Hungry Vermonters face cuts in aid

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Joe Patrissi at the NEKCA food shelf. Mr. Patrissi said it was fully stocked on Monday morning, but demand is great, and a few hours later several of its shelves were bare. Photo by Tena Starr

Years ago, Kim Arel found herself in a tough spot.  She had two young children to feed, and for a brief time the only way to swing that was to visit a food shelf.  “I was surprised to see other people there that I didn’t think I would,” she said in a recent interview.

Later, when she was in a better place, Ms. Arel decided to pay it forward, and became a donor to food shelves herself.  And for the past 12 years or so, she’s been running the food shelf in Jay, which serves five towns.

Last week, she said, many of her clientele were talking about the latest round of cuts to 3SquaresVT, the program that helps poor Vermonters put food on the table.  “They don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Those cuts, which will take effect on November 1, are due to the expiration of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding, which passed in 2009 and included a temporary increase for help with food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  The temporary boost increased the monthly SNAP benefit by 14 percent. Continue reading

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After IROC: White strives to continue outdoor events

Phil White at his winter “office” in his garage.  Mr. White has just started a corporation called Kingdom Games.  Photo by Tena Starr

Phil White at his winter “office” in his garage. Mr. White has just started a corporation called Kingdom Games. Photo by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

NEWPORT — Phil White, lawyer, former county prosecutor, and the man who tried so valiantly to save IROC, has taken on a new venture.

Mr. White has started a for-profit company called Kingdom Games to organize and promote outdoor activities such as biking, swimming and running in the Northeast Kingdom.  Next year, Kingdom Games will offer about 15 events designed for both amateur and professional athletes.   Some of those will be the popular events that IROC hosted, such as the Dandelion Run and the Kingdom Swim.  Others will be new.

“When IROC closed there was a real risk that the summer events would end,” Mr. White said in a recent interview at his modest home on Lake Memphremagog.  He said he couldn’t let them end this past summer, since so many people had already registered.  It would have left a bad taste about the Kingdom if the year’s events had been abruptly canceled, he said.

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Students seek answers about mysterious black doll

Stella Halpern of Island Pond bought this handmade doll at a house auction in East Burke in 2003.  It’s very old, and she wonders if it might have been owned at one time by a runaway slave child on her way to freedom.  The doll has been donated to the Old Stone House Museum, and students at the East Burke School are researching the house and the doll.  Photo by Tena Starr

Stella Halpern of Island Pond bought this handmade doll at a house auction in East Burke in 2003. It’s very old, and she wonders if it might have been owned at one time by a runaway slave child on her way to freedom. The doll has been donated to the Old Stone House Museum, and students at the East Burke School are researching the house and the doll. Photo by Tena Starr

copyright the Chronicle, October 9, 2013

by Tena Starr

Stella Halpern is hoping someone will solve a mystery for her.  What was a very old, battered, handmade black doll doing in the rafters of a house in East Burke?

Mrs. Halpern bought the doll in 2003 at an auction of the home’s contents.  She has since donated it, along with the rest of her collection of homemade black dolls, to the Old Stone House Museum in Brownington.

“I love old auctions,” said the 92-year-old Mrs. Halpern.  “We were sitting there, and they were down to practically nothing, and the auctioneer sent for a complete thorough search.  They had found this little black doll hidden in the rafters in the attic.”

Mrs. Halpern bought it for $5.

“I didn’t buy it because of the price,” she said.  “I bought it because my curiosity was aroused.  It’s a handmade sock doll, made from black socks.  It was in an old house in white Vermont and has to have historical implications.”

It’s not very likely that a white child of the time would own a black doll, Old Stone House Museum Director Peggy Day Gibson noted.  Also, she said that when the owner of the house was remodeling he found a penny dated 1851 in the walls.  Sometimes, in older homes, a coin was put in the walls to date the time of construction.

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Editorial: A closer look at the obesity epidemic

The statistics presented by the district health department Saturday are alarming.  Seventy-five percent of the people in Orleans and northern Essex counties are overweight or obese, they say.

What might be even more alarming is the assertion made by the film Weight of the Nation that it’s not entirely an accident.  If you believe the documentary, done by HBO with the Institute of Medicine among others, the two-thirds of Americans who are now overweight or obese have had a lot of help putting on the pounds.

For one thing, federal farm policy encourages monoculture farming and subsidizes soy and corn, ingredients commonly used in snack and processed food.

For another, the U.S. food industry — since it’s in the business of making money — most heavily markets its most profitable products, which tend to be foods made with artificially inexpensive, government subsidized ingredients.  Those so-called foods are full of calories rather than nutrition, but they’re cheap, quick, and generally appealing, to young people in particular.

When was the last time you saw a television commercial pushing string beans?  The profit on string beans is about 10 percent.  The profit on soda is 90 percent, according to Weight of the Nation.

Any parent knows that grocery shopping these days with a young child is a nightmare.  The collection of junk foods aimed at children is daunting.

As a parent, I’ve long resented the food industry and how it’s made my life more difficult.  The snack cracker aisle alone is like running a gauntlet.

No, we are not getting Sponge Bob crackers.  No, we are not getting Lunchables; I don’t care if Johnny has Lunchables.  No, we are not getting this substance that pretends it’s related to yogurt….

At some point, grocery shopping with a child turned into a battle against marketers who want my kid to want things that are bad for him.

It wasn’t this way even 20 years ago.  When my daughter was young the battle was over SpaghettiOs, which I refused to buy.  That’s laughable now.  SpagettiOs have come to seem pretty benign in the face of the explosion of other, far worse and voluminous, possibilities.

