then they would dig a new hole a little distance away, slide the outhouse over the new hole, and use the dirt from the new hole to cover the old hole.  We’d call that “recycling.”  They called it “practical.”

With the coming of running water came the ability to flush waste away.  But to where?  If you were near a running stream or river, you would run a straight pipe to the water.  Flush-sh-sh and it was gone, down the Connecticut or Ompompanoosuc Rivers.  Since rivers were used as sewers for nearly 200 years, not only here, but throughout the country, flushing waste into them was thought to be no big deal.

Septic systems started to be used in the 20th century.  In the beginning, some kind of steel tank was buried, and the stuff would ferment in there, with bacteria breaking the stuff down.  Then the less-nasty effluent would be run out to a dry well (a cylinder 8 or 10 feet deep, about 6 feet in diameter, filled with crushed rock) where it would leach into the ground.  Septic systems work the same way now as they did 100 years ago, but the engineering is a lot better.

But here’s the thing that really impresses me about the subject of “going where even kings must go on foot.”  It was—and is—one of the parts of history that is a daily and intimate part of the history of every person who has lived in Thetford and Norwich for the last 250 years.  But there is no description of nor reflection on the subject. 

Some parts of history don’t get talked about because the subjects are too distasteful, or they are too personal, or the subjects bring up unwanted memories.  ’Twas ever thus, and probably ’twill ever be thus.

So, with credit to Professor Al Foley, here’s the best outhouse joke ever.  There was a two-holer out behind the church.  Two gentlemen were using it.  When one finished and arose to depart, a dime fell out of his pocket and down the hole.  He looked down, took a $10 bill from his wallet and threw it into the hole.  The second gent said, “Why’d you do THAT?!”  The first guy says, “You don’t think I go down there for just a dime, do you?”

Dan Grossman, dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 5:59 am  Leave a Comment  

Walking to School

(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listservs on 6/30/2011.)

Sometimes when I drive down our little dirt road, I think about how people got around in years past.  I think they mostly walked.  If I wanted to go up to Thetford Hill, a distance of about 1 mile from our house, I would have walked.  It is a distance that would be too short to get a horse saddled to ride, or to harness a horse to pull a wagon or carriage.

From the founding of our towns in 1761 until the first quarter of the 20th century, people walked long distances to get around.  A walker can travel a mile in 12 or 15 minutes, so people can cover 4 or 5 miles in an hour.  It’s a little more than 5 miles from Pompanoosuc to Norwich village; it’s about 4 miles from East Thetford to Thetford Center.  No cars, no bicycles, no motorcycles,  just Shank’s mare.  (Gosh, I guess I should explain “Shank’s mare” for the younger crowd.  Taking “Shank’s mare” means walking, as in “How did you come here?”  “I took Shank’s mare.”  My mom used to say stuff like that.  Now I am saying it too!)

Walking to get somewhere was the default mode of transportation.  And it was the main mode of transportation for school children.  Thetford Academy’s first school bus was a 1935 Chevrolet Suburban, and it was used for several decades.  Before that, students got to school on their own.

As anyone who has walked with a youngish child knows, they are not likely to cover 4 or 5 miles in an hour.  Because our earliest schools were mostly dedicated to the education of children ranging in age from 5 or 6 years to 13 or 14 years, early schools had to be within a reasonable walking distance of those young children.

And the fact that kids had to walk to school was a major factor in all aspects of education.  If you look at old maps from the middle of the 19th century, you will often see towns sectioned off into districts for schools.  Sometimes there would 10 or 12 districts covering a town.  That would be about 3 square miles per district.  A square area covering 3 square miles would be about 1.75 miles on a side.  If the schoolhouse is approximately centered in the area, all students in the district would be within about a mile of the schoolhouse.

The large number of districts created by the need to keep schoolhouses within walking distance meant the schools served small groups of children with a wide range of ages from early years to middle school age.  One-room schools were a product of the need to be proximate to the student population.  No one district had enough students to divide them into grades.

