Norwich Updates the ‘Main Threads’ of Town’s History

Norwich — Until this month, the most recent comprehensive history of Norwich was more than a century old. A History of Norwich, Vermont, by Merritt Elton Goddard and Henry Villiers Partridge, was published in 1905 and is still considered an important resource. Several years ago, with the town’s 250th anniversary approaching, a small group of Norwich history buffs decided it was time to pick up where Goddard and Partridge left off.

Shot through with photographs and postcards, timelines and maps, the black-and-white Norwich, Vermont: A History, explores just about every aspect of the town’s sometimes surprising past.

Historian Alan Berolzheimer edited the book, a scholarly project some five years in the making. For Berolzheimer, a member of the Norwich Historical Society and 15-year Norwich resident, the project contained “lots of surprises,” including the town’s Native American roots and the fact that a handful of free African Americans had lived there before the Civil War.

“I always imagined there probably were, but to actually see evidence of that in the census was really intriguing,” said Berolzheimer, who is managing editor for the Vermont Historical Society and project historian for the Flow of History, a nonprofit that explores Vermont and the Connecticut River Valley in the Twin States.

He also mentioned Lewiston, the bustling community near the bridge between Hanover and Norwich. In 1967, it was razed in to make way for the highway. Now, its comprised of just a few buildings.

“There are a lot of amazing photographs showing what that little hamlet was like,” with its businesses and homes, he said. “To look at (them) is really striking.”

In addition to the historical society’s archives, the 318-page volume draws on sources ranging from personal interviews and town documents to newspaper articles and other books about Norwich. Yet, it is not meant to be an exhaustive history. Instead, as they explain in the introduction, the writers tried to “chronicle the main threads of life in Norwich” since 1761 and examine the forces that have shaped the town over the past century.

Recreation and religion, cemeteries and civic groups all figure into the book, which is illustrated with everything from menus to letters to poems penned by a Norwich farmer and playwright.

A Lebanon College class scanned the images, and more than a dozen people, including Berolzheimer, contributed to the writing and research. That variety is one of the book’s strengths, he said. “People followed different leads, different threads,” according to their interests.

As editor, he worked to bring coherence and consistency to the writing, while preserving their individual styles. “The narrators’ voices make the reading of the book really lively because there isn’t just a consistent tone,” he said. “It really changes from chapter to chapter.”

Bill Aldrich, whom Berolzheimer called “the institutional memory of Norwich,” came up with the idea for the book several years ago. “There’s been a hell of a lot going on since 1905, with all the wars and everything,” Aldrich, 75, remembers thinking. “Maybe it’s time to start writing down some things.”

A member and former president of the town historical society, Aldrich and several others formed what came to be known as the Norwich History Book Committee. For the next five years or so, they met regularly to work on the project. “It was fun to finally get it into print and get it out there for people to enjoy,” he said, then added with a chuckle, “or not enjoy.”

Aldrich and fellow Norwich resident Charles Hodgdon Jr. paid for the bulk of the publishing with money left them by a relative, Alice May Aldrich Sumner, after her death in 2008. The book is dedicated to Sumner, a Norwich native, and to the late Virginia Close, a longtime Dartmouth College librarian and Norwich Historical Society member who helped create an index for the 1905 history decades after it was published.

Following up on such a well-respected historical work was no small task, said Berolzheimer, who served on the book committee.

Since the 1905 history is “quite venerable,” a book built on it should be scholarly as well as popular, he said. “Coming from where I come from, I held the group to some pretty high standards about citations and writing coherence.”

Nancy Osgood, a contributing writer and book committee member, said they tried to produce a serious history that is accessible to everyone. “We did our best to put in lots of end notes,” so readers can take their research to the next level, said Osgood, a member and former president of the Norwich Historical Society.

Editor’s Note: The book, $29.95, is available in Norwich at the Historical Society, Dan & Whit’s, the Norwich Inn and the Norwich Bookstore. It’s also for sale in Hanover at Dartmouth Bookstore and Left Bank Books and can be ordered online at Proceeds benefit the Norwich Historical Society.