Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Remembering a Neighbor: Hester Buell Phelps and Her Family

Residence and stock farm of D. B. Buell, Orwell, VT, 1876.
From Beers Atlas
Published online as the David Rumsey Collection.
The farm was willed to Jennie Field Phelps, foster daughter of Daniel and Marion [Abell]  Buell.

I had word last week of the passing of an elderly woman, neighbor through-out my childhood and youth, and again during nearly two decades when I returned to my home town in 1980.
Hester, a contemporary of my parents, had she lived another three days, would have marked her 99th birthday. 
Her obituary, published in the area newspaper, was so sparse in detail, so informal in tone, that I have been left pondering that the ending of a long and busy life could be so casually summarized.

Sudbury Hill Stone School circa 1927.
Hester Phelps is on the left in the front row.
[Photo from collection of Gladys Griffin Patnode, shared by Skip Patnode.]

Hester Buell Phelps was born 7 April, 1918, in Rutland, Vermont, the second child of Frank J. and Jennie [Field] Phelps. Her older brother, Franklin, was born 3 September, 1913, her younger sister Sarah Elizabeth [Sally] 25 December, 1924.

My memories of Hester place her firmly within the context of her family and home. 
Valley Ridge Farm became the property of Hester's mother, Jennie Field, upon the death of her foster father Daniel Buell in 1909 when Jennie was age 18.  Frank Phelps, in his dotage, loved to recount the story of Jennie's arrival at the farm when the death of her parents, three months apart, orphaned her and two sisters. 

Daniel Buell and his wife, Marion Abell Buell, were financially well-to-do--and they were childless.
Daniel and his brother Joel, living half a mile along the Horton RD, had achieved distinction as breeders of Merino sheep and purebred cattle, building handsome houses and barns with the proceeds of their industrious farming.

As the American Civil War dragged on, in 1862, Daniel and Marion Buell, married since 1856, brought into their home the nearly 2 year old daughter of neighbors, Franklin and Louisa [Martin] Brown. Louisa Brown, in her mid 30's, died of 'consumption' 29 November, 1862, while Corp. Franklin Brown wasted away for another year before succumbing 4 November, 1863 to the effects of dysentery and disease, legacy of his wartime service. Lizzie Brown, as she was known, would likely not have recalled the scant 2 years prior to her mother's death, growing to young womanhood in the secure and comfortable home of the Buells.

The marriage of 'Lizzie Brown' age 24, to George L. Field took place on 23 April, 1884, 
the Rev. C. A. Thomas of Brandon, VT officiating. 
George L. Field, 10 years older than Lizzie, was the son of a Tolland, Connecticutt farmer, George P. Field and his wife, Emily Phelps Field. George and Lizzie's first child, Marion Field [Spooner Adams] was born 9 months later in Granby, CT. 
Family lore indicates that Lizzie Field's health was compromised by successive pregnancies which terminated in miscarriages or still-births. George and Lizzie had two other surviving daughters, Jennie M. Field [Phelps] b. 13 April, 1890, N. Granby, CT and Beatrice Agnes Field [Farrar] b. 17 Feb. 1892, N. Granby, CT.

The legacy of George Lyman Field, as recounted by his grand daughter, Sally Phelps, is that of a restless wandering man, a dreamer rather than a man of settled accomplishment.  The 1880 census placed George L. Field in the tiny mining settlement of Olancha-Cartago, Inyo County, California. Returning from that venture, perhaps business related to his father's farming interests brought him to Vermont and into contact with the Buells where he would have met Lizzie Brown.  
A George Field of West Addison, VT is listed in an 1886 assessment as 'Cattle Breeder.' Whether this indicates that Lizzie's husband attempted a local farming venture cannot be determined.

In the mid to late 1890's George Field, ailing and seemingly unable to prosper, headed southward with his weary wife and their three young daughters in tow. George's search for a home brought the family eventually to Brown Springs, Arkansas.  He died, age 49, on 9 December, 1899, perhaps in Arkansas, perhaps enroute to yet another destination.  There is the suggestion that George and Lizzie had become part of a group planning to travel west together. 

