(Host) When the Vermont State police was formed nearly sixty years ago, the first troopers were former members of the state highway patrol.
There were 19 of them. And today, only one survives.
VPR’s Steve Zind visited Vermont’s last original trooper to learn about the days when police had few of the crime fighting tools they have today.
(Zind) On May 16 1946, Harold Ackerman donned the light blue uniform, britches and boots of the Vermont Highway Patrol and reported for duty at the barracks in Rutland. His supervisor suggested they go for a drive and he handed Ackerman the keys to the patrol car.
(Ackerman) “He says, you drive.’ So we went on Route 4 out of Rutland over through West Rutland, and going through West Rutland, I went through two red lights. So after the second one he said, you just ran through two red lights.’ He said, just remember in the future, if they’re red, you stop!”
(Zind) Ackerman says he was too distracted by their conversation to notice the red lights.
Vermont’s highway patrol had limited law enforcement duties. They investigated traffic accidents, weighed trucks and caught speeders. Ackerman says in that day the top speed limit was 50 miles an hour and there were plenty of cars that couldn’t go that fast. So it was a quiet job.
But only a year after he joined, the highway patrol was disbanded and the Vermont State Police was formed. Ackerman was one of 19 highway patrolmen to join the state police. In his new job he was no longer concerned only with traffic violations.
(Ackerman) “We investigated everything from major crimes to arson, even though we didn’t have any training.”
(Zind) Eventually the state police did receive training and Ackerman, a 1938 graduate of Burlington High School found himself learning homicide investigation at Harvard Medical School.
He made 48 dollars-a-week as a state trooper, working 12-hour days. Troopers worked every Saturday and Sunday and all holidays, with no vacation time in the summer.
State police didn’t start using radar to catch speeders until 1954. Ackerman says until then, he apprehended speeders by sneaking up behind them and checking their speed against the calibrated speedometer of the police car.
There wasn’t any radio communication, either.
(Ackerman) “We’d go by a gas station, or a garage or a grocery store and they had a card that they would put in the front window. If that card was in the window, it was to notify us that we should call the office that something was going on. That was our means of communication.”
(Zind) Ackerman says the first two way radios installed in cars could only communicate with state police headquarters in Montpelier. He had to drive up Mendon Mountain from the Rutland to get a strong enough signal to use the radio.
Ackerman spent nearly 30 years in the state police, most of the time as post commander in Saint Johnsbury.
He says he only used his gun once. Police were in a high speed pursuit and the suspect was barreling down a hill into White River Junction. Ackerman blocked the street with his patrol car and as the suspect sped toward him, he emptied his handgun at the car. It skidded into the front of a garage.
(Ackerman) “After he hit the garage, the driver’s door opened and he flopped down on the road. I was scared to death. I thought I’d shot him. So I rolled him over and over and over and looked in the car and everything and I couldn’t see any holes.”
(Zind) It turned out the man was passed out drunk.
Ackerman retired at 57 in 1977. He says he didn’t want to retire but the law required it. He’s 86 now.
Among his mementos is an old black and white photo of the 19 highway patrolmen who became Vermont’s first state police troopers.
(Ackerman) “One, two three four five .”
(Zind) They stand erect in their uniforms with the dark pocket flaps and ties, their hands clasped behind them, looking much as state troopers do today.
(Ackerman) “These are the first 19 people here. All these people except me are dead. Time goes fast.”
(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind in St. Johnsbury.