A history of Vermont through architecture

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architecture book webcopyright the Chronicle April 23, 2014

Buildings of Vermont, by Glenn M. Andres and Curtis B. Johnson. Published by University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville and London, 2014.  504 pages. Hardbound.  $85.

Reviewed by Joseph Gresser

Buildings of Vermont meets such an obvious need that it’s somewhat astonishing it didn’t already exist. It’s a book that belongs next to Esther M. Swift’s Vermont Place Names: Footprints of History on the shelf of anyone seriously interested in the state.

At first glance the book appears to be a catalog of noteworthy architecture in Vermont. It is that, but in detailing the variety of building styles it sheds new light on the history of the state.

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Book review: Bird seeks truth about God

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starling god webcopyright the Chronicle April 16, 2014

The Starling God, by Tanya Sousa.  Paperback.  265 pages.  Published by forestrypress.com.  $12.50

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Tanya Sousa’s The Starling God is part allegory, part adventure story, part coming of age tale, and very much a social commentary.  She tackles the interconnectedness of species, the dangers of both conformity and superiority, and the pitfalls of blind and unquestioning adulation — for starters.

This is also a book written by a person who knows a great deal about birds and who is deeply passionate about her message.

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Poetry book on fall light, picking stone, cutting corn

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kinsey book review webcopyright the Chronicle March 26, 2014

Winter Ready, by Leland Kinsey.  Published by Green Writers Press. 85 pages.  Paperback.  $14.95

Reviewed by Tena Starr

It was yet another cold and snowy March day in this cold and snowy winter of 2014, and Leland Kinsey’s latest book of poetry, Winter Ready, seemed an apt read.  But there is little in this volume that chronicles the grueling.  Nor is Winter Ready poetry as some may know it.

This lovely collection is as much prose as poetry.  It’s a collection of moments, observations, and sometimes a reminiscence of a Northeast Kingdom that’s, sadly in my view, fading into memory.

In fact, the onerous chore of picking stone had completely escaped my own memory until I ran across Mr. Kinsey’s poem called “Stone Picking.”

Does anyone pick stone anymore?  We used to on our farm.  I recall, as a girl, thinking that rocks must somehow grow and multiply, like potatoes.  Picking stone was a task for Sisyphus, who spent eternity rolling a boulder uphill.

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How Barton’s founder became a war hero

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kidnapping the enemy webcopyright the Chronicle March 5, 2014

Kidnapping the Enemy, The Special Operations to Capture Generals Charles Lee & Richard Prescott, by Christian M. McBurney.  325 pages.  Hardcover.  Published by Westholme Publishing, LLC.  $29.95.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

It was 1777 and the American war for independence wasn’t going particularly well.  George Washington’s competence had been called into question, and his second-in-command, General Charles Lee, had just been captured by the British in a daring dragoon raid that found Lee caught off guard.

The difficult General Lee had apparently abandoned caution in favor of comfort and may have left himself vulnerable in order to spend the night with a woman.  But no matter the cause of his capture, some considered him, a former British officer, the hope of the American Revolution.  He had military experience that Washington didn’t, and his record, at least militarily, had been a shining one, although Washington himself considered the man’s temper, and general nastiness, a detriment.

The fledgling nation desperately sought Lee’s release.  It could not be procured, however, unless the Americans had a prisoner of equal stature to exchange.

At the time, William Barton — who would go on to found Barton, Vermont — was a lieutenant colonel, relatively unknown at 29, but energetic.  He was born in Warren, Rhode Island, a seafaring village, where he became a hatter.

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Did slavery in Vermont really end in 1777?

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This clipping is from a 1786 copy of the Vermont Gazette, and appears in the book The Problems of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.

This clipping is from a 1786 copy of the Vermont Gazette, and appears in the book The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.

copyright the Chronicle February 26, 2014

The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.  By Harvey Amani Whitfield.  Published by the Vermont Historical Society 2014.  140 pages with notes, documents and index.  $19.95

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre

The assertion that Vermonters kept slaves into the early years of the nineteenth century not only skews the state’s constitutional ban on slavery but also calls into the question the historical belief we have of ourselves as a people who believe in live and let live.

Surely there can be no place for such a belief where men can live off other men’s labor and sell their children.  But that’s what historian Harvey Whitfield has found and documented in his new book, The Problem of Slavery in Early Vermont, 1777-1810.

For those who don’t have the date on the tip of their tongue, 1777 was the year Vermonters formed a Constitution that abolished slavery.  Well, not quite.  What the framers actually abolished was adult slavery.  The children of the new black freemen could still be for sale.