Twenty years ago, avoiding sedentary screen time was also easy enough:  I disconnected the TV.  Today, it doesn’t even matter that the satellite dish is disconnected six months a year.  There’s the computer, Netflix, Hulu, iPads, iPhones, Wii, Xbox, so many ways for kids to engage with a screen rather than the great outdoors.

Yes, there are lots of reasons for being overweight, and lifestyle choices are among them.  But it’s not likely that about 30 years ago two-thirds of Americans got up in the morning and decided they’d get fat.

Nationally, there are good reasons why people add pounds:  No close place to buy good food, no safe place to exercise.

Those reasons don’t hold true here.  It is true, however, that obesity is linked to poverty, and we are poor.  It takes time and money to come up with lean and nutritious meals, and a poor population may not have much of either.

To understand what some call an obesity epidemic, we should look at the cheap and time saving choices people are offered today.  Many fast food restaurants have a dollar menu.  Salads aren’t on it.  Yes, it’s good that fast food places offer healthier choices, but let’s be real here.  No one is going to McDonald’s to get a great salad.

Frozen fruits and vegetables don’t take up much room in the grocery store freezers.  They’re more likely to be filled with pizzas and highly processed microwavable meals.

The cereal section is no place to look for healthy breakfast food.  Chocolate, marshmallow, and frosting are among the choices.

A time and money stressed family may have enough trouble buying and cooking healthy food without also battling a food industry that’s making the job harder.

Weight of the Nation notes there was a time when people thought it was impossible to take on the powerful tobacco industry.  That turned out to be untrue.

The food industry can also be successfully taken on, the film suggests.  It’s possible, at least, to cease marketing bad food to kids, as cigarettes are no longer advertised on TV.

Parents have to step up, as well.  But it would help if the playing field were level.  As it is, a meal of fresh fish and vegetables costs considerably more than a pound of burger and a box of Hamburger Helper, which contains soybean oil and, surprise, corn syrup, that most ubiquitous U.S. ingredient.

You can’t blame a farmer for wanting to make a living.  You can blame a farm policy that uses our own tax dollars to encourage overproduction of the cheap, unhealthy food that’s helped make two-thirds of us fat. – T.S.

To read the Chronicle’s full story on this subject, click here.

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In Orleans: Rare magnolia tree succumbs to wind and bugs

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This rare magnolia tree, which has been thriving in Orleans for about 60 years, was damaged by last week’s heavy winds and rain.  The tree, which has been studied for years by UVM horticulturists, has been infested by parasites and will have to be taken down, said current owner Kimberly Campbell.  Photo courtesy of Kimberly Campbell

This rare magnolia tree, which has been thriving in Orleans for about 60 years, was damaged by last week’s heavy winds and rain. The tree, which has been studied for years by UVM horticulturists, has been infested by parasites and will have to be taken down, said current owner Kimberly Campbell. Photo courtesy of Kimberly Campbell

by Tena Starr

ORLEANS — The heavy rain and wind that hit northern Vermont last week had an unusual victim:  the magnolia tree that has, for some reason, been thriving in Orleans for nearly 60 years.

Magnolias don’t generally overwinter in far northern Vermont — they barely manage in southern Vermont.  But apparently someone forgot to tell this particular tree it was not supposed to survive an Orleans County winter.

Kimberly Campbell said the storm took down a section of the tree, the part her family called the rope swing branch.

“I heard this big cracking sound and turned just in time to see the tree go down,” Ms. Campbell said.  “It had ripped the power box from the side of the house.”

She’d initially hoped the rest of the tree would survive, but the crew who cut up the felled section noticed it was infected with parasites, weakening the whole thing.

Sadly, the rest of it will have to be cut as well, Ms. Campbell said.  If it fell, it would take out the power lines for the neighborhood, she said.

Ms. Campbell, who bought the house where the magnolia is in 2007, said she’s learned more about it in the past week than she ever knew before.  People have dropped by to tell her stories about the tree, which UVM’s horticulture department has been following for years.   “They’re going to try as hard as they can to grow one,” she said.

The species is Magnolia acuminata, or in common language, a cucumber tree magnolia.

It’s quite rare, especially this far north, said Mark Starrett, an associate professor at the University of Vermont.  It’s one of the parents of several modern types of yellow-flowered magnolias that have been hybridized and are now widely available, he said.

Its rarity is due to the fact that when it was planted in Orleans the climate was colder, with more severe winters, and it was thus less likely to survive, Mr. Starrett said.  Also, it’s not a particularly showy tree, and he suspects that 60 years ago Vermonters weren’t all that prone to trying to grow exotic plants.

He said he’ll try to propagate plants from seeds from the Orleans tree.  Any seedlings that result will be distributed around Vermont, he said.   Some will stay on the UVM campus and others will be distributed through the Vermont Hardy Plant Club.

Norman Pellett came to UVM in 1967 as Extension ornamental horticulturist, and made frequent trips around the state advising nurseries and greenhouse operators, landscape architects and technical school program teachers.  Through that work, he ran across a variety of uncommon plants in Vermont, he said.

The only other big cucumber magnolia he’s seen is in Rutland, although others might exist, he said.

Irene Lanoue, who still lives in Orleans, said her late husband, Rouville, planted the tree two or three years after they got married in 1953.

“He sent away to the Michigan Bulb Company for it,” she said.  “I don’t know how he picked it out.  I can’t remember how he came to order that tree.”

