School board strikes a blow for the timid and fainthearted

Among memorable lines from the 1985 classic Pee-wee’s Big Adventure is one in which protagonist Pee-wee Herman tells admiring love interest Dottie that he doesn’t need anyone: “You don’t wanna get mixed up with a guy like me. I’m a loner, Dottie. A rebel.”

Were that movie made today, it would seem likely that last word would have to be substituted, most likely with something bland and insipid, such as “nonconforming dissenter” or “quirky eccentric.”

The word rebel scares people.

Consider that the South Burlington (Vt.) School Board recently voted to drop the “Rebel” name at South Burlington High School for the coming school year. For more than 55 years South Burlington High School has used “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before. In its early years, the school had an old-style Confederate colonel mascot, but that was dropped decades ago.

Superintendent David Young told the school board in February that it had become “crystal clear” to him that the nickname “is interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included in our schools.”

No details were provided on how a word – one associated with individuals such as George Washington, Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi – was “interfering with all students’ ability to feel safe and included … ”

According to an Associated Press story, the move to change the name came about because of a gradual shift in the largely white school, whose population is now nearly 20 percent nonwhite, said South Burlington High School Interim Principal Patrick Phillips. He said the nickname has created discomfort for some students.

I’m not aware of the racial makeup of South Burlington High, but according to the 2010 census, South Burlington itself was 90 percent white, 5.4 percent Asian, 1.9 black, 1.9 percent Hispanic. Two percent were classified as two or more races, and Native Americans, Pacific Islander and “other races” made up one-half of one percent or less of the town’s population.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that a significant percentage of non-white students haven’t moved into the school in recent years.

However, it seems somewhat condescending to assume that non-whites are automatically offended by the word “rebel.”

There had been a push to allow the community to vote on the mascot issue, but that was rejected by the school board.

South Burlington resident Sandy Dooley was among those opposed to a public vote.

“I think that every student, every child who participates in our education programs here in South Burlington has a right to be in an environment that in every respect supports his or her opportunity to take full advantage of what we’re offering here. And I think there’s ample evidence that the ‘Rebel’ identifier interferes with that,” she told the Associated Press.

Again, no evidence was provided on how the “rebel identifier” interferes with participation in education programs.

South Burlington students will vote today on three names to replace “rebels”: Huskies, Pride and Wolves. Inspiring. Jellyfish would seem more fitting, although it seems unfair to punish students for the sins of their lily-livered fathers, mothers and administrators.

No word on when the South Burlington School Board will take aim at striking Ethan Allen from its textbooks. After all, Vermont was founded by Allen and other “rebels” who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York.”

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

Others who could be in the South Burlington School Board’s crosshairs include the Founding Fathers, most certainly considered “rebels” by Great Britain; Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines, who led a rebellion against colonial powers and helped Haiti to freedom in the early 19th century; Martin Luther, who rebelled against the Roman Catholic church and helped usher in the Protestant Reformation; Nelson Mandela, famed anti-apartheid activist; most any of the American Civil Rights leaders, who were considered rebels by Jim Crow advocates; and religious figures such as Moses, Jesus Christ and Muhammad.

Vermont railroad roundhouse more than just a curiosity

Vermont Albany 9 9 2015 019

Railroad roundhouses are as much a thing of the past as steam locomotives and operational cabooses.

They used to dot transportation hubs across the US and Canada, but over the past few decades a high percentage have been torn down to make way for infrastructure upgrades or eliminated through that nefarious enemy of architectural history, urban renewal.

Today, just a small percentage of roundhouses remain, and of these, even fewer possess operating turntables, used to rotate locomotives and rail cars into different bays to enable workers to make repairs.

One such operational roundhouse and turntable can be found in northwestern Vermont, in the small, picturesque town of St. Albans.

St. Albans has been a railroad town since before the Civil War. The Vermont Central Railroad dates back to 1848, with a route running through St. Albans by the early 1850s. The line underwent different owners as the decades progressed, had its named changed to Central Vermont Railway at the end of the 19th century, but continued to dominate life in St. Albans until recent years.

Old-time view of St. Albans, Vt., train yard. Roundhouse can be seen in the upper left.

Old-time view of St. Albans, Vt., train yard. Circular roundhouse can be seen in the upper left.

At one point, more than 200 trains a day passed through the town. By 1923, when the current roundhouse was constructed, Central Vermont facilities, including a spectacular headquarters office, a machine shop and freight stations, spread across 51 acres of St. Albans’ downtown.

By the 1920s, the Canadian National Railway owned the Central Vermont and remained in control until 1995, when it sold to short line railroad company Genesee & Wyoming. The new entity was renamed the New England Central Railroad.

Today, the 366-mile line runs from Alburgh, Vt., to New London, Conn.

The St. Albans roundhouse has nearly two dozen stalls, though not all are in operating order. A peek inside last fall showed a pair of Connecticut Southern Railroad locomotives undergoing maintenance. In the yard, several New England Central locomotives were stationed about. The turntable was vacant, but at least one locomotive was positioned to move onto it, likely in preparation for regular upkeep.

Being able to poke around an active railroad roundhouse is akin to taking a trip back in time. The St. Albans facility has been in operation for more than 90 years. There have been train structures on the site for at least 150 years.

