Vermont Bar Journal
THE VERMONT BAR JOURNALVolume 37, No. 4Winter 2012RUMINATIONSA Hero Once, a Jude for Lifeby Paul S. Gillies, Esq.There is a vein of copper pyrites in the calciferous mica schist formation that runs along the eastern side of Vermont from Holland to Strafford.(fn1) It was mined successfully in Corinth, Vershire, and Strafford.(fn2 )Getting it out of the ground, and smelting it into a more transportable form, was hard work and the environmental consequences of the process were severe.(fn3) The Vermont Watchman and State Journal in 1882 reported that at Vershire the "smelting furnace has destroyed the vegetation in the vicinity of the mines, and farmers have heavy claims against the company for damages." Many suits were reported filed as a consequence.(fn4)
The mine was owned by the Vermont Copper Mining Company, whose principal owner and manager was Smith Ely. He brought such industry and financial advantage to that little town that it was renamed "Ely" in 1878 by the General Assembly. That only lasted four years, when the economic fragility of the mine began to trouble the inhabitants, and the name was changed back to Vershire in 1882.(fn5) The problems went beyond the financial problems of the company. The miners, carpenters, and masons who came to Vershire from Ireland and Sweden were a hardy lot, and there were conflicts with the locals.(fn6)
Mrs. Bartholomew was accosted by three men while walking between Ely and West Fairlee village in September of 1882. They made "indecent proposals" and she in turn threatened one of the men to "call at her home in West Fairlee and settle for his turpitude or be prosecuted." When he arrived, the miner was promptly arrested by the constable, but then escaped after three or four accomplices beat up the officer on his way to the jail. The original three were identified as employees of the company.(fn7 )On Saturday night in December 1882, the "boys were rough" after drinking too much beer, and shots were fired. Although no one was hurt, one man found a bullet in his boot and a hole in his trousers. A baker had fired on them and in retaliation they broke the window of his shop and cleaned him out.(fn8)
More trouble was brewing at the mines. Smith Ely sold out to the Vermont Copper Company, whose president was E. Ely-Goddard, Smith's grandson. The company was cash-strapped, and by the late spring of 1883 had not paid the workers for two and a half months. Ely-Goddard turned the property back to his grandfather, but soon the revelation of a $30,000 debt ratcheted up the tension, and exposed the imminent bankruptcy of the company.(fn9) The company's perilous financial situation left miners without any pay for months. The frustration finally boiled over in July of 1883.
The newspaper reports of what happened at Vershire that July paint two entirely different portraits of the controversy. The reporter for the Vermont Watchman and State Journal believed the government's reaction was hysterical and unfounded. He also blamed Vermont's former Governor Roswell Farnum, who was counsel to the company, for becoming "panic-stricken" and inciting his successor Governor John L. Barstow to act. But a reporter for the Boston Journal called it an insurrection, claiming the rioters had invaded Smith Ely's home, emptied the company store, threatened public and private property, and planned to blow up the mine, as well as Vershire village and West Fairlee village. The powder house was controlled by the miners, and there were 125 kegs of blasting powder and "a quantity of giant powder in a powder-house on the bill near the entrance to the mine."(fn10)
On Sunday, July 1, the miners went to church-the Irishmen to the Catholic Church, the Cornishmen to the Methodist Church. On Monday morning, there was a mass meeting. "Their grievances were discussed in pretty outspoken language; the large sums which Goddard had squandered were sworn about, and a good deal of rough talk over the swindle which had been perpetrated upon them took place." The body appointed a committee of six to meet with Smith Ely and work something out.
At eighty-five years of age, Ely was in bed when the committee went to his home in West Fairlee to demand their money. Ely told them he had not a "dollar in the world." But he also told them "this mine belongs to the working men; I give this mine up to you." He blamed F.M.F. Cazin, the engineer. If not for him, Ely could have paid them. "Cazin has ruined the mine." He said he owned Cazin's house, and invited them to "take and unroof it, as far as I am concerned. This property belongs to the laboring men in spite of everybody, and I give it to you." Ely was rescued and taken to Bradford "in a great panic," and left from there to New Jersey or New York the next day.
