Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Excursion to Rum Street in Woodstock, Vt.

Rum Street, Woodstock Vt.
August 27, 2017

Just up the hill from "The Flat" (West Woodstock) lies the remains of an 1800s farming community locally known as Cobb Hill. Sandwiched between Cabot Road and Prosper Road and along what is now called Grassy Lane are the cellar holes of the homesteads of Gaius Cobb and his neighbors.

The Woodstock History Center hosted a hike up to Vondell Reservoir, which is near where Elisha Raymond's mill once stood and just below the homesteads of George Grow, Charles Cobb and Gaius Cobb. The hike, complete with a self-guided trail map and posters for people to discover a little bit about the families that occupied this isolated part of Woodstock, included food, music, historical interpreters and a talk by Leslie Askwith author of "Thunder Struck Fiddler-The Remarkable True Story of Charles Morris Cobb and His Hill Farm Community in 1850s Vermont."

"Rum Street" seems to have been coined by Charles Morris Cobb. Charles was the only son of Gaius P. and Lucia Cobb and was born on Dec. 20, 1835. From 1850-1862, as a teenager, Charles kept a diary of his life on the farm and the social changes happening around him. It's believed he called road he lived on "Rum Street" because of the effect of rum on some of his neighbors.

In the 1930s, the Cobb homestead was sold. Mrs. Elbert Arnold of Northampton, Massachusetts purchased the 33 diaries written by Charles M. Cobb during the sale and then donated the diaries to Vermont Historical Society on Sept. 8, 1964.

Author Leslie Askwith used these diaries to research her book about Cobb and the other families that occupied this small part of Woodstock, Vt.. Local school teacher Barbara Drufovka spoke to the hikers about Spiritualism on "Rum Street." Drufovka used excerpts from Askwith's book to highlight the phenomenon of communicating with the spirits, which was popular activity around the country in the 19th century.

George Grow, a local medium, lived on "Rum Street" and was mentioned by Charles Cobb in his diaries. Charles was skeptical of George's ability to communicate with the dead and wrote extensively about the goings-on at the "meetings" where people would gather to communicate with departed relatives.

To aid in the spirits' communication, Gaius Cobb created a "rapping board." The board would be knocked on and the letters recorded as the message was received from the spirits. As a young man, Charles attended many of these sessions. Charles wrote on one occasion that another medium, Edward, was shaking and breathing heavily. An experience Charles wrote that was quite different from Grow's séances.

A geologist was on hand from the University of New Hampshire to speak about the geology and aquifer in this area. Professor Peter J. Thompson was available for people to look at old maps and ask questions. Most of the area is now in the Woodstock Town Forest, the Woodstock Aquaduct Company and privately owned land.

Elisha Raymond owned the mill on "Rum Street." It was used for lumber and cider making. His nieces Susan, Sylvia and Sarah, known as the Old Maids lived adjacent to Elisha's property and ran their farm themselves. Askwith's research turned up an 1850s census of the women. None were married and were between the ages of 33-45 years old. The may have been know as the Old Maids but their oxen were used by the neighbors to bring in wood and maintain the road.

During the long winters life on Cobb Hill didn't hibernate. According to the diaries many kitchen dances were held along with many games of checkers and other ways to pass the time. Both Gaius and Lucia were musicians and they past this love of music along to their son Charles. Gaius a was a skilled shoemaker but proved to be a poor farmer. The farm was sold in 1854 and Gaius went to work at the A.W. Whitney machine shop in West Woodstock. The family lived hand-to-mouth but always found money for musical instruments and lessons.

Charles was an accomplished musician and taught and performed in many local bands. In 1852, Charles joined the newly formed Woodstock Cornet Band. This remained the main focus of his musical career. To honor his musical heritage, local musicians Chloe Powell, Justin Park and Andy Mueller were on hand performing some traditional tunes.

Charles M. Cobb died on March 7, 1903 in the house where he was born leaving behind an estate the included some 400 acres around Vondell Reservoir. Get copy of Askwith's book, take a hike up the hill and look for the cellar holes and experience a little of what life might have been like on "Rum Street."