In memoriam: Henry Labrecque


Jeannette and Henry Labrecque at home in September of 2011. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Editor’s note:  Henry Labrecque died on December 7, 2012.  In his memory, we republish here an interview Chris Braithwaite did with Mr. Labreque that was first published in the Chronicle in the fall of 2011.

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle, September 28, 2011.


BARTON — Nothing could seem more normal on a sunny afternoon in late September than to see Henry and Jeannette Labrecque harvesting a hay crop from a field beside the Cook Road.

The couple might have been seen in such a field more than half a century ago, working with equipment that was a little smaller, a little slower.  But then, as now, you would expect to see Mrs. Labrecque behind the wheel of the tractor.

“One thing I always liked was driving tractor,” she said in a recent interview.

Henry Labrecque might have been seen there 70 years ago, a strapping young teenager, perhaps driving the team of horses, perhaps building the load of loose hay on a wagon.

He has lived on the farm for all but the first four of his 83 years, and worked on it almost that long.

He has a crystal clear memory of his eighth birthday present, a privilege bestowed by his father:

“I could start milking cows by hand.  I’ll never forget that.  I thought I was a man.”

One of his earliest memories of life on the farm, which sits on a deceptively sharp curve on the road to Willoughby Lake, is less positive.

The farmhouse had a bad foundation, he recalls, and its movement had opened cracks in the roof.  A few months after the family moved there in October 1932, young Henry woke in his upstairs bedroom to find “a couple of inches of snow on the sheets.”

That morning, he recalled with a smile, “it didn’t take too long to get dressed.”

Mr. Labrecque’s French-Canadian family had arrived at their ramshackle farmhouse in northern Vermont by an indirect route, one that reflected the times they coped with.

Henry Labrecque. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

His mother, Marie Anne, had moved from Montreal to Lawrence, Massachusetts, to join hundreds of young women in the textile mills.  His father, Jeremie, had moved nearby from his family’s Quebec farm to work at Fafnir Bearing.  They met at the wedding of his neighbor and one of her friends, and married in 1927.

Then the Depression hit.

“In 1931 he got laid off and moved up here, to the Kittridge farm,” Mr. Labrecque said.

That place, now fallen into a ruin, had just been remodeled by the father of Tony Pomerleau, the Burlington developer who is playing a key role in Newport’s redevelopment.

“But he lost it,” Mr. Labrecque said of his father and the Kittridge farm.  “Then he moved here, to the old Pete Damon place.”

Of Mr. Damon’s reason for leaving, Mr. Labrecque said, “Things went wrong with him, too.”

Things were going wrong for a lot of farmers in the early ’30s.  Mrs. Labrecque recalls the bankers of the day with no hint of affection in her voice.

“If they missed a payment by one day, they were evicted,” she said of farmers like Pete Damon.

Yet the bankers gave Jeremie Labrecque a bit of a break.

“The deal was he could stay here, and if he could make a go of it, they’d sell it to him,” Mr. Labrecque said.  “In 1934 they did.”

The farm, then 120 acres, sold for “right around $3,500.”

His father started out with about a dozen cows, milking them by hand.

There was no electricity, Mr. Labrecque recalls.  “We got it the day before Christmas, 1942, which was a Saturday.”

He has sharp memories of the electricians who busied themselves in the house that day, particularly of one universally known as Old Tink Prescott.  “He’d stick his finger in his mouth, then stick it in the socket and say ‘Yep, there’s electricity there.’”

The herd grew steadily over the next decade, as Henry Labrecque grew up.  “When we were married in 1954 there were 25, maybe nearer 30,” Mr. Labrecque said.

“I grew up in Newport Center, a whole 23 miles from here,” Mrs. Labrecque said.

“I knew the road to Newport Center,” her husband said.

He said that with a smile that seemed to recall a farmer in his mid-twenties wooing the girl who would be his wife for (so far) 57 years and with whom he would raise seven children.

It was important to both parents, as their family grew, that they retain the French language.

All seven of their children can speak French, and at least one grown son, Richard, still slips into that language when he talks to his parents.

Jeannette Labrecque keeps a close eye on the baler from the driver’s seat as son Richard Labrecque keeps a close eye on his mother. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Mrs. Labrecque is a plain-spoken woman, and her voice still conveys some of the fury she felt when a teacher sent a daughter home with the advice that she should be speaking English in their home.

“There was no English spoken in this house,” she said.  “How else would they keep their French?”

“When I started school I knew one word in English,” Henry Labrecque said.  “That was ‘No.’”

At his first day of school he couldn’t so much as ask to go to the bathroom.  Finally recognizing his discomfort, the teacher found a bilingual classmate, a girl who figured out the problem and led young Henry to the outhouse.

Then she translated the teacher’s instructions on the universal code, using his fingers to indicate number one and number two.

But he can still hear the laugher that filled the one-room Devereaux schoolhouse when he raised his middle finger to his teacher, and she calmly bent it down and raised his index finger in its place.

“My mother never could talk English,” Mr. Labrecque said.  “Dad could, after a while.  I picked up the English language, but I kept the French.”

Speaking the French language in northern Vermont had its price, Mr. Labrecque said.

“French-speaking people were looked down on.  If there was a good job, the English speaker got it.  French people, they were farmers.  They worked the land.”

On her drive to school, he recalled, “the teacher would pick up some of the Fisk kids that were neighbors, but I had to walk.”

Yet his bilingual ability proved to be critical to the work he did to support the farm.  He’d drive north into Quebec to buy hay, Christmas trees, and brush for his wreath-making business.

Son Richard has taken that business over, and finds his French essential to negotiations with farmers on the other side of the border.

His business, and his ability to chat with his sources, has made Richard an expert on the state of the Quebec dairy industry.  His key finding:  Quebec’s supply management system, based on quotas, supports a thriving business while Vermont dairying continues to decline.

“When I got out of high school there were 17 farms between Barton and Willoughby Lake,” Henry Labrecque said.  “Now there aren’t any.”  He and Jeannette sold their cows in 1994.

Mr. Labrecque didn’t want to sell them, his wife recalled.  “I said, ‘If you don’t want to sell the cows, you can do the work yourself.’  That changed his mind.”

While he has passed the hay and wreath business on to Richard, Henry continues to haul loads of gravel out of a pit on the farm, even as he recovers from major heart surgery in June.

Talk of the gravel pit brought back other memories of the Depression and the WPA, the Works Progress Administration created by President Franklin Roosevelt to put unemployed men back to work.

“In the winter of 1934-’35 they graveled the road to the Barton Village line — in the winter — with horses.  The WPA had men in the pit shoveling gravel all winter.”

His father worked too, hauling gravel.  “I think that first year it was $2.25 a day, the next year $2.50.  That was for Dad, the horses and the wagon.  That’s what kept the place from going under.”

He remembers touching hands with Roosevelt in 1934, when the President was campaigning in Newport for another term.

Another childhood memory involves the skin of a calf and a cattle dealer who, to this day, Mr. Labrecque is reluctant to name.

“It was during haying in July.  I was seven.  It would have been 1935.  Dad told me, ‘If you skin that calf you can have the money.’”

He remembers running out to meet the cattle dealer as his rounds took him past the farm; remembers the dealer standing on the running board of his truck, his gold teeth, and his ability to speak French.

“All I could talk was French.”

Young Henry offered up the hide, and the dealer agreed to buy it.

“He picked through the change in his hand and gave me a Canadian dime.”

What Henry didn’t know was that the dime was worthless in Vermont.

“I went down to Medie Massey’s store for a nickel ice cream.”  The store was at the corner of Main Street and Duck Pond Road in Barton.

“He asked me if I had any money.  Boy, did I!  I had a dime!  Well, he didn’t give me no ice cream.”

Henry got the same reception at Ralph Moore’s store downtown, and from Mr. Boisvert on Upper Main Street.

“I went into Wallace Foss’ store.  He asked if I had any money.  I showed him my dime.  He said ‘I’ll give you an ice cream and you keep your dime.’  I ended up giving it to the church.”

That dealer “was a tight-fisted son of a gun,” Mr. Labrecque said.  Years later, at a dance in Glover, the dealer had a chance to ask the farmer why he never sold him any cattle.

