The Artist as Historian

Robin Rothman Recreates the Old Stone Gaol
The completed drawing of Danville’s old stone gaol by Robin Rothman

By Sharon Lakey
Artist Robin Rothman was given a mission; Mary Prior wanted her to recreate, as correctly as possible, two of Danville’s historic public buildings—the Bark Meeting House and the old stone gaol (jail). Neither of these buildings still stands; nor are there sketches or photographs of them. It was a job for historical sleuths. The two worked in tandem, digging up as much written material as possible as well as Robin visiting the sites where the buildings were thought to have stood.  Before she passed, Mary saw Robin’s rendition of the Bark Meeting House, and it brought tears to her eyes.
As time progressed, Mary became confined to her house, but Robin continued to pursue the jail. “I hoped to finish it so she could see that one, too,” said Robin. Unfortunately, Mary passed in July; the piece was finished in late September.
Along with the finished drawings, Robin has recorded and submitted her sleuth’s path for the historical record. How did she get to her finished drawings? When asked, she smiles and emphatically says, “It’s a total fabrication!” We will trace her method in arriving at the jail drawing now and let the reader decide how well she has done.
For the jail, her research included site visitations to the Dow-Webster house, later sold to B.F. Haviland, on Brainerd Street. The house is still there, occupied presently by Jamie and Lindsey Beattie. Robin walked and studied the landscape surrounding the house, looking for possible footings of the jail. She found hints of a stone wall and parts of a broken, hewn granite stone. A hump of earth can be seen where possibly the jail stood.
A map drawing was of particular interest to her. The Beers Atlas of 1875 hangs on the wall at Historical House. It shows Jail Street (now Brainerd) with the footprint of the Haviland house and another structure sitting akimbo to it entitled “Old Jail.” Robin was puzzled by its placement in the landscape; the jail does not sit parallel to the street. Instead, it is more in line with the present day Masonic Temple (originally the Baptist church). 
To find background on its most likely construction, she pored over microfilm of the old North Star, read and reread accounts relating to the structure in historical gazetteers, the town history and searched the Internet for photos of other historic stone jails.
The original jail in Danville was constructed in 1796 of logs. In 1801, when Danville became the shire town of Caledonia County (the county seat), it was upgraded. According to Child’s Gazetteer, it was constructed with “square logs, notched and pinned together.” That jail also included a pillory and whipping post.
Later, in 1834, Danville was required of to build a more substantial jail. Town records show that the Town Warning of 1834 included an article to see how much money the town would raise to build the new jail. It was decided to raise $1,000; an equal sum would be raised by subscription.  Ira Brainerd was put in charge of the construction. According to Child’s, the structure was made of “immense granite stones, some 20 foot in length, quarried in Danville, hewn and dowelled together.” In 1838, the court ordered a picket fence to be installed around the jail. A 10 to 12 foot high fence made of planks that were sharpened to a point was added.
Two articles from the North Star were used by Robin to help determine the jail design. In her search, she found the escapades of a prisoner, Daniel Floyd, to be most helpful. In the first article, Floyd, “a prisoner confined on a charge of railroad thefts, and awaiting his trial at the next County Court” alerted the jailer to a fire in his cell. The article relates that the jailer ran upstairs to douse the fire, putting Floyd in another cell to do so. From this, Robin surmised the structure was at least a two-floor affair.
In a later issue, Floyd is reported to make his actual escape:
“Last Sunday night or early Monday morning, Daniel Floyd, …awaiting his trial at the next County Court, succeeded in making his escape from the jail in this village. To effect it, he evidently had help from some one outside the prison, who no doubt furnished him tools to work with. With an inch and a half auger he bored out a space large enough to admit his body, from a large heavy beam overhead, and in this way gained the attic. He then removed some stones at one corner at the north gable end of the attic, and having fastened a rope firmly round the chimney, swung himself down by it, outside, into the prison yard. It was then a comparatively easy matter for him to scale the high picket fence, jump over the other side, and “be off.”
“ …Two panes of glass were broken out of his cell window, and though it was protected by heavy iron bars run across, yet from the tracks and other appearances outside, it was evident that some one, probably by the use of a ladder, had handed in to the prisoner, by breaking the window glass, the auger, rope, &c…”
Jackpot! There was an attic from which the prisoner removed stones as well as description of a chimney,  window treatment and gable ends. At this point, Robin had a good idea about how the building looked and functioned. Now she had to set it in its surroundings to create a sense of place.
But before we get to that, it is important to know the fate of the jail. In 1856, Danville’s shire town designation was stripped and given to neighboring St. Johnsbury. The citizens of Danville were angry about what they felt was a theft of power by political intrigue instigated by the Fairbanks family. Much ill will resulted. The North Star reported heavily upon the situation, stating Danville had gone through much expense in building, maintaining and upgrading the County Seat facilities. These included a handsome courtroom and fireproof room for County records. Likewise, the jail was considered to be the best in the state.
The town fought the change, but to no avail. Still, hard feelings prevailed and when the new County seat offered to buy the stones of the jail for $700 and move them to St. Johnsbury to build their own new facility, the Town refused to sell them. The old jail stood empty until 1877 when it was torn down. The stones were purchased for a sum of $100 by the North Congregational Church in St. Johnsbury. They became the foundation stones for the church tower. In the church records, it is reported that the sermon that followed the opening of the church referred to the stones as “removed from Satan’s realm to serve a higher purpose.”
Though the jail was no longer in use, Robin felt setting it according to the Beers map of 1875 would give the best feel as to how the building fit into the town landscape. In the mid-1800’s, B.F. Haviland, who now owned the house where the old jail stood, was a well-known horse breeder of Morgans.  A number of photos exist at Historical House of the Haviland house, barn, family and livestock.  The most famous of his horses can be traced back to the original Justin Morgan. That horse had one white foot, and Robin believed might be in one of the photos. She also had two photos of Haviland himself–one standing, holding the lead of a horse and one of him seated in a hitched Brewster Buggy.
Now, she had all the pieces necessary to do her artist’s magic. She called one day and said, “It’s done. Come get it before I ruin it!”
So, reader, you may now judge. Is this work of art a total fabrication? On this subject , Robin quotes from the Mikado with her flashing smile: “Corroborative detail intended to lend verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” Mary would be happy, I believe.
Both the Bark Meeting House and the Old Stone Gaol drawings will be on display at Historical House during the month of December.
To link to the photo album of Robin’s work on this project,click here

This article was first published in the December, 2010, issue of The North Star Monthly.
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One Response to The Artist as Historian

  1. Iris Reynolds says:

    In doing research for my ancestors, found an item (that was found by another researcher) of a citation showing that Moses Watts owed $8.14 to John Branscomb. He was to be put in the Danville Gaol until his fee was paid in full. Document’s date is 22/June/1804. (Makes no sense-how could he work if he was in the Gaol?) The fee was paid but I have no idea who paid it.

    Do you, by chance, have any records of this? And if so, could I get a copy?

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