• More from Town Meeting: Saga of the Salt Shed

    Salt Shed, Collapsed Feb 2015.
    Salt Shed, Collapsed Feb 2015.

    In our town, population 263, we don’t have much municipal infrastructure.  There’s a Town Office and that’s about it.

    Oh, except for the salt shed.  Here in Guildhall, we don’t have our own road crew and we own no equipment or vehicles. Given our size, it makes more sense for the Town to outsource plowing and road maintenance to private contractors.

    Back in 2007, however, the Town decided to appropriate money to build a structure for the storage and protection of the large amount of salt we use on our Class 2 and 3 roads.   The salt shed, as it’s called, has a long and somewhat stormy (and sometimes amusing) history.  Citizens voted to create a reserve fund for it in 2007, but the project languished until 2011,  when the Road Commissioner Barbara Peaslee Smith lobbied hard to have the salt shed built on the Peaslee Farm.  She and her husband Matt Smith were managing and overseeing the farm’s operations at the time.

    That proposal was controversial, to say the least.  Many of us felt it was unwise to intermingle municipal and private property in this way.  Others were concerned about the appearance of a conflict of interest, given that the Road Commissioner was pushing the Town Selectboard to place a facility at the farm she managed, and therefore would stand to gain rental/lease money from the Town.   At a straw vote taken of the assembled opinion, a majority of those present were opposed to the idea of it being at the farm.  But the Selectboard voted to put it there anyway.

    After Ms. Peaslee-Smith and her husband exited the farm and moved to Lancaster, the new manager and the owner Janice Peaslee came up with an idea that seemed to make sense.  In 2013, they proposed to sell the land where the salt shed sat to the Town, at a discounted rate.  That way, taxpayers wouldn’t have to expend money to move the damn thing, and it would be a town building sitting on town land.    But for reasons that are not altogether clear, the Selectboard decided to reject the Peaslee offer and dismantle and reassemble the shed on a small parcel of Town-owned land near Elvina Allen’s house.  This past winter was the first winter at the new location.

    According to the budget presented in this year’s Town Report, the cost of moving the structure to the new site was over $31,000.

    Flash forward to last month, when the Town Clerk Sam called to let me know that the roof of the salt shed had collapsed.  Even worse, I later learned, there would be no insurance money to cover repairs, because the Selectboard had specifically declined to insure the structure.

    I didn’t get a good look at the salt shed until last week.  Until then, I had assumed it was just a minor dent.  As you can see, the damage is  more serious than that.

    At last week’s Town Meeting, the problem of the salt shed was a major topic of discussion.  It looks like we’ll probably have to shell out $60,000 or more to put it back up again properly.   There’s no insurance money, and there’s no line item in the budget for it, so where the money is going to come from is anybody’s guess.

    (By my calculations, this salt shed will have  cost us a pretty penny when all is said and done:  $25K from the initial reserve fund, $31K to move it, and if the estimate presented at Town Mtg was accurate, $60K to replace/repair it.   That means approximately $116,000.  Was it worth it for saving a bit of salt runoff?)


  • George Blakeslee Elected as Town Clerk and Treasurer

    George Blakeslee, new Town Auditor, moments after his victory
    George Blakeslee, new Town Auditor, moments after his victory

    Our beloved George Blakeslee has been elected to the positions of Town Clerk and Town Treasurer here in Guildhall.  George is already well-known to townspeople, because he’s our Town Moderator, Lister, and Auditor. He also sits on the town’s website editorial board and acts as the computer/IT go-to person at the Town Offices.

    A few days after his election last week, George came by my office in Guildhall to swear me in as his Assistant Treasurer and sign me again to the municipal and school district accounts.  (I was also the assistant treasurer for the previous Town Clerk and Treasurer).

    We chatted and reminisced about our mutual history and experience in town politics, and I recalled meeting George for the first time when he ran for and was elected Town Auditor in 2010.  At the time, I was the Town and School District Treasurer–and as any Treasurer knows, detail-oriented and conscientious auditors like George are an incredible boon to our jobs.  I’ve had many occasions to work with Mr. Blakeslee since then and have always been impressed.  He’s competent, organized and multi-skilled.  We’re lucky to have him!

