October 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 6
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.
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.
I don’t suppose I ever even spoke a word to a gypsy. One reason was the usual one of shyness, together with the belief that they probably didn’t speak English at all but some outlandish language of their own. Another reason was that gypsies were suspected of kidnaping children, carrying them off, and bringing them up in their turn to be gypsies and kidnap other children.
One lot of them camped one spring or summer night between the General E. Bass house and the Pool Bridge. They had horses and gaily painted wagons and carts; their women were in bright colors, with much jewelry and handkerchiefs over their heads; even their menfolk were picturesque with earrings and sashes. No doubt their business was horse-trading and no doubt they traded some. But for me they had again the immense allurement of people who had no abiding homes but traveled wherever they wanted to, all over the face of the earth.
Even if I didn’t talk to them, I could walk by them slowly, and look at them, and come back after a while and take another look. Their camping arrangements were simple. They didn’t have to have hot and cold running water, the way they would now; nobody had hot and cold running water then, except President McKinley, Queen Victoria, and J. P. Morgan, and I wasn’t sure even about them. And their other sanitary needs were easily taken care of, in that free generation and place, when sanitation wasn’t even a word we knew. So they unhitched their horses and let them graze beside the road, which was the property of anybody that wanted it and it didn’t require permission if a horse wished to graze beside it.
I didn’t want to be kidnaped by a gypsy, and I was not. But I did keep thinking, as I saw this encampment, and especially as I smelled what the gypsies were cooking in iron pots over open fires, What would it be like to be kidnaped by gypsies and grow up and be, to all intents and purposes, a gypsy?
The next best thing to the gypsies that came to WiIliamstown, and that kept alive in me the spirit of travel and adventure, were the Uncle Tom shows and an occasional vaudeville show that played for a night in the Town Hall.
The Uncle Tom shows had a good deal besides Uncle Tom, Little Eva, and Simon Legree and one or more Lawyers Marks. They had a horse or two, sometimes an elephant, sometimes a man who walked a tightrope and did tricks on it, once in a while a trapeze performer, and a girl who did something or other and had spangles all over her. Everything that didn’t have anything to do with Uncle Tom was called a Sacred Concert, and cost ten cents extra.
I think a small, one-ring circus came to Williamstown at about that time, too, and some boys carried water for the elephant and got a free ticket as a result.
We did get to see the Uncle Tom shows, and maybe a one-ring circus or two in Williamstown—but I am puzzled about this, because my recollections are scrambled. I suppose one might say this was one manner of traveling; one didn’t go all over the world, to Barre Quarries, and Burlington, and Quebec, and China and such places, but the flavor and smell of the far-off rolled in upon us under the big tents, and it was as if WiIliamstown had removed itself, for a night, to Burlington or Chicago or China, or one of those places.
A few traveling vaudeville shows came through, too, and did somewhat the same thing, only they were not quite so glamorous. Before I left Williamstown these shows usually carried a few reels of film and a motion picture projector, and we thought this was wonderful and in many ways better than the magic lanterns we had at home.
But what I recall of the vaudeville shows was chiefly the girls or women who kicked up their heels and danced and sang. There was one who had red ruffles under her dress, practically all the way down to her knees but no further, and I wondered if I ought to look at them.
My father repeated that some day he would hire a rig from the livery stable and take the whole family to the Barre Quarries. He might as well have said that he would hire a rig and take us to San Francisco or Bombay. My father never took us to the Barre Quarries. His health broke first, we children went away for our schooling after we had passed through the Williamstown Graded School, and that was the end of that.
Before I saw the Barre Quarries for the first time I had crossed and recrossed the United States as far as San Francisco and the Pacific; my father had gone to California, where he died; my mother, too, was dead; the rest of the family was scattered geographically, though united by common affections, memories, and experiences.
Twenty-one years after the year to which these memories and experiences at the moment tether me, I took my wife to Vermont. That was 1919. The granite sheds were no longer operating in Williamstown. Of the recollections of my childhood there survived the Williamstown Branch of the Central Vermont, soon to be abandoned; the Monument House or its successor; the J. K. Linton store, which had become a farmers’ cooperative; and the General E. Bass house.
The automobile had not captured all the roads, especially not the side roads. I said to my wife, “Let’s hire a rig at the livery stable and go up and look at the quarries.” So we hired a rig at the livery stable and went up and looked at the quarries.
