Waiting

for my story to be told

In the box of letters that I “inherited”, there was one crucial piece of evidence that provided me with some information about where my Grandfather worked.  It was a green piece of paper, called “Route List”  Under the title, it explained “I will call for mail and telegrams at the following addresses on the dates shown.”  At the bottom of the paper, was the company’s name: Larus & Brother Co., Richmond Va.  I traveled to Richmond in February 2020 to learn more about Larus.  I was hoping to recreate the Route List Trip in April 2020.  However, life as we knew it ceased to exist due to a worldwide pandemic and the trip didn’t happen in 2020.  It would have to be on hold until 2021.

This piece of paper provided so many clues

This Route List started on Monday, August 11th and ended on Friday August 22nd.  It involved seven locations – four of which I had not been to before and three that I had.  The four new spots were Keene, New Hampshire; Brattleboro, Vermont; Rutland Vermont; and Bennington, Vermont.  The three repeats were North Adams, Massachusetts; Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and Springfield, Massachusetts.  This would be a pretty route.  I then needed to look to see if I had any letters that may had corresponded with the dates of visit.  Unfortunately, I could find no letters from Keene or Brattleboro; the letters from Rutland were in May.  But, the letters from Bennington and North Adams did correspond to when he was there on this route list and the postmark provided me with another piece of information – it was in 1930.  I did find letters from the Pittsfield and Springfield hotels from 1930, so I did use those to learn more about this timeframe.  

Like I had done in the past, I wanted to research the four new ones that I had not visited before.  Additionally, when I had visited the Hotel Belmont, I had found very little information (actually that is overstating it, I found none!), so I wanted to take a crack at that one.  Luckily, there was a lot of information on the Hotel Ellis in Keene, New Hampshire, the Hotel Bardwell in RutlandVermont and Hotel Putnam in Bennington Vermont locations, but none easily found on the Hotel Billings in Brattleboro and once again, on the Hotel Belmont in Springfield, Massachusetts.  In the past, I have found using social media, and in particular Facebook, to be a fairly effective tool in finding out information.  I found out the Brattleboro Historical Society had a Facebook page.  I did write to them and heard back very quickly with a bit of information.  Not so easy with the Springfield group.  I took a page out of my detective skills from two years ago and found a Growing up in Springfield Facebook group and asked for permission to job.  I was quickly accepted and I poised my question, along with a picture of the hotel envelope.  Presto!  Pretty quickly, I heard from a lot of different people, complete with photos, newspaper clippings and general history.  I have christened this social media crowdsourcing technique as a Citizen Historian approach.  Additionally, I did receive information from the Wood Museum of Springfield History about the Hotel Belmont, so I was excited to venture back there with more information in hand.

Inside the Brewbaker Cafe

As I had also done before, I would honor the types of roads that my Grandfather drove on, so there would be no big highways as part of my route.  So, on a cool but sunny Saturday morning on the last day of July, I pulled Sage out of the garage at 6:40 a.m.  I took back roads to get onto Route 119 heading west and pretty much stayed on that road until hitting Route 12, which led me north and then right into Keene Center.  I found 48 Emerald Street, the site of Brewbaker Cafe at 8:13 a.m. after traveling 62.9 miles.  In addition to finding the location of the Hotel Ellis, I was also meeting my dear friend Pam, who I had not seen since well before this pandemic started. The Brewbaker Cafe had recently moved to this location.  It was a cool place – not only was there a funky coffee shop feeling, but there was also a retail side that had old records and clothes.  Since the Delta variant of COVID was on the rise, we elected to sit outside and enjoy our beverages and catch up.  The location of the Hotel Ellis was up one block, on the intersection of Emerald Street and Main Street.  These days, the original building is gone, and in its place is a shoe store.

Site where the Hotel Ellis once was. It’s now a shoe store.

The Hotel Ellis was originally located at 109 Main Street.  It was built in the 1830s and was first called the Workingmen’s Hotel, kept by Elias Whitney. In 1837 the name was changed to Emerald House. In 1860, it operated under the name Union House and was kept by G.A. Goddard. John W. Starkey operated the hotel as the American House and sold it to L.W. Cummings in 1874 and was then called the City Hotel. There were other operators and then it was bought by Calvin H. Ellis in 1904 and given his name. It was razed in 1972.

