Fire, fire. That's where I came from, you know. That, and a wealthy man who loved his town.
He had me built in 1871, this Brattleboro man. George J. Brooks. Word was he'd come back home to Vermont after selling enough dry goods in San Francisco to supply the entire California Gold Rush.
Who knows what homesickness meant then, the Civil War still bleeding through its sutures, money and people flying like upset swallows, all the nests turned upside down. The railroad pounded alongside the Connecticut River then. New England workers pounded out shoes and guns in factories, and we all drank milk from our own cows, or from farms just up the road.
These were boom days, flush times, harsh and
Whatever it was, Brooks came back all lit to build, with money to burn. In 1869, a massive fire charred a swath of Main Street to the ground. He bought that land in 1870, and I was built on the ruins of an inn and a carriage house, among other gone buildings.
I was large. I was grand. I changed Brattleboro. How could I not? I was a famous hotel five stories high, rising to 175 feet at my tallest point. I had a two-story
How do I describe to you those days when I was new? I know you don't care, not really. I know for decades now I have been old and invisible, my "Hotel Brooks" sign disappearing beneath its own familiarity. Besides, even from the beginning, it seems, people called me Brooks House, as if I were a mere tavern for railroad vagrants.
But I was a hotel. I was Brattleboro's own New York. Edith Wharton would have thought me charming and corrupt, though my provincial nature saved me from spiritual devastation. I was built to survive.
The parties, though. Imagine: 50 ladies and their black-coated gentlemen gathered in the ballroom for a dance in 1896. I was just 15 years old. Mrs. C. M. C. Richardson was there, resplendent in heliotrope silk with black lace and velvet to match. And Miss Maud Essex, provoking the bachelors (and alarming her mother) with her white satin decollete with gold braid and violets.
The satin, the dotted Swiss muslin, the white figured silk. Miss Eddy of Rutland wore chiffon pearls. Mrs. W. H. Childs shone in pink cashmere.
They gasped at the ropes of smilax looping up from the reception hall table to the chandelier above. They sipped lemonade beneath a bower of laurel and evergreen. They danced beneath Japanese lanterns to the strains of an orchestra. The Windham County Reformer, in an excellent bit of local reporting, called it Perhaps the Prettiest Party Brattleboro Ever Saw.
The automobile did me in, I think. I was a railroad beauty, but the new motels caught the motorist's eye. Brattleboro changed so fast around me -- one minute horses and ice sawed from the pond, the next parking meters and cornbread made from a box. I watched my old friends die; I watched the farmers
I was not surprised when those rooms were stripped and remade in the image of the new century. I didn't mind when the verandah was torn down to make way for the shops that settled into my first floor. I accepted the music, the smoke and liquor in my basement. I was here now to hold Brattleboro as it trod uncertain days.
I held on. I held tenants, radio stations, students, the old and young. I held a bookstore. I held a bank. I held watches and rugs. I held eyeglasses and tie-dye and Christmas ornaments and dried lavender stalks in barrels by a storefront door.
The town held on.
Did you notice me all those years? I was simply Brattleboro, no more remarkable than the river or the streets. I could have dozed into slow decline.
Then the fire. Oh, the flames. I cried and sang, goodbye, goodbye, then let all of me go.
Who am I now? Who are we now, my town?
Men and women walk my halls and paint me with their dreams. Stores again, first floor. Colleges, maybe on the second. Residents above. A market? A cafe? A dance hall for elegant nights?
All that striving life. So much work. My bumptious, hopeful Brattleboro rich again, caring for its own. This is what I miss.
I come from fire a second time, because I love my town.
Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at email@example.com.