Post Civil War
The Tale of a Little Red Schoolhouse
Old Roads and Cellar Holes
Homes of Residents of Athens
Promptly on March 4, 1781, in obedience to the charter, Athens was organized. William Beal was elected the first town clerk, Daniel Fuller, Jabez Hurd, and Calvin Oak, selectmen, Abel Mattoon, representative. Calvin Oak was also elected the first justice of the peace and constable.
From this time forward, the town grew by leaps and bounds. Land was cleared, homes built, roads laid out, and mills operating. Wonderful changes were achieved by these sturdy pioneers, and in 1791, twelve years after the first settlement, Athens numbered 450 people.
Each charter member was given approximately fifty acres of land, as his share, upon which to build his home and farm. A sheepskin chart showing the location of the earliest grants is kept in the Town Clerk’s office. Many of these grants were on what were called pitch lots, uneven, stony and hilly, allowance being made in such cases, to make them equal one with another. …
Provision for the education of their children and for their spiritual welfare was made as early as possible by the settlers. Rev. Joseph Bullen, a man of much learning, was called in 1785 from Westminster, Vermont, to become the first schoolmaster and minister. School was taught for years in log huts, preaching also was held in homes and log huts. In 1804, after serving the town nearly twenty years, Mr. Bullen was called as a missionary to the Chickasaw Indians in Tennessee and died there some years later.
The religious denominations were Baptist, Christian, Congregationalist, Methodist, and Universalist. The local Methodist Episcopal Society was formed in 1801, and though the congregation was composed of several denominations and was called a Union Church, the Methodist Conference seems to have supplied most of the pastors.
Attempts were made from earliest times to obtain biographical sketches of the pioneer families, but without much success. Miss Abby M. Hemenway writes:¹
"In collecting the facts relative to the individual history of the early settlers in the town of Athens, the author wrote to all the families whose residence could be found, and waited till quite a late date hoping that the Porter family, Shafter, Tinkham, Davis, Balch, Alexander, Wells, Oakes, Holden and Perham families would furnish sketches of their early history in Vermont; yet practically no responses have been given, very few having taken any notice of the request."
However, she did receive the following narrative by Mrs. Betsey Robbins, mother of Hon. F. C. Robbins of Ludlow, Vt. and daughter of Ezekial Perham, a cousin of Jonathan Perham, one of the first proprietors of the town.
by Betsey Perham Robbins¹
In March 1795, my father, who then resided in Townsend Mass., started with his wife and four children, for the then new state of Vermont. We came with an ox team, consisting of one yoke of oxen, and two yoke of steers, one cow and one sled, on which was loaded what household furniture was necessary for immediate use; consisting of one chest of drawers, one desk, beds and bedding, together with such cooking utensils as was deemed absolutely necessary for those primitive days in Vermont. My father drove the ox-team and my oldest brother, Asa Perham, rode the old mare, and my mother, myself and my two younger sisters rode on the ox-sled, on a seat prepared for that purpose. We started from Townsend, Mass., and only traveled as far as Rindge the first day, and there stayed with a friend over night; my father having lived there at the time I was born in 1789. The next day it was snowing, and we only drove to the middle of the town of Jaffrey, where we stopped and stayed with Judge Parker, who married a sister of my mother, and who was father of Judge Joel Parker, formerly of the Supreme Court of New Hampshire.
On the next day the air being mild and pleasant for a March day, we drove on through Keene to Westmoreland, where we again put up for the night near a ferry across the Connecticut River known as Robbin’s Ferry.
The following morning, we crossed the Connecticut River in a ferry boat, to the Vermont side, and was then in the town of Putney.
From Putney we came through Westminster West Parish. The road leading from Westminster to the south part of Athens at that time, turned off at about the north end of the farm formerly owned by Zadock Hitchcock, and at that time passed through the premises of a Mr. Colton, who lived at the first house south of the farm where David Hitchcock lived in 1830, thence running westerly to the top of the mountain east of Athens Hollow, coming out to where Sylvanus Matoon then lived and where George Skinner afterwards lived. Along this road, rough as it was, we came slowly with our ox-team and household goods—Penates—and arrived in the town of Athens about the twentieth of March 1795.
The highway coming into Athens from Westminster as above stated then passed on over the hill where Daniel Fuller, Esq., then lived, thence to where William Beals then lived, the same place afterwards owned by Maj. Timothy Whitney, thence crossing the brook south of where Amos Ball now lives, across the farm now owned by Merrill Powers, up on the hill where Nelson Oaks formerly lived, thence westerly up the brook (running from the Shafter Pond) to where Nathaniel Oaks once lived, where stood at that time, a large unfinished one story building then used to hold town meetings in.
David Eveleth then owned the farm now owned by Merrill Powers. Along the above described road our ox-team moved slowly, and on arriving in Athens my father purchased the farm of Mr. Eveleth and terminated our journey to Vermont on the farm where Merrill Powers lived in 1875.
