Development and Indigenous Burials
In 1922 the business community was pretty excited. Companies along Vernon Road were having a great deal of success. The White River Chair Company, Crosby Milling and Fort Dummer Cotton Mill had all settled into the southeast corner of town and caused a housing boom.
Adding to the excitement was the announcement that Presbrey-Leland of New York was building a granite cutting shed at the location of the Maine-based Snow Flake Canning Company. The corn canning company had located on Vernon Road in 1898 but was a seasonal employer, while Presbrey-Leland promised year round skilled union jobs.
The canning company buildings were sold off and dismantled. In their place foundations for a large granite plant were dug along the Connecticut River. It was during this process that three human skeletons were unearthed. For three days in a row, during October, 1922, a skeleton was dislodged from its grave about 30 feet from the riverbank and a foot or two below ground. Each was 8 or 10 feet from the next.
Health Officer Dr. Chester Leach was called to examine the bones. He said it was impossible to tell how long they had been in the ground. He knew it was definitely more than 50 years but could not be more precise. Earlier in the year, during July, a human skeleton had been found just south of Vernon Dam. Erosion along the riverbank had exposed the remains and Dr. Lynch guessed that it was an Indigenous skeleton. There were some artifacts buried with the body and it was found in a knees drawn up position.
In the case of the three human skeletons at the old canning factory site, the first skeleton was also discovered in a knees drawn up position and the next two skeletons were children. Dr. Lynch said it was impossible to say whether the skeletons were of European or Indigenous origin. There were no artifacts uncovered with the bones and he suggested that since the skeletons lay a few hundred yards north of the 1700’s Fort Dummer site that workers may have uncovered an old fort burial ground. The bones were brought to Selectman Stellman’s machine shop for further examination.
A review of contemporary newspapers of the time indicates that construction was not slowed by these discoveries and there was no further reporting on the fate of the skeletons. We wonder if the three human skeletons were also Indigenous people. Burial in a knees drawn up position is an Indigenous practice and we know that Fort Dummer had a burial ground opposite the fort on the east side of the Connecticut River.
It seems the disturbance of the graves was noteworthy enough to find its way into state newspapers but the economic impetus to complete the construction project precluded an archeological examination of the area.
Earlier newspaper reports have examples of similar practices during the construction of the railroad tracks along the Connecticut River in the mid-1800’s. Human skeletons were found on both sides of the river but there was no recorded effort to preserve or value the remains of the Indigenous graves. The discoveries were reported as curiosities and construction continued. In the mid-1800’s farm workers had also uncovered Indigenous graves near the Retreat Meadows. Again, curiosities.
Snow Flake Cannery
In April, 1898 approximately 150 local farmers gathered in Festival Hall to listen to a presentation from a corn canning company from Maine. The farmers had been invited by the Brattleboro Board of Trade to hear representatives from Baxter and Brothers Company make a pitch for the establishment of a corn canning factory in town.
The Brunswick, Maine based company had been canning corn for over 40 years and expanded to include factories in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. The company proposed to lease land along Vernon Road and build a canning factory in town. The Baxter brothers were looking for investors to help with the construction of the factory and a commitment from local farmers that at least 400 acres of corn would be raised in the area to make the business worthwhile.
The company also looked to the community to form a corn canning building association that would invest in the construction of the factory building. The local investors would become stockholders in the building and receive dividends from what was produced from this particular factory. The Baxter Company would provide the canning machinery, hire workers and manage the business.
The Snow Flake Cannery was one of over twenty canning factories operated by the Baxter Brothers Company of Maine. They managed vegetable canneries in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, with canneries close by in Westminster, Windsor and Essex Junction.
The cannery operated until 1922. During that time the Twin State Gas and Electric Company purchased the land the cannery was on and continued a year to year lease with the company. The canning company had good and bad years, producing between 300,000 and 1,000,000 cans of corn a season. The canning season only lasted eight weeks or so and the cannery sat idle for the remainder of the time. During the season up to 200 people were employed to husk, can and label the corn but finding reliable seasonal employees proved difficult. For a few years Boston area Italians were brought by train to work in the cannery and temporary housing was constructed. Area farmers planted between 300 and 500 acres of company corn and had occasional disputes with management about corn prices.
