Julia Dorr: Vermont’s most famous and best loved poets

julia dorrI knew Julia Dorr’s name. I’ve parked in front of the library and Grace Church enough times for the name atop the green historical marker to bury itself somewhere in my subconscious. But when I looked up her name in preparation for writing this article, I realized I hadn’t read what was on that sign with any attention at all.

You’d think I would have. She was a writer. A famous female author and poet. From Rutland. Who hung out with the likes of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes.

Wow.

According to a Rutland Historical Society document from 1989 titled “The Last of the Rutland Ripleys,” Julia’s father, William Young Ripley, was patriarch of one of the most prominent and influential families in the area for six decades. He was involved in the first marble quarrying industry in Rutland, which initiated an offshoot of the main rail line to the yard of Ripley and Barnes Marble Works in Center Rutland, and in 1868, built the Opera House on Merchants Row.

Born in 1825 in Charleston, S.C., Julia Caroline Ripley Dorr moved to Middlebury with her father after her mother died. Julia received some schooling at the Middlebury Female Seminary, and after her father remarried, the family moved to Rutland in 1837.

Once there, as a “strong believer in female education,” Ripley financially supported Troy Conference Academy in Poultney which his daughter Julia attended for a time. What we now know as Green Mountain College was at one point named Ripley Female College in his honor.

In 1847, Julia married Judge Seneca M. Dorr and lived for 10 years in New York State. Upon returning to Rutland in 1857, Julia established herself as a community leader, especially among women. Instrumental in increasing local support and appreciation of the arts and literature, she co-founded the Rutland Free Library in 1886 and presided over Grace Congregational Church’s cultural group for women, the Fortnightly, for 33 years.

Although Julia had been writing verse since childhood and was encouraged by her family to pursue her talent, she was published only after she became a mother. After her husband had secretly submitted one of her poems to Union Magazine, she went on to publish novels, which often, according to Britannica.com, “portrayed young women lifting themselves from poverty through education and persistence.”

Besides novels and short stories, her credits include advice and travel books and 10 volumes of poetry. When the Opera House burned to the ground in 1875 and her father rebuilt it, she wrote an ode in its honor.

Living in Center Rutland on the banks of the Otter Creek in a home called “The Maples,” Julia Ripley Dorr was one of the first literary figures in Vermont, according to the Vermont Women’s History Project. As the “unofficial poet laureate,” she was asked to write the state’s Centennial Poem in 1877 in which she compared this land to the majestic form of a woman. The historic marker on Court Street claims her to be one of “Vermont’s most famous and best loved poets.”

Julia died just shy of her 88th birthday in 1913. Her impressive grave monument can be found in Rutland’s Evergreen Cemetery.

Discovering all this was very exciting. A woman after my own heart was once walking the streets I now walk and writing in the buildings I now visit. But what thrilled me the most was this line from the Rutland Historical Society’s website: “In the 1890s, Rutland became a cultural center for music, literature and theater.”

We all know Rutland’s current reputation. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Rutland can boast a grand past, peaking just over a century ago: The Opera House, the Paramount, the library, the beautiful old homes and buildings, the world’s largest marble industry, a trolley system that ran all the way to Lake Bomoseen (which at that time was a fashionable summer destination for many city dwellers), and literary visitors such as those of the Concord Writers who visited Julia in her Dorr Drive home.

This new knowledge has given me renewed hope for our city. Now that I know the collective unconscious is steeped in a literary past, it doesn’t surprise me that there are so many writers here, scribbling away, inspired by the surrounding beauty. Nor that the Paramount has had such an incredible rebirth, nor that the Chaffee Arts Center has not only survived but re-energized. And the various theater and music groups around town who, from kids to pros, are filling our stages and halls with life and sound.

Forgive me, I’m waxing lyrical.

But I believe the history of a place can speak to its future. The energy here is increasing thanks to those who believe in its potential and are working on its revitalization. Can Rutland once again become a cultural center? I believe it can. Do you?

Originally published March 11, 2013 in the Rutland Reader | All rights Joanna Tebbs Young

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