“So I told him,” Mr. Labrecque said.  “He denied it, but it was the truth.”

Asked which era of farming he most enjoyed, Mr. Labrecque was quick to respond.

“When the whole family was here.  All the kids were here.  We had problems, but they were enjoyable years.”

“It was a good life, but it was seven days a week,” he said.

“Sometimes,” Mrs. Labrecque added, “it felt like eight.”

To read an obituary of Henry Labrecque, please see the obituary pages for December 12, 2012.

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Shelton invents Task One: iPhone case multitool


Addison Shelton shows off his invention, Task One. Photo courtesy of Addison Shelton

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 11-28-2012

ATLANTA, Georgia — Addison Shelton, who grew up in Glover, has invented a case for iPhones that has several slim tools stashed inside it.  He’s looking for people who want to buy one ahead of time in order to get the funding to manufacture the product.

Called Task One, the case includes a small serrated knife, pliers, a wire cutter and stripper, screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, a bottle opener and more.  The knife can be removed for when a person gets on an airplane.

“Task One is a sleek and sexy multi-tool case for your iPhone,” says the product’s Facebook page, called TaskLab.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Mr. Shelton said he had the idea because he loves tools and multi-tools like Swiss Army knives.

“I’m a mechanical engineer.  I’m a tool guy.  I like tools,” he said.  Despite that, he finds he doesn’t carry those multi-tools around in his pockets because they’re too bulky.

“They turn out to be not that useful to me,” he said.

Task One has 16 tools inside it and is no thicker than a regular iPhone case.

The one thing a lot of people do carry, though, is a cell phone.  Mr. Shelton started thinking, what if the two could be combined?  He searched the Internet and didn’t find that anyone had already invented such a thing.  So about a year ago, he set about making a prototype.

His blog, which can be seen at, tells some of the story of working out bugs in the original prototype.

Task One has 16 tools and is no thicker than an ordinary phone case.  Part of the design process has included making sure no one would break the phone when using it to cut a steak or firewood.  The tools are designed to break before the phone would be hurt, and Mr. Shelton promises to replace tools that break, for a very small charge.

He has not patented the tool yet, but he has written a provisional patent.  The process of obtaining a patent is three or four years long, he said, and it starts with making the product public.  The inventor has a year from that time to submit the provisional patent application.

Mr. Shelton has until December 26 to raise $45,000 through the crowd-sourcing website  He launched the idea a week ago, November 21, and so far he has raised $15,000.

If he gets fully funded, he will owe 550 people a Task One iPhone case, and he figures that $45,000 would be enough to be able to buy the manufacturing tools he would need.  The cases can be pre-purchased for $75 to $90 each.

“I’m pretty excited about getting this to manufacturing,” he said.  “I think a lot of people would find it pretty useful.”

If this works out, he might also create a version of the case for Android type cell phones next.  If the website funding program does not raise $45,000 by December 26, he could either drop the idea or look for a different way to fund the product’s manufacture, such as a conventional bank loan.

Mr. Shelton is the son of Betsy Allen and Bucky Shelton.  He graduated from Stanford in 2005 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

His regular job is with an Atlanta, Georgia, company that he and some of his friends from college started.  The company is researching improvements in lithium batteries.

“Mostly we are trying to increase the capacity,” he said.

In his spare time, he decided to invent the Task One.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at bethany@bartonchronicle

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Glover EMTs help New Jersey victims of Sandy


The ruins of a house stand in stark contrast to the devastation that swept away entire communities along the Jersey Shore. “Scenes like that went on for miles and miles and miles,” Mr. Gibson said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” Photo Courtesy of Chance Griffin

by Richard Creaser

copyright the Chronicle 11-14-2012

GLOVER — It was not the sort of homecoming that Dennis Gibson would have chosen as he returned to New Jersey last week, but the importance of that trip outweighed any concerns he may have had.

Mr. Gibson, along with fellow Glover Ambulance squad member Chance Griffin, traveled to the Jersey Shore to provide aid to communities battered by the passage of Hurricane Sandy.  The two emergency medical technicians (EMTs) were part of the seven-ambulance Vermont Strike Team that deployed on the evening of November 6 to some of the worst damaged New Jersey communities.

The primary role of the squad was to provide relief to emergency crews that had been operating flat-out since Hurricane Sandy made landfall on October 30.  The professionalism of their fellow EMTs left a powerful impression on Mr. Griffin.

“They acted as if nothing had happened,” Mr. Griffin told the Chronicle on Tuesday.  “They went in and did their jobs as if their houses weren’t destroyed.  Some of them were living in the fire station because they didn’t have a home to go back to.”

Even amidst the destruction the Glover EMTs were shown every conceivable courtesy and kindness.  The level of appreciation extended by fellow emergency service providers and patients alike had a profound effect on both men.

“It’s not every day that you have people come up to you and say thank you for what you’re doing,” Mr. Gibson said.  “Everyone there was just so grateful and appreciative of us.”

The Glover squad traveled to New Jersey and arrived first at the Meadowlands complex.  The Meadowlands served as the main staging area for arriving emergency service crews.  From there crews were assigned to various communities that required their assistance.  During the five-day mission the Glover squad operated out of Keansburg and Atlantic Highlands, both located along the famed Jersey Shore.

The extent of the devastation that greeted them was both shocking and saddening.  During their stay, the men toured affected areas including a brief visit to nearby Seabright.

“It’s just amazing the amount of damage a 12-hour storm can do,” Mr. Gibson said.  “It will take Seabright probably five to ten years to get back to what it was.  It was just incredible.”

Though fears of looting immediately followed the passage of Hurricane Sandy, the establishment of law and order in its wake helped prevent a repeat of the chaos that followed Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Gibson said.  There was a strong police presence in every community.  Deployments of National Guardsmen added to the sense of security in the affected areas.

“When we pulled up to the school where we were staying there were National Guardsmen and an armored car parked in the driveway,” Mr. Gibson said.  “They wanted to know who you were and what you were doing there before they let anyone through.  They learned from Katrina.”

The Meadowlands MetLife Stadium in New Jersey became the staging ground for ambulance services that rushed to respond to the disaster that followed Hurricane Sandy. Photo courtesy of EMS Task Force State of New Jersey

During their deployment, the Glover crew handled the kinds of 911 calls they might expect to handle back home in Glover.  The major difference lay in the sheer volume of calls.

“One town we went into was maybe a square mile and that volunteer department handles 2,600 calls a year,” Mr. Griffin said.

“With Glover you handle 300 to 400 calls and you don’t see too many members riding on all of them,” Mr. Gibson said.  “A crew we met out of Baltimore said they handled 8,000 calls a year.  You just don’t see that kind of volume here.”

What took some getting used to was navigating traffic as the crew transported patients to and from the hospital.  Though the physical distances were not as great as those the crew is used to, the time necessary to travel those distances remained comparable, Mr. Griffin said.

“The amount of juking and jiving you need to do getting around in traffic was unlike anything we do back here,” Mr. Gibson said.  “The worse thing we have to do here is get through that one light at Sias Avenue in Newport.”

Another big difference was how the visiting ambulance teams communicated with one another.  Because there were so many ambulances from so many squads, reconfiguring radios to ensure continued coverage was impractical.  Instead, units relied on cell phones and texting to communicate with one another and their respective headquarters.

“Chance really stepped up on this because I’m a bit of an old-timer when it comes to this kind of stuff,” Mr. Gibson said.  “I had never sent a single text before April of this year and now I’ve sent hundreds.  I really learned a new appreciation for how well that can work in an emergency situation.”

Both men also spoke of the overwhelming feeling of pride when the departing ambulance squads formed up to leave the Jersey Shore.  The departing ambulances were accompanied by dozens of emergency service vehicles from multiple departments with their lights flashing.

“It’s not something you’ll ever forget,” Mr. Griffin said.

“Everywhere we went people came out to stand by the road and wave and holler their thanks,” Mr. Gibson said.  “You don’t normally get that kind of response for doing the job you’ve been trained to do.”

