history simplified

I’ve been watching historical episodes of Vermont counties on Vermont Public Television this week.  Some scenes depict things I remember quite well from my own grammar school days.  It’s somewhat of a shock to see ‘old’ people reminiscing about incidents that happened in their childhood, only ten to fifteen years earlier than similar things I recall myself.  No, I don’t have memories of horse drawn carriages, except for Dave Mac’s rag wagon down in Rutland, but I do remember watching cars driving up Mendon Mountain on Route 4 with my big, mustached great-uncle who would joke, “Bobby, if you see a car not painted black, tell me”.
Uncle John and Aunt Margaret were up from New Jersey visiting her sister Betty,  our grandmother who lived with us. Their big four-door Buick Super 1947-buick-superwas a lustrous dark green, very unusual in the early 1950’s.  Immigrants from Germany, my father’s relatives stayed in contact with each other no matter where they lived.


I remember the phenomenon of unpainted wooden buildings;  clapboard houses weathered to a silvery gray dotted the Vermont countryside, and I thought that was really strange.  Traveling home from visits to our relatives in New Jersey, where all the houses were painted, I could tell we had returned to Vermont when I saw the familiar bare gray houses gliding by my dad’s car windows.  His car was a faded brown ’38 Pontiac that had lost one rear fender.

A '39 Pontiac (sort of like ours)
A ’39 Pontiac (sort of like ours)


Living in Mendon and going to school in Chittenden Town I grew up among some very poor families although I never thought of them as particularly needy.  There were really poor folks around. People in desperate situations.  I knew this for certain as our next-door neighbor Mrs. Hubenet was an overseer of the poor and she explained it to me:  There were people at that time, nearby, who had starved or frozen to death.

Sometimes both.

We were adults when a schoolmate told me this story…

Back when we were in the fifth or sixth grade some of my Barstow School classmates thought of me as a rich kid!  The box lunch I brought from home, with a Thermos bottle full of hot soup, drove them crazy with the smell.  True, I suppose, but how could a boy of nine or ten tell?  The free hot lunch program, I hope, put an end to that.  A kid like me would have to fight to keep his lunch these days I’ll bet.

Some of my classmates at Barstow Memorial School had no socks or shoes and wore only the green rubber farm boots they called pacs to school and their clothes were full of holes.  Some of them lived in homes severely damaged by the 1947 flood.

Scene from the 1947 flood.  (Rutland Historical Society)
Scene from the 1947 flood. (Rutland Historical Society)

A house half gone, but still lived in, was a common sight on the school bus ride to school.  But I never pitied my friends, I admired them and often envied their abilities in class and on the playground. And they in turn did not pity themselves.

My mother, however, was appalled by the tooth decay she saw in the children at Barstow and it drove her to become particularly diligent concerning her own children’s personal hygiene. This was before fluoride was added to public water supplies or put in toothpaste.  The State did have a rudimentary dental program for rural schools. We would all be driven in a train of school buses to Pittsford once a year to get our teeth painted yellow with fluoride and that was the extent of dental caries prevention in Vermont.  They gave us jars of vitamin pills to take home too.
Poverty back then was something to overcome, I think, not a thing to accept, embrace or explain away.  My classmates at Barstow in the fifties went on to success or failure in life just like anyone else.  In retrospect, it is obvious to me now and has been for years and years that my family was in fact, pretty rich.
The show on VPT is great fun to watch, it is well constructed and tells a tale that reminisces of simpler times, true Vermonters living fulfilling agrarian lives.
But, from what I remember seeing from my privileged childhood perch, it wasn’t all that simple.




The Royal Savage Yacht Club held a pursuit style sailboat race from Burlington, Vermont this past Sunday south ten miles to Town Farm Bay.  A bunch of club members and their crews sailing on seven boats participated.  I took Walkabout up to Burlington harbor on Friday to secure a mooring for the weekend.  It’s a crowded place, all boat slips in the marina had been taken for months and moorings are first come, first served.

Single-handing is something I haven’t done much of since Jeanne and I have owned our boat.  On our travels we met a couple of Tayana cruisers who do it, real independent guys, but not on Lake Champlain.  In fact I’ve only taken our boat out by myself four times.  But a pursuit race is fun and I hadn’t been out much in the past month so I went – as soon as Jeanne said she would be OK with it.

