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In Southern Vermont
It matters little which way you drive in Vermont to seek beautiful scenery. Every road furnishes it. The question each morning, which way we shall go, is not a very serious one. Ordinarily we ask about the roads in all directions, but not for the sake of getting information. That is hopeless. Few now have knowledge of a road to any place except the nearest railway station. At the station no one knows a road more than two or three miles away. This is not exaggeration. It is simply the result of the abandonment of carriage travel and the universal use of the rail. Intercommunication between outlying farms and villages is nearly at an end. The old social intercourse and mutual dependence of the country folk is mostly gone. The fathers and mothers knew every family within a circuit of ten or twenty miles. There are not so many families in the circuit now, but many have ceased, in this generation, to be even acquaintances one with another.
Night after night, sitting by the fire in the tavern public-room, with ten or fifteen of the neighbors gathered for the evening talk, we have inquired about adjoining towns and roads thither, whether there are inns, whether the roads cross mountains, whether there are streams, ponds, lakes, which way and whither the watercourses run, but all in vain. And at the same time these men discuss with ample intelligence the Irish land question, the position of the French in Africa, the last news from Ethiopian explorers, and the politics of the United States. We seldom hear home politics talked about.
From all this you may infer that a ride through Vermont and New Hampshire is a journey of discovery. We go by inquiring almost from mile to mile. A good map, already marked over and over with the lines of our old routes, lies on the carriage seat. We start like a ship and lay our course by compass, or rather by the sun, for some place which on the scale seems to be at a reasonable distance, and ask from time to time whether we are on the right road. Occasionally we go wrong. It is of no account. We keep on, and arrive somewhere.
In the spring a trout rod lies ready for use in the carriage. In the autumn, a heavier rod and a gun. Here and there along the road are tempting spots for the angler, and I stop the horses awhile. In the forest roads, covered with fallen leaves and nuts in autumn, partridges are often to be seen, sometimes to be shot. Always the scenery is attractive. Comparisons of scenery are usually absurd. No two landscapes possess all of the same characteristics. One lake is unlike another, and it is impossible to compare one with another, except when the characteristics are so diverse that it may be fairly said of one or the other that it possesses little or no beauty. Mountains have their peculiarities, and one can seldom be intelligently placed in comparison with another as to the general quality of its scenery. One is bolder, grander, another is richer in lofty masses of color, and another has wonderful outlines of form against the sky. But, with some experience, I know no country which, as you drive through it, presents more variety of beauty, more rapid changes in the character of the beauty, more alternations of grandeur and pastoral calmness, more wild ravines, and more far-distant views, than Northern New England.
Proposing a wandering drive along the Green Mountains, I sent my horses to Brattleboro' as a starting-point. While waiting there for a friend I drove in various directions around the town. One could pass a month in Brattleboro' and drive every day a new road, and a good road, every rod of which is beautiful, whether in Vermont or across the river in New Hampshire. Streams pour down a dozen valleys between high hills, some cultivated to the summits, some forest-covered. Wild-flowers were out that spring in an abundance that seemed to surpass all former springs. The forests along the roadsides were luxuriant with thousands of flowers of a hundred varieties. The lateness of the spring had kept back the usual growth of early May, and the sudden coming of a succession of warm days had brought out the later and the earlier flora together. A mile out of the village there was a spot which was superb. Masses of violets grew as thick as pansies in garden beds, the large tall white and pale pink in clumps with the equally tall and large yellow, the small white and small yellow, and two varieties of blue, all intermingling and covering the ground at the edge of the forest, formed a continuous bed of color stretching a hundred rods with scarcely a break. Trilium, purple and painted, nodded over this bed in the deeper shadow of the woods now just leafing out. Anemone, tiarella, mitre-wort, were abundant.