  • Gary Brown Joins Guildhall Selectboard

    11020329_10206102569791370_433299411_n(This blog post is the first in a series covering issues and results of Town Meeting day here in Guildhall, Vermont)

    There was only one contested race for town officials this year, for an open seat on our town’s Selectboard.   Voters chose between two names on the ballot,  Gary Brown and Tom Rogers, Sr.  Mr. Brown defeated Mr. Rogers handily and this was welcome news to me, since I had voted for and otherwise supported him.

    Gary is one of my neighbors here in the village.  He doesn’t say a lot, but when he does, it counts for something. Most of us think of him as gentle and soft spoken,  but  beneath that demeanor is a person of character, conviction and when necessary, steely resolve.

    The man  has an extremely strong sense of fair play and justice.  I’ll never forget a time, three years ago, when Gary stood up tall among the crowd at a meeting of the Guildhall School Board.  An unexpected  hush came over the room, because Gary wasn’t known for speaking up.  The fact that he stood to address the Board at all spoke  volumes in itself.  When he did speak, he demanded, respectfully, but passionately that School Board member Matt Smith resign.  A large crowd had come to the School Board meeting that night because we were troubled by Smith’s conduct on the board.    Many were outraged, but not everyone had the moxie to speak up.   Gary was one of them.
    I was proud of him that night and I have come to know and appreciate him in countless other ways.  He quietly makes a difference in our town, mowing town property, doing snow removal, acting as the muncipal building and elementary school janitor,  maintaining our beloved historic cemeteries and serving on our town water commission, doing his part to make sure the system functions properly.  He’s a great person and I’m thrilled that we’ve elected him to the Selectboard.  Congratulations, Gary!
  • Early Morning at the Essex County Courthouse, Guildhall, Vermont

    Allen Hodgdon, Valerie Foy, Calvin Colby, Essex County Courthouse, Guildhall, Vt
    Allen Hodgdon, Valerie Foy, Calvin Colby, Essex County Courthouse, Guildhall, Vt

    Here are Allan Hodgdon and Calvin Colby, newly elected Essex County assistant judges, taking their oaths of office at 8:15 am on Monday, February 2.  The oath is administered by Valerie Foy,  court security officer.

    (Valerie is also my next door neighbor, librarian at the public library, and the delinquent tax collector here in Guildhall.)

    Allen Hodgdon is the Town’s unofficial architectural historian.  He also serves as  the probate judge, presiding up in Island Pond.  He used to run the Guildhall General Store, where you could get a great sandwich, cup of soup, cinnamon bun or piece of apple pie.  Calvin Colby lives in neighboring Lunenburg, Vermont.  Both were born and have lived almost their entire lives in Essex County.

    In Vermont, assistant judges are elected.  They administer the county court systems, as well as sit on the bench on either side of the presiding judge in civil matters.  They have the power to influence factual findings, although conclusions of law are reserved for judges  trained as lawyers.   Some assistant judges, if they complete certain training requirements, can preside on their own in traffic court and undisputed divorce cases.   The role of assistant judges in Vermont remains controversial:  some argue that the positions should be eliminated and that all judges of any stripe should be lawyers.  Others believe that the assistant or “side” judges are critical to the local administration of justice, because they are uniquely attuned to their communities and can provide much-needed perspective to the presiding judge, who typically rotates out of the county after just one, or at the most, two years.

    Despite ongoing disagreement about the role of assistant judges, I suspect they will be around, at least state-wide,  for the foreseeable future.  What I’m not so sure about is whether our court here in remote Essex County will survive at all.

    Yesterday’s Burlington Free Press featured an article about how the citizens of Grand Isle County (on the other side of Vermont) are battling to retain their county court system.   The Vermont Legislature once again seeks to slash the State budget, and it looks like that may involve another attempt to close down courthouses in counties such as Grand Isle and Essex, the most remote and least populous (and poorest) regions of Vermont.

    We’ve been down this road before.  In 2010, the Legislature passed a massive judicial restructuring bill.  In the course of debate over that bill,  Montpelier came quite close to shutting down our county court system entirely. In the end, a formal alliance between the Essex County Democrats and Republicans (who usually agree on nothing)  prevented that from happening.  The Court remained open, although all criminal proceedings were moved to neighboring Caledonia County.  (Defendants and witnesses had to travel over to St Johnsbury).  Then in May of 2014, the criminal docket moved back to us, largely due to the efforts of our local sheriff.    Now, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.

