Tom Davis Remembers Barre and Depot Square 1930s to 1950s

by Nat Frothingham; photos are courtesy of the Vermont History Center library and archives

Editor’s Note

The following excerpts are from two books about Barre (Vermont) local history from the 1930s to 1950s written by Thomas C. Davis. These books are “Out from Depot Square” (2001) and “Beyond Depot Square” (2006). Davis was born in Barre on Nov. 30, 1931. His mother and father were Corinne Eastman Davis and Deane C. Davis. From his introduction to “Out from Depot Square” here is how Davis expresses his fondness for Barre — the town and community where he was born, grew up and came of age.

Introduction to “Out from Depot Square”

BARRE — More than any other, this is the book I wanted to write. This is when life for me began, the story of my hometown, a story of the people I grew up with, a story of the way things happened, of events and curiosities that shaped my life and life of others who lived at the time…

As I write these words, it is as though time has never passed. The faces of the people, their homes, each tree, and bush, remain a portrait etched in my mind, a part of my own Brigadoon.

Somehow I find it easy to believe that the energy of these events and the energy of the people continues on somewhere in the great beyond, recreating time and again the wondrous, exciting and occasionally fearful world of a young boy.

These memories are too important for it not to be that way.

It is as though it all happened at once. If I remember President Franklin Roosevelt riding through town in an open motor car in 1936, should my memory be suspect? If I remember future Hall-of-Famer Robin Roberts striking out Ebba St. Claire twelve years later, resulting in a league championship for the Twin City Trojans baseball team, would a newspaper account be more accurate?

Perhaps.

What I have written down is how I remember it. The stories and accounts are what I believe happened, what I believe is the way it was.

For me, and I hope for you, that’s enough.

Summer Nights at Depot Square

Historic view of Depot Square with the railway station in the background. It is likely that this photo was taken before the coming of the automobile in the early 1900s.

Historic view of Depot Square with the railway station in the background. It is likely that this photo was taken before the coming of the automobile in the early 1900s.

The corner of Depot Square was a major gathering point in the community.

The granite sheds in Barre shut down at 4 p.m. By 4:45 many of the granite workers, having had supper, would arrive on the corner, ready for the evening.

On warm summer evenings well over a hundred people would be milling around. Most of the men were union members. They outnumbered businessmen, many of whom owned the hundred or more stone sheds operating at the time.

Especially in the summer, people would remain around the corner and on the street until after 9 p.m., and the streets didn’t become quiet until after 11. At 8:50 each night, however, a loud horn at the fire station sounded the curfew, and everyone under sixteen years of age was expected to rush home — and we mostly did — though I never recall anyone ever being “fined” or “incarcerated” for failing to observe the curfew!

Saturday night was the big night. Warm summer Saturday nights saw the street alive with people who had been shopping until 10 p.m. It was the only night of the week that many people had extra money. The occupants of the cars and trucks parked along Main Street were farm families from the outlying countryside for whom the Saturday night visit to town was the entertainment high point of the week…

The police were visible, especially on Saturday nights. Standing tall, working in pairs, they would slowly walk up the street in full uniform, with jackets buttoned, and their police caps properly positioned on their heads. When they reached the far end of town, they would return down the opposite side of the street, ready to thwart any disturbance.

The “first show” in each of the three movie theaters ended between 8:45 and 9:45 p.m. Both The Paramount and The Magnet theaters were located within fifty yards of Depot Square. The movies attracted a large audience, especially on Saturdays and Sundays. When people left the theater after watching the first showing of the night, movie patrons swelled the numbers on the street. Some theater-goers went straight home, but others lingered at the diners or simply remained on the corner.

Several drug stores, restaurants, a barber shop, three “five and dimes,” shoe shine parlors, and other retail stores contributed to the busy scene, remaining open to be available for business at all times.

Looking south down Main Street from Barre's Depot Square.

Looking south down Main Street from Barre’s Depot Square.

Depot Square’s Ethnic Mix

A rich ethnic mix of people, a microcosm of Barre itself, lingered on the corner: the Italians, whose artisan ancestors came to Barre to cut stone; from Canada to the north, the French Canadians, who came in large numbers to find work; the Scots, whose ancestors were the first to come to quarry the granite that served Barre’s life blood; the Spanish, many of whom had fled the 1936 revolution in their homeland, to find opportunity here; the Irish, who built Vermont’s railroads and soon played major roles in local government and the church. Found in lesser numbers were the Lebanese and Scandinavians… Of course already here were the Vermont Yankees, some with ancestors dating back to the Mayflower, who had left Massachusetts and Connecticut to settle in northern New England. All were part of the mix, a part of the ever-changing scene on the corner of Depot Square.

Learning Politics at Home

The political education I received in those early years, and thought I understood, was that differences between Democrats and Republicans were economic in nature, and that the Democrats were trying to help the poor and/or the laboring underclass by supporting labor unions. They wanted to accomplish this, according to my father, through unfair and confiscatory taxation, or even worse by that greatest of sins, deficit financing.