I was glad enough I had waited for my father to take the family there, even though he had never been able to do so.
But I was sorry for him, to whom it made no difference any more, that he had never been able to lay his hands on quite enough money.
I never heard him called anything but Old Man Webb, though he must have had a first name, and maybe a middle name. I never heard anybody mention his relatives. If he had had a wife, she was certainly dead when I knew Mr. Webb. If he had children, they may have been, as we often said, out west somewhere, but they certainly weren’t around Williamstown.
Mr. Webb, when I knew him, if I can truly say that a boy of ten could then or at any other time really know a venerable engineer on the Central Vermont Railway, lived in the Monument House. Hotel rates in small Vermont towns in 1898 must have been low enough to permit steadily employed workmen to board and room there. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mr. Webb paid as much as six dollars a week or as little as four dollars a week.
Mr. Webb’s locomotive was a bell-stacked, woodburning affair of the sort seen in pictures of the Civil War. For all I know, this very locomotive may have fought in the Civil War. Its fuel was chunks of wood derived from a woodpile under a big shed beside the tracks between the freight shed and the feed store.
When he got to his engine in the fairly early morning, the fireman would already have steam up. All Mr. Webb had to do was to climb into the cab, sink down into a luxuriously padded leather seat, and open the throttle. He would then back up to the baggage car and coach, or maybe half coach and half baggage car, that made up his train, wait for Conductor Jim Kennealy to give him the signal, and go tooting away to Barre.
Mr. Webb would descend the grade to Barre, back up into Barre station as his schedule required, unhitch his passenger coach and baggage equipment, and spend the day switching in the Barre yards. When his switching was over he would reattach his coach and baggage cars, or car, and go home, up the grade, to Williamstown. He arrived there, I presume, around half past seven in the evening.
In the meantime another train would come up from Montpelier, this time with a coal-burning engine with a small stack, pick up passengers who desired to go out into the big world, and proceed with them first to Barre, then to Montpelier Junction. At Montpelier Junction the passengers changed to the main line of the Central Vermont, over which they could go to Burlington via Essex Junction, or, better yet, to Montreal and the West. With this afternoon train you could scoot clear out of Vermont. With Mr. Webb you were sure of getting home.
But though I did want to be an engineer, pulling on a throttle and watching the world go by, I hardly expected to run an engine as far as Montpelier Junction, let alone Montreal. I was, in my way, a modest boy. I just wanted to be a Mr. Webb. It seemed to me there couldn’t be any life a man could reasonably look for that would be better than the one Mr. Webb led.
I am thinking of one episode that might have made Mr. Webb bite off a few of his own whiskers and swallow them. In spite of the fact that the statute of limitations has probably run its course several times over, I shall not mention the names of those involved. I shall not even suggest that my brother was present.
When a locomotive comes to the end of a branch line it must do one of two things: it must find a way to turn round or it must back up. In Williamstown, as at the terminals of other branch lines, this problem was solved by a simple device called a turntable.
This turntable worked by muscle power. Mr. Webb would drive his engine carefully upon it, taking pains not to keep on into the adjacent swamp. Then the fireman—never, I believe, Mr. Webb—would apply himself to a long lever and walk the engine round until its cowcatcher was where its rear end had been. Mr. Webb would make sure that the turntable track and the railroad track were locked in the correct positions, and then he would drive his engine off again.
This process was a miracle that happened twelve times a week, counting both trains into and out of Williamstown and not counting Sundays, but with myself and my young friends it never grew stale. We watched with bugged-out eyes whenever we had a chance, and we hoped that some day Mr. Webb would invite us into the cab while the miracle was being performed.
The next best thing was to wait till Mr. Webb and other employees of the Central Vermont Railway were out of sight or busy at something else that kept them looking the other way, and then operate that turntable ourselves, though with no engine.
In addition to the rails provided for the locomotive, the turntable had rails to turn on. It was, one might say, a sort of circular railway. Any reader who lived in Williamstown, Vermont, in 1898 could figure it out for himself. If a boy can get his hands on a thing like a turntable, as we did, he is sooner or later going to run that turntable off its track. And this we did—myself and whoever was hanging around with me that day.
I don’t know how we did this, for this turntable must have been built to stand wear and tear. At all events, it gave a shudder, a groan, and a hollow clatter and stuck tight, about halfway round. We worked at it a while, growing uneasy because it was about time for Mr. Webb to pull in from Barre, and usually he turned his locomotive around before supper instead of after breakfast.
