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I planned to make this week's installment about something entirely different, then found to my horror that the other diary wasn't finished. Eek! So after lunchtime scrambling to get some photos together for this one, here it is. Better late than never.

My very first GFHC diary (GFHC = Genealogy & Family History Community) concerned colonial New England heritage I didn’t know I had. All of those ancestors are mine through my great-grandfather Lee, who was born 125 years ago in Taftsville, Vermont.

As I’ve mentioned from time to time, Lee was a mess of a man. He couldn’t hold a job, mostly because he was nearly always holding a bottle. Finally, when his three children all married in 1942, he left his wife entirely and spent the rest of his days wandering the northeast, from temporary job to flophouse. He would, on occasion, call my great-grandmother in a maudlin drunken stupor to express his everlasting regrets. In late 1960 a call came not from him, but about him: the hotel he was living in burned while he’d been passed out in bed. He died of smoke inhalation at 71. My family’s address and phone number were found with old photos in his wallet.

Lee in 1915, in happier times.
This is the story of Lee’s early life, which was troubled, and the fallout that may have come from that. Although Lee and his family suffered from circumstances personal to them – alcoholism in particular – their troubles were exacerbated by the difficult economic times in which they lived. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Republican efforts to bring us back to an 1890s-style economy limited government intervention in the face of vast wealth for the few, and terrifying precarity for the many, and I can’t help but consider Lee’s childhood when I think of that.

Some background on his family first. Lee’s father was named Joseph. Joseph was born (and there is some mystery about his birth and early life too) in about 1847 in Ripton, Vermont, a tiny town (current population: 588) best known for the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference held each year there. Robert Frost, a regular attendee, bought a farm in Ripton and spent his summers there, well after Joseph’s time.

The Bread Loaf Inn in Ripton, Vermont
Joseph’s father died before he was born, and as a baby Joseph lived with his mother, an older brother and sister, and his maternal grandparents. All four of Joseph’s grandparents had been among the many New Englanders who, about 1800, moved north of the border to Québec’s Eastern Townships area in search of cheap land. His parents were raised there and married there. Like many people from their community, they returned to the States – to Vermont – in the 1830s. Joseph’s father’s family mostly remained in Québec (although some settled in other parts of Vermont), but his mother moved to Ripton with her parents and siblings, so Joseph grew up surrounded by cousins (among them Sophia and Charla from this diary).

I don’t know much about Joseph’s early life, other than the fact that in the 1860 census, when he was about 12, he was not living with his mother or his siblings. His mother was living in a boardinghouse in Stockbridge, Vermont. His sister, like many poor Vermont farm girls her age, like her cousins Sophia and Charla, may have gone to Massachusetts to work (She later would marry a man in Lynn, Massachusetts). Joseph’s older brother, then about 22, had gone to Maine. He would enlist in the 7th Maine Infantry under a false name, for reasons I can only guess, and was wounded in the Civil War. More on him later.

This road in Ripton, Vermont might look about the same today as when my great-great-grandfather Joseph lived there in the 1850s. Perhaps they had fewer trees then.
Joseph, in 1860, was living with a neighboring farm family in Ripton. His grandfather, then about 71, was living down the road, but on a different farm entirely. I’m not sure if the young Joseph was sent to live there as a farm laborer, but thus far I’ve not identified any family connection to the people who were housing him.

In the 1870 census Joseph was still living in Ripton with his mother, older brother (who would marry a few months later), and maternal grandfather. His sister and her husband, having moved back from Massachusetts, lived next door. The next trace of his family comes in 1873, when his mother and brother-in-law both won damages for trespass on their land. On my next trip north I’ll try to learn more about that. Then, in 1875, Joseph’s mother’s house was attacked by “ruffians” who broke all the windows. She knew who’d done it – the same crowd had been harassing her for weeks because of her outspoken opposition to the appointment of a town liquor agent.

I’ve never been particularly sympathetic to the Prohibition viewpoint (my Irish ancestors were mostly active “wets”), but she had her reasons. There were many alcoholics in the family. The disease would effectively destroy her elder son, perhaps her younger son, and most of their sons as well. Her brother also had died in a hunting accident caused by too much drinking.

