A Vermont Writer’s Life, Well Observed
Randolph Center writer and historian Mim Herwig, 90, lives in a house once owned by Lieutenant Governor Lebbeus Egerton who oversaw the building of the second Vermont Statehouse. Wednesday, December 11, 2013.
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Piles of holiday cards sit ready to be mailed on Mim Herwig's kitchen table in Randolph Center, Vt. Wednesday, December 11, 2013. Herwig says she often writes up to nine letters a day, but has a grandson who has never bought a stamp.
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Miriam “Mim” Herwig has been writing for most of her 90 years: books, letters, stories, poems, essays, newspaper columns and postcards. If a piece of paper and pen were put in front of her, she would probably set about putting something down almost immediately. It is as necessary and routine as breathing.
She has written for the Herald of Randolph since 1947, editing, proofing and writing. “Around Randolph Center,” her column of observations and news began in 1963 and continues still. A popular column about the weather, good, bad or indifferent, ran from 1978 to 2003. Her collected essays appeared in the book A Mim’s-Eye View, published in 2012, and she’s working on a second collection of 40 to 50 essays.
She’s recorded what it was like, as a child living on a farm in Williamstown, Vt., during the Depression, when night fell. “Few children nowadays know the utter darkness which surrounded us nightly in my childhood ... There was no light visible from distant neighbors. When the sun set we were in a world of darkness.”
During World War II, when her brother was in the Pacific, she wrote letters to him and his friends so that they knew they weren’t forgotten. Her war contribution, she said. She has written, in her estimation, thousands of letters during her life. “I’ve written letters to people I knew couldn’t respond but were grateful to be remembered,” she said. “Probably I’ve supported the post office up here.”
And speaking of the post office, which Herwig does, she writes about how the U.S. Postal Service could save money — stop printing thousands of Homer Simpson stamps, for one — instead of closing the branches that are so important in rural places.
She writes also about the uselessness of the penny, which she believes should be withdrawn from American currency. “We lose 60 million a year printing them!” she said. “They spend money on things I wouldn’t dream of.”
She’s worried about the end of teaching cursive writing in schools: 32 states have stopped teaching it, she said; and so she wrote about it: “What will future writers be called? Printers? Communication artists? Or will that archaic term persist?”
She writes the account of the past year in the annual Randolph town report. She has written about railroads, Revolutionary War soldiers and the difficulty of editing other people’s writing. “An Editor’s lot is not a happy one!” is the title of one poem.
She is currently preparing a lecture, which will be given on Martin Luther King Day at Vermont Technical College, about Alexander Twilight, a Vermonter and the first African American to graduate from an American college (Middlebury) in 1823.
She’s a polymath: there is almost no subject in which she doesn’t take an interest. Does Herwig live to write, or write to live? Probably both.
“She is so grounded in many ways, in history and in the geography of the area,” said Dick Drysdale, publisher of the Herald. “She grew up in Williamstown and she has very vivid memories (and she) integrates those memories and her sense of history and her sense of the past into the way she lives now.”
Her weather column was not your run-of-the-mill weather report, he said. Yes, it gave you the facts — sun, rain, snow, wind — but more than that, it left you with a sense of time and place. “She created a little world in that two-column space,” Drysdale said.
“Tree silhouettes separated the progressives from the conservatives last week,” Herwig wrote in one column. “Locusts stood austerely bare and leafless, not daring to express any foliage to the elements yet while maples blithely opened their green umbrellas wider every day. Ash trees took the middle ground, testing the waters with their toes, so to speak.”
Herwig has lived in a handsome federal-style red brick house in Randolph Center since 1950, when she and her late husband Wes Herwig bought it for $6,500. The oldest part of the house, built in 1801, is white clapboard; the newer part, the prosperous red-brick part, was built in 1820 by Lebbeus Egerton, who was at one time a lieutenant governor of Vermont and oversaw the construction of the second Statehouse in Montpelier.