While the original building is gone, there was a small alley, framed by a wrought iron, ivy colored gate that perhaps was part of the area. To the right of the gate was an older building, now home to a clothing store and to the right of that was the Colonial Theater.  I have found that many of the spots he traveled had a theater and in many of his letters, he would discuss going to that theater and what movies he saw.  Since I did not have a letter from this location, I could only surmise that since the theater was only two doors down from the original location of the hotel, that he may have gone there.

Looking down Main Street in Keene

We walked around a pretty bustling Keene on this nice Saturday morning.  There was a good sized farmer’s market where a lot of people were milling around.  Additionally, there is a public art project which consists of 16 murals painted on buildings all around (https://ci.keene.nh.us/our-city/walldog-mural-downtown-map) the town.  I saw a few of these buildings and they would be great to go back and see.  Keene is a funky college town that has a good vibe to it.  

I also wanted to refer to the New Hampshire Federal Writers’ Project Guide, which was published in 1938 to learn more about Keene in the days closer to when my Grandfather visited there.  Keene had many different types of mills, ranging from golf tees to broadcloth and flannel to chairs.  The town was also described as busy then, “On Saturday evenings, traditional shopping time for mill workers and farmers, the square is crowded with people in search of goods and amusements.” (p.195).  The discussion of what was called “Keene Normal School” also discussed how the school added to the cultural life of the town.  

My Grandparents in the parking lot of where the Hotel Billings Once Stood

At 9:50 a.m Pam and I parted ways.  It was awesome seeing her and I regretted not having her and our other friend Kate accompany me on this trip, as they had done before.  But Brattleboro awaited and I left Keene to head west towards Brattleboro, Vermont.  My son Ben had recommended that I visit Brattleboro some years back, which I did, but the route from Keene was a little different since I was a bit further north.  This route brought me out of Keene, and west on Route 9 for about 14 miles.  I encountered a little bit of traffic entering Brattleboro and went south through Brattleboro Center before arriving at my location at 10:26 a.m., covering 18.9 miles.  The site of the then Hotel Billings is now the site of the Brattleboro Food Coop, so I pulled into that parking lot and parked near a help yourself vegetable garden area.  The location, at 2 Main Street in Brattleboro, sits on the banks of the currently roaring Connecticut River.  This location was another one that I could not find a letter about when my Grandfather was there.  I also didn’t learn a lot from the local historical society except for The Hotel Billings opened in 1916 and operated until 1941.  The building was demolished in 1961 to make way for what is now the Brattleboro Food CoOp and parking lot.  

The Rushing Connecticut River

The Vermont Guide I have access to is not the original one created by the Federal Writers’ Project, but rather, it is a second edition, published in 1965.  So, while the information would not be as applicable to my Grandfather’s travels, there are some pieces of interesting information.  For example, when this guide was published, Brattleboro was Vermont’s largest town, even bigger than some of its cities.  And its claim to fame in the 1800s was the Etsey Organ Factory, in which many people saved their money to buy one of these organs for their homes.

I walked for a little bit through the bustling downtown area.  Brattleboro has a lot of older brick buildings, including the Latchis Theatre, which was built in 1938, so it wasn’t around during my Grandfather’s trip here.  Since the hotel sat on the site of this very busy Food Co-op, I decided to go in there to get a snack before hitting the road.  I found a great little sparkling water – Aura Bora Lavender Cucumber (and later found out this product was featured on Shark Tank) and had a little protein bar.  I sat out on the patio of the Food Co-Op and pretended that it was the patio of the Hotel Billings.  At 11:11 a.m., I got back in Sage to head to my next destination, Rutland.