To give you an idea how unusual operational railroad roundhouses are, according to a survey done by the Railroad Station Historical Society, there isn’t a single roundhouse in the entirety of my state of South Carolina, either operational or non-operational.

It would appear the closest roundhouses are in Spencer, NC, and Savannah, Ga. Both are now part of museums.

It’s one thing to get a glimpse of the past; it’s another to see it still in action.

(Top: New England Central roundhouse in St. Albans, Vt., today, with Connecticut Southern Railroad just inside bay. Below: Photo from 1920s shows Central Vermont Railway locomotive at same facility.)

old steam engine at St. Albans roundhouse

In Vermont, a solution goes in search of a problem

south burlington scoreboard

In a nation of perpetually aggrieved there is diminishing room for reason.

Consider the “controversy” taking place in South Burlington, Vt.

For more than 50 years the South Burlington High School has used the “Rebels” as its nickname, said to be in recognition of the city’s secession from Burlington many years before.

However, now there is a movement to do away with the moniker because “rebel” is said to be associated with the racist policies of the Confederacy, a former teacher at the school told the Burlington Free Press.

“It was unintentional, I’m sure, but it’s still connected to that,” said Bob Walsh, who taught at the school for 18 years. “I think it’s time for us to recognize the fact that this symbol is inappropriate and it’s time to change.”

Walsh’s comments came during an August school board meeting. He was the only member of the public to speak against the school’s nickname.

Elizabeth Fitzgerald, board chairwoman, said when she grew up in the area and participated in events against South Burlington High, she never recalled any reference to the Rebels being affiliated with the Confederacy.

Julie Beatty, another school board member and a South Burlington High alum, said she never associated the “Rebels” nickname with the Confederacy during her time as a student, and said she doesn’t think students today associate it with the Confederate States of America.

The board decided to gather more public opinion before making a decision. Young said the topic will be open for public comment at the next board meeting, which will be held tomorrow.

What Walsh and others who advocate a break with the name “Rebels” seem to overlook is that not only did South Burlington split from Burlington, but Vermont itself was established by many individuals who were considered “rebels.”

Vermont was founded by Ethan Allen, Thomas Chittenden and others who sought independence from New York, seeing themselves “as a distinct region outside the legitimate jurisdiction of New York,” according to historian Christian Fritz.

Although Vermonters fought the British during the American Revolution, they didn’t join the fledgling United States at the outset of war, as both New York and New Hampshire wanted the territory for themselves.

Instead, in 1777, Vermonters declared independence, wrote their own constitution and formed the Republic of Vermont, which lasted until 1791, when the state was admitted to the Union as the 14th state.

And, of course, rebellion was the dominant theme in the founding of the United States of America, with the Founding Fathers undoubtedly being seen as “rebels” by Great Britain.

(Top: Scoreboard at South Burlington (Vt.) High School, with nickname “Rebels” evident.)

Old Round Church: A curiosity in heart of the Green Mountains

Richmond, Vermont 9 4 2015 043

The Old Round Church of Richmond, Vt., is unusual for a number of reasons:

  • It is the believed to be lone surviving 16-sided wooden meetinghouse in the United States;
  • When it was originally constructed more than two centuries ago it was home to five different Protestant denominations, all of which would meet every Sunday, each sharing the two-story wood frame structure;
  • It was built at a cost of $3,000; when renovations to the structure were complete in 1981 the price tag was $180,000; and
  • The church was rumored to be built in a circle so that the devil wouldn’t have a place to hide.

The Old Round Church was constructed in 1812-13 by William Rhodes. Rhodes was a native of Claremont, NH, which was home to a 16-sided brick church, similar to what would be erected in Richmond, located in the western foothills of Vermont’s Green Mountains on the banks of the Winooski River.

Rhodes was no novice craftsman: He built several covered bridges in New England, a number of houses, and was also a blacksmith.

Construction was funded by sale of pews, most of which were purchased by Congregationalists. The other denominations which used the church in its early decades were Baptists, Methodist, Universalists and a group described as “Christians.”

The structure was built in the Federal style. Rhodes was able to give the structure an appearance of light, delicate walls by hiding the 16 large corner posts behind 32 interior sides, making the inside seem much more round than the outside.

The building is topped by a sixteen-sided roof with a two-stage octagonal bell tower.

Because of the unusual design, much of the flooring, which was fitted around pew boxes, is hand cut, with some of the planks up to 24 inches wide and many cut at 45 or 60 degree angles, to enable them to fit with adjacent planks.

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Silent Cal’s unlikely rise to the Oval Office

coolidge swearing in

Ninety years ago tomorrow, Calvin Coolidge was sworn in as the 30th president of the United States.

Far from the grand ceremony that accompanies most presidential inaugurations, the event took place at 2:47 a.m. at Coolidge’s family home in Plymouth Notch, Vt., with Coolidge’s father, a notary public, administering the oath of office in the family parlor by the light of kerosene lamp.

Coolidge, who is noted by history as one of America’s less-demonstrative presidents, promptly returned to bed.

He traveled to Washington, D.C., the next day and was re-sworn by Justice Adolph A. Hoehling, Jr. of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, as there was some confusion over whether a state notary public had the authority to administer the presidential oath.

Coolidge came to be president with the sudden death of Warren Harding, who died in San Francisco while on a tour of the West.

Coolidge’s ascension the presidency was hardly routine.

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