Coming recently from watching the advance of spring in the South, the contrast was vast and striking. The luxuriant green over the whole surface of the country, ground and tree alike bursting out in splendid color, had not been a feature of spring in Florida and South Georgia. Last year's vegetation does not stand up here, dry and yellow, to be slowly hidden by the growth of this year, as in southern countries. Snow is a wonderful beautifier. It packs down the dead growth of the past, so that the first show of the new growth is visible and colors the earth and the landscape. There is a day when all the country looks wintry; the next day soft green tints show in the damp hollows or on the southern slopes; then in one or two or three days the whole landscape has become brilliantly green. The forests have begun to color. We all know the gorgeous autumnal colors, but little has been written of the exquisite tints of the spring forests in New England. They are often quite as beautiful as the autumn glories. They are softer tints, but more varied — pink, mauve, purple, and gray, in broad and gentle gradations, broken now and then by deep tints where the maple is budding. Sometimes in valleys, where willows are plenty and when sunlight falls richly after a shower, there are patches of golden yellow stretching across green fields which are as beautiful as one's golden dreams. Did you ever meet with one of those modern aesthetic maniacs who suggest improvements for Nature and criticise her minglings of color? One such condemns, as "in bad taste," the mingling of green with yellow in a field where thousands of yellow buttercups bloom. He suggests, as much more correct and pleasant to the eye, the contrast afforded by a midsummer field where the white daisies are abundant. There is no disputing about tastes. Nature offers something for every one; but that is a faulty education which has brought any one to apply to the works of the great Artist the arbitrary notions of what we call art criticism. Nature encourages no ideas of harmony in color. She mingles with a free hand all colors, and puts to shame the temporary and changing tastes of humanity, which trammel and harness artists and drive them on railway tracks of art production. Old nations of men are free from the foolish rules of so-called civilization in this matter of color. The gorgeous products and minglings of color which characterize the Chinese porcelains are doing a great deal to educate the dim and doubtful tastes of western Europe and America. The Saracens understood better than any race of men in any age the value of free and unrestrained use of color, and contrasted colors without regard to any ideas of what is called harmony. They decorated houses and temples as Nature decorates the earth, and kept prominent always the great lesson of the visible world, that with a blue sky and a green landscape every one of the infinite variety of hues of flowers is perfectly harmonious.
The church-bell announces "evening meeting"
Taking Brattleboro' as a starting-point, we could cross the Connecticut into New Hampshire or strike out westward into Vermont. Choosing the latter course, we could continue the route northward on the eastern side of the Green Mountains, wandering hither and thither on the way, or take one of the roads westward and cross the mountains. What matters it which road you take? It is always easy the church-bell announces "evening meeting" to turn your own carriage, change your direction, follow the new wish of the moment. We could go out to Wilmington, and over the Green Mountains to Bennington; we could turn northward from Wilmington and ascend and descend the hills of Dover, now getting far-off views over New Hampshire, now seeing to the west the Vermont mountains overhanging lovely valleys. The country directly west of Brattleboro', although hilly, abounds in fine scenery, and the valley at Wilmington is as lovely as any Swiss valley. We chose a route to the northwest. We drove out on the right bank of West River, following up the stream, with intent to spend the night at Fayetteville, but loitered along the way, and after sunset pulled up at a little inn in Williamsville.
There is seldom any trouble in finding employment for the evening at a country inn or in the village. Sometimes the church-bell announces "evening meeting," and one may do worse than to attend it, if only for the sake of seeing people and studying character. Almost always the inn is the place of gathering for some of the natives, who discuss all kinds of subjects with abundant intelligence, and generally with striking clearness and simplicity of thought and diction.
It is not difficult for a stranger to lead the conversation towards local incident and history. There is no country village in the land which cannot furnish personal histories of sufficient interest to make volumes of very instructive biography. You err if you imagine that only those lives are romantic which are passed among crowds in cities. The country life abounds in mysteries, romances. The clergyman or the doctor either could furnish the novelist with a great deal of material.
If you don't care to talk, you can always find on the table of the parlor, or on a shelf somewhere, a small stock of books; and if you are a reading man from a city you will be very sure to find these books mostly new to you — books you never saw or heard of. There are very few book-stores in New England outside the large cities. The New York or Boston publishers who sell books through retail stores have no means of reaching the inhabitants of Vermont and New Hampshire, except in two or three cities. The American people have not learned to any great extent to order books by mail. In the country few books are bought except such as are brought to the door by agents. For this trade a great many books are made of which no one in the cities ever hears. They are of various classes of literature, some of them good, instructive compilations of history, travel, scientific information, some only trash, catchpenny books. It is always good fortune if one finds that the local history of the town or county in which he is resting has been gathered and published. Many such histories have been made in the north country. They are generally subscription-books, and special attention is given to the personal and family histories of subscribers. Portraits adorn them. Now and then ancestral portraits are reproduced in wood or lithographic prints. They are always readable books, especially readable for the traveller.
Williamsville is in the town of Newfane, a very old Vermont township. An excellent history of this town has been published abounding in material of much more than local interest.
