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Ventures in Vermont: A recently discovered account of my mother's 1944 bike trip

Ken Coughlin | Published on 4/20/2016

Clearing out the attic of our late father’s house this past fall, my sister and I discovered our late mother’s account of a 10-day bicycle tour of Vermont that she and five of her Oberlin College girlfriends took in the mid-1940s.  The yellowing typewritten letter to an unknown relative is undated, but the trip almost certainly took place in the summer of 1944, following her graduation from college. 

I thought my fellow 5BBCers might be interested in the details of a multi-day bike trip undertaken more than 70 years ago, so below is a slightly shortened version of 22-year-old Margaret Morgan’s description of that trip (her last name would not change to Coughlin until 1946).  The account takes us back to a world when a night in a farmhouse cost 35 cents and a Vermont Democrat was hard to find (much less a Democratic Socialist).  (“Tib,” “Flossie” and “Betty” are three of our mom’s fellow trippers.)  

The photo above is of my mom at Oberlin with friends and/or housemates, some of whom may have been on the trip with her.  She is seated in the middle row, far left. 



The biking trip is over; and was I sorry to see it end! Before it started I almost lost my nerve at the thought of all that pedaling without even a gradual breaking in.  40 miles a day is pretty rugged going but not half so bad as I expected.  Our itinerary covered most of the central and western part of Vermont.  We started in the southwestern part from a little burg called Manchester or Manchester Center or Manchester Depot or any other Manchester combination you happen to think of.  I never saw so many tails to the names of their towns as New England has.  Any four or five little villages scattered from one to ten miles apart all have the same first name and different last names; or else are prefixed by N.S.E. or W.  I never could keep straight which one I was in. 

After about three hours of getting ourselves collected and our knapsacks strapped, tied, and pinned on our six bicycles so that it took us another three hours to get them off again, we started out for our first hostel, which was about two miles outside of Manchester – Center, Depot, Station – have it your way.  You can imagine what a perfectly wacky and wonderful time we had with six wild Oberlin females on bicycles.  It was glorious!  The country is just beyond description.  The mountains aren’t real high but they’re beautifully wooded and rear and roll for miles and miles in all directions; and every once in a while you are surprised by a perfectly lovely little waterfall or a still, still lake with birches reflected in the water.

Bicycling is certainly the way to get to know a country intimately.  You’re going slowly enough to take it all in and you see lots of little nooks you wouldn’t otherwise discover.  Also we talked to everybody and anybody we saw and got to know just lots of people.  In fact several of them were so interested in us they asked us to write them; so at the end of the trip we had to divide up our correspondence.  We spent four of our nights in hostels.  A hostel just consists of a home or farm where the family has some extra room.  The beds may be cots in a garage, boxes filled with hay, or regular beds in a house.  We furnish the sleeping sacks and they the blankets.  They also provide some kind of cooking shelter, stove, or fireplace and running water.  To use these places you have to be a biker or a hiker and have a pass from headquarters.  Then you pay your hostel parents 35 cents per night.  In most places we could also buy milk, eggs and fresh vegetables and the people we stayed with were just grand to us.  In fact everyone was good to us, even the poor country storekeepers.  For when we were out to shop for a meal there was just no chance for anyone else to try to do anything.  After we’d invaded the store six abreast , we’d start to commence to think (out loud) about what we could have for supper.  Well, when six people try to decide all at once what they’re going to have for supper, peace doesn’t exactly reign.  But after a half hour of discussion we usually emerged with at least three-quarters of us satisfied and no blood shed.

The biking part of it was really much better than I expected.   Since I hadn’t touched a bicycle for six months and had never traveled more than five miles at a stretch before, I was having my qualms.  But I actually managed to keep up with the rest of them and reached the end of our first day’s 44-mile stretch all in one piece.  However, it was the next day that it began to hurt!  Tib had to oil me piece by piece before I could even move.  I limbered up as soon as I got on my bike, though the girls said that when I walked I looked as though I wasn’t sure just what my legs would do next.  We had surprisingly few bike disturbances, only one flat and that was mendable.  Mine insisted on sounding like a meat slicer every so often and we spent a morning in Middlebury getting it fixed, supposedly.  But other than that they were pretty fair except that they had a most unpleasant habit of stopping and insisting on our getting off and walking up the most difficult hills.  In fact, I worked so hard pushing mine that we named it Nero because it fiddled while I burned.

Our first day out, we biked as far as Poultney just south of Lake Champlain and right near Lake St. Catherine, where we had a very pleasant dip.  The lakes up there are perfectly beautiful and blue as blue can be.  The next day being Sunday we decided to search for a church and found a lovely one in a little town not far from Poultney.  But then we began to have our doubts.  After all, shorts and shirts aren’t exactly accepted attire for churchgoers; but having nothing better, we finally held our breaths and made the plunge or at least we got inside the lobby where to our chagrin, we discovered that the audience faced the doors!  We gained courage when we saw some other people going in and sheepishly slid in behind them, found a pew near the front and meekly bowed our heads.  When we looked up and found we hadn’t yet been ejected and that the minister was just grinning we took courage, and enjoyed the rest of the service thoroughly, in fact so much that we almost lost our Sunday dignity a couple of times.  For when they passed around the collection plate and then the poor offering boxes, we were sure they’d just cooked them up when they saw us coming.  And each time Betty, who had been keeping a strict account of all her expenses, pulled out her account book from her hip pocket and began figuring how much she could allot for each.  Well, we just about went into gales and poor Betty didn’t know what we were laughing at till after the service.  But the last straw was when Flossie, usually the most pious of the bunch, smacked her lips over the communion wine and whispered, “Golly, that was good.  I was so thirsty!”  After the service we were silently slipping out expecting only cold shoulders when we were surrounded by people asking us where we were going and who we were and inviting us to come again any time even in those togs.  The minister even shook hands with us.  So we took a picture of the church, collected our goods and departed on bikes.   