In any event, once it started growing, he was curious about what it was, Mrs. Lanoue said.  “He planted it and it started growing.  It wasn’t supposed to.”

But the Lanoues didn’t learn that until later, when her husband contacted UVM to ask about what he had.  “He wrote to the Extension Service at UVM and they sent up a man to look at it.”

Steve Matthews was a paperboy for the Lanoues at the time the tree was planted.  “I knew it was a magnolia tree, and it wasn’t supposed to be growing here,” he said.

He’s kept up with the tree throughout its lifetime and on Sunday picked up some of its pods from the brush that remained on the ground, and sent them to Mr. Starrett.

“We’ll see if we can get some seeds from it that might be able to germinate,” he said.

He said he doesn’t think that’s likely with the seeds he picked up, but he hopes something will work out so a species of the exceptionally cold hardy Orleans magnolia can be propagated.

Ms. Campbell said the tree wasn’t showy like the magnolias in the South.  It had huge leaves, she said.

“They looked like great big elephant ears.  They’re huge and sprouted at the end of the leaf you see kind of these longish pink things.”

It had a lemon peppery smell, Ms. Campbell said.  “It’s been a great shade tree,” she said.

Mrs. Lanoue said she regularly walks by her old home and checks on the magnolia.  It will be sad when it’s gone, she said.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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

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Three-fourths of the region is overweight

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From left to right, Zylus and her sister Giada Hodges of Newport, and Autumn Walsh of Brownington enjoy healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box at Saturday’s screening of Weight of the Nation, sponsored by the district health department.   Photo by Tena Starr

From left to right, Zylus and her sister Giada Hodges of Newport, and Autumn Walsh of Brownington enjoy healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box at Saturday’s screening of Weight of the Nation, sponsored by the district health department. Photo by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

NEWPORT — About 75 percent of the people in Orleans and northern Essex counties are either overweight or obese.  Thirteen percent of 12- to 19-year-olds are considered obese, as well as 11 percent of kids under five.

In the state as a whole, 28 percent of children and 58 percent of adults are either overweight or obese.  The rate of obesity in the Newport area is 31 percent, the worst in the state.

Those are some of the alarming statistics presented at Saturday’s filming of Weight of the Nation, an HBO documentary that tackles the challenges associated with the country’s growing rate of obesity, as well as the history of America’s weight problem.

The morning’s events, which included the movie, a brief discussion about what can be done, and a story walk and healthy snacks provided by Meghan Stotko and the Lunch Box, was organized by prevention specialist Jennifer Woolard at the health department’s Newport office.

Ms. Woolard said she hoped to start a conversation about how to have a healthier community.  Orleans County is the unhealthiest in the state, she said.

The reason for that perhaps mystifies Ms. Woolard, who noted that the area has parks, community gardens, sidewalks, good grocery stories, farmers markets, and bike paths.  It also has woods and fields, lakes and streams, and a thriving local food movement.

In other words, people in the Northeast Kingdom have access to both healthy food and ways to burn off calories.

That can’t be said of other parts of the country, inner cities, for instance, where children have no place to safely engage in physical play.  But it’s certainly true in the Northeast Kingdom, where many can just walk out the front door in order to ride a bike or go for a walk in a safe neighborhood.

The rate of Vermonters who don’t get enough physical activity is 17 percent, says the health department.  In this area, it’s 27 percent.

Ms. Woolard said she doesn’t have the answer; she simply set out to start a discussion and to offer information.  “We want to make it community driven, we don’t want to tell people what to do,” she said.

That was the message of the day.

“Today is not about blame or shame,” said Jim Burnett, director of the district health department in Newport.  “But we are not immune from the struggle of dealing with overweight and obese.  We are, sadly, on a trajectory, where maybe for the first time, our children may have a shorter life span than their parents.”

About 30 people attended the event, which was held at Waterfront Cinemas.

Access to both good food and ways to engage in physical activity are factors in the nation’s struggle with an increasingly overweight population, but so is income, and that might be the key to figuring out why one of the most rural areas of Vermont also has the highest percentage of overweight people.

The highest rates of obesity are among lower income Vermonters, according to the health department.  And Orleans and Essex counties are the poorest in the state, according to U.S. Census data.

The film, done in collaboration with the Institute of Medicine among others, is a captivating tour of human biology, U.S. food policy, and small steps that have been taken throughout the country to initiate change.

While it doesn’t abdicate personal responsibility, it does point out that obesity became epidemic in the country in the past 30 years for reasons that often go beyond personal choice.

When the U.S. government started keeping track, in 1900, of why people died the three main causes were pneumonia as a result of influenza, tuberculosis, and diarrhea.

Today, five out of ten untimely deaths are related to being overweight, according to the film.  Two-thirds of Americans are either overweight or obese, which leads to diabetes, high blood pressure, cancer, sleep apnea, heart trouble, and pain.

While the natural tendency is to look at the situation as a lifestyle choice, biology says the behavior was laid down a long time ago.  “Biology plays as much a role as psychology,” says one doctor in the movie.

For one thing, people aren’t genetically programmed to turn down calories.  Human DNA is programmed to ward against scarcity:  If food is available, eat it, and human DNA hasn’t changed much in thousands of years.  It certainly hasn’t changed in the last 30 years, although lifestyles have changed dramatically.

The audience laughed when the film pictured cavemen devouring a wild pig.  You really wouldn’t expect people of that time to take two bites and say I’m full now, says the narrator.  Humans are genetically programmed to eat what’s available while it’s available, she says.

And for thousands of years that worked out just fine since food wasn’t reliably plentiful, and it took a certain amount of effort to acquire it.

