Once again, Town Meeting is upon us. I’m less involved in town politics than I used to be (I was Town Clerk and Treasurer for 6 years, before I started to practice law). But I still vote and campaign when there are issues I care about on the warning, or when there are contested races.
This year, there’s a contested seat on the three-person Guildhall Selectboard. Susan McVetty is challenging Pete Fay, the incumbent. I support Susan. She has a long history of exemplary service to the Town: she’s been on the Selectboard a few times, and in addition, she’s served at various times over the last two decades as a lister, zoning administrator, cemetery commissioner, auditor, and treasurer. She knows the ropes of town business inside and out.
Susan, quite honestly, is one of the most organized and detail-oriented people I know. She genuinely cares about the town and about good governance. In the past, she’s demonstrated the ability to work in a professional, collegial way with virtually all other Town officers, and stand up for what she believes is right, when necessary.
Her opponent, Pete Fay is an okay guy. But he seems less and less engaged with the Town these days, and as I understand it, spends four or five months or so in the warmer climes of Florida. I think we need Susan in there.
Susan, by the way, has other important skills, too, besides being a fantastic administrator in general: she does her own hand-made chocolates, the best I’ve ever had! (Full disclosure: Susan also has worked with me in my law office for the last 4 years. That’s part of how I have come to know and trust her work.)
Believe it or not, Guildhall, Vermont is home to an accomplished architectural historian. Allen Hodgdon was born in Granby, Vermont and lived his entire life–except for going away to college and graduate school–in Lancaster, NH and Guildhall. Allen was the first person Edward and I met when we moved here from Boston in 2004. We encountered him behind the counter and tending the wood stove at the Guildhall Village General Store, which he owned and operated. He was the first to give us an insider’s perspective on the Town and to answer our questions about the beautiful public library that sits next to our home.
An architectural historian who runs a general store? Ah, but those are only some of Allen’s accomplishments. I consider him a true “renaissance” individual, with broad, deep familiarity on many subjects, including history, literature, antique furniture, music, photography, painting and animal husbandry. He is an excellent cook, an animal lover, and our elected local probate and assistant judge, so therefore a scholar of the law, too. As an assistant judge, he manages the affairs of the county and hears traffic and uncontested divorce cases. For years, he was our Town Moderator and Chair of the Lister (Assessor) Board here in Guildhall. There aren’t many people anywhere in the world like Allen, someone with whom I can have an intelligent, even fascinating, conversation on virtually any topic.
But back to architecture: the catalyst for this blog entry is that in the fall of 2018, Allen published a comprehensive volume about the renowned architect of the Northeast Kingdom, Lambert Packard. “The Life, Times, and Works of Lambert Packard, Architect” has been 44 years in the making. Although I’ve been acquainted with Allen for 15 years now, I had no idea about this work in progress, until I stopped one day at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium in St Johnsbury to visit their gift shop in search of holiday gifts. There, proudly on display, was a single copy of the book. That same hour, I bought the last copy on sale at nearby St Johnsbury Athaeneum, the local public library and museum.
Later that week, I stopped to visit Allen at home, and he signed the book so I could give it to Edward for Christmas. We spent a pleasant few minutes in conversation about the book and then, after the holidays, I interviewed Allen in more detail about the book’s evolution over 44 years.
Allen attended Lyndon State College for two years, and there, he met an architecture history buff-turned English professor by the name of Norman Atwood. Professor Atwood became Allen’s mentor and encouraged Allen to apply to and then transfer to his former employer, the University of Illinois, where he had been the Dean of Students. More important, Professor Atwood handed over to Allen a sheaf of his own detailed, handwritten notes about local architect Lambert Packard. Allen took the notes, finished undergrad out in Illinois, and then went to grad school in architectural history at nearby Northwestern University for two years and studied with architectural historian, Professor Graham Newell. He returned to the Northeast Kingdom, worked, lived his life, and steadily, slowly, researched the life and the buildings of Lambert Packard, one by one.
Along the way, Allen decided to apply for Guildhall Village to be named on the National Historic Registry. He conducted the extensive research on every single building in the Village in support of that application, which includes our beautiful home, the Benton Cottage. It’s a fascinating document, and can be viewed here.
Back in the NEK, Allen worked as a grantwriter at the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium and subsequently as a proofreader at the famed Stinehour Press, in Lunenburg. He became active in town politics, as previously noted, and has served on and off as the local probate and assistant judge for the last 20 years.