Friday afternoon was flat calm and I motored the whole way, the sails stayed in their bags.  Other RSYC members who went to Burlington on Saturday had super conditions for sailing and were talking about it endlessly…

Lady Dragonboaters

Lounging on deck Saturday morning I got to watch the dragonboats practicing maneuvers in among the moored boats next to the harbor breakwater. The paddlers try to be as coordinated as possible, an effort which must take endless drills.  Paddles cut the water in unison to the coxswain’s chant and drumbeat.  By Sunday morning three thousand paddlers had gathered in teams at Burlington’s lake-shore complex racing the long, slender, colorful canoes, the sound of taiko drums banging out cadence over the cheering crowds.

I wandered off downtown in the afternoon to watch some of the ‘Festival of Fools’ activities and to replenish my spice supply at the co-op.  There never is a lack of excitement in the big city.

Blue Moon Saturday Night

Saturday evening there were impromptu drinking parties on a couple of club member’s boats and then groups of us drifted off for dinner at local restaurants.  The west wind that had blown strong all day calmed down for the night but by morning slowly picked up again, now from the south and by race time was blowing smoothly at ten knots.

In a pursuit race every participating boat has a start time, determined by the boat’s PHRF rating, a handicap calculated from a number of esoteric features of that boat’s design.  The ratings are a source of unending speculation. Walkabout has a PHRF of 180, accordingly I started pretty early.

If all goes as planned the race boats should converge at the finish line more or less at the same time, using the staggered start formula.  It took me four hours of beating into the wind, which picked up to seventeen knots by late afternoon, to finish and even though my boat was last, by a nose, I enjoyed it.



The July heat must be boiling my brain to cause me to write about this lifestyle choice.

When Jeanne and I were planning our new house way back in 1982 the great energy crisis of the mid-seventies had put fuel conservation foremost in everyone’s mind, so we used some of the energy saving techniques that were popular at that time.   Our design called for extra-tight construction coupled with lots and lots of insulation. Also we sited the house with a southern exposure just below the crest of a hill so it would have protection from heat-robbing wind.  To heat our new home we wanted to rely on our own renewable wood supply coupled with a simple passive solar collection system (but that’s another story).  woodstove

It all works rather well: wood fires give us a warm, dry home in the dead of winter.  We feed two small air-tight stoves, one in the cellar the other in our living room, all day and into each evening with chunks of firewood.

Heating our house this way has given us a sense of self-reliance even though it is hard work.  woodpileGetting a supply of dry firewood ready is a time-honored yearly chore practiced by folks like us throughout the northern tier of states.  Gas or oil fired heat is what everyone else uses and we do have a minimal back-up oil furnace, just in case, which supplies our domestic hot water and can keep the house above freezing.

I don’t have exact figures but would guess that wood burning amounts to a very small fraction of the fuel types used in this country, probably less than one percent.  That puts us woodstove users in a very small minority nationwide – but in the majority locally where the smell of sweet wood smoke wafts over our villages and country homes from October to May.

Woodsmoke puts us into the sights of environmentally concerned people who have proved that the smoke is less than desirable, even a pollutant!.  The result of their activism requires new woodstoves to have catalytic afterburners installed, similar to those on vehicles, to burn up toxic particles before they spew out the chimney.  The addition of catalytic converters was good because not only do they reduce smoke toxicity but they capture more usable heat in the process.  Our next woodstove will have a converter.

Wood pellet stoves are another home heating device worth mentioning.  Trees of lesser commercial value, usually white pine and other softwoods, are ground up and pressed into small pellets, similar to animal feed. The pellets are slowly fed onto a ceramic combustion plate in an air-tight stove where they burn briskly under a forced air blast.  It’s a good system but relies on electricity to make it work.  The best part about pellet stoves are the pellets, which come in weatherproof plastic bags that you buy from a dealer and dump them a bag or two at a time into a hopper and that’s that.  Apparently there is little ash and not much smoke, just a lot of controlled heat.

Our heat comes from harvesting a dozen trees each year from our woodlot plus buying a load from the local wood guy.  Our own woodlot is inexhaustible – as long as we only supply ourselves.  We split it, stack it and all winter long carry it indoors to burn.  It’s not for everyone but we like it and will go on doing it until we’re just too old for the effort.



Renewable woodlot management.

Maple sugar groves.