Lee's grandmother, according to contemporary newspapers, was pushing people to sign an abstinence pledge like this one. If her sons signed, they didn't keep their pledge.
(Interestingly, a decade earlier the town’s liquor agent had been convicted of selling “intoxicating liquor” to people for other than the legally permissible purposes, which did not include drinking it. Vermont law at that time required only appointed agents (one per town) to sell liquor, and only upon inquiring as to why it was wanted and obtaining the signature of the purchaser. The liquor agent in question had been reluctant to sell a gallon jug to a townsman, and apparently had considerable discretion in the amount he disbursed.)

In 1879 Joseph, about 31 years old, filed for bankruptcy. The same year he turned up as a bit player in a decision of the Vermont Supreme Court, a typical case for that court at that time. At issue was a pile of logs on a low, wet tract of land in town Joseph tried to buy. Apparently Joseph’s purchase was invalid (only one witness to the deed) and the case concerned a dispute between a second purchaser who bought the logs, but not the land, from the seller, and one of the seller’s creditors, who tried to attach the logs to settle a debt on the theory that they were still on the seller’s land and his sale of them was a sham. The court found that the impracticability of moving the logs from their swampy location required a finding that the transaction was not a sham. The logs belonged to the second buyer. Joseph and the creditor were out of luck. It was not to be Joseph’s last appearance in court records.

In the 1880 census he was still living in Ripton with his mother and 91-year-old grandfather. His brother and sister lived nearby. But soon after that he moved to Taftsville, just east of Woodstock. There he is listed in the 1881 directory as a dairy farmer and insurance agent, living on the main road (now U.S. 4) between Woodstock and the beautiful Quechee Gorge, Vermont's deepest. The village, today home to about 100 people, consists of a covered bridge, a general store, a handful of other businesses, and a scattering of homes along the main road and heading up the Happy Valley.

Quechee Gorge, just east of Taftsville, in its autumn glory
In April of that year he married Lee's mother, Agnes Ida, usually called Ida. She was born in 1857 in Bridgewater, Vermont, about 45 miles southeast of Ripton and just west of the picturesque shire town of Woodstock. Her parents came from families that had been among the earliest Anglo-American settlers in Woodstock and the neighboring towns of Barnard and Pomfret.
On the way to Ida's birthplace in Bridgewater Corners, Vermont, a stone's throw from today's Long Trail Brewery
Ida, then almost 24, had lived her entire life with her parents in Bridgewater, about 6 miles west of Taftsville. Her father was almost 20 years older than her mother and appears to have been married before. Both of her parents had deep roots in the area, her mother being the granddaughter of the second English settler in the town of Pomfret and her father’s grandparents having moved to Woodstock in 1782. They also had many, many relatives nearby. In fact, Stephen Taft, the founder of Taftsville nearly a century before, had married a sister of Ida's grandfather. After Stephen Taft died, she remarried and ended up traveling with the Mormons to Utah.

The cemetery where Ida’s parents are buried was founded by a group including her father’s uncle, and at least 50 relatives (probably a far greater number) are buried there, with far more in other nearby cemeteries in Hartland, Woodstock, Pomfret, Barnard, and Stockbridge.

Joseph and Ida had a daughter, Ida Mae, in 1882, the year after their marriage. Later that year Ida’s father, then 79, died. In February 1884 the couple had a second daughter, Agnes Louisa (called “Louise”). During the first week of April, their home was destroyed by fire. The local paper said the fire “took in the chamber floor from a stovepipe. Little was saved from the house. Insured for $800, which hardly covers the loss.”

Five years later, in late January 1889, my great-grandfather Lee was born. His maternal grandmother, who had come to live with the family after her husband’s death, died in April of the same year. His paternal grandmother, nearing 80, still lived in Ripton and would survive until 1899, when Lee was ten. I don’t know if they ever met.

The covered bridge over the Ottauquechee River in Taftsville, badly damaged in 2011 by Hurricane Irene. It was rebuilt and reopened last September. Originally built in 1836, it would have been very familiar to the young Lee.
The Taftsville Country Store, just across the road from the bridge, would have been familiar to Lee as well. It dates from 1840, when it was founded by Daniel Taft, a nephew of the Taft for whom the village was named. It still thrives (under different ownership!)
Lee’s early years were chaotic and difficult. When he was 2, Joseph’s older brother, Lee’s Uncle Lin, came to stay with the family. A telegraph soon arrived, indicating that Uncle Lin was wanted in Ripton for grand larceny. He was arrested at Joseph’s house, returned to Addison County, found guilty, and sent to the state prison. As fate would have it, the prison was in Joseph’s neck of the woods, so he visited his brother regularly.