That’s the biology in a nutshell:  People are designed for a world of scarcity where food is not easily available, and it takes a substantial expenditure of energy to get it.  Humans are programmed to survive in a hunter gatherer world that no longer exists, at least in most cultures.

Enter agriculture.  Humans became farmers.  And, historically speaking, shortly after that, industrialized agriculture developed, at least in the U.S.  By the early twentieth century, the federal government had made cheap, plentiful food a priority.  But what to do with it?

What’s followed is a glut of corn and soy in the U.S., the film asserts, a glut that’s subsidized and is used to produce cheap, and unhealthy, food:  beef fed by cheap grain, sodas sweetened by cheap corn syrup, cookies, crackers, and snack foods that pack a high caloric punch and little nutrition.  The food the nation produces in mass quantities is inexpensive compared to fruits and vegetables, which receives no government subsidies.

It gets worse.

Humans became sedentary.  Instead of cultivating crops or doing other manual labor, they began to sit in front of screens, more and more screens all the time.  In fact, Americans are using less calories per day than in 1970, but consuming more.

And then came marketing.

Obesity goes up as income goes down, the film says.  In part, that’s because people are programmed to acquire as many calories as possible for the dollar.  The dollar menu at a fast food restaurant is a lure for poor families because it saves time, and it saves money.

The film goes on to note these grim numbers:  The profit margin for a soft drink is 90 percent.  The profit margin for fruits and vegetables is 10 percent.  Naturally, companies being in the business of making money, heavily market their most profitable products.

On the more sinister side, perhaps, is the fact that the federal government subsidizes the corn and soy industries, encouraging further production of cheap, but unhealthy, food.  The government is driving farmers, who are also interested in making a living, to overproduce food that isn’t good for the country as a whole, the movie says.

“The kind of food we eat is the kind that’s most profitable,” one analyst flatly says.  Another says it would cost the food industry between $36- and $40-billion a year if Americans cut 100 calories a day out of their diet.

Remarkably, the film says that this country doesn’t even produce enough fruits and vegetables to meet the dietary needs of its citizens.

A brief discussion, led by Dr. Alan Rubin, followed the movie.  Some mourned the loss of IROC, which provided indoor recreation facilities.  Others mentioned what is available in the way of opportunities for exercise, which the area doesn’t lack.

Those who are interested in furthering the discussion are encouraged to contact the Healthworks Coalition at lesley.becker@neklsvt.org.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

To read the Chronicle’s editorial on this subject, click here.

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An overdue look at a complicated subject

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grief book webcopyright the chronicle September 4, 2013

The Disenfranchised, Stories of Life and Grief When an Ex-spouse Dies, edited by Peggy Sapphire.  Baywood Publishing Company, Inc., Amityville, New York.  Paperback.  217 pages.  $49.95.

Reviewed by Tena Starr

Some time ago a friend called to say that her ex-husband had died.  It was startling, it was sad, of course, and it was unfamiliar ground.

How, I wondered, did she experience her ex-husband’s death?  Obviously she grieved on behalf of her children, but what about herself?

How exactly does one feel about the death of a person once beloved enough that the plan was to spend the rest of life together, but years later is maybe no more than an acquaintance, perhaps even disliked — but still connected through children and mutual history?

These are the questions Peggy Sapphire, a counselor and poet from Craftsbury, sets out to answer in this fascinating book, an anthology of heartfelt, first-person stories written by people who have experienced the death of a former partner.

The Disenfranchised tackles a complex and overlooked subject, one that many will find themselves grappling with as divorce rates climb and the population ages.  As a former spouse, you’re likely not expected to deal with funeral arrangements, burial, or all the other important and, in some ways soothing, rituals that go with death.  If your ex has remarried, perhaps you’re not expected to make more than a perfunctory appearance, maybe none at all.  Personal grief could be slight, or it could be overwhelming.

But in either event, the surviving spouse is often “disenfranchised,” maybe not expected to mourn at all.

“The writers whose work you are about to read were largely left to their own devices as they sought solace or needed compassion as they stood apart — the ‘ex,’” Ms. Sapphire wrote in the preface to the book.  “A few tell of compassionate friends and family, and in one case, an exquisitely sensitive clergyman.  But for most, no such condolence was forthcoming.”

Judging from the stories told in this book, there’s nothing simple about dealing with the death of a former spouse.  The men and women who responded to Ms. Sapphire’s request for their stories tell complicated ones jumbled by a whole stew of emotions:  grief, anger, resentment, relief, guilt, and regret.

There’s Rosemary, for instance, who felt anger at the timing of her ex-husband’s death and its effect on their children — even in death he had managed to disrupt the lives of his children, she said.

She also expressed relief.  “After his death, I just kept telling myself, ‘thank God it’s over,’” she wrote.  “Finally there would be no more havoc wreaked by this man.  There would be aftermath, yes, but nothing freshly complicating coming at us.”

Many of these stories are harsh.  No one goes through divorce unscathed.  Through necessity the essayists here take a look at the marriage itself and the reasons why it died, in many cases an explanation for how the surviving spouse responds to the subsequent death of a former partner.

If there’s any common thread, it’s maybe best illustrated by Elizabeth, who tells the story of her first marriage, the unexpected death of her ex-husband, and the equally unexpected feelings of loss that accompanied it.

They were married young, in the early 1970s, both considering themselves, in their ways, a part of the counterculture of that time.

