Voices of Our Elders

Life in Caledonia County documentary is living, breathing history
By Sharon Lakey
On a rainy night in December a good-sized crowd gathered in a downstairs room at Catamount Arts. The audience had made the somewhat treacherous journey to watch a 43-minute documentary entitled Life in Caledonia County. Some in the audience were interview subjects in the video, but others had braved the elements just to get a glimpse of what life was like in earlier times in our part of the state.
Before the video rolled, Senator Bill Doyle stood before the group and gave a short introduction of the project. “The idea for this came from a documentary I saw at Harwood High School by students who had interviewed elders in their community. I thought, ‘If high school students can do this, my students should be able to as well.’” That was ten years or so ago, and Bill, who teaches history at Johnson State College, and his students in his Vermont History and Government Class have unveiled their ninth in a planned series of 14 videos—one for each of the counties in Vermont.
The process he came up with is not an easy one. Students entering the class have just one semester to complete the project from beginning to end. Luckily for them, Johnson State hires a videographer to put everything together. Vince Franke, of Peregrine Productions, handles the camera and sound work of the interviews and cuts the piece together. After sharing the first draft with the class, seeking input from them and making necessary changes, he travels to area historical societies photographing photos that illustrate the information in the video.  Add music, smooth out all the bumps, produce the physical copies and there—deep breath—it is show time!
That brings us back to the room downstairs at Catamount Arts. The lights are dimmed and we are taken back in time by the sound of a guitar and fiddle and old photos. Our neighbors from around the county, fifteen of them in all, agreed to speak of the time in which they grew up. A narrator’s voice moves the script from one topic to another. It is reminiscent of a Ken Burns documentary, except, as one audience member pointed out afterward, “Thanks for not showing the same photo over and over again.” Nearly 250 photos illustrate the story, not a one of them repeated. This collection of images represents life in our county in the first half of the 20th century.
In order of appearance, some of which appear more than once, here is a sampling of the voices:

Catherine Beattie, Danville, on the importance of farming:  “I made a list of the farms that were in operation here in the late 40s and there were over a hundred farms.”

Alice Hafner, Danville, on wages earned on the farm: “Well, a lot of the men around here worked for a dollar a day, room and board. Those would be the hired men who worked here on the farm. And they were happy to get that kind of money.”

Leeland Simpson, Lyndon, on changes brought about by machine: “When we first came here in 1920 we milked probably about 15 cows. We got the first milking machine about the second year after I was married. My father was against them to begin with, but, of course, soon’s we got ‘em in place and so on, you would have thought it was his idea to begin with.”

Roger LeCours, Hardwick, on farm chores: “Even during the school year, at about quarter to six, my mother would say, ‘Your father’s already been in the barn for an hour. You boys better hurry!’”  

David Mitchell, Lyndon, on chores: “Most of kids had chores to do. You had to get wood in for the fire in the kitchen. Had a barn to clean. Kids had to work back then.”

Lorna Field Quimby, Peacham, on chores:  “You had to cut a lot of wood for the furnace and the cook stove. It always seemed to us little girls who had the wood box to fill that my mother burned an awful lot of wood! Because my father had five girls, I was one of his hired men. I did a man’s work when I was 10, 11 and 12. I didn’t wear jeans then. I wore a dress and I had these bloomers. I was barefoot and probably dirty half-way up to my knees, but I was out helping Dad, and I would pick stone with him all day. I’d get a sunburn but feel very important because I was helping Dad.”

Leigh Larocque, Barnet, on haying: I remember that myself and a couple of my sisters had to shake the hay out by hand. Years later they used tedders, but back then they used hand and fork. Farming grew from, you might call it, horse and buggy days to equipment and tractors.

Albert Taylor, Kirby, on the transition to machinery: “Well, I’ll tell you about the transition that we made from horses to tractors. Dad was a man in his 60s. He probably started work when there was no piece of machinery, and so forth. I knew more about that than he did. I was the one that come up with it, you know. We were the lucky ones to come up with the machinery. They had the labor.”

Dave Warden, Barnet, on tractors: “I can remember when you got the first tractor, which would be around ’46 if I remember right. And even then you couldn’t get a starter on it. They were still a part of the military needs. They weren’t building starters, so you had to have one that cranked.”

Duane Smith, Sheffield, on horse pulling: “At the end of the summer there were the county fairs and they were really looked forward to by everybody. You didn’t have all this television and all this other stuff. The horse pullin’ was a lot different than it is now, because all the farmers were using horses. And so there was some real rivalry between my team and your team and his team down there to see who could out-pull the other team.”

Dwight White, Ryegate, on the telephone: “Most everyone had a telephone. There were maybe a few families that didn’t have them–elderly people, for example. We would think now they were the ones who most needed to have a telephone. These would often be the widows of a farmer who had put away a given amount of money. The widow had a home, but she lived very frugally. A telephone was considered a luxury.”

Francese Cochran, Walden, on the telephone: “This fella, when he was just a young kid, had to man the switchboards so his mother could get some work done. So he had a couple of ladies that would ring in and want a certain number, and he’d say, ‘The line’s busy,’ whether it was or not. You see, he’d rather be out playing ball.”

Elizabeth Hatch, Walden, on schools: “Wherever people gathered, they were concerned about education for their children. They would form their own district school. To begin with, their school would be kept in either a room in their house or a room in the barn or shed until they could get organized and build themselves a schoolhouse.”

Russell Reed, St. Johnsbury, on Fairbanks: “We had one of the original major businesses in Vermont in St. Jay, which was Fairbanks. Fairbanks scale was the heart of St. Johnsbury. It was where the money was made.”

Peggy Pearl, St. Johnsbury, on Fairbanks: “Fairbanks came here to St. Johnsbury about 1819. They established themselves on the Sleepers River and made wagons, stoves and at one point were brokers for hemp, which was grown along the Moose River. The farmers would bring their hemp to the Fairbanks’ who would then sell it for rope making. They would have to unload wagons and weigh it then put it back on wagons. That’s when Thaddeus came up with the idea of having a platform scale that you could roll everything onto and not handle it so many times…They didn’t have a clue how really big this was going to be.”
It was a joy to watch the faces and listen to the storytelling voices of these elders. As one of the Johnson State students said in the video, “It was living, breathing history.” After the showing, there was time allotted for audience reaction, which gave its wholehearted approval. Vince explained that each school, library and historical society in Caledonia County will receive free copies of the video. They are also for sale at Catamount Arts, Natural Provisions, Green Mountain Books in Lyndonville and the Danville Historical Society as well as available online at: www.peregrineproductions.com. The cost is $15 and helps support the continuing project at Johnson State. A portion of the proceeds goes to the local historical society. The next planned project is Life in Windham County.  
This article was first published in the January, 2011, issue of the North Star Monthly.
To see the complete photo album related to this article, click here.        
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