Talk about local control!  Each district had to be managed.  There wasn’t any practical way to centralize the administration of 10 or more school districts in days of poor communication.  So each tiny district was managed by the families it served in that district.  Teachers would be hired, the schoolhouse would be constructed and maintained, and finances would be handled in each of the districts.  People would just get together and do what was needed to educate their kids.

As the 19th century drew to a close, there was a push to apply common standards and expectations to all of the little school districts throughout the state.  I think I’ve heard that there were over 2,000 school districts in Vermont in the 19th century.  One can imagine that there was a wide variety in the type and quality of education that students got in their little schoolhouses across the state.

So long as children had to walk to school, there had to be thousands of tiny districts.  It wasn’t until the 1940s that efficient busing of schoolchildren was possible.  Around that time Thetford built a schoolhouse for its older students—kind of a middle school—in Post Mills and bused all the older kids there.  (Baker’s Store is in the ground floor of that schoolhouse, and apartments occupy the school rooms upstairs.)  This middle school was merged with all the one-room schools for younger children when Thetford consolidated its schools in the early 1960s.

Proximity to schools is still something to think about.  Fact is, in the mid 1970s we chose where to live based on school proximity.  We live just over 1 mile from both of Thetford’s schools.  After about 6th grade, our daughters could walk home if they missed the bus or stayed for an activity.  (In fact, they were only bused to the end of our dead-end road, so they still had to walk 7/10 of a mile down the road.)  And we had to travel far fewer miles back and forth to school.

It’s rare, isn’t it, to see someone walking on the roads outside of villages who isn’t just exercising.  And 100 years ago it would be rare to not see several people walking from one place to another on any main road in our towns.

Dan Grossman, dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 5:21 am  Leave a Comment  

Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

(Posted to the Theford and Norwich listservs on 6/22/2011.)

About a hundred years ago, one of Robert Frost’s poems included the line, “Good fences make good neighbors.”  Evidently that was a hundreds-of-years-old proverb at the time.  But, unless you’re really into ancient proverbs, you probably wouldn’t know this line if Bob hadn’t included it in his poem.  (Do you think anyone ever called him “Bob”?)

Well, I can tell you where there are TWO good fences, and plenty of neighbors: one on the east side of I-91, and the other on the west side, extending from Massachusetts to Canada.  When I-91 was built, every inch of it was fenced, except the openings at the exits.

Those fences make an interesting statement.  They clearly define the right-of-way of the interstate highway.  (Though it isn’t really a “right-of-way” because the State of Vermont actually owns the land.)  I have often wondered why they put that fence up.  Most animals in Vermont are smart enough to get around them  (Or unfortunate enough.  A young moose who lived on our land a couple of years ago found its way around the fence and got run over by foreign tourists.  Real foreign tourists, not just people from Connecticut.  I am told that the tourists were as excited as could be and took multiple pictures of the late moose to while away the time until the tow truck came.)

I’m guessing the interstate fence serves multiple purposes.  Maybe it keeps the neighbors from setting up horseshoe pits next to the interstate.  Of from running their four-wheelers or bicycles or snowmachines up and down the grass.  But I wonder if it is necessary for those purposes.  The Wilbur Cross/Merritt Parkway in Connecticut doesn’t seem to have fences all along it, and I don’t see much activity along its sides.

You might think that it is necessary to clearly define the boundaries of the interstate so neighbors don’t encroach and take over that land.  But it isn’t needed for that because, no matter how long you use or claim public land, it never becomes yours.  That’s different from private land, which can change ownership based on long-standing use or claims of ownership.

One of the things the interstate fence DOES do is serve as a marker for gauging the inexorable regeneration of the trees that were cut to build the interstate.  In the early 1970s, as I-91 was opening, exit after exit, northward to the Canadian border, you could see every inch of the fence.  It was galvanized steel and had that glistening silver color.  The interstate right-of-way gets wider and narrower and the edge goes up and down hills.  There are places in Fairlee and Norwich where the fence is way up at the top of a hill.  But, wherever it went, in the 1970s you could see it as you drove along.