Chance Griffin (left) and Dennis Gibson of Glover Ambulance provided relief for New Jersey EMTs, many of whom have worked non-stop since the hurricane struck on October 30. Photo Courtesy of Chance Griffin

What made the entire trip possible was the strong sense of cooperation and fellowship both within the Glover Ambulance Squad and between the state of Vermont and the state of New Jersey.  The first request for assistance came out of New Jersey at 11 a.m. on November 6 requesting up to 25 ambulances and crews.  By 5 p.m. New Jersey had adjusted the request to include as many ambulances as could be ready to roll as quickly as possible, Glover Ambulance Chief Adam Heuslein said.

“By 6 o’clock we had the bus packed and rolling,” Mr. Heuslein said.  “It was the first big test for our new ambulance.”

Mr. Heuslein extended a warm thanks to Northeast Kingdom Balsam and Windshield World for permitting Mr. Gibson and Mr. Griffin time off to deploy to the Jersey Shore.  The cooperation of employers is a critical component to the smooth operation of a volunteer service like Glover Ambulance, he said.

“I would also like to thank the other members of Glover Ambulance for stepping up and covering the shifts for Chance and Dennis allowing them to go,” Mr. Heuslein said.  “It was because of their efforts that we were able to maintain coverage and let Chance and Dennis go down to New Jersey.  At no point was the town of Glover without ambulance coverage.  It really was a team effort.”

The dedication of their fellow EMTs and the bonds Mr. Gibson and Mr. Griffin formed with them has left the men with an urge to provide as much help as they can.  As a result the Glover Ambulance Squad is exploring the possibility of hosting a fund-raising effort to benefit the EMTs and communities hit by the storm.

“A lot of these guys and their families lost everything,” Mr. Heuslein said.  “So we want to try and help them out even as they help the other people in their community.”

The experience that the two men are bringing home is an invaluable one for both the squad and Vermont’s emergency responders, Mr. Heuslein said.  It was the first real test of Vermont’s Strike Team system developed by the Vermont Department of Health and Vermont Emergency Management.

“For something that sat on a back shelf since Katrina and with changes in administration in between, the system worked really well,” Mr. Heuslein said.  “This experience makes the Strike Team system better and our own squad better for being a part of it.”

contact Richard Creaser at

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Broe – Lantagne family is built on reindeer games


At present Prancer is the only reindeer in the entire state of Vermont. He makes his residence with Pauline Broe at the Vermont Reindeer Farm in West Charleston. Prancer, a female, is currently awaiting a reunion with Comet II, though to the untrained eye he will bear a stunning resemblance to the original Comet.

by Richard Creaser

copyright the Chronicle 10-24-12

WEST CHARLESTON —  Even before Pauline Broe picked up her bullhorn to address the crowd on Sunday it was apparent that this wasn’t your typical family gathering.  With sun and rain appearing in equal measure, members of Ms. Broe’s extended family enjoyed brunch under the tent, stood around the fire pit or roamed the grounds of the Vermont Reindeer Farm.

The gathering is an annual event for Ms. Broe’s family and, in particular, her branch of the Westmore Lantagnes.  All seven Lantagne siblings still reside within an hour’s drive of the town where they grew up.

But it is far more than a gathering of the clan.  To Ms. Broe it is an opportunity to remember who she is, where she came from, and exactly what kind of legacy she wants to leave behind for the next generation.

“We were probably the poorest family in Westmore when we were kids,” Ms. Broe said.  “Someone else was always giving us clothes and Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner.  There wasn’t any expectation that we were going to go to college.  Our parents expected that we would finish high school.”

Being on the receiving end of charity left a deep impression on the Lantagne children.  It instilled in them a recognition of the power of one person to make a tremendous difference in the life of another.  It fostered in them a strong sense of family and a willingness to pool their resources for the benefit of all.

The annual family gathering turned into a fund-raising effort to help support members of the family, Ms. Broe said.  Whether by explicit donation or through silent auctions and walkathons, the family gathered money to form a Lantagne family scholarship fund.

Remembering the generosity of the community they received as children growing up in Westmore, the Lantagne siblings have turned their annual gathering into an opportunity to raise money for a family scholarship fund, to support relatives dealing with illness as well as providing money for the American Cancer Society. They are, back row from left to right: Richard Lantagne, John Lantagne and Bernard Lantagne. In the front row from left to right are Avis Brosseau, Joyce Ofsuryk, Pauline Broe and Joan Peters. “We’re just looking for a way to give back to a community that gave so much to us,” Ms. Broe said.

“Our expectation is that if a child in this family wants to go to college, they will go to college,” Ms. Broe said.  “Those of us in a position to help will help.  That’s just the way we are.”

The gathering has also helped provide funds for ailing family members including, most recently, a sister-in-law and a nephew who battled cancer.  Their struggle highlighted the prevalence of cancer in the community and inspired the family to also donate a portion of their fund raising money to support cancer charities.

All this focus on good deeds would seem to suggest that a Lantagne family gathering is a dry, joyless affair.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Adjacent to the food tent an inflatable bounce house keeps the younger ones dry and entertained.  As Ms. Broe speaks with the Chronicle she is constantly jostled by a kaleidoscope of animals that includes three goats, a donkey and a pig who thinks he’s a dog.

A more varied menagerie of animals probably hasn’t existed outside a zoo or a pretty famous ark.  And that brings us back around to the name of Ms. Broe’s farm — Vermont Reindeer Farm.  To the average American, reindeer are something you see in nature shows, on Christmas cards or in claymation television specials.  Visitors to Ms. Broe’s farm, however, get to lay their eyes — and sometimes hands — on the real McCoy.

Comet and Prancer are the star attractions at the Broe farm, though Comet is, at present, off in New York State awaiting permission to enter Vermont.  In truth, he would be Comet II, but in order to avoid giving children nightmares about the mortality of Santa’s faithful sled team Ms. Broe is content to present the illusion that the original Comet is simply away on business.

“This is the only reindeer farm in all of Vermont,” Ms. Broe said.  “So how did it all get started?  It’s not like we sat around dreaming of reindeer.”

Like most of the stories Ms. Broe told on Sunday afternoon, this one found its origins somewhere else.  The land on which we stood has been in John Broe Senior’s family stretching back five generations.

On a different day and at a different hour a pile of bones might prove intimidating to a group of youngsters. Not so this collection of “dinosaur” bones located along the walking trail behind Pauline Broe’s West Charleston home. The intrepid scouts who led the Chronicle to the find at the Vermont Reindeer Farm are, from left to right, Madison McRae, Connor Broe, Gwen Lantagne and Tyler Choquette. Photos by Richard Creaser

Before that parcel became a farm it had played host to a modest but lovingly crafted camp.  The Broe’s decided to build a more permanent dwelling using wood harvested from the land.  Naturally, it seemed a shame to tear down a perfectly good cabin to make room for the house, so they just conjoined the two in a style that is both rustic and more than a little bit storybook.

“Some people have a back lawn,” Ms. Broe said, looking out the north window.  “We have a back forest.”

She neglected to mention that the forest was a strange, magical place inhabited by brightly colored ceramic frogs, fairies and bridges complete with shaggy-headed trolls.  Did we neglect to mention the dinosaur bones?

“I really like coming out here and walking on the trail,” niece Gwen Lantagne said.  “I like seeing the frogs, the little bridges and the dinosaur bones.”

“I think they’re just cow bones,” Tyler Choquette said with almost convincing certainty.

The fact that the younger generations take happily to field and forest, eagerly sharing the magic of that place with a complete stranger, proves that what the Broe’s have built lives up to their ideal.  This is a place where memories are made.

“When they grow up I want them to be able to remember Aunt Pauline’s and all the wonderful animals and the things to see and do,” Ms. Broe said.  “I want them to remember where they came from and how that made them who they are.”

Which somehow brings us back around to the reindeer.  The farm grew as a place where rescued animals could find respite and a loving home.  It started with a pony and soon expanded to the various furry and feathered critters that snorted, brayed, bleated and squawked around the pastures and pens.

“One day I was looking at Country Woman magazine and saw a picture of a blond woman in a red outfit with a reindeer,” Ms. Broe recalls.  “I thought, ‘That could be me!’”

