Radio Comes to Vermont

Radio in a home in Bradford, Vermont, 1939 (Library of Congress)

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine, March 19, 2022 for the “Remember When” column with the title, “Can You Hear Me Now?”

In April 1930, the U.S. Census enumerators knocking on Vermonters’ doors asked a question unlike any asked before (or since): “Do you own a radio?”

The census ultimately found that, in 1930, 40-50% of Vermont households did, indeed, own a radio. This ranked the state among the highest radio-owning states, lagging behind only a handful of other northern states (plus California), which boasted up to 63% ownership.

(Many southern states, on the other hand, trailed far behind with only 5-10% of their population owning a “wireless.”)

The first successful public American radio broadcast aired from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in 1910, but restrictions placed on radios during World War I temporarily thwarted this new form of communication. But when the war ended, soldiers who had served as radio operators returned stateside, bringing with them their new technological skills.

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Messiah in the Mountains: When Vermonters First Sang Hallelujah

A capacity crowd stands for the “Hallelujah” Chorus at the finale of Handel’s “Messiah,” an annual holiday concert at Rutland’s Grace Congregational Church, conducted by Alastair Stout.
Photo by Arthur Zorn

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine, December 18, 2021 for the “Remember When” column with the title, “Hallelujah!: When the Messiah came to Vermont.”

On May 7, 1822, Thomas P. Matthews, “Sec’y” of the Addison County Musical Society placed an ad for their “Annual Concert at the Meeting House in Middlebury.” Extending a “general invitation” to “all Choirs in the County,” he also specifically and “respectfully invite(d) the assistance of Ladies acquainted with the music.”

What music would that be? Well, not what you might expect in the valleys and hillsides of a sparsely populated, farm-dotted state 3,000 miles away from Europe: Handel’s “Messiah,” the “Grand Hallelujah Chorus” and excerpts of Part III, to be exact.

Three centuries later, for the descendants of those Middlebury singers, as it is for many Americans, “Messiah” has become as synonymous with Christmas as Santa Claus and eggnog.

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Why Don’t You Go Ice Skating at Castle Park? Barre gets an ice rink

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine January 2022 in the “Remember When” column with the title “Castle Park, Barre’s short-lived skating rink”

In December 1909, a Montreal-born stone mason-cum-successful Barre contractor and real-estate investor named Edmund Napoleon Normandeau slid in to save the town’s children from the perils of ice skating.

“Don’t go where it is unsafe, where the ice is treacherous and the water deep,” a February 1910 ad pleaded. “Why Don’t You Go Ice Skating at Castle Park Rink? You are SAFE here.”

This wasn’t just hyperbole. Throughout the 19th century into the 20th, newspapers from Minnesota to Maine reported drownings and near-drownings of overly-enthusiastic or unwitting skaters taking to potentially unstable frozen ponds, rivers and lakes, especially early or late in the season.

In December 1868, the Enterprise and Vermonter of Vergennes declared: “BE CAREFUL — The boys are tempting fate, as usual, by their venturesome daring on the ice .… A large number of deaths have already occurred from carelessness of skaters this season.”

While there are also many stories of those who jumped — literally, sometimes — to the rescue of an imperiled skater, all too often the endings were tragic. The very language of these stories implied just how common these heart-wrenching events were: Salem, Massachusetts, declared its “first skating fatality of the season” in December 1909. That same month, the Barre Daily Times reminded the town’s young citizens that “skating on thin ice is the same dangerous practice as it was last year, boys.”

And it was very often boys who fell prey to cracked and weak ice. But skating was also a favorite pastime of young adults and so, too, stories abound of young men and women, college-aged students, in particular, losing their lives.

Number 10 Pond in Calais, circa 1900. Photo courtesy Vermont Historical Society.
Children skating at the Brattleboro Retreat circa 1915. Photo courtesy Vermont Historical Society

In the late-1800s, beyond merely posting warnings in the newspapers, inhabitants and managers of northern towns and cities finally began tackling the problem. In 1862, Montreal opened a grand covered skating rink called the Victoria and its novelty received a lot of attention in Vermont’s newspapers. Soon thereafter, municipal rinks began popping up all over the place. In 1868 alone, Boston, New York, Syracuse and Portland, Maine, all opened the doors to their newly built rinks.

When Derby Line, Vermont, and Malone, New York, also opened their rinks that same year, Burlington felt left behind. Decrying the fact that Malone was a “village … with not half our population,” yet had opened a skating rink “with a grand skating ‘tournament,’” and article detailed. “Now that our city waterworks are completed a good rink is a possibility in this city,” the writer stated. But Vermont’s largest city had to wait another 12 years to fulfill his wish.

However, the young people of Barre had to wait even longer.

After a failed attempt in 1907 by hotelier J.D. Ossola to entice children to skate on his flooded empty lot on North Main Street — former site of his short-lived but fairly successful Castle Park Theatre (another story for another day) — E.N. Normandeau (“Mgr.”) stepped in.

Offering lighted night skating, skate rentals and, on occasion, free admission for the “Ladies,” Mr. Normandeau completed his skating rink “south of the brick house beside the Venetian restaurant” on Dec. 15, 1909. The news even made it to Montpelier’s Daily Journal, which informed its readers that the rink “at the Castle Park theatre on North Main Street” was expected to open to the public that day, “if the weather permits.”

