Working a team

Local History by Ron Patch. Ron Patch is a Chester native, Chester Historical Society president, and a lifelong antiques dealer. He can be reached at 802-374-0119 or email knotz69@gmail.com.

In the old days, heavy work was done by horses or oxen. Oxen were slow but powerful animals. The Chester Historical Society has many photos of oxen at work. Some of these photos are drawing massive loads of talc or soapstone.

We have photos of oxen drawing loads of stone weighing over seven ton. Two oxen were a team driven by a teamster. Most teamsters walked alongside the team. The teamster never whipped or abused his team. Man and beast depended on each other.

The largest ox in the world in Bellows Falls in 1908.
The largest ox in the world in Bellows Falls in 1908. Photo provided by Ron Patch

As the teamster walked alongside his team, he carried a long slender pole. The teamster would just touch the ox with the tip of the pole along with a simple command. A good teamster always had control of his team.

Imagine, it’s 1915 and you live on Main Street in Chester. There would be horse and buggies and wagons moving up and down the street all day. The stage from Londonderry, Grafton, or Weston would pass by. Passengers from the depot would hire a horse-drawn taxi. While there were automobiles and light trucks, heavy work was still done with horses or oxen.

I estimate there were six to eight teamsters in Chester at the time. John Marshall was a well-known teamster.

As you sat on your porch, you knew these teamsters well. You’d say as John Marshall drove his team by, “Mornin’ John,” to which John might reply, “Well hello, Mrs. Harris. How are the boys?”

Often today you’ll see a pick-up truck or a dump truck with extra chrome, cab lights, and an elaborate paint job. This is done to promote the owner’s business and to stand out amongst his competitors. This same practice was common for teamsters 100 years ago.

  Episcopal Church

In the 1870s, there was moved a house that sat where the Episcopal Church is today. This house was moved to Grafton Street by oxen. I have seen a handwritten, eyewitness account of this house being moved.

That account mentions that was house was moved with 60 oxen. That would be 30 teams. There wouldn’t have been 60 oxen in Chester. Teamsters from surrounding towns would have brought their teams to help. We all knew each other and worked together.

I’ve always wondered why no photos of this house being moved have been found. We had photographers in Chester at the time. For a long time, I thought they had moved the house down Main Street to Grafton Street.

However, I have since been told they moved the house from the Episcopal Church location, down through Cobleigh Field, then across School Street to Grafton Street.

This route is certainly possible; however going down Main Street would be a smoother ride. But, turning a column of 30 teams from Main Street onto Grafton Street might have been impossible to navigate. Perhaps someday I’ll find a photo to prove one way or another.

  Grafton soapstone

Many, many years ago, an old-timer told me about shipping soapstone from Grafton to Chester. From Grafton, it was a shorter route to Chester than Bellows Falls. The steep hill on Route 35 coming out of Grafton with a load of soapstone, maybe five or six ton, sure tested oxen, but they did it, day after day. I was told that somedays the team made two trips to Chester. That’s about 28 miles. I think the teamster’s name was Dexter, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

Not only was Chester closer than Bellows Falls, but Chester had two soapstone mills buying soapstone. The American Soapstone Company was located about where Chester Town Garage is today. This was the largest soapstone operation in town.

The other mill was a wood-frame building located on Church Street right next to the railroad tracks. See “Pictorial History of Chester, Andover, Londonderry and Weston” for photos of both mills.

The photo with this article is in my collection. It is A.M. Richards Store in Bellows Falls with the largest ox in the world weighing 4,826 pounds. I have another photo of Richards Store with moose hanging in front of his store.

  This week’s old saying is from an old school girl’s autograph album that dates to 1908. Autograph albums were the school yearbooks of their day.

  Inside the front cover: “A present from my teacher Nellie Kingsbury.” It was kept by “Hattie M. Rounds Chester Vermont.” She was probably 12 or 13 at the time and probably lived on the Chester/Grafton line.

  At the bottom of the cover is: “Over the meadow & over the brook

“I pity the one – – – that steals this book.”

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