He painstakingly researched the history of Packard and his buildings using sources such as vital statistics in Town Clerk’s offices and the Packard collections at the St Johnsbury Athaeneum, Goodrich Memorial Library in Newport, the Vermont State Library in Montpelier, and Dartmouth College, including newspapers on microfilm, photographs, drawings and letters.
The book is a remarkable accomplishment, astonishing in its loving attention to detail, its scholarly rigor, and its crisp and elegant language and graphics. The book makes the science and art of architecture come alive. I consider myself reasonably knowledgeable about Lambert Packard’s career, but in perusing this incredibly detailed volume, I discovered that there were many buildings I encounter regularly in my work and travels, unbeknownst to me, designed in part or in whole, by Packard, such as the beautiful Orleans County Courthouse, in Newport, Vermont, where I spend every Monday representing parents and kids on the juvenile docket.
And although the book is complete after all these 44 years, Allen is not finished. I asked him if he had any new projects in the pipeline, and with a twinkle in his eye, he told me that yes, he’s now working on an architectural history of every single county courthouse in Vermont. I can’t wait!
Since the late 20th century, there just haven’t been many schools in Essex County. The four biggest towns, Concord, Lunenburg, Brighton, and Canaan, all have their own schools. And until the last decade, two small-town schools remained, one here in Guildhall and one in East Haven. Most of these late 20th century schools have been elementary only, with middle and high school students tuitioned out–the two exceptions were Canaan and Concord. A few years ago, after several protracted and quite bitter citizen battles, the high school in Concord, Vermont closed. One high school remains in the entire county, in Canaan, a town in the furthest corner of northeast Vermont, abutting Quebec and New Hampshire.
Essex County’s most recent school closure was here in my little town of Guildhall, the county’s shire municipality. (East Haven closed its elementary school in 2011). In 2015, voters elected to shut down our K-5 two-room school built in 1957, and at the end of the 2016 academic year, the school shuttered its doors forever. This was an emotionally wrenching decision for Guildhall citizens. Although most hated the idea of losing our school, all understood that a budget of close to $800,000 for educating 20 elementary school kids and about 9-10 other high schoolers, just wasn’t sustainable.
Just 20 kids in the school! But Guildhall’s educational system, for much of its history, had been far more extensive, populated, and robust. Starting in 1789, the Town founders established the first school at the Block House near the Village. Through the remainder of the 18th century and spanning the 19th, the school districts, schools, and school teachers divided and multiplied to serve Guildhall’s much-larger population of children who had to walk to school.
According to Patricia Rogers’ The History of Guildhall, Vermont, there were as many as 8 different school districts within the town, with six different school buildings, by the late 19th century. District #4 was located in Guildhall Village and known as the Essex County Grammar School. When the school districts all consolidated into one in 1957 (with a newly constructed, modern building), the Village School was conveyed to the county. It became the home of the County Extension Service, underwent a major restoration, became the new home of the Essex County Sheriff’s Department, and also now houses (on the 2nd floor) my satellite law office!
By 1957, the multiple school buildings and districts scattered throughout Guildhall had closed and consolidated, with all students enrolled in a single district, in a newly constructed building, which consisted of two rooms, a kitchen, and a large playground. At the new site, the school remained a stable constant, albeit with a steadily declining enrollment, until voters decided in 2015 that something had to give. (The first year after closure, the total school budget dropped by about 50%, a dramatic savings). There was a profound sense of loss when voters took this momentous step, and it has changed our town and added to the overall sense of decline.
Even though the school itself closed at the end of the 2016 academic year, the Guildhall School District has remained intact and meeting regularly, largely to oversee its own dissolution, by entering into a merger with a unified school district (the NEK School Choice District), consisting of 10 other Essex County municipalities. With the new unified district (NEK Choice), each participating town gets one representative to that entity (with the exception of Kirby, which gets two reps). That person is elected at Town Meeting for a three year term, and represents the interests of our kids and parents at regular meetings.
On December 13, 2018, the Guildhall School District met at the Town Office for the last time. It was a rather solemn session, and not well-attended. Present were two out of the three school board members (Patty Brown and Karen Caron), the Guildhall Town Clerk and Treasurer George Blakeslee, a representative from the supervisory union, and oh yes, I was there. Although I was once the School District Treasurer, I have no official role now, and showed up exclusively for the historic occasion.
