by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
May 22, 2003
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- "Auction March 2, 1871" reads the poster announcing the sale of a 65-acre farm belonging to "the late widow Spaulding." There was "running water to house and barn, plenty of wood on the place and a very good apple orchard." Also one pair of oxen weighing 3,800 pounds together, two cows, a three-year-old steer "nearly fat," a Spring calf, a horse, a "cosset sheep" and a cart.
The farm and its contents were put up for auction by Hoyt Thomas Spaulding, the widow's son, but something interesting must have happened on that day because by the end of it, Hoyt still owned the farm. Sixty-three years later, his great-grandson, Tom Johnson, was born there.
And Johnson, 70, hasn't moved very far. He now lives just down the road from Dummerston Center in the house where the first Dummerston Town Meeting was held in 1771. And I live on a part of his ancestor's property, on Spaulding Hill.
Dummerston was charted under the name of Fullum back in 1753, which is why the town celebrated its 250th anniversary this week. But its history goes back even further.
It seems that back in 1713, when the government was trying to figure out the boundaries between Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut, it found that 107,793 acres were outside the state's legitimate limits. So Massachusetts gave that land to Connecticut in exchange for equivelant land in the south.
Since the land was not contiguous with Connecticut, the state put these "equivelent lands" up for public auction on April 24 and 25, 1716. On that day, 43,843 acres were sold to William Dummer, Anthony Stoddard, William Brattle and John White. Later, in 1741, when New Hampshire and Massachusetts were figuring out their boundaries, the land became part of New Hampshire.
One of the nicest things about Dummerston is that people have a strong sense of history here. That's why, when the covered bridge over the West River needed to be replaced, the selectboard voted to rehabilitate the old bridge instead of building something modern. Many of the houses in the town center have been here since the 1700s, and some of the oldest families are still here, too.
One of them is Johnson, a retired banker who calls himself a "farmer historian." In his huge barn, which is made out of timbers from the very first Dummerston meeting house, you can see the whole history of New England farming. Back in the 1700's, he said, there were more sheep here than cattle.
"Cattle and horses came later," he said. "There was no grass as we know it today for pasture. It was all woods. Then a man from Keene, N.H. went to England and found a grass seed that would grow in the shade. He brought it back and sold it to the Vermont farmers. "
It was a hard life back then, but not a bad one.
"Everyone had more or less the same thing," Johnson said. "Maybe your dad had a few more cows than my dad, but that's about it."
Johnson has some of the old record books from Dummerston and Vernon. They are fragile and faded and written on lined paper in browned ink; the Vernon book's cover is wood. In Dummerston in 1814, for example, Enoch Cook, who built the house Johnson lives in now, paid $1.43 in property taxes, while the Town of Vernon "spent and raised" $145.32 for its entire town budget. Of that, they spent $90 for "keeping paupers," $2 on paupers' coffins, and the rest on powder and lead. They spent another $134.00 on the school.
My hill is named after a damned interesting character, Johnson's "great-great-God-only-knows-how great" grandfather. He was an adventurer and soldier named Leonard whose ancestral family came from Spalding, England. The name Spalding, by the way, comes from a tribe named Spaldas, which means "fortification" in Latin.
Lt. Leonard Spaulding fought in the French and Indian Wars (1689-1773) and settled in Dummerston in 1772. When King George III turned over the New Hampshire lands to New York, the Sheriff of New York told Lt. Spaulding to get off his own land.
When he refused, the sheriff burned down the house; the family barely escaped to New Hampshire. So Lt. Spaulding again picked up his gun and fought with Ethan and Ira Allen and the Green Mountain Boys for a state of their own, Vermont.
"People don't know this, but Ethan and Ira were land speculators," Johnson said. "They owned thousands of acres. New York State, for a fee, offered to honor the New Hampshire grants, but Ethan couldn't afford the fee, and that's why they revolted. Vermonters didn't want to pay twice for their land. But they could have paid without having a war, or getting burned out."
In 1774, according to the town's history, "Dummerston 1753-1986," Lt. Spaulding was jailed for "throwing out remarks" unfavorable to King George III. (The remarks concerned the king's intelligence.)
"The first effective organized defiance to the king's authority in all the colonies was in Dummerston when they called a meeting on the 'green' October 29, 1774, to release Lieutenant Spaulding from jail," the book said. For a time after that, everyone was fighting everyone else. In October of 1776, during the Revolutionary War, Lt. Spaulding was wounded at the Battle of White Plains.
When he returned to Dummerston, the warrior settled on Spaulding Hill. He was the father of 11 children, five sons "all over six feet tall - one of them 6'7"." His wife, Margaret, was no slouch either. She lived to be 94, and "every two years she would go alone on horseback to Providence to visit her mother."
The Spauldings lived on the hill for many generations before moving to the farm that was sold at auction in 1871. And now I proudly live on that hill, too.
Lt. Spaulding is just one of a number of interesting characters connected with Dummerston. George Aiken, Rutherford Hayes, Rudyard Kipling, and Ellsworth Bunker are some others.
This week, Dummerston celebrates its long and remarkable history with food, parades, animals, antique cars and tractors, quilting, dancing and more. Happy 250th anniversary, Dummerston!
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who writes about culture, politics, economics and travel.