As I have mentioned, Mr. Webb was in the habit of bringing his train in on time. On this particular day he was three-quarters of an hour late because he had had to wait for a carload of guano fertilizer that was coming in from Boston on the main line. Mr. Seaver, the feed store proprietor, had been making a fuss about this guano, which stank to high heaven but did make things grow when properly applied.
Mr. Webb feJt that fate had been unkind, first in this delay, second, because he had to take time to set out the car of guano at Mr. Seaver’s loading platform, where Mr. Seaver could get at it in the morning.
Mr. Webb therefore arrived in Williamstown hungrier than usual, madder than usual, and fully aware that the supper he was about to get at the Monument House wouldn’t be as good or as cheerfully served as it would have been earlier.
I had come upstreet after supper, a criminal returning to the scene. Or almost to the scene, for I hung around J. K. Linton’s store, waiting for the whistle. Eight o’clock came, and then quarter after eight, and I now knew that my parents would be wondering where I was—or, assuming that my big brother was also upstreet, where we both were.
The wail of Mr. Webb’s manfully struggling locomotive came at last, from down the line a mile or so, near the Tud Holler one-room school building.
I wanted to go home, yet I was curious as to what would happen. It seemed best not to wait. If I were the kind of boy who went home in the evening as his bedtime drew near I would be less likely to be suspected as a member of a gang that went around wrecking railroad turntables.
My mother asked me what I had been doing and I said I had been hanging around J. K. Linton’s store. My father looked up from his newspaper and said there might be better things to do, and my mother said that if I never went to any worse place than J. K. Linton’s store I’d be safe enough. My father said that when he was a boy of ten he was already working out of school hours and tired enough at eight o’clock to be glad to have a chance to go to bed, and not hang around anybody’s store. My mother said times had changed, and my father commented that they evidently had.
I lay awake for an hour or so, or maybe fifteen minutes, for lying awake was something I wasn’t used to. In the morning, I had my breakfast, still in a worried frame of mind and not sure—indeed, I am not yet sure—whether my brother or others of my young associates were also worried.
I thought it would be best to look into the situation, but in a cautious way that would not arouse suspicion. I therefore strolled, nonchalantly, so I hoped, toward the J. K. Linton store, then slid round the corner and looked toward the station.
The two cars that were to make up the early train to Barre that morning were still standing beside the station platform. This was unusual, for it was by now nearly nine o’clock, and Mr. Webb should have pulled out an hour and a half before.
Going a little farther around the corner of the store and gazing past Fred Ainsworth’s drugstore, I observed that Mr. Webb’s locomotive was down by the turntable, a few hundred feet south of the station and therefore to my right.
At the turntable itself there seemed to be quite a group of men, working and arguing, and Mr. Webb, whose upper portion was leaning out of the engine cab, was almost visibly swearing. A man couldn’t make the gestures Mr. Webb was making and still be talking in Sunday school language.
I then realized the dismaying truth. Mr. Webb hadn’t turned his engine around the night before. He hadn’t found out that anything was wrong with the turntable until he had tried to turn the thing around in the morning; or until his current fireman, who was sometimes trusted with the operation, had tried to do so.
Then he had found himself stuck, and his plans for the day had immediately gone wrong. Mr. Webb was going to be so late into Barre that he wouldn’t have time for a nap and would be lucky if he had a few minutes in which to eat the slice of steak, the fried potatoes, the thick slices of buttered bread, and the apple pie with which the Monument House had probably provided him.
Mr. Webb was annoyed. He was listening to loud advice from the men struggling with the turntable and was giving even louder advice in return. Nobody seemed to be getting anywhere.
As a normal boy I longed to go over and watch the fun —and listen to it. As a criminal interfering with the Central Vermont Railway and possibly also with the United States mails, I judged I had better not do this.
I ducked over past the station on the north side, out of sight of any possibly suspicious eye among those struggling with the turntable, scrambled up a sandbank, and found myself with some of my fellow criminals in the grass at the top.
We watched the animated scene below. One of my companions suddenly drew a long breath. “He’s going to back the train down to Barre,” said this young man. “Judas Priest! Why didn’t he think of that before?”
