Send Me a Box Transcript

Feb 19, 2021

Back to the Send Me a Box episode.

(Sounds of walking to a house and knocking)

Ryan Newswanger: Do you consider that you live in East Barnard, or in Pomfret?

John Leavitt: I always called it East Barnard, but I’m actually in Pomfret. But a lot of times I’ll say “Pomfret/East Barnard.”

The Leavitts have lived in Barnard and Pomfret since 1797. John Leavitt grew up helping his father on the dairy farm on Allen Hill Road, which John took over in 1958. Producer Ryan Newswanger lives nearby.

John: This farm here, the market for 12 months of the year was shipping milk. That was your living. And then when maple syrup time came, sugaring, that was a little extra profit. You know, it only lasted for six weeks or so.

John has made maple syrup for most of his life. Only in the last couple of years has he stopped.

John: I love doing it, but, you know, when you get to be 85 years old, you got to slow down. I figure, like I said, I paid my dues. I sugared ever since I was a little kid, could lug a pail around.

The most syrup John ever produced in a year was 550 gallons.

John: Most of my syrup back in my good years was retail. I always had [local accounts] and also shipped it out UPS or by mail order to Georgia and South Carolina and Nevada, or California.

One of his mail-order accounts came about when John was shopping in a nearby store. A visitor asked him if he knew anything about maple syrup. After John told the woman that he made syrup himself, she said she’d like to buy it directly from him.

John: But I told her I lived way out in the country and she probably wouldn’t want to travel eight miles. But that was exactly what she wanted to do. So she and her husband came out and I showed them all around my sugar place and the sugar house. Came in the house, we sat down, visited for quite a while. We didn’t have any coffee because they were Mormons.

That initial chance meeting led to a long-term friendship…and a business relationship.

John: They gave some syrup to their daughter and the daughter gave syrup to somebody else. And pretty soon I had quite a few of those people out there ordering maple syrup, from Henderson, Nevada.

For years, syrup produced in tiny East Barnard, Vermont, made its way across the country.

John: I’d go to the stores and pick up boxes to ship the syrup in, but when the Postal Service came out with the flat-rate box, that made it so much better because the boxes were heavy, and they even furnished tape. And you could ship three half-gallons in a large flat-rate box for 21 dollars. And that was a real good deal for the sugar maker. And the Postal Service apparently liked it, because they still have the flat-rate boxes.

[BYT theme music]

This is Before Your Time, presented by the Vermont Historical Society and Vermont Humanities. I’m your host, Lovejoy. Every episode, we go inside the stacks at the Vermont Historical Society to look at an object from their permanent collection that tells us something unique about our state. Then we take a closer look at the people, the events, or the ideas that surround each artifact.

Today we’ll examine some of the products that people have mailed to and from Vermont, including maple syrup and complete houses. We’ll begin with the Civil War.

[sound f/x of shuffling letters]

Victoria Hughes: So we have a lot of letters. We do have diaries. We do have broadsides. We have posters looking for horses for the war or looking for sharp shooters. So we have a lot of documents and papers.

Victoria Hughes is the Museum and Education Manager at the Vermont Historical Society. She works with school groups and develops resources for teachers.

Victoria Hughes: We have a school program that’s called “Send Me a Box. And it’s looking at Civil War soldier letters.

[music up]

Victoria: We start off just sort of thinking about care packages in general and then looking at Civil War photographs and thinking about what it was like to be in the camps.

Victoria: A lot of times we try and make those contemporary connections, so if you’re sending something from Vermont to other people, what are you going to send them? And you’re going to send them maple or you’re going to send them cheese. And then taking that back one hundred and fifty years and finding those connections.

In their letters back home, Vermont’s Union soldiers asked for a wide variety of items.

Victoria: It’s a combination of practical things and sort of treats. They’re asking for boots. And a couple of the soldiers are asking for boots that are larger than normal or boots that are better than the army boots. Or they’re asking for socks or warmer clothes. So very practical items.

[music up]

Victoria: A lot of them are asking for food. They’re asking a lot for maple, which they are certainly not getting in Virginia. They’re asking for things that are tasty, that they will enjoy eating perhaps more than the standard mush that they’re getting from the army or the peas or the salted meat that they’re getting.

Vermont families sent boxes to their sons and husbands most often during the winter, when the soldiers were in camp. The cool temperatures helped preserve the food in the days before refrigeration.

Victoria: That is a better time to send butter or cheese or chicken in the mail in the boxes.

In one of the letters, a soldier asks for five stuffed chickens.

Victoria: You know, his mother’s going to cook the chickens and then she’s going put them on the back porch. They’re going to freeze up and then they’re going to put them in a box and put the box in the mail.

In another letter, from 1864, a Vermonter in Virginia asked for a lot of food.

Victoria: He’s asking for 10 pounds of flour and five pounds of sausage and two pounds of coffee and four pounds of sugar.