In 1789, at the old Field mansion on the 22d of February, Major Moses Joy was married to Mrs. Hannah Ward, widow of William Ward. This William Ward had died insolvent, leaving debts of considerable amount. At the second marriage Mrs. Ward stood in a closet with no clothing on, and held out her hand to Major Joy through a hole, and the ceremony was thus performed.
This is the only instance I have ever met with in American history of what in England has been variously called a smock marriage, or a marriage en chemise. The idea was, and in parts of England still is prevalent, that if a husband takes a wife with nothing on her he avoids a legal liability to pay her debts, or the debts of a former husband, some of whose property she might possibly bring with her to her new alliance. This vulgar error has led to many curious marriages. One is recorded in which the woman left her room in the night, naked, by the window, standing on the top round of a high ladder, where she put on new clothes, and came down feeling satisfied that she had left all old obligations in the house, and come out scot-free. I think I remember in Notes and Queries an account of the surprise of a clergyman in an English church, when a bride appeared for an appointed marriage, wrapped only in a white sheet, and this within a very recent period. The old error, it seems, prevailed in Vermont so late as 1789, and Major Joy took what he thought the safe way of avoiding the responsibilities of the departed — and now not lamented — Mr. Ward.
There was another old error which also lingered in Vermont, according to the Newfane historian. Inasmuch as a writ was directed in words commanding the sheriff to take the body of the debtor, a common notion was held that the writ ran against that body living or dead. At a funeral in Dummerston, the adjoining town (no date is given), the officers arrested the body on its way to the grave. The procession stopped, the bearers gave bail for the appearance of the debtor, buried him, and paid the debt. In 1820, one Lee, in prison on a bail bond, died. The sheriff would not deliver his body to his family, fearing it would amount to an escape, and himself become liable. The consent of the creditors was obtained, and the sheriff, thus relieved from his apprehended responsibility, released his prisoner. This strange error was not confined to Vermont. Similar instances of arresting the body have been recorded in other parts of the country.
In the morning we changed our minds and turned south-westward. The drive from Williamsville to Wilmington is one to be remembered. A good road with a slight upward grade for four miles, then up a hill, through a small village, on for a mile; cross a bridge, up a steep hill, through Rock River village; still uphill through forest, the air pure and life-giving; uphill, uphill, a long steady pull to a church on a hill which is Dover Centre, and now behind us to the eastward there is no limit to our vision in the clear atmosphere which lies over New Hampshire. The blue horizon line away yonder must be almost where the sky and ocean meet. As we go on higher, the view seems to stretch yet farther into distance, east and northeast, and north, while close below us farms and valleys, hills and ravines lie as on a map. A half-mile beyond the church we cross the summit, and the western view of the Green Mountains bursts on us. And now we descend into a charming valley, and following a meadow brook which grows to be a river, and is the east branch of the Deerfield River, we reach Wilmington at noon.
It is a pretty village in a pretty valley. Hence it is twenty miles to all sorts of places — twenty to Brattleboro,' twenty to Bennington, the same to Hoosac Tunnel and to Coleraine.
It may serve to show the freedom of carriage travel if I rapidly indicate the ways we went after this from day to day. From Wilmington we drove on southward and westward to Readsboro' City, a busy village among the mountains, at the junction of the east and west branches of the Deerfield River. Thence our route lay up the West Branch, a wild road of much beauty, to Hartwellville; then by a winding valley road to Stamford, and down to North Adams in Massachusetts; through the unrivalled scenery in which Williamstown is situated; down the Hoosac valley, and around a shoulder of the mountain to Bennington in Vermont; thence up the western side of the Green Mountains to Manchester. Northward now from Manchester, we drove up the beautiful valley between the high mountains on the east and Equinox and the Dorset mountains on the west, to Wallingford. There we turned the horses eastward again. From Manchester we might have taken a route west of the Dorset Mountain, by which we would have gone to Lake St. Catharine, a very lovely lake, whereon is a large hotel in a grove of pines. Thence the route is pleasant and generally level, with good roads, to Rutland, or to Castleton and on northward. I have often driven in this direction. But now, without any special reason, we recrossed the Green Mountain range.