The names of some of the earliest settlers in the town of Athens, were Jonathan Perham, who lived on the Nathaniel Powers farm near the east line of the farm lately owned by Oscar L. Perham, but owned the whole of the Ivory Mack farm in Athens. Ephraim Holden then owned the farm now occupied by Edward Ball; James Shafter then owned the farm known as the Shafter place, but more lately owned by Amos Davis; Samuel Balch at that early period lived where Austin Hitchcock now lives. Silas Powers then lived on the farm more lately known as the Abner Powers’ place, but was first owned and occupied by Silas Chapman, the grandfather of Hon. Clark H. Chapman. David Robbins was then the occupant of the grist-mill that used to stand near where Dustin Ball now lives, Stephen Farrington then lived on the farm since owned by Nelson Oak. Ethalston Bayley’s father occupied the farm now owned by his son Ethalston; Leonard Perham, son of Jonathan Perham owned the farm now occupied by Lyman Alexander.
These settlers, with others, made up the town of Athens in 1795. Jonathan Perham, James Shafter and Seth Oak seem to have been the most prominent men, and their location in the town seems to have resulted in the permanent settlement and organization of the township.
Each family in this early period, was practically self-sufficient and independent. The men produced most of the living on their own farms, helping one another by “changing works,” but seldom hiring.
A few cattle, sheep, hens, maple sugar, home grown wheat, corn and oats, with fuel from their wood lots, all these provided a living, meager, indeed, but generally enough. In fact there was often a surplus to send to Boston once a year or so, to exchange for wool, flax, cotton, sugar, salt and commodities they didn’t have.
The women and girls of that day were experts at carding the wool, roping the spindle, spinning it into yarn and weaving the yarn into cloth. The .,spinning wheel and loom were never idle. Garments for the family wardrobe, shirts, sheets, handkerchiefs and many other articles were made, as well as knitted clothing.
To Boston 1810
At least once yearly some of the farmers made the long, tedious trip to Boston with produce picked up from neighboring farms as well as from their own, to barter for supplies they needed. Two or three teamsters would go together, each driving a two-horse wagon designed to carry a ton, ready to help each other in emergency. Sometimes they drove a herd of cattle ahead. Preparations for these journeys took from four to six days. Pigs had to be butchered, chickens and turkeys dressed off, harnesses mended and oiled, and the horses put in condition. The women flew around cooking pies, doughnuts and provisions to eat on the way.
An account of one such trip from Athens to Boston, made by Nathaniel Powers around 1810, is related by his son, Nathaniel Whitcomb Powers.² Mr. Powers recalls, “Judge Wm. R. Shafter and my father used to like to go together on these expeditions to Boston. They would stop at taverns and eat their victuals in the bar room with a mug of warm cider to drink. The Judge was good company and ‘they had fun by the wholesale.’ The Judge told him a story of how he once traveled to Boston in company of a teamster from Chesterfield, N. H., where his wife lived when a girl. This man insisted on stopping at an inn and buying two warm meals a day, with bittered sling, an extravagance seldom indulged in then. But Shafter had to do the same for fear the man would go home and say, ‘William R. Shafter, husband of Polly Lovell, lived on cold bites, and drank black strap from a chunk bottle.’ ‘I couldn’t stand that, but,’ said he, ‘it cost me all of $5.00 for being in the company of this high living fellow.’”
Another time when the Judge was coming home from Boston he crossed the Connecticut on the ice at Bellows Falls, figuring thereby to save the ninepence it would have cost by ferry. But his team broke through the ice, spoiling his sugar, salt and other goods, with a loss of seven dollars.
¹Abby M. Hemenway, Vermont Historical Gazetteer (Burlington, 1891), Vol. V, p. 363.
About 1820, the old Middletown where the Brick Church is located, was the center of a thriving township with a population of five hundred and seven, its highest. Besides the church and several dwelling houses, this small center comprised a school house, a store, a post office and a blacksmith shop. A short distance to the west on the old county road was a roomy tavern run by James Shafter. Taking the road to the southeast known as Mill Hill, at the foot, about half a mile from the church, are found the sites of the first saw mill and grist mill. Later, farther down, there was a saw mill a few rods below what is now known as Butson’s bridge. Still farther on, was a carriage manufactory and the first scythe snath shop. Near the first saw mill was a blacksmith shop, and in the field east of the new parsonage was another run by Merrill Powers. This little group of shops, mills and dwellings near the foot of Mill Hill was locally known as The City. Of the above mentioned public buildings, only the Old Brick Church and a part of the tavern remain. The tavern is now (1960) part of the McCusker residence.
The “Common,” as the sloping field in front of the Brick Church was called, was many times in years past, the scene of great activity. It was the training ground for the famous “June Trainings” of the Militia, stories of which have been handed down from one generation to another.
Life for the pioneers in this homespun age was serious, often lonely, sometimes grim, but always busy. Work days were from sun up to sun down; fields had to be cleared, huge stones piled into boundary walls; planting and harvesting; mowing hay by scythe; tending cattle, sheep and other animals. In winter there was fire wood to get up, logs to draw to mill, butchering. Travel was slow, sometimes by horseback, mostly by oxen.
For the women besides raising children and regular housework, there was always spinning, weaving, and knitting. They made the soap, using lye from wood ashes. This they poured over tallow from beef fats and made soft soap, which was turned into a large barrel and kept down cellar. They dipped the candles, a large supply at a time, until whale oil and kerosene brought marvelous changes. Cooking was done in a big fireplace with a huge built-in brick oven beside it. Store clothes in those days were practically unheard of in Athens. Most of the family garments were made by the mother, but Sunday clothes were different. A neighbor, handy with her scissors and needle would make the rounds once a year or so, staying at each home “a spell,” outfitting the family with its Sunday clothing. This included coats for the menfolks. As for shoes, they were uncommon then. Everyone from oldest to youngest wore boots. A traveling cobbler, like the dressmaker came around in the spring and stayed until each member of the family was shod.