At the meeting, the board members discussed the new governance system, finalized and signed off on the documents transferring the school district’s assets to the new unified district and then formally dissolved itself. (The school building itself by this time had been sold off to a private owner). I asked the board to memorialize, in the minutes, that the 200-year old archives of the school district, including old enrollment and attendance records, be preserved where they are now, and not disposed of. (They sit in two old vaults at the Town Clerk’s office now. Some day, time allowing, I will pore over them.)
I took some pictures and then the meeting was adjourned. End of an era.
In January, Vermont legalized possession (but not purchase and sale) of marijuana. We still don’t have the more sensible, tax-and-regulate system that states like Colorado, Oregon, and now Massachusetts do, but the Vermont legislature appears to be headed in that direction, maybe even in the 2019 session.
We celebrated St Patrick’s Day by hosting a gathering of the Essex Co Democratic Committee, at our house in Guildhall. About 15 of us read Irish revolutionary poetry, listened to Irish music, talked politics long into the evening with fellow Dems, and the wonderful Terje Anderson, Chair of the Vermont Democratic Party, took the trouble to come out to remote Essex County, which impressed us to no end!
I became licensed to practice law in New Hampshire in 2018. Had to take 4 days of continuing legal education down in Concord, pass the Character & Fitness eval, pay quite a bit of money, and go down to the New Hampshire Supreme Court to get sworn in. A few months later, I was also admitted and sworn in to federal court in NH. (At a reception after one session, I had the good fortune to meet former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. He’s a delightful person. We talked about hiking the 4,000 footers of the White Mountains, because he has done them all. I’ve only done about 65% of them).
This year, the Vermont legislature passed a series of modest, common-sense gun control measures. (S.55) We outlawed bumpstocks, limited the acquisition of certain high capacity magazines, expanded background checks, and raised the age to purchase firearms to 21 (with certain exceptions). The passage of S.55 here in Vermont was difficult and wrenching, as Vermont, until now, has had the fewest gun restrictions in the nation. Here’s a photo of me on the Vermont State House lawn, at a pro-S.55 rally.
I stumbled across and bought a beautiful antique, oak desk for my law office. I know it’s a little thing, but it has made a huge difference in my work environment.
A new brewery/restaurant came to Lancaster, NH! My friend and neighbor Mike Holland finally fulfilled his long-time dream to open a craft brew establishment. Next time you are in the North Country, visit the Copper Pig Brewery. You won’t regret it!
My mom and I went on a day-long walking tour of a quaking bog, in New London, New Hampshire. I’m fond of bogs, and this is a particularly fascinating one.
Edward and I spent an extended Memorial Day weekend in and around Central Park, in Manhattan. For some time now, we had been thinking about a trip organized around the “theme” of exploring Central Park. We stayed in an AirBnb on the West Side edge of the Park, spent our days walking inside the Park itself (mostly the northern section, visited the nearby Museums, and went to restaurants and clubs on the periphery of the park. (But we needed way more time than we had!) Edward and I both love public art and Central Park is full of some of the best examples of it in the world.
We marched with our dog Django in the St Johnsbury Pet Parade.
In July, my mom and I drove across the stateto take the Green Mountain Champlain Dinner Train from Burlington down the eastern edge of Lake Champlain to Middlebury. There was a full dinner with wine on the train and some of the views were spectacular. The next day, we had brunch on the Ethan Allen Cruise Ship, on Lake Champlain with great views of the Adirondacks. (I find Lake Champlain to be one of the most romantic, dreamy spots in New England),
In late July, I ran in the Lancaster 5K Road Race. It’s a race I haven’t done in a couple of years, so I worried I might have lost my mojo, but I finished, and my time was decent!
A second-great cousin of mine, Ben Eklof visited us in Guildhall this summer. He is one of the children of my great-aunt Edith Cyr. He’s a scholar of Russian history and lives and teaches in Bloomington, Indiana, with periodic research trips to Russia for research and scholarship. We had a blast over lunch, meeting for the first time, and talking about our family history.
In August, in conjunction with the county prosecutor and the bar association, I organized two Expungement Clinics at my office here in Guildhall, for residents of Essex County. This was a great opportunity to clear certain criminal convictions from one’s record! We will probably do more of these sessions in the year to come.
For my birthday, we went to the Von Trapp Family Lodge, in Stowe, Vermont. We ate at the fabulous restaurant, toured the brewery, and hiked around the gardens and trails.
