Monday, February 1, 2016

Safe at Last in Cavendish

Safe at Last in Cavendish was written in honor of Black History Month and drew its inspiration from information obtained during the Cavendish Historical Society’s (CHS) recording of oral histories. As the story goes, a female slave became pregnant after coming to Cavendish via the “underground railroad.”  Consequently, she was given a woodlot for a homestead.  It’s not clear if she ever married, but she did end up with more than one child, making her living by cleaning, cooking, sewing, doing laundry and other chores.

How factual the story is unknown. However, there is good documentation of Cavendish Civil War soldiers bringing former slaves to the community after the war.  Early pictures of students in the various schoolhouses of Cavendish show black students. One such picture is from the 1921 Wheeler (Twenty Mile Stream) school that identifies a black student as James or “Sunny.”  No last name was provided. We have learned that his mother was a cook at Bates Mansion. If you have other information about James, please e-mail or call 802-226-7807. 

Safe at Last in Cavendish is a fictionalized account of how a female slave could have ended up here and contains a number of facts about the town’s role in the abolitionist movement. Following the story is more Cavendish history.

Safe at Last in Cavendish
Dedicated to Marsha, a descendant of one of the first free black families in Vermont.

Bathed in spring sunshine, this was the first time in six months that Marsha felt she could relax. While the steady clop of the horses, and the fresh country air, could just as easily lull her to sleep, Marsha instead found herself thinking back to all that had transpired for her, a runaway slave, to be traveling through Vermont.

Born on a plantation in Virginia, Marsha’s first memory took place when she was quite young. Holding her mother’s hand, and standing with the other slaves, she was required to watch the whipping of a woman that had tried to escape.

Quite large with her unborn child, the woman’s hands were tried to a tree and her dress pulled down to her waist exposing her back to the whip. With each slice, the women’s body twisted as she screamed in agonizing pain. Marsha’s mother tried to protect her from watching, but the overseer insisted, “all must watch.” With each blow, she squeezed her mother’s hand as hard as she could.

Before the required lashes had been administered, a neighbor happened to drive by and witnessed the beating. “What you doing that for?”  He called out.

Without missing a beat, the overseer replied, “She’s a runaway.”

“You keep on beating her like that and she’s going to die and you’ll be out her and the slave she’s carrying.”

Pausing briefly, the overseer turned and waving the whip said, “Mind your own affairs before I turn this on you.”

With the next blow, the woman didn’t scream as she had fainted. Her body was sagging from the tree but still the overseer continued to beat her.

Marsha never forgot that day. While the slaves showed no outward expression of what they were watching, their bodies wrecked of fear and anger. It was a smell she would remember the rest of her life.

Normally beatings and torturing of slaves were confined to the Sugar House, but because this was a “runaway” and a pregnant woman, the slave owner wanted to make her an example to the others of what happens if you tried to leave his plantation. Later her mother would tell Marsha “fore we could bring Moll back to the cabin, the Angel of Death spared she and that baby any more whippin’s.”

In time, Marsha’s mom told her more about Moll. “She was in love with the baby’s Papa, but he had been sold a few weeks before to a neighbor to settle a gambling debt. If she’d couldn’t be with her man, Moll said she’d rather die trying for hers and the baby’s freedom.”

If there was such a thing as an easy job on a plantation, Marsha was lucky enough to have it, as she worked in the house caring for the master’s daughter. Though only separated by a few years in age, Marsha had started taking care of Miss Ellie when she was probably no more than five. In time she did everything Miss Ellie required, sewing, cleaning, cooking and interestingly, her homework.

Miss Ellie hated schoolwork and did everything she could to avoid the tutors her father hired. One day infuriated by a homework assignment she turned to Marsha, as she did with most other things in her life and said, “You do it.” While Miss Ellie thought of school as a burden, Marsha took every opportunity to learn from the books her mistress lay scattered around. The tutor was quite impressed with the homework assignments but couldn’t understand why the daily schoolwork wasn’t of the same quality.

Fortunately for Marsha she was able to remain on the same plantation with her mother, who ran the kitchen. However, many of her younger siblings, particularly the boys, were sold off. Those were horrible days seeing her mother begging the master not to sell her baby, only to feel the whip for her pleadings.

When Miss Ellie married, Marsha was part of the wedding dowry and became the property of Miss Ellie’s husband. Permanently separated her mother, she thought that at least she would continue to serve Miss Ellie as she had done for the last 15 years. That was not to be. While she could be called on to help with the sewing, cooking, cleaning, or other household chores, she was used primarily as a “field hand,” for planting and harvesting. It was hard work that she was ill prepared for and the overseer was mean and heavy with the whip.