For many years, the tractors mowed right up to the fence.  Then, slowly and surely, the poplars and sumac nudged the tractors a little further away.  The pines sent their branches out to make the tractor operators have to duck.  Small pines began to grow among the poplars.  Budget restrictions meant less frequent and less diligent mowing.

Have you ever seen a tree across the interstate, blocking traffic?  I haven’t.  That’s because the right-of-way was always cut back such that, if a tree fell, not only would no one hear it because of the noise from the interstate, but it could not reach the road because it wasn’t tall enough.  Now there ARE trees that could reach the interstate if they fell.

And now, for most of the way from Thetford to White River Junction, you can’t see the fence unless you really look for it.  In the 40 years or so since the interstate opened, the trees have moved out 8 or 10 inches every year.  As a result, the fence is now 30 or so feet into the regrowth, and it is barely visible.

For all intents and purposes, the fence will last forever.  Our land has a long boundary with I-91, so I am often near the fence.  It is a little less shiny than it was 40 years ago, but it is still solid and not the least bit rusty.  It will easily outlast me.  It is still sturdy, too.  I have had to hop it a couple of times, and it is not easy to hop.  It’s too high to step over, but not stiff enough to climb on to get over.  (I hop it every couple of years to clean up the mess left at the end of our road by partiers, and I had to hop it once 20 years ago when I ran out of gas coming home from playing hockey at 1l:00 pm.  I had to hop it in my hockey duds, then walk a mile and half home.  No cell phones then, and it was a nice night, so no sense alarming my neighbors.)

Shall we think of the fence as a metaphor for the inexorability (somebody look that up to see if it’s a word) of change?  Whatever we have done in our towns in the 250 years since 1761 has started changing the minute we finished it.  The only way to stop that change from happening is to work mightily to maintain the status quo.  We could stop the trees from taking back the interstate right-of-way.  But that would mean someone walking up the right-of-way with a scythe cutting the shoots that the tractors couldn’t reach.  (Or, worse, someone putting the old Roundup right to the fence for 200 miles.)

To be sure, the interstate has changed since the 1970s.  My wife and I wish we had taken successive pictures at several points over the years.  But we didn’t.  We have just watched the changes, mostly without noticing them.  And now, 30 feet of woods have grown out from the fences and we DO notice that.

What a job it will be for some future generation to take down the interstate fence and recycle all of that wire.  I wonder when that will happen.  Until then, here are some tips: First, it’s best not to try to hop the interstate fence in your hockey duds. Second, a lot of trees have fallen across the fence, and, unless it’s pitch black out, you can usually find a place where a tree has squashed the fence down, and you can get across without climbing.

Dan Grossman – dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 5:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Straight as a String

(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listservs on 6/16/2011.)

As you drive along US Route 5 in Thetford or Norwich, try to see how many places Route 5 has been changed over the years.  It was probably quite soon after our towns were founded in 1761 that construction began on what is now Route 5.  Almost every river has a road hugging it on one side or another.  The Connecticut River has roads on both sides.

In the 1700s, a road would have been hacked out of the landscape in any way possible.  It would hug the river, where there would be the least change in topography.  It would meander along with the river, always taking what seemed to be the easiest path.  It would go around hills, if possible, or up and down them if it had to.  Walking a little further was easier than major reworking of the terrain.

When the Connecticut and Passumpic Rivers Railroad came up the Connecticut River in the 1840s and 1850s, I imagine that Route 5 was altered some.  Railroad trains don’t have the ability to go up and down and all around to follow the terrain, as did horses and wagons.  Rather, railroads tried to create a roadbed that was as flat and straight as possible.  Railroads work best with gentle grades and gentle turns.  Advances in blasting technology in the early 1800s allowed railroads to blast out those grades and turns.  And, after all that blasting and grading was done, the nearby road could take advantage of it.

I’m not exactly sure what was done to Route 5 for the first 170 years of our histories.  But you can still see a lot of what was done to Route 5 in the 1930s.  US Route 5 was the main road along the east side of Vermont, from Guilford to the Canadian border.  By the 1920s it was carrying lot of motorized traffic.  Because it had followed the terrain when it was built, it had twists and turns and ups and downs.  Furthermore, it was entwined with the railroad, passing back and forth across the tracks every few miles.