“He wanted to be a radical, and I wanted to be a hippie,” Elizabeth wrote.  “I saw him as a way to get revenge on my conservative grandparents; he viewed my trust fund with desire.  We played a lot of Scrabble, smoked a lot of dope, and went to college.  Reality set in when our daughter was born in 1975.  It was time to grow up and get jobs, which I did.”

They divorced, went their ways, and changed enough that the once radical young husband was in the process of trying to get his early marriage annulled — infuriating Elizabeth — in order to become a better Catholic, when he suddenly died.

“When I answered the phone and heard my daughter say, “Dad’s dead,’ I actually said, ‘You’re kidding.’”

Elizabeth had hoped for some sort of reconciliation as time passed; now it was too late, and the depth of her grief took her aback.

“Even though you were divorced, there’s a lot of history there,” she wrote.  “The more I let myself feel the more I realized the loss.  There was no one else who remembered when I worked for The Galloping Gourmet.  He was the one who helped me with the first awkwardness of motherhood.

“An entire clump of my life had just disappeared.  It wasn’t until he was gone that I understand how important he’d been to me.”

To complicate matters, no one else grasped how important he’d been either.  The support of family and friends, who would help mourn the death of a spouse, was largely absent in the case of an ex-spouse.

“No friends seemed to understand how the death of someone I’d never even mentioned could hurt so much,” Elizabeth wrote.

Ms. Sapphire is not, herself, dealing with the death of a former spouse, but her ex-husband has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, she said, and chances are good that she will be one of the disenfranchised.

Referring to her children, she wrote, “With their father’s death will come the death of my only companion and witness to the intimacies and circumstances of 17 years of marriage, begun when I was 20 and he was 23…the first marriage for each of us, two pregnancies, first birthings, first parenting anxieties, early poverty, first professional positions, first home and mortgage, first credit card debt, first and continuous arguments about money, first and fatal disenchantments.  These are the thoughts that led to my decision to seek the stories you’ll find here.”

Each of those stories is followed with commentary by Shirley Scott, a grief counselor who takes a look at how and why the essayists here feel the way they do.  The book also notes that a recent report indicates that 78 percent of those who survived the death of a former spouse reported feeling grief.

What a complex subject Peggy Sapphire has so beautifully tackled.  The stories, and the poetry, in this book are deeply personal, well written, often painful, and always enlightening.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@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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Photos and beer can trail lead to arson arrest

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State Police fire investigators have concluded that the fire that totaled all four of the Albany Fire Department's vehicles was deliberately set.   Pictured is smoke blackened engine number one, where the fire started.  Photo by Tena Starr

State Police fire investigators have concluded that the fire that totaled all four of the Albany Fire Department’s vehicles was deliberately set. Pictured is smoke blackened engine number one, where the fire started. Photo by Tena Starr

by Tena Starr

ALBANY  — An Albany firefighter, who allegedly told police he has a problem with fire and needs help, has been accused of trying to burn down his own department.

Elmer Joerg, 45, of Holland pled innocent last week in the Criminal Division of Orleans Superior Court to a count of second degree arson and another of reckless endangerment.  He was held on $250,000 bail.

The fire, which occurred at about 1 a.m. on August 11, ruined all of the Albany department’s vehicles and much of their equipment.  The department is back in business, though, due to the generosity of other communities that have donated everything from helmets to trucks.

Police affidavits say that a trail of Natural Light beer cans, as well as game cameras set up in the fire station, led investigators to Mr. Joerg.

The game cameras were set up because of an earlier gasoline theft.  Although they were damaged in the fire, the photos were eventually recovered and included several images of an individual inside the firehouse at the time of the fire.

When Albany Fire Chief Donald Peters looked at the pictures he told investigators he believed the man might, in fact, be one of his firefighters.  He identified the man as Elmer “Jim” Joerg, Lieutenant James Cruise of the State Police Fire Investigation Unit says in his affidavit.  Mr. Peters also had gone by the Joerg residence and noticed an ATV in the yard that matched the description of an ATV a neighbor saw leaving the scene of the fire, police say.

Last Tuesday Chief Peters scheduled a mandatory meeting for all fire department members, in part to regroup and familiarize themselves with their new equipment.  Also, a State Police fire investigator individually questioned firefighters, both past and present, in the hope of shedding some light on the fire.

Mr. Joerg was the only Albany Fire Department member who did not attend the meeting.  Investigators were told that Mr. Joerg had been taken to the hospital by ambulance the day before with an unknown illness and was in a coma.

Sergeant Jeremy Hill and Lieutenant Cruise went to Mr. Joerg’s home where Jacqueline Joerg said her husband was still in the hospital.  She indicated that she did not know the nature of his illness, but it could have been an overdose of some sort or a suicide attempt, she told police.

Mrs. Joerg told police her husband had been very upset that “someone could have started a fire at the station and destroyed all the equipment.”

Investigators found a number of Natural Light beer cans in a barrel on the Joergs’ porch and more on the ground in front of his car.  Later they saw a Natural Light can on the side of the road on the Hitchcock Hill Road in Albany and took it as evidence, noting the “born on” date was the same as that on the cans at Mr. Joerg’s house.

On another trip between the Joerg house and the fire station they noticed a second Natural Light can, again with the same “born on” date as those at the Joergs’ home.

On August 14, the day after the fire department meeting, police investigators were able to interview Mr. Joerg at North Country Hospital.  He initially denied being involved in setting any fire at the Albany fire station.

But when police explained to him that they had pictures, his beer cans, and that his ATV and jackets matched those witnesses saw, “He bowed his head and was nodding yes and finally agreed that it was him,” Lieutenant Cruise’s affidavit says.

