The Rug

My husband has advised me that this “is boring”.  I like stories, especially old stories.  But, just in case you don’t, I recommend you scroll down to another post.  Or leave a comment telling him he’s wrong (pick #2! pick #2!).

Esther Lewis was something of an Addison County institution.  She came to Vermont back in the teens, as a child, with her parents.  They had been living in New York City but her mother, a Vermont native, longed for home.  They packed up their tiny apartment and took the train from New York, changing in Rutland to the Addison branch.

The population of Addison County didn’t really warrant a rail line of it’s own.  Instead the Rutland line was built as a link between New England and points West.  The Central Vermont Railway had already linked the Massachusetts line to Canada and the Rutland Railway would not stand by as they were boxed in.  So the Rutland built a link, over difficult terrain and at quite an extravagant cost, to run a train through a sparsely populated area whose residents could hardly afford a ticket.

After arriving at the East Shoreham station, the family piled in to grandfather’s wagon for a trip back to the farm.  It was springtime and the mud, thanks to the enormously high clay content, would ball around the wagon wheels until they arrived home nearly 3 times their original size.

The family settled in to the farm and Esther grew and eventually became a nurse.  As part of her occupation, Esther would visit and check in on many of Shoreham’s residents.  As the years went on the positions became reversed and the residents of Shoreham periodically checked in on the aging Esther.  She had never married and insisted on living in her parents’ farmhouse in much the same manner in which she was raised.  Modernity came to central Vermont but Esther didn’t much care for change.

Her stubborn insistence on living life exactly as it was in the 20s was also a facet of her appeal.  Neighbors would send their children over to check up on her and help her make soap or tie brooms, learning a dying skill in the process.  Esther saved all of her old clothes to be made in to rugs and it was rug making that 16 year old Jennifer Buchanan was sent over to learn.

Jennifer’s parents had grown up in Shoreham, occasionally being patched back together by Esther.  It was Esther that gave them their polio vaccinations.  Esther was even in the room when Jennifer’s mom got the news that she would become a mother.  So in part out of neighborly concern and in part to show their daughter a world before Walkmen and MTV, Jennifer was sent to Esther once a week.

Though initially unsure about Esther, the visits became highly anticipated by both parties.  Esther would bake a cake to share and Jennifer would often bring a treat such as apples, cheese, or even citrus fruit.  One day, Jennifer was held up after school at an Art Club meeting and, in an attempt to make up time, raced over to Esther’s farm.  Upon arriving, she asked to use the bathroom and was led out to the barn to find a tiny room with a bucket on the floor.  Jennifer always made a point of stopping by the bathroom at school before a trip to Esther’s after that.

One day Esther decided to show Jennifer the art of rug hooking.  She went out to the barn (the very same barn with the tiny closet and bucket) and came back with an armful of rags and an old burlap feed sack.  They carefully ripped the old clothes into tiny strips and sorted them by color.  The burlap feed sack was trimmed to a nice rectangle on which Jennifer drew the outline of a cat.  Over the weeks then months of the winter of 1991, Jennifer hooked the cat rug under the watchful eye of Esther.

Once the rug was complete, Jennifer gave it to Esther who proudly placed it on top of a trunk in her room, one of the very same trunks her parents had used to move from New York City.  Two years later, Jennifer left for college and five years after that Esther passed away peacefully at home having stubbornly refused all suggestions (no matter how strongly made) to give up farm life and move to the newly built nursing home in town.

Having no children of her own or really any blood relations left at all, Esther’s estate was to be auctioned off and the proceeds donated to the town library fund.  Jennifer, busy with her new life, didn’t hear about Esther’s passing for a week.  She asked her mother, still in Shoreham, to get that cat rug from the house so that she could have it as a souvenir to remind her of Esther.

The auction house had already cataloged the contents of the house by that point and Jennifer’s mother had to wait for the auction. Collectors and antiques dealers from all over New England (some even from as far as NYC) came for the auction.  Nearly 100 years worth of objects were in that house.  The barn alone contained 3 different butter churns and countless farming implements and equine accessories all destined to be hung on the walls of various chain restaurants to give them that “homey feel”.

When the cat rug came up, Jennifer’s mom was ready.  Unfortunately so were several New York City antiques dealers who didn’t see a teenager’s first rug hooking attempt from 1991 but an ancient piece of folklore whose original materials did indeed date from the 1930s.  Jennifer’s mom dropped out of the bidding after it passed $100; the rug eventually sold for $3,000.

Disappointed at not having a reminder of her time with Esther, Jennifer briefly contemplated a career hooking rugs as it might pay more than the $25,000 a year she was making as a junior assistant in the marketing department of a bathroom fixtures manufacturer. But she knew it would never be the same without Esther.


***This is a half-remembered story that was told at last month’s Shoreham Historical Society meeting.  Esther Lewis was a real person and the major milestones in her life above are true, at least as far as I can recall.  “Jennifer” stands in for the actual teenage girl whose name I cannot remember.


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