When sickness struck, the doctor was miles away and was seldom called. Instead, a neighbor skilled in home nursing, and in the use of local medicinal herbs was called in. Often it was the minister’s wife who came. In serious cases the pastor was summoned at once, always ready with both material and spiritual help. Infant and childhood mortality being very high, his task very often was to comfort bereaved parents. Large families were the rule, but of the eight, ten, twelve, or fourteen little ones born, too often only half the number lived to grow up. In place of an undertaker, the neighbors took charge. A “laying out” board, kept in many attics at that time, was borrowed, a plain pine box built, and everything made ready. Funerals were almost invariably held in the home and were well attended, relatives, neighbors and friends bringing large bouquets of garden flowers in season.
But there was fun and pleasure for all, as well. The children hugged their rag dolls, skimmed over icy ponds on home-made skates, and slid down steep roads on traverse sleds. There were “Bees” of every sort, and for the men hunting, fishing and trapping. In the fall came the huskings when neighbors gathered from miles around to husk the corn piled high on the barn floor. The lucky young farmer who found a red ear, often produced unnoticed from his own pocket, could kiss the prettiest girl there. Later, the corn all husked, he could take her into the kitchen for doughnuts and cider served by the women, and then see her home. There were bees to get up the winter’s wood; “raisings” to set up the frame of a neighbor’s house or barn; “drawings” to move buildings to different locations. Sometimes up to twenty team of oxen were used in these drawings. The Sprague house was moved from valley cemetery road to its present position. The M. T. Edwards house was moved from opposite the old Colton place near the tannery to its present location. A barn on the N. W. Wyman place was moved down from cemetery road, and the schoolhouse in district No. 2 is reported to have been moved down from Middletown. There are probably other instances of buildings being moved. In the winter singing schools were popular, and spelling bees, held in the schoolhouse, crowded to overflowing with young and old eager to contest or to watch. Quilting parties were a favorite of the women, whose nimble fingers and artistic taste turned out many a masterpiece.
Most disputes were settled out of court, but occasionally serious violations of the law were taken to County Court at Newfane. Infractions of church laws were regarded seriously but were settled by the elders of the church, who sometimes expelled a rebellious member. The Olde Stewards Book records the case of a young man expelled for “prancing on horseback up and down in front of the church on Sunday morning during worship.” A famous case of a different nature took place in 1830, when Nathaniel Powers, son of Josiah Powers the Revolutionary hero, was defendant in a suit brought against him by the Church of England.¹ Mr. Powers owned a large farm of two hundred acres in Athens, with a two-story house, cattle, sheep, horses and one thousand dollars in the bank. The property was located near the Westminster line, on the hill road beyond what is now the new parsonage. The Church of England laid claim to this farm as glebe land, declaring that it lay in the town of Westminster and thus belonged to the Church. For thirteen years Mr. Powers fought bitterly in the courts to prove his title clear and that his land was in Athens. Every year at term of court, he made the long journey to Rutland on horseback, in vain. Finally, though he succeeded in proving his title clear, and that his farm was actually located in Athens, the court decreed against him, taking away his farm and practically all he owned, and giving it to the Church. In 1843, he went to Wisconsin to live with his son David, a lawyer, inventor and influential citizen of Palmyra.
¹From Sketches of the Powers Family, Nathaniel W. Powers, 1872.
A decline in the population of Athens following the period of immigration starting in 1779, set in around 1820 when the climax of five hundred and seven inhabitants was reached. A trend toward migration commenced soon after the war of 1812, when stories of rich farm lands in the Northwest Territory, of wide meadows and thick woodlands, began to filter in. The year of poverty in 1816, when near starvation threatened all, heightened the desire of many to move to a milder climate. Young men were lured by the call of adventure, as well as the prospect of cheaper land, easier to cultivate than the small stony fields of their mountain homes. But migration was difficult and dangerous in those years and few attempted it, until the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 made access to the West comparatively easy. During the years following that great event, members of the Ball, Oakes, Perham, Powers, Shafter, Shattuck and other Athens families joined other Vermonters going west to seek their fortunes on the new frontier. Many settled in northern New York State, others pushed on to the Ohio and a few to California.
David J. Powers, Joseph B., Esther and Americus Windsor Powers, all children of Nathaniel Powers, emigrated to Wisconsin. There they founded the city of Palmyra and became prominent citizens. Enos Lovell Powers, another son, settled in Ohio in the jeweler’s trade. During a later migration to the West, Oscar and James M. Shafter, sons of Judge Wm. R. Shafter, emigrated to California where they became famous jurists. Members of the Bemis family also settled in the West. Asher Thompson and his wife, the former Harriet Shattuck, granddaughter of Ezekiel Perham, removed to Mina, New York. Thus the population dropped from five hundred and seven in 1820 to three hundred and nine in 1850.
The first farm census by the federal government was taken in 1840. The following facts about the town of Athens are given: Population 378; horses 75; cattle 553; sheep 3,061; swine 284; production per year of wheat 501 bu.; barley 112 bu.; hay 966 tons; maple sugar 6,470 lbs; wool 5,387 lbs. Though no mention was made of dairy products or lumber, these items formed an important source of the town’s income.
