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We tour a home designed by otherworldly architects, pass the night in haunted hotels, visit an antigravity spot, and search for demon-protected treasure.
We take a ride on Vermont's only ghost ship, visit tiny fairyland castles, and see a city in the sky. Then we try to determine who -- or what -- is buried in a mysterious grave in Cambridge.
We meet the last woman to be hanged in Vermont, explore the strange fate of a girl who heard the music of the spheres, and consider the bashful prophetess who saw God but was too shy to tell anyone.
Along the way we encounter villains and visionaries, misfits and monsters, in a state full of egotists, oddballs, and spiritual eccentrics. Skeptics and believers alike will delight in these strange but (maybe) true stories that can be read as regional history, folklore, or simply as entertainment. Guaranteed to amuse, tickle, and terrify!
The Autograph & The Gazetteer
A Remarkable Fellow
Seems to me Vermont has always had an extraordinary number of newspaper, magazine, and book publishers. But by far the most individual, and perhaps the most eccentric of all was Mr. James Johns of Huntington. If writers and publishers were to put out calls for patron saints, Johns could easily do double duty, representing both groups.
This minor miracle man was born September 26, 1797, the son of Jehiel and Elizabeth Johns, Huntington's first settlers. Perhaps being almost as old as the town gave him a unique perspective. No surprise then that he should become the town's pioneering historian and newspaperman.
With tremendous singleness of purpose he produced his first newspaper, The Huntington Gazette, when he was just thirteen years old. He wrote it by hand on a 6 1/2 by 8 1/2 piece of brown wrapping paper. He then went on to write nonstop: histories, fiction, short stories, poems, political essays, and local interest articles.
Apparently Johns had some trouble finding publishers for most of his early work. His Green Mountain Muse, published in 1828, didn't sell a single copy. Like many writers, he blamed the publisher and printer. Thereafter, he was determined to self-publish.
In 1832 he started his own newspaper, a five-times-a-week journal called The Vermont Autograph and Remarker. As he said in something of an editorial mission statement, "As it is composed wholly of originalmatter, it is of course the channel through which we occasionally expound our sentiments on political and moral points which we intend to express boldly without fear or favor of any man or act of men."
A number of things about this periodical were completely unique:
First, his habit was to print only one single copy of each issue.
Second, since Johns had no use for the printing press, each issue was lettered entirely by hand. "And the reader may be assured," Johns wrote, "that every paragraph is composed and written by the Editor himself, and that too without having first to draft it on another piece of paper, which is more than can be said hundreds and thousands of ... royal and imperial folios issued from the press."
Third, the quality of his penmanship was so good that at a glance his publication was indistinguishable from typeset copy.
And last, there was the one-of-a-kind quality of Johns's eccentric writing style.
Johns used The Vermont Autograph and Remarker to chronicle all the notable happenings in the town of Huntington: births, deaths, weather, accidents, and more.
On October 10, 1834, he felt moved to explain the title of his publication. "We have more than once since our paper was published under its present title been asked what was the meaning of the word Autograph. Although we would think that any person might by consulting a dictionary easily satisfy his mind on that point, still as we are willing to give information as to the meaning of words which we may use, we will condescend to explain it for the edification of those of our readers who may wish to know its meaning. Know then that Autograph means a person's own handwriting on any copy or work executed with one's own hand, in distinction from that which [is] struck off upon type at a printing office. We have adopted this word as part of the title of our little paper as being most characteristic of the manner in which it is executed for there is no one who is at all experienced in reading but can readily perceive that this was done with a pen."
Each issue contained about a half-dozen articles, totaling about 1,500 words. "I can fill out one in half a day," he said, and he used only a quill pen to do so. He would then take his one-page, single-sided gazette to the center of town where he would post it for all to read. On rare occasions he might condescend to create a special hand-lettered duplicate if someone wanted a souvenir copy for some very good reason.
Johns didn't really hate the printing press. In fact, he acquired one in 1857 in order to expand his operation. But—finding hand printing faster than typesetting—he continued to put out the Autograph and Remarker completely by hand.
Somehow he also found time to keep a diary, hand pen a forty-four-page history of Huntington. And, with the new press, he also wrote and printed his Green Mountain Tradition, Remarkable Circumstances, a book entitled A brief record of the various fatal accidents which have happened from the first settlement of the town of Huntington to the present time, and The Book of Funny Anecdotes.
Despite his individualistic publication habits, Johns was arguably one of the most prolific American writers. It is surely no surprise that he never married—he was just too busy, too preoccupied, and no doubt too strange. Surviving photographs show an intense-looking man with bushy eyebrows and thick, white sideburns. Contemporary accounts describe him as having a swarthy complexion and speaking with a deep bass voice.
But to be fair, the way to get to know him is through his writing. His literary voice is unique, his opinions unfettered. He even ventured into some highly opinionated investigative journalism, political shenanigans and secret societies being favorite targets. For example, on June 15, 1823, he reported a meeting of the Freewill Baptists that he attended in Richmond. "Saw & heard much noise and wildfire.... His Freewill Highness Pope Ziba was present, and tried to see how much noise he could make."
"September 21d ... Trespass committed by our worse than no neighbor Roswell Stevens in cutting down a bee tree on our land and taking the honey."
Then there was the stolen potash caper that occurred on the night of April 5, 1824: "Information supposed, or known to have been given the thieves concerning where the potash was, given by that most abandoned of all villains, Gail Nichols, the curse and bane of society."
Sometimes he'd be reporting on a bit of local news and, if he were so inclined, he'd switch unpredictably from prose to poetry. One report, reproduced in Huntington, Vermont 1786-1976, tells of the time Huntington residents were spooked by the continual screeching of a catamount. A bunch of armed men banded together to hunt the thing. Johns writes:
O'er rock and knoll they scour'd the hill
Ransacking every quarter;
Until at length they came upon,
A little run of water.
