Backstage: Front Porch shows Rockingham’s history

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(Host) The town of Rockingham is one of a number of southern Vermont towns marking their 250th anniversary this year. On Sunday, the Front Porch Theater Company will celebrate local history by resurrecting some of the town’s most colorful characters.

VPR’s Susan Keese went Backstage to preview “Voices from the Past: A Bellows Falls Anthology.”

(Keese) The play is based on poet Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.” It’s a series of monologues in which departed townsfolk, speaking from the grave, reveal their true stories, and in many cases, the secret ironies of their lives.

A group of six local writers spent nearly a year creating the play. Rockingham Development Director Richard Ewald was one of the writers.

(Ewald) “We made sure that we had characters pretty much from every time span – the whole contact period with the Native Americans is reflected in a number of different things. There’s a very famous locally celebrated fight between native Americans and a couple of white settlers in 1752, right across the river in Walpole. And we have the wife of that settler very proudly saying, ‘We drove them off,’ and her husband saying, ‘But I knew that man, that Indian that I killed. I shook his hand with this hand.'”

(Keese) Some of the characters have been invented to illuminate different eras. John Shepard plays Ezra Tarbell, a lumberjack from the days of the big log drives on the Connecticut River.

(Shepard) “I never felt so alive as when I was dancing on high water, just daring Mr. Death to take me. We run the big logs down the Israel, the White, the Ammonoosuc, down the mighty Connecticut, the longest runs in the country. Pike pole in hand, corked boots, big spikes in the soles, feet wet for months at a time. A hundred different ways to die. Ah, my luck ran out, but it wasn’t the river took me. Got drunk, passed out in the middle of Westminster Street, got run down by a wagon. Wagon driver said my corpse owed him a wheel. I’d like to see him come get it.”

(Keese) Dorothy Read, whose grandmother cooked in a lumber camp, summoned up a woman who would have been a match for Tarbell. Cathy Bergmann plays the part.

(Bergmann) “I went with my new red headed Irish husband to the lumber camps. It wasn’t easy cooking for all those gol dag, sum of a twitching, muffler fluffin, balustrades with their dirty hands, wicked mouths , hungry guts and hungry eyes. Had to bat more than one of the gol dag sums of butcher tape with the cast-iron gravy ladle. After a time they knew I wasn’t kidding.”

(Keese) Many of the writers and performers looked to their own ancestors for stories. Some are immigrants from Italy and Poland and even China. Other characters are straight from the history books. There’s the paper baron who founded the International Paper Company in Bellows Falls. The company abandoned the town after he died. It was the first in a series of blows that ushered in an era of hard luck from which the village is only now recovering.

The railroad runs through the play as it does through Rockingham and its history. Bill Lockwood plays Curtis S. Caswell, a modern character better known as Sparky. He’s remembered best as the station tender at the Bellows Falls Depot.

(Lockwood) “My needs were small. When I ran the dump, I had my own office, with more furniture, lamps carpets and TV’s than any bank president. When I managed the train station the whole world came to me and I took care of them, each and every one. Everybody knew that Sparky met the trains.”

(Keese) Sherman Morrison who directs the play says it speaks to anyone who’s ever had a real home town, or wished for one. But it’s also very much a celebration of Rockingham. Troupe member Cathy Bergmann speaks of a renaissance that seems to be occurring in this crusty old mill town.

(Bergmann) “At this moment in time we’re celebrating the fact that our tarnished jewel has risen up from the valley and is becoming polished by all the natives and the new people and talent and skill that’s come into the community. And we are just really proud of living here.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese Backstage in Rockingham.

(Host) ‘A Rockingham Anthology’ will be performed on Sunday at 4:00 p.m., at the Rockingham Meetinghouse.

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