So they can understand why this soldier needed so many things from home, Victoria shows students his return address.

Victoria: Prisoner of war, Bell Island, Virginia. So really, he’s asking for all of this food because he needs it to survive.

The soldiers don’t ask for maple syrup in their letters, because maple sugar was much more common in Vermont then. But otherwise, the mail order food associated with Vermont hasn’t changed much.

Victoria: I think there’s one it says. What does he say? He talks about the old Vermont butter and cheese, and apples, and cider. So the things that you could order, send mail order from Morse Farm or Dakin Farms. It’s the same kind of things that they’re asking for in the eighteen sixties.

[music up]

Today, we’re used to the idea that we can find almost anything online and have it shipped to our homes. But what about picking a house out of a catalogue, and getting it through the mail?

Devin Colman: So the notion of ordering a house plan dates back to the mid-19th century.

Devin Colman is the State Architectural Historian for Vermont.

Devin: Architects were producing plans and you could purchase those plans, but then you were on the hook for hiring a contractor, buying the lumber, buying all the materials and actually building the house.

We’re talking with Devin about kit houses in our state, and about one company in particular.

Devin: The kit house grows out of this notion of mass production. And this is the turn of the 20th century.

[1920s music]

Devin: And automobiles are being mass produced in factories and consumer goods. And the thinking is, why not houses?

Devin: If you have a house plan, you know exactly how many two by fours you need for the walls, you know exactly how many two by 10s you need for the roof framing. You know how many windows you need. Why not fabricate and cut all those pieces in a factory, and then ship them to the building site?

Devin: Your contractor isn’t working out in the rain, cutting lumber to the right shape and dimensions. They can just get right to work, unload the boxcar and start building the house.

A man named Ernest Hodgson got his start making and shipping prefabricated chicken coops in the late 19th century. He marketed these “brooder houses” under the delightful name, “Peep o’Days.”

Dick Hodgson: The interesting thing about the brooders was that they came in 10 by 10 sections. And if you wanted a larger one, they’d be ten by twenty, ten by 30 and so forth. The 10 by 50 would accommodate 200 chickens. And that was that was his biggest seller.

This is Dick Hodgson, Ernest’s grandson. Dick now lives in Vermont.

Dick:  These sections were put together at the site with key bolts. And you take the key and you bang it in place and it’s there. It’s tight.

Dick has become a historian of his grandfather’s company, which soon moved on from hen houses to making larger structures out of Dover, Massachusetts, west of Boston.

Dick: When he would advertise in the magazines, he would say, “Write, and we will send you a catalog.” He had houses that were U-shaped, houses that were L-shaped. He had ranch houses. People would then, through that, order the houses, and he would deliver them.

The Hodgson Company’s business model was made possible by those catalogs, and by the ability to ship entire houses, piece by piece, on railroads. Early on, the company specialized in vacation cottages.

Dick: The automobile opened up all sorts of ability for people to go on vacations. They could leave Boston, they could leave New York, they could go to Cape Cod. They would stay for a week, month, for the summer. But they needed a cottage.

And it was those cottages that made the biggest impact on Vermont. Here’s Devin Colman.

Devin: They were something that would be attractive to a small business owner where they’re looking to put up some cottages, maybe on the Champlain Islands, and have an efficient way to get the buildings they needed, but not have to hire a whole work crew to design and fabricate the buildings.

Hodgson houses were the first truly prefabricated houses in America, and they competed with other companies doing similar things – but not quite the same. Sears, for example, would deliver to you all the raw material necessary to make a house, along with the designs.

Dick: What would be delivered to your front yard would be two by fours, two by sixes, two by eights, all the plywood and everything else. And now you needed a carpenter to put this house together.

[music up]

Dick: Whereas my grandfather’s would come in sections and within a short period of time, the sections were in place, the roof was on, and you had the completed the project within a relatively short period of time. And so the only thing that one had to do when receiving a Hodgson house was to add the electric, the plumbing and so forth.

The ease and availability of kit houses played an unsung role in the development of Vermont in the 20th century.

Devin: There’s a need to develop some of that farmland surrounding the urban centers and you start seeing neighborhoods laid out with the street grid and smaller building lots more, kind of longer, narrower lots to maximize the number of houses on the street. And these kit houses fit nicely on those lots.

[music up]

Devin: They’re pretty straightforward designs. So you don’t have a lot of unusual building footprints or strange building forms that have to be fit onto a site. They’re basically rectangles.

That doesn’t mean that every kit house was a cookie-cutter replica.

Devin: You might think it would be limited to just a small fraction of possible designs. But there were so many options that you don’t get a monolithic feel when you have a whole street of kit houses. But again, they’re all kind of working within the same overall framework in terms of how big they are, what types of common materials they use and so on.

The idea for quick, easy houses actually goes back further than the Hodgson Company and Sears – Devin has found evidence of a Vermont company making prefabricated buildings in the 19th century.