The weather did permit and the rink was popular with Barre’s citizens. Organized hockey games were even played there. In fact (and this is pure speculation), this may have been the real impetus for the rink’s creation, not just the safety of the town’s young guns.

Arthur Boyea was a well-known hockey player, coach and referee at the time. He also happened to be Mr. Normandeau’s brother-in-law. Nicknamed in his skating days as the “Star of the North,” Boyea was remembered as a “skater of talent” and was still giving interviews as late as 1960. It is likely that Mr. Normandeau created the rink at the behest of his ice-loving relative. In fact, it is quite possible he was playing on the Canadian Club of Barre team when they went up against Norwich University on Feb. 18, 1910, one of the games known to have been played at Castle Park Rink.

The last mention of the rink was in March 1910 after only its second season. Soon, one would never know the rink — or the theater before it — had existed; by 1916, three dwellings occupied the lot on the corner of North Main Street and Ossola Place where they had once stood.

After Castle Park Rink melted for the final time, Barre residents who wanted to take to the ice had to make do on the iced-over marshlands that lay between Third and Sixth streets or the flooded tennis courts at Goddard Seminary. Eventually, in 1913, the Buzzell rink was built on Pearl Street. Here Norwich, Goddard and the Canadian Club hockey teams played and families skated until it was demolished sometime around 1920.

While some people today still skate on frozen ponds, rivers and lakes, accidents as frequent as those in previous centuries, are fortunately a frozen memory. Well-maintained indoor and/or outdoor municipal ice rinks can be found in most of Vermont’s towns — Including Barre, a town that can thank a certain French-Canadian contractor and (possibly) his hockey-loving brother-in-law for getting the ball, er, puck, rolling.

For sale to the highest bidder: When Vermont church pews were considered personal real estate

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine on 2.19.22 in the Remember When column with the title “Church Pews for Sale or Rent”

Old First Church, Bennington, Vermont. Photo credit: Joanna Tebbs Young

On Nov. 25, 1835, Mr. Seth Shaler Arnold wrote in his diary: “Attended the sale of the pews in new Meeting house Westminster. Bid off one for Esther — two for father and one for myself and Mr. Ruggles.”

Two years later in June, he wrote: “Settled with Mr. Ruggles. Bought his share of ⅓ of pew No. 8.” And by August, Mr. Arnold was musing on the fact that “Mrs. Cobb commenced sitting in my father’s pew and then changed to mine — Mrs. Nutting has sit (sic) there more than a year. And Mr. Hollis Wright’s family have just commenced sitting there. The two former at 75 ct. each and the latter at about 2 dollars.”

Buying church pews? Renting them out? What was going on here? What might appear socially discriminatory (or morally questionable) to the modern eye, was an economic necessity at a time when communities were establishing themselves in a young New England.

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Happy 100th to Windsor, Vermont’s Namco Block Apartments

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine in December 2021 in the “Remember When” column with the title “One Hundred Thanksgivings.”

In November 1921, the Johnson family, formerly of Springfield, Vermont, enjoyed  Thanksgiving in their new, cozy, light-filled rooms overlooking Mill Brook in Windsor. They had moved to the not-quite-finished Namco apartments earlier that year of 1921, and in doing so marked their name down in history — or at least in the April 29th edition of the Vermont Journal — as the very first tenants of the then largest residential building in New England. 

The Namco block (now Union Square), the majestic red-brick apartment building at the corner of Windsor’s Union and Main Streets, was built in 1920 by the L.A. LaFrance Company of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Originally designed as family housing for the employees of the National Acme Company (Namco), it is an architectural surprise, seemingly out-of-place in a small Vermont village. With its rows of bow windows “undulating… along… [its] extremely long facade,” as a National Register of Historic Places report describes it, is as much an impressive sight now as it surely was a century ago. 

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Seasoning Vermont: When Fall Became a Product

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine on 10.16.21 in the “Remember When” column with the title “Falling for Vermont

Frank O. Duffy, a postal worker from Mattapan, Massachusetts, had been visiting Wallingford for more than 40 years. His friend, Patrick J. Muiry, of Boston, had “discovered” the town back in 1895. And now, the retired Mr. Duffy was staying at Maple Grove Farm for his annual October vacation. The foliage was, he told the Rutland Daily Herald, “as gorgeous as ever this year,” especially along the “back roads where October’s colors are gayest.”

It was 1937, and Vermont hadn’t long been a fall vacation destination. That is, until marketers decided it should be.

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Gone to the Dog… River Valley Fair, Northfield, Vermont

Originally published in the Times Argus/Rutland Herald Weekend Magazine on 9.18.21 in the “Remember When” column with the title “Northfield’s Dog River Valley Fair

It was the third week of September 1928 when Northfield’s oldest resident, Joseph C. Rice, was honored as a special guest at Northfield’s Dog River Valley Fair. Mr. Rice, who at age 97, according to the Rutland Daily Herald, still enjoyed excellent health and was “about the village streets everyday,” was recognized by the fair directors for his impressive attendance record: 57 consecutive years, the same number of years the fair itself had been in existence.

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