In late 1920s or early 1930s, the government decided to straighten Route 5, take out steep grades and curves, and remove as many railroad crossings as possible.  So, drive up to Ely, turn around, and come back south on Route 5 and see what you can see.

Before the straightening, Route 5 crossed the tracks in Ely and went down Ely Road.  The southern crossing was abandoned and the road was thrown up past the existing houses.  A new road was built west of the tracks.  Because the farms and barns were all on old Route 5, they all had farm crossings to get across the tracks to their fields west of the tracks.  You can see a couple of those crossings today.

A similar change was made in East Thetford: Pavilion Road used to be Route 5, and Route 5 had to cross the tracks twice.  Both crossings were left in place, but a new main highway was built west of the tracks.  As you drive along Route 5, you can see lots of places where the road was moved 50 or 100 feet one way or another.  There are, of course, big trees growing in the old road, but you can still see the old road.

A lot of reworking was done near Pompanoosuc.  I think that Route 5 crossed the tracks north of Pompanoosuc at the still-existing little crossing.  Then it followed Kendall State Road east of the tracks and recrossed the tracks just north of the Ompompanoosuc River.  It went a little way west, and then crossed the Ompompanoosuc on a bridge west of the existing bridge.  You can see the remains of that bridge near the boat launching area in Pompanoosuc.  Then Route 5 went steeply up the south side of the Pompy, connected with what is now Hemlock Road, and then came steeply back down.

I think they had to do some filling to straighten Route 5 from the north end of Kendall Station Road, across the new bridge in its present location, to the junction with Hemlock Road.

Another place you can clearly see the change in Route 5 is near Butternut Lane, where Kildeer Farm is located.  North of Butternut Lane, to the west of Route 5, you can see the remains of a bridge that took Route 5 across a stream.  Then Route 5 went up to the big yellow house on the ridge, past it, and then back down.

There are a lot of little jogs and jigs.  Route 5 used to go behind, to the west, of the building that has been the Log Cabin/Mexicali Rose/Joseph’s Waterworks restaurants, and then the Foursquare Gospel Church.  You can’t really see where the road went, but I’ve seen the records, so I know it was changed.

Now, I can’t be sure of this, and I’m sure someone’ll help me with the facts here, but I think that Route 5 went up Lower Loveland Road and then followed Upper Loveland Road onto Church Street and then into Norwich.  I think that River Road started at the intersection with Lower Loveland Road and headed down to the Ledyard Bridge.  The ledges at the present intersection of River Road and Route 5 were an obstacle, I believe, and the original road had to be routed around them.  I think that those ledges were blasted into submission in the 1930s, and Route 5 took that new, shorter route.

It’s hard to believe that all that work was done to a 170-year-old road, and then all the straightening was only useful for 35 years.  The work was finished in the mid-1930s, and then Interstate 91 replaced Route 5 as the main north-south road in 1971.

So: mark your calendar for late October, after the leaves have fallen.  Then drive slowly up Route 5 looking for all the places where it was straightened.  Now that you know it is there, you’ll see it for sure.

Dan Grossman – dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 5:18 am  Leave a Comment  

250 Years of Town Records

(Posted to the Thetford and Norwich listservs on 6/9/2011.)

We’ve just finished the 12,990th week of The ford’s history.  Only 10 more weeks to the 250th anniversary!  Is someone keeping a record of how time is flying?

I do know that someone has been keeping records for our towns for all of those 12,990 weeks.  Records relating to property ownership, taxation, voter lists, and town expenditures are an essential part of municipal government. 

In Vermont, records have always been kept on a town-by-town basis.  Norwich and Thetford have, therefore, each had their own stash of public records since 1761, presided over by their respective town clerks.

(In many states, such as New Hampshire, a variety of records are kept by county governments.)

