BRATTLEBORO — Award-winning author Castle Freeman believes that “inside every taciturn, adoptive Vermonter is a stand-up comic playing to the cheap seats.”
This is what the author of “Go With Me” — which has been adapted into the film “Blackway” starring Anthony Hopkins and Julia Stiles — told local writer Stephanie Greene in a segment Greene helped produce for the Brattleboro Words Trail, an audio tour tied to people and places significant to the region’s literary history. Freeman, of Newfane, was responding to Greene’s observation that while the novelist, as a person, is mild-mannered and taciturn, his characters are, in contrast, quite talkative.
“He’s a witty guy,” Greene said later.
The Brattleboro Words Trail, a community project more than three years in the making, launched this month with an online app through which users can now access audio segments tied to more than 60 “tour stops” that form a trail. The app, accessible by going to brattleborowordstrail.org, launched in beta format for the community Dec. 15, and will have a nationwide launch in February.
Freeman’s segment is tied to the Moore Free Library in Newfane.
“I love the Moore Free Library for its small personal scale and for the unfussy way it goes about its business, upholding the culture of books and reading in our small rural community,” Freeman tells Greene.
Audio segments, created by more than 100 Southern Vermont residents and people with ties to the area, are still being uploaded. There will be a total of 99 tour stops in what organizers call the first iteration of the trail.
Maps of the tour stops are soon to be available at Brooks Memorial Library, the Brattleboro Chamber of Commerce, 118 Elliot, the Brattleboro Municipal Center, Whetstone Station, the Vermont welcome center near Exit 1 and the River Garden, according to organizers.
While a downtown leg of the project is fit for walking, sites throughout Windham County and nearby New Hampshire and Massachusetts form a sequence better suited for biking or driving. Other authors and their tour stops include mystery writer Archer Mayor at the Municipal Center, the former site of the police station where many of his books are set; Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Jody Williams at Green Street School, where Williams attended; and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Saul Bellow, where he is buried in Shir Heharim Cemetery, at Morningside Cemetery. Horror writer HP Lovecraft has a tour stop on Goodenough Road in West Brattleboro, where his story “The Whisperer in Darkness” was set after the massive flood of 1927.
There are also segments focused specifically on locations, including the Latchis Theatre, the Brattleboro Reformer and the fire station on Elliot Street — the former site of the Wesselhoeft Water-Cure, a hydrotherapy center where many 19th-century greats sought treatment.
Lissa Weinmann, director of the Brattleboro Words Project, said the idea for the trail came about through brainstorming sessions among the project organizers. The Brattleboro Words Project is a collaboration of the Brattleboro Historical Society, Brooks Memorial Library, Brattleboro Literary Festival, Write Action and Marlboro College.
“Everybody was kind of reflecting something about this literary history, and how few people knew about it,” Weinmann recalled.
For example, she said, before beginning work on the trail, she did not know that Lucy Terry Prince, the first-known African American poet in the United States, was a resident of Guilford. Prince’s trail stop is at the corner of Abijah Prince and Sweet Pond roads, the former site of her farmstead, where she and her husband Abijah settled in 1764. The couple was among the town’s first landowning settlers.
“There were all these sorts of bits and pieces that people were bringing up that pointed to this theme that people knew tiny pieces of or had inklings of, so we realized that our mission is to weave together all these stories and themes,” Weinmann said.
In addition to producing the trail, the Brattleboro Words Project project recently published the book “Print Town: Brattleboro’s Legacy of Words.” Both projects were made possible by a matching grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, in addition to support from Thompson Trust, the Crosby-Gannett Fund, the Dunham-Mason Fund and Chroma Technology.
An exhibit of map murals that inspired the trail’s companion maps, by local artist Cynthia Parker-Houghton, is currently on display at Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.
Jen Austin, the executive and creative director of the Brattleboro Words Project, said project organizers, as a team, came up with the idea for using audio.
“Part of that is the inclusivity that not everything associated with word is written,” Austin said, noting that Lucy Terry Prince was primarily an oral storyteller, and stories associated with the Abenaki Native American tribe are often oral. “And the opportunity of being able to hear stories about a place and be at the location — so if you’re standing in front of the building, being able to hear stories about that building changes the entire experience.”
William Edelglass, a professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Marlboro College and lead scholar for the Words Trail, said a goal of the project is to deepen people’s “sense of place.”
“I mean that we want the stories to open access to multiple layers of the histories of local places and the many different experiences of these places, that there is not one history, or one experience, but there have always been many and there are many today,” Edelglass said. “A deeper understanding of the passing of time in this place will help us understand the fragility of our ways of life, of our economy, culture, and social practices and the places which make them possible.”
Edelglass said the Words Trail affected his teaching at the college. He taught a course exploring theories of place and public scholarship and the students researched sites and people.
He hopes people will move and interact with one another differently as they listen to the stories of what happened at particular sites.
“We hope that having a better understanding of all the many people who lived here might increase respect for our predecessors and respect for the land that supported them,” he said.
Brattleboro writer and artist Shanta Lee Gander believes the Brattleboro Words Trail project could serve as a model for other communities to get some clarity about the past, the present, and gaps in history.
“Why not start in one’s backyard? Why not do some digging?” she said. “I think it expands beyond borders.”