The winter of 1842–1843 was an exceptionally cold one, cases of freezing to death being reported.¹ Worse than the cold, came an epidemic of skin disease numbering several victims, this town suffering along with many victims in almost every township in the state. The year 1842 was long known as the “year of epidemic.” The next year was proclaimed the year of jubilee by the Millerites, who believed the world would end at that time. An old inhabitant of town, ten years old at the time, told the writer that intense excitement prevailed as the day of doom approached. Believers sold their homes and climbed trees to be ready for the upward flight.
The nation-wide temperance movement of the forty’s and fifty’s took Vermont by storm. Liquor was everywhere plentiful and cheap; almost every man drank and a host of evil consequences followed in the train of excessive indulgence. Sentiment grew against these excesses until in 1852 the Vermont Legislature framed the prohibition act. Maine had already passed a similar ordinance in 1846. Athens went dry along with the whole State of Vermont, and has ever since remained in the dry column. Thomas Wyman, an Athenian, was one of the most ardent advocates of the temperance cause in this section of New England. A barn built by him was one of the first in this vicinity “raised” without the usual distribution of rum, a supposed necessity upon such an occasion. Plenty of good food had been provided and the neighbors had gathered for miles around, but when the time came they refused to lift the frame without the rum. Mr. Wyman would not give in, and the raising was postponed after much uncomplimentary talk about the host. A few days later more than a sufficient number of men came to assist, and the barn went up. A large and well-executed motto “Anti Rum and Tobacco” was nailed on the barn adjoining his house, a reminder to passers by for many years. On his gravestone is inscribed “An Advocate of Temperance and a Friend of the Laboring Man.” Cyrus Wyman, his son, was once a candidate for governor on the Prohibition ticket.
The steady decline in population which began about 1825 with the opening of the Erie Canal continued, affected only in small measure by families moving in. One such family establishing a permanent home in town, was that of Nial Bemis Sr., who moved here in 1848 from Westminster and became a prominent citizen. Two grandsons, Raymond P., and Robert C. Bemis, and a great-grandson Paul Bemis still reside here. Alvan Parkhurst came with his family around 1850; his great-granddaughter Mrs. Helen Smith Kelton and four children reside here (1959). Still another immigrating family from Westminster was that of George N. Smith, father of the poetess Effie L. Smith, and of Fred L. Smith and Minnie R. Smith, prominent citizens of Athens. Granddaughters of Mr. Smith living in town until 1945, were Mrs. Effie Smith Gaynon, and Miss Grace Smith.
Population 359; grand list $949.04; Church property $850.; cows, oxen and other cattle 634; value of stock $18,331.00; rye 172 bu.; oats 1,031 bu.; butter 11,700 lbs.; cheese 4,575 lbs. No figures on maple sugar or logging.
¹From Story of Vermont; John L. Heaton (Boston 1889).
Post Civil War
At this time, besides the early mills and shops already mentioned, there were two lime burning kilns, located at the foot of Bemis Hill. The site of one of the early brick kilns may be seen in the Dwight Hitchcock lower pasture, and two of the former tanneries were situated, one on the Allan Stedman property, the other between the former Guy W. Powers house and the Joseph Perry house. The manufacture of axe handles, ox bows and other articles of wood, was carried on in a shop at the top of Mill Hill, operated by Josephus Dunham. Clocks were once made and repaired in a shop on Mill Hill near the present Francis Taylor place.
Opposite the south school house was a saw mill in operation from about 1830 up to the turn of the century. It was first owned by Abner Powers and last by Willis M. Ball. The remains of the dam and mill pound may still be seen. Old inhabitants tell of school children playing near the pond and sometimes falling in, without more serious results than a good paddling from the teacher. They told of the undershot wheel, of the ancient saw with its “up today and down tomorrow” stroke, slowly but surely piling up the lumber used in many of the old houses near by. They watched the sawyer’s children calmly riding on the log as it hitched along toward the saw. Scythe snaths were made in a shop on the lower road between the former Melvin T. Edwards place and Butson’s bridge. The first building, of brick, was demolished by fire in 1866. A second building of wood was erected on the site and was owned by Derby and Ball of Bellows Falls. Jerry M. Powers was hired to superintend the Athens business. The wood used was cherry and ash. Sticks the exact length were steamed and bent to the right curve, these sticks or snaths were then sent to the Bellows Falls plant, to be fitted to irons and finished for sale. The output was from ten to twelve thousand snaths per year and gave employment to from eight to ten men, six to nine months per year.
Perhaps the largest single industry in town, continuing from early settlement up to 1900, was the quarrying of soapstone. Two quarries in the north part of town, partly in Grafton, gave employment to ten or twelve men most of the year. Wm. Bridges and James Brown Jr. were the last foremen, and M. T. Edwards one of the last employees. Several roads led to the quarries including one called the “Ledge” road from Cambridgeport. A large boarding house to accommodate the workers stood in the old Hick’s lot. Huge blocks of soapstone were drawn from the quarries to the stone mills at Cambridgeport where they were sawed into slabs. Soapstone sinks, stoves and tubs were in good demand in those days. A sink chipped from solid soapstone was taken from a house on Athens East Hill in 1931, and placed in a museum. At the turn of the century when not enough stone could be obtained, borings disclosed that thirty feet of hard rock would have to be pierced to regain the vein. So further quarrying ceased and the business was abandoned.
