Charles Thompson's Recollections


For Forty-Seven Years.

In Brattleboro Trade--How Business Used to be Done--

Interesting Reminicences of Old Brattleboro--

Suggested by the Retirement of Dea. C. F. Thompson.

The Thompson business was established in its present location in 1835 by Nathan B. Williston, who had been in the same business some 8 or 10 years before in a small wooden building standing about on the present site of the Episcopal church grounds, and just north of Capt. Lord's tavern, which then stood on the site of the town hall.

Thompson came here a lad of 15 from Salem, Ct., being a son of Rev. Charles Thompson of that place. He arrived at midnight April 1, 1846, most of the trip being made by stage, the Connecticut River railroad then only running to Chicopee.

He entered at once upon his duties as a clerk for Williston & Tyler, his father having agreed that he should work for the firm until he was 21, at a salary of $40 the first year and only $100 the last year, with board included.

It was the practice in those days for a boy to be bound out for a term of years and for his earnings to go to his father, but in this case the father waived his rights, there being little margin left after paying for the young man's clothing.

Thompson was the only clerk for many years, sweeping the store, selling goods and keeping the books. A variety of things were kept in stock for several years, including hardware, drugs and medicines, paints and oils, a full stock of groceries and dye stuffs.

The hardest of the clerk's work was the handling of dye-woods, the firm frequently buying logwood by the cargo, which was worse to handle than our poorest and roughest wood, and no gloves were allowable. This and other woods were ground by a mill owned by the firm, and barreled ready for sale to various woolen mills, from which, in many instances, cloths were received in return.

These were in turn taken to Boston to be sold. These woolen mills, by the way, together with others in Cheshire county, were finally bought up by James Fisk, in the interest of Jordan, Marsh & Co. who, foreseeing the storm of civil war and its ultimate demands, found in them a profitable investment.

Mr. Thompson has stayed in the same store continuously as clerk, partner and principal until now, a period of over 47 years. He was admitted to the firm in 1853, and married Miss Elizabeth C. Cune, daughter of the late Charles Cune, in 1854.

A large part of the hardware sold when Mr. Thompson began here was imported by the firm itself. Now everything is of American manufacture, and fully equal in quality to the English.

The firm of Williston & Tyler brought the first 1000 carriage bolts into town to sell. They were bought by Mr. Tyler in Boston, but Mr. Williston had no faith that they would sell. For a while he was right, for the smiths of that time had an idea that if carriage bolts were sold in the stores part of their business would be gone. Bolts which today sell for $1 a hundred then sold for four or five times that.

In those days the merchant went to market every four or six weeks, money in hand, and bought his goods, a thing that is rarely done today. The stores then were securely protected, the windows being covered with outside shutters, and it was not considered just the thing to display your stock in the window on Sunday.

Stores were lighted for several years after 1846 with camphene lamps. Tallow candles were invariably used in lanterns. The first kerosene oil used was Downer's of Boston, which came in about 1852-3, and retailed from $1 to $1.25 per gallon. Stores were kept open every week night till 9 o'clock or later.

Common labor by men was $1 per day, and of women for housework $1 to $1.25 per week, including washings. Such was the condition of things here less than half a century ago.

The old Dr. Grau first introduced the practice of putting up medicine by prescription in Brattleboro, and Thompson had his confidence in the preparation of these formulas. The soda fountain in Williston & Tyler's store was a crude affair compared with some of the more modern fountains, but the late Dr. Washburn of Vernon used to say of the soda produced from the old fountain that his throat always seemed a yard long, it tasted so good.

The changes that have taken place in town within the period of Mr. Thompson's business career would afford a very interesting chapter.

When he came here there was but a single street on Cemetery hill, with four or five small houses, the sightly plateau with its pretty homes of today then being partially covered with a pine forest.

Where the depot now stands was a ledge of rock reaching as far north and east as the present bridge. There was no Flat street proper, but only an open roadway to the Frost house, and the thrifty little hamlet known today as Esteyville, was devoted to farming purposes.

