Williamstown Branch

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A boy does not think of capital investments and the returns thereon, or of what makes business in general go. Our view of stone-sheds was a material one. There stood the buildings, where our parents would rather we did not go during working hours except when sometimes we took my father’s dinner pail to him. There was, during those working hours, the clickety-clack of hammers on stone—a sound I have never heard outside of the granite towns and which I will remember to my final day. There was the great strength and beauty of this stone; the cranes that lifted and carried it; the chips that were daily wheeled out to be added to the everlasting terminal moraines around the sheds; the smell of the slush, whatever it was, that was used to polish the granite.

Sometimes we boys would slip over to one of the stone-sheds on a day when nobody was working—Sunday, maybe. It was fascinating to wander among the half-worked stones, to inspect the tools abandoned when the closing whistle blew, to see the crane machinery all ready for work but still and unmanned. We never thought of a day when the tools would be laid down for the last time and the stationary engine and crane would work no more in that place, nor the men who operated them.

There were, I suppose, three worlds in Williamstown: the world of the stone-sheds, the world of the villagers, and the world of the farmers. We boys found mysteries in the worlds of the Italians and the French Canadians, but these worlds were not completely strange. Or they were no more strange than the worlds of all adults, for we boys were a community to ourselves.

As I look at a picture of the children of the Williamstown Graded School, taken about 1898, give or take a year, I can detect the Scotch and Welsh blood in boys or girls whose names I remember, one or two with French Canadian names, none that I am sure were Italian, although this doesn’t mean there were none, and, of course, the Irish. There is one boy I have always thought looked like Huck Finn—he still does, in this photograph. There is one girl, I thought then and long afterwards, as beautiful as the dawn; I think I can see why I thought so, but I am not quite sure.

This picture was taken on the broad front steps of the school, with the teachers standing at the top. Some of them I remember, but not their names. How would I answer today should one of them ask me, as she did once, to bound Europe and Asia, naming each body of water, each bay, gulf, and strait, all the way round? I was able to do so then but now—though I would like to please her, for she has a pleasant face—I am not sure I could.

Where now is the Barents Sea? What became of it after 1917? What became of the small, ineffectuallooking boy who sits fourth from the left on the top steps in the picture? His ears stuck out like wings, but his hair was dark and plentiful.

I try to get back into this picture, and at times and for brief instants I can do so. My brother seems to have a hole in the knee of one of his long stockings; so have I. I believe these must have happened since we left home an hour or so ago, or that we managed to get out without our mother seeing us. Our mother always wanted us to look as well as we could; she was quick with the darning needle and she could tie a flowing bow, of the sort a small boy wore then, as neatly as any woman in town.

But I am not thinking so much of the passage of time as of the dwindling of a town. For though WiIliamstown did not break up, as Merrill Linton’s father had been afraid it would, it did shrink. What was there in 1898, in that golden year, that could cast such a shadow?

As early as that year there appeared, at rare intervals, a Thing with wheels but no horse that nevertheless managed to move along our dusty, muddy, and rocky roads. This was a spectacle we wouldn’t miss for anything, but we saw it as a free outdoor circus, not as a portent of the future.

We argued over what it should be called. Many persons said it was a horseless carriage—as, indeed, it was. Others called it an automobile and were rebuked by writers in the Youth’s Companion and other publications, who said you could not unite a Greek root with a Latin root. This mattered to me, even at the age of ten, after I had heard my father and Mr. Ainsworth argue it.

But the Thing itself, whatever it was called, remained marvelous and incredible. It made a terrific noise. It was always breaking down. Yet it could go from Williamstown to Barre, if all went well, in not much over half an hour; and if it ran at all it could go when its owner wanted it to.

The Thing with wheels but no horse made buggy rides obsolete and, without meaning to, killed the Williamstown I knew.

The Thing killed Williamstown, and not out of cussedness but because it was so demanding. The Thing did not like dust or mud. The Thing had no thought of a road taken at leisure, tasted and relished; the Thing had to be somewhere at a given time, anyhow in a great hurry; the Thing wished to dash, not stroll.

I don’t know what happened to J. K. Linton’s store, except that after my time it became a farmers’ co-operative, and after that, it burned down and was physically replaced by a filling station. If it hadn’t been for the Thing there would, of course, have been no need for a filling station. When I was ten years old I didn’t know what a filling station was. Nobody did. There were none.