General farming was the rule on the average Athens farm at this time. Cows, sheep, oxen, horses, pigs, a few hens, a sugar bush and a timber lot were found on most farms. However, more cows were kept and more butter and cheese made. More sheep were kept, and always a pig or two. Hens were kept in small flocks expected to find most of their board and lodging under the barn. For this privilege they laid a few eggs in the spring. The coming of railroads opened a new era for small towns like Athens. Markets for their products were brought much nearer. Wool, beef, pork and dairy products began to move by rail. Logging was done every winter, the farmer drawing his logs by oxen or horses to mill by sled. He brought home boards for repairs, and also relied on the sale of logs for a source of cash.
Maple sugar making increased in volume following new methods of tapping trees, gathering and boiling sap. Gone was the huge black cauldron hung by a log chain from the end of a strong pole, in which sap was boiled out in the open. The resulting syrup was black from the cinders from the open fire. Gone too were the wooden sap spouts stuck in gashes cut in the trees. Instead, a “sugar house” provided shelter for syrup and workers. Metal spouts replaced the wooden ones. A new evaporator manufactured by the Vt. Farm Machine Co. at Bellows Falls was installed in the 1880’s by many farmers. This was set over a brick “arch,” using waste wood for fuel. The quick boiling sap resulted in a lighter colored, better quality product. From then until about 1920 farmers received a low of seventy-five cents per gallon to a high of one dollar and fifty cents.
As early as 1791, there were five post offices in the state. Post riders on horseback carried the mails. Perhaps the earliest mail route through Athens dates from 1841, Solomon Harvey post master. This route commenced at Cambridgeport, delivering mail to Athens, Brookline, Dover and Wilmington. It was discontinued in 1850. Service was again established in 1855, this time with a post office located on West Hill. Later it was moved to the Harriet Perham place, now the new parsonage, and still later to the Westgate house on the site of the present John Woodard place. Lyman Alexander was postmaster at one time. Mr. Westgate was postmaster for many years. Still living are a few who remember waiting while the kindly old postmaster finished reading the postcards.
In 1907, the Athens post office was closed, for rural free delivery. In February, 1907, Orin I. Smith of Cambridgeport became the first carrier, holding the office for thirty-two years. He delivered the mail by horse and buggy in wheeling, and by sleigh over the snow. The last few years of his term, delivery was by auto the year round. Robert Curtis of Bartonsville followed Mr. Smith, and was succeeded about twelve years ago by Charles Morris, the present carrier, also of Bartonsville.
The arrival of the machine age in the last quarter of the 19th century, in due course reached Athens. It brought the horse-drawn mowing machine, a great labor saver over the scythe formerly used from dawn to dusk all summer. The scythe was now used mainly for “picking out” and not too freely for that. Fence rows, banks along the brooks, stone walls along the road, began to lose their neat appearance as brush and brakes slowly closed in on the mowings. The horse rake, sulky plow and silo became popular. A silo filled with chopped corn was the dream of every farmer. A company of farmers headed by Harry L. Carr was formed to buy an ensilage cutter. An engine owned by Hollon M. Kelton was hired and about a dozen men took part in each filling as they moved from one farm to another. Some cut corn in the field, others drove the wagons, while others tended the engine at the barn. A carrier pushed the chopped fodder by endless chain to the top of the silo, dumping it in. Down inside, two men trod the silage to make room for more. At noon all hands were invited into the house, where dinner was served by the women. By nightfall the silo was filled and the apparatus ready to move on.
There were new conveniences for the housewife, eliminating much drudgery. No longer did she have to carry water from the brook, nor from the well in the dooryard, nor force it from the spring in the cellar with the old pitcher pump. Running water was piped into the sink, from a spring on the hillside. A reservoir attached to her new Glenwood or Home Comfort kitchen range supplied her with hot water. No more need for the big fireplace and brick oven. Cooking was easier. The family enjoyed popping corn evenings as they gathered around the stove. On wash day, a new hand wringer with a stand on each side for tubs brought joy to the housewife, equaling if not excelling that of the present young housewife over an automatic washer. Family clothing was stitched on the new sewing machine.
My children and grandchildren like to hear me tell about the years gone by, when I was a little girl living in the small town of Athens Vermont in the home of my grandfather, Charles Dunham.¹
I remember the pack-peddlers, who came to our house several times a year selling their wares; everything from papers of pins and pretty ribbons to dress goods and jack-knives. This was back in 1895 or so. Grandpa said some of them were Italian, but one big man who was gruff and stern looking, he said was a German. What nationality the man might be did not matter to me, tho’ I watched each one closely as I was a bit skeptical about them. One peddler was particularly well mannered and pleasant and grandma always bought something of him. When grandma paid this man any money he always blessed it and crossed himself before putting the money into his pocket. We were visited once a week by a man from a neighboring village who peddled fresh meat and also salt pork, salt salmon, mackerel and dried beef. He was a fat, jolly fellow, a friend of everybody, and always stopped to visit awhile.
Among our visitors at the farm was a dear old man with white whiskers, a quiet person, pleasant and dignified, who always insisted on reading a chapter from the Bible and kneeling to pray with us before he left. He was the Methodist minister in that town, Rev. O. R. Edwards.² I shall never forget him, nor the other ministers who came to preach in the white church in the valley.