Devin: Lawrence Barnes and Co. was building portable houses on the Burlington waterfront. So that’s 1860. So these were little panelized buildings that they were marketing as, do you need a shed? We can make one for you in our factory. And part of their promotion was, quote, “A tree is put into a mill and sliced up into a dwelling house, a church, a barn, a railroad depot or a military hospital.” And it’s a little more complicated than that. But they were really emphasizing. Tell us what you want. We’ll make it for you on our factory, on the Burlington waterfront. And this is much deeper than just the 1920s catalog houses. This quest for the affordable, quick, efficient building plan goes back much further.

[transition music]

Shortly after World War II, a Vermont couple had a clever idea for a Christmas mailing for their friends and family.

Lyman Orton: My father, mother sent out a catalog in the late fall of ‘45 called The Vermont Country Store. My father had a little printing shop and was a printer and a writer and a publisher. So know how to do all that.

That couple’s name was Vrest and Mildred Orton. This is their son, Lyman Orton.

Lyman: So he sent his catalog out to the proverbial “Christmas card list.” People started ordering and they first thing they would say was, well, we’re coming up this summer to the store. But they hadn’t opened a store yet so they scurried around. Fortunately, there was a building for sale and they bought it and opened a store.

[music up]

Lyman: I worked in the store as a kid and then went off to Middlebury College. And when I graduated from Middlebury in 1963, my roommate went off to the Peace Corps. I came back to Weston and put on my apron and went back to work and built the business up ever since then.

You may have heard of the Vermont Country Store. Today, there are two stores: the original one in Weston and another in Rockingham. But the company has always done its biggest business through the mail.

Lyman: We still have a paper catalog. We also have a virtual catalog called a web site, of course. But the catalog business…when people order from that, and they receive a package, there’s a delight to that.

The Ortons founded the Vermont Country Store when much of America was focused on modernizing. Their store in Weston looked to the past: it was intended to be a replica of Vrest’s father’s store in North Calais.

Lyman: White bread came in, and whole grains were going out of favor. The grocery stores would no longer carry them. And my grandfather happened to be the miller at the gristmill here in Weston and ground grains. So we started selling those, but also promoted the health of whole grains. My mother in 1947 wrote a cookbook called Cooking with Whole Grains. And it’s still out there, still published.

It’s quite a feat to look to both the past and the future for inspiration at the same time, but that’s what the Vermont Country Store has managed to do. One big moment in that strategy came in the 1970s, with the rise of the Back to the Land movement, and the oil crisis.

Lyman: There were gas lines everywhere. People couldn’t travel. Fuel oil, which heats our houses here in the Northeast, tripled in price. So people were worried. They went out and bought wood stoves. And we started to get a lot more orders.

From its beginning, the store sold things that evoked nostalgia – items that people remembered from their childhoods. The Ortons realized that their most popular products had a certain timeless quality to them.

Lyman: One of the most frequent comments we hear people talk about in our stores is, “Gee, I didn’t know they made that anymore.” And that’s still the foundation of our business, is to revive products that people recalled when they were younger.

[music up]

Lyman: We have lots of families and grandchildren and kids and so on in our stores. But our core customer is in their 60s. And for years I’ve had consultants say, “You need to modernize and get younger people as your core customer.” But I’ve said, “You know, everybody gets old.”

It’s that ability to keep a foot in two worlds – to have an old-fashioned store that caters to nostalgia but also a sophisticated internet-based mail order business – that has kept the Vermont Country Store successful.

Lyman: Most catalog businesses are gone. Very few of us left who put out a paper catalog anymore. It’s almost all just web now. But it doesn’t have the same feeling as turning a page, reading about a product, thinking, “That might be nice,” and placing an order for that.

[music up]

Lyman: Often people find the product in the catalog and then they turn around and order through the Internet, of course, because that makes it easy now. But we still have people who, believe it or not, send checks in the mail with an order blank and order that way.

There’s still something exciting about getting mail, even in this age of virtual meetings and remote work. And there may be something especially “Vermont” about mail order.

Lyman: The people from Orvis and Gardeners Supply and King Arthur Flour and Vermont Country Store. We’re all in Vermont. And mail order, as we call it, web business now. But it’s light on the land. We can do a lot of business in Vermont, bring money in from outside and we employ a lot of people. And that’s been the most rewarding part is we’ve had people working for us for years and years and years.

Lyman says that they frequently get visitors to the store who have always wanted to visit Vermont because of the catalog they’ve browsed over the years. Sort of like the folks who responded to the very first Vermont Country Store catalog by planning their trip to the Green Mountains.

[music up]

The Vermont Country Store has seen a huge boom in online orders during the pandemic, like many other mail order businesses. But Lyman still looks forward to when he can welcome people back to the stores and share Vermont with them.

Lyman: When the vaccine comes out and we get past all this, I hope that maybe they’ll come to Vermont and pay us a visit and pay all the other folks in Vermont a visit. So that’s a good thing for Vermont as well.