BRATTLEBORO — In October 1948, Newfane resident Jean Pratt Fisher appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in a painting created by Norman Rockwell. The artist had come to Brattleboro in search of a model for an illustration portraying the upcoming presidential election between Harry Truman and Thomas Dewey. Rockwell was looking for someone to portray a young wife arguing with her husband about who should be chosen as the next president.
Jean Pratt Fisher and a friend were walking along Green Street on the way to the Union Street bus stop when Rockwell stopped his car and asked Fisher if she would be interested in appearing on the magazine cover. Rockwell called the painting “Family Squabble” and used the interior of a local home as the backdrop for the illustration. The Rockwell image of 14-year-old Jean Pratt Fisher as the young wife arguing with her husband at the breakfast table is now on display in the Truman Presidential Library.
Jean Pratt Fisher would grow up to be a painter as well. She also became an art teacher and offered classes in adult education at Brattleboro Union High School. In 1978 a vibrant painting of downtown Brattleboro was made by Richard Mitchell while he attended one of Fisher’s art classes. While the painting is no “Norman Rockwell” it is a fine depiction of the west side of Main Street before the Civil War.
The painting highlights the buildings between Elliot and High streets in the mid-1800s. Richard Mitchell grew up in Brattleboro and worked in local offices including the Cummer Company and the Holstein Friesian Association. He was born in 1917 so the painting was created from images and descriptions of an earlier time.
Mitchell was active in local history and was one of the authors of the book, “Before Our Time.” He was a founding member of the Brattleboro Historical Society and an author of over 65 magazine articles about antique boating and steamships. When Mitchell reached his 60s he decided to take a few art classes with Fisher.
Mitchell’s painting shows Main Street before the 1869 fire that destroyed the west side of downtown. The Revere House, on the south corner of Elliot and Main streets, was built by James Fisk Sr. in 1849. It opened as a temperance house but struggled financially. Fisk sold the Revere House and stables in 1861. Fisk Sr. also operated an extensive peddling business for almost 25 years. He sold goods on the road with his son, James Fisk Jr. At one time they had eight two-horse teams on the road selling to farm families in southern Vermont and New Hampshire, eastern New York and western Massachusetts and Connecticut.
The building in the center of the painting was known as the Blake Block, which stood on the north corner of Main and Elliot streets. It was built as a private residence by Jonathan Townshend soon after he came to Brattleboro from Massachusetts in 1808. Townshend was involved in the Connecticut River flat boat trade.
This house was set back from the street and was originally surrounded by tall trees and a fence. John Blake later owned the mansion and converted it into a business complex. At the time of the fire there was a drug store, grocery store, newsstand and village library, bookstore, dressmaker, doctor’s office, and a dentist office in the building.
The white Brattleboro House with the stagecoach in front was built by Samuel Dickinson in 1795. Paul Chase bought the property in 1827 and named it “Chase’s Stage-House.” This was the first public hotel in East Brattleboro village and became a major stop for stagecoaches traveling through town. Every day stagecoaches left Chase’s for Albany and Troy, N.Y., Keene and Nashua, N.H., and Boston.
Chase’s became the place where current news was shared and discussed. The “Stage-House” also had the first hall for public gatherings. Town meetings, assemblies and dances were held in the building as well. In 1855 the building was enlarged and became the Brattleboro House.
The white building just north of the Brattleboro House was called Central Block. It was here that the 1869 fire began. Augustus Eayrs and his son operated an “Eating Saloon” in the building and Bela Chamberlain housed a hat making business here as well. The fire began in the kitchen area of the saloon near the back of the building.
On the corner of Main and High streets was once the house of Oliver Chapin, who had moved to Brattleboro in the early 1800s. During the American Revolution he was a member of George Washington’s bodyguard detail. He was a merchant who built houses on Main Street and was a major investor in the first bridge connecting the island near the bottom of Main Street with Brattleboro. The island was known for a time as Chapin’s Island. When the 1869 fire occurred Chapin’s house had been converted into a commercial building occupied by the Retting Cabinet Shop, the Richardson Meat Market and the Frost Grocery store.
The fire which destroyed these properties was discovered around 2:30 a.m. on October 31, 1869. The village night watchman saw the flames coming out of the back of Eayrs’ Saloon and ran to the Estey Organ building at the bottom of Main Street to sound the fire alarm. Earlier in the month there had been a flood along the Whetstone Brook that wiped out the bridge which connected lower Main Street with South Main and Canal streets. The engine at the firehouse on South Main Street had to travel to the Elm Street bridge to make its way to the fire. The first engine to appear on the scene connected to the closest hydrant and attempted to force water onto the fire. Shockingly, someone had tampered with the hoses and made them inoperable. It was almost an hour before the hoses were unclogged. The fire was able to establish itself and began spreading to other buildings before the firefighters were able to get water on the flames.
There was little water available in the nearby cisterns to help put out the fire. Hydrants in front of the Brattleboro House and the Episcopal Church gave out after an hour. A steady water supply was not established until a pump was set up at the Whetstone Brook and hoses were run to the brook. Within three hours of the alarm every building between Elliot and High streets was engulfed in flames.
While men were involved with fighting the fire, women rushed into buildings and carried out whatever could be salvaged. Augustus Eayrs and his son were arrested that evening on suspicion of starting the fire and tampering with the hoses. They were held until Monday afternoon but were released due to lack of physical evidence.
A West Brattleboro fire engine arrived and protected the properties along High Street. The Revere House on the southern corner of Main and Elliot streets caught fire several times and furniture was removed from the building. The arrival of the steady Whetstone Brook water supply allowed firefighters to save the Revere House and protect the buildings on the east side of Main Street.
Within a year local businessman Edward Crosby began the Crosby Block on the south end of the devastated area and, a little while later, George Brooks began the Brooks House on the northern end. The Richard Mitchell painting is a reminder of what Main Street looked like before the Civil War, when commercial buildings were made of wood.