    But in the meantime, the Honorable Allen Hodgdon and Calvin Colby got sworn in.


  • “Tapping Love,” a poem by Alfred McVetty, Guildhall, Vermont.

    My friends Alfred and Susan McVetty live up in the hills of Guildhall, off the grid.   Here is a poem that Alfred wrote recently.  It is reprinted here with his permission.


    I’m sorry that I am going to hurt you again
    But it is almost that time
    I’ve done it before and will again
    You have always been sweet to me
    And working together we have made things even sweeter
    I will make it less hurtful this time
    By using a smaller spout and bit

    Alfred McVetty
    January 2015

    Alfred McVetty, staffing the election polls in Guildhall.
    Alfred McVetty, staffing the election polls in Guildhall.



    Every spring, Alfred and Susan, along with various family members and friends, tap the maple trees on their property on Stone Mountain.  (Maple sugaring is just one of the McVettys’ many skills and endeavors).

    When I asked what  inspired the poem, he told me that this year, in anticipation of maple sugaring time, he and Susan had made a big change.  They decided to replace all their maple sugaring spiles (also known as spouts).  They’ve been using 7/16″ metal spiles until now.  But the new ones they’ve purchased are all plastic and 5/16″.

    Alfred got to thinking about the trees on his property and how the 7/16″ spiles can do a lot of damage to trees. Damage is even more likely if you’ve got lots of family and friends helping with the taps, because not all of those helpers will necessarily have the skills to drive the 7/16″ spiles into the tree properly and gently.  He told me how the new 5/16″ spiles, when driven in, will make a tap, tap, tap, and then a thunk.  The thunk is a reliable indication that you’ve driven the spile in just far enough, and no more.

    Maple Sugar Spile with hook from LaPierre's, of Vermont.
    Maple Sugar Spile with hook from LaPierre’s, of Vermont.

    He bought all new spiles because he wants to be gentler on the trees–in short, to be a good steward of the forest.

    And that is what moved him to write the poem.  I love Alfred.   I love how in his world, practical matters intersect so gracefully with poetry.

  • At Last, the Polish Princess Bakery: Forget About Dunkin’ Donuts

    Storefront of Polish Princess Bakery, Main St, Lancaster, NH
    Storefront of Polish Princess Bakery, Main St, Lancaster, NH

    We’ve been waiting, on the edge of our seats for months.  Finally, this weekend, we have a new bakery and coffee shop, in downtown Lancaster, NH, a ten minute drive from where I live in Guildhall, Vermont.

    Magdalena Randall, who has garnered a beloved following for her baked goods and bread sold at the Lancaster Farmer’s Market, has taken the leap and opened a beautiful new coffee shop and bakery on Main St, known as the Polish Princess Bakery.

    Inside Seating Area at Polish Princess Bakery
    Inside Seating Area at Polish Princess Bakery

    I paid a visit early this morning and came away with a supply of currant scones, two chocolate tartlets, and a double cappuccino.   The cafe is warm, cozy, inviting and spacious, with hard wood floors, fresh flowers, baking books on display and a friendly and open kitchen/baking area.   The food–as expected–is mouthwatering and the atmosphere delightful.

    I snapped some photos inside and out and chatted with owner Magdalena Randall, who reported that she did a brisk business yesterday, at breakfast and lunchtime.

    IMG_20150125_081717_858It’s a great place and something we’ve sorely needed for many years here in the Essex County and Northern Coos County region.  Here’s a link to the Polish Princess Bakery facebook page for more information.

    Here’s a sampling of the delicious baked goods I brought home this morning from there.IMG_20150125_085305_977


    Charlie HebdoOh, don’t worry.  I have no illusions that my little blog with its miniscule readership can be compared to Charlie Hebdo, the spunky magazine that bravely continued to publish its clever and incisive satire even after it was bombed, threatened and hacked.  Nor am I under any grandiose belief that my blog is somehow equivalent to  august and respectable paragons of journalism and free expression such as the New York Times, who–not so courageously–decided yesterday to refrain from publishing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons.  I am not a famed, accomplished, or high profile blogger.

    But I still think it’s important to make this act of publication,  living as we seem to, in a world where artists and writers can get murdered for what they do.


  • Up In the Hills of Essex County: House or Camp?