Lizzie Brown Field died 25 February, 1900, less than 3 months after George's demise, collapsing on the railway platform at Union Station in Center Indianapolis, Indiana. The physician who examined her body and signed her death certificate pronounced cause of death as 'tuberculosis complicated by exhaustion.' She was 39 years old.
Traveling companions telegraphed Daniel Buell, who made arrangements for the three orphaned girls to return to Lizzie's childhood home at Valley Ridge Farm.  No doubt it was also Daniel Buell who organized the burial of George and Lizzie in the churchyard a mile away, providing the granite markers with their names and dates. It is the same cemetery where Lizzie's parents had been laid to rest nearly 40 years earlier.

Daniel and Marion Buell discussed the possibility of fostering Lizzie's three daughters; Marion, Jennie and Beatrice. Marion Buell, in failing health, knew that she couldn't mother three children. Marion Buell died in April, 1900, shortly after Jennie was welcomed to the household.  "Sister Marion" and "Sister Beatrice" found homes nearby within the Buell's circle of closely related families.

Jennie graduated from  high school in Brandon, Vermont--where she met Frank Phelps, whom she married when both were age 23. Frank and Jennie spent the first several years of their marriage in Rutland, Vermont where Frank found work as a book keeper and payroll clerk in the offices of the Green Mountain Marble Company. 
The 1920 census recorded on January 21st for Orwell, Vermont, listed Frank and Jennie Phelps with Franklin age 6 and Hester, not yet 2 years of age. They had come home to Valley Ridge Farm. Their youngest child, Sarah Elizabeth [Sally] was born there in 1924.

Frank Phelps, though raised in town, focused his keen and inquiring mind to learn the ways of a farmer. He applied his accounting skills to keeping the farm books and later served for many years as Auditor for the Town of Orwell.  Jennie settled again into the spacious rooms that had welcomed her as a girl. 
As the years passed the Phelps' home gained a reputation for quiet hospitality as their circle of friends increased. At each meal, whether served simply at the round table in the big kitchen or with guests present at the larger table in the dining room's bay window, the family bowed their heads while Frank intoned a blessing.
The Phelps family valued books, music, lively conversation and the exchange of ideas.
Hester inherited her father Frank's slender wiry build as well as his sharp mind and his penchant for debate. She also cultivated her mother Jennie's gift of gracious welcome.
Hester took piano lessons, Franklin played the violin, Sally created with paint and canvas. 
Hester and my mother attended the final two years of high school in Brandon boarding in the same household during the week, returning home for weekends and school vacations.

After high school Hester enrolled in Goddard College, newly organized in Plainfield, VT as a progressive, innovative liberal arts institution. 
My memories of Hester stem from the 1950's when she was employed at Lane Press in Burlington, Vermont as a proof-reader. Each Sunday evening she rode the bus from Brandon to Burlington where she rented an efficiency apartment. On Fridays, unless winter weather threatened a blizzard, she caught the late bus back to Brandon where her father met her with the car. Hester's time at the farm was busy, caring for the flock of sheep that came to be regarded as hers, dealing with requests for knitting yarn and for the beautiful woolen blankets which she had loomed to order at a mill where the yarn was died in soft heathery colors and woven into warm coverings. Some of the blankets were sold, others given as gifts. 
In summer she drove the farm truck or tractor to help Frank with haying, coming into the kitchen bare-armed and hot, twill pants rolled to the knees and her feet in canvas sneakers. Sunday mornings found her at the white church on the hill playing the pump organ for the service.

 Hester was not much concerned with fashion. Working at home or driving into town for groceries she dressed in loose trousers and cotton shirts, adding a warm cardigan if the weather required.  She sent away for fabric samples from a woolen mill and ordered lengths of tweed in earthy shades of brown, gold and mossy green. A local seamstress made these fine woolens into classic skirts, cut to accommodate the brisk stride of a woman who walked to and from her workplace. With them Hester wore soft tailored blouses in cream, yellow, or nutmeg brown. Her low-heeled brown shoes were well-polished. She didn't wear jewelry or make-up but allowed herself a spritz of cologne for special occasions.  Hester cut her own hair--snipped at it rather impatiently until it fell in a short, not quite even bob. She washed it with tincture of green soap, swept a black lock away from her forehead to be anchored with a bobby pin or clip.

 Hester, about 10 or 11 years old.

I was perhaps 12 or 13 when during February school vacation Hester phoned to invite me for an overnight in Burlington.  She had two tickets for a mid-week performance of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra. Mother saw me aboard the afternoon bus clutching a small satchel that held flannel pajamas, my toothbrush and a change of underwear.  I presented my ticket, waved goodbye from a window seat and for the next hour watched the unfolding snowy landscape of farms and small villages.  Hester, just off from work, was waiting for me when the bus trundled into the terminal. The chill of early evening deepened as the sun retreated beyond Lake Champlain. 

