Summer Journal: A Walk Down Memory Lane in Lebanon
Some Things Have Been Lost, but In Many Ways the City Looks Better Now
Valley News - Shawn Braley
The writer's old home on School Street, as it appeared when she lived there. Photo Courtesy - Lebanon Historical Society
Back in 1969, Lori Ladd Brown and I were 10-year-old girls enrolled in the same fourth-grade classroom at Hanover Street Elementary School in Lebanon. We were the best of best friends, and we both lived within walking distance of school, Lori on Mechanic Street, I on School Street.
Each day at the end of school, we walked a daily route home that took us first to Lori’s house — down Hanover Street, to High Street, to Mechanic Street — and then to my house — back up Mechanic Street, through the School Street cemetery, and up School Street to a two-story house located just beyond a sharp curve in the road.
We were two carefree, unsupervised kids. But if memory serves, Lebanon circa 1969 was not entirely a kid-friendly place.
Forty years ago, Lebanon was a hardscrabble working class town that even a child could tell was frayed around the edges. Still recovering from a 1964 fire that had decimated the downtown, the Lebanon of my youth sagged under the weight of tenement housing, murky beer joints and a vile smelling tannery.
On a recent Saturday in August, Lori and I decided to retrace the footsteps of our childhood.
As we walked our old route, we were struck by the absence of many familiar landmarks. The record store on Hanover Street is long gone, as is the Rockdale Department Store down by the river on Mechanic Street. You can’t stop in for a vanilla Coke at the Woolworth lunch counter anymore, and there are no small markets on High Street where fathers can pick up a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread on their way home from work.
Flowers and Catechism Class
As Lori and I began our trek across the walking bridge that spans Interstate 89, connecting one side of Hanover Street to the other, we noticed, first, the presence of home landscaping. The houses on the northern end of Hanover Street remain as modest as ever, but everywhere we looked, it seemed there were flower beds, shrubs and lawn ornaments showing up in an abundance that we had never noticed in our youth. Virtually every home and business offered some sort of small tended garden that had no purpose other than to please the homeowner or the wandering eyes of passersby. The street had become charming in a way that seemed decidedly new.
“Did your parents ever plant flowers?” I asked. “Mine never did.”
The second thing we noticed was the absence of nuns and parochial school students and the mysterious figure that Lori remembers as “the man in a long black coat,” who was always sitting on a corner at the far end of the bridge. His presence made us a little uneasy.
“We thought he was old, so he was probably about 40,” Lori said. “He really made an impression on me.”
Catholic nuns in black habits and uniformed students walking home from the former Sacred Heart School left an impression on us as well. Having lived the first nine years of my life in the more Protestant town of Hanover, I harbored vaguely sinister notions about the Catholic sisters. They were rumored to be harsh disciplinarians and I never recall a nun smiling at us as we walked by the Catholic school.
Ironically, the “otherness” of the Catholic kids inspired an almost romantic longing to learn what life was like on the other side of the religious divide. We frequently overheard the Catholic children talking about their catechism classes. They seemed, always, to be heading off to another catechism class. We had no idea what a catechism class was, but both of us really wanted to go.
As we would pass by the Knights of Columbus hall, which was (and remains) located on the other side of Hanover Street, almost directly across from the Sacred Heart Church, we told ourselves that that’s probably where those fun classes were held.
A Tenement House and a Tannery
Turning from Hanover Street onto High Street today, one is met with the pleasant vista of a small park on a gentle hillside. Flowers bloom, a water fountain burbles, and a bronze plaque proclaims that the Robert H. Leavitt Park was constructed by the Lebanon Rotary Club to pay homage to Leavitt, a Lebanon historian, and to “recall this neighborhood’s history.”
Like the perennial beds that line the residences on Hanover Street, this new addition to the entrance of High Street is utterly charming. But it does not conjure up the history of the neighborhood as it existed 40 years ago.
My skewed, childhood recollection of this turn in our daily walk is that of entering a place of darkness, something akin to a tunnel.
On the right side of the narrow street stood an imposing, three-story-high apartment building, with rickety upper balconies that stretched across the entire face of the dilapidated structure. On the lower level was a bar, the inside of which seemed so dark and disturbing to me I never summoned enough courage to peer through the windows to get a better look at what was going on inside. Now and then the telephone at the house on School Street would ring late at night, my father would leave, and I imagined him heading straight to this bar to remove someone from the bar, or the jail.
For her part, Lori remembers that her father stopped at Bashaw’s Market on High Street on his way home from work every day to pick up a six-pack of beer. She also recalls walking down High Street with another friend. On that day, some residents of the upper floors came out onto the balconies and lobbed empty beer bottles at the two girls.
On the opposite side of the street was Cummings Tannery, about which I seem to have no visual memory. Edward Ashey, curator for the Lebanon Historical Society, showed me a photograph of the old tannery from the 1960s that looked as if there was nothing but a blank wall facing the tenement building directly across the street. All I can remember is how bad the tannery smelled. It was a scent unlike anything else, distinct from rotting eggs or an open sewer. It was the stench of raw hides undergoing the chemical processing that would turn them into leather. Toxic waste products were dumped directly into the Mascoma River, which ran through the middle of the city.
On a bad day, during the height of summer, the smell of the tannery infiltrated every corner of the city and even ventured beyond the city limits. At the border between Lebanon and Hanover, the stink of the tannery met visitors like a derelict butler, announcing their arrival with a whiff of foul air. On a good day, in the depths of winter, the tannery smell abated. It took a back seat, Lori recalled, to the sight of river rats scuttling across the surface of the frozen, polluted waterway.
High Street is now home to Kindlenook, a gift shop specializing in primitive-style home decorations, where visitors are greeted with the sweet smell of scented candles and potpourri. Across the street, Cummings Tannery has been replaced with a row of tidy blue apartment buildings. The Mascoma River runs along the backside of the rental units, so tenants can look out their windows and watch ducks paddling around the clean water.
Our walk left us feeling a little sentimental for things lost. At the end of the day, I also felt as if I had bumped into an old friend I had not seen for a long while. While my hair had been turning gray, my old buddy Lebanon seemed to have rejuvenated herself.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.