The Community was Alive – Barre Memories (Part 1)

Barre life in the 1930s and ’40s

Postcard of Mathewson School
Postcard of Lincoln School
Front entrance of Barre City Auditorium
Front entrance of Barre City Auditorium

I have been thinking the last few days about now and then–now being the world as I see it and perceive what’s going on, both good and bad—and the world I knew as a young boy. And it was very different. I mean, start with the neighborhood. Course we were in a middle-class neighborhood. I would call it middle class, maybe upper middle class. There was very, very few people who were considered wealthy in Barre at that time, a few connected to the granite industry. And the classes, at least the lower middle, class phasing through to the upper class, distinctions were not that clear, probably because we were small. We all went to the same schools, more or less.

Houses were smaller. There were more families with two and three children than with just one. And almost all these neighborhoods, as I think of them—the male in the family 99 percent of the time was the bread winner. I don’t think, except for the schoolteacher next door, any of the women were employed outside the home. There may have been a small amount of sewing, and in poorer neighborhoods, women took in washings. In other words, your dirty clothes would be brought over somewhere, and then usually there would be a young boy who would cart it back—the washing in a cart, tugging ‘em up the hills. We used to see them all the time. And that was quite an active enterprise at that time.

What was good about that is people didn’t really worry about where their children were in the neighborhood as long as they were more or less within the physical confines, because there was always somebody’s mother who was looking out for them. And most of the people, in fact, knew each other to speak to, in fact, to have conversations with.  I don’t see that today.

Our neighborhood: ethnically it was a cross section of Barre. It was certainly Italian. There was German. There was Jewish. There was Scotch. Certainly Irish. All within proximity of each other. And not necessarily segregated by nationality as to where they were.

So a middle class community in Barre, the one I lived in, was a self-governing, self-policing community, a small community. And it related to similar communities up and down the line, and, I think, all over the city.

Our community—the children there went to Mathewson School, which was one of four, five community schools. And if you want to talk about class, the next notch up would have been Lincoln School, which was nearer the newer development in housing in the community and up towards the top of the hill as you head out to what is now farm country. There were homes there that were more expensive, probably by 50, 75 percent, than the homes that I’m speaking of where I was. And people kind of took a pride in their homes. They took a pride in the community. I can’t think of anyone who was poor or who was living in poverty in the sense that we mean that today. There were certainly people that didn’t have a lot of income. But to participate in the community in those days, it didn’t take nearly as much income.

Next door to me, there were two women. One was a schoolteacher, and the other worked in F.W. Woolworth, five and dime store. She was nicknamed “Brownie,” and loved by everybody. Well, they had one boarder, who worked in the sheds, I guess. Was he poor? I don’t really know. I never spoke to him. I watched him come and go. That’s all I can say. But of course, people didn’t live that long in those days, especially people working in the granite industry.

So, as I began to think about this subject, I began to think: well, where were the ramshackle houses and the run-down places? I didn’t know the community that well to say. The Italian community of the North End was certainly middle class by any normal standards. If they had any people living in poverty, I don’t know who they were. And the Scotch lived across the road and up the hill a little bit. And while the Scotch influence was waning in the ‘40s–or ‘30s or ‘40s or ‘50s—such as I’m talking about, as far as their influence in terms of population. I don’t remember any of this grinding poverty of the kind where everything is wrong.

The community was alive. It was healthy. There were policemen on the street. I don’t know whether they carried guns or not. I don’t think they did. If they did, they were underneath their coats. But policemen in Barre generally walked—I would say more than generally, almost universally—walked in pairs. And if somebody was unruly, eventually they’d pull them down to the old Barre city jail where there were three or four cells, and they would sleep it off overnight. And then some would get a fine the next day, and some would just be let out, which was the practice at the time.

I don’t remember crimes of violence or of fire, such as we’ve had recently here. I don’t recall court cases involving rape and abusing women or children making the newspapers, but maybe I didn’t read the newspapers closely enough. Certainly, a lot of that stuff was kept covered up.

I can remember a whole host of projects in the city. The sidewalks that are not now straight used to be straight. The roads that are not now paved were paved. And the reason they were paved was a fellow by the name of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And the Barre City Auditorium, which inoculated Barre with enormous help of money by bringing all sorts of events and fairs and home shows and that sort of thing.

Barre was a comfortable place to be. There was about 10,000 people. There was about two and a half square miles. We fought about things like swimming pools. We finally built a swimming pool. Earlier, a swimming pool had been in a brook that was fairly highly polluted. But they built bathhouses and ropes and all the things that go with swimming pools.

My school, Mathewson School: there were eight grades, two seventh grades, two eighth grades, about thirty in each grade, as I recall, maybe a little less, very seldom more.  There was a janitor, and there was a teacher for every room. And they had visiting music teachers and visiting art teachers. And the principal was the teacher they decided would be the best, which is usually the oldest teacher in school. That was the bureaucracy.  That was it.