Hester's apartment was located on the ground floor of a large and substantial house on S. Union Street. The key clicked in the lock and we entered a warm, tidy space. The bathroom was tiny, tucked at the back of the apartment, the narrow kitchen had a window at one end. There was room for a small fridge, a gas range, sink and diminutive table. The sitting room served also as bedroom, being furnished with a studio couch that folded out into a pair of twin beds. Street lights were beginning to come on outside as Hester drew the blinds and turned her attention to supper. Memory shifts from scene to scene, leaving gaps in the event. I think that we had homemade soup for supper with cheese sandwiches toasted in the oven.  No doubt we drank tea.

Strangely, I don't recall being in the auditorium, listening raptly to the orchestra--which I would have done.  I remember that for the evening outing we bundled in layers of heavy coats, scarves and gloves over our woolen skirts and thick stockings.  I remember the novelty of walking on sidewalks, the streetlights and the sounds of the city. I remember preparing later for bed, brushing my teeth in the little white bathroom while Hester set up the beds and whisked crisp sheets and soft blankets into place. I sensed that she fell asleep quickly, while I lay awake, drifting on waves of music, growing accustomed to the strips of light which glowed through the slats of the blinds, hearing the unfamiliar hum of a city settling for the night.
We were out of bed early in the morning, folding bedding, turning the space into a sitting room once again. Sunlight found its way into the small kitchen as Hester prepared a special treat. Grapefruit was halved, drizzled with honey, sprinkled with cinnamon and popped under the broiler.  I spread butter and marmalade on a stack of whole wheat toast. 
It was cold outside with a rough wind off the lake, Crossing the city park our shoes rang on frozen ground. The exhaust from passing vehicles hung grey and thick in the chilly air. Hester pointed out landmarks as we walked.  At the Vermont Transit Terminal she directed me to the correct bus, raised a gloved hand as I said my thank-you, then turned with purposeful steps to begin her long day at a desk.  
Hester chose gifts for me over the years--with her love of books and her proximity to city bookshops, she didn't believe in 'little golden books' for young people--those inexpensive cardboard covered things available at the five and dime.  Real books, classic stories, books meant to inform and delight, were presented at Christmas and birthdays, bearing her distinctive scrawl on the inside cover. There were LP records as I grew older--a collection by the contralto, Kathleen Ferrier, Susan Reed singing old ballads.  
Hester introduced me to Bigelow's Constant Comment tea--still a favorite--although she brewed it in the yellow teapot from loose leaves while I dangle a tea bag in a mug of hot water.
It was from Hester that I first learned the use of dried herbs in cookery and that chopped celery leaves are a flavorful addition to a pot of soup. 
Hester later worked as proof-reader for a time at a press in Brattleboro, VT and finally in East Greenbush, NY before taking an early retirement and returning home to help her parents in the day to day operations of Valley Ridge Farm.  She seemed to have tireless energy, striding out to care for the sheep, roaring off in her car on errands, preparing a meal. 

Hester became the town librarian, dealing with file cabinets, the Dewey decimal system, overdue library books. Always decisive, she didn't hesitate to speak her mind, yet she could be patience itself when helping a child to select a book or directing a researcher to the small 'Vermont room' with its shelves of local and state history.  She volunteered to overhaul and organize the resources of the grade school library, sorting and cataloging.  
After her mother Jennie's quiet passing in 1980, Hester dealt with her father Frank's increasing dementia until his death in 1986. 
By this time Hester's sister Sally was often in residence.  Together they tackled the hundreds of books shelved in the small rooms above the kitchen, struggled with the upkeep of the old house and barns, trudged out in all weather to care for the now diminished flock of sheep. 
Always an erratic and headlong driver, Hester's license was revoked when in her 80's she misjudged the turning into a local supermarket parking lot, crashing into the hefty concrete structure which supported  a sign. 

The time came a few years ago when Hester and Sally could no longer stay at Valley Ridge Farm, the place that had been home to them, and in turn, to their orphaned mother and grandmother. The once lovely house stands empty, needing repairs and renovations.

