Everything changes; Some things stay the same

Saturday October 27, 2012

Once upon a time, there were nine police officers on the Brattleboro force. Now there are nearly 30.

Once upon a time, paperboys walked their routes on foot. Now drivers pull alongside mailboxes to stuff the papers inside.

Depression-era housewives once checked newspaper recipes to see how to make hearty meals from a few ingredients. Now saffron is no more exotic than salt.

Farmers used to need three weeks to cut their cornfields. Now it takes two days.

In the 100 years that the Reformer has reported on the daily doings in Windham County, much has changed. Businesses have come and gone. Neighborhoods have flourished and dwindled. Waves of immigrants have settled into the old houses and new developments, making the towns their own.

Those who have lived in the county for decades - some born here, some newcomers themselves long ago - have a special perspective on the evolution of this corner of the state. They, much like the Reformer, have seen the slow turnings and sudden lurchings of time as people and technology rolled across the hills, up the Interstate, down the river. They've lived the story of the small town in the 20th and early 21st centuries, in which everything changes, but the heart of community stays the same, borne along by memories passed hand over hand.

Terry Martin of Brattleboro remembers working as a paperboy in the 1950s. It was his first job.

"I was in seventh grade, I believe," he says. "I had 212 papers to deliver in two bags. I started off on foot, but eventually I earned enough to buy a Philips Three Speed English bike from Aubuchon's on Elliot Street. I put a rack on the back and carried the paper bags like saddle bags."

He would pick up his papers at the Reformer, which was then located in downtown Brattleboro, going down the "Reformer alley" across from Mocha Joe's.

His route snaked up Green Street to the top of High Street, then followed Western Avenue until Green Hill Parkway. On the way back to town, he covered Highland, Crosby Hill and Williams Street as well.

"I delivered to some pretty distinguished people," he says. "Pal Borofsky's dad, who owned Michaelman's store. Ernest Gibson, who was governor and a judge, in the mansion up on Solar Hill. Jack Hunter, president of Vermont National Bank, too."

He remembers the circulation manager at the time, Hank Smith, talking with the paperboys about collections and payments, about earning a certain amount for every paper delivered, about carrying a ledger with his customers' names and checking them off when they paid each Friday.

"Sometimes you collected double, for the next week, too," he recalls with a smile. "You had to have a little salesmanship."

Dick Guthrie, 73, former Brattleboro police chief and sheriff, now head of the American Legion, also spent some time at the Reformer offices before going into law enforcement.

"I was working at the Reformer press room right out of high school," he says. "But I knew I wanted to be a police officer. I knew that since I was 7 years old."

Dick grew up in awe of the policemen in town.

"You'd see them a lot on the streets, when you'd walk downtown. World War II had just got over and not many people had cars. I got to know every officer there was. I was so impressed that after a while they knew me without me even getting into trouble," he says.

Several officers lived near Dick, walking by his house every day in uniform: Angus McKennon, who was called Mac the Cop; Richard Jones up the hill; and Joseph Holiday, further south on South Main Street, who became chief of police.

"When I turned 21, I applied to the force and Richard Putnam, the chief, said, 'Normally we don't hire people as young as you,'" he remembers.

Dick walked out the door, then turned around and walked back in.

"I said, 'How about being a part-time special officer?'"

His persistence paid off. In May 1961, he became a part-time special police officer, in charge of traffic control, parking lots, and the like. He remained in law enforcement for the rest of his career.

He's seen innumerable changes in the force in the last 50 years. Back when he started, the officers didn't have portable radios, just three lights strategically located where Flat, Elliot and High Streets intersected with Main Street.

"If we were needed for an emergency," Dick remembers, "the dispatch would toggle the switch and turn on the those lights to blink, and the officers would run to a pay phone or bus station phone to call in. We all carried a dime in our watch pockets.

"You always got your dime back," he says.

The big economic changes of the past decades were clear to Ruth Barton of Dummerston when she first saw old flyers from the long defunct Reformer Cooking School.

"They are from the 1930s and 1940s," Ruth says. "We don't know where they came from; they were in a box of recipe clippings someone bought at a yard sale. But they were meant to teach women how to cook economically during the Depression, so the recipes are pretty darn basic."

Ruth remembers the food from her own childhood, a generation past the Depression, being fairly straightforward as well.

"My grandmother had a very small jar of French mustard that I think she had for 10 years. I don't ever remember ketchup in the house. It was unknown to me," she says. "We didn't have mayonnaise, and my grandmother made her own salad dressing. As for spices, you just had what you'd put in apple pie. You cooked whatever you could grow yourself. Nowadays there's much more foo-foo and folderol in the recipes."

She laughs. "And now more of the young men are cooking than the young women, too!"

Over in Vernon, Paul Miller has seen another set of traditions evolve over five decades.

"This past Tuesday was the 50th anniversary of when I came back from out west to take over the farm from my folks," he says.

His grandfather bought the property in 1916, just a few years after the Reformer printed its first paper. Paul spent most of his childhood on the dairy farm.

"My father took it over in 1945, and by 1962, he was trying to sell out," he explains. "He had probably fewer than 100 milking cows at the time. We just let it grow, bought a few animals, and grew our own replacements."

As the farm grew, Paul and his wife, Mary, raised their two boys on the farm with both sets of grandparents on hand to help out.

Big changes came as farm equipment became more efficient and more powerful. Work that took nearly a month, like cutting corn, now takes just a few days. Work that could only be done in fine weather, like baling hay, can now be done anytime.

When Paul and Mary's sons decided 14 years ago to come back to the farm themselves, they found that the price of conventional milk just wasn't enough to support the operation, so they went for an organic certification.

"That was another big change," Paul says. "The price for organic is much better, but organic corn is also five time as expensive as it was even three or four years ago. So we're trying to make a higher quality of grass and alfalfa instead of bringing in the supplements."

Despite the switch to organic and the new breed of machinery, certain elements of the farm have stayed the same.

Paul's father grew up on the farm. Paul grew up there, and so did his sons. Now the tradition continues.

"The boy came back partly to keep the farm in the family, but also because they wanted to raise their kids here," he explains.

"Farming a different way of life," Paul says. "It's a life, not a living."

And that is a story, along with the police officers rushing to emergency scenes, parents finding new ways to serve up meatloaf, and kids getting their first jobs, that the Reformer will always tell.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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