The correspondent from the Vermont Watchman also blamed Sheriff Luke Parish for overreacting. "In ordinary times, the chief duty of a sheriff is to shout 'Hear ye' 'Hear ye' at the beginning and end of court, and to sit in a box against the side of the court-room and sleep the day through as best as he can." Called to Vershire, Parish saw firsthand the anger of the workers, and he feared the worst. He returned to Chelsea and swore in a posse of twenty men, "got guns and ammunition for them from the Grand Army post," and "started again for Ely to put down the rebellion." Parish then left his posse in West Fairlee and entered Vershire, only to find it quiet; but when he returned to West Fairlee he found the men had fled, with the guns. Parish rode to Shel-burne on the train with a report for Governor Barstow, and this triggered the military reaction that has come to be known as the Ely War. The Governor called out the militia, for only the second time in the state's history.(fn11)
The reporter for the Vermont Watchman believed he understood the men's thinking.
With their ideas of rude justice, they had adopted a theory that they had a sort of prescriptive right to have all the property of the mine devoted to the payment of their wages, and they didn't wish anything to be got out of the way. All kinds of stories had been circulated about the fabulous sums with which it had been embellished, and they naturally felt bitter, when they realized their present destitution, at the squandering of the money which they had earned, and had the best right to of any one.(fn12)
Troops were on the trains from Northfield and Rutland-150 armed men in all-while a company of local militia from Bradford took wagons to Thetford, and then walked through the night, becoming the first to arrive at the scene. They reached the top of a "denuded hill which overlooks the village, all the vegetation of which has been killed by the fumes of the sulfur," and then marched to the mine and retook the powder house. There were four miners guarding the explosives, and they gave up without a fight.(fn13)
The Bradford company was led by a thirty-two year-old lawyer, John H. Watson. His actions at Vershire earned him a statewide reputation as a leader of men and as a man who could be trusted with an important office. Sixteen years later, he was elected as an associate judge of the Vermont Supreme Court, and he served until 1929, almost thirty years, the last twelve as chief justice-the longest-serving judge on the high court.
He was a modest man, as seen by his writings, consisting of one excellent address he gave In 1921 on the Vermont Constitution, and 410 published decisions while on the Court. He died in office, sharp and articulate to the last. You have to wonder how often he thought about that long July night in 1883.
Meet John H.Watson
John H. Watson was born in Jamaica, Vermont, on May 21, 1851, and studied law with Orin Gambell in Bradford, after a common school and academy education. He did not attend college or law school. Admitted to the practice of law in 1877, at the age of twenty-six, he kept a law office in Bradford for the next twenty-one years before he was appointed to the vacancy on the Supreme Court by Governor Edward Smith. The vacancy was created by the retirement of Chief Judge Jonathan Ross on January 19, 1899. In the years before he joined the Court, Watson had served in the Vermont National Guard, earning the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel of the First Regiment. From 1886 to 1888 he was Orange County State's Attorney, and served a two-year term in the Vermont Senate beginning in 1892. On January 18, 1917, he was elected chief justice, after the retirement of Loveland Munson, and served in that office until his death on December 7, 1929. (fn14)
He took his official duties seriously. In 1906, Governor Allen Fletcher was concerned enough about the state of rural Vermont schools to appoint a nine-member Vermont Educational Commission, and asked Judge Watson to serve as chair. The Carnegie Foundation was hired to study the system and its findings, attached to the Commission's 1914 official report, seriously criticized the schools, teachers, curriculum, school houses, and lack of a central administrative agency to oversee them.(fn15 )The Commission's report, which included the Carnegie study, issued in 1914, formed the basis of comprehensive changes to the state's education laws in 1915.(fn16)
Within the first six months of joining the court. Judge Watson participated in an advisory opinion of the Supreme Court, responding to Governor Smith's request to advise him on the status of the 1rt Regiment...