And this was indeed what that man of brawn and genius, Mr. Webb, actually did. He came away from the turntable with a whooshing of steam and spinning of wheels, picked up his abandoned tender, now well stocked with elm and maple chunks, hitched the front end of his engine to the train, blew his whistle as though he were letting out one last cuss word, and departed for Barre.
In the afternoon a small wrecking train came up from Barre and straightened out the turntable. The four or five men who operated this train were not mad at anybody, because that was what they were paid for and it did not make them late for dinner to fix our turntable. In addition, they did not know one boy from another and did not care who had caused the damage.
We boys kept clear of Mr. Webb and everybody else connected with the Central Vermont Railway for some days after this incident. I thought maybe Mr. Webb would tell our parents and make life difficult for us, but evidently he didn’t.
My father looked at my brother and myself rather suspiciously one evening. “They had quite a lot of trouble with the turntable,” he observed. “Somebody must have been fooling with it, they think.” He paused. “If you were a little bigger I’d wonder if you boys weren’t mixed up in it.”
“They can’t do all the wrong things that get done,” said my mother gently.
I didn’t say anything, nor did my brother.
“People missed connections all the way to Montreal,” my father continued. He went on for a while with his dinner, and I could see, pretending all the while not to watch his expression, that his thoughts were drifting. He held his fork suspended for a moment. “Would you boys like to go to Montreal some day?” he asked.
I imagine we both gasped, as did my sister—his real favorite among us—who was not included in this suggestion.
“Montreal!” I said.
“Maybe,” replied my father. “But keep away from that turntable after this. Understand?”
We went exploring one lazy May day down along the tracks toward Barre. There were bare wooden trestles at one or two places, and if we wanted to be brave we would walk them, shuddering courageously at the depths below. I suppose people in authority thought the Williamstown Branch was to be a permanent institution, for once in a while they would send along a few gravel cars and fill in underneath some of these trestles. I wish I had the money they spent doing this; if any of them are still alive they may wish so, too.
Somehow the afternoon went by faster than we thought. It was a good afternoon, with the sun sinking at last behind the West Hill but leaving a good deal of light behind it for a half an hour and more. We started home as it went down, walking slowly along the track and pretending we were railway trains. We could still do this, even though the Central Vermont Railway no longer loved us.
We hadn’t got more than halfway home, still following the track, when we heard a whistle behind us. It could be nothing less than Mr. Webb bringing up the evening train, tooting and puffing as he came up the grade, with the fireman ringing the bell and having fun at every cowpath that crossed the rails.
We got off the track as Mr. Webb and his locomotive approached. There was plenty of time to do this, for Mr. Webb was not coming very fast. I suspect he was prolonging the sensation of being about to finish his day’s work and get something to eat. And anyhow, the ancient wood-burner he was operating couldn’t get up the grade at much more than seven miles an hour. The snorting and puffing it made as it climbed the steeper slopes made me want to get behind and push.
But Mr. Webb wasn’t worried. Mr. Webb, as in some sudden flash of insight we all realized, wasn’t even mad. Mr. Webb had had a good day, whatever that meant to him. He saw us as the train approached. We were in a sandbank from which we could not readily escape, though we had plenty of room to let the train go safely by.
Mr. Webb leaned far out of his cab window and relieved himself of more tobacco spit than I would have thought any man outside of a circus would have been capable of. Then he gazed at us fixedly, and I wondered if a sheriff or some other species of policeman wasn’t riding with him and getting ready to arrest us.
And then Mr. Webb winked. He winked a wink that began well up in his forehead and ended in a twitch along the left side of his nose.
We looked at each other, the three of us—or maybe that day it was four—and then let out a delighted and simultaneous whoop. Mr. Webb was our friend again; that was what that spitting and winking meant.
Just the same, when we came up to the station, where the brakeman and station agent had just finished unloading the baggage and express, I was a little shy as I walked slowly past the locomotive. The other boys, as I believe, disappeared altogether. At any rate, I was alone as I came up to where Mr. Webb was standing on the apron between the locomotive and the tender.
“Well, Robbie,” he said, and I stopped as though I’d been seized by the collar. “I’ve missed you lately. You haven’t been sick, have you?”
I said I hadn’t, and he grinned.
“You must watch for the train when you’re on the track,” Mr. Webb continued. “It ain’t a big engine but it would chew up a small boy if it hit him.” He motioned. “We’re going to turn her round, seeing there’s time to do it tonight. Would you like to climb up and help?” He waited, as if I would have to think this one over.