I think the teachers by and large were well-educated, well-informed. They were all women. At least when I was there, there were no men in the, in the grade schools. There were men in the high school, maybe 20 percent. There was sort of a uniform code on religion.  They said prayers in school. I think we had one Jewish kid in the school. But that was no big deal to him or to us at least as far as I ever could see.  In fact, I lived up on Tremont Street.  There was a Jewish family—Jewish man and woman, didn’t have any children.  He was a businessman.  He lived across the street. Used to bring us wine at Christmas.  And another Jewish family ran Union Clothing Store. He had 2, 3 children. He had a good 6 foot-2 pitcher.  I remember him—hit me in the head with the ball once. Not on purpose. I don’t recall seeing them in the social groups that my parents were in.  But that was a limited group.

Tom Davis was a seventeenth generation Vermonter, political activist, public speaker, storyteller, author, and statesman. Also known as “Tom Terrific,” he was widely admired for his quick wit, humor, humility, kindness, wisdom, and generosity. He valued tolerance, forgiveness, compassion, and activity and lived his life accordingly.  Tom's Bio and Photo Album →

Interviewing Tom

Tom Davis testifying against human services budget cuts - 2010In 2013, Tom Davis hired me to record his recollections and thoughts. I was serving on the Barre Historical Society (BHS) board with Tom. Years before, I had interviewed him about the early days of skiing in Vermont for the Vermont Historical Society and knew him to be an engaging story teller and welcoming person. At BHS meetings I found him to be committed to Barre, social justice, and working people as well. One night, Tom told me that, after having written three books about Barre and people he had known and worked with (and two political mystery novels), he was, at age 82, tired of writing but had more to say. I was honored when he asked me to interview him and to record his memories.

Mark Greenberg
Mark Greenberg

Tom called our sessions “interviews,” but little interviewing was necessary. Tom and I would meet in the conference room at Barre’s Aldrich Public Library and, after I’d set up and found a chair for him that didn’t squeak and he’d adjusted his hearing aids to prevent feedback, I’d ask a question, and off he’d go, speaking freely, keenly, and with gentle humor, while I mostly just sat and listened.

One session led to another. Eventually I had recorded 25 hours of Tom’s recollections about people he’d known, events he’d witnessed and participated in, and changes he’d seen. He also spoke about his love of baseball, skiing, and golf, about the importance of music, and about a world and state that are radically different from the ones he entered in 1931. I found his words illuminating and inspiring, and I admired his deep commitment to Vermont and Barre and, beyond that, to human understanding, fairness, and kindness. It was quickly clear that Tom had a prodigious memory and genuinely cared about the people who had passed through his lifetime of public service—whether a governor, a teacher, a granite worker, or an interviewer.

Tom was also a champion of life-long learning–for himself as well as for others. “Education doesn’t begin and end with the benchmarks of man,” he told my microphone. “Life is education. I may be wrong, but it seems that I’m never going to be able to catch up with what I need to know.”

He also had his peeves, especially partisan politics, income inequality, and the domination of social service programs by office-bound bureaucrats who had little interest in learning directly from the people they purportedly served.

Tom came to his increasingly progressive views without recourse to ideology and despite the leanings of some family and friends. He admired both his Republican father and Franklin Roosevelt and, after a brief flirtation with far-right conservatism while a student at UVM, saw the need for society to stand up for those without voice or opportunity. He was puzzled by people who “could give ten dollars to one man but wouldn’t give one dollar to ten men.” He, on the other hand, had “never been able to walk by somebody who needs a dollar.”

The Recordings

Tom and I discussed what to do with these recordings and decided that a section of the Barre Historical Society’s Old Labor Hall Web site would be an appropriate place for audio segments, transcripts, and photographs. Tom had a deep commitment to the Barre Historical Society and to the Socialist Labor Party Hall, which the BHS owns, maintains, and uses for a variety of community and educational events. The generosity of several folks who also want others to be able to benefit from Tom’s memories and wisdom has now made that site a reality.

The audio segments and transcriptions on this site have been edited for economy and clarity, while still retaining Tom’s warm, thoughtful voice. Some draw on multiple times that Tom spoke about a topic or told a story, and I’ve tried to edit and weave them into a single narrative. Some of Tom’s recollections also appear in his books and in the three commentaries he recorded for Vermont Public Radio in the months before his death.

The complete 25 hours of interviews also cover much more territory, and new segments may appear in the future. Unfortunately, we never got to some topics, including golf, skiing, and chess–three of Tom’s great passions. At some point, we hope that the full transcript will also be available, whether on this site or through a suitable archive.