Presbrey Leland Granite Shed
In 1922 Presbrey Leland, a large granite company with offices in New York City and granite sheds in Barre, Vermont showed interest in building a granite cutting plant in Brattleboro. The Dummerston granite quarry had recently been purchased by many of the same major Presbrey Leland owners and a cutting shed near the quarry made sense.
Presbrey Leland had been in Barre since 1906 but wanted to work the granite in the Dummerston quarry. The Dummerston granite was harder than the Barre granite or the granite found in the Westerly, Rhode Island quarries. This meant it was better to use for large monuments and mausoleums.
Presbrey Leland spoke with the Brattleboro Board of Trade and a deal was struck. The Twin State Gas and Electric Company ceased the lease with the cannery. Members of the Board of Trade bought the land from the gas company and gave it to Presbrey Leland. The town voted to exempt Presbrey Leland from local taxes for ten years. Central Vermont Railroad built a rail spur to the factory site. In return, Presbrey Leland brought 100 year round union jobs to Brattleboro, with the majority being skilled stone craftsmen.
The plan was to quarry the granite from Dummerston and transport it by the West River Railroad to the granite cutting shed in Brattleboro. There the granite would be turned into large monuments and mausoleums. This worked well for many years.
In 1935 the West River Railroad was foreclosed on by the state as a $200,000 loan was not repaid. The railroad had been severely damaged by the 1927 flood and needed the money for reconstruction. The 25 mile section north of Dummerston was sold to a salvaging company in 1936 for $25,000.
Presbrey Leland entered into an agreement with the state to lease and maintain the tracks between Dummerston and Brattleboro. Unfortunately, in 1936 another major flood damaged the tracks and the Presbrey Leland plant on Vernon Road was severely damaged as well. In May, 1937 the Dummerston quarry shut down as costs to repair and maintain the train tracks proved prohibitive. The company felt it was cheaper to buy large blocks of granite from Barre and transport them by train to Brattleboro.
The Presbrey Leland plant continued to use Barre granite until it shut down in February, 1943. The company said a decrease in demand for large granite memorials and wartime government restrictions made the plant unprofitable. Most of the workers quickly found employment in the many wartime industries of New England.
Since that time, the location of the granite cutting shed has served many functions. A company called Energine reconfigured the building in 1944 and operated there until 1960. A series of paper companies made various products there until 2003 and it is now known as the Riverside Industrial Center. Before it was any of these things it may well have been an Abenaki burial ground.
At the beginning of 1888 there was a toll bridge between Brattleboro and Hinsdale, NH which traversed the island in the middle of the Connecticut River. This toll bridge crossing had existed for over 80 years and was a private enterprise. During the year it was proposed that Hinsdale and Brattleboro go in together to “free” the bridge by purchasing it from corporate owners. By eliminating future tolls it was thought that commerce between the two towns would improve and travel between NH and Vt would become more egalitarian.
Each town held special votes. Hinsdale voted first and thought they should contribute $5,000 for the purchase, and then cover ¼ of future maintenance costs. Brattleboro voted to contribute $10,000 and cover the remainder of the maintenance costs. In November, 1888 the deal was struck, the bridge purchased, and travel between Brattleboro and Hinsdale became “free”.
Meanwhile, in 1887 a Chesterfield resident petitioned the NH government for the right to run a ferry between Brattleboro and Chesterfield. This request was denied and it became the impetus for the town of Chesterfield to pursue the establishment of a bridge between the two towns. The leaders of both towns entered into negotiations which resulted in the June, 1889 opening of the suspension bridge between Chesterfield and Brattleboro.
In the late 1800’s it was unclear as to where the actual boundary between NH and Vt was located. Vt. claimed it was the halfway point in the Connecticut River between the two shores. NH claimed it was the low water mark on the western shore of the Connecticut River. In 1933 the US Supreme Court sided with NH’s boundary claim so NH is now mostly responsible for bridge costs between the two states. For instance, costs for the soon to be started replacement bridge between Hinsdale and Brattleboro will be split 83% NH and 17% Vt. Back in the 1800’s this was not the case. Each border town negotiated with the adjoining border town to come to an agreement; or not.
In 1817 Chesterfield first attempted to build a bridge between Dummerston and Chesterfield but could not come to an agreed upon cost with the Vt. town. In 1848 Chesterfield tried again, and entered into negotiations with Brattleboro for a shared bridge but those talks also failed to generate a successful result. People in Chesterfield had to travel the Mountain Road between Chesterfield and Hinsdale in order to get to Brattleboro and it was a very poorly maintained trail. As one Chesterfield resident said in 1889, “All these years the Mountain Road, one of the hardest pieces of road anywhere about here, has been a bugbear to Chesterfield people.” By the way, a “bugbear” is a cause of obsessive fear, irritation or loathing.