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Vermont Vaudeville debuts in Barton to sold out crowd

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Brent McCoy (left) and Maya McCoy, the stars of The Secret Circus, don their action suits for a feat of skill and daring.  The couple will demonstrate their marksmanship and comedic talents Saturday evening at Barton’s Memorial Building.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Brent McCoy (left) and Maya McCoy, the stars of The Secret Circus, don their action suits for a feat of skill and daring. The couple will demonstrate their marksmanship and comedic talents Saturday evening at Barton’s Memorial Building. Photo by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle January 29, 2014
by Joseph Gresser

BARTON — Vermonters have always had a yen for local entertainment.  Most towns, including Barton, boast theaters that once hosted traveling shows that toured the country.

Barton’s Memorial Building will welcome a revival of that tradition Saturday night, when Vermont Vaudeville comes to town.

The group, made up of a four-person core and guest performers, has embarked on a nine-town tour of Vermont over the next six weeks as part of its campaign to revive locally produced and consumed entertainment.

Justin Lander, Rose Friedman and Brent and Maya McCoy started their troupe five years ago with an inaugural performance at the Orleans Municipal Building.  Since then they have presented several sold-out shows at the Hardwick Town House every year.

In a conversation on an icy January evening at the East Hardwick home of Ms. Friedman and Mr. Lander, the performers reflected on their journey so far and their plans for the future.

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Opinion: Rock on, Lake Region

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The Lake Region Union High School Rangerettes.  Photo by Peter Cocoros

The Lake Region Union High School Rangerettes. Photo by Peter Cocoros

by Tena Starr

This year’s Lake Region Union High School Winter Concert was something I would have paid money to attend.  From first to last, it was spectacular.

There’s such pressure on academics, but arts matter as well, and it’s something to keep in mind as school budgets tighten and tests gain importance.

Hurrah to whoever decided that Lake Region’s budget should include money for the elegant clothes all those fine musicians and singers wore.  It was mightily impressive to see the young people decked out in gowns, white shirts, and black vests and bow ties.  The school should be commended for its commitment to its music program and providing an incentive for the kids to take it all seriously, which they did.

And Sara Doncaster should be commended for coming up with such an innovative program, which ranged from classics to Etta Brown, and included the funniest version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” that I’ve ever heard.  I saw it on the program and sighed, being a Scrooge, I guess, and considering “The Twelve Days of Christmas” one of the most tedious holiday songs ever written.

Not this version.  It was surprising and amusing, but it was also a complex song to sing — one that could have easily, and abominably, failed were it not for such a skilled group of singers.

Katie Lucas and the Rangerettes ought to go shopping for paid gigs.  The audience found itself whooping and whistling and, eventually, doing a standing ovation for that terrifically talented little group of young women.

And when was the last time you went to a school concert and heard a trio of young men croon a Frank Sinatra tune?

They all looked like they were having such fun, as were the people listening to them.

Then there’s the bands.  The Five Dollar Band, which backed up Katie and the Rangerettes, the Jazz Band, and the Orchestral Band.  They were challenged, and they rose to it.  What a fine, fine job those musicians did.

This is great stuff — for the kids, for those of us parents, for the future of music.  Thank you Lake Region, Sara Doncaster, and in particular, all you promising singers and musicians for providing such a rousing and excellent performance.  Rock on.

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Vermont history through the eyes of a lawyer

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paul gillies book webUncommon Law, Ancient Roads, and other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History, by Paul Gillies.  Published by the Vermont Historical Society. 2013.  414 pages with index. $24.95.

Reviewed by Paul Lefebvre

People who major in history in college often find themselves going to law school once they graduate.  More often, anyway, than those who major in physics or biology.  Ironically, Paul Gillies, who has a master’s degree in English from the University of Vermont, reversed that familiar transition by becoming a historian after he first became a lawyer.

Fortunately, for anyone interested in Vermont history, it’s been a seamless transition.  As a lawyer with a flair for writing, Gillies has given us a book that is quirky, original and highly entertaining as a study of Vermont’s past.

What’s original about Uncommon Law, Ancient Roads and Other Ruminations on Vermont Legal History, is how revealing our laws reflects our history.  Not just the laws as they were passed 200 years ago, but as recent as the Ancient Road Law that was passed by the Legislature in 2006.

The key question underlying ancient roads, say Gillies, writing as an attorney, is:  “What happens when the town announces it intends to develop the public road that runs through your property that nobody has traveled for several centuries?”

The question requires a legal resolution, but Gillies the historian frames its importance in a much larger context.  The lasting value in finding ancient roads — those having “no nexus to the current highway map” — is to show how a town evolved, or “how the hill farms were abandoned, the villages developed, and the land subdivided.”