My father constantly reinforced this message with his absolute conviction that this country had become strong solely because of the free enterprise system. He used the term free enterprise as a mantra. I tried always to stay on the political reservations, for I never doubted my father — or my mother who mostly shared his politics. (My mother, however, was more easily swayed by appeals for social justice, and long before it was in vogue, became interested in racial equality or as we now describe it, civil rights.)

Seeing Poverty at School

But if free enterprise was an absolute I would try to adopt, nonetheless in my early years in school, I was confronted with something more mundane. Along with my classmates in school, I witnessed, on a daily basis, a grinding day-in and day-out poverty, much of it at the time seemingly due to the Great Depression. I encountered classmates wearing inadequate clothing with which to remain warm in the winter, shoes with holes in the bottom that were run over beyond repair, and faces displaying a sickly pallor, the result of not having enough decent food to eat.

The School Milk Program was enacted during the thirties as a means of feeding poor kids — and coincidentally helping farmers with their problems of oversupply at the same time. In the early days of the School Milk Program. The cost of milk to schoolchildren was subsidized. Most of my classmates could find the two cents a day to pay for the milk. For students too poor to pay, powdered milk as made available free of charge. To prepare the less than palatable concoction, the teacher would leave the room, go into the hall and fill a large pitcher with tap water, then place the ingredients: powdered milk, water in a large pitcher on her desk, as the whole class looked on, the teacher would mix the powdered milk with tepid water, and stir endlessly. The reconstituted milk would be poured into glasses and distributed to three or four children unable to pay for the fresh whole milk…I watched and wondered.

Grocery Shopping and Home Chores

Shopping was easy. It was accomplished in the downtown at one or another of Barre’s locally owned stores. Small groceries (many very small) existed all over town. Each ward in Barre had at least one and most had several…

We lived next door to the Beck Family. Both houses sported a side porch. Since clothes dryers were not generally available, if at all, both Frida Beck and my mother hung wet clothes on a spiral rack that attached to the porch railing. My mother and Mrs. Beck conversed whenever they both happened out on the porch to hang “the washing…” With the advent of automatic clothes dryers, my mother and Frida Beck now remained inside the house and were no longer conversing from porch to porch while hanging the wash. Technology, as often is the case, imparted unintended consequences.

Home freezers did not exist; refrigerators were just coming into general use. My grandmother’s brother, Bert Humphrey, cut ice from his pond on Millstone Hill, covered it with sawdust, stored it in a barn, and peddled the ice door to door throughout the year. Humphrey’s Ice truck could be found in Barre neighborhoods well into the 1940s.

World War II Changed Everything

Montpelier's Poor Farm, once the site of Woodbury College. Now, the site of the main office of the Community College of Vermont.

Montpelier’s Poor Farm, once the site of Woodbury College. Now, the site of the main office of the Community College of Vermont.

World War II became the defining event for a broad generation of Americans.

Stories of economic distress were swept off the front pages and from movie reels. The war was now the story, seemingly the only story. People not alive at that time have a difficult if not impossible time gauging the tremendous impact of World War II on those of us living at the time … World War II was not just a major event for Vermonters, it was the only event.

Armed conflict since that time has obviously provoked conflicting reactions from Vermonters  — reactions that the generation nurtured during World War II has been largely unable to understand. In the 1940s, people didn’t debate the war. They organized, unquestioningly, to win it…

Everything my family, friends, or I did for the next four years was influenced in some way by the war. Young men and women volunteered. Then came the draft. On our small farm my father’s hired man stayed on the farm, planting, haying and milking thirty cows. He and other farmers received deferments from the military because they were engaged in essential labor.

Weekend Dancing and Partying (1945–1947)

It’s Friday night.

Overhears: “Anybody going to the Silver Dome? Or Tucker’s Barn? Have you got a ride? Who’s going?” (What girls?)

“I gotta work in the morning.”

“So what, everybody’s got to work in the morning!”

“Just a half day though.”

“That’s enough.”

“Let’s get out of here — nobody’s around!”

“I’ll play you a game of straight pool, 25 points, for half a buck.”

“You’re on, if we can get a table!”

One thing I don’t do on the weekend is look up what’s on TV. TV doesn’t exist, at least in good old Barre, Vermont.

Ah, the possibilities! What are they? A first run movie at the Paramount, or, 1,000 yards down the street, two movies, same price, 40 cents, at the Magnet. One will be either a horror or a crime movie. Tough choices. Out-of-town dances, but you have to find a ride. Maybe I go to the Greenmount, sit in a back booth for two hours, smoke cigarettes, but ONE 10-cent coke (the price of admission) and watch the girls come in. One or more may want to sit with us in our booth. Always packed on Friday night.

Friday night in Barre, mid-century, and you are there! The joy that goes with imagined and unimagined possibilities for the weekend explodes through me. Forty-eight plus hours with no teachers, no sweat, no worries. Barre — two square miles of potential paradise. The world is, “for one brief shining moment” mine. 

Colored post card photo looking south on Main Street from Depot Square.

Colored post card photo looking south on Main Street from Depot Square.

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