It has been a pleasure and honor to work on this project. Tom Davis enriched my life. I hope he will contribute to yours as well.

Mark Greenberg, Montpelier VT, April 2020

Tom talks about life in his home town of Barre, Vermont.

Postcard of Mathewson School
The Community was Alive - Barre Memories (Part 1)
Barre life in the 1930s and '40s
Quarry workers with pneumatic tools - early 1900s
A Melting Pot - Barre Memories (Part 2)
Ethnic diversity and street life in Barre

Front entrance of Barre City Auditorium

It was a Magnet
The origins of the Barre Auditorium

Tom talks about his family.

Corinne Eastman Davis

My Mother Was More Liberal
Corinne Eastman Davis and her family

Deane Davis

A Fair-minded Person
Deane C. Davis' family and politics

Will Davis Farm, c. 1981

I Got Interested in Genealogy – Family History (Part 1)
The early history of the Davis family in America

Corinne and Deane Davis with Tom's sister Marian and Tom as an infant

I Came in with Roosevelt – Family History (Part 2)
The Davis and Eastman families

The politicians Tom knew and worked for and the programs he helped them implement

President Franklin D. Roosevelt at Camp Charles M. Smith, CCC, Waterbury, Vt., on his tour of inspection of Vermont’s flood control projects, July 25, 1936.
The Beginning of Change
FDR’s visit to central Vermont
Phil Hoff celebrating his 1962 gubernatorial campaign victory in Winooski, VT
He Wasn’t Afraid to Lose
Governor Phil Hoff
Sargent Shriver campaing for Vice President in 1972
A Magnificent Leader
Sargent Shriver in Vermont
John Howland
A Sense of Mission
Tom's experiences as Vermont's Secretary of Human Services
Tom Davis and Phil Hoff
Involve the Poor – The Poverty Program (Part 1)
Vermont and the War on Poverty
Robert Gannett
True Believers—The Poverty Program (Part 2)
Directing the Office of Economic Opportunity and working across party lines
Vermont State Hospital in Waterbury
Somebody Met the Bus - Shorty and Joe
The importance of human relationships in social work
Windsor State Prison
A Great Education
Working in Windsor Prison and for The Vermont Alcohol Rehabilitation Board

Tom talks about his love of baseball.

Barre American Legion Baseball Team 1948-9
A Preferred Leisure – Baseball
From Barre youth teams to the University of Vermont

Jackie Robinson stealing a base from Phil Rizzuto in the 1947 Wold Series
A Hero of Mine – Jackie Robinson
Trips to major league baseball games and admiring Jackie Robinson

Postcard showing the University of Vermont library and Ethan Allen Chapel in the 1940s

A Bunch of White Guys
Tom at the University of Vermont

Recommended Reading

By Thomas C. Davis:

  • Beyond Depot Square: Stories from the Heart of Vermont, self-published, 2006
  • Echoes of Vermont . . . People and Politics in the Green Mountains, self-published, 2010
  • Out from Depot Square: Central Vermont Memories from the 1930s to the 1950s, self-published, 2006
  • The Duval Conspiracy, Marshall Jones Company, 1995
  • The Governor’s Man, self-published, 2002

By others:

  • Deane C. Davis, with Nancy Price Graff – Deane C. Davis: An Autobiography, The New England Press, 1991
  • Michael Sherman, Gene Sessions, Jeffrey Potash – Freedom and Unity: A History of Vermont, Vermont Historical Society, 2004
  • Paul Heller – Granite City Tales: Writings on the History of Barre, Vermont, self-published, 2012
  • Russell Belding – Hidden History of Barre, Vermont, The History Press, 2011

Many thanks to the people who helped make this project possible:

Gerry Ghazi, Alban Richey, Arthur & Anita Ristau, Bruce Seifer, Carol Healy, Clare & David Duke, David & Nancy Lacroix, Edith A Miller, Elizabeth Slayton, Ellen S. Sivret, Fernand & Ann Peloquin, Joanne Granai, Karen Lane, Marjorie Power, Mary Miller, Maureen Morton, Maurice & Doris Fortier, Paul C Heller, Peter Anthony & Marsha Kincheloe, Quinn Premont, River Valley Workforce Institute, Ruth Ruttenberg, Stephen Martin, Wayside Restaurant, Inc., William & Olene Doyle, and the Aldrich Public Library


  • Project & Web site producer: Mark Greenberg
  • Web site design and implementation: Marjorie Power
  • Interviews recorded and edited by Mark Greenberg/Upstreet Productions
  • Interview transcriber: Katherine Drury


  • Davis family photographs and memorabilia courtesy Mike Davis and the Davis family
  • Tom Davis Labor Hall photo: Mark Greenberg
  • Aldrich Public Library, Vermont Historical Society, World Wide Web