The attic

This is a story that requires an introduction.

The Interstate highway system removed barriers that had kept Vermont isolated from the rest of New England. In 1969 Interstate-91 went only as far as White River Junction. At that time in Vermont there were still many old Vermont farms. Many of those farmers were in their 80s, or older in 1969. They were from another time and were the salt of Vermont.

They were born and lived their entire lives on the family farm as their parents had. There was no reason to live elsewhere. Their 150-acre farms provided most everything they needed. They sold milk, cheese and butter, maple syrup, lumber, firewood, eggs or a side of beef. They were pretty much self-sufficient.

Many of these old Vermonters lived on a farm that had been in the family nearly 200 years. As the first generation became too old to continue farming, one of their children would take over the farm. The grandparents were cared for and helped out with chores. Gram would help with kitchen duties: baking, cleaning, canning and childcare. Gramp would help with the animals in the barn or bring in firewood.

As the younger generation took over the home they wanted more modern furniture than their parents had. This was repeated as each younger generation took over the farm.

The attics of these generational homes revealed an interesting history. The first generation owned furniture and accessories that would date from 1780-1820. When their children took over the farm many of these furnishings went to the attic.

This second generation wanted a more modern and stylish home and purchased furnishings reflecting the Empire style. Along about 1860 when the second generation was aging, their children would take over and take care of their parents. They too, wanted more modern furnishings. Again the second generation’s furnishings were moved to the attic.

The new style furnishing for the third generation was Victorian. Marble top bureaus, tall Victorian beds and all things mass-produced. Times were better for this generation. Railroads had come to Vermont and farmers could now ship their products anywhere.

About 1900 the third generation would retire and their children took over. This fourth generation didn’t care for the dark walnut furniture of their parents. Instead they chose golden oak furniture to furnish their home. So the furniture of the third generation was moved to the attic.

This process would be repeated one more time just after the Depression. The attic was getting full. Those antiques sat quietly in the attic waiting for an antiques dealer to come along and give them a new home.

Partial contents of antiques from a local attic. Most circa 1830. Photo by Ron Patch.

It was in the 1960s that my generation didn’t want to make farming a career. My generation wanted something different than their parents had. This was the beginning of the end of the family farm. As my generation moved away and their parents passed on, these old generational homes were sold and the contents liquidated. I was fortunate to have been called in to buy antiques from these old family homes. There was no better way to learn their history.

When ascending the attic of these old homes I was always struck with the volume of antiques. In those early days few people in Vermont wanted antiques so most anything could be bought reasonably. The supply was much greater than the demand.

As you stepped into the attic you first notice an old Civil War musket hanging on the wall. There too is the soldier’s sword. Mrs. T. tells me his uniform is here in one of the trunks. As you look for it you find a box of antique toys from the 1800s.

You find a box full of brass ladles and pewter: bowls, teapots and plates all made in the 1700s. Then you find a large wooden chopping bowl of chestnut with original robin’s egg blue paint. Mrs. T. says her great-grandfather, John, made it as a wedding present for her grandmother. The closer to the eaves you get the older the items become.

You find a six-drawer Chippendale chest (Circa 1780) with its original finish. There’s a two-drawer blanket chest with its original black & red paint (Circa 1800). A Queen Anne tap-table (Circa 1770) with oval scrubbed top and red painted base sits upside down on a Hepplewhite tavern table. Facing the wall are a few picture frames. As you turn them around you see ancestral portraits (Circa 1830). Mrs. T. tells you they are her great-grandparents. Another frame contains a 1820s sampler.

Continuing you find an old blanket box. When opened you find early quilts and old dolls and other items precious to a previous owner. Many of these items have handwritten notes attached telling who once owned them or what they were.

Over by the center chimney are three antique document boxes stacked on top of each other. Each is handmade and each painted a different color. You open the first and find it full of old documents from the late 1700s to early 1800s that have been neatly tied in bundles, old deeds, family records and letters.

I learned a lot from these old-timers, how things were made and how they were used. Some of the old-timers had fun trying to stump me (not difficult in those days.) I was in my early 20s and had much to learn. They’d say, “Bet you don’t know what this is.” When I didn’t know, they enjoyed telling me what it was. I was learning first hand.

One day I was trying to buy a heavy anvil over on the Upper Falls Road in Perkinsville. I bent over and grunted as I lifted its 150 pounds. The old-timer said, “That ain’t how you pick up an anvil. You grab the left front foot with your left thumb and forefinger and the right rear foot with your right thumb and forefinger. Then you pick it straight up and touch the horn to your nose. If you can do that I’ll sell it to you.” Of course that wasn’t possible. I asked the old man to show me. His reply, “Oh, I’m too old now but when I was a young pup like you, that’s how we done it. Ayuh.” I was 20 at the time and a little gullible.  I wasn’t sure whether to believe him or not.

Generational homes will never exist again. I was lucky to have witnessed them. The real treasure was the people I met.

This week’s old saying is from my mother.

  “He’s not afraid of work. He can lay down and go to sleep right beside it.”

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