Transforming that vision from idea to reality proved to be complicated.  The threat of chronic wasting disease (CWD) among captive herds of deer severely limits the transport of animals like reindeer.  To import the animals to Vermont, the Broe’s first had to find a clean herd from a state certified to ship animals to this state.

Tedious though the process may have been, Ms. Broe expressed no qualms about following that reindeer dream.  The reindeer have proven popular with folks booking Christmas celebrations, as well as with the dozens of schoolchildren that have visited her farm.

Sharing her animals and her property with family and friends and schoolchildren is something that Ms. Broe treasures immensely.

“I love the opportunity to make kids happy,” Ms. Broe said.  “When you see a child that has had problems bonding with other people and you see them hugging an animal, that’s amazing.  People can connect to animals in a way they might never connect to other people, so giving them that opportunity means a lot to me.”

If one were to ask what precisely a farm with two reindeer, a bunch of goats, a confused pig, a donkey and a collection of chickens and ponies produces the simple answer is probably the right one — fond memories of a special place from their childhood.

contact Richard Creaser at

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Albany scarecrows support fire department coin drop


Firefighter scarecrows in Albany were created by Karen and Brian Chaffee to support a fund-raiser, a coin drop, which will be repeated on October 20 and 21, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Photos by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 10-17-2012

ALBANY — A remarkable array of this town’s departed residents made a mysterious reappearance on Main Street Saturday morning.

Beginning just after 6 a.m., they emerged one by one to take their places and provide support for a coin drop operated by the Albany Fire Department.

In front of the church Rodney and Marie Chaffee rode off to their wedding on a bicycle built for two.  Firefighters took their place in front of the firehouse.  And Irene and Winnie Brow, who ran a potato operation in town for many years, disported in matching tubs just up the street.

They were among 66 scarecrows erected that morning by Karen and Brian Chaffee, who now live in Barton but grew up in Albany.  Brian is the son of Rodney and Marie, the couple on the bicycle.  Karen is the daughter of Marcel and Pauline Locke, who overlook the village from Albany Center.

The scarecrows were making a return appearance from 2009, when the Chaffees put them up on the road between Orleans and Barton.

They took them down, however, after they became the victim of vandals.

Late Saturday morning, as they were putting up the last of their scarecrows, the Chaffees said they planned to take them all down that night, for fear of vandals.

But while they lasted, the visitors brightened a cool autumn day in the village they had all shared.  The scarecrow will make another appearance this weekend, October 20 and 21, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when another coin drop is underway.

Contact Chris Braithwaite at

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“Couples that bathe together stay together!!” says the sign, and Irene and Winnie Brow are there to prove it.


In Orleans: Ethan Allen celebrates its eightieth year


Ethan Allen Interiors Inc. chairman, president and CEO Farooq Kathwari (right) visits with company employee Chelsea Bingham in Orleans. Photo by Richard Creaser

by Richard Creaser copyright the Chronicle 9-26-2012

ORLEANS — As Ethan Allen Manufacturing Inc. entered its eightieth year in business, company Chairman, President and CEO Farooq Kathwari felt it only appropriate to celebrate the occasion in Vermont, where it all began.  Mr. Kathwari’s first stop was at the Beecher Falls facility, followed by an afternoon reception and tour of the Orleans plant on Tuesday.

“To be around for 80 years, either by plan or by accident, you have to reinvent yourself,” Mr. Kathwari said.  “One challenge was to figure out how to maintain manufacturing in the United States in the face of the pressure of globalization and commoditization.”

Ethan Allen has weathered two great economic calamities:  the Great depression of the 1930s followed by the Great Recession of 2007.  It has done so by rising to the challenge and adjusting to changing market conditions, Mr. Kathwari said.  The most recent challenge involved rethinking the model used in manufacturing in America.

Where once assembly lines churned out hundreds of identical pieces, one after the other, a visit to the workshop floor today reveals dozens of different models and styles of furniture in various stages of assembly.  The change reflects a recognition that American-produced goods cannot compete with the low-cost mass manufacturing capabilities of Southeast Asia.

To meet that challenge, Ethan Allen adopted a custom order model.  Rather than mass producing items in anticipation of sales, the plants would be retooled to respond to specific orders from customers.

“Each piece that comes off the line is already sold,” said Don Garrett, vice-president of manufacturing.  “When we make each piece we know the name of the person it is going to.  That creates a powerful connection between us and the consumer, because it isn’t going to go into a warehouse on top of a pile of stuff.”

Switching to a custom model realizes certain efficiencies that enhance the company’s bottom line, Orleans plant controller Chet Greenwood said.  No longer is the company paying to build and then warehouse items in the hopes of selling them.

“Everything is built to order and then shipped to the end consumer,” Mr. Greenwood said.  “Inventory that sits in a warehouse is dead inventory, and dead inventory hurts your bottom line.”

Today’s Ethan Allen is supported by the three pillars of investment in infrastructure, the production of high quality goods and a high quality of leadership, Mr. Kathwari said.  All three elements have proven critical in ensuring the company’s success through difficult times.

The key to preserving manufacturing at Ethan Allen’s American facilities has centered on creating custom pieces as they are ordered. “Every piece you see today has already been sold,” said Don Garret, Ethan Allen’s vice-president of manufacturing. Photo by Richard Creaser

At the core of those three elements are the people behind the products, Mr. Kathwari said.  Maintaining a good relationship with the workforce involves applying a long view of the company’s future.

Ten to 15 years earlier the quality of production had slipped at the Orleans plant, Mr. Kathwari told an assembly of the factory’s 360 workers on Tuesday afternoon.  Uncertainty about the future of the plant was doubtless a contributing factor, he said.

“If people are worried about the plant closing it affects you,” Mr. Kathwari said.  “If affects you mentally and it affects you financially.  I understand that.”

Since the change to custom order production, the quality of work coming out of Orleans is the best on the East Coast.  That is a reflection of confidence in the company and the direction it is heading, Mr. Kathwari said.

“Every time I come here I see people I have seen and known for many, many years,” Mr. Kathwari told the Chronicle.  “No company can afford to lose that level of experience and knowledge.  Longevity is fostered by treating them with the dignity they deserve whether it is through better working conditions or a decent wage.  It isn’t rocket science.”

Operating within the constraints of the American corporate climate is not an easy task, Mr. Kathwari said.  Corporate taxes are among the highest in the world, while labor and energy costs are equally troublesome.  Overcoming these barriers is something that Ethan Allen has sought to do internally.

Ethan Allen Interiors, Inc., president and CEO Farooq Kathwari displays a copy of the book We the People of Ethan Allen that Ethan Allen retailers use as a sales tool to promote the company’s wares. To Mr. Kathwari’s left is Mike Worth, Northeast Regional Operations Manager for Ethan Allen. Photo by Richard Creaser

“If we are to wait on the state or the country to come to our aid we will be waiting a long time,” Mr. Kathwari said.  “So we do what we must to ensure that we are as competitive as we can be.”

Ethan Allen’s Vermont operations are almost entirely oil free, Mr. Kathwari said.  A cogeneration facility at the Beecher Falls plant provides electricity and heat that supplies the majority of the needs of that plant.  Wood waste generated both on site and trucked in from Beecher Falls provides heat for the Orleans facility.

“Two years ago we used 250,000 gallons of oil to heat this plant,” Mr. Greenwood said.  “Last year it was none.  We won’t always have that mild a winter, but we are taking steps to keep the costs we can control under control.”

Today nearly 70 percent of Ethan Allen’s products are manufactured in the United States.  Though outsourcing remains a prickly issue, it is a necessary evil to balance the profitability of the company, Mr. Kathwari told the Orleans plant workers.

“If it wasn’t for that plant in Mexico or that plant in Honduras, Orleans would be a very different place today,” Mr. Kathwari said.  “We would have no profits if we manufactured everything in the United States.”

One promising trend is that, even as Ethan Allen has withdrawn its presence from Asia, it is generating business in the Far East.  The company now has 73 retailers in China and furniture manufactured here in Orleans is being shipped to consumers in China, Mr. Kathwari said.

“Who would have imagined that five years ago?” Mr. Kathwari asked.