“You’re mighty spry,” said Mr. Webb. I was—I was already in the cab.
“Uh-huh,” I answered. I was breathing hard, not so much with the exertion of jumping into the cab beside Mr. Webb as with the excitement of being there.
“Well, now,” Mr. Webb went on, taking his proper seat behind the throttle but leaving room in front of him for me, “you set down and pretend you’re the engineer. Take that throttle in your hand—it won’t bite you. It only bites bad boys.”
I took hold of the lever, feeling Mr. Webb’s strong hand beside mine.
“All right,” commanded Mr. Webb. “Pull back on it.”
I did this, aided and restrained, I suppose, by the engineer. The old locomotive breathed deeply, snorted, and then, slowly responding to the throttle, moved toward the turntable.
“Gosh!” I cried.
Mr. Webb laughed. “That’s the way I felt, the first time,” he said. “Easy there, easy now.” I felt my hand go forward again as he closed the throttle and the engine stopped. Mr. Webb gazed at me thoughtfully. “This turntable is what you might call a delicate apparatus,” he observed. “It goes off the rails pretty easy. That’s why we come up on it gentle, the way we’re doing tonight. You take somebody playing with that turntable that don’t know how it operates, and chances are they’ll do damage to it.”
He seemed to wait for me to speak. “Uh-huh,” I said.
Mr. Webb was silent while he inched the locomotive upon the turntable, and the fireman, already in his proper post, turned it round.
“Runs like a sewing machine,” remarked Mr. Webb, “since that wrecking crew come up the other day and oiled it.”
“Uh-huh,” I agreed.
We slid down toward the roundhouse where the ancient engine spent its nights.
“It’s a tough life, being an engineer,” said Mr. Webb as he climbed slowly down. “How old are you, Robbie?”
I told him.
“In eight years you’ll be old enough to be a fireman,” Mr. Webb continued, inspecting me carefully. “You’ll be a good chunk of a boy by that time. What do you want to be when you grow up, anyhow? How much of a damn fool are you?”
“An engineer,” I replied breathlessly. “I mean—”
Mr. Webb laughed. “Just like I thought,” he said, “solid maple from ear to ear. Well, I’ll tell you, Robbie, if you want to be an engineer nobody can say you can’t. If I’m still running eight years from now, I’ll take you on as fireman and teach you all I know. You’ll be sorry, though.”
“No, I won’t, Mr. Webb.” I found my voice at last. “I’m sorry about the turntable. We all are. I won’t ever do it again. We all won’t.”
“Sure,” said Mr. Webb encouragingly. “Sure you won’t. And so far as I’m concerned, you never did.”
“If you’ll take me,” I went on bravely, “I’d like to be your fireman. I’ll exercise and get real strong. I’m going to be an engineer, Mr. Webb—like you.”
Mr. Webb came near purring. I’m glad I said this to him, for I suppose it made him feel like a success in the world. What more success can a man have than doing something that makes a boy want to come along in his footsteps?
If there were not so many other witnesses I should think I dreamed the town I seem to remember. Surely I dreamed part of it, and a part of it was real. What my brother and sister remembered, I did not wholly remember. What I remembered, and have been trying to tell, may never have been wholly in their memories at all.
It is true, however, that the Williamstown we each knew, in our various ways, in 1898 is not there any more. It was the stuff that dreams are made on and it has now been undreamed, and another sort of morning has come other than the mornings we knew.
The town and village as I knew them seemed permanent. I thought, without ever putting the thought into words, that we were fixed in time and place and nothing would ever change very much; we youngsters would never grow up; our parents would never grow old and die; the past and future were stories and make-believe.
Merrill Linton said one day that his father had said, “This town pretty near broke up last year.”
I was startled. I asked how a town could break up. I hadn’t noticed anything coming loose.
Merrill shook his head wisely. He didn’t know the answer. What I now suppose is that this was partly the tail end of the depression of the 1890’s, from which the Spanish-American War and, as we Vermonters, big and little, mostly saw it, the noble and wise policies of the Republican party, had helped to lift us.
It may also have been suspected, even then, that it would be better to haul granite by rail into Barre and Montpelier than to lug it by road or rail into Williamstown. What made Williamstown the most prosperous as well as the most cosmopolitan of small towns was the granite business and the people it brought.