I remember so well my kindly Sunday-school teacher, Mrs. J. M. Powers,³ and I thank her for teaching us the facts and truths in the Bible. There was no fooling going on in her class, no whispering nor giggling, neither was she cross or too stern. Once during the summer, she always invited her class to her home for the afternoon and we played games and had a delicious supper. It was a mile to her house and I had to walk, no cars in those days, but we had a good time just the same.
Of course grandpa kept a horse and we used to make trips to town once in two weeks to buy groceries. We went in the old Concord buggy. Grandma made some butter to sell which we took, and also several dozen eggs to the grocer’s. It used to take about five or six hours for the trip, where now, one can go and come and do all the errands in about an hour—if one did not stop to visit too long.
One time we drove to Chester to something going on there that they called a “muster,” a lot of soldiers were gathered and I saw President and Mrs. McKinley, and their special train, which was on the sidetrack by the depot. Senator Morrill of Vermont was there, too, riding on a white horse. I had never seen so many people together. Once during the afternoon I heard the cry of “pick-pockets, pick-pockets!” Someone lost their money, but it wasn’t grandpa!
When I was seven years old I started going to the district school with my cousins. We had to walk more than a mile, hot in summer and cold in winter. We carried our lunches in tin pails, and in those days we had no waxed paper around our sandwiches. The schoolhouse had no varnished floors, no electric lights, no shades at the windows to keep out the sun in summer and no steam heat in winter! The children of this generation would think it quite a humble place—this little white school house of sixty years ago!
Our water supply was the swift running brook a few yards away. The water was dipped up into a pail and set in the corner of the school room, where we were given permission by the teacher, in school hours, to get a drink. In hot, dry weather, we scholars took turns fetching the water from a neighboring house. Sometimes the water was passed around to the boys and girls, but mind you, we had only one tin cup and everyone drank from it. I think Dora³ and I sensed that it was an unsanitary thing to do, though we had never heard that word used. We always tried to get our drink first, while the cup was reasonably clean.
We had fun at recess and noontime playing tag, I-spy, and a game called “duck-on-the-rock.” On the way home from school, we girls would gather red roses and wild flowers by the roadside in summer and we knew where the peppermint and spearmint plants were, too. There was very little travel on the roads in those days, but we were sometimes lucky enough to get a ride with someone we knew. On rainy days or in bad snow storms one of our parents might come for us.
Sometimes it was the misfortune of Dora and me to meet a man with a flock of sheep, or a man driving his cows home from pasture. It seemed to us that these big black and white animals were coming straight at us. We would clamber over the nearest stone wall and crouch there until all danger was past.
Winter was really the hard time to go to school, but we went, and to church services and Sunday school, too. Our hands were so cold some mornings that we could hardly open the schoolhouse door. The schoolroom was not very large—only sixteen desks in it. It had a box type stove and chunks of wood were the fuel. It took until noon on cold days to get the room comfortable. The teacher would let us bring our lunches into the schoolroom and put them near the stove to keep the food from freezing. Our teachers were really very patient with us, and we generally liked them. There were many different ones as the years went on. I guess they couldn’t stand the strain of teaching in a country school more than one or two terms.
It was the custom to invite the teacher home to supper once each term, at least, and she usually spent the night, too. I just adored some of my teachers a few of whom are still living.
We had grand times coasting or sliding in winter. When school was in session one of the big boys who owned a traverse-sled or double-runner would get the other boys to help drag it up the hill to my cousin’s house and we would all crowd onto it and slide all the way down to the schoolhouse, about a mile away.
In the springtime we went hunting for trailing arbutus, and some of the loveliest pink blossoms were to be found in grandpa’s pasture. Arbutus is hard to find and is getting scarce because people have pulled it up by the roots.
Memorial Day was observed at our little white school house and great preparations went on for that. We learned and rehearsed many songs and recitations. Sometimes the pupils from the other two schools in town joined with us for the program. The school room looked very festive with huge bouquets of lilacs and ferns, together with flags and bunting.
School closed for the summer vacation about July second or third, and it generally ended with a picnic on the school grounds under the big maple trees. We carried our lunch as usual, the teacher furnishing the drink. I remember quantities of cold coffee and hard boiled eggs. It was fun and the thought of vacation made it a happy occasion. We got our report cards for the year that day, too.
On Fourth of July morning I was always up bright and early, at half past four sometimes. I wanted to get outdoors and blow the big tin horn. Grandma got out the flags and red, white and blue bunting and we would trim the front of the house. We had a few fire-crackers. Some years on the Fourth, the towns-people held a picnic at Leland Lake. Grandma and I went if we could. There were games for the boys, potato races, a sack race, three legged race, and one where they tried to carry an egg on a spoon in a race to the goal. The men pitched horse shoes, and there was a row boat on the lake for the adventurous ones. The high spot of the day was the dinner, tho’ we all carried our own basket lunch. There was a big tub of lemonade furnished for the crowd. One time someone accidentally sat down on a blueberry pie.
In the summer was the wonderful garden that grandpa always had; those delicious peas that grandma had ready for Sunday dinner, with new potatoes and salt pork, and maybe even an orange pudding as a special treat. Then there were crisp cucumbers, ears of yellow corn, green string beans and pretty ripe tomatoes, all in their season. Sometimes asparagus on toast for breakfast; rhubarb, currant and cherry pies.
Thanksgiving was a good holiday and grandma spent a lot of time getting ready for it. We always had a real feast. We would have roast chicken with dressing and all the “fixin’s” usually accompanying Thanksgiving dinner. The ordinary, every day meals were rather on the plain side.