In late August, we trekked up to a local, little-known gem: The Cite Ecologique, in Colebrook, New Hampshire, for Permaculture Weekend. We spent the day touring the grounds, learning about gardening, permaculture, and sustainability practices. (We also had the best vegetarian meal ever in my life, I do believe)
In September/October, we traveled to Italy! This was my first time in that country, so it was an exciting venture for me. We flew to Rome and spent two days wandering the city and having a private guided tour of the Vatican Museums. We then took a train to Perugia, in the province of Umbria. It was a lovely train ride. We stayed in Umbria, at a villa on a hill surrounded by olive trees, for two weeks, with friends from the U.S., Hungary, Mexico, England, and France. On some days, we hung out at the villa, but on many days, we took day trips to various walled cities in the region, including Assisi, Deruta, and Perugia itself. Then we took the train back to Rome, for more exploring and sight-seeing. We were particularly taken with the Jewish Quarter, where we spent a full day in the Hebrew Museum, the Synagogue, and had the best meal (kosher) of the entire trip.
This was the worst political nightmare of the year, on the national scene.
I had my first appeal at Vermont’s Environmental Court, and won the case!
We spent Thanksgiving at our house in Lunenburg, Vermont with a group of 9, including our friends Jackie and Shaunna Shaw, of Guildhall and my friend and law colleague Eugene Levine.
For Christmas, Edward got me a Bodhran, a special Celtic drum I’ve been wanting for years. I even have some online lessons for learning it!
Finally, we closed out 2018 by taking a spur-of-the-moment short trip down to New Bedford and Fall River, Massachusetts. One branch of my family immigrated from Quebec to Fall River in 1877 to work in the textile mills. My great-grandmother Marie Louise Doucet was the 8th child of the emigrating family, and the first one born after emigration. We visited gravestones, stood in front of the church where my great-grandparents married in 1903, tracked down addresses and houses where my extended descendant family lived, and I stopped in at the Fall River Historical Society. I took pictures of everything, as I’m working on a forthcoming blog post about my immigrant family. We stayed overnight at a hotel near the New Bedford waterfront and ate at a couple of great restaurants. It seemed fitting to close out the year with an homage to my ancestors.
The tomatoes, eggplant and peppers have gone by, sadly, and I’ve harvested all the squash and cucumbers. But we still have a lot of kale, arugala and swiss chard in the ground. Might even last into December if we throw some garden fabric over it.
Inside the hoop greenhouse, there is spinach, lettuce, mesclun, mizuna, mache and endive. I’m hoping I’ll be able to harvest those cool-weather crops right through until February.
I’ve been a practicing Vermont lawyer since 2012. Here’s a screenshot of my law partner Tiffany Young and I. Visit our website here, if you’re interested. I’m a trial lawyer with a focus on criminal law, tenant-landlord law, juvenile law, municipal law and employment/labor law.
Earlier this year, I finally ended the procrastination and submitted my application to become licensed in NH. After all, it makes personal and professional sense for me: I live and have an office within a stone’s throw of NH, just across the Connecticut River.
To get into NH, I didn’t have to take another bar exam (thank goodness), but I did have to complete a 19 page application, track down and submit copies of my various admissions and diplomas, get 5 people to vouch for me in writing, and take 15 credit hours in New Hampshire practice and procedure.
I was sworn in formally on September 14, at the New Hampshire Supreme Court, in Concord. Afterwards, Edward and I had a nice lunch to celebrate.
Do you dream of a move to Vermont, or dream of owning a second home here? Are you interested, however, in a more authentic and untouched part of the state? Is there really such a place left in Vermont? This post is dedicated to you then, the ones who’d prefer to avoid the stereotypes, the tourists, and the mass marketing.
In part, this is a sales pitch, both for our home for sale in Guildhall, but more broadly, for my beloved corner of Vermont, which very few people know exists. But this is also my reflection on the nature of Vermont, what we think we know about it, and how to experience the real Vermont, rather than the myths and the marketing.
For many, Vermont is a romantic idea, a destination involving ski resorts, maple syrup, Vermont teddy bears, well-groomed bike paths, leaf-peeping and venues for Vermont crafts, in places like Stowe, Killington, Brattleboro, Putney, or Burlington. But is this the real Vermont? Is there any place left in my beloved state that’s relatively untouched and not mass-marketed? Places where some authenticity remains?