Walnut, Terrace, North, Grove and Oak streets were not laid out at that time. Walnut street was part of a farm and was opened some time in the 50's. Edward Kirkland, one of the town's foremost men, and Mr. Williston owned for many years the pasture land through which Terrace, Tyler and North streets were subsequently built, the locality being known as Toad hill.

Western avenue had then but four or five houses along its whole length. Main street with the rest has been transformed in the period, the American house being about the only building to retain its identity.

Mr. Thompson has a vivid recollection of the struggle that was made to get the polling place and the town hall from the west to the east village, and the almost successful resistance made by the esteemed Samuel Clark to its final removal. The population at that time was not over 2500. Messrs. Williston, Tyler, Gardner C. Hall and Calvin Townsley were the principal movers in public affairs then.

On the corner of Main and Elliot streets and where the Vermont national bank now stands, John R. Blake had a fine residence with ample grounds surrounding it.

It was through the efforts of young Thompson, Dr. J. M. Comegys and Ben K. Chase that sufficient subscriptions were secured to transform a barren plain of sand into one of the most attractive parks in the state, which is known today as the village common. Most of the trees which adorn this beautiful spot were set out by these young enthusiasts, while the elms which nearly arch Oak street, were put there by Thompson and a young friend from New York.

There were but three buildings on the south side of Elliot street from the corner to what was then the chapel of the Congregational church, which now is made over into the building owned by Herrick & Boyden.

On the corner, where the People's bank now stands, there was a small 12 by 20 office with a large open lot all around it, built by Larkin G. Mead for his occupancy. It was later used for the millinery store, until James Fisk, Jr., built the Revere house on its site about 1850.

In those days the Hunt house, now owned by Col. Hooker, was the only brick building in this vicinity, and was considered the finest house in Vermont. It changed hands a number of times for one-fourth its present value, while the handsome residence of B. D. Harris was sold at auction back in the 50's, when it was owned by another, for a third of its value today. These cases illustrate in a measure, the change in valuations within a period of less than half a century.

Imbued with the same public spirit as his early employers, Mr. Thompson has ever manifested a commendable interest in many of the local enterprises. The burning of the Estey manufactory at the foot of Main street in 1862 was not only a great blow to that firm but to the village as well, as the business had only just begun to assume large and successful proportions.

Inducements were at once offered by Burlington people for Mr. Estey to remove his plant to that city. Mr. Thompson called his firm together with Lawyer Kirkland, and a plan was at once formulated to propose to Mr. Estey to raise money to loan him at 6 per cent. as long as he might require it.

In this manner $6,000 was provided and the plant was rebuilt in a wonderfully short time. This money passed through Mr. Thompson's hands and in due time was fully repaid through the indomitable perseverance of Mr. Estey.

Mr. Thompson was an early friend, promoter and finally president of the Brattleboro and Whitehall railroad.

He has been for nearly 30 years a deacon in the Center Congregational church and a faithful worker in its Sunday-school. He is a director in the Vermont domestic society and a corporate member of the American board of Missions.

Of the four children of Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, two are living, the eldest, Miss Helen, has for many hears held a prominent position in the Burnham classical school in Northampton, the youngest, Charles H., has for several years been in the employ of the Vermont national bank here.

Brattleboro Reformer, September 15, 1893.

Correspondent Frederick W. Childs

Reprinted from the Springfield Sunday Republican.




Charles F. Thompson Hardware Store 1875

Poster Sign At The Williston Block

Doors Sash & Blinds

"Sign of the Golden Boot"

Far Left In Distance



The Fugitive Slave

Charles Thompson found himself in a predicament one afternoon while tending his shop at the corner of Walnut and Main. A runaway slave, hoping to reach Canada safely, entered the shop asking for help.

Thompson was a bit taken aback, for he had never met a runaway slave before and was not aware that the Underground Railroad passed through Brattleboro. He guided the fugitive to the train station and gave him money to pay his fare farther north.

Wilbur H. Siebert, "Vermont's Anti-Slavery and Underground Railroad Record", (Columbus, Ohio: Spahr and Glenn, 1937).







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