Pat at the Wolcott Old Train Depot, next to Town Hall
Pat’s writing is in black, Beth’s in blue
This summer, my sister Beth and I made a trip up to Wolcott, Vermont. This has been on our bucket list for quite some time now, as the small town in northern Vermont was started by our very own 4th great grandparents, Thomas Taylor and Mary Morehouse. The story of how they snow-shoed in and began the town is here:
Beth and I were interested in three small towns near each other in northern Vermont—Peacham, Elmore, and Wolcott. Thomas and Mary’s son Gideon (our 3 times great grandparents) married Phebe Walbridge, and it is the Walbridge side that brings in Peacham and Elmore.
I love the way Pat makes the most difficult part of these entries easy —figuring out who is who. How many times removed is the grandfather or grandmother or cousin and just how do they connect to us?
As I read what she wrote, so much of that wonderful trip came flooding back. When I scroll through the memories of those three towns (and those three cemeteries), and sort through all the thoughts and subsequent reading I have done since I got back, I find a few themes I would like to tease out a bit, that have to do with all of us, that have to do with ideas of ‘family’ and ‘home’.
Phebe Walbridge Taylor’s brother Daniel married Roxana Brown. They had six children before Daniel died at the age of 38. With Daniel’s death, Roxana could not make a go of the Wolcott farm and moved back to Peacham to be with her family. Roxana and her children wrote letters galore as they moved about the country—to Minnesota and to California (in fact, Sue Kinsella will be introducing us to a California based Walbridge later in a blog post). Those letters were kept and became a book—‘Roxana’s Children—the Biography of a Nineteenth Century Family’. It is a wonderful read and includes mentions of their ‘aunt in upstate NY’---our very own Phebe Walbridge Taylor who by that time, had moved from Wolcott to Oakfield, NY with her husband Gideon and their children.
The Walbridge family certainly loved to write. We have letters in Aunt CB’s possession between our Oakfield Taylors and the Olmsteads of Elmore, VT. One of Phebe’s sisters—Betsey Walbridge—married Anson Olmstead and moved to Elmore. Their children are mentioned in several of our blogposts:
And another side of the family:
So, to visit Peacham, Wolcott and Elmore! Beth and I were on the way. Beth seemed smitten with the many characters we ran into, the greenness of the trees, and the gently curving land and mountains.
Driving through the small village of Peacham, we got turned around and could not find our way to the cemetery. With no cell service, we were back to old fashioned asking directions. An older man came our way to check his mail by the side of the road, and we took the opportunity to ask if he could tell us the way to the Peacham Cemetery. “I surely can”, he replied. “I will be there myself soon enough.” This character regaled us with all sorts of stories about his dairy farm (sold his milk to the nearby Cabot Creamery for cheese making) and the town. While we had to turn down his invitation to visit he and his wife’s farm house so we could see her large collection of tea kettles (one wonders what his wife would have said if we had decided to stop by), we did find our way to the Peacham Cemetery.
Peacham Cemetery, Many Walbridges Here
We found several Walbridge gravestones and could not find a few, so we will have to go back. But, it was time to drive on to Wolcott before the town offices closed.
I’d never been to Vermont before and fell hard, as Pat has mentioned, for the parts of the state that we saw. It wasn’t just the green, which as a resident in places like Ireland, Seattle, and Japan, I have a fine-tuned appreciation of. It was partly the quieter, slower (it felt) pace of life in these (very) small town farming communities, and it was the centuries-old architecture. It was the small, telling detail like the tiny windows way up high and at odd angles, when windows would have been expensive and perhaps the wind blew too hard so they should not be too big, if they should break, or up high because the snow would reach up that far? I don’t know, but I do know that this is landscape shaping the architecture, as perhaps it does the people. It was the people, too, that charmed me. Their friendliness, the easy warmth and humor, the readiness to engage once you had opened the conversation.
But it was the mountains in Vermont that really caught my heart. I have great affection for the gently rolling hills of upstate NY and Pat and I have talked before about how we both think the stone fences of New England are things of great beauty. Vermont had both these, and it had small lakes that the sun spilled glints of light over. All of this framed by so many trees—and best of all—mountains. More than gently rollng hills, there were mountains. When the author of Roxana’s Children is talking about the walk you had to take to get to Peacham Academy she explains that Alice Watts Choate lived in a boarding room during the week while she attended the academy (not too far away from the family home). “Anyone” she continues “who has ever walked or even driven the mile downhill and mile uphill between East Hill and Peacham Corner will understand why this arrangement was necessary.” It’s those mountains, and I know from every place I have lived, how they make my heart leap. I don’t know why.
Yet, as I talked of this unexpected pull to Vermont that I felt, with both Jim and Dan, who had biked through the state, Jim said he had fallen in love with Vermont, too, at first sight, and he agreed it was the mountains. I am left then, with the delightful thought that both of us, at least, inherited the ‘love of mountains’ gene from our Vermont ancestors (or does it go further back to those ancestors of ours from Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland with its mountainous terrain that I have seen and been thrilled by, or Scotland with its many mountains?).
Wolcott also is a very small town, but we pored over old journals which held handwritten town records—many pages of which were written by Thomas Taylor. Then, on to the Taylor Cemetery, where we found again many gravestones of our ancestors. What a delight to see the green hills and mountains that our ancestors saw each day as they worked the land.