The margins on American manufactured furniture remain slim, but improved efficiencies have helped to increase profitability at the Orleans plant by 30 to 40 percent over the last two years.  Switching from two shifts to one has helped increase that profitability, Mike Worth said.  He is the regional operations manager for the Orleans and Beecher Falls facilities.

“We got rid of the second shift because of all the overhead costs that go along with it,” Mr. Worth said.  “We’re doing more volume now on one shift than we used to do on two.”

The investment in specialized computer numerically controlled (CNC) machines has allowed the plant to quickly adapt from one product line to the next.  While it is still necessary to switch out the cutting tools and drills to match each piece, the process has inherent efficiencies and greater precision.

“We used those lean years to invest in new technology to help us get to that next level,” Mr. Worth said.

Several area legislators took part in the tour of the factory on Tuesday.  Representatives Duncan Kilmartin, Bob Lewis, Mike Marcotte and Vicki Strong joined Senator Bobby Starr in commending Ethan Allen for its continued commitment to providing employment for their constituents.

“I know you provide a lot of good jobs for a lot of good people,” Mr. Starr told Mr. Kathwari.  “I know that if we work together we can keep this place going for another eighty years.”

contact Richard Creaser at

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Wildlife management area created as working dairy farm is saved

Bill and Ursula Johnson sold their landmark dairy farm in Canaan, Vermont, creating a wildlife area at the same time. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 8-8-2012

CANAAN — A landmark working dairy farm here has been sold to a young farm family while a new wildlife area was created, protecting six miles of frontage on the Connecticut River and ensuring public access for fishermen, campers, and bird watchers.

It was a complicated deal and one lots of people wanted to celebrate at the Bill and Ursula Johnson farm on Friday, August 3.  About 70 people attended, including the heads of several state agencies, plus local legislators — Senator Bob Starr and Representative Bob Lewis.

Secretary Deb Markowitz of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources said the Johnsons’ sense of civic duty in wanting to make the whole thing happen was laudable.

“This is just one more example of what it means to be a Vermonter,” she said.

Secretary Chuck Ross of the Agency of Agriculture said when he was approached about this idea that it was so clearly a wonderful project that it was a “no-brainer.”

Vermont Fish and Wildlife Commissioner Pat Berry said the project is unusual because it brings together three of Vermont’s top values:  working lands, conservation, and public access.

“Look around you.  This is a big deal,” he said.

Bob Klein of the Nature Conservancy agreed.  “What makes Vermont so special is the integration of those things,” he said.  “Every project is a manifestation of a collection of values.  Conservation isn’t something somebody else does.”

The deal took more than two years to put together.  The Johnsons sold 849 acres, of which 583 is being kept in farming, with conservation easements.  The remaining 266 is being made into a state-owned Wildlife Management Area (WMA).  The property and easements cost $1.45-million, according to Tracy Zschau, regional director of the Vermont Land Trust.

She said the first step was to buy the conservation easement, which was about $450,000 of the total cost.

The first main funding source was the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation’s Upper Connecticut River Mitigation and Enhancement Fund.  Representatives of the fund put up the money for the easement plus the additional $1-million to buy the property, with the understanding that VLT would find others to help share the cost.

In the long run, Ms. Zschau said, other funding sources agreed to help, and the New Hampshire group ended up paying under $500,000.

Funds came in from the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board, the United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resource Conservation Service, Pew Charitable Trusts, and the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation.

The Nelson family bought the working dairy farm.

Cy and Andrea Nelson bought the 583-acre working farm, with easements in place, for $965,000.  The Nelsons will also have a free lease on 50 acres of land within the state-owned WMA in exchange for allowing public access to the river.

Mr. Nelson said he was glad to have the opportunity.  It was not a simple decision though.

“It was a big commitment financially and for our family in general,” he said.  Cy is the son of Doug Nelson, who was also on hand for the celebration.

“I’ve worked for him on the family farm since I was a kid,” he said.  Now he and his wife, Andrea, have a two-year-old daughter of their own, named Sloan.  They are expecting again soon.

Mr. Nelson said the Johnsons helped make the transition very smooth.  The Nelsons are employing the same five workers the Johnsons did, which they said has made a big difference.  Some of the employees live in housing on the farm.

Cy and Andrea Nelsons have 215 milking cows in Canaan and 250 in Coventry.  He said the river-bottom rock-free land on the Johnson farm is ideal for farming, and the corn is doing extremely well this year.

“I think we’re as good as anything,” he said.

“The dairy industry is a pretty unique industry.  Our profits are always fluctuating.”

Bill and Ursula Johnson have retired as farmers, but Mr. Johnson still serves the area in the state House of Representatives.  Mr. Johnson represents the towns of Brighton, Canaan, East Haven, Lemington, Newark, Norton, and Westmore.  Ursula Johnson worked in the field of conservation.

Over and over again in the course of the day, officials remarked on what a wonderful job the couple had done keeping the land in great shape.  Where many farmers would have drained a lot of the wetlands in order to make more pasture or hay land, the Johnsons kept a lot of it intact, and as a result there is a tremendous abundance and variety of birds and wildlife.  On Friday, people saw half a dozen great blue herons, a northern harrier (marsh hawk), and several other species of birds.

After the speeches, people were invited to take tours of the farm or two parts of the WMA.  One was north of the main barn, and the other was south into part of Lemington.

“There’s not a written plan for this area yet,” said Fritz Gerhardt of Beck Pond LLC, a conservation scientist who led the Lemington tour and pointed out some highlights in the farm land and wetlands.  The WMA plans for the whole state will be discussed at a public hearing in Montpelier on August 21.  People who have ideas for what should be done with the property will have a chance to give their opinions.

Joan Allen of The Nature Conservancy, Ms. Zschau and Jane Lazorchak of the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department were credited as being the three masterminds behind the complicated project.

“This is exemplary by national standards,” said David Govatski, president of Friends of Pondicherry, based in New Hampshire.  Mr. Govatski did a bird survey for the land trust that showed 89 species, some of them rare.  He said the wetlands are home to hundreds of wood ducks, American bitterns, and purple sandpipers to name a few.  Of the species found in the survey, 30 species of special concern to conservationists were noted.

contact Bethany M. Dunbar at

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Apple crop is skimpy this year

Mort Gellman of Holland, Vermont, stands next to one of his Honeycrisp trees. He manages a 100-tree apple orchard on his property. Photo by Natalie Hormilla

by Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle 9-5-2012

After a long, hot summer, people may be looking forward to fall foliage, cooler weather and crisp apple cider.  When the foliage will change or the weather cool is anyone’s guess, but at least one thing is certain:  This autumn’s apple crop won’t be nearly as bountiful as it was in 2011. 

“We had a lot of frost damage this spring,” said Mort Gellman, who manages an orchard of about 100 apple trees of ten different varieties on his property in Holland. 

Mr. Gellman, like many apple growers, was hit hard by the April frost that followed an unusually warm March. 

“Just when they were in full bloom, the temperature went down to 15 degrees,” he said.  “Yep, it was a big hurtin’.” 

Mr. Gellman sells his apples mainly through the Newport Farmers’ Market, and people are welcome to come pick their own.   

“I sold every apple I had,” Mr. Gellman said in reference to last year’s season. 

Some varieties fared better this year than others.  He estimates that he’s down about 75 percent on his crop of Cortlands, but only about 50 percent on his Honeycrisps.  His Rome Beauty tree, which is a very late bloomer, had its best year since he planted it three seasons ago. 

Mr. Gellman said the Rome Beauty is one of the finest baking apples, and it’s a variety from the 1800s. 

As of August 30, his apples weren’t ready for picking just yet.  His earliest variety, Zestar, had about one and a half or two weeks left before harvesting could start. 

Mr. Gellman planted all the trees himself, and takes care of them mostly by himself, sometimes with the help of a neighbor.  He turned 86 in August. 

“I’m not doing this to get rich,” he said.  “The orchard is my life.”

Mr. Gellman started working in apple orchards when he was 18 years old.  At one point in his life, he ran a large vegetable farm in his native New Jersey, where he planted 50 acres of tomatoes for the Campbell’s Soup Company.  He also worked on a 5,000-tree apple orchard in Missouri in the mid-90s. 

