Saturday, July 13, 2013

About Bellows Falls Vermont

We began to notice the difference shortly after entering Bellows Falls from the south on highway 5. We had left the town of Brattleboro, where we were based during our recent visit to Vermont only a brief 30 minutes ago. Though the towns are only 20 miles apart, it is much more than distance that separates the two.

Brattleboro, like most small New England towns has its history and has attempted to capitalize on that history while encouraging modern growth. That it has done that successfully is shown in the downtown area where the old stands alongside and merges with an eclectic, urbane, cosmopolitan atmosphere reflected in its buildings and inhabitants. Much of the literature available at the welcome center and chamber of commerce stresses the existence of a “sizable and hip artist community.” Walking the streets it’s not difficult to equate the town’s culture with parts of Boston located only 100 miles to the east. Brattleboro speaks of a past and a present. Bellows Falls whispers only of the past.

We were in Vermont both to pursue our ancestors and to explore the offerings of the state. This photo of the Bellows Falls ‘square’ circa 1908 is what our grandfather would have seen when he arrived in 1910, having decided to leave forever the tiny village of Jaskiewicze in what was then Russia and today is Belarus. Grandfather Michael was coming to join his brother John who had arrived a year earlier along with hundreds of other immigrants to work at the huge International Paper complex. In 1910 the economy of Bellows Falls was growing quickly and was based on largely unskilled labor. Beside the paper mill there was the Vermont Farm Machine Company…a world leader with patents on several types of farm machinery, and many other employers eager to hire the immigrants arriving daily at the train station.

The new arrivals needed housing which resulted in an explosion of three, four and even five-level square multi-family buildings being erected throughout the town. Most of these still exist today in various states of repair or disrepair. In this photo is a house where our grandparents lived in 1917 - 1918.

Bellows Falls was a healthy and vibrant if somewhat raw community but all of that changed abruptly when the paper mill decided not to deal with a labor strike and instead closed its facility. That closure had a mushrooming effect and before long the Bellows Falls immigrants were forced to look to other communities for employment.  In our grandfather’s case he moved to Windsor to work at the Cone Machine Company, and it was here that our father was born. For reasons we can only guess at the family moved back to Bellows Falls two years later.

Beside the economic woes in 1918 an influenza epidemic ravaged most of southern Vermont. Our grandmother Teofila was one of its victims. She died on October 26, 1918 at the age of 25 but not before giving birth to three sons. For me one of the biggest highlights of this visit was the moment we discovered her grave marker at St. Charles Cemetery in Westminster Vermont. We were also able to locate most of the houses they lived in; the church they attended and the factories grandfather worked at.
This is the Bellows Falls square today. There is a different clock tower; the streets are paved and the hoop skirts and horses are gone but our grandparents would have recognized it. And they probably would have noticed the lack of activity. Walking main street in Bellows Falls is like walking through a museum. It feels like a representation of what used to be. There is an occasional person on the street and a car passing by. There is a Subway restaurant and a couple of other small businesses open, but the feeling is that they are the reluctant ‘last blooms’ on the tree among the many vacant store fronts and are waiting to fall. The welcome center was closed on two consecutive days and no one we asked could tell us when it would be open. Even the people in the businesses we entered seem to be just going through the motions; showing little interest in their visitors.

There are many things of interest to see and do in southern Vermont and we spent many enjoyable moments discovering them. Some of them I would like to revisit and spend more time exploring. While Bellows Falls was a necessary and enjoyable stop on our tour it is not on that list. 

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