In 1892, the year after Lin’s arrest, Joseph himself was arrested after the family home burned again, the second time in eight years. There was a larger-than-usual insurance policy and authorities suspected that Joseph, the former insurance agent, had set the fire to collect. Joseph beat the charges, claiming that after the 1884 fire had left him with too little insurance, he wasn’t about to be caught without adequate coverage again. Joseph was suspicious to authorities because, at the time of the fire, he was heavily in debt. Indeed, Joseph and Ida found themselves in court in two cases involving creditors beating down their doors. Both cases reached the state’s high court.

In the first, two cows formerly owned by Joseph were at issue. The first cow he had given to a neighbor named Albee to settle a debt. Ida then purchased that cow from Albee and it went right back in the pasture with Joseph’s other cows. A different creditor claimed that the dealings with Albee were just a fraud and that, as Joseph’s creditor, he should be able to seize that cow. The Supreme Court ruled for Ida, saying that there was nothing wrong with the two transactions with Albee and the cow’s mingling with Joseph’s cows did not affect Ida’s ownership.

The court ruled against the couple, however, on the second cow previously owned by Joseph. That cow had been seized by the sheriff and sold at auction to pay one of Joseph’s debts. The buyer at auction was Smith, a friend of Joseph’s who (as Albee did) sold the cow back to Ida. The hitch was that the sheriff’s deputy conducting the auction was doing the bidding for Smith as his agent. The court declared the auction sale void on the theory that the deputy could not faithfully represent seller and buyer at the same time. Ida’s purchase from Smith was likewise void, leaving the cow subject to attachment by Joseph’s creditors just because they’d asked the wrong guy to act as Smith’s agent. A split decision.

Joseph frequent found himself in court in the handsome shire town (county seat) of Woodstock, about a half hour from Taftsville on a trotting horse. On leaf-peeping weekends today the 3.5 mile journey can take about as long.
The second case involved four promissory notes in favor of a fertilizer company that both Joseph and Ida had signed. At trial Ida testified that she had signed only as surety for Joseph, who’d been carted off to jail due to his debts. The trial court excluded the testimony as a violation of the “parol evidence rule,” which bars oral testimony purporting to explain further the plain written terms of a contract. Joseph was in jail for nonpayment of debts at the time.

The state's Supreme Court reversed the trial judge, writing that it was long established that a spouse may always give testimony that s/he signed a promissory note as surety for the other spouse, not in an individual capacity. So a win for the couple, though Joseph was still on the hook for the debts.

Shortly after those cases were decided in 1893, Uncle Lin was released from prison. He returned to Ripton and died within a few months. He was only 55. Joseph, still having money problems as the nation fell into depression in 1893, soon ended up on the Rutland poor farm. The poor farm was a Vermont institution in the days before formal welfare programs. The indigent were given modest room and board in exchange for farm labor, with the towns selling the farm’s produce to defray costs. The last poor farm in Vermont remained in operation into the 1960s (for an interesting look at poor farm life, see here.)

Not all towns had a poor farm, and they rarely were profitable for the towns. As a result the Vermont legislature, in the early 1890s, passed a law entitling poor farms to compensation from the home towns of their tenants. Thus Joseph’s town of Hartland (Taftsville is where Hartland, Hartford, and Woodstock meet; the family lived in Hartland) paid the Rutland poor farm ten dollars toward his keep in 1894.

I don't know how long Joseph was on the poor farm, or what's Lee's life was like during that period. But things appeared to turn up for the family around 1900, as the nation came out of its economic depression and the oldest daughter, Ida Mae, found work as a schoolteacher. They were all living together on land they owned. It didn’t last long. Tragically, Ida Mae died of typhoid fever in 1902 at the age of 20. A year later, Joseph (who’d left the family to work on a farm in Braintree) died as well. The death certificate lists conditions compatible with alcohol abuse (“fatty degeneration of liver”). Lee, who had just completed what we’d consider the 8th grade, left school to support the family.