“I know enough about growing because that’s most of what I ever did,” he said. 

He isn’t alone in having fewer apples this year.  In fact, the apple crop for all of Vermont is forecast to be down about 28 percent compared to last year. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS), the state can expect to see a crop of about 24 million pounds of apples, down from last year’s 33.5 million pounds. 

The dip in statewide production mirrors a drop in national production for the year.  NASS has forecast that U.S. apple production will weigh in at 8,065.7 million pounds this year — about a 14 percent drop from last year’s 9,420 million pounds. 

Cate Hill Orchard in Greensboro also expects much less of a crop this year.

“I think we had a total crop failure, really, from that late freeze, or rather that early spring,” said Maria Schumann, who owns and operates the orchard withJosh Karp. 

Last year, Cate Hill Orchard had about 60 or 70 fruit bearing trees, Ms. Schumann said.  This year, about 20 of their trees bore fruit.  “And they all have way less than they had last year,” she said. 

Ms. Schumann cites the same reason as Mr. Gellman:  the April frost. 

“It’s a normal time to have that kind of freeze, it was more just that everything was three weeks ahead because of that warm weather in March,” she said.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this year’s March was the warmest ever for the U.S. since formal record keeping began in 1895.   Some states experienced warmer weather than others that month.  Vermont was one of the states to experience its record warmest March, along with the biggest apple producing states in the eastern half of the country, Michigan and New York. 

Cate Hill Orchard sold apples and cider at farmers’ markets in Hardwick, Montpelier and Stowe last year.  Ms. Schumann said they probably won’t do cider this year, except for by the glass maybe. 

Cate Hill Orchard has a mix of trees that are about 100 years old and were inherited from Mr. Karp’s family.  They also have much newer trees, for a total of about 250 trees.  Ms. Schumann said there is no real difference in production among the fruit-bearing trees in terms of their ages. 

“Last year was such a fantastic year,” she said.  “There were apples everywhere.” 

She said that last year’s bounty may also have something to do with this year’s dearth. 

“A lot of apples, not all, but especially heirloom varieties, will tend to have on years and off years.  They won’t bear the same amount every year, even without a frost.” 

Terry Bradshaw, president of the Vermont Tree Fruit Growers’ Association, also said last year’s big crop was a factor in this year’s smaller one.

“Last year was an incredible apple year in terms of quantity of fruit,” he said.  “Even maple trees had apples on them.”

Mr. Bradshaw said it’s prudent to manage an orchard so that spring buds are thinned to a number that doesn’t stress out the trees. 

“If you don’t, you’ll get what’s called biennial bearing,” he said, meaning that the trees will produce a big crop every other year, with little or no production on the off years. 

“So that’s kind of the one-two punch of why things might be a little bit lower this year,” he said.  “I noticed before the frost even came that the count of buds was low.”

Mr. Bradshaw makes the bulk of his observations at his home in Calais and on the orchard he manages for University of Vermont (UVM) Extension in South Burlington. 

He estimates that even without the frost, many trees that produced heavily last year would have only had about 70 percent production this year.  

Mr. Bradshaw explained that it’s in the apple trees’ best interests not to produce a lot of apples each and every year. 

“The only reason why any plant produces fruit is not to feed us, but to have a baby, to keep spreading the plant along,” he said.  “What the plant wants to do is make lots of those seeds, a lot of apples, and it wants to be fairly small so animals can spread them and it doesn’t mind not doing it every year because it breaks up pest cycles.  But the role of an apple grower is to grow big red apples every year, so we’re trying to steer nature in our direction.”

Biennial bearing may contribute to a lack of wild apples this year, which were in abundance in many areas of Vermont in 2011.

“A managed orchard has an annual crop,” Mr. Bradshaw said.  “Whereas wild trees, if they put all their resources out one year, they don’t mind taking a breather.”

Mr. Bradshaw said that state crop production has been variable.  He said the UVM Extension orchard is looking at about a half crop this year. 

“But I’ve heard of some growers saying they’re having their best year in recent memory, so it’s variable, and it depends on the varieties and when their blooms open,” he said.

“In Cabot there are maybe 3,000 trees in a fairly young orchard and they’re having their best crop ever,” he said.  “I’ve heard in the Eastern Townships they’re doing very well.  So there’s plenty of fruit.”  

“The economics of growing is interesting this year,” he said.  “If you’ve got fruit, you’re sitting in the driver’s seat, because all those packing houses and processors in west New York and Michigan have been driving to New England with checkbooks in hand trying to buy up fruit, and a lot of that’s for processing cider.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see $7 or $8 jugs of cider this year, so it’s good to be a grower.”

Mr. Bradshaw also said that those who did get fruit this year may find themselves with an especially good quality crop.  He said the sunny and warm weather has been complemented by just enough moisture to get the fruit to size.  

“I’m seeing larger fruit and redder fruit, because there hasn’t been a lot of cloud cover,” he said.  “The sun is what turns the apples red.”

Leaves turn solar energy into carbohydrates, which translates into a sweeter, higher quality apple, he said. 

“The other factor that turns apples red is cool nights,” Mr. Bradshaw said.  “Macs are classic with that, once you get nights in the 40s — and I think the weather is shifting and we’re going to come into the fall weather here.”

He pointed out that apple trees are grown all over the world, so they are very adaptable to different climates.  He said lack of rain and warm temperatures shouldn’t affect the trees. 

“The fruit buds are already set,” he said, referring to the middle of summer.  “If you get a drought in June, that would affect things.  The conditions that we’ve seen, I think we’ll have a good crop for next year.  Trees are adaptable, and they know that in August it dries up.  August is our least precipitous month every year, and all of the tree’s growth processes slow down by the middle or end of July because that’s how the tree’s programmed, to work with the systems we have.”

Chris Rawlings of Heath Orchard in Stanstead, Quebec, said that he’s seeing a crop of smaller quantity but higher quality this year. 

“It’s holding at about 65 percent of an average year,” he said.  “There are varieties which are better than usual in quality, not quantity.

“What I’m seeing on the MacIntosh is that, despite the fact that we had this event of frost on the blossoms, the apples that have come through for the most part are beautiful — round and have very little crevices and bumps for scab spores to install themselves, so they’re much prettier.  They’re an average size, no bigger, no smaller.  They’re looking good and they’re a reasonable size given the dryness.”

He said his Cortlands are looking particularly good as well.  The MacIntosh apples will start getting picked this Friday, September 7, which is early.

“We’re harvesting a week to ten days earlier than usual, across the board,” he said. 

Mr. Rawlings owns and operates the orchard with Lynn Heath.  They have 3,500 trees on 15 acres.  

Mr. Rawlings told the same tale as other growers — that the warm March followed by cold snaps accounts for most of this year’s lighter yield.  He said his Melba trees do take a breather every second year.

He also said that “micro micro climates” within his orchard account for some of the discrepancies he sees among his trees, even among the same varieties. 

“Nothing much is making a lot of sense, you know,” he said.

Still it sounds like Heath Orchard will have plenty of fruit to pick, as will most Vermont growers. 

Even though Vermont will see a significant drop in apple production, it’s still doing better than some other states.  Michigan — normally a top three apple producing state — is looking at a crop of 105 million pounds, as compared to last year’s 985 million pounds; New York is forecast to have 590 million pounds, compared to last year’s 1,220 million pounds. 

Washington — usually the apple producing leader of the country — is slightly up this year, at a total of 5,700 million pounds. 

NASS surveyed orchards of 100 or more bearing-age apple trees to gets its numbers.

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Reporter’s notebook: Filmmaker finds his voice, unexpectedly


Emily Anderson and Mark Utter at Bread and Puppet Theater. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle 8-22-2012

by Joseph Gresser

GLOVER — Mark Utter knows that his inner life is vastly different than his outward appearance might suggest.  He wants everyone else to realize that as well, and with the help of his friend, Emily Anderson, Mr. Utter is on his way to achieving his goal.

