Editor's note: This is the first of two stories on the Windham Foundation.
BRATTLEBORO -- Fifty years ago, when Dean Mathey and Mat Hall established the Windham Foundation, its purpose was "the acquisition, maintenance and preservation of real and personal properties in rural or village areas of Vermont ...."
The foundation's goal was "to preserve existing charm and history, native or unusual features of such areas for the general benefit and improvement of the communities concerned."
Hall and Mathey, who were cousins, started the foundation with money they said they had received from the estate of their aunt, Pauline Fiske.
"During a period of almost five years after (Aunt Pauline's) death we were unable to decide what to do with the money," Hall told Yankee Magazine in 1967.
But one day, Mathey woke him from a deep sleep with "fire literally shooting from his eyes."
"'Mat," Hall recalled Mathey saying to him, "'I've found the answer to Aunt Pauline's money ... it's Grafton.'"
But according to Mat Hall's son, Rob, Pauline Fiske was actually a beard meant to mask his uncle's considerable investment success.
"Aunt Pauline may have been recruited to make the actual contribution," wrote Rob Hall, in "Dean Mathey: Essence of a Man."
"The myth which Dean and dad promoted of Aunt Pauline being the grand matriarch of the Windham Foundation herewith is officially put to rest."
Mathey made his fortune on Wall Street, much of which he donated to his alma mater, Princeton University. Some of his fortune went into the founding the Bunbury Company, a nonprofit he established in New Jersey. The rest of his fortune went into the Windham Foundation, about $25 million.
"My dad's love of Grafton was the cord that over many years pulled Dean ever closer eventually entwining him in Grafton and the commitment to restoration and revitalization of a wonderful rural economy," wrote Rob Hall.
"Our original studies of what we should do with Grafton started with the acquisition of the country store," Mat Hall told Yankee Magazine.
About that same time, Hall personally purchased the town's blacksmith shop, which was caving in from disuse. While his first idea was to use it as a garage for his old Model A Ford station wagon, when he got a good look inside, he decided that just wouldn't do.
"It was just as the old blacksmith had left it when he laid down his hammer on his beloved anvil for the last time," wrote R.L. Town, in the November 1967 edition of Yankee. "It was all there, the old forge with the hand-operated leather bellows, the tools, and a supply of horseshoes in variously labeled whisky boxes."
Hall turned over ownership of the shop to the foundation and that was quickly followed with the purchase of the Old Tavern, which would eventually become the Grafton Inn. In the first five years of the foundation, it also built a new cheese factory, a greenhouse and an auto service garage. The foundation also proceeded to buy up houses in Grafton and renovate them. It created the Grafton Ponds out of a boggy area just outside of the village.
Even though Mathey amassed a grand fortune, he had a "can't take it with you attitude," perhaps influenced by his time in an artillery unit during World War I.
"Gas alarms all night. Slept in shell hole. Lost watch and wallet. C'est la guerre," he wrote in his diary on Sept.
From there, things got worse for Mathey, including coming under German artillery attack.
"I'll admit I was damn scared," he wrote on Oct. 3, 1918. "It was big stuff."
And the next day he wrote "It's a peculiar sensation to wonder if the next shell has your name on it and most extraordinary how quickly one can lay on his belly under the most adverse conditions ...."
Though he heard rumor on Oct. 5 of an Armistice, Mathey was still deep in the battle, with friends falling as casualties around him. On Nov. 11, an armistice was agreed to. Mathey spent that Christmas in Paris before returning home to the states and beginning his career as an investment banker.
"Character was at its core around which orbited ethical behavior, modesty, sacrifice, hard work, generosity and more," wrote Rob Hall. "These constituted a life road map that he tinkered with but never materially changed."
Though he faced tragedy, including the deaths of his two wives, "Dean moved ahead dealing with tragedy while maintaining his love of life, his boundless curiosity and wonder of the world around him."
"He had an understanding for small communities as places for employment," said Nancy Middleton, who, with her husband, Larry, were overseers of Mathey's Pretty Brook Farm in New Jersey and followed him to Grafton. "He looked holistically at the community."
Larry Middleton characterized Mathey's philosophy as "Do your giving while you're living."
In 1924, he penned his "General Principles," which included: Learn to give things and events their proper value; be fair and courteous with your associates; and reserve your judgment until you have heard as much of the case as possible.
One of his principles was "Help people when they're down."
Prior to the foundation's establishment, "Grafton needed help," according to "The History of Grafton, Vermont," published by the Grafton Historical Society in 1975.
"The most important facet of the Windham Foundation's activities has been its respect for Grafton's past and its effort to do nothing that would destroy its old time charm and give the village the appearance of a restoration," noted the history. "The money brought into town by its visitors and new residents has benefited everyone in the village. Houses are painted, fences are kept in repair and anyone who wants work can find it for the asking."
In Wednesday's Reformer: What does the future hold for the Windham Foundation?
Bob Audette can be reached at email@example.com, or at 802-254-2311, ext. 160. Follow Bob on Twitter @audette.reformer.