There was a silver lining to her new situation though. Marsha taught herself to make baskets, mats and other items, which she could sell and in this way start saving to buy her freedom. She also fell in love with another slave, Tom, and it wasn’t long before they “jumped the broom.”

Since marriages between slaves were not legal, a couple would jump across a broom to symbolize their union. Instead of promising “until death do us part,” they were realistic in saying, “until distance us do part” or “until the white man do us part.”

Many slave “marriages” were not love matches, but rather were used as a means to keep slaves in line and to increase profits. Because Marsha and Tom were young, their owner viewed this as a desirable match as such a union would produce more slaves. However, they only had less than a year together, when Tom was tortured and then sold when the slave owner believed he had stolen a watermelon.

Alone and newly pregnant, Marsha understood why Moll had tried to escape. The thought of remaining as the property of a man that tortured her husband when he was innocent, and destroyed her marriage was unthinkable. She had some money saved from her basket making. It certainly wasn’t enough to buy her freedom but it could be helpful in escaping. But where should she go? How could she make this happen?

The answer came quicker than she anticipated. A “conductor,” a former slave, was at a neighboring farm offering to take slaves north via the “Underground Railroad.”  Modeled on the railroads that were being built in 1831, the homes and businesses where runway slaves would be temporarily housed were called "stations" and "depots" and were run by "stationmasters." Those who contributed money or goods were "stockholders," while the "conductor" was responsible for moving escaping slaves from one station to the next.

Marsha had to leave immediately with only the money she had saved and the clothes on her back. The first stop to freedom was about ten miles away. Here she remained in hiding while a message was sent to the next stationmaster. Awaiting word for when it was safe to move, she remained in a confined space. More than once she heard the patarollers’s (slave catchers) dogs as they searched for her and other missing slaves. The smell of her own fear brought back memories of what happened to Moll after her capture.

Because she had been able to bring some money with her, it was possible to purchase clothes and even a train ticket. However, the daily stress of being on the run was further added to when Marsha had a miscarriage. Loosing her last link with Tom made Marsha wonder if life was even worth living. However, her journey north connected her with people who had shared similar circumstances, and in some cases even worse. She took comfort at night, as she’d scan the night sky for the “drinking gourd” (Big Dipper) and thought of it as her personal guide to freedom. 

It took many stops, hundreds of miles of walking and more than one fearful moment before Marsha reached the Vermont border.

While slaves were trying to reach Canada, Vermont became home to many either permanently or for extended periods of time. Not only the first state to prohibit slavery when it was formed in 1777, in 1806 Vermont passed a law “Act to Prevent Kidnapping,” which made it difficult for former slaves to be returned to their owners.

Ryland Fletcher
The town where Marsha was going sounded ideal. It was sufficient distance from the Connecticut River and Lake Champlain making it difficult for the patarollers to try and make a capture. It wasn’t worth their risk to go to far from the shoreline as Vermont prosecuted slave catchers.  Cavendish was also home to Rev. Warren Skinner, Fletcher Wright, and Gov. Ryland Fletcher all part of a very strong abolitionist (anti slavery) movement. The famous abolitionist John Brown had even spent a week there in 1857.

Barely able to keep her eyes open, it was well after dark when they arrived at the Rev Skinner’s home in Proctorsville. Here Marsha spent her first night of what she considered freedom.

In the morning, she was told there was a family that needed help with household chores. Did she want to stay for a while and work? Not having to move, let alone walk for miles ever week or so, was a welcome relief to Marsha. She set to work immediately and it wasn’t long before the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months.

After about a year of living in Cavendish, Marsha became pregnant and so it was arranged for her to have a homestead. She planted large gardens each spring and at harvest time she shared her bounty with neighbors as well as with other former slaves, some of whom were brought back to Cavendish by the returning Civil War soldiers.

Life was not easy for Marsha. She wasn’t use to heavy snow and long winters. While slavery wasn’t allowed in the state, it didn’t mean that people would accept or want to be friends with a Negro. However, she was able to find work using the many skills she had learned on the plantations back in Virginia. Whether it was cooking, sewing, cleaning or weaving, what ever needed to be done, she could and would do it.

During the warmer months, Marsha would often sit outside staring at the night sky for long stretches of time. While she wondered what happened to her mother and Tom, she was also grateful for the fact her children could not be taken from her and they’d never know the whip of the overseer.