Mr. Utter visited Glover Thursday evening August 16 along with Ms. Anderson to give a presentation about I Am In Here, a film that he wrote, and with help from a successful Kickstarter campaign, has seen through filming.  A big crowd filled the ballroom at the Bread and Puppet Theater’s farm.

Ms. Anderson lived at the farm for years as a member of the theater, and during that time she and I became good friends and performed together frequently.

Since then, she has moved to Burlington where she works for VSA Arts, and directs the Awareness Theater Company, a group she describes as “a dynamic theatrical group composed of people with and without disabilities.”

It was through that work that she first met Mr. Utter, and because of his persistent insistence, began working with him.

Mr. Utter does not speak easily and is prone to make broad and hard to interpret gestures.  For much of his life he was not recognized as being the intelligent person he is.

Now, by using a computer keyboard and taking advantage of what is known as facilitated communication, he has proved a most eloquent advocate for himself and other overlooked people.

As Ms. Anderson gently holds his arm at the elbow, Mr. Utter, types out words slowly with one finger.  His progress is not linear, he misses his aim often and has to go back and retype to get the word he wants.

Sometimes, he glances up at the screen and smiles at what he reads, before continuing his writing.  Even a casual observer has to marvel at Mr. Utter’s patience.  It is very clear that his mind runs far more quickly than his slow hand can move.

Ms. Anderson afterwards said Mr. Utter has told her that her touch helps him focus and wards off his otherwise uncontrollable gestures.  She said that she will gradually move her hand up his arm until it just rests on his back.  In time, perhaps he will not need her help to communicate.

Already, he doesn’t need the projector.  He has an iPad configured so that his typing is rendered into audible speech.

As the audience entered the ballroom, Thursday, a short statement written by Mr. Utter was projected on the screen above his head.

“No so long ago people thought the most advanced way to deal with the dreadfully strange members of our society was to put them away.  Twenty years ago Vermont closed its institution but Vermont, along with the rest of the world, is still adjusting to those wretches returning.  The task at hand is for everyone to surrender their wishes for perfection and embrace our different ways of being human.”

These paragraphs serve as a kind of manifesto for his current work, but do not define his ultimate ambition.  Right now, Mr. Utter is concentrated on finishing his film which, in the form of a tantalizing snippet he previewed for the puppeteer audience.

In the one scene he showed, Mr. Utter goes to a film with a friend.  As his companion orders two tickets to what from the title is a particularly gruesome horror film, snickers erupt behind the pair.

There stand a couple of snarky teenagers.  The girl mocks Mr. Utter saying that he is a “retard” who should not be allowed to attend an R-rated film.

This is the kind of insult that Mr. Utter’s difficulties with spoken language once forced him to endure.  But in the world of the film, Mr. Utter has a secret weapon.

“A wonderful actor plays my mind,” Mr. Utter types.  And Paul Schnabel does present a wonderfully idealized portrait of Mr. Utter.

The two men stand together with crossed arms as Mr. Schnabel booms, in a way that Mr. Utter can only dream of doing, “You are wrong.  I am old enough to be your father.”

Mr. Utter found his voice unexpectedly.  He had taken a class in facilitated communication and didn’t see there was much in it for him.

Then he saw a film, Wretches and Jabberers, which portrayed the travels of Larry Bissonnette and his friend Tracy Thresher.

Mr. Utter knew both men and was interested to see that they used facilitate communication in their artistic endeavors.  Ms. Anderson worked with Mr. Bissonnette, whom she had met while working with the GRACE program, and Mr. Utter decided he would like to work with her as well.

As Ms. Anderson recalls it, Mr. Utter “sort of inserted himself in my life.”

“I asked her for so long I almost gave up,” Mr. Utter said.

Knowing that he was not a speaker, Ms. Anderson asked Mr. Utter to write a couple of lines for a play she was producing for the Awareness Theater Company.

From there, Mr. Utter was on his way.

“I wrote short blurbs first and then decided to go through a day in my life and filled it with the real facts with some humor,” he told the crowd at Bread and Puppet.

Much of the cost of the funds were raised through Kickstarter, a website that helps bring artistic projects to the attention of a wide audience, and allows people to make small contributions to help them succeed.

In the interest of full disclosure I was one of the many contributors to the project.  Ms. Anderson and Mr. Utter are still looking for more people to contribute to the project.

The film is scheduled to premiere in Burlington this October.

After that?   “My wish is to address love in my next movie,” Mr. Utter said.

When asked by Ms. Anderson to expand on that comment, he said, “I feel love is a thing wanted by all and experienced by few and it need not be so.”

After Mr. Utter’s presentation I spoke with him for a few minutes.  Ms. Anderson explained that I write for the Chronicle and asked if he had anything to say to the residents of Orleans county.

Mr. Utter thought for a moment and slowly typed out:

“Oh people of Orleans I look forward to sharing our movie with you and talking about all the ways we can effect changes in how people interact with each other.”

contact Joseph Gresser at:



A walk along Newport’s Main Street on Labor Day 1942

by Norman Rioux 

copyright the Chronicle 8-29-2012

Photo of Main Street in Newport from the Richardson-Cartee collection, courtesy of Scott Wheeler and the Vermont Northland Journal

In 1942 at Labor Day, America was not yet even one year into World War II.  As a ten-year-old fourth grade student about to enter Belle Coan’s class in West School, I wandered along Newport’s Main Street seeing and greeting, killing time, and doing a lot of window shopping.  I left my Outlook Street home, came down the Prue stairs to West Main Street, waved at Annie Brooks on her front porch, admired Bob Clement’s well-mown lawn, and hurried by the Prouty’s wall.

A bully in the eighth grade had attacked me in front of that wall the previous spring, and even a few months later it still was a scary spot for me.

Helen Foster, the piano teacher, was going into her apartment.  Inez Miller’s Oldsmobile with number plate 111 was pulling out of her driveway.  (I knew she had to be important, quite aside from the Prouty and Miller connection, because how could one have a number plate as low as that without being a somebody?)

One of the Landrys was standing in the bay window of their living room waving at me, and Helen Burdick, as usual, was in her front window of number 99 apparently reading.  I was tempted to go up the two flights of stairs to rap on Iva and Toots Conley’s door on the third floor because they had known me since I was a toddler living on the ground floor at 2 White Place, just behind their building.  Iva had a beautiful collection of very old things in her apartment, including wallpaper that she had removed from its original home and brought to her apartment.  Even for a ten-year-old, its beauty and theme was quite enthralling to say nothing of all the old toys that she had collected, which I could play with in that childless home.  But I didn’t have the nerve, so I continued past the Tydol Station on the Third Street corner.

The St. Germaine ladies were sitting on their front porch — weren’t they always, except in winter?  Nobody seemed to be stirring at Dr. Emmons’ house, the courthouse clock had the wrong time as usual, and I glanced across the street to see Benware’s Furniture and the Armory.  On the previous Thursday, I had stood in front of that Armory watching husbands and wives, boyfriends and girlfriends, mothers and fathers and sons all embracing and hugging before they boarded the Greenwood Bus that would carry them off to war as draftees or enlistees.  Even as a kid, I knew that for at least some of them, it would be the last time they ever saw their loved one alive.  That memory when, 70 years later — thinking of Austin Beebe, Raymond Blake, basketball games played by Newport High School — I pass by the same armory, still haunts me.  On that 1942 day, Gene Bryant, the chief of police, was walking down the steps on his way to solving some very minor crime, the theft of coins left in the milk bottle, for the Palins to collect when they delivered their product, perhaps.

The post office was by far and away the most classic building on Main Street, then and now.  On that day it would, of course, be closed for the holiday.  The same Bob Clement whose lawn I had admired would not be dispensing stamps that day, nor would Mr. Skinner be post mastering, nor would Winston Hunt be running the elevator, one of three lifts that existed in Newport 70 years ago.  The other two were in the Hotel Newport and the Orleans County Memorial Hospital on Longview.  When I would go to my dad’s customs office on the second floor, probably much to the consternation of Mr. Hunt, I would march into Win’s elevator and peremptorily demand, “second floor, please,” as if a ten-year-old were not healthy enough to climb one set of stairs.