Politically, a republic is a country governed by laws.  And to read Gillies is to see how laws mirror a country or state’s historical development.

Following the American Revolution, the country as well as Vermont did away with the British custom of judges wearing scarlet and ermine robes in court.  The tradition of judges wearing robes, however, remained.

By wearing a robe, explains Gillies, “the person is covered up and the office made manifest by the costume.”  And while individual judges may retire, “the robe comes back every day.”

Not to be outdone by members of the judicial branch, Vermont legislators even went one step further in 1789 by allowing members to “sit with their heads covered, except when they address the Speaker.”

Gillies, himself, appears to have little patience with some of the practices still at work today when a Latin phrase is used instead of an English one.  For while it may elevate a proceeding, he says, it also has a downside for the layman who has come to court.

“Latin can be so powerful, until you have to translate it, and then it falls flat, like explaining a joke to someone who doesn’t get it.”

Property laws or those regulating trade and commerce often come in reaction to something that is causing a conflict.  Gillies lays out an number of case histories on point, including those stemming from an eighteenth-century enterprise that every spring churned the waters of the Connecticut River until the early nineteen-hundreds:  the log drives.

“Like the law, log driving took balance, judgment, and quickness,” he writes in verve that is typical of his style.

In 1785 the Legislature passed a law that gave an owner nine months to remove his logs from a drive that had become snared by the river.  Similar laws ruled that the logs could be no longer than 20 feet and had to be marked for identification by the owner.

Throughout the decades there were laws passed that regulated log diameters and set deadlines for driving logs from one point to another.

“The present law is a museum of regulations of the log driving industry,” write Gillies.  And they still remain on the books.

Selectmen determine the location of the boom in rivers and streams to hold back the logs, “and no boom may be anchored until the fees are paid,” Gillies writes.

“Should log drives come back, the law awaits them.”

Packed into this big book — which can easily be read as an anthology — is a chapter on what Gillies understandably calls “Luminaries,” former Supreme Court Justices.  As profiles they run the gambit from Nathaniel Chipman — who in 1786 at 33 years old was elected to serve on the Supreme Court — to Justice F. Ray Keyser, who joined the Court in 1964.

Justice Chipman was Vermont’s foremost legal scholar, but what he contributed to the state’s legal foundation is, in Gillies’ view, the lynchpin to what we have become today as a society.

In his Sketches of the Principles of Government, written in 1793, Justice Chipman took a very benign and, at the time, radical view of human nature.  People do not need a government to protect themselves from each other, because they have a natural “relish for society.”

In other words, writes Gillies, “human beings in Chipman’s view were drawn intuitively to society, order, and organization as a fulfillment of their quest for happiness and social improvement.”

Among his peers, Gillies says, Chipman was a lawyer who liked to play in deep waters but had difficulty when it came to sustaining a lawyer-client relationship.

The profiles make up a hefty third of the book, which may explain why Gillies offered a writer’s disclaimer before forging ahead.

“Each essay is a violation against the law of practicing psychology without a license, but the perfume of the temptation is irresistible against the possible odor of the risk,” he writes.

Gillies concluded his book with a lengthy examination of Act 250, whose significance for Vermont he underscores by writing:

“In 1969, there was Woodstock, Vietnam, the moon landing, the Manson murders, and Act 250.”

He credits Governor Deane Davis for seeing the need and the 1970 Legislature for following through to pursue “a public interest in traditionally private matters when it comes to land and how it is used.”

Gillies says that Act 250 has reached maturity, and traces its evolution over four decades.  The results over the first ten years were mixed, or constitute what the author calls a difficult childhood.  By 1980, he says the Act “had found its bearings,” after the Legislature eliminated the “ten-acre loophole,” which took away lot size as an exemption from Act 250 review.

The third decade, “its most difficult,” saw wrangles with the Legislature over membership on the Environmental Board.  An Environmental Court was created.  Accusations proliferated that the Act 250 process was too unwieldy.  Gillies called it a time for retrenchment.

Throughout its fourth decade, which began in 2000, Act 250’s power to regulate was diminished by the Legislature and the High Court, according to Gillies.

Speaking of the Act as a process, the author writes:  “It has been revised almost as often as educational theory.  What other law has had to be saved so often?”

As a lawyer, Gillies has made his mark by representing towns.  Before ancient roads became such a hot political issue, he may have been municipal government’s first road warrior.  To that end, he is also the first historian to study the state’s past by looking at its routes of travel.

“The developing road network is a revelation of several centuries of community evolution,” he writes.

“This is the beginning of the golden age of Vermont highway law.”