Mr. Joerg allegedly told police he’d gone to the station on his ATV and used his firefighter’s access code to get into the back door of the station.  He’d forgotten to bring a lighter with him, so he used the kitchen stove to set some paper on fire, lit cardboard with that, and ultimately lit the cab of fire engine number one, he allegedly told police.

Mr. Joerg said he then fled the scene and later returned as an Albany firefighter.

Monica Grondin told State Police Fire Investigator Detective Sergeant David Sutton she saw someone inside the firehouse about 1:15 that morning.  After leaving the building, he started his ATV and drove along the shoulder of Main Street past her home with the headlights off, she said.

In the course of the first interview with investigators, Mr. Joerg allegedly told them “he set the fire because he had a problem with fire and thinks about setting fires often, and has urges to set fires that he is usually able to control.

“He also advised that he is a danger because he set this fire and admitted that he would not have minded dying in this fire,” Lieutenant Cruise says in his affidavit.

Police interviewed Mr. Joerg a second time, and he went into more detail, saying he’d also tried to set fire to the rescue vehicle.

He also allegedly said that he’d panicked and pulled down the smoke alarm in the building.

Mr. Joerg said he’d set about seven fires over the past ten years but no one had been injured in them, police said.

His criminal record includes charges in Vermont, New Jersey, and Rhode Island.

He has been charged with giving false information to a police officer and possession of marijuana in Vermont.

In the late 1980s, in New Jersey, he was convicted of sexual assault, arson and larceny.  A charge of making a terrorist threat was reduced to disorderly conduct.

In Rhode Island in the 1990s Mr. Joerg pled no contest to assault with a deadly weapon and breaking and entering.

If released from jail, Mr. Joerg is ordered by the court to have no contact with any member of the Albany Fire Department and to stay at last 300 feet away from the fire station.

A competency and sanity evaluation has been ordered.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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In Barton: Shooting strikes the heart of two communities

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Carlton Bickford of Glover pled innocent to first-degree murder in the shooting death on Friday of Rachel Coburn of Barton.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Carlton Bickford of Glover pled innocent to first-degree murder in the shooting death on Friday of Rachel Coburn of Barton. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Tena Starr

NEWPORT — Carlton Bickford, 76, a retired electrician and well-liked longtime Glover resident, shambled into court in shackles Monday and pled innocent to first-degree murder in the shooting death on Friday of 72-year-old Rachel Coburn of Barton, who Mr. Bickford told police was his “girlfriend.”

Mr. Bickford, who has health and hearing problems, could not initially hear the court proceedings, and arrangements were made for a hearing device before the arraignment continued.

He will be held without bail, although public defender Jill Jourdan argued that he has a wife at home, children in the community, no prior criminal record and should be released on strict conditions and a $100,000 bond with $10,000 down.

The evidence of guilt is great, Judge Howard VanBenthuysen said as he ordered Mr. Bickford to return to prison in St. Johnsbury, where he will be held pending resolution of a case that has flatly shocked all those who know the accused and the victim.

What Mr. Bickford told police about what happened on Friday, the day of the shooting, is sometimes confused.  More than once he allegedly said he was worried that Ms. Coburn wanted to end their relationship, and if he couldn’t have her no one would.  He also said he feared Ms. Coburn would turn him in to police for threatening her, or for attempted murder, although he did not explain why she would accuse him of the latter.

He said there had never been violence between the two until that day.

Ms. Coburn, 72, worked in the cafeteria at Lake Region Union High School for about ten years.  Before that, she and her late husband, Lewis, owned Barton Cleaners until 2002 when it closed.  She’s described as a happy, hard-working, young-at-heart person.

“She was a really warm and friendly woman,” said Nicole Libby, Lake Region’s food service manager.  “She always had that smile on her face.  She was looking to try to make people happy.  She was a very thorough worker, and she had a wonderful, close relationship with a lot of the students.  A lot of the kids are really devastated by this.  She had a way of connecting with kids.

“Everybody is just floored,” Ms. Libby said.  “I had a great time working with her.  It just isn’t real.  She was one of those happy people; she just wanted to live life.”

Mr. Bickford turned himself in to the Lyndonville Police Department Friday afternoon, allegedly saying he had just killed his girlfriend with a shotgun following an argument.  He said he had then tried to kill himself, but only managed to graze his shoulder.  He allegedly told police they would find Ms. Coburn’s body in her house, along with two bullet holes in the ceiling from his unsuccessful attempt to shoot himself.

Both the accused and the victim have an extensive network of friends and family that is intertwined, and that has contributed to the grief and bafflement that follows the tragedy.

“It’s totally unbelievable,” said Butch Currier of Glover, who has been friends with Mr. Bickford since the 1960s.  “I’m just dumfounded.  I don’t know why, and everybody else is wracking their brain trying to think of some reason why.  I even woke up the next morning and wondered if I’d had a bad dream.  I didn’t believe it.”

Mr. Currier said he has sugared with Mr. Bickford for 20 years.  “He did all my boiling for me.  We’ve done a lot together, fished, rabbit hunted, owned property together.  I just can’t say anything bad about him.  He was always funny, always doing something to make you laugh.”

The killing was doubly painful for Mr. Currier.  Rachel Coburn was his aunt.

“Again, you can’t get anybody to say anything bad about Rachel,” Mr. Currier said.  “She was happy go lucky.  She had four kids, loved her kids, her grandkids.”

