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Jim Kenyon: History in the Making

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

I was flipping through the venerable Vermont Standard recently when its “There’s No Place Like Woodstock” column caught my eye.

Jennifer Falvey, a real estate broker who writes the weekly column, suggested that making Woodstock “not only the prettiest town in America but also the friendliest town in America” could be the “fastest way to to make it attractive to young people who want to live here full time, raise families, create jobs, buy affordable houses and help share the tax burden.”

Prettiest? Woodstock could be on the ballot. But friendliest? Woodstock police will need to write a lot fewer speeding and parking tickets.

Falvey’s column did its job, though. It got me to thinking not only about Woodstock’s future, but its past. What was Woodstock like 50 years ago — before Laurance S. Rockefeller set about to cast the town in his image? In other words: Was it always so stuffy?

I figured Howard Coffin would be a good person to ask. Coffin, 76, grew up in Woodstock during the ‘40s and ‘50s. He left in his early 20s for the Army, followed by a newspaper career that had him writing about Vermont politics for the Rutland Herald. He then spent a dozen years flacking for Dartmouth College and the University of Vermont before serving as U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords’ press secretary.

He’s also written a dozen books, including four on the Civil War. Coffin’s research and writings have made him a national expert on the Civil War. Over the years, he’s given more than 700 talks across the country.

Often when he meets someone, they ask where he grew up. After answering, he feels the need to immediately set them straight. “I was a poor kid in a rich town,” he said.

His father worked as a clerk at the Woodstock Electric Company’s office on Central Street. His mother was a telephone operator in a building that is now an art gallery. The family, which included his twin brother, Bruce, and younger sister, Jane, squeezed into a four-room apartment on Pleasant Street.

Coffin, who has lived in Montpelier for 30 years, gave me a tour last week of the village where he spent his childhood, building forts and exploring caves on Mount Tom.

We strolled the grounds of the Woodstock Inn, where Coffin worked as a bellhop in his teens and early 20s. He rose to the rank of bell captain — the last to hold the title before Rockefeller bought the “old” inn and, in Coffin’s words, proceeded to “flatten what was a beautiful structure with a bell tower to make way for the current compound.”

Leaving the inn’s front entrance, we took a left on South Street. Coffin pointed toward the former home of Eva Lewis, a black woman who worked as an inn chambermaid.

Every summer, a wealthy widow — one of many from Boston, New York and Washington who came for extended stays — would summon Lewis to her room shortly after she arrived. Once, Lewis asked Coffin to accompany her.

Inside the room, the woman handed Lewis four or five dresses that she no longer had use for. Lewis politely thanked the woman, and left with the dresses, Coffin following dutifully behind. They took the elevator to the basement and marched to a back alley.

As they reached the inn’s large trash container, Coffin’s jaw dropped at what Lewis was about to do.

“I don’t take no hand-me-downs from nobody,” Lewis said, heaving the dresses into the bin.

Looking back at his childhood, Coffin can see that “not having money” had its benefits. His mother, whom he describes as a “farm girl from South Pomfret,” understood that the Norman Williams Library was a resource available to everyone in town — no matter their social standing.

Arlene Coffin led her children on frequent excursions to the library next to the county courthouse. Her oldest son (by 20 minutes) rarely made it past the history section. He was particularly mesmerized by Civil War tales, his mother ignoring the librarian’s warnings that such material was unsuitable for children.

“The uniforms, the pictures, the drawings of battle scenes — by the time I was 5 years old, I was a Civil War buff,” he said.

Coffin graduated from high school in 1960. But unlike his brother, who went on to teach for years at a private school in Connecticut after graduating from UVM, he didn’t take to college. Coffin dropped out of what was then Lyndon (Vt.) Teachers College, returning to Woodstock to work at the inn.

With the Vietnam War heating up, Uncle Sam sent Coffin a draft notice and shortly thereafter he found himself at Fort Hood in Texas. But before he could be shipped to Vietnam, he turned the little bit of sports writing he had done in high school for the Standard into a reporter’s position at Fort Hood’s 40,000-circulation post newspaper.

“I was literally writing to save my life,” he told me.

The investigative skills he honed during years of newspaper reporting have served him well. Before Coffin, “h​​istorians had not tackled Vermont’s participation in the Civil War in any major way,” said Vermont State Curator David Schutz. “He uncovered the stories that hadn’t been told.”

And those stories might have remained untold, if not for Arlene Coffin leading her young son into the stone building next to the county courthouse in Woodstock to peruse the stacks for books about the Civil War.

There’s no place like a public library — especially for a poor boy in a rich town.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.