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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Peter Miller captures Vermont characters

The late Carroll Shatney, on the cover of Peter Miller’s new book.

The late Carroll Shatney, on the cover of Peter Miller’s new book.

A Lifetime of Vermont People, with photographs and text by Peter Miller; 208 pages in hardback; published by Silver Print Press; $49.95.

Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

Any Northeast Kingdom resident who picks up Peter Miller’s extraordinarily handsome new book will see a lot of familiar faces.

Anne and Jack Lazor come up first, and Mr. Miller’s nighttime photograph of their Butterworks Farm in Westfield is among the best in the book.

That’s a surprise, because A Lifetime of Vermont People, as the name suggests, is a collection of portraits, supplemented with Mr. Miller’s insightful commentaries on his subjects.

Next up is Peter Johnson of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury.  Then there’s a shot of one of fisherman Roger Elkins’ favorite spots, the Willoughby River falls in Orleans.

There’s a charming portrait of Peter and Elka Schumann at their home overlooking Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, closely followed by an iconic shot of Bill Royer playing his fiddle at a Sheffield Old Home Day, accompanied on the banjo by a shockingly young Burt Porter of Glover.

Greensboro Bend farmer Carroll Shatney, who died in 2009, is on the book’s cover.  Colleen Goodridge and her sons pose at their cedar mill in Albany; brewmaster Shaun Hill chats with his father in Greensboro; the poet David Budbill meditates under a tree at his home in Wolcott; and novelist Howard Frank Mosher, rod in hand, strolls back to his Irasburg home from a fishing expedition.

The 60 profiles Mr. Miller includes in his book pretty much cover the state of Vermont.  But its generous proportion of Kingdom characters reflects the photographer’s fondness for the area.

Indeed, he said while waiting for a book signing session to get underway at The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick Friday evening, he’s looking for a new home in the area.

Mr. Miller has lived in Colbyville, near Waterbury, since 1968.  But the ever-increasing traffic on Route 100 is finally getting to him.

And the Kingdom may turn out to be the final habitat of the quarry Mr. Miller has been stalking through his long career in photography.

“We are losing those Vermonters who have made this state unique,” he writes in his introduction.  “These are the people who love their state for its beauty, but they revere it more for the freedom and privacy it has given them.  Most of the Vermonters I grew up with are farmers, woodsmen, and craftspeople.  They are self-employed and self-reliant.”

Mr. Miller’s decision to present his portraits in black and white — though he shoots them in color with a digital camera — underlines the emphasis he puts on the state’s character, rather than its ever-so-well-documented scenic beauty.

It was the right decision, and it gives his new book a timeless quality that reflects the five decades he has spent capturing the spirit of the odd souls he so admires.

It began in 1959 with Will and Rowena Austin of Weston.  Mr. Miller was a neighbor who dropped by to visit the Austins on their front porch, carrying along his twin-lens Roliflex.

The farm couple is on the cover of Mr. Miller’s 1990 collection, Vermont People, and they appear again in his new book.

But A Lifetime of Vermont People is much enriched by the author’s notes that follow some of his profiles.  It is here that the photographer talks about that problem faced by everyone who works with a camera — the reluctant subject:

“I was a shy kid, more comfortable alone in the woods, but I felt at home with Will and Rowena.  I asked if I could take some photographs.

“‘Why sure,’ said Will.

“‘Goodness NO!’ said Rowena.  She stood, plucked up her dress and flounced into the house.  What they didn’t know is that, while talking, I photographed each with the camera in my lap.”

Rowena eventually came around, and one of the finest photographs in the book is of her making her way up the path to her house with the mail on a winter’s morning — a stout old woman leaning on her cane while a young cat, Canon Ball, prances behind her.

Another such note reveals that Mr. Miller worked for one of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers, Yousuf Karsh, of Ottawa, Canada.

Mr. Karsh took formal, carefully posed portraits of some of his era’s most famous people.  Mr. Miller decided he was more interested in photojournalism, and left his mentor for a stint with Life Magazine before turning to freelance work.

But, he notes, he assimilated a lot from Mr. Karsh:

“I learned to read a face and fathom a personality, how to hold a conversation with my subjects and show them respect.  I use a tripod (most of the time) and set off the camera with a cable release so I stand and face my subject as Karsh did.  On my own I learned how to combine a persona with their environment.”

Those were lessons well learned, and the results, in Mr. Miller’s new book, are well worth seeing.