State Police Detective Sergeant David Petersen’s affidavit describes a confused and distraught man who had been crying when he showed up at the Lyndonville Police Department Friday afternoon.  It also describes an extramarital relationship that started about four years ago when Mr. Bickford was doing some electrical work for Ms. Coburn.

The relationship, which Mr. Bickford said was nonsexual and “the least of what he wanted” when it started, was apparently on the rocks and went very wrong earlier on Friday.

Shortly after Mr. Bickford showed up at the Lyndonville Police Department, Officer Brandon Thrailkill notified State Police.  Mr. Bickford allegedly told Detective Petersen that he would find Ms. Coburn’s body in her West Street home in the hallway near the cellar stairs.

“…he started to tear up and said it was the dumbest thing he had ever done in his life,” the detective’s affidavit says.

Mr. Bickford said he’d had an argument Friday morning with Ms. Coburn, with whom he’d had a romantic relationship that his wife and son were aware of.  He said the two mostly drank coffee and played cribbage.  His wife had talked to Ms. Coburn about the trouble the relationship was causing.

Rachel Coburn.

Rachel Coburn.

He’d gone to Ms. Coburn’s about 8:30 Friday morning with his usual coffee and newspaper.  An argument had ensued, but he said he thought he could work things out.  A couple of hours later he left, thinking he could “think it over and keep things clear in his mind,” court records say.

When police asked if the argument was about ending the relationship, Mr. Bickford was initially vague, saying he did not think so, but perhaps Ms. Coburn had.  Later, he indicated that his distress was due, in part, to her wish to stop seeing him, the affidavit says.

He returned later that morning with a 12 gauge double barreled shotgun, which he told police he’d taken from his son’s house so his wife would not see him taking a gun from their own house.  When police interviewed Mr. Bickford’s wife, Mary Jane, she said that the guns at their house were locked up, and she had hidden the key.

Mr. Bickford apparently made no bones about the threat of violence when he returned to Ms. Coburn’s house that morning.  He said he loaded the gun in the driveway and put it on the stove while the two continued to talk.

“When asked if he made any threats to use the gun, C. Bickford remarked something to the effect of ‘I don’t know; I probably did to the point of if I couldn’t have her nobody’s ever,’” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.

Mr. Bickford also told police he believed Ms. Coburn was going to turn him in for attempted murder and suggested he had no alternative but to kill her, Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.

In the midst of the couple’s second conversation that morning, the phone rang.  Mr. Bickford told Ms. Coburn not to answer, but when she made a dash for it, “that’s when I shot her,” he allegedly told police.

He did not want Ms. Coburn to answer the phone because “she was going to seek help,” court records say.

“She tried to get by me once to get out the door and I wouldn’t let her and then when the phone rung I just told her don’t answer the phone,” Mr. Bickford allegedly told police.  “Visit with me.  And she made one wild dash to go to the phone.  I guess that was it.”

“No, I didn’t intend to kill her,” he said, according to the affidavit.  “But when she started threatening me with having me arrested and all of that, I don’t know, I didn’t have much choice.”

He told police that when he returned with the gun, “I didn’t know just what was going to happen, but I wanted to be in control.”

He allegedly told Detective Petersen that he had “nothing to gain from shooting Coburn and should have walked away from the whole setup.”

Mr. Bickford said he believed he shot Ms. Coburn in the abdomen and chest area from a distance of ten or 15 feet, and he did not check on her after shooting her because he knew she was dead, Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.

A babysitter at a neighbor’s house that day told police she heard two loud bangs, but did not see anything or anyone.  She said it sounded like someone was moving furniture.

Mr. Bickford told police that, at first, he had no intention of using the shotgun, but said that Ms. Coburn “ran her mouth about me using her the way I had been using her, and she was probably correct.”  He said he believed Ms. Coburn would find a way to “put him away for threatening her.”

“The lady’s dead.  I shot her and I’m guilty as hell,” he told Detective Petersen, according to the affidavit.

In a later interview that evening, Mr. Bickford told police Ms. Coburn had told him he could “get out.”

“He further noted, upon returning to Coburn’s house he told Coburn if I couldn’t have her nobody was going to,” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.

“I was 100 percent wrong,” he told police.

Mr. Bickford frequently expressed remorse as he talked to police.  At one point, he said he would do anything to bring Ms. Coburn back, “but it was too late.”

“C. Bickford remarked he had more problems now than he did before,” Detective Petersen’s affidavit says.  It goes on to say that Mr. Bickford said he “wished he could go back and change the past.”

After the shooting, Mr. Bickford told police, he drove around Orleans and Caledonia counties for a while then went to the village office in Lyndonville, which he believed was the police station.  There he was given directions to the police station, where he turned himself in.

The murder has pretty much consumed the thoughts of many who knew the two.

“When I saw it on Facebook, I thought it was a hoax,” said Sue Squires of Glover.  “My mouth started getting wide open.  I’ve known Carlton all my life.  I don’t understand it.  He’d help you out in any way he could.”

“When you think of Carlton, you think of Carlton as a joker and with a smile on his face,” said Sharon Bickford.  “It’s such a tragedy.  You just sit here in a whirlwind trying to make something of it.

“I’ve known Rachel all my life,” Mrs. Bickford said.  “She was a nice lady, very friendly, cordial, always had a smile on her face, very personable.  She just loved life.  For everybody that knew both of them it’s an awful shock, for the whole community.”

Family and friends are simply trying to process the tragedy, Mrs. Bickford said.  “Never in a dog’s age, never, that’s not him,” she said about the charge against Mr. Bickford.

“What to hell happened?” Mr. Currier said.  “Chances are I’ll never see Carlton again.  Without a doubt I won’t.”