During these trips, I have learned that I need to trust my Google Maps app.  After traveling about 20 miles on Vermont Route 30 that paralleled the very muddy West River, it had me taking a right on Windham Hill Road and traveling 8 miles.  At first, I had flashbacks of my trip to northern Maine and those deserted roads.  And it was pretty much uphill for the first three miles. But before long, I at least did see some houses, some pretty vistas, and even a barn sale (aka yard sale) in the middle of seemingly nowhere.  After this road, I traveled on both VT 121W and VT11W before heading north on first VT 100, then VT 155 North and then VT 103 North.  The beauty of doing the trips the way I do is if you were on a main highway, you never get to experience these little towns and hamlets.  I even passed a little airport that has three flights a day via Cape Air to Boston.  From there, I turned north on Route 7, which was kind of a rude awakening after my backroad routes.  Route 7 became very commercial, kind of like Route 9 around here.  I was missing my backroads, but before long, I ended up in downtown Rutland at 12:54 p.m. after traveling 68.5 miles.

Avocado BLT at Hand-Carved by Ernie

I parked on Center Street, which appeared to be a pretty main thoroughfare and looked for a place to eat outside.  Unlike Brattleboro, there weren’t a lot of people out and about.  One side of the street had an outside eating area but no-one was sitting there.  I decided to check it out and was really glad I did.  The folks at Hand-Carved by Ernie were super friendly and the food was delicious.  I had an Avocado BLT which totally hit the spot.  While I was sitting outside, going over my notes, a family came to have lunch there as well.  A couple of doors up from Ernie’s is another historical theater, the Paramount, which was opened in 1913.  Up until 1931, it had live shows before converting to showing movies.  While I have no letters from August 1930 from Rutland, there are three from May 1930.  In my Grandfather’s May 14th letter, he wrote, “Joe wants to go to a show this evening, and as I have not been out this week, will accompany him.”  Currently, the Paramount is hosting a lot of live shows, ranging from the Vermont State Fair’s Woodbooger Demolition Series to David Sedaris.  

A good part of the Bardwell Hotel, where my Grandfather stayed is still standing and is now called the Bardwell House.  The Bardwell House was built in 1851 and opened in 1852. In 1917, it was a very “modern” hotel but unfortunately on December 30th of that year, a massive fire destroyed most of the hotel.  This fire was more complicated in that it was -26ºF out, which created huge problems.   The hotel closed in 1970 and today, the Bardwell House retains its name, and provides special needs  and housing for the elderly.  

Back of the Bardwell House. Some is original, others were replaced after the big fire.

I walked down Center Street to Merchant’s Row where the brick Bardwell House was located on the corner of Merchant’s Row and Washington Street.  On the front of the Bardwell House were many of the architectural features that were described on the original Bardwell Hotel – some of the triangular features over the windows in the front and some nice moldings on the roof in the back.  When looking at the Bardwell House from the front, there was a little alley to the left that opened up to a beautiful little park in the back.  There were sculptures, park benches and murals in this area.  There was a restaurant named Roots, which had outside dining and a beautiful mural on the back of the building.  It was an unexpected oasis on what was otherwise a very busy intersection.

Outside of the Bardwell

While these letters that my Grandfather wrote from Rutland weren’t written in August, they were written in May of the same year and did provide me with some interesting tidbits.  It appears that at the beginning of his trip, he was quite ill and sought out a druggist’s help.  The druggist suggested he had some sort of pleurisy and gave him some sort of medicine.  In the May 12th letter, my Grandfather writes, “Here I am in this darn state and the roads were plain rotten.  Every hole I drove over would put me in agony and of course it did not make matters any better.”  While on some trips, there seemed to be a group of people traveling with him, he stated he was happy to be alone on this one as he was “not in any condition to have company.”  He also said that “I did not do any work to speak of dear, just one display aht that one I had to struggle through.”  In a letter postmarked on May 13th, he again complained about the pain in his chest and his visit again to the druggist, who gave him this time something to drink and to apply on his chest, which helped him feel better.  He also wrote about the difficulties of finding work in Vermont.  “This is the hardest state in New England to get any work in, for the people in this state don’t seem to appreciate a display.  I believe I made thirty calls if I made one, and at the end, I had four displays.  I don’t see how we can spend three weeks here, but I have a suspicion that two weeks will clean up the whole state.”  On May 14th, he again gave an insight to life on the road when he provided this information: “I almost had an accident today.  You probably remember how my brakes work, well, then weren’t any and this morning I was following Joe Barrie, when out of a side road, a horse and team came galloping out, well Joe applied his brakes and came to a stop, but yours truly was following about forty feet behind and he could not stop in that distance for there was a car coming the other way and the side of the road had a fence running along side.  I quickly decided I would try my luck by hitting Joe’s bumpers, as I did, there was no damage other than giving Joe a pretty good shaking up and almost snapping his neck off.  Don’t say a word now, for I put the car into a garage to have my brakes adjusted.”  I am not sure how his August trip to Vermont was but it certainly seemed that his May trip had a lot of bumps along the way.

