by Marichel Vaught; photos courtesy of Erlene Leonard
On the morning of May 22, 1951, Erlene Leonard awoke to the sounds of sirens and alarm bells and thick smoke hovering above the village of East Calais. The Lamb’s Mill on Main Street (Route 14) in the center of the village was ablaze. The lumber mill, which employed several people from in and out of town, including local farmers who needed to supplement their income, would not be salvageable. The flames burned the mill owner’s house, caused damage to about seven other homes nearby, and melted the shingles of the general store across the street. Fortunately, there were no deaths, but a night watchman was burned. Leonard remembers East Calais as a bustling community with people walking around and the sounds of sawmills going at most hours. After the fire, the village turned into a ghost town.
Leonard was born and raised in East Calais and is a descendent of one of East Calais’s earliest families. Next to the house where she lives now is the house in which she and her three siblings were born — Erlene herself was born in 1933. Leonard attended primary grades in the one-room schoolhouse on Moscow Woods Road, now the East Calais post office. She was a student at Montpelier High School in the late 1940s to early 1950s — U-32 had not yet been built. Rather than attend college, Leonard went to work at the woolen mill down the road in neighboring North Montpelier.
Industry was growing in East Calais in the first half of the 1900s. “There were a lot of farms and a lot of mills,” recalls Leonard. Lamb’s Mill was the largest. “They made maple furniture straight from the log to the finished product,” said Leonard. Above the falls behind Lamb’s Mill were more mills specializing in other products. One was a creamery, another made butter boxes. In the winter, workers would cut ice on the local ponds to sell for refrigeration. There was a tinsmith, a hardware store, a general store. East Calais was busy. There were community fairs and parades along the main street in the village. “There were a lot of workers … there definitely seemed to be more people here then than there are now.” After the fire in 1951, everything changed. Businesses closed, people left. But Leonard stayed.
If anyone has seen the landscape of East Calais evolve, from its residents to its businesses, few, if any, have seen more than Leonard. When a new resident comes into the village, Leonard can give the comprehensive history of their home and more often than not will have photographs of it. Leonard’s great-great aunt Alma was a historian and schoolteacher who lived in East Calais in the late 1800s. Alma collected photos of the village and took many herself. These photos eventually made their way to Leonard, who has become the unofficial town historian, and because of her knowledge of the community, has even been given the nickname “Mayor” by some locals. In 1990, Leonard began organizing Calais History Day, which would occur in the fall for the next 20 years. The day celebrated the history of the community with exhibits and homemade local food.
Listening to Leonard talk about the people she remembers while growing up is captivating. The stories bring out a hearty laugh from her. “We had a lot of town characters,” said Leonard. She spoke of Marion, who knew everyone’s birthday in town and was always singing “Don’t Fence Me In.” There was Nelson Smith, who built entrances at both ends of his garage so he never had to back out. “The garage’s floor was made of tin and eventually it blew to pieces after being hit by lightning,” she recalled. Leonard remembers a neighbor’s “nasty rooster,” which would come running down the road and attack anyone it saw in the Leonard’s yard. “Finally, my uncle shot the rooster!” she said. “My grandmother had a fit!”
After high school, Leonard went to work at the North Montpelier Woolen Mill at the corner of Factory Street and what is now Route 14. Leonard wrote about her experience there and what eventually happened to the factory:
“When I first worked at the mill in the 50s, they were making civil defense blankets and California prison blankets. The last five years we were mostly making yard goods, a lot of plaids along with solid colors. Most of the cloth was made on order from manufacturers. In the 50s, the mill had its own store and sold woolen jackets, pants and shirts. The woolen industry in the 60s was really in trouble from foreign imports. In 1969 the mill closed its doors forever, ending the manufacturing era in North Montpelier. The people who worked there drifted out of town, leaving the village a shell of what it used to be. One of the buildings has been torn down, while the other is slowly giving in to time and the elements.”
Leonard also worked at Saxby’s Cider Mill just outside of East Calais Village. “I can’t stand apple cider now!” says Leonard. She worked at the Reddy Company, a plastics plant in Montpelier, until it closed in 1981. After that, she briefly drove a van for Head Start and then got into the business of mowing lawns all over East Calais, including the recreation field.
Leonard is a celebrity in the East Calais community. Locals know her and are familiar with her spunky personality and contributions to the village. Neighbors renovated her home when it was falling apart and did not want any compensation for it. A softball game was played in her honor last summer at the recreation field while she was in the hospital undergoing dialysis. Now at 83, she no longer mows lawns, but she loves sharing the stories of the local area. If anyone has a question about anything regarding East Calais and its history, the answer is usually, “Go see Erlene.”