He said he wonders if the multiple medications Mr. Bickford took for a variety of health problems may have affected him.

Conviction on a first-degree murder charge carries a sentence of 35 years to life.

Mr. Bickford was denied the services of a public defender.  Judge VanBenthuysen said that because of his assets and income, he would have to retain an attorney himself.

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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Sodden skies torment farmers

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Tena Starr

“It’s kind of a nightmare.”

That’s how Brandon Tanner of Glover described this summer’s weather and his own efforts to put in hay for his dairy cows.

“It’s one of those things where you’re forced this year to get what you can get when you can get it,” Mr. Tanner said.  “There’s no planning, no helping other people.  It’s sort of you do yours when you can do it the best you can.”

He said he managed to get his first cut, as usual, back in May.

“Soon as I got done haying we had a snowstorm,” he said.

Mr. Tanner isn’t alone in his frustration with this year’s odd weather and, lately, relentless rain.

Farmers, strawberry growers, boaters, anyone who enjoys a day at the beach — they’re all likely to say “Enough already.”

Although Mother Nature isn’t.

There’s some hope that by the end of the week the stubborn weather pattern will break down, permitting a couple of consecutive rain-free days by the weekend, said meteorologist Lawrence Hayes at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.

The problem, he said, is that Vermont has been stuck in between two upper level features involving a serpentine jet stream that moves northward.  The sources of its air is the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast, hence the subtropical air in Vermont.

Also, “the air has been so copiously humid (dew points around 70) that any shower that forms is risk of generating at least moderately heavy rain,” Mr. Hayes said by e-mail.

The result of all this has been a lot more rain than usual, as well as more rainy days, in both May and June.

According to the Chronicle’s weather records (which record weather in West Glover) precipitation in May was 7.88 inches — almost double the long-term average of 4.03 inches, and exceeded only in May of 2011.  It also snowed in May.  The Chronicle’s weather records go back to 1987.

In June, there was some rain in West Glover on 21 out of 30 days.  It added up to 6.23 inches, well above the long-term average for June of 4.14 inches.

In St. Johnsbury the 14-day stretch of measurable rainfall from June 23 to July 7 was the longest consecutive day stretch there during the warm weather season, meaning May through October, Mr. Hayes said.

For most, the soggy weather is simply an annoyance.  But for some, it has economic consequences, as well.

Peak View Berry Farm in Orleans doesn’t have any strawberries at all this year, although it’s not due to the wet weather that’s plagued so many strawberry growers in Vermont.

“We lost our strawberries in January when the thaw came and then it got so cold in February,” said Michelle Bonin, who owns the farm with her husband, Marcel.  “The thaw literally pushed all of our plants out of the ground.  That was something we’d never seen.”

The Bonins have since put in 13,000 new plants and are hoping to have a crop from the ever bearers in October.  But even tending the new plants is tough with the wet weather.

“A few days ago I wanted to cultivate my strawberries and couldn’t because of the mud,” Marcel Bonin said.  “The ground is saturated.  I’d have a mess.”

In Westfield, Gerard Croizet at Berry Creek Farm said he’s lost 20 to 25 percent of his strawberries to the weather, mold in particular.

The berries are big, although softer than usual, and the yield has been good, he said.

It could be a lot worse, though, Mr. Croizet said.  “I know some people lost most everything.”

“I’m not depressed,” he added.

Both the Croizets and the Bonins grow vegetables as well as berries, and say that weeding is a big problem with their fields so wet.  And while some crops are doing well in the subtropical weather, others are struggling.

Mr. Croizet said he’s worried about disease at this point, particularly late blight, which might make an early appearance due to the moisture.

“I don’t remember nonstop rain like that,” he said.

“I think it’s extraordinary, I think it’s quite dramatic for the whole area,” Mr. Bonin said about the unusually long stretch of rainy days.

He said his Orleans farm stand is usually open by the last week in June.  It’s not this year.  “I don’t have anything to put in it,” Mr. Bonin said.

For dairy farmers, the persistent rain not only makes it hard to make any hay, but also the quality suffers.

Most farmers make round bales these days — those plastic wrapped bales that resemble giant marshmallows.  It takes a comparatively short stretch of dry weather to make a round bale as opposed to a square one, but this summer has daunted even those attempts.

It takes at least a couple of days to “put up something that’s not going to be an ice cube,” Mr. Tanner said.

If the hay is too wet, it will be frozen solid come winter when the farmer wants to feed it to his animals, he said.

That’s one problem.  Another is that some fields are so wet farmers can’t even get on them to hay.

And yet another is that grass, especially orchard grass, declines in quality — meaning it loses protein — once it begins to head out.

“You can always supplement grains in order to make up what you lost on your grass, but especially the past three years, that’s been sort of unaffordable,” Mr. Tanner said.

He said that last year, a classic summer, he squeezed in five cuts of hay.  “This year, so far, I’ve done one.  I’ll be lucky if I get three.”

Evan Perron isn’t overly worried about the weather, even though he’s one of the few who still makes square bales.

“The hay I cut will be just fine, for horses, ponies, sheep, it will still be 10-12 percent…it’s nothing you could turn into milk and survive,” he said.

Mr. Perron said that when he was a kid it was common to wait until after July 4 to start haying.  “There was a time we might not have thought much of it,” he said about the long rainy stretch.  “We’d just be a week late.”

But now that people try to get 20 or 30 percent protein from their hay, “it’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

“I don’t think I ever recall such a soggy streak as this one.”

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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

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