Williamstown Branch


It is just as easy to explain why the hotel went away as it is to explain why the J. K. Linton store—dissolved into ashes, the smoke of it rising into a clear sky full of images—went away. The hotel burned down. So did the stone-sheds. But a store, a hotel, a stone-shed, would grow again if the soil were fit for them. In 1898 it was fit for them. Later it wasn’t.

The roads were measured by time, and time in 1898 went slowly. I would have needed an hour, at least, to get to Barre by horse-drawn buggy, and perhaps another hour and a half to get back, since getting back was uphill.

Therefore Williamstown could have, and had to have, a hotel, several stores, three churches, and, if business seemed good, two or three granite-cutting sheds. Williamstown was an island in time as time was measured in 1898, and an island must provide itself with the necessities of life.

Williamstown could do this, no matter what it took in from the outside world. It didn’t make all its own flour, but it could have; nor process all its own meat, but it could have; nor raise all its own vegetables, but it could have; nor much of its fruit, but yet it had apples enough, and berries, and a cherry or two; nor provide all its own lumber, but it came near doing this. Williamstown people could have stayed alive for a long while if the Central Vermont Railway had stopped running and the dirt roads had been blocked. Life would have been Spartan but not impossible.

How did Williamstown begin to wane from its high position? Was it dying, a little, in my time? What stabbed it harder—some quirk in the granite industry that shifted the movement of stone to Barre and Montpelier; or the weapon that struck at all the small towns from ocean to ocean, from border to border—the gasoline-driven Thing, the smooth highway, the consequent shrinking of the map, so that a market town every thirty miles, say, could take the place of a market town every ten miles or so?

I didn’t see anything at all going on, during my time, that suggested the great changes that were to come. A boy of ten wouldn’t—boys of ten are almost never philosophers, economists, sociologists, or historians.

So there was Williamstown, and there was the year 1898. Our family began to disperse a little later, and that is too long a story for the present. I myself left Williamstown in 1901 to go to high school in Waterbury, Vermont, with kindly help from my aunt and maternal grandmother. That, too, is another storythere are so many other stories.

Since this is a guided tour of Williamstown as it seemed to a ten-year-old boy in the year 1898, I propose now to explore again, briefly and finally, this vanished dominion.

This is a high valley among the hills, where the Indians long ago raised corn. If I went uptown from the General E. Bass house, I had the lovely brick building of the Sibley farm on my left, with its attendant barns and the meadows stretching level for I suppose a quarter mile or so. On my right would be Mr. Ainsworth’s meadows, not much used at that time except for producing hay. As I neared the Pool Bridge, where the brook crossed the road, I might see marshes on either hand if it were spring or early in a rainy fall. There was a modern house or maybe two such on the Sibley side and a stone wall on the Ainsworth side.

The Pool Bridge was overhung with willows. The nature of the stream underneath changed from year to year as the sand migrated upstream or downstream, I never knew why. Dace swam in it, and suckers lingered patiently for the baited hook, knowing perhaps that few cared to bother catching them but hoping to be appreciated and compared with trout once they were in the frying pan.

The bridge had a sort of bulwark on each side, covered with corrugated iron and overhanging a little. I used to cross this bulwark on the outer side, hanging by my hands. Other boys weren’t all courageous enough to do this, and after a while I wasn’t either. Where did all that valor go, I wonder, when I needed it in later years?

After one crossed the bridge the village began. On the left there was a sort of tenement building, two stories high, with verandas, painted in a dark brown, gloomy in winter but pleasantly cool in summer.

Beyond, on the left, was the schoolhouse, a squaredoff structure with no architectural pretensions whatever; and though in 1898 I welcomed vacations, I loved this school and most of the teachers who taught there.

On the right, almost opposite, lived Mr. and Mrs. Liberty Jeffords, a respected elderly couple to whom I sometimes spoke when Mrs. Jeffords consented to bake some loaves of bread for the Duffus family. These smelled so good I almost ate them up on my way home.

Farther along, and still on the right, was the Linton residence—a happy, comfortable place during J. K.’s good days. I remember it in brown paint, and I suspect it wasn’t one of the oldest houses in the village. The last time I saw it, the paint was peeling badly, and my heart ached a little.