On starry nights, she would make a point of taking her children outside and pointing out the “drinking gourd.” “Ya see the two stars on the cup’s edge, they always point to the North Star. That star never changes and it always points north to freedom.”  Then she would sing,  “Follow the drinking gourd. For the old man is waiting for to carry you to freedom, if you follow the drinking gourd.”

Cavendish History: Rev. Warren Skinner was a well-known abolitionist and he did provide a place for former slaves to stay at his home, which is today the Golden Stage Inn. Ryland Fletcher, who became Governor of Vermont, was such a well-known abolitionist that John Brown spent a week or so in Cavendish. You can read the letter about Brown’s visit at the CHS blog. In the May 7, 1869 Rutland Herald, his visit was described as follows: 

"... Hair closely cut, beard neatly shaven, tight, stiff stock around his neck, no collar, or dickey, closely fitting swallow-tailed coat ..." the newspaper described. "As soon as it was known that 'John Brown' was stopping in our village, all manifested a desire to see and hear the man ... Notice was given that he would meet the people at the school house, and at the appointed hour an audience assembled.

"We introduced the modest and unassuming old man ... He went on and told the tale of his struggles with the despotism of slavery ... We little thought then how soon 'John Brown's body' would be mouldering in the ground, but his soul was even at that hour 'marching on.'"

Contrary to rumor, Cavendish wasn’t a part of the underground railroad, since the state had outlawed slavery as part of its constitution in 1777 and passed additional legislation, which made it difficult for slave catchers (patarolles) in come this far into Vermont without being caught and prosecuted. So all those “hiding places” where people thought slaves would have hidden most likely served other purposes, such as “rum running” during the depression era, smuggling gold, or a place to cure meats, store large pots and pans etc.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

How Did Cavendish’s Settlers Celebrate Christmas?

The first settlers in Cavendish, including the “pioneer” families (squatters), along with the Coffeens, Duttons and Proctors, most likely didn’t celebrate Christmas.

Since the Bible provides no reference as to when Christ was born, early Christians used the winter solstice customs as a way to convert “pagans.“ Many Christmas customs date back to Saturnalia-the Roman festival of light leading to the winter solstice and Sol Invictus, the “Birthday of the Unconquerable Sun.”

Throughout history, humans have observed solstice and created spiritual and cultural traditions to celebrate the rebirth of sunlight after the darkest period of the year.

While the Catholic Church embraced Christmas, along with the Anglicans, Lutherans and Dutch Reformed, Puritans banned it. The Puritan argued that the selection of the date was an early Christian hijacking of a Roman festival, and to celebrate a December Christmas was to “defile oneself by paying homage to a pagan custom.”

For a while in 17th century New England, Christmas was illegal. Eighteenth century New Englanders viewed Christmas as the representation of “royal officialdom, external interference in local affairs, dissolute behavior, and an impediment to their holy mission.”

Once legal, Christmas celebrations were discouraged. It is unlikely that the early settlers in Cavendish would have openly celebrated Christmas since they were not of the faiths that did-Coffeen and Dutton were Universalists-nor was it “politically correct.”

It wasn’t until about 1840-1850 that celebrating Christmas became more widespread. Though, as late as 1870, classes were scheduled in Boston public schools on Christmas Day and children were punished if they chose to “stay home beneath the Christmas tree.” That same year, December 25, was declared a federal holiday in the US.

Brief timeline

1823 Clement C. Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) for his children. He was an American Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature at the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The poem becomes widely circulated and sets many of the ideas about Santa Claus.

1836 Alabama was the first state to legally recognize Christmas

Victorian Christmas
1839 Prince Albert, native of Germany married Victoria ushering in the Victorian age of Christmas customs, including the Christmas tree. 

1840s Irish workers on the railroads brought their families to settle in Cavendish and held services in their homes whenever a priest was available. They would have brought their Christmas traditions with them. It wouldn’t be until 1860 before they had a church-Holy Name of Mary.

1843 John Calcott Horsley illustrated the first Christmas card, which read “A Merry Christmas and a
First printed Christmas card.
Happy New Year.” Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carol” in London.

1847 August Imgard, a German immigrant, used candy canes to decorate a Christmas tree in Wooster, Ohio

1870 Christmas becomes a Federal holiday.

1890 All states and US Territories acknowledge Christmas as a legal holiday.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Cavendish's Lime Kiln/Phinease Gage

Kilns once doted the Vermont landscape as these were used to make a white powder derived from limestone. For at least 7,000 years humans have used this process to hardened pottery or smelted ore, and most commonly, to create mortar for construction. This would have been used between the layers for Cavendish's stone houses and church

During the height of the lime kilns, forests and mountainsides were stripped of their trees to keep them operating. 
 This particularly kiln, though not that easy to see most of the year as it's covered in vines, has a historical interest because as it was used as a marker to identify for where Phineas Gage was injured. 