Peter Miller is one of three Vermont photographers whose work is currently featured at the Old Stone House in Brownington.  “Visions of Place” includes the work of Peter Miller, John Miller and Richard Brown.  It will be at the museum through October 13, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Potter spins yarn of magic in trilogy debut

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cheryl potter bookReviewed by Joseph Gresser

Fantasy novels generally fall into the pattern set for the genre by J.R.R. Tolkien in his Lord of The Rings trilogy.  A group of men with swords, axes, clubs and other whacking and hacking implements go off to set a wrong to rights.

Barton author Cheryl Potter sends her heroines out on their perilous mission armed with knitting needles, needles used for their intended purpose, not for stabbing or even poking.

She has conjured up a world where a group of past-their-prime women must find a way to use their style of domestic magic to save the world.

That world is on the verge of dying either by fire or by ice in accordance with a prophecy.

Their world is not necessarily the one in which we live.  Its history includes an earlier calamity that resulted in its original inhabitants being buried under a glacier.

Now, a renegade member of the Potluck Twelve, a group of women devoted to the magic of the dye pot, leads the forces of the south in an attempt to melt the glacier, for unknown but disturbing reasons.

Among the members of the long scattered twelve are Sierra Blue, a knitter whose work is not only beautiful, but is also imbued with magical properties that can enhance the wearer’s natural abilities.

She, her daughter, Skye, and her two sons Warren and Garth, are at the center of the first volume of the Potluck Yarn Trilogy.  They are required to brave the perils of a journey to the Northlands in answer to the summons of Aubergine, the leader of the knitting witches.

Most of the remaining members of the circle also feel Aubergine’s call and are irresistibly drawn to their former home where their leader hopes the group’s former magic can be revived.

Ms. Potter creates a lively community of women, talented but flawed.  Their journey to Bordertown is fraught with peril, but the women meet the dangers with cleverness rather than force.

That is exactly the point of the book, Ms. Potter said in a telephone interview Tuesday.  Ms. Potter, who lives in Barton where she runs Cherry Tree Hill Yarn, spoke from Arizona where she was on a book tour.

Most fantasy adventures, she said, “are about men who like to hurt each other and are full of blood and guts.  I want to empower girls.”

For this reason, Ms. Potter said she centered the first of her projected trilogy around the magic of women.  As a fiber artist herself, Ms. Potter said she feels close to the witches conjured up by her imagination.

Those involved in the spinning community speak of the magic of the dye pot.  Yarn, she explained, reacts to dyes in unpredictable ways, but the fibers are forgiving.  If a batch turns out unsatisfactorily it can always be returned to the pot for another try.

Ms. Potter makes the connection between knitting yarn and a yarn as a long tale explicit in her book.  The witches’ power comes not only from the mystic crystals they use to color the fleeces they will spin.

It also grows from the tales they tell as they do their work.  Sierra Blue, one of the most powerful of the sisterhood, is also the one entrusted with the keeping of almost all the group’s stories.

Telling the story of The Broken Circle is a new endeavor for Ms. Potter who has achieved success in her business life and who has previously published six books of knitting patterns as well as several short stories.

She said she is most of the way through the second volume of the trilogy and, judging by the hints and spoilers she let drop during her interview, has a clear idea of where the twists and turns of the yarn will eventually lead.

Ms. Potter was willing to say that the second volume would investigate the lives of Sierra’s sons, who as boys are excluded from the magic circle.

She said the first three chapters and a picture of the second volume, Secrets of the Lost Caves, will soon be released on her website, potluckyarn.com.

The site also contains other materials that Ms. Potter hopes will make her books useful to teachers and home-schoolers.  The student workbook, which is available as a free download, includes vocabulary lists, discussion questions and questions devised to prompt analytical reasoning, Ms. Potter said.

She also created a separate book of patterns inspired by the magical garments featured throughout the book.  The pattern book is available for sale in a paperback edition or as an e-book, Ms. Potter said.

Ms. Potter said the novel can be appreciated without knitting any of the patterns and said it was intended to enhance some readers’ experience.

She said that she decided to publish the book herself because she wanted to create materials such as the pattern book and the student workbook, which she said commercial publishers would consider a waste of money.

Self-publishing, Ms. Potter added, allowed her to decide to devote resources to making the book attractive.  No other publisher, she said, would have been willing to hire the artist Frank Riccio to do the cover painting and the drawings that appear throughout the book.

Ms. Potter also said that large commercial publishers might not be as willing to provide books to small independent bookstores in quantities they can afford.

She said that she is committed to encouraging young people to read and is eager to speak to groups whenever and wherever it is possible to do so.

In the meanwhile, Ms. Potter said she is hunkered down in a cabin putting the finishing touches on Secrets of the Lost Caves and creating new tangles for the yarns of the knitting witches.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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