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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[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 ancestry.com 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.]