Searching for ties:
I think of one of the things I learned in reading Roxana’s Children that fascinated me: many small communities in Vermont, during the 19th century, had young men and women (some single, some young married couples) who could not be kept in these small New England towns and so ventured west in hopes of better farmland or a larger community in which to ply their trade. This is where we see a handful of Roxana’s many children going. Some made it, as Pat has said, to San Francisco and Susan will tell us more of them. Some, like Dustan Walbridge, who fought in the Civil War and died of wounds incurred at Cold Harbor, went first to California, then to the Midwest, and then back to VT, trying to find a place to settle, and then once he’d found it, had only a few years left to live.
Beth at Taylor Cemetery, Wolcott, VT
But what I discovered in all this traveling that went on in this century where I thought New Englanders stayed mostly at home, is that whole groups of families would move to certain towns in the Midwest. Entire Midwestern areas, then, would be full of Vermonters who all knew each other and would have kept up their ties among themselves and with those back home. It makes me think, again, of how this happened with the Irish and Scots who emigrated to the US and Canada. They either went as a group, often, or as links in a chain—one sibling would go, then write and encourage others and more siblings, cousins, and neighbors would arrive and live, in their new home, with those dear to them from their old.
Taylor Cemetery, Wolcott, VT
I think, too, of the comment by a volunteer guide at the New York City 9/11 memorial that I saw on TV a couple of days ago. He said he had showed the First Lady of Japan to the memorial and the first thing she had done at the wall of names, was to reach down to the ledge below, where there must be running water, and scoop some up and pour it over some of the names. I know there were Japanese killed in the twin towers, so she was likely pouring water over one of their names. What struck me was the instinct to connect, to honor the dead of one’s ‘home’. This pouring of water is what all Japanese do when they visit family graves.
Taylor Cemetery, Wolcott, VT
We felt in the layout of the Taylor Cemetery in Wolcott, something like the feeling of walking into a hushed church. If you look at the photo we both took of the other in front of the cemetery gates, imagine those gates are the front door of a small community’s church. You go through and walk up the central aisle and to either side would be the pews, which here are the rows of graves on either side of the central path. The Taylor Cemetery really did give you a certain feel: it was surprisingly small, but it was laid out with a tidiness and aligned so the far end (where an altar might be in a church) started among the pines and swept down gently to the street, the sides were lined with a wall of trees, and there was a bench under a big pine where you could sit and just be, and there was, that day in the midst of a heat wave, a gentle wind whispering the whole time.
Stone near Bench and Child's Grave, Taylor Cemetery, Wolcott, VT
On to Elmore where we hiked a wonderful path up Elmore Mountain and then down to the sparkling Elmore Lake, where we were astounded to watch a class of paddle boarders on the lake gathered in the water to do their yoga, balancing on their boards as they stretched and leaned into each new pose. I assumed we would see at least one of these people fall into the water, but they were indeed experts at their balancing.
Pat on Elmore Mountain, Elmore, VT
Just a bit down the road, the Elmore Cemetery sits on a hillside overlooking the large lake—a restful view for those there. We again found ‘far flung cousins’ of the Walbridges and Taylors.
In Elmore, we arrived late in the day and the clouds were dark and dramatic and the wind was chiller, but the sun was doing a powerful job of lighting up this part of the lake and that glow, like a moving spotlight, was revealed then hidden, by those loud clouds. This was a small place, too, but we found family names and felt that connection you do, and at each place, I had an instinct to caress one of the grave stones, in some deep instinct beyond explaining, like the Japanese First Lady, in NY.
Elmore Cemetery, Many Olmsteads Here
Before we left Wolcott for good, we tried to meet up with a far flung cousin who lives on the land that was granted to Thomas Taylor’s father for his service in the Revolutionary War. Our cousin was not home, but we did get a picture of his (ours long ago) property.
Things that Remain:
One of the photos we finally got was a yard with mountains in the background. We wanted to see this land because our ancestor who had fought in the Revolutionary War had been given this land for his services and his son had built a farm on the land and his descendants live there still. There is a barn, and a farmhouse. We were determined to get a photo of these buildings, of this land, that was ‘family land’. To see, in some way, where we had come from, what had once been dear to us, what had been given for fighting for one’s country. The barn had been built so close to the road, and the road was—because of those mountains I am so enchanted by—a narrow, curving one, that we did not get a terrific picture of our ‘Taylor Land Grant’, but here it is—this part of New England that held our clan before our branch moved to Oakfield New York, with its apple orchards and more gently rolling hills.
Land Grant that our Taylors lived on
Writing as ‘having a chat’:
Through the years, as Mom has written long letters to me full of news and anecdotes, trying to give me written photos of all the scenes I am missing by living here in Japan, she often starts the letter by writing, “Go get yourself a cup of tea and settle down to read,” and she would often enough include a tea bag for me, too! How does she know how to write that kind of letter? A letter that lets me live, with all the wealth of details and Mom’s particular idioms and voice, somehow in the scenes she is drawing for me. It may be just who she is. I can believe that. But I like to think now—after reading about the Walbridges and Olmsteads, those fabulous letter-writers keeping up with far-flung siblings, half-siblings, and aunts and cousins and every relative at least out several degrees—and after reading many excerpts from their letters in Roxana’s Children, that Mom has come by her letter-writing abilities because it is in her very DNA.
So much more to explore, but it was a start. A trip to the Vermont Country Store and we waved goodbye to Vermont until next time.