    IMG_20150102_095239_591For about fifteen years now, Edward and his son Connolly have owned a house in the remote hills of Essex County.   They bought it from Edward’s old friends Tim and Leslie Nulty.  The house had been owned by Tim’s family since the late 1950s.  His father however, had been coming to the “neighborhood” for much longer, since the 1930s when he worked summers as a counselor at the Boys Camp down the road.

    Apparently the elder Nultys spent their honeymoon at this house.   Since then, their son Tim and his wife and children have visited spanning a period of thirty years.    After Edward and Connolly bought the property, we used it as a frequent getaway spot from our busy Boston lives.  We’d come up for long weekends and vacations.  (On one of those vacations in 2003, we happened across another beautiful house in neighboring Guildhall, and that encounter led to the decision to move to Essex County permanently.  Now when we want a truly remote spot as an escape, it’s much closer by.)

    The house is over 200 years old and sits far back from the road.  This time of year, you can just barely see it as you pass by, but in spring, summer and fall, it’s completely obscured by trees and foliage.

    There is an ongoing debate between Edward and I about what kind of house this really is.  Edward often refers to it as “the camp.”  When he does that, I inevitably laugh and point out that it just doesn’t qualify as a camp in the way most Vermonters seem to define it.  First of all, the house isn’t used how most camps in Vermont seem to be.   From what I can tell, most camps are places where groups of men go to male bond, drink beer and sometimes hunt.    That’s just not what this place is or has ever been used for.  (I make no claim to the moral high road here.  Each to his own.)

    Moreover, most camps seem to have been built expressly for these hunting/drinking/male bonding purposes and were never intended to be full time or permanent residences.  Although our house in the hills of Essex County hasn’t been a full-time or permanent residence for anyone in a long, long time, it was originally built and functioned as a working farm, with several outbuildings (which were demolished at some point in the 1960s.)

    Second, and more concretely,   most “camps” don’t have indoor plumbing, electricity, gas stoves, furnaces, basements, telephones and aren’t multi-storied.  Our house in the hills may be a bit on the rustic side and it’s certainly remote, but there’s electricity, a gas stove/oven, an oil-burning furnace in the basement, (in addition to two woodstoves), running water that supports a toilet, bathroom, kitchen sinks and shower/bathtub.  For years, we had a landline telephone here, until we abandoned it last year due to the fact that cell phone signals up here are now perfectly adequate.  Plus, it’s a two storied house, with four rooms downstairs and three bedrooms upstairs.

    (In all fairness, I concede that not all hunting camps are primitive.  There are some exceptions—fancy, high-end hunting lodges in remote parts of the Vermont backwoods.  For example, there’s one right over in neighboring Granby. But the vast majority of camps tend to be simple, primitive structures.)IMG_20150102_080920_346

    Our remote house in the hills is pictured atop this blog post.     Today, I also went for a long walk and snapped photos of two other buildings in our vicinity, which to me, epitomize what a camp is. Note that in one of them, you can see the outhouse off to the side.   What do you think?  Is ours a house or camp? IMG_20150102_083153_902

  • 2014: A Decade in Vermont

    Guildhall Map, Circa 1855
    Guildhall Map, Circa 1855

    The overriding theme of 2014 is that Edward and I have now lived in Essex County, Vermont for a decade.  Yes, believe it or not, ten years ago in the spring of 2004, we arrived in Guildhall from Boston with three dogs, a piano, and about 90 boxes of books in tow.

    We took up residence at the Benton Cottage, a  Colonial Revival style home on the banks of the Connecticut River.  We called it paradise.  We didn’t know exactly how this new chapter in our lives would unfold, and we weren’t always sure that moving here had been the right decision.  But it has been a great adventure, and I have come to consider Vermont my home.

    There have been interesting and dramatic twists and turns along the way, involving the legendary Mt Washington Hotel in Bretton Woods, municipal politics, serving as an Act 250 Commissioner for the NEK, and my decision to embark upon the Vermont Law Office Study program.  After four years of study and apprenticeship, I took the bar exam in 2011 and was admitted to practice law.    I’m now a proud criminal defense attorney and I also practice municipal, family, labor and landlord-tenant law.

    When we got up here, Edward was already officially retired from his full time and high powered job as an international vice-president of a major labor union.  But to my amazement, never for a moment did he seem to experience any retirement regret.  He runs an art gallery out of the house and is active in local and state wide (Democratic) politics.  He served on the town selectboard and the cemetery and planning commissions.  He’s our local Tree Warden.  He’s Vice-Chair of the statewide Vermont Arts Council, administrative law judge for the Vermont Labor Relations Board, and current Treasurer  of the Robert Frost Place in Franconia.