Joseph's father, sister, and maternal grandparents, as well as many dozens of cousins, are at final rest in the bucolic Taftsville Cemetery
The year after that, 1904, Lee’s other sister, Louise, was admitted to the Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury, diagnosed with “dementia praecox,” a diagnosis that would later be replaced by the term “schizophrenia.” Only 20 at the time, she would spend the rest of her days there, dying in 1919 of tuberculosis at the age of 35.
1900: The only surviving census where the family is all together. By the next one, Joseph and Ida Mae would be dead; Louisa committed to the state hospital for life; and Ida and Lee gone forever from Vermont.
At this point Ida, nearing 50, had no husband, no parents, no in-laws, and one daughter dead and the other in the hospital for life. She had only 15-year-old Lee and her brother, who’d moved to Boston in about 1890. After trying to make a go of it in Vermont, in about 1906 Ida and Lee moved to the city. They first lived with her brother, who worked as an orderly and then a nurse at Boston City Hospital and had never married. He found Ida work as a nurse.

[The brother’s role is of great interest to me. For quite a while I believed that Ida was an only child, and took as a mistake a genealogy book’s assertion that her parents had a son living in Taftsville in 1887. Then he popped up in an search, living in Boston in the 1930 census. I checked Boston death records and, sure enough, there he was, with the same parents as Ida. Now I had to work backward. It turns out that as a young boy he lived with relatives of their father rather than with Ida and their parents; I don’t know why. He moved to the city around the time his mother died – 1889 – and was likely the reason Lee and his mother moved there later. Given that I wouldn’t exist if Lee hadn’t moved to the city and met my great-grandmother there, I may owe this fellow a debt of gratitude. It’s strange to owe your existence in part to someone whose existence you doubted.]

Lee lived in a very different environment when he moved, at 17, to Boston's Roxbury neighborhood
In the 1910 census Lee, then 21, is living near, but not with, his mother. She was rooming with two older women near the Boston City Hospital, the same Boston City Hospital that was a block from Boston College at the time, and three blocks from the family of Lee’s future wife. Lee was living in Roxbury, near Eliot Square. It was a short ride up Washington Street on the Metropolitan streetcar. He’s listed with four animals on the farm schedule; you can’t take the country entirely out of the boy. Lee also is listed as the owner of a detective agency, a laughable concept to some people in the family. Apparently a common thing back then; in the same census my grandfather’s father listed it as his occupation as well.
The streetcar as Lee would have found it in Roxbury, ca. 1910
Boston City Hospital, ca. 1907-1915
Boston City Hospital as it looked in 1907, when Ida joined her brother as an employee there
By the next census a lot of things would happen. In 1913 Lee and my great-grandmother Lil would be married in a huge Catholic Church that sits there today, hulking and empty, waiting to learn if it will be condos or offices. Before 1920 they had two sons, and in 1921 my grandmother, their third and last child, was born. Already Lee drank too much and worked too little. Even in the “Roaring 20s” (which, like the 1990s, roared more for the top of the pyramid than the bottom or middle), the family depended on Lil’s relatives for help. The Depression made things much worse. Before long all of the kids were out of school (my grandmother left after 8th grade) and working more than 40 hours a week. Lee, on the other hand, was out of work for all of 1939.  
1940 Census: a family supported by the children. The first column asked if a person is employed. Lee and his wife (first two rows) are not; the three children below are. My grandmother (bottom row), then 19, and one brother worked 44 hours a week. The oldest brother, 25, worked 52 hours a week. Lee hadn't worked at all in 1939 (right-hand column); his two sons worked the whole year. Two years later all three kids were married and he was gone.
Lee’s problems, of course, related very closely to his alcoholism. Very similar problems affected his paternal cousins, most of whom gravitated to the Boston area as well in the early 1900s. But I can’t help but wonder how much the drinking in his family was fueled by the hardships faced by a hardscrabble farm family in impoverished Vermont during one on the worst depressions our country ever has faced. I have thought a lot about the hard times of Lee’s youth, the sociology of America and Vermont at that time, and the similarities and differences between the years of his childhood and our own times. But I’ve gone on for long enough with Lee's personal story, so all that will have to wait for the next installment...

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri Mar 14, 2014 at 12:57 PM PDT.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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