I think such a place does exist and we live it. We are full-time residents of Essex County, an area tucked into the northeastern corner of the state between Quebec and New Hampshire. Few (including many Vermonters!) have ever heard of our county, which is home to about 6,000 people. Still fewer have heard of Guildhall, the county’s beautiful shire town. After all, Guildhall’s population is only 263. Yes, you heard me correctly. Not 2,630. Just 263. Although Essex County has a few bigger towns (the biggest is Lunenburg, population about 1,300), the majority of our towns are similarly tiny.
Our house, known as the Benton Cottage, is an eight room Colonial Revival built in 1915 by Everett C. Benton. Generations of the Benton family had lived in Guildhall, but in the late 19th century, Everett moved to the Boston area. He and his family retained their ties to the area, designing and building a summer cottage, and acting generally as a town benefactor, including the finance, design and building of the town library, town offices, and several public monuments. When the Benton family visited Guildhall during the summers of the early 20th century, they weren’t tourists. They had real connections here, with real family and friends.
The Benton Cottage sits on the banks of the majestic Connecticut River, with a spectacular view of the northern White Mountains. Click here to see the online Benton Cottage photo album
We’ve had our house on the market numerous times, periodically over the last six years. Exactly two people have even come to look at it. (They made no offers). If no one comes to look, there is no way they will fall hopelessly in love with this property like we did back in 2004 when we moved here from Boston. We were so smitten (and looking for a change) that we pulled up roots from the city we loved and moved to this hyper-rural area. We simply could not resist.
But our town is remote. As you might imagine with 263 people, there is no supermarket, no restaurant, no coffee shop, no bank, no pharmacy. We don’t have a single gas station. (For these amenities, we drive about 15 minutes, to Lancaster, NH).
What was so irresistible about this little town and county where not much happens? Where to start? The house with its graceful, stately fence facing the most charming New England green I think I’ve ever seen, with a public library, courthouse, sheriff’s office, church, and town office where you can pick wild strawberries on the common in June and July. The three fireplaces, in the living room, dining room, and study. The glorious wrap-around porch where we have sat many an hour watching the Connecticut River and the flood plain full of birds and wildlife. The spacious lawn where I’ve since installed raised beds and grow herbs, flowers and vegetables. Where every house, including ours, is listed on the historic registry maintained by the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The landscape surrounding us is wild and virtually untouched by tourism. Bicyclists come through town occasionally in the summer and some adventurous auto leaf-peepers in the fall. But they don’t congregate; there is no place to stop, no stores hawking goods, no hotels and only a handful of bed and breakfasts throughout the county. (Only three that I can think of). The drive north (and south) on Route 102 is one of the most beautiful river byways in the state, and few are aware of it, even tourist officials. The extraordinary Silvio O. Conte Wildlife Refuge, on Route 105 on the way to Island Pond is a protected working landscape with endless opportunities for hiking, fishing, and biking. Maidstone Lake, about seven miles north of the Benton Cottage, is one of Vermont’s most beautiful state parks.
UPDATE: My friend Linnzi Furman, who homesteads down the road here in Guildhall, has pointed out, rightfully so, the other advantages of our region, including the town being equidistant to St Johnsbury, Colebrook and Littleton, important cultural centers. And then there’s our relative close proximity to ski areas like Bretton Woods and Burke Mountain. Plus, Lancaster, New Hampshire, our go-to town is flourishing these days, with a new bakery, natural foods store, and brewery.
When a house goes unsold for long periods of time, it’s tempting to think surely there must be something wrong with the property. Not in this case. No, the Benton Cottage is in great shape, lovingly preserved and maintained over the last hundred years. No, sadly, it’s the location. I suspect that this historic house, with all its features and its riverfront location with stunning view of the White Mountains, would be worth a cool million or more if it were located even an hour south of here.
Here in Guildhall, we even have excellent broadband, which means that earning a living via telecommute is perfectly viable. (And it takes less time than you might think to get here from Boston, usually 3.5 hours on the interstate) But location is location. Ironically, what we love about our region, its sleepiness, its wild beauty, its lack of tourist madness, are the very things that keep our region a secret beauty, and prevent and inhibit population growth and much-needed economic development.
So those with the Vermont dream, I invite you to expand your notion of what Vermont means. Come to Essex County. Come to Guildhall. Have a glass of wine on our porch. Experience the real Vermont.