Christmas was anticipated by all, as it is today. There was usually a tree at the church, with an appropriate program for Christmas Eve. It was quite thrilling waiting for the gifts to be distributed. In those days no one put pretty paper wrappings on their gifts, all the things were hung on the tree, or placed on the table or on the floor under the tree. Folks liked to play jokes on one another. I remember the bunch of ladies’ white handkerchiefs one man got every Christmas, while his wife got a lot of red bandannas pinned together. It was usually zero weather by Christmas time; we had to ride over a mile to the church and our horse was quite ready to go after standing for two hours in the open sheds. We were always glad to reach home safely and cuddle down to sleep on our soft feather beds. On Christmas morning there was always a shiny penny in the toe of the stocking I hung up, an orange, some sticks of candy, maybe a new doll, story book or some hankies. There would be a small tree which grandpa had got from the woods for us, trimmed with popcorn and candy.
The first day of January was just another day for us, a day to hang up the new calendars, and say “Happy New Year” to anyone we happened to see.
In my mind’s eye I can see my little bed room at the head of the stairs, the old spool bedstead, the stenciled wash stand, the big chest of drawers with the pretty opal glass knobs, the Chippendale mirror, Windsor chair, and the little gift clock. Little did I dream that those pieces of furniture would be called antiques some day. In the clothes closet of my room, grandma kept her wedding dress pinned into a sheet to keep it clean. We girls would beg to be allowed to see it, and how I loved to stroke the pretty blue silk dress and the black silk dolman that she kept in that same closet. Grandma wore that blue silk dress on the day that she and grandpa celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary, and the silk had not cracked a bit. That is how well the oldtime materials kept, and were cared for.
I remember trips to the “rocking-rock” in Uncle David’s⁵ pasture behind the Old Brick Church. Then there were the times that we girls asked my cousin Belle⁶ for the keys to the Old Brick Church, so we could go in and look around. It had not been in use for a long time and was out of repair so we would pick our way gingerly up the steep stairs to peek into the locked grange room, off the hall used for town meetings. We would stand on a box and look through a knot hole in the partition.
Tho’ there were no carnivals, no concerts, no movies, no radios, no telephones and no electric lights in the town where I lived as a child, in retrospect I am inclined to call those the good old days. But actually I would not trade these days for those if I could, for time has taught me to appreciate and to be grateful for all the wonderful things of today.
¹According to the Dunham genealogy in Wyman’s book [link], Charles H. Dunham (1830 to c.1917) was actually Minnie’s father by his third wife, Helen A. Howe. He was a manufacturer of ox bows and axe handles.
The Tale of a Little Red Schoolhouse
Now silent beside Athens Pond on the crooked road to Townshend, it brings a wealth of memories to those who many years ago taught and learned in similar schools throughout Vermont.
Much poetry has been written about little red school houses. They do fit into Vermont scenery, especially into winter scenery, but they are really nothing to brag about. Mine was tucked into a curve in an uphill road in Athens, Vermont, so close to the wheel tracks that one day a stranger on horseback stepped his horse over to an open window, poked his head in and asked, ‘I beg your pardon, teacher. Is this Sparta?’
This schoolhouse of mine had a half dozen twenty-four-paned windows, and blackboards of heavy canvas cloth painted black. Its long double desks of inch thick wood were pockmarked with jack-knived initials and its benches were viciously uncomfortable. Nor were the benches graded for size. You grew to your bench and when you outgrew it you left school. For some of the big boys it was high time.
At the front of the room I remember a chunk stove with a sagging stovepipe running the length of the room into the chimney on the back, on the theory that it helped to heat the place. Nothing helped when the wind blew across the pond in January and piled up drifts across the doorway of the lean-to precariously attached at the back to serve as a woodshed and such.
The nearest house wasn’t near so the road was not over-traveled. When anyone drove by—horses don’t whizz—all the pupils and I looked out of the window and waved. We knew who he was, where he lived, how many cows and babies he had and if he went to church on Sundays. And one of us could generally tell the others where he was bound.
I barely escaped being boarded around by the parents of my pupils. I blessed my luck then because one family lived two miles or more back on the hills. The children walked it but when the thermometer struck zero in the early morning, it usually took till noon to get them thawed out and natural again. Still I am inclined to think I may have missed something. My red schoolhouse teaching was done in a Vermont which in 1905 belonged entirely to Vermonters. City vacationers strayed in occasionally but made no dents. A few telephones were creeping in, but the Boston and New York dailies were yet an unknown and uncoveted luxury. Instead we subscribed to and thoroughly read the Vermont Phoenix which we found in our mailbox each Friday afternoon. We discussed its contents over the supper table during the week and spent our evenings reading and sewing, all by the light of kerosene lamps. Most homes had a gilt-edged volume of Shakespeare or Tennyson in plain sight on the marble-topped table, and older folks kept a big Bible handy.
