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Chapter 31: the Workman's Paradise.

Vermont, in which St. Johnsbury nestles, is a New England State, which in its origin and population had very little to do with Old England. The names are French. Vermont is derived from the Green Mountain of our idiom; St. Johnsbury from Monsieur St. Jean de Crevecoeur, once a fussy little French consul in New York.

Eye of man has seldom rested on natural loveliness more perfect than the scenery amidst which St. Johnsbury stands. On passing White River Junction, a spot which recalls a favourite nook in the Neckar valley, we push into a gorge of singular beauty; a reach of the Connecticut River, lying under high and wooded hills, of various form and more than metallic brightness. Oak and chestnut, pine and maple, clothe the slopes. White houses lie about you; some in secret places, utterly alone [322] with Nature; others again, in groups and villages, with gardens, fruit trees, and patches of maize, among which the great red gourds lie ripening in the sun. At times the hills roll back, giving up margin and meadow to the grazier. Here you have herds of cattle, there droves of horses, feeding on the hillsides, or sauntering to the stream. Yet the main charm of this valley is the water-first of the Connecticut River, then of the Passumpsic River; each of these water-courses having the beauty common to flowing rivers and mountain streams. A pause. We mount a slope, and we are in the leaf-strewn avenue known as St. Johnsbury; the proper crown and citadel of that river-bed.

A ridge of hills divides Passumspic River from Sleeper's Creek. Uplands start from the farther bank of these two streams, and shut us in with green and purple heights, on which the sunrise and the sunset play with wondrous harmonies of light and shade.

When George the Third was king, the countries lying about Sleeper's Creek and Passumpsic River, were the unhappy hunting-grounds of Indian braves; unhappy, since they lay between the lodges of two [323] warlike tribes, neither of whom was strong enough to drive the other from these woods and streams. Each fall the battle was renewed. Many a scalp was taken on the site now occupied by an Academy, many a war-dance held on the sward now covered by an Athenaeum. A poor attempt was made to plant the place, and several thrifty Scots built cabins near the ridge; but Indian hatchets made it difficult for even these tenacious strangers to maintain a foothold in the land.

Vermont was still a wild country when the Thirteen Colonies declared themselves independent. She was admitted to the Union under French impulses and French sentiments. Monsieur St. Jean was good enough to offer his name to the Scotch settlers on Sleeper's Creek. Now St. Jean is in France a common, not to say a rustic name, like Hodge in England, and the colonists, though anxious to pay a compliment to Monsieur St. Jean, proposed to alter his name so far as to call their place St. Johns; a form which looks poetic in English eyes, and drops sonorously from English lips. Monsieur was hurt. He loved America so well that he named his daughter Amerique. [324] Why should not America call one of her towns after him? The matter was not easy to arrange. Monsieur St. Jean sailed for France, where he asserted he could do the settlers service. So they called their place St. Jean. But when the fussy little consul got to Paris, he found people too busy with their revolution to pay much attention to the graziers and bushmen on Sleeper's Creek. Thinking the consul false, the Scots changed their name to St. Johns. But then, there are several St. Johns in the neighbourhood; notably one on the Richlieu River; so by way of difference, they took the name of St. Johnsbury, a form in which the Gallic origin is completely lost

In spite of much natural beauty, and a vast supply of water power, the place made little progress. Roads were bad and markets distant. Here and there some farmer built a hut, some grazier fenced a field. A fall of water tempted families into the lumber trade. A hostelry crowned the ridge, St. Johnsbury House, kept by a hard drinking and harder fighting Captain Barney, who made the rafters crack with his jokes, and the hill-side noisy with his quarrels. St. Johnsbury, peopled by [325] whisky-loving Scots, was anything but a sober place under Captain Barney's rule. Yet life was dull and progress slow, till Thadeus Fairbanks, improver of the platform scale, gave the impetus which has made St. Johnsburg one of the most curious spots in the United States.

St. Johnsbury is a garden, yet the physical beauty of the place is less engaging than the moral order. No loafer hangs about the kerbstones. Not a beggar can be seen. No drunkard reels along the street. You find no dirty nooks, and smell no hidden filth. There seem to be no poor. In two days wandering up and down I have not seen one child in rags, one woman looking like a slut. The men are at work, the boys and girls at school. Each cottage stands apart, with grass and space; each painted either white or brown. White, the costlier and more cheery colour, is the test of order and prosperity. Few of the cottages are brown. I see no broken panes of glass, no shingles hanging from the roof. No yard is left in an untidy state.

The men who live in these cottages send their children to the grammar-school in Main Street, a public school, in which they are educated free of [326] cost. The school is an attractive place, the teaching good, the playground large. If a man wants an elementary training for his boys and girls this public school will give it, and will send them at an early age into the world equipped for any walk in life, except that of the professional man.

St. Johnsbury is a working village; the people in it are mainly working men. It is a village such as we are striving after in our Shaftesbury Parks and other experiments in providing wholesome lodgings for our labouring classes, in the hope that they may be persuaded, first to save their money and then to put it into real estate by purchasing the houses in which they live. Here the problem has been solved; a working-class proprietary secured. In many cases — I have reason to infer in most — the craftsmen own the cottages in which they live. Inside, each cottage is a model of its kind, with all appliances for cleanliness and comfort; in short, a neat and well-arranged domestic shrine.

What are the secrets of this Workman's Paradise? Why is the place so clean, the people so well housed and fed? Why are the little folks so hale in face, so neat in dress? All voices answer me that these unusual, though most desirable, conditions in a village, [327] spring from a strict enforcement of the law prohibiting the sale of drink.

The men of Vermont have adopted that Act which is known to English jesters as the Maine Liquor Law. The adversaries of “jolly good ale” command a large majority of votes. They wish to drink water, and will not let other men drink beer. They come of a stout old border stock, with great capacities for self-denial, and a rage for saving their weaker brethren from the whisky-jug. Being virtuous, they abolish cakes and ale, and will not suffer ginger to be hot in the mouth. “We live,” they say, “in a commonwealth where every man is free; but we have only one law for all, and what we like to do you shall be bound to do!” Hurrah for a majority of votes!

The Maine Liquor Law is carried out with all the rigour of an Arctic frost. Not a public-house now exists in St. Johnsbury, nor can a mug of beer or glass of wine be purchased openly by a guest to whom wine and beer are portions of his daily food. No citizen is allowed to vend intoxicating drink on any pretext or to any person. In the village we have two guest-houses for the entertainment of such as come and go our way-St. Johnsbury House and Avenue House. We avoid [328] the words tavern and hotel, as savouring of bad old times, when every man might drink himself into a mad-house and his children into a jail. Our tavern is a house. I use the form guest-house from the close resemblance of my lodgings, in the way of meat and drink, to a guest-house on the Dwina and the Nile. It is a water-drinking house. Among the merits of the place, put out on cards to catch the eyes of tourists in the Vermont uplands, these two virtues are set forth: first there is dry air to breathe, and next there is good water to drink. Elsewhere one hostelry is famous for trout, a second for terrapin, a third for madeira, a fourth for champagne. Down South no hostelry has ever yet thought of advertising the quality of its pump. But in St. Johnsbury the well-spirits reign. An American poet of another mind has sung:

If ere I kneel me down to pray

My face shall turn towards St. Peray. But such a poet would persuade no man to follow his lead on Sleepers' Creek. Though lodging in the rooms which echoed to the mirth of Captain Barney, we are now the votaries of a severer saint than St. Peray.

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