FENTON’S STORE

(Essay Introductory)

A few miles east of Knox Mountain – four or five, perhaps, as the crow flies – there is a small but substantial building which was known a century and a quarter ago as Fenton’s Store. That old building which blends so unobtrusive­ly into the landscape has for me a powerful fascination; for in it I was born, and around the simple but wholesome life within its stolid walls my earliest and many of my fondest memories cling.

Imagine how my heart was wrenched when, at the age of eight years, they pulled me up by the roots and transplanted me. No, they didn’t take me to Alaska or California or even to the next town. They moved me merely across the road into Grandfather’s house, a larger and still more ancient structure. Just the same, I was as homesick as the proverbial homesick dog, but, unlike that pathetic animal, I didn’t go on a hunger strike.

Rather, I kept on eating honest food, at least three times a day, which I supplemented occasionally with tidbits from the cookie jar, and, all too frequently, with sizable hunks of maple sugar which I pried sur­reptitiously from the sugar pail with my own jackknife. Indeed, I was doing very well, thank you, and would have been in fairly good form to forget my misery, had not Father, in a fit of nostalgia, as he looked across the way to the forlorn old store we had left behind, launcl-a d forth on the recitation of a melancholy poem, one stanza of which began:

“The path to my cottage they say has grown green.”

I don’t remember the rest of the poem, but it was all cluttered up with loved ones and weeping and dying and graveyards. This was too much for me. I bolted out of the house and over to Fenton’s Store where, with kicking and skuffing, I saw to it that “the path to my cottage II was any color but green. Ever since that time – now more than fifty years – I’ve kept a fairly well-worn path to Fenton’s store; and even now I claim, for a few weeks every summer, and at sundry other times throughout the year, the shelter of its hospitable roof as an escape from the workaday world. For Fenton’s store isn’t a store at all.

Its vacation from mercantile ac­tivities began over a century ago, and has not yet ended.

Time was, however, when Fenton’s Store bustled with as much life as could be seen anywhere along the country­side.

Indeed, it was the only store for miles around, and sturdy old Vermont farmers came “Over hill, Over dale” – not on the fleet wings of Shakespeare’ s fairy, but on horseback, on creaking ox-carts, on horse-drawn thorough-brace wagons, and, most of all, on their own plodding, toil-worn feet, many of them bringing along examples of their own handiwork or products of their farms to barter for goods they could not produce at home.

Everything went well with Fenton’s store so long as the population was quite generally distributed over the township. However, when the nucleus of a village sprang up in the valley two miles away, where the river ran, and where the railroad was to run a half century later, then trouble began for the old s tore on the hill. As mills and dwellings were built in the valley, so, too, was a rival store built and furnished.

Needless to say that the trade of most of the populace was transferred to the store in the valley, and Fenton’s store was left as high and dry as Noah’s Ark on Ararat. Time and human hands, however, have dealt kindly with Fenton’s Store. It was spared the humiliation to which many of its contemporaries which found themselves misfits in a changing community were subjected, that of desertion to the unrelenting elements, until the last ponderous beam fashioned by the broadax of the pioneer had rotted to dust, and nothing was left to mark the site but a melancholy cellar-hole with moss-grown, crumbling walls. Indeed, the old store endured its chagrin in a most creditable manner.

If it could not be a store, at least it could be a store­ house, or a shop, or a humble home, or a summer camp; and that, in a nutshell, is the checkered history of this versatile old building.

In its immediate surroundings Fenton’s store can boast of no awe-inspiring

features so devoutly to be wished in a summer residence: no rugged mountains with

fever of the I precipitous flanks and overhanging brows frowning up~~ no sound or “pounding on the cliffs, no “lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore.

There is, however, on all sides, an abundance of typical Vermont scenery. There are peaceful, verdant fields and rolling pastures flanked by wooded hills; there are forest clumps shot through with sparkling trout-brooks, tumbling, rollicking, laughing on their merry way to the sea. To the westward the beautiful tree-clad dome of Knox Mountain forms a picturesque background, while Blue Mountain, scarred with quarries of gray granite, stands guard to the northeastward. Far on the eastern horizon, stark and grim against the morning sky, rise the majestic mountains of New Hampshire – Lafayette, Lincoln, Kinsman, Cube, and dominat­ing all, the mighty mass of Moosehillock “heaving as a whale just beginning to dive, “to quote the significant language of Starr King. Moosehillock, or Moosilauke, as the word has been vulgarized, is, in the estimation of Fenton’s store folk, the sacred mountain of the eastern landscape. Memory goes not back to the time when I did not watch with rapture and wonder the evening shadows creep up its storm-scarred sides as the westering sun went down. Even now, in imagination, I can see its color change from blue to purple, from purple to gray, beautiful beyond description. I can see its graceful silhouette against the moonlit sky, against the rosy tint of morning;

I can see the storm clouds gather about its summit; I can see it shimmering white in the wake of the first snowfall; I can see it smile in the noonday sun. A favorite childhood belief was that when God wanted to speak to men He came down to earth and returned to heaven by way of  Moosehillock. If it be true, as some tactless “foreigners” maintain, that Vermonters are too self-sufficient, too provincial, what a liberalizing influence must radiate from a mountain like Moosehillock upon a hard-headed, one hundred per cent Vermonter such as might sojourn at Fenton’s store. Truly the most stubborn provincial could not dwell long in the presence of that noble mountain without the conviction that New Hampshire, at least, is God’s country, too. It is America’s foremost poet who sings of New Hampshire:

 

­”She’s one of the two best states in the Union. Vermont’s the other. And the two have been Yoke-fellows in the sap-yoke from of old In many Marches.” Now if Mr. Robert Frost is telling the truth – and what New Englander is presump­tuous enough to cast a doubt? – what better fortune could befall one than to dwell with his feet planted on good Vermont soil~ and his eyes turned occasionally on a New Hampshire mountain like Moosehillock for inspiration? What indeed unless it should be to sojourn in a New Hampshire border town, let us say Cornish or Hanover

and, like another Daniel~ open his windows towards Ascutney which~ as everybody knows, is a Vermont mountain? Speaking of Noah’s Ark on Ararat reminds me of the architectural similarity between Fenton’s Store and the house-like upper portion of Noah’s famous boat, if we may believe the engravings in the old family Bibles or the miniature effigies in the toy shops. I have always been grateful for the ark-like simplicity of Fenton’s

Store. I rejoice that when American architecture was passing through the period of its most excruciating agony, no well-meaning but mistaken disciple of Richardson happened along to remodel or modernize or “improve” it after the pattern of the eighteen-eighties, by thrusting out a turret here, a merry-go-round there, and lavishly glorifying it allover with wooden lace. I rejoice, also, on the one hand that Fenton’s store has none of that self-conscious air, and that it doesn’t try too hard to look “colonial,” and on the other, that it never assumes a listless, woebegone attitude as if it were begging for sympathy. No, if you please, it stands firm and square on its own foundation, content to be its humble self ~ am looks one straight in the face as through a “conscience void of offense.” Fenton’s store does not grace Professors’ Row, nor does it fill any niche in an artists’ colony, and for this I am profoundly thankful. One of the joys of summering in a remote, little-frequented corner of the earth is that one can be his

own landscape architect without fear of offending the over-developed artistic sensibilities of his neighbors. He can also be his own laborer without fear of losing caste. In fact, he loses caste if he is not his own laborer, not merely eight hours a day, but ten, or twelve, or as long as the sun will shine for him, (and no mention of extra pay for overtime). This has at least two possible advan­tages: it keeps one furnished with exercise, and it is a decided asset to the ex­chequer of anybody who is trying to make both ends meet on a moderate salary. When some of my practical neighbors pass by and see me sweating over the construction of a bird bath or sundial, or transplanting a lilac or cedar, they may, and doubtless do remark to the companion by their side, or to themselves, if they are a1 one, that that erstwhile pedagogue might be in better or bigger business than to be fussing around in a garden that never produces corn or beans. But then, they have known me and I have known them all my life, and they never expect me to perform a sensible act. Indeed, one of the advantages of long and intimate acquaintance is the infrequency of shocking surprises. You can go right on acting foolishly and nobody will lose any sleep over it; you are expected to act that way. But whatever the vagaries of the present storekeeper, one thing is certain that unless something unforeseen happens, Fenton’s store is booked for a hale and hearty old age. Already it has the earmarks of antiquity. Like a hoary-headed old man sitting in the summer sunshine before the door of his cottage, and recalling the incidents of the long ago to any interested passer-by, so Fenton’s store proclaims to all who will listen, the story of the Vermont of another day. Sometimes, when it looks peacefully over upon Moosehillock, I fancy that I can discern a sportive, youthful twinkle scintillating from its warped-vision, seven-by-nine window panes. Perhaps it is recalling the memory of an old June Muster or an unusually lively store court. Then, as an automobile rolls. past, or an airplane whizzes over, I’m quite sure that the trend of its thought is interrupted, for it seems to stare icily into space. But this is for a moment only, for as soon as the tumult passes away, the old store collects its scattered wits and fixes its lingering, loving gaze on Moosehillock, or the clouds, or the stars – “the ancient, beautiful things” and is at peace again.

 

 

If the old store dreams of the days that are no more, its dreaming mood is contagious, for the storekeeper also dreams. And as I sit in the old garden of a summer evening, and linger there until the last vesper song of the hermit thrush has echoed away into the silence of the deep, dark woods, and the young moon and the evening star have stolen silently behind the great basswood where the barred owl flits from branch to branch on noiseless wings, I live over again those horse­ and-buggy years when I was a small boy in Fenton’s store, and a larger boy in Grand­father’s house across the way – year s which, if they were not better than our own, were at least different, and more picturesque. Sophisticated moderns have flippant­ly named them the “elegant eighties” and the “gay nineties”; but that, of course, is city lingo. They were neither elegant nor gay on a hilltop farm in a very rural corner of a very rural state. Just the same, they were altogether delightful.

Our world jogged along at an even pace unvexed by anything like the mad rush and dis­cordant voices of these latter days. If our elders spent much of their time in “useful toil, II they also had their seasons of “homely joys.” Neighbors took time out to be neighborly. Indeed, there was much of “sweetness and light,” or so it seems in retrospect. For as the jagged outlines of distant mountain peaks are softened when seen through Indian Summer haze, so do many of our earlier hardships lose their stern aspect when seen through the mellowing haze of time.