On Sept ember 13, 1848 Phineas Gage, a foreman, was working with his crew excavating rocks in preparing the bed for the Rutland and Burlington Railroad in Cavendish. An accidental explosion of a charge he had set blew his tamping iron through his head. Miraculously he survived his injury and lived 12 more years, becoming the first well documented case of traumatic brain injury in medicine. 

In 1936, Walton H. Green relayed information given to him 30 years prior by Christopher Goodrich, the ox-cart driver who drove Gage to his boarding house. Goodrich was 82 at the time. Green said, “The accident took place at the second cut south of Cavendish …near where Roswell Downer built his lime kiln later.” The accident took place 0.75 miles south of Cavendish along the track of the Old Rutland and Burlington Rail Road (Cavendish Gulf Rd). There is a 21.7 marker on tracks, which can be seen from the road. If you look across the tracks, you will see the remains of a limekiln.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Town of Cavendish Fire Districts History

Murdock Mill Fire in Proctorsville
At the Nov. 16, 2015 Fire District # 2 (Cavendish) Informational Meeting, regarding the proposal to replace two engines with one new one, there was considerable discussion about the town's need for two fire districts. To better understand the present situation, the following historical information is being provided based on information from Barbara Kingsbury’s book “Chubb Hill Farm and Cavendish, Vermont” and Margo Caulfield’s digital Cavendish Update.

1833: Proctorsville Volunteer Fire Dept. (PVFD) formed-Fire District #1

1883: Cavendish Volunteer Fire Dept. (CVFD) formed-Fire District #2

1944: There was a fire at the town garage on Feb 10. This was in Cavendish Village behind the Town Hall, but the Vermont Tribune reported, “ The Proctorsville Fire Co was soon at the scene and lines of hose were also strung from Gay Bros. Mill...” Cavendish village was Fire District #2 but it did not then have much equipment nor a well-organized volunteer force. Gay Brothers Mill used their own equipment to help fight fires near the mill. For several years, Fire District #1 had had better equipment and a more structured volunteer group under the direction of its fire chief, Nelson Holland. By the early 1930’s, Proctorsville had a Women’s Auxiliary, which helped raise money for a truck and garage.

Late 1940s: Milton “Mike" Dickerman, fire chief for District #2 during this time remembers Cavendish village still didn’t have much equipment. One of his main responsibilities was to check that fire extinguishers were in working order. For years, there ha been ladders and buckets stored at three or four strategic locations in or near Cavendish village. Dickerman did not think they were used much in this period except when the barn next to the Roger and Walter Buck house caught fire on Oct. 28, 1949. The barn and house were adjacent to the Universalist Church on Main Street. One of the storage sites for fire-fighting equipment was on the bank above the church. Men from the village formed a “bucket-brigade” but the Vermont Tribune credits the Proctorsville Fire Department and help from Gay Brothers Mill for putting out the fire.

1957: Art Briggs became the fire chief of District # 2 and served in that capacity for the next 30 years. He had received training and experience fighting fires in the Army Air Force during WWII. Under his direction, the volunteer firemen became a well organized group with regular drills, and District #2 Fire Department was legally incorporated. An active Auxiliary was formed. CVFD consisted of a portable pump, a trailer, and one thousand feet of hose. An old Army truck (with four wheel drive) was purchased for $500 and another $500 was spent to outfit it.

This was the year of the Hawks Mountain fire. On May 7, the fire started on the Cavendish side of the mountain and spread to Perkinsville. The National Guard, fire departments and volunteers were all called to help. It took until May 9 before the fire was finally under control. The Town Report lists $16,699.54 as the cost for fighting this fire. 
Cavendish Fire Feb. 2014

2005: The following is from the Cavendish Update:
April 12 The Selectmen’s Meeting on Monday, April 11, had the following agenda item, “Follow up to discussion at the Annual Town Meeting wherein the status of the two Cavendish Fire Districts was discussed by the voters in attendance and the voters urged action. A question for discussion is whether legislative body (Select Board) action is required or is appropriate and desired at this time. Discussion to include the status of the two districts at present. Copies of relevant state statue sections will be available as reference.”

