Bring­ing lo­cal his­tory to light

Stanstead Journal - - FRONT PAGE - Vic­to­ria Vanier, Dixville

It’s pretty fas­ci­nat­ing the kinds of things that can be found buried deep in the at­tic of an old Town­ships farm­house. And when those things fall into the right hands, like those of Dixville’s James Belk­nap, you can be sure they’ll get the re­spect they de­serve.

That’s be­cause Mr. Belk­nap, the son of Bald­win Mills pi­o­neer Wal­ter Ge­orge Belk­nap, who founded the Bald­win Mills fish hatch­ery in 1898, knows the im­por­tance of lo­cal his­tory and the sense of pride it can in­still in the peo­ple of a re­gion, when they are aware of it. “A lot of peo­ple today don’t know who their grand­fa­ther is. But there’s an old say­ing: If you don’t know where you’re from, you don’t know where you’re go­ing.”

“I found these letters in an old trunk,” said Mr. Belk­nap, show­ing me pho­to­copies of and orig­i­nal hand-writ­ten letters dat­ing back to the 1800’s, one even be­ing what he be­lieves to be the ear­li­est ex­am­ple of a post-marked let­ter that passed through Stanstead, dated 1836. Read­ing ex­cerpts from letters that orig­i­nated with the Parker and Bartlett fam­i­lies from the Barn­ston area, you get a glimpse of what it was like to live in the re­gion al­most two hun­dred years ago. “What amazes me is how the women of­ten died be­fore they were fifty from lung prob­lems from cook­ing over an open fire. I’m also amazed by the things peo­ple would put in their wills, like cook­ing pots, axes, rope and cloth. They didn’t have a lot of stuff back then.”

“One let­ter was about how cold it was in Fe­bru­ary and that only three peo­ple had frozen to death. We’re lucky today,” said the oc­to­ge­nar­ian who seems to have one foot in the past, with his strong in­ter­est in the his­tory of lo­cal fam­i­lies and genealogy, and one foot in the fu­ture when he surfs the in­ter­net for his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion or uses his cell phone to call home to say he’ll be late for din­ner. “Ju­dith am I go­ing to send you a lock of your fa­ther’s and my hair and I ask you to keep it and the let­ter as longe as you can in re­mem­brance of your Par­ents,” wrote a mother in an­other of the letters, that one dated 1816.

Also in that ‘trea­sure chest’ were some old books, some about the Bartlett fam­ily that Mr. Belk­nap would help re­unite with Bartlett descen­dants liv­ing in the United States. “The book about Richard Bartlett is in Ka­paa, Hawaii now. That fam­ily said they will for­ever cher­ish it, and sent us a big box of macadamia nuts and other Hawai­ian treats,” said the am­a­teur his­to­rian/ge­neal­o­gist.

Mr. Belk­nap was keen to talk about a lo­cal hero that he re­searched for sev­eral years af­ter find­ing old pho­to­graphs and news­pa­per clip­pings in old ledgers found, once again, in a farm­house at­tic. “Wil­liam Best, born and raised in Lennoxville and re­tired in Coat­i­cook, was a Rail­road En­gi­neer who res­cued about five hun­dred peo­ple with his train in the Great Hinck­ley Fire, in Min­nesota in 1894. In Hinck­ley, there’s a street named af­ter him, but here, the most I could get done was to have a small plaque made in his hon­our,” said Mr. Belk­nap who even brought the story of Wil­liam Best to the CBC, just one sea­son too late to be a can­di­date for the Cana­di­ans – Bi­ogra­phies for a Na­tion se­ries. “Best was quite a guy. He even started the first union to have all rail- way em­ploy­ees union­ized. Per­haps that’s why he can’t get any recog­ni­tion!”

Al­ways en­thu­si­as­tic about shar­ing his knowl­edge of the past with oth­ers, as he did in the spe­cial ar­ti­cle that he re­cently wrote for the Stanstead Jour­nal about his life in Stanstead in the 1940’s and 50’s, Mr. Belk­nap is now re­search­ing and writ­ing a trib­ute to Don­ald La­fond. “He was a man who wore many hats. It’s ironic, I have a photo of Don­ald La­fond be­side Ju­nior ‘Smokey’ Smith, and now they rest side by side in the ceme­tery,” said Mr. Belk­nap about two of his friends. “I wanted to write about Don­ald be­cause he had a lot of ad­ven­tures and mis­ad­ven­tures, and he lived in Rock Is­land.”

Keep your eyes open for more in­ter­est­ing sto­ries from the ‘ole days’, as re­mem­bered and re­searched by James Belk­nap, ap­pear­ing in com­ing edi­tions of the Stanstead Jour­nal.

Photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

Photo Vic­to­ria Vanier

James Belk­nap, who now lives in Dixville, has saved im­por­tant pieces of lo­cal his­tory, and other things like his hand-carved cane, from end­ing up in the dump.

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