We biked to Fort Ticonderoga village, spent the night in a tourist home there and visited the Fort the following morning.  Oh, I forgot to say we had crossed the lake on a cunning little ferry and then practically killed ourselves climbing an absolutely vertical hill on the other side. (Dad won’t believe it was perpendicular but I know it was because I climbed it and he didn’t.)

From Fort Ticonderoga we went N.E. to Middlebury, that lovely little town where Middlebury College is located.  Spent the night in a tourist home and the next day inspected the campus which is perfectly beautiful.  Before we left town, the new head of the college library tracked us down and informed us he and his wife were Oberlin grads.  They invited us to their home which was beautifully decorated with rarities from all over the world and we had a pleasant chat before heading on toward Burlington.  At Vergennes which we hit about 3 p.m. we inveigled a restaurant into filling a salt cellar for us and were just looking around for a pleasant spot in which to eat our tomatoes which some kind lady had given us when a terrific thunderstorm hit.  We dashed into the nearest building, which happened to be the post office, and dragged our bikes in after us, and then asked the postmaster if we could sit on the steps to the second floor.  The poor man being defenseless said we could so there we sat and had our repast mid cobwebs and dust while the storm raged.  It was over shortly and we reached some nice little tourist cabins about 8 miles south of Burlington before dark.

From Burlington we headed almost directly east for Jericho.  The best hostel of all was at Jericho or Jericho Center or Junction or something.  It was a great big rambling farmhouse where we had a cozy little kitchen all to ourselves and plenty of bed space.  There had to be space as it had once housed 9 children, all grown now but two fine looking boys who were still at home.  The farmer and his wife were lots of fun to talk to.

Thursday a.m., the seventh day of the trip, leaving our things at Jericho we set out on the most exciting adventure of all, that of climbing Mt. Mansfield, the highest mountain in Vermont – 4,390 feet, which may sound tame to a westerner but wait till you try to climb it on foot.  We rode our bikes 6 miles and parked them in the barn of the only Democrat in Vermont (or practically the only one -- we’d been warned in advance!).  We stopped for lunch half way up and then started on the really steep part.  Luckily the trail was blazed with paint or we could never have followed it.  It wasn’t quite perpendicular but almost and thick with rocks.  Reaching the top about 2:30  we visited the hotel they have up there on the edge of nothing, and spent another half hour deciding whether we wanted to spend the night or not.  Of course we had no pajamas or toothbrushes but that was a minor matter.  The main trouble was we were all broke and one doesn’t live in a hotel on a mountaintop for nothing.  Soo we decided that I would call home and see if I could get my ogre papa to telegraph me a little dough.  Luckily for me, it was Rotary night and Aunt Lill answered the phone and accepted the call, which naturally was collect; my calls always are, says Daddy!  Aunt Lill of course said yes and evidently got Dad in the same mood, for the money was waiting for me at our next stopping point. 

We had a gorgeous time climbing all over the mountain for the rest of the afternoon.  The view on both sides of the mountain was just so beautiful it hurt, and the day was perfect.  In the evening we had a sumptuous $1.25 dinner in the very lovely but formal dining room.  We were all trying very solemnly to live up to the atmosphere, though clad in shorts and jeans, when someone shouted , “a rainbow!” and we made one mad dash for the door.  Tib tripped on the sill and with her usual grace and dignity fell flat on her face, which set us laughing till our sides ached.  The rainbow was magnificent, two beautiful broad ribbons of color rising from the valley and disappearing into the clouds.  We were so excited we gave up trying to be demure after that.   In the evening we sat around the fire and talked with all the hotel inmates.  It was a free show for them, I’m sure.

Spent the night in cots in the hikers’ quarters and determined to rise at 5:30 the next hike down the mountain and ride to Bristol by evening.  We awoke at 5:45 to hear a nice steady pouring rain!  So we turned over and snoozed till 6:30.  Then determinedly got up, downed the doughnuts and coffee provided by the waitress for a liberal compensation and set off down the mountain with ominous warnings of going out in such weather from all those awake in the hotel.  Incidentally, I forgot to mention that it was cold the night before, 48 degrees, and freezing in the morning or almost.  It was plenty cold and the wind was blowing a gale.  Most of us had only sweaters and shorts on, but I was lucky and at the last minute had brought my raincoat, which wasn’t much better.  We just stuffed with newspapers and let it rain.  Needless to say we were all soaked before we started so we decided we might as well enjoy it in a shivery sort of way.  We had a perfect riot of a time getting down the mountain, sliding on the rocks most of the way.  We reached the hostel all cold, wet, and very sheepish.  But Mrs. Brown our hostel mother was just wonderful to us.  She wrang out our wet clothes, hung them on the stove and put our shoes in the oven so they had at least stopped dripping when we set out for Bristol after a good warm breakfast.   

I’ve just got to stop and get some lunch; so suffice it to say, we had just as eventful and fun a trip back to Manchester and there hopped the bus for Albany and the train for N.Y. and home, which looked plenty good after being uncivilized over 300 miles for 10 days.

Much love,