For many years, town clerks simply kept the records at their homes.  The town bought a safe and moved it to the town clerk’s front porch.  When a new town clerk was elected, they would jack up the safe on the porch of the retiring town clerk, load it on a wagon, and move it to the porch of the new town clerk.  Someone would slither under the new town clerk’s porch in the late-March mud and put some blocking under the porch so that the heavy safe wouldn’t go right through the floor of the porch.

How long ago was that?  Not very long ago.  I remember the town clerk in West Fairlee having the safe in her home in the 1970s.  I have been told that Thetford’s town clerk worked out of her or his home until the 1960s.  I used town records in the cellars of town clerks’ homes in Victory and Lemington, in the Northeast Kingdom, in the late 1980s.  In Norwich, I think that records were kept in the clerks’ homes until Tracy Hall was built in the 1930s.

Records were, of course, kept by hand at first.  Typewriters didn’t come into use until the beginning of the 20th century.  Around here, records were handwritten until the 1940s in Norwich and Thetford.  The Northeast Kingdom was a holdout here, too: I found the town clerk in Granby handwriting records in the late 1980s, about 100 years after the invention of the first typewriters!

Up until about 20 years ago, in fact, town clerks were paid by the word they copied, whether it was by hand or by typewriter.  A penny per word: $1 for 100 words.  The makers of the books in which records were kept were helpful here: they would print all the standard words on the forms for the books, and then give a word-count at the bottom of the page so that the clerk could charge for them.  The town clerk would then fill in the non-standard words.  The makers of the books also printed the forms for deeds and such, so lawyers could prepare deeds with the same standard words as were in the town clerks’ record books.

When xerox machines became available, not every town could afford one.  They were about the size of a Volkswagen bus, and you had to trade a small farm to get one.  So one town would get a xerox machine and share it with nearby towns.  For instance, Thetford got a xerox machine in the early 1970s.  Every week or so, the town clerks from West Fairlee, or Vershire, or Strafford would bring their documents to Thetford and use Thetford’s machine.  It was a nice way to cooperate.  (Too bad that particular machine made crummy copies.  Copies from that era are fading in all of those towns.)

One problem that faced all towns until the last 50 years or so was fire.  If the building in which your town’s records were kept burnt down, that was a big problem.  All the records back to the 1760s would get crisped.  If you didn’t have the originals of the documents, you could have big problems.  To protect against that, some owners of a property would stack up all the original deeds going all the way back.  The stack would be passed, tied with a ribbon, on to each successive owner of the property.  I’ve seen a couple of such stacks in the last 40 years.  There was also the option of sending the deed to your property to the county clerk’s office and recording it there.  Then there would be a duplicate in case of fire.

Indexing used to be done by hand.  At first, it was in books with sewn-in pages.  There would be a set of pages for each letter of the alphabet, but entries were chronological.  One has to read through ALL the entries for a given letter if you are looking for one particular name.  This 18th-century method is still in use today in one town not too many miles away from Thetford and Norwich!

Next came index cards.  I have striven mightily, without success, to determine when index cards were invented.  I am thinking that someone invented a rotary card cutter in the middle of the 19th century, making possible the manufacture of index cards.  Index cards made the process of developing an index much faster.  All the entries for one name could then be placed in alphabetical order.

Many towns still use index cards today, but, one after another, towns are slowly changing their indexing to computers. 

One challenge that Vermont towns face with the keeping of records is the fragmentation of the records.  There are, I think, 245 towns and cities keeping separate records.  Obviously all those records should be scanned so that they can be made widely available, and all the indexes should be computerized.  But that means each town must set up to scan 12,990 weeks (and counting) of records, and somehow key in 250 years of indexing.  Woof!  Makes my head want to explode just thinking about it.  Write this down: I predict it’ll be pretty much done by 2025.

Here’s my fun fact about town records: When I was searching some records in Lemington in 1988, the power went out.  The town clerk hauled out some kerosene lamps, lit them, and we proceeded to finish our work by lamp-light!  I record that as a fond memory!

Dan Grossman – dan@dg123.com

Published in: on August 11, 2011 at 5:15 am  Leave a Comment