In memory I see the house as it was in my girlhood, screened doors open to a summer breeze laden with the scent of yellow roses, or battened snug in winter with the coal fires glowing.
It was a home where guests were welcomed, whether coming from afar or from next door. 
It was a home where people sat in the evening to read aloud, to share the happenings of the day.

I will remember Hester Phelps, always busy, yet always making time to introduce a child to her new lambs.  I see her at the library desk, hunched over a stack of books, lock of greying hair skewered back with a bobby pin, raising her head to make a brisk, often incisive comment.

I wonder, did she ever long for marriage, coming of age as she did at a time when young men, like her brother, had been lost to war?  She had a certain independence in her work, in her thinking, in her life as a single woman, yet strong ties brought her back to the farm and the responsibilities of family.

She out-lived her contemporaries, enduring the loss of those she called friends, her span of years closing last week a little shy of a century. 
Whatever the shortfalls, Hester moved through her life with purpose and integrity.


  1. What a lovely tribute to Hester. You have painted a wonderful picture of her dedicated and humble life. How wonderful that you had the privilege of knowing her and being the recipient of her kind affection. This quote came to mind after I read your dear story......"A hundred years from now it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of house I lived in, or the kind of car I drove...but the world may be different because I was important in the life of a child." - Forest E. Witcraft - teacher and scholar. Surely this was true regarding Hester and the imprint she left on you as a child and beyond. Thank you for sharing Hester's life. xx Karen

  2. Karen; I gathered details of my neighbors, 'The Phelps Folks' several years ago, wanting to find a way to tell something of their story. After spending hours with this condensed version as a tribute to Hester, I wasn't sure it would appeal to others to read. I'm glad that you enjoyed reading this and that you took time to affirm my efforts. Thank You!

  3. I too enjoyed reading this lovely tribute to your dear friend. It brought back happy memories of my mom's dear friend that I once stayed with. Acts of kindness can stay with us forever. Thank you for sharing this story. Pat

    1. Pat; I like your thought regarding 'acts of kindness'--taking time for others!

  4. What a wonderful tribute to a woman I have never met, but who obviously made a huge impression on those she did. I am glad that you made up for the paucity of facts in her obituary. She was obviously a practical soul, and cultured, and as you said, missed out on a husband as so many had gone to war and not returned.

    As a family historian, I appreciated the details of her family story - how sad that her parents were claimed by TB (something that happened in Keith's side of the family for 2 generations, and claimed the life of a grown child of my g.g. grandmother (who had lost 3 within a week when they were small - Scarlet Fever I think).

    Beautifully written, as always . . .

    1. Jennie; Coming from two generations where parents died young, Hester and her siblings were in a unique position of having no family beyond their parents.
      TB was a terrible scourge--I find it as a 'cause of death' in so many that I've researched from the 1800's.
      This was a family of quiet distinction--I realize I could write a tribute to each member.

  5. What a beautiful eulogy you have written for her. It's my contention that we never die as long as we're remembered.

    1. Janet; So many family remembrances 'go to the grave' with those could share them. Today we have good means of reproducing and sharing family photos, old diaries, newspaper clippings, etc. It is my hope that more people are inspired to collect and pass on their unique heritage.

  6. This is beautiful and I enjoyed reading it so much. Lillian at Lillian's Cupboard

    1. Lillian; I'm pleased that you enjoyed this. As I wrote the piece I wondered if it would appeal to those who didn't know the family, but then I love to read about other families--have appreciated your transcriptions of your mother's memories.


  7. sharon: Hester was one of my true friends while I lived in Orwell. I served on the Board of the Library. Amazing. I spent time with Hester each week, either at the Library or at her home. She and Sallhy were so remarkable, so genuine in a world which has forgotten the meaning of genuine. I am grateful for your reflection. I often think of Hester and of Sally. They were an important part of the healthier side of Orwell. I loved them for that.

    1. Carole; I wish you could have known Frank and Jennie Phelps--the parents. The Phelps family created a most welcoming home.
      Remember, you gave a lovely Sunday afternoon tea not long before I left for Wyoming--Hester and Sally were among the guests.

  8. A beautiful tribute. So often as we grow older our friends and peers go on before us, and there are few of our own generation to remember our lives, so it is especially precious that your have written your memories of her life.

  9. Hildred; I wish that every family had a designated 'scribe' to save the details of a particular generation. I'm blessed to have family members who enjoy genealogy, and remember those of my grandparent's generation who told the 'stories.'