Welcome to the August edition of History & Heritage. Our purpose is to acquaint you with our mission to preserve the town’s rich history, highlight the legacy of those who have gone before and show how our past has shaped our present. We are a non-profit with 501(c)(3) status.
We are located in our new permanent home at 421 Summer Street. At the present time, the Center is open Monday through Saturdays from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. thanks to a wonderful staff of volunteers. This is your establishment and we encourage your support in making this historic home a wonderful place for exhibiting, preserving and collecting St. Johnsbury’s history. The carriage barn is a work in progress but the horse drawn vehicles and the ice cutting exhibit are ready for your visit. The installation of a permanent platform wagon scale has begun. Please visit us on September 17th from 10 – 4 as we bring back some of the traditional crafts for visitors to see. Check out our web site at www.stjhistory.org and our Facebook page. Our mailing address is 421 Summer Street, St. Johnsbury, Vt., 05819 and phone number is 802 – 424 – 1090.
The first Saturday in August (this year) we had a Ghost Walk at Mt. Pleasant Cemetery. It was wonderfully covered by Taylor Reed in the Caledonian-Record. The headline spoke of “History Comes Alive…” Nine women came out of the shadows to tell of their place in St. Johnsbury’s history. How does this happen? I have chosen Bertha Anne Gates to explain how we were able to portray her. Her final resting place is on the left of the road leading to the Civil War Soldier. There is nothing on her stone to tell of the tragedy that took her life. As a much younger person, I remember my Dad telling me that she had a fatal accident with a horse; he also told me that my Great Aunt Lillian might have been the last one to talk to her on her horse. I remember thinking how awful that must have been and that memory stayed tucked away in my mind until I started giving cemetery walks as a teacher.
Having access to the 1889 bound edition of the Caledonian-Record, I found the story of the “Shocking Accident” that took place on November 13th on Summer Street. The description was heart breaking as you could visualize through the reporter’s words the tragedy. To the students who visited her gave with me, the story was told of an accident of a horse which was the method of transportation and the need not to have a TV to show this accident – words described it: “One of the most shocking and startling accidents that has ever occurred in our village happened yesterday afternoon, when Miss Bertha A. Gates was thrown from her horse, her foot catching in the stirrup, dragged through our streets and brought home dead. Her father was a witness to the whole affair, and unable to rescue his daughter, yet fully realizing her awful fate.”
Bertha was born in 1868 to Rev. Matthew Alonzo and Dency Louisa (Ward) Gates. Sarah LaForce on staff at the St. Johnsbury Academy Library graciously consented to be the voice of Bertha on the Ghost Walk. Prior to that night Sarah and Caitlin Wallingford, also at the Grace Stuart Orcutt Library at St. Johnsbury Academy, went searching in the Academy archives and added more to the story of Bertha, including a picture of her. Bertha was member of the Academy class of 1884, achieving the highest grades. The Academy Student publication revealed and essay written by Bertha entitled “Haec fabula docet” (This fable teaches). This is amazing writing for her age, as the next to the last paragraph shows – “Beside the lesson we must learn from life, there is the lesson our lives must give to the world. Often we may feel that we have no influence, that our lives neither hinder nor help. But this cannot be.They must carry some lesson; the only question is, what and how they shall teach.”
Bertha Anne Gates – Photo courtesy of St. Johnsbury Academy archives.
Her education continued at Wellesley College where she once again graduated at the head of her class in June of 1889. Her next plans were to travel in Europe with her brother Owen in 1890. Instead her life was cut short by this tragic accident.
In the end of the report of the accident in the Caledonian-Record, it reads – “Miss Bertha Gates was 21 years old and the second daughter of Rev. and Mrs. M. A. Gates. The family have, with one interval, resided here about a dozen years and Mr. Gates has preached in many of the Congregational pulpits of this vicinity. The victim of this dreadful accident was a lovely young lady, beloved by all who knew her and a devoted Christian. She was a brilliant scholar and was fitting herself for a life of much usefulness.”
Sarah LaForce as Bertha Anne Gates
All the women portrayed that night had their lives brought forward by research supplied in large part by Denise Scavitto coupled with stories from yours truly! The story of the person is pieced together by the memories, snippets stored in the archives and the newspapers of the time. And it is with this knowledge that I wish the Caledonian-Record a very happy belated birthday. Where would our history be without the archives of our local newspaper?