Rutland was once known as “Marble City” and produced a lot of tombstones and building stone.  It also was a railroad hub before failing in 1962.  Rutland is near several big ski mountains – Killington and Pico, so that continues to draw people to what was then Vermont’s second largest city. In 2021, it is Vermont’s third largest populated city or town.

Outside of the Robert Frost House Museum in Shaftsbury Vermont

After exploring the Bardwell House park and stopping in the little bookstore, I left Rutland at 2:10 p.m. and headed south on Route 7.  After a short while, the two lanes dropped down to one, the strip malls were replaced by barns, and the ride became more peaceful once again.  I then turned onto Route 7A and this pretty little route took me through the crowded little town of Manchester.  I thought I had seen that Robert Frost’s house was somewhere between here and Bennington.  When I entered Shaftsbury, I saw the Robert Frost Stone House Museum on my right and pulled into what first looked like a conservation area parking lot and then to a beautiful barn.  Unfortunately, at that time, my text message alerts started going off.  Since my last set of “road trips” two years ago, my Westie Gus has been diagnosed with Addison’s Disease.  What that means is that his adrenal glands are shot, and he does not have the hormones needed to handle stress as well as maintain some of his electrolyte balances.  He is on a lifetime of medicine to help manage those issues and most days, it is just fine.  So when Eliza, my dog sitter , wrote to say that he had been sick several times.  I texted her back, but I was distracted.  When I got to the entrance of the museum, I learned it would close in 15 minutes and it would cost $10.00, so I passed on the opportunity to go inside.  But I wandered around the beautiful grounds and admired the blueness of the sky.  

I had booked a hotel in Bennington, where I could walk into town.  On the quick ride there from the Robert Frost Museum, I pulled into a full service gas station and filled Sage up (pumping gas is not my forte) and then found the Paradise Inn, arriving at 3:50 p.m.  The odometer was now at 206.9 miles, so I had traveled 56.6 miles to get there from Rutland.  Of all of my stops on this last Saturday in July, it was my Bennington stop that I was the most excited about.  First, it was the letter actually written from the actual Route List trip.  The hotel that he had stayed at, Hotel Putnam was still standing and was the cornerstone of a rebuilding project.  But the thing I was most excited about was a description of a church that my Grandfather had visited during August 15, 1930.  In most of his letters, his writing focuses on mainly missing my Grandmother or some health malady.  However in this letter,  he provides much more information about what is going on, including what was happening in Bennington.

On page 3 of this letter, written on Hotel Putnam stationary, he writes, “Last night, I went to the fights and they were pretty fair and this morning I got up at seven, took a shave and was getting dressed when Jack Barrie the fellow I had met the other night knocked on my door and told me that he was going to church.  Really hear, I had almost forgot that this was a holy day of obligation.  So I was only too pleased to go with him. We went into the most beautiful church that I think I had ever been in; it is only three years old and is fashioned pretty near on the whole vestry marble. The design is Old English. The altar rail is out of carved marble; the finest piece of work and of marble that I have even seen.  The altar itself is made out of inlaid mahogany, with a touch of coloring at intervals.  So, I was not sorry that I did go, as for once in my life, I can truthfully say, I felt better.  Does that please you Dear?”.