My schooling in the early grades had been city-wise. When my father’s health failed the doctor had said, ‘Country.’ Vermont was country and we happened on the friendly village of Townshend in the West River valley north of Brattleboro. I was entered in Leland and Gray Seminary which had now become the neighborhood high school but in those days we paid tuition. Students came from all towns about, roomed in the village homes during the week and did sketchy light house-keeping on the flat-topped chunk stoves in between classes. On Saturday afternoons, most of them shipped back home, to return in the small hours of Monday morning with vegetables, meat, cake, pie and bread sufficient for five more days of study. At the end of four years we acquired an eighteen-by-twenty-four-inch diploma tied with class colors and went back to the farms to become, with the passing of time, town clerk, member of the State Legislature, or chairman of the school board, or to teach, like myself. My two year teaching certificate was the climax in a special course in pedagogy in my senior year. I gorged psychology, reviewed mathematics feverishly, concentrated on the grammar of the English language and mulled over a book with brown covers called the History of Education. I liked the stuff. And, at a very young seventeen, I began meeting those who had, by way of town meeting, arrived on the school board.
So I went to Athens to teach. Terms were ten weeks long and there were three of them to a school year. For two years I taught in the little red school house by the pond and received three dollars a week plus my board and room. Mrs. Brown got two dollars a week for that. She had never boarded the teacher before and we were satisfied with the five dollars between us. That was what the West school paid and I had accepted the position. Mrs. Brown had agreed to board me. That was That.
For eating and sleeping me, Mrs. Brown wasn’t out much in actual cash. I shared a room with her daughter who taught the North school, which reduced both the labor of washday and wear on the bedding. The things we ate grew in the garden from the first radish to the last pie pumpkin. Everything we tired of eating in season (a string bean is amazingly prolific) went into jars for the winter. Five cows provided milk and butter and large quantities of cottage cheese. Two pigs unwittingly produced pork and lard. Twenty nondescript hens and their spring progeny furnished eggs for breakfast and chicken with gravy for Sunday dinner. Mr. Brown swapped a few days work here and there for a half mutton or a quarter of beef. There was a Pound Sweet apple tree at the end of the garden and a few old Porter and Northern Spy trees back of the house. The sugar house squatted at the edge of the maple bush at the dead end of an old wood road. I never ate better in my life and I learned all about hot new maple sirup and soda biscuits, crisp salt pork and milk gravy with baked potatoes, potato yeast bread straight from the oven of a wood-burning stove.
My teaching duties could not be called heavy but they kept me very busy. I had five pupils, each in a different grade. The small first grader was a cousin to the fifth and sixth graders. The fifth and sixth graders were brother and sister. The fourth and seventh graders were not related to each other nor to the other three. As far as a young teacher could give, those five youngsters had private tutoring at the two dollar rate. We covered ground. The correlation of subjects so assiduously cultivated now wasn’t even in its infancy.
The books were dogeared and missing a page here and there but there were enough to go around. We all understood that what was in the book was put there for the teacher to teach and the pupil to learn. So we learned. It wasn’t so hard as you might suppose. We conquered spelling with the help of Noah Webster—so many words a day, and an occasional spelling bee by way of variety. Reading technique was calling words aloud by paragraphs. Our goal was perfect pronunciation, big words and all, so the teacher had to judge the reader’s comprehension of what he read by the amount of expression he injected into a sentence; comments on the thought material were apt to wander aimlessly into other grooves and thereby cheat some other grader out of a bit of his arithmetic time.
Arithmetic was the real business of the day. The teaching was done by pages, and no one ever got to page 80 who did not have the first seventy-nine pages under his hat. I know. I was there teaching it. Mr. Ball, chairman of the School committee, gave me orders the first day. ‘Your job’, he informed me, ‘is to learn them, and learn them good’. At seventeen, hair up and skirts to my ankles, I was considered equal to it.
Music and drawing were spare time projects scarcely countenanced by the folks at home. Geography was an endless memory exercise. First we buckled down to learning the boundaries of whatever it was, county, state, country, or continent. Then came learning by heart the rivers and mountains, going on to the products and industries. We finished with capital and important cities. However it was with my pupils, I showed results. For what they had to learn, the teacher had to know first, a precaution that caused me to memorize a great deal of fine print. There are other ways of learning but that was one way. And in the plush days of the little red schoolhouse, that was the way. The farm folk preferred to have their offspring postpone large amounts of original thinking until they had stowed away a reasonable quantity of verbatim booklearning as leaven.
In our lighter moments we fussed over the birthdays of famous men, and Hallowe’en, and Thanksgiving. On Memorial Day we decorated the all-but-forgotten graves of our Revolutionary heroes in the half hidden cemetery plot at the foot of the hill. But Christmas was a community affair. The Christmas tree set up on the church platform was like many another still standing in the “D” pasture, but, trimmed with popcorn and cranberry strings and showy paper chains cut from Mr. Kingsley’s wall paper sample book, it was beautiful—because we had done it ourselves.
Christmas Eve in a tiny town set in Vermont hills is a wonderful thing. There is snow—over the hills, drifted against stone walls, banking roads—roads broken out only yesterday after the heavy storm by the clumsy snow roller or by the Smith’s ox team; then by horses trotting in the deep ruts made by the runners of the sleigh. And there is the pure music of sleigh bells reaching across our white fields and seeping into the bustle of each farmhouse as they slip by. Christmas Eve in those days was something to conjure by.
Little red schoolhouses are hard to happen upon now. Perched somewhere off the main road and looking about as important as a hill of beans, they try earnestly to catch up with today while they still struggle with the problems of yesterday. What if newfangled ideas give them pause, and admiration for book learning still runs strong with them? What if eventually, the little red schoolhouse, now silent beside Athens Pond, disappears altogether? It has done its work well, and deserves richly to stand watch in its niche by the crooked road that leads toward Townshend.