Left in Andover: Adventures in Bennington

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

Going on the town to visit my aunts’