In addition to the details about his attending church while in Bennington, he provided some detail to what was going on in Bennington.  He writes, “What do you think is going on here in this town?  The American Legion are having their State Convention and the town is filled to capacity.  I had an awful hard time in making reservations but finally managed to as I knew the desk clerk. All these conventions mean any way my dear, is to get as drunk as possible and the sooner the better – but you need not worry about me dear as I shall not take any but try to get to bed as early as possible.”

Finally, this letter provided a glimpse into the weather in Bennington when he was there in August.  “Today has been an awful dreary day, rained all day and quite chilly.  You say that this weather is yours, well you may have all you want of it, give me the good old summer heat and I shall be content.”

With all of this detail, including really beautiful hotel stationary, I was indeed quite excited to be going to Bennington.  But, I wanted to first find the church that he so eloquently described in the letter.  Several weeks before my trip, I googled “Catholic churches in Bennington Vermont” and quickly came up with Sacred Heart St. Francis de Sales Catholic Church.  It appeared to be located right in the downtown area, so probably was the church that he described.  I wrote to the email address on the website.  Very quickly, I received this information from Judy, the Parish Secretary.  She said:

Susan,

The church he is talking about is the Episcopal church in Bennington, St. Peter’s. You can check out their website, though I did not see any pictures of the interior of the church.  I know it well as I was married there.

Unfortunately the catholic church has undergone many renovations, even so the altar here was never of marble nor are their any mahogany carvings.

Judy

After I poised another question to her, she wrote the following:

If you go on our website:  sacredheartsaintfrancis.org and scroll down almost to the bottom of the home page you will see a picture of the inside of our church.  This is our altar.  As you can see it is nothing like what was described.  I really think he is talking about St. Peter’s though his description has me confused:  “We went into the most beautiful church that I think I had ever been in! It is only three years old. The design is old English and the altar is carved marble. The altar itself is out of inlaid mahogany.”  I don’t know how an altar can be of carved marble and inlaid mahogany?  What the Episcopal traditions were in terms of obligations back when he visited I would have no idea.  Also, Sacred Heart St. Francis is in the Gothic style and was built between 1888 and 1892.  I can guarantee you that the altar at St. Peter’s is carved marble.  The reredos behind the altar is of carved wood and depicts a scene from the last supper.  It was shipped to Bennington from England (if my memory serves me, and it doesn’t always).

You are more than welcome to attend Mass at SHSF and see for yourself, but I don’t think you will find what  your grandfather was writing about.

So, it seemed like he hadn’t gone to the Catholic Church, but to an Episcopal Church instead.  So, I googled St. Peter’s Church in Bennington.  There were no pictures on the website, but there was a few on their Facebook page that seemed to show the altar that was described in my Grandfather’s letter.  I wrote a note to the email listed on their website, explaining my Grandfather’s letter.  But I heard nothing.  I knew on Saturdays at 5:00 p.m., that they were holding something called a Celtic Service, so I thought I would try showing up a little before that to see if I could see the inside of the Church.  So, after talking with my dog sitter about Gus not wanting to take his meds, I quickly checked into the Paradise Inn, and got ready to walk into downtown Bennington.

Outside of what had been the Hotel Putnam

My first stop was to check out where the Hotel Putnam was located.  In 1873, Bennington’s wealthiest industrialist, Henry W. Putnam, built a hotel worthy of his tastes and fortune: The Hotel Putnam. This building still stands today as the symbol of Bennington’s rising downtown.The entire Putnam Block is being reimagined, and redeveloped to its original beauty.  The hotel’s upper floors are now apartments and the lower floor has retail space.  It graces a busy intersection in Bennington, stretching along two streets.  I ventured into a recently opened pet store, where the high ceilings still existed.  I imagined a bustling hotel lobby, where my Grandfather had been.