The little highland village called Mechanicsville is in the town of Mount Holly, which includes the Green Mountain country east of Wallingford, where the hills run lower than to the northward and southward of it. The Central Vermont Railway line finds its way from Bellows Falls to Rutland across these lower hills in a north-westerly direction. The wagon road from Wallingford wanders in various beautiful ways. The pass across is one of the easiest and most practicable between the Massachusetts line and the gorge of the Winooski south of Mount Mansfield.
The carriage traveller may do well to make a note of these passes. If you drive northward from Troy or elsewhere on the west side of the mountains, you can cross them to the east side and the Connecticut valley only by one or another of these mountain roads.
From Bennington you can go over to Wilmington and Brattleboro' by a road which I have never happened to find in good order. From Manchester you can cross through Peru to Chester by a turnpike road, usually in fair condition. From Wallingford you can cross by the road I was now driving, to Ludlow. From Rutland you can cross by a road which I have found so wretched that the least said about it the better. From Brandon or Middlebury you can cross by good roads, that one which goes through Ripton passing the Bread Loaf Inn, and descending eastward to the hilly country south of Montpelier. North of this you can go through the mountains by a good road, with no serious hills, along the bank of the Winooski, to Waterbury and Montpelier. Still north of this you can drive over the rolling country around the north end of the mountains from Burlington to Hyde Park. There are other roads through and over the Green Mountains, but none of them can be recommended with certainty from year to year as practicable for pleasure carriages.
The morning was dark. We had had showers in the night, and the clouds still lay low in the valley at Wallingford. But a breath of air from the westward, slowly increasing, and beginning to move first the mists and then the leaves of the trees, gave promise of a clearing off. We did not start till late in the forenoon, and then the horses had four miles of pretty steady uphill work before them. A clear stream, swollen with last night's rain, roared down by the side of the road as we slowly ascended. There are doubtless trout in that stream, for along it now and then we saw boys fishing. None of them had any trout. All agreed that the water was too high, but all asserted the presence of trout. The faith of an angler is worthy the study of philosophers. If a boy knows that one trout has been taken in a stream, he will fish contentedly all day for another; and though he may take innumerable chubs and dace and minnows, without sight of the trout he seeks, he nevertheless throws in his bait a thousand times, and every time with perfect assurance that the next fish that takes it will have spotted skin and golden sheen below. So with all of us. They who know nothing about angling have few if any parallels in life to this faith, which is the underlying charm of going a-fishing. One cannot fish for long without success in a stream or lake in which he does not believe there are any fish. A few casts of the flies, a few minutes waiting for a bite at bait in this or that hole, and he abandons the place. But if he has seen a trout rise to a fly, or dash along the clear brook, it is enough. Thereafter faith takes hold of him, and the day goes on joyously to the end, even through he takes nothing. For the taking of fish is but a small part of the enjoyment of going a-fishing. The innumerable sounds and sights of nature, the luxury of open air, the clouds, the winds, the sunshine, the rain, the cutting off of thought of business, worry, care (which is cut off most effectually by the presence of the angler's faith in his rod and skill), these can be appreciated only by those who love to use rod and line.
We drove through East Wallingford and then wandered over hills, with many far and many lovely views until, on a hill-top, we entered the little village of Mechanicsville, consisting of a large factory, two churches, and a group of white houses under trees. The factory makes children's toys. It was startling, away up on the top of the Green Mountains, on the outlet of a small lake, to find a village supported by an employment so closely related to the home life of all the country. The forests of the neighborhood grow the wood, the mountain streams drive the saw-mills which rough-shape it, a steam-engine whirls the turning lathes and the various machines which give form to the objects. Here is another subject of thought for the philosopher. The angling boys were the morning illustrations of faith. The noon resting-place is a village where the inhabitants live by play. Nothing but play. The waters of a beautiful lake flow out over the factory wheels, working for play. Play clothes and feeds these families, enriches the manufacturers, supports perhaps these two churches whose spires rise side by side. It is a bright, cleanly, thriving-looking little village; the houses are neatly painted; the gardens are brilliant with flowers.
The frivolities of life have their uses. Children must play, ought to play; and grown men and women owe it to themselves to play sometimes. If you find any one who doubts the usefulness of play, tell him that it has its utility in this at least, that it runs a prosperous village in the Green Mountains, and employs a happy population with remunerative work.
In the afternoon our road led down the eastern slopes of the hills to the valley where Black River comes out from the succession of lakes at Plymouth and Tyson. We drove through Ludlow, and spent the night at Proctorsville. Next day we crossed the Connecticut into New Hampshire.