Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Joseph Battell

Since moving to Middlebury and researching the history of our house, I've become interested in local history. This is a relatively well-documented subject, because most of the settlement did not occur until after the American Revolution, and Middlebury College was founded in 1800, providing an educated population to document whatever transpired. History of the Town of Middlebury, by Samuel Swift, published in 1859, goes into great detail about who lived here and when. Swift interviewed an early settler, Mary Kirby, from Litchfield, Connecticut, who in 1791 had married another settler, Samuel Severance, from Northfield, Massachusetts. Samuel was the elder brother of Enos Severance, who built our house in about 1798 and died in 1842. Three of the four old Severance houses mentioned by Swift are still standing in our neighborhood. Compared to most of the U.S., it is much easier here to get a sense of continuity with the past.

Yesterday we went to hear a talk at Middlebury College about Joseph Battell (1837-1915), a well-known figure in Middlebury history. He was an eccentric character and a good example of the dominant cultural values in America during the Victorian period. Battell was a grandson of Horatio Seymour (1778-1857), an early settler, judge and U.S. Senator, and grew up in Seymour's house, which is a landmark downtown. He attended Middlebury College and while still young inherited a fortune from his father's brother, who had worked in the steel industry. He lived the rest of his life in a manner that might be described as spoiled, marriage-averse, whimsical, fatuous, opinionated, imperious, philanthropic and repressed.

Early on he adopted a detached way of dealing with women. Rather than pursue them, he objectified them first by viewing them at a distance through a telescope and later by taking chaste photographs of them in stiff poses. He never married, and although there is no clear evidence, it would be reasonable to assume that he was a repressed homosexual, not unlike his contemporary, Henry James. In no photograph does he look happy.

Battell had several hobbies. He took an interest in the Morgan horse and is said to have saved the breed when he built the Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge. He was an amateur writer whose first book was so bad that his sister bought all of the unsold copies and burnt them. His most notorious book, called Ellen, or the Whisperings of an Old Pine, involved a Socratic dialogue between a girl and a wise tree in which, among other things, Darwinism and the wave theory of sound are supposedly refuted. Though it didn't help his literary reputation and was universally regarded as unreadable, that didn't stop him from printing a second, deluxe, edition.

In most practical matters Battell fared somewhat better. He decided to host a summer retreat in Ripton, Vermont, near the pass over the Green Mountains. Named after nearby Bread Loaf Mountain, the inn grew into a large, popular hotel that drew people from across the country. In conjunction with the hotel, he purchased thousands of acres of land along the summits of the Green Mountains from Bread Load to Camel's Hump. He also bought the Middlebury newspapers and published the news for many years. As a newspaperman, he used his paper to rant against things that he opposed. He hated cars and printed stories of car accidents from around the world. For a time he managed to block car traffic on the road, now Route 125, to the Bread Loaf Inn. He ran for and was elected to office in the Vermont House and Senate, but was not able to win when he ran for governor.

Battell's legacy is visible today. The Morgan Horse Farm is intact. The commercial building downtown that he built and inhabited, called the Battell Block, is still occupied. The stone bridge over Otter Creek on Main Street that he insisted on building is still in active use. His Bread Loaf property was given to Middlebury College and still hosts the writers' conference that dates back to Robert Frost. For a time, Middlebury College must have had the largest campus in the world with the 30,000 acres it received from Battell. Most of that is now part of the Green Mountain National Forest. He also provided funding for some of the current buildings on the Middlebury campus.

As a Victorian, Battell shared some similarities with another contemporary, Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919). Although Roosevelt was more specifically raised to be a high achiever and to contribute to the public good, Battell also thought that it was his duty to make lasting contributions to society. Both valued preserving the natural environment, with Battell planting hundreds of thousands of trees in the then-deforested Green Mountains and Roosevelt creating the National Park and National Forest systems. Both were eccentric, but in different ways. Battell was part Luddite and Roosevelt was part imperialist. Another difference was that Roosevelt belonged to a large clan and Battell did not. The realization of Victorian ideals is probably best seen in Theodore Roosevelt's fifth cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose early role model was Theodore.

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