After a very full day of driving, this was the part of the trip I was most looking forward to – a trip to St. Peter’s Church.  It took me a little bit to find it, as it was off the downtown area by several blocks.  When I arrived, there was a little dachshund running around on the grass.  It was not evident where the entrance of the church was, so I kept walking around the side.  There were two women on the steps.  The one dressed in jeans, asked me if I had seen a dog.  I responded I had and then realized I was speaking to the Pastor, who was unlike any Pastor that I had ever encountered in the Catholic Church.  She was warm and welcoming and I explained why I was there.  Her and the other woman said they had seen my message and were excited for me to see the church.  Reverend Angie brought me inside.  It was awe-inspiring and matched the description in my Grandfather’s letter.  She left me to be by myself.  This moment was like finding the graveyard in the middle of nowhere that my Grandfather had written about and that I found.  I had found this because he had written about it in such detail.  As I had never had the opportunity to know my grandfather, this was another moment that I felt like we had a shared experience.  After soaking in the gorgeous mahogany and elegant marble, I went back outside.  There was a Celtic service that was going to happen.  I was offered an invite to stay for the service.  But this was not an ordinary service that this lapsed Catholic was used to attending.  Instead, it was held on the back of the church’s grounds, on the banks of the rushing Walloomsac River.  It was a small gathering, consisting of five women, Reverend Angie, Oscar the dog, and me.  While not the mahogany and ivory that was inside, this outside “cathedral” was mesmerizing to me.  Like my Grandfather, I too, have difficulties with my religion of birth.  But listening along with the sermon that was not a sermon, but a conversation, I can see why he then wrote, “So I was not sorry that I did go, as for once in my life, I can truthfully say, I felt better.”  Saying goodbye and leaving this beautiful spot on a glorious July day, I could also say my experience there, almost 91 years after my Grandfather visited, that I too felt better for being there.  

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church just as my Grandfather had desscribed
Relaxing for a bit

After an experience like this, I walked back into downtown Bennington on a high.  I needed to find something to eat and I wanted to just sit and soak in this experience.  There was a small pool and patio area at the hotel, so I picked up a pizza and salad and went back to the hotel.  There was one last thing I wanted to see – the Bennington Battle Monument, which raises 306 feet into the Vermont sky.  While it wasn’t far from the hotel, it was an uphill walk, so I elected to drive.  It is an impressive monument about a battle that we don’t learn much about here in Massachusetts.  When I got Sage back to the parking lot, the odometer read 208.9 miles.

Bennington Battle Monument

I was tired after the long day, but looking forward to the Sunday portion of the trip.  While I had been to the three locations – North Adams, Pittsfield and Springfield in 2019, I was doing this as part of this Route List trip.  And since I had found out more about the Hotel Belmont in Springfield, I was excited to go back with more information.  But there was another half of me that felt like today was such a high, that I could go home happy without going to the other locations.

Outside the what was the Hotel RIchmond, now the Holiday Inn in North Adams

And a few hours later, it became evident that I was going to have to bypass the second part of the trip.  Gus’s rough day became Gus’s rough night and I decided that I would leave from Bennington, go to North Adams (which would be on the way) and then head east on Route 2.  After picking up a bagel and ice tea from the local Dunkin Donuts, I left Bennington at 6:14 a.m. and after a pretty ride down route 7, arrived in North Adams at 6:42 a.m., traveling 18.4 miles.  On this warm Sunday morning, downtown North Adams was empty.  I quickly found the former site of the Hotel Richmond as it is now a Holiday Inn.  I walked down the street that I had walked down several years ago.  The impact of the pandemic was pretty apparent as several of the businesses that I had visited before no longer existed.  After 16 minutes in North Adams, I got back into Sage for the trip east on Route 2.  The first part of the trip is the windy Mohawk Trail, which is probably the same road that my Grandfather would have traveled.  I was pretty much totally by myself until I hit the Orange area.  At 9:11 a.m. I pulled into home, traveling 110.1 miles from North Adams back to Maynard for a total of 128.5 miles that morning.  For this abbreviated trip, the total mileage was 337.4 miles over about a 26 hour time period.  While this Route List was not completed, the thrill of seeing St. Peter’s Episcopal Church and having this shared experience with my Grandfather was probably one of the highlights of all of my journeys.

This was one of the high points of my travels

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