Cavendish currently has two fire districts, one in Cavendish (which operates with nine volunteers) and the other in Proctorsville (which operates with 24 volunteers).  Considerable discussion took place regarding the lack of coverage in Cavendish. Currently, dispatch to Cavendish goes through the “red phone,” which is located in various volunteer’s homes and the town office. Because no one source of phone coverage is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, there have been difficulties alerting Cavendish volunteers. Further, several of the holders of the red phone are now volunteers for Proctorsville. In short, there is a real problem with dispatching in Cavendish, which could have dire consequences.

Proctorsville operates out of Ludlow’s dispatch.  In the event that Proctorsville does not immediately respond to a call, Ludlow provides backup.

Proctorsville Fire January 2014
Copies of the Secretary of State’s Book of Opinions on Fire Districts and Fire Departments was made available. After considerable discussion, it was agreed that the select board is ultimately responsible for providing fire protection. To that end, the first order was to figure out an immediate solution to the “red phone” issue in Cavendish. The select board voted the following:
• The current fire line in Cavendish, 7823, should be rolled over to 911 as soon as possible (this needs to be cleared with state 911, and worked out with TDS). This means that if someone would dial the old Cavendish Fire number, their call would automatically go to a 911 dispatcher.  As 911 is the preferred method for contacting fire and rescue, and to reduce confusion if there are multiple callers for one incident, it was agreed that 911 be used, versus a roll over to Ludlow dispatch.
• Ludlow will be asked to provide dispatch for Cavendish. There will be a cost associated with this service, but it was felt to be more than justified
• Rich will be responsible for contacting the Secretary of State for confirmation that the select board can operate in this manner. Depending on confirmation, he will then contact TDS, Ludlow PVFD, and state 911 to arrange for Cavendish dispatch through Ludlow.

With a unanimous “straw vote” at town meeting regarding the combining of Fire Districts into one district, the select board voted to do the following:
• Confirm legality of strategy with Secretary of State
• Convene a planning meeting with Cavendish and Proctorsville Fire Departments (Prudential Boards and fire fighters) and the selectmen. Rolph Van Sheik will be asked to moderate the meeting. A date was set for April 18 (Monday), 6:30 pm at the Cavendish Town Elementary School in Proctorsville.  Note: This meeting may change due to availability of various parties. For meeting confirmation, contact the Town Office 226-7292.
• Hold a town informational meeting, where the proposed plan for a single fire district is presented and discussed.
• A town vote would follow to determine if voters want to continue with two fire districts or convert to one.

May 3: In response to the ongoing situation with fire service in Cavendish, the following petition is available for signature at Singletons, Crows Corner Bakery and Bennets Store:

“The undersigned voters of the Town of Cavendish hereby petition the Cavendish Board of Selectmen to hold a special town meeting for the purpose of having the legal voters of the town consider, by Australian Ballot, merging Cavendish Fire District # 1 and Cavendish Fire District #2 into one consolidated fire district for the town. This special Town Meeting will include a general session wherein the general public as well as Town and Fire District officials and Firemen may comment and ask questions.” By May 7, 70 signatures had been obtained.

May 23: The select board held a special meeting this evening to “continue discussion on the petition received on Monday May 9 with input from Town Counsel. A course of action on this petition is anticipated to be established and initiated. The subject petition asks for a Special Town Meeting vote on a merger of the two Cavendish Fire Districts.” The results of this meeting were as follows:
• Town Counsel felt that this was not a select board issue but rather one for the Fire Districts. As such, the select board rejected the petition.
• After discussion by select board and audience participants, it was made clear that:
a)     There is fire protection for the town of Cavendish, as Fire District 1 (Proctorsville) does respond to Cavendish fires. The problems with notification of fire fighters in Cavendish has been resolved.
b)    The issue of fire districts is not about the fire fighters, but rather the Prudential Boards that over see the fire districts.
c)     Fire District 1 (Proctorsville) feels they are operating quite well, but are being dragged into things because of problems with Fire District 2 (Cavendish).  There have been a number of fire fighters from Cavendish that have transferred to Proctorsville.
d)    It was noted, by a lister, who also serves on the Fire District 1 Prudential Committee, that the town property, as far as monetary value, is now split 2/3 non residents and 1/3 residents. What impact this will have on fire service remains to be seen.

• If change is to occur it has to happen at the Fire District level, particularly Fire District 2 (Cavendish). This can be done by petition, which would require 20 signatures of town voters that reside within Fire District 2.

• It is strongly recommended that residents attend fire district meetings on a monthly basis and participate in the annual meeting in February.

September 12: A request was recently made by the wife of a Cavendish volunteer fire fighter to inform Cavendish Update subscribers that Fire District 2 has 12 volunteers.