Williamstown Branch

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The time is 1898, ana the place, a small Vermont town on a branch line railroad. Any resemblance to presentday America is purely accidental., for the Williamstown that R. L. Duffus knew as a boy might just as well be part of another country on a different planet. As we read the veteran newsman’s reminiscence of his life sixty years ago (it is fair to assume that he was a typical boy in a typical rural American town), we are likely to feel something beyond mere nostalgia—perhaps a certain regret for a more peaceful, more leisurely, and less impersonal way of life that can never be recaptured.

VERMONT IN THE 1890’s: A boy’s world full of wonder

My father said, one day when I was eight and we were living in Mill Village, that some day he’d hire a horse and rig from J. K. Linton and take us all to see the Barre Quarries. Two years later, when I was ten and we were living in the General E. Bass house, we still hadn’t gone to see the quarries, but I kept hoping we would.

The quarries, in the hills above Barre and maybe four miles from Williamstown, were the source of the granite industry in that part of Vermont. In my eyes they were among the marvels of the world, even unseen. Of course we saw in many ways the traces and effects of this primeval rock. From Graniteville a branch railroad wound down to Barre, but there was also a steep dirt road descending into Williamstown. Down this road, in some of my earliest memories, came the great stone-laden wagons, brakes making sparks at the last steep pitch into our valley, horses holding hard back, the drivers sometimes standing, reins tight in hand, and swearing blue blazes, and loving the admiration they drew from us boys.

I thought of Barre Quarries as a distant journey, though they were in fact no further away than places to which we often went on our bicycles. Not as far away, really, as Barre itself. But I wouldn’t have dreamed of going there alone, and somehow it never occurred to a group of us to ride our bicycles up there.

This may have been partly because the quarries, even then, were two hundred feet down and our parents feared their boys might go too near the edge and fall in; or be too near when a blast went off and get blown back home in small pieces; or be mashed under a few tons of granite. The Barre Quarries seemed distant because they were strange and dangerous, wonderful, legendary and romantic.

So Barre Quarries represented to me, at the time I was ten years old, the spirit of travel and adventure. When I say this I do not mean to imply that Williamstown, even then, with only dirt roads leading to and from it and with only one rickety branch railroad line, was shut away like a dream village in a fairy story.

Williamstown people traveled, all right. One Williamstown boy had become a well-known war correspondent and gone all over the world and been shot at; we boys envied him, though we never saw him. A Williamstown man who had accumulated some modest means—perhaps by selling timberland to people from outside the state who didn’t know too much about local timber and terrain—made an extensive trip one year. Williamstown people with less money could go on excursions to Boston or Montreal for about ten dollars for the round trip.

The Central Vermont Railway of that day did all it possibly could to make a passenger realize he was traveling. It shot soot in through the open windows; it rolled and rocked going around curves; it backed and switched in Barre and Montpelier; it came down to the main line at Montpelier Junction and let everybody stand half an hour or so on a windy platform waiting for the train to come roaring down from Northfield and points south; in fact, there wasn’t anything that railroad wouldn’t do to make a small boy contented.

I didn’t readily start conversations with strangers, but I heard the commercial travelers called drummers talking in J. K. Linton’s store and at the Monument House. They had grand airs, as men naturally would who had been around so much. They knew the world, and nothing could fool them—no siree, as they used to say. They weren’t the sort who would blow out the gas when they put up at a fashionable city hotel, and as for tall buildings, they had seen them all—even in some cases the Flatiron Building and Madison Square Garden in New York City—and thought nothing of it.

And there were other sorts of travelers, stranger ones than the drummers, who, after all, just traveled up and down the state of Vermont selling groceries or patent medicines or things like that to storekeepers.

There were the pack peddlers, for example. I still remember one of these—or is this memory a combination of several peddlers? Anyhow, he had come to our door and my mother had let him in, and he had opened his pack, well wrapped in oil cloth, on the kitchen table. I think there were fabrics of some sort, for I have an impression of soft colors and my mother fingering the stuff with the evident thought of making a dress or apron, perhaps for my shiny-eyed younger sister, who was standing by.

But what stuck in my memory was something else: the bright packages of needles, thimbles, knives of various shapes and sizes—jackknives among them, I think; indeed, maybe this was the peddler who sold my mother the pocketknife I treasured so long and which made a scar I still carry on the little finger of my left hand.