So, in 1889 it was a great thing to have the suspension bridge join Brattleboro and Chesterfield. The front page headline in the Vermont Phoenix claimed the bridge was “Solid, Graceful and Handsome”. The paper went on to say, “The bridge in actual use seems remarkably strong and substantial. The total cost was $12,675—$8,175 of this sum being paid by Chesterfield and $4500 by Brattleboro…Had we been told a year ago that we should now have two free bridges across the Connecticut River the statement would have been received by incredulity. But today it is an accomplished fact and Brattleboro’s borders are open to whoever will come and go.”
Site work for the Chesterfield suspension bridge began in January, 1889 and continued with iron towers going up on abutments in early May. Cables were strung and the flooring was finished the first week of June. About 1000 people gathered to celebrate the opening of the bridge.
The official opening was highlighted with speeches from town dignitaries from both sides of the river and a clambake held on the Chesterfield side. Colonel George Hooker, chair of the Brattleboro selectboard wrapped up the event by saying he hoped “every Brattleboro merchant would sell his goods so low that no Chesterfield or Westmoreland man would go to Keene to trade.”
Broughton D. Harris, one of the Brattleboro bridge commissioners, spoke at the 1889 opening ceremonies and said he was confident the bridge had “ample strength and permanent endurance”. However, by February, 1915 the suspension bridge was in trouble. Ice flows lifted the bridge four inches off its foundation and men were sent out to chop ice to get the bridge back on the ground. As a result, one of the girders on the NH side was permanently bent from the ice pressure.
In 1921 an engineer was hired to evaluate the suspension bridge and the report was alarming. The bridge had been built for horses and wagons and was now dealing with trucks and automobiles. The engineer said the bridge should be replaced and recommended a steel bridge.
Chesterfield did not want to shoulder the expense of a new bridge and had a traffic survey completed. On average there were about 500 vehicles that traveled over the bridge each day. The vast majority of them were not from Chesterfield and the town used this data to argue that a regional or state-wide financial response was needed to pay for a replacement bridge. No other government entity was willing to pitch in and the bridge continued to limp along.
By 1935 the continued excessive weight on the bridge caused the trusses to buckle. Guards were posted at the bridge to stop any heavy traffic from attempting to use the span. Late in 1935 the NH and Vt legislatures finally passed acts which relieved Chesterfield and Brattleboro from the expense of bridge replacement.
On March 10, 1936 a front page newspaper headline said, “Suspension Bridge To Be Replaced”. An article went on to explain that NH and Vt had finally struck a deal and the condemned bridge would be replaced with an iron bridge within the year.
The next day the US Weather Bureau warned of possible New England floods because of predicted heavy rains, combined with melting snow. For three days more than 5 inches of rain fell in Vt. and NH. The Connecticut River began to swell and ice poured over its banks.
At 3:45 pm on March 18 the suspension bridge washed away. It was one of thirteen bridges in the area that were destroyed during the flood. For a while there was discussion of eliminating the suspension bridge location in Chesterfield and the island bridges in Hinsdale in order to make one bridge between Brattleboro and both Hinsdale and Chesterfield. The argument made by the proponents of the one bridge proposal was that the island which supported the bridges between Hinsdale and Brattleboro was quickly being washed away by yearly floods. The island had shrunk from 30 acres to 3 acres in a short period of time. It was believed by some that the road on the island between the bridges would not survive much longer. Supporters of creating one bridge to replace the Chesterfield and Hinsdale bridges wanted to build a span over the Connecticut River that would be elevated over the railroad tracks on the Brattleboro side of the river.
The one bridge proposal included improving the Mountain Road that ran along the western edge of Mt. Wantastiquet. NH would then connect the road with Brattleboro by building a bridge which would land somewhere near the town’s Walnut or Bradley Streets. Traffic on the Mountain Road from Chesterfield and Hinsdale would converge at the bridge and cross into downtown Brattleboro. This idea, while having some merit, proved too complicated. Ultimately the Chesterfield suspension bridge was replaced with an iron bridge and the one bridge idea was forgotten.
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