Gander was one of the project leaders in the beginning. Before her involvement in the Words Trail, she hadn’t known about Lucy Terry Prince. She recorded several podcasts as a mini series exploring the mythology of Prince’s story, her family and literary legacy in the area. She spoke with local leaders in the area about the poet’s impact.
The perception of slavery in Vermont stays with Gander. She said while Prince had a homestead in Vermont, a contemporary newspaper ad included information about a reward for anyone with knowledge about the whereabouts of a slave.
“There’s so many ways the so-called Constitution, our government at the time, still had some loopholes,” she said. “For example, adult slavery was outlawed in 1777 in Vermont but it doesn’t say anything about still keeping children enslaved.”
Gander called history “an ongoing act of excavation.” Research makes her question her own legacy as a creator.
Gander said she can still see “remnants of people patting themselves on the back” in Vermont in the way the state is known for being progressive and people saying it’s a safe place.
“I think it comes from that mythology of us taking a stand against slavery, however, you see the way the Princes were harassed mercilessly,” she said. “African Americans still were not safe.”
Brattleboro resident Rich Holschuh, a proponent of initiatives aimed at recognizing Abenaki history, became involved very early on. Instead of focusing on Brattleboro as a center for printing and writing, he sought to go beyond — before Brattleboro was established, about 260 years ago.
Holschuh worked on audio segments on Harris Hill’s indigenous past and the Connecticut River, among other contributions.
“I suggested that there was a need to look at all of the people who were here before this became Brattleboro because that period of time is significant,” he said. “We’re talking thousands of years.”
Brattleboro entertainer Bill Forchion was asked to read a speech believed to be given by American abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Brattleboro. He said upon further research, he found it was a different speech, and recorded parts of that one at 118 Elliot.
The speech touched on civil rights, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln’s role in emancipation.
“I felt it was very poignant now,” Forchion said. “I felt the assassination related to the cancel culture going on and the fact that we’re still dealing with some of the same civil rights issues he spoke of then.”
Sandy Rouse, director of the Brattleboro Literary Festival, worked on the audio segments for John Irving and Archer Mayor. To promote the trail, the festival has in recent years taken on projects dedicated to Lucy Terry Prince, Royall Tyler and Mary Wilkins Freeman.
“The Tylers were interesting because their name is all over town,” Rouse said. “They had a huge family.”
Royall Tyler is considered the most important Vermont writer of the Federalist era, according to the Words Trail app, and Mary Palmer Tyler published “The Maternal Physician” anonymously through her husband’s publishing contacts. In the manual, Tyler outlined an expanded role in child rearing for mothers beyond the customary practice of colonial women, according to the app.
Rouse recalls visiting the Marlboro College library to look through archival material on the Tylers. She said the librarian initially thought the material wasn’t available, then checked again, and brought the papers out to Rouse and her partners on the project.
“We were greedily pawing through the boxes, trying to figure out what was going on,” Rouse said with a laugh.
Rouse, who formerly owned The Book Cellar on Main Street in Brattleboro, said before becoming involved in the Words Trail, she hadn’t known that “To Kill a Mockingbird” author Harper Lee had spent time in town. The tour stop for Lee is on Goodenough Road in West Brattleboro, where Lee did some of her research and writing.
Austin noted that since the project was driven by community interest, the trail offers a variety of voices and perspectives.
“You don’t hear the same voices throughout the whole trail. It’s different perspectives,” she said. “One piece may be what you expected to hear, on the historical perspective. Another might be a creative writing experience. I think that’s part of the joy of the project.”
Weinmann said she enjoys the memoir aspects of some of the pieces.
“There’s a lot of good little nuggets in there,” Weinmann said. “I’ve gotten to meet a lot of these characters from the past.”
In a segment on Stephen Greene Press, a premier Brattleboro book publisher of the 20th century, Isaac and Graham Brooks — Stephanie Greene’s sons and Stephen Greene’s grandsons — mention visiting their grandmother, Janet Greene, and how “there was always her rhubarb ginger jam.” The audio includes sounds of biting and chewing.
The segments also incorporate music. In a piece on Madame Sherri, narrated by Molly Melloan, of Guilford, classical music reflects the arches in the eccentric socialite’s life story.
Dave Snyder of Guilford Sound donated some recording gear to the project. Equipment was made available to borrow at Brooks Memorial Library and a couple of recording stations were set up at downtown locations including 118 Elliot. People also used smart phones and other devices to record interviews and content.
“I’ve collected all the final edited projects and I’m basically just mastering them all to make sure they’re all at the same level,” he said, “just to keep things uniform from segment to segment.”
Altogether, he’s “lightly” edited about 60 segments averaging about six to eight minutes each.
“I’ve been so inspired by it,” he said. “It’s just been really heartwarming to witness all of these laypeople come together and compile these stories of really notable people in our region from the present and the past. It’s really cool to see the pride people take in what makes Brattleboro and the area the place it is today.”
Jeanne Walsh, reference librarian at Brooks Memorial Library, helped project participants with research. The library also hosted public programs and exhibits related to writing and printing in Brattleboro and the publishing process.
Library director Starr LaTronica said “so much care and so much expertise” has gone into the project.
“I am just in awe of the work people have done to really conserve and preserve the wonderful richness of this tradition in this town,” she said. “It’s mind boggling and illuminating. And I’m really, really grateful for this committed group of individuals who have put their heart, soul and minds into this effort. It’s a community treasure.”