And here they found the catamount,
That sent forth all the screechin'
Who in the shape of water wheel,
Complained he wanted greasing.
His total literary output was uncanny. His hand-printed Autograph and Remarker came out five days a week, for over forty years. He ceased publication just four days before his death in 1874. His legacy: an extraordinarily vivid picture of early life in a small Vermont town.
In an attempt to demonstrate that men have no monopoly on monomania and Vermont chauvinism, let's consider the case of Abby Hemenway and The Vermont Historical Gazetteer.
The Gazetteer is one of my favorite sources of material for books and commentaries because it is full of stories that haven't been seen for decades. Believe it or not, this 6,000-page compilation of Vermontiana is the brainchild and product of a single person: the remarkable Miss Hemenway.
Because I—and everyone who writes about Vermont's past—owe her so much, I'd like to tell her story. For if it were not for Miss Hemenway's monumental independence, eccentricity, and drive, much of Vermont's most intimate history and folklore would have been lost forever. She anticipated that loss and set out to prevent it.
In 1828 Abby Maria Hemenway was born in a two-room log cabin in Ludlow, where she lived with her parents and nine brothers and sisters. When she was just fourteen years old she began a career as a schoolteacher. In 1842 she took a better teaching post at Ludlow's Black River Academy, Calvin Coolidge's alma mater.
At thirty, when most women were married and raising families, Miss Hemenway was busily working on a literary anthology called Poets and Poetry of Vermont. Maybe that editorial effort inspired what was to become her life's work and her obsession. By reading verse it is likely she came to appreciate the power of the individual voice, the poetry of personal perception, and the singular nature of an individual's recollection.
As a historian she realized that many significant events were never recorded in conventional history books. While the grand affairs of war and political posture inevitably found their place, the stories of individuals and communities were routinely overlooked—just the sorts of details that give history breath and life. As a staunch Vermonter she feared losing colorful local lore. She said, "Our past has been too rich and, in many points, too unique and too romantic to lose."
This became her mission: Abby was determined to record these endangered Vermont chronicles before they became extinct. In Vermont—a rather youthful state by New England standards—frontier days were within easily accessible memory; Abby's own father could even recall a time when there was but a single house in her native Ludlow. So her plan was to visit every town in the state, seeking out the sons of Revolutionary War veterans and the descendants of Vermont's original settlers. Along with their personal histories, she'd also collect supernatural stories, treasure tales, religious anecdotes, and Indian data.
Abby soon realized the project was way too big for one person alone. So she decided to recruit town historians, local clergymen, teachers, and elderly residents to write the stories of their own towns—in their own words. (It should be no surprise that Mr. James Johns prepared the section on Huntington.)
Then her plan was to publish the material in a series of quarterly magazines, town by town, according to the alphabetical order of the counties. She'd sell the magazines at twenty-five cents a copy, thus raising funds for the next batch.
When finished, the individual magazines would be combined into one vast historical encyclopedia, the comprehensive literary equivalent of the founding and flourishing of the state of Vermont, told from the point of view of its citizens.
Of course, the formidable project couldn't be accomplished on a schoolteacher's salary. And fundraising was especially difficult at that time because of the Civil War. Worse, many so-called experts tried to discourage her. Professors at Middlebury College said her project was impractical and unsuited for a woman. They asked how she expected to do what forty men hadn't accomplished in sixteen years.
How? Well, by God, she'd show them!
In Bennington she enlisted the support of ex-governor and historian Hiland Hall. He endorsed the idea, vowed his support, and even helped her gather material.
Through sheer will and tenacity, she managed to produce six issues before war expenditures and other drains on public interest and finance caused her to suspend publication.
When she was thirty-nine, a Methodist minister from Burlington proposed marriage, promising to help with the Gazetteer. She declined, forsaking the restrictions of marital security. After all, there was no time for romance; she had a job to do.
In the late 1860S, while she was working on Volume Four, the state legislature finally began to recognize the value of her effort. They offered some expense money, but the conditions they imposed, just like marriage vows, were far too confining. Again—independent as ever— Abby forged ahead on her own.
When she couldn't pay her bill, printers in Montpelier seized her magazines. Undaunted, she entered the print shop one night and seized them back! It was the only reasonable thing to do: in order to pay the bill, she'd have to sell the magazines.
All this showed that she had to economize further. Since she couldn't afford a printer, she'd do the job herself. Abby rented a large room in Ludlow and partitioned it off with curtains. In one division she worked, in another she slept, and in the third she received visitors. With the help of relatives and occasional part-time employees, Volume Five began to take shape.
It's hard to imagine the force of this woman's determination or the extent of her obsession. Nothing would keep her from her work. When she was run down by a sleigh in the streets, she got up and kept working. When she was penniless and hungry, she kept plugging.
It was the creditors who finally did her in. Their harassment drove her from the state. In 1885 she moved to Chicago. There she set up shop again, editing the manuscript by night and setting type by day.
But tragedy soon followed. In 1886, when she was almost a thousand pages into Volume Five, her building burned down. She lost everything. Apparently the fire was the final roadblock in a journey strewn with obstructions. Abby took ill. Three years later she died of a cerebral hemorrhage, alone and poverty-striken, in a meager rented room a thousand miles from home.
Sadly, the volume containing her own county, Windsor, was never printed.
Though Abby Hemenway died a debtor, things have changed: today we owe a great debt to her. The Vermont Historical Gazetteer, is still—by far—the most comprehensive history of the state she loved.