Whatever exists seems natural to a boy. It would snow in January and December, and between those months, about midway, there would be a little warmth —too much, sometimes. But the climate wouldn’t change, even though Mr. Ainsworth did once remark during a long dry spell that maybe it was the Lord’s will never to let it rain again. Nothing would change. Williamstown, Vermont, 1898, was a finished product the way I looked at it, the way all we boys looked at it. Who can ever believe in the future? There isn’t any future.
We therefore looked at our town, not knowing much of it was transient; and at the stone-sheds, the particular feature of our town in 1898, not knowing that they would pass like the insubstantial cobwebs of a dream.
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.
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.
So, on my way upstreet, I came to many houses and other structures that had meaning for me. There was George Beckett’s harness shop and his new house and the older house on the back of the lot where we lived for a while later on; there was the Edison Girls’ brick house on the left; there was in succession, on the left, the Town Hall, the Universalist Church, the Congregationalist Church, and the Methodist Church; there were, on the right, the stores, beginning with a modest establishment run by a Mr. Brockway, an elderly man with a short beard and a quiet disposition. I don’t now see how Mr. Brockway made his living, and maybe he didn’t; maybe he only thought he did. His stock was crowded higgledy-piggledy into a rather small, dark room; he had a pronounced lack of enthusiasm about everything; and though he was polite in a melancholy sort of way, I never saw many persons in his store, or heard the sort of conversation that was audible in J. K. Linton’s establishment and that was so educational to young boys.
Beyond Mr. Brockway’s store, still on the right, was the meat market where Ben Weaver would sell you a steak for twenty-five cents, but it would be a good steak, and maybe he would give a boy a slice of bologna free. He would also give away crackling, which was the residue from pork fat tried out to make lard; I didn’t like this at all, but it was filling.
Then one came to the Linton store, the Monument House, the other drugstore—the one Fred Ainsworth didn’t own—and the S’eaver store, which I think sold clothes, furniture, and various odds and ends, and must have competed in some respects with J. K. Linton’s establishment. And there were the three churches on the left.
By this time one would be about at the bridge, the upper bridge, with I forget what on the right side and the blacksmith shop on the left side. On the far side of the bridge a road led up to the box factory and then into farm country. I think there was a cheese factory, too, and perhaps at that time, or a little earlier, they had put the cheese in boxes and shipped it out.
On such a tour of our village I would avoid the road to Barre, which kept straight ahead, and swing right toward Mill Village. The sawmill and the gristmill might engage me for a few minutes, and then I would swing right some more, past a wood-working shop above the mill dam; and this was often worth looking into—and smelled better than any perfume, except possibly new-mown hay and some scents of cooking.
There were a few modest houses beside the stream, and these, I believe, belonged to French-Canadian “lumpers” who worked in the stone-sheds. I was a little afraid of the French-Canadians, I can’t recall why. They were, in general, I now realize, the best-natured of men, and when they threatened to kill each other they never intended to do so. But I hurried by, if I was alone.
Opposite these houses there was a farm, owned by I don’t know whom, and what I remember of it now is the way it looked one fall—maybe the fall of 1898—when the field nearest the road had been planted to corn and pumpkins. I stole an ear of corn, which was hard chewing, but what I remember is the beauty of the yellow pumpkins among the brown stalks.
Our tour would now bring us past the Rattlesnake Tavern and so around to the stone-sheds and over another little bridge whence one could look across the marsh and the meadow and see the General E. Bass house.
Then one came to the railway station, and maybe, even after all this walking, it was still bright morning and Old Man Webb was at the throttle ready to take the train down the grade to Barre, and Jim Kennealy, the conductor, was yelling “B-o-a-r-r-r-r-dl” the way an old-fashioned conductor always did, as though two or three thousand people were waiting for the word.
I did not, in fact, leave Williamstown until 1901. Yet now it seems to be time to step aboard. It is time, after this tour of 1898, to say goodbye to that year. Jim Kennealy repeats his “B-o-a-r-r-r-r-dl” Old Man Webb pulls his throttle and blows his whistle, and the fireman—ah, if only I could have been that fireman on at least one trip!—rings the bell frantically.
We are moving, gathering speed, down the grade to Barre and points north, south, east, and west. We are also headed toward the twentieth century. I look back with homesickness and forward with eagerness. Soon we are out of sight of Williamstown and the year 1898.