Molly Williams’ Amoco station appeared to have a new coat of very dark green paint.  The Goodrich library, the second most imposing structure on Main Street, was closed for the holiday, but I spied Laura Stone looking out the window from the reading room, probably there to do some chore which required the peace and quiet she demanded from her patrons but didn’t always succeed in achieving.  I popped downstairs to Alberghini’s basement to buy a pack of Wrigley’s spearmint gum for a nickel.  I caught proprietor John peering through his very thick eyeglasses at a piece of paper money, asking the customer, “Is that a five, Bill?”  The aforesaid Bill assured John that it was indeed a five, and got back the proper change.  Passing Mr. Brochu’s barber pole which led to his basement parlor under the Treasure Shop reminded me that I was supposed to get a haircut before school resumed the next day, but luckily I had managed to avoid that nuisance.  The latest novels and gifts were on display in the Treasure Shop window.  That particular season they were featuring an historical novel that one of my pals told me had a very racy section in it which his parents had forbade his reading.  He, and subsequently I, were determined to get our hands on that book somehow, but, of course, we couldn’t afford to buy it.  The going price for the hard book copy was $1.98, and at 25 cents a week allowance it would take eight weeks with absolutely no other expenditures to save up that much, assuming that they would have even sold it to me.

Hamblett’s store and bakery was open even though it was Labor Day.  They had recently expanded to combine space with the adjoining building.  Their business phone hung on the wall between the two parts of the business (Newport 404 was their phone number).  Anyone, without as much as asking permission, could pick up the phone to make a call, and one of the operators at the switchboard over at the National Bank would ask, number please.  I decided to call Dean (193) Burns to see if he wanted to ride down on his bike from Raymond Avenue to join me.  Nobody answered.  He was probably at the Methodist Church on Third and Summer Streets, practicing the organ.  I decided I’d check later.

The Royal Café was open, doing a lot of breakfast business, and Frank Curran, holiday or not, was in the little squeezed up building where Western Union functioned.  Across the street, Montgomery Ward was closed for the holiday as was Grant’s and the American Clothing Company.  Joel Needleman’s parents owned the clothing store, and he and I had spent many hours at 25 cents an hour in the basement of that building, now a Thai restaurant, making up cardboard boxes for use in the business.  Stores like L.J. Needleman’s kept their help for longtime careers like Ken and Wayne, Isabelle and Eglantine.  I was surprised to see that True and Blanchard was open; perhaps they were having a sale.  Mr. True, well along in years, was still alive and living in his house on the corner of Third and Prospect Streets, but Jay Carr was truly running the store these days.  Their bargain basement was a place to shop in Newport in terms of great prices for great merchandise, a true mercantile institution on the street.  The door to Phelps’ Pharmacy on the corner of Central Street was ajar, and if Dean or Joel or Bruce or David had been with me, I could have gone in to spend a nickel on one of their super cherry cokes.  Phelps’ Pharmacy was, of course, a drug store, and both Molly and George, mother to David and Anne, were pharmacists.  Much later on, both of the children also became pharmacists, and it may well have been that they were the only pharmacy in Vermont where mom, dad, and the two children were all in that profession.  However, for me at ten years of age, the nickel cherry cokes were the real deal, but I couldn’t go in by himself to occupy a booth, and counter seats seems reserved for the local tradespeople because young folks never sat in one of those seats.  I was always amused when Gertrude Albee would write in her Locals column in The Daily Express that a Mr. and Mrs. Box from Salem, Massachusetts, were visiting their daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. George Phelps at 9 and one-half Third Street.  It was the combination of the fame and notoriety of the Witch City and the surname of “Box” which, so very British, got me every time.

After passing the pharmacy, I glanced down Central Street where I had lived until 1938 when we moved to Outlook Street, to a house which had just been vacated by a shoe salesman named Tony Pomerleau who was moving on to Burlington to seek a bigger and better career.  I guess it would not be presumptive to say that he succeeded.  Central Street was kind of unusual because while it bore a name implying some kind of greatness it was, and is, about one block long.  However, in that one block were the Handy’s of ice house fame, the IOOF Hall, the Daily Express building, the Reid’s Bricmanor Hotel, the Kenerson, Reese, and Cass families (in that order), the vacant lot, and Dr. Somers’ (then deceased home/office), now occupied by his widow and their two children, Joyce and Homer.  The doctor’s space in the back of the house at number 37 had been converted into an apartment by Dorcas, and it was there that my family and I lived from 1935 until 1938, enjoying the company next door of Winsome and Earl Lewis — who also had a pharmacy on the Main Street — their two children, Carolyn and Jeanne, and Grandpa Jones, Win’s elderly but still very eccentric father.  Beside them was a Mr. Hellman who managed the Burns Theatre, and on the corner of Eastern Avenue was Dr. Gilman, a chiropractor.  At that time, I had no idea what a chiropractor did, but the honorific of Dr. in front of his name was enough to impress me.  The other side of Central Street had Myrtle Lamphere, the Moloneys, the Williamsons, Norma Carder, Josie Centerbar, Sisco’s dry cleaning, and later on the building to which Gladys Carr moved her cosmetology shop after renovation, but that all took place much later than this Labor Day in 1942.

I decided to take the risk of crossing Main Street at the Central Street corner to gain a little sunshine because the southern side was in the shade, passing Penney’s, Endicott Johnson shoe store, Cy Searles’ jewelry emporium, and the Crawford block.  Dr. Crawford was one of Newport’s three dentists (S.W.F. Hamilton, Perry Fitch, and Dr. Piette) but he and his wife, Shirley, operated a furniture store called Newport Home Supply on the first floor of their block on the corner of Lane Avenue.  It was where my parents purchased for me my first bicycle.  (It later on became the A&P where one was allowed, on a limited basis, to actually pick off the shelves what one wanted to purchase instead of instructing a clerk what it was by name and waiting while he or she went to retrieve it and brought the item to the counter.  It also had the first frozen foods department in Newport (all Birdseye products).

My mother, who had a sense of fashion herself, said that red-haired, beautifully coiffed Martha Needleman had the best taste in women’s clothes in the state of Vermont.  She and her husband, Ed, across Lane Avenue from the Crawford block, owned and operated a clothing and shoe store which could best be described as a skinny city block long and an extremely skinny quarter of a block wide, crammed with first class merchandise which Martha had hand picked on her frequent trips to the garment district in Manhattan.  As I walked by their store I remembered a telephone call to my mother of just two or three days earlier.

“Gladys?  This is Martha Needleman.  I just got back from New York, and I found a perfect dress for your high waist problem, and I bought it just for you.  It’s a rust color, which is perfect for your skin type.  When can you come in to see it?”

It’s no wonder with that kind of service 70 years ago that there is still a Needleman’s almost exactly where it sat so long ago.

I crossed back over Main Street again, gaining the corner where Louis Desautels managed the Orleans Trust Company next to Joe Bonneau’s men’s clothing store.  Cheek to jowl with that business was Abe Arkin’s shoe store which had another one of those long, longtime employees, Shelly Gardner.  They also had the only x-ray foot machine, which allowed you to look at how your feet were encased in a new pair of shoes that you were contemplating to purchase.  It was spooky but fun to buy shoes at Arkin’s with that machine.  I walked by Bly’s Pharmacy, the National Bank, the Antetomaso’s fruit store, and back up to Central Street, remembering that since Wheeler’s Cut Rate drugs across the street was open I could have bought one of their ice cream cones which had pre-packed rectangular shapes of ice cream placed in the cones instead of scoops, but, alas, their store was so small that I had fled right by it without noticing.

Perhaps I was ten years old, perhaps there was a new war just starting, perhaps rationing and hardships, scarcities, and even death of loved ones was all in the future between 1942 and 1945, but all of those were in the unknown.  To a ten-year-old, the future is limited to tomorrow, the past is just yesterday, and as a little boy growing up in Newport, even in war torn years, life was as good as it gets.  My compadres now are largely in their 80s, if they are even still alive.  Whatever we may have achieved in our individual lives, aside from the personal talents we may have brought to the altar, lies, in my opinion, in large measure to old Newport, the smallish city by the beautiful waters.  I walk that Main Street in memory every day of my life.

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