Middlebury residents recall days gone by
MIDDLEBURY — As construction workers prepared to resume work on a massive rail bridges project that will usher in a new chapter for downtown Middlebury, some of the community’s most seasoned citizens gathered on Monday to reminisce about yesteryear’s Main Street and the characters who helped shape it.
The event was called “Back in the Day,” co-sponsored by the Ilsley Public Library and a local storytelling group called “Story Matters.” Anyone with recollections of downtown Middlebury between the 1940s and 1980s was invited to join the storytelling exchange held at the Bundle pop-up space at 60 Main St.
Around a dozen people offered interesting and in some cases laugh-out-loud anecdotes about the stores, merchants and colorful personalities that made downtown visits fun and fruitful. These were the pre-Amazon years when local retail was king and you often got more than your money’s worth — if not in cash, certainly in the priceless currency of a good story to pass down to future generations.
Resident Priscilla Baker described the reasoning behind the event.
“We thought that while the Middlebury bridges project is going on — and it sometimes creates a little angst for people — we wanted to remember that downtown Middlebury has had many iterations over the years,” she said. “It’s not what it was 20 years, or 40 years ago or 50 years ago. And in five years, it’s not going to be what it is now. It’s constantly a work in progress, it’s constantly transforming.”
Baker called the stories a “bridge for the Middlebury downtown that we remember in days of yore, that we experience today and that will be created in the not-too-distant future.”
Participants reached into their memory banks to reconstruct a bygone downtown dominated by a different slate of businesses.
They went by such names as Farrell’s Men’s Shop, the Rosebud Café, Van Raalte’s, the Town Hall (movie) Theater, Abrams Department Store, Lazarus Department Store, the Belmont Restaurant, the First National grocery store, Lockwood’s Restaurant, Mike Lazarus’s Five and Dime store, and Gero’s Plumbing & Heating.
Several speakers on Monday fondly evoked memories of the movies they saw at Town Hall Theater, the historic building at the top of Merchants Row that has served tours as a restaurant, municipal building, movie house and Knights of Columbus Hall before once again returning to its status as an entertainment venue.
“They had town meeting there one time a year and then it was a movie theater for the rest of it,” resident Hudson Tilford said. “I remember very bad equipment, films snapping while the college boys gave them heck for things breaking.”
Tilford recounted a story about a youth who made “retching” noises from theater balcony before pouring soup on the patrons below.
Tilford offered the following, humorous disclaimer for his stories: “My goal is to try to give you a walking tour of the downtown as I remember it; it may not be 100 percent accurate due to some excesses of the 1960s and ’70s.”
The THT movie venue was later supplanted by the Campus Theater on Main Street, now home to the Marquis. Dave Munford, who’s lived in the same South Street home since 1954, noted watching a movie at the Campus Theater could be an adventure.
Patrons back in the day would wonder if noise from a particularly loud movie might bring the ceiling down upon them, according to Munford. And there were times when the third reel of a movie would be shown first, ostensibly as a result of the projectionist being distracted by female company and a case of beer, he said.
A LOCAL CHARACTER
Entertainment was readily available outside the theater, according to some who spoke on Monday. Tilford and fellow resident Reg Spooner recalled the late Johnny Kenworthy, who was the boiler technician for the Battell Block and slept in the basement of that formidable Main Street/Merchants Row building.
Kenworthy, according to those who knew him, had poor hygiene and rarely changed clothes.
“Twice a year they would tackle him, remove his coveralls, hit him with a fire hose and a scrub brush and put a new set of coveralls on him,” Tilford said.
Kenworthy might have been unkempt and a tad strange, according to Tilford, but he had a sense of humor. Tilford recounted a story he’d heard about Kenworthy standing on a corner hearing a passerby say, “There’s a lot of strange people in Middlebury,” to which Kenworthy allegedly replied, “Don’t you worry none, they all go home after me.”
Kenworthy was believed to be indigent, but local police who combed through his belongings after his death in the late 1950s found “thousands of dollars” he had stashed, according to resident Spooner. He had saved the money he’d earned from delivering goods from local stores to people’s homes. That money, Spooner said, was turned over to the town since Kenworthy had no next of kin.
Spooner also offered stories about former Middlebury Police Chief Don Williamson, who made the unlikely transition from a notorious local troublemaker as a child, to the town’s top law enforcement official. According to Spooner, the police initially put Williamson to work with the town’s water department in an effort to steer him away from antics. Then one day, they recruited Williamson to direct traffic. This led to him joining the police ranks.
“Eventually, he was the only cop left in town because everybody else had retired,” Spooner said, “and he became police chief.”
Resident Kristen Hirsch recalled growing up on Weybridge Street, just outside of the downtown. She said it was a great childhood, full of games like “Kick the Can,” Saturday movies and visits to the Eddy horse farm on South Street Extension. She recalled working part-time at the Addison Independent in the Marble Works. In those days, the newspaper had an onsite printing press — which would occasionally break.
“We would be there until 10, 11 p.m. to help get the papers together,” Hirsch said. “(Col. William Slater) used to pay us 50 cents an hour, so if the hours went on, we loved it. We would come home covered with dark print all over our hands and our clothes.”
Alice Perine is a member of the Middlebury College class of 1947. One of her favorite downtown spots was the old Smith Diner, where she would eventually meet her husband, Gordy.
“We were getting acquainted, and I looked over at the (diner) jukebox … and carefully impressed in the jukebox were roaches,” she chuckled. “They were there for life.”
Perine noted you could get most everything you needed at downtown stores, and some merchants would allow customers to gradually pay off their bills over weeks or months.
“Kids could walk downtown and you didn’t have to worry about them,” she added.
Her favorite store was Mike Lazarus’s Five and Dime store.
“You went into the store, asked for some weird object you were sure he wouldn’t have, but he would go back and rummage around and come back with it,” she recalled. “There wasn’t anything he didn’t have in that store.”
Tilford was also a fan. He affectionately called it “the junk store.”
“I had the honor of being the best man at a wedding next to the thread counter,” Tilford said. “For $15, Mike performed the ceremony and gave them a plastic-wrapped copy of his words of wisdom.”
The late Stanton Lazarus, he of the old Lazarus Department Store, also got some love from speakers. The store once stood at 22-26 Main St. Lazarus was recalled for his business acumen, generosity, and for being what Tilford described as a “Democrat long before it was trendy to be a Democrat in Vermont.”
Ann LaFiandra arrived in Middlebury in 1973 after having lived the previous four years in Europe. She was eager to meet people and learn about her adopted community, and made that connection as a helper with the Middlebury Volunteer Ambulance Association, or MVAA (now known as MREMS). She recounted the first-aid training she received and the MVAA’s use of hearses to get patients to hospitals.
“It made me feel useful and it made me feel I was really getting a sense of this place,” said LaFiandra, who volunteered with MVAA until 1980.
Local businessman Bud Smith noted Middlebury and surrounding towns had a vast number of dirt roads more than a half-century ago. It could make travel arduous — particularly during mud season. But you could also get to more places back then — including the top of Chipman Hill, via High Street.
“That’s where the kids would go up parking,” he said with a smile.
Other colorful anecdotes shared at Monday’s gathering: A Middlebury police officer who was unwittingly slipped a marijuana-laced brownie in the basement of the old Rosebud Café, and the mystery surrounding the fire that destroyed the old Three Mill Bridge.
Upcoming construction will pose challenges for the downtown, but Perine is optimistic.
“I think that given time, we’ll come back,” Perine said. “It will be a rough couple of years, I guess.”
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.