Herwig lives in three rooms of the house and, during the winter, keeps the rest of the spacious house shut up and unheated, including the living room where the piano sits; to stave off the chill she wears a coat to practice. For many years, she’s played the organ at the First Congregational Church of Randolph just down the road from her house, and she’ll play some of her favorite carols at this year’s Christmas Eve service: It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, O Little Town of Bethlehem.
She is diminutive: a photograph of her next to a grandson, 6-foot-7-inches tall, makes her look, she said, as if she is his child. A gray bob and bangs frame her face, and she wears glasses. She sometimes talks with her hands, gesturing this way and that. She alludes to a visit in 1825 by the Marquis de Lafayette, Revolutionary War hero, who stopped at their house to visit Lebbeus Egerton.
“I bet he was a dapper old Frenchman,” she said, doing a little dance step.
A glass case in the living room holds a miniature natural history museum, filled with worn-looking stuffed birds, nests in which sit tiny eggs, and rocks and butterfly specimens. These belonged to Wes, who died 10 years ago. He may be physically absent but is very much there in spirit: There are snapshots of him nearly everywhere you look, and you sense that Herwig feels him hovering at her shoulder.
“He was so handsome,” Herwig said, looking at a photograph of him in noble profile taped on the refrigerator. You can’t tell her story, she said, without also telling his.
During the war her poems and drawings appeared in a now defunct periodical called Rural New Yorker, and she routinely got fan mail. But one reader, Wes Herwig of New Britain, Conn., was particularly struck by her work, and he asked the editors for her address so he could contact her directly. They began to send each other letters. “We corresponded for four years before we even met each other,” she said. “We learned so much about each other by writing.”
Herwig was a conscientious objector during the war, and as part of his service was sent on jobs around the country: chopping wood in New Hampshire, fighting fires in Nevada. “He was transferred to Vermont without me knowing it,” Herwig said. “One day the phone rang and a male voice said, Guess who?”
By that time Miriam Boyce had graduated from Vermont Junior College in Montpelier, and was working at National Life insurance company there. Herwig had been put to work as a milk tester in Vermont, and visited her during sugaring season. It was the spring of 1944. From the moment they met, it was clear that they were going to be married.
Inspired by his experiences watching sugaring, Herwig, who later earned a living as a commercial artist, invented a character called Sugar Cooker, a pop-eyed and affable, if slightly dim, cartoon character. Every day for the next two years, Herwig sent Boyce hand-drawn postcards featuring the adventures of Sugar Cooker. “How to Woo Your Gal via the U.S. Mail,” Herwig wrote on one card. Mim Herwig has kept them — all 730 — in a scrap book.
They married in May 1946 and moved into an apartment in downtown Randolph. Although this was after the war, the building had only recently acquired its first flush toilets and Herwig had to trudge up and down two flights to the cellar where the perishables were kept, as there was no ice box. They lived there for four years until they moved into the Egerton house.
Children followed: five daughters, seven grandchildren and six great-grandchildren. Books were written and published, and the couple thrived.
Herwig busied herself not only raising her children but involving herself in the community of the town in a variety of ways. The couple were charter members of the town’s historical society and started the local history museum. Herwig was the first woman to sit on the Planning Commission, in the early 1970s, and was also president of the Poetry Society of Vermont. All this was accomplished while she was also writing her essays and news from Randolph Center for the Herald. “I always felt it was a link in the community, knowing about each other,” she said.
“She is a remarkably perceptive person and she’s a good poet. She understands the world,” said Howard Coffin, the historian who writes about Vermont’s role in the Civil War, and befriended the Herwigs in the 1990s. He visits Mim Herwig nearly every week. What makes her unusual, Coffin said, is that although she was born and raised in a remote valley during the hardships of the Depression, she looked outward to the world from an early age.
“She’s been a champion of causes her whole life,” Coffin said.
Herwig misses Wes dearly. “Every day,” she said, bowing her head. If she were to marry him again today, would she keep her own name, as some women do? “I’d take his: It was an honor.”
Although spry and lively, she is resigned to the idiosyncrasies of aging. There’s only one way to go forward, even as age redefines what she can and cannot do physically. “Keep up your interest in others. Don’t dwell upon your own frailties,” she said.
Nicola Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org