    We’ve climbed about 65% of the 4.000 footers in New Hampshire’s White Mountains (most of which are within an hour’s drive or less).  We campaigned our hearts out for Barack Obama and Governor Peter Shumlin.  I ran and finished four half marathons and several other smaller races.  I entered five pies into local agricultural fairs.

    The three beloved dogs who moved from Boston to Guildhall with us have passed on (Mouchette in 2008, Simone in 2011, and Minerva in 2012), but we have three beautiful new dogs, Django, LaBelle and Hugo.

    And what was notable about this year?  In January, I became a partner at Morrissette, Young & Wilson, in Lyndonville.  In March, Edward and I traveled to the coast of Oregon, where we spent a week with my family at an idyllic location on the beach.  In June, we spent a week in Seattle, my first time there.  In September, my Guildhall friend Teri and I made a pilgrimage out to Burlington to hear live music on the shores of Lake Champlain, including the great band Lake Street Dive.

    In October, my mom and I met in Boston to attend the Boston Lyric Opera’s performance of Verdi’s La Traviata.  Inspired by that experience, Edward and I decided to get season tickets to local Catamount Arts’ series of live HD transmissions from the Metropolitan Opera in New York.  There’s nothing like being in the theatre itself for an opera, but this is a pretty impressive runner up!  The sound in the theatre is fantastic (carefully engineered and monitored by the Met sound technicians), and the live transmissions feature things one doesn’t get at the opera house itself,  like great closeups of the singers and  orchestra and backstage interviews with the performers, stage hands and costume designers.  We’ve thoroughly enjoyed our 2014 immersion in opera and so far have seen Bizet’s Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro, and Wagner’s Der Meistersinger von Nuremburg. (After the Wagner opera, we had dinner with Irwin Gelber, the Chair of the Vermont Arts Council and his companion Rachel.  Irwin first saw the opera when he was studying music in Vienna.  He gave us a detailed run down on the period instruments used when Der Meistersinger was originally performed. It was a great night all around.)

    Finally, this December 30 was the 20th year anniversary of the shooting death of my co-worker Shannon Lowney, at Planned Parenthood in Boston.  My co-workers and friends at PP gathered together for the day, as we have many times over the last two decades.  We have all scattered far and wide, but once we are together, it’s as if we were never parted. I am grateful to this group of women who love and look after one another, from near and afar.

    Happy New Year!

  • Trouble with a Capital T: North Country Hard-Boiled Fiction on the Fly

    Last week, the New York Times City Room blog announced a writing contest open to the public. The challenge? Come up with an original  150-word introduction to a pulp fiction novel based solely on the cover below.  Here’s the link to the announcement.


    By the time the deadline had come and gone, over a thousand  people  responded, with some pretty damn good writing in evidence.  Among the submissions was one by Gretchen Mahnkopf, a woman from Rosendale, New York.   One thing Gretchen and I have in common is that back in the day, we both attended a  hipster alternative school in the Adirondacks. Neither of us remember meeting each other there, although we must have, because it was a little school in the boondocks.   But we’ve since connected–yes, through facebook–and I’ve come to admire her wit, her politics, and her artistic talent, because she’s a great painter and writer.   Click here to visit Gretchen’s blog.

    And here’s the entry she submitted to the Times’ contest, just before midnight on Friday, November 21, 2014, which for me, only confirmed her writing skills.  (And I’m a big fan of short, short fiction.)

    “Trouble with a capital T. That was Trixie. She had the big guns. She had the ammo, too. And if none of that worked, she also had a pink 38 special tucked into her garter belt. “Give me a whiskey and some fire,” she said, putting a cigarette between two scarlet lips. She knew how to bring on the heat, alright. “For the gentleman?”, I asked nodding toward the goon she had brought as muscle. “Some raw meat if you have it.”  She slipped off her jacket revealing a tiny yellow halter top, too tiny for its heavy burden. Yeah, that dame knew how to bring it on. So did I . She wasn’t the only one in the joint packing heat. You wouldn’t know it to look at me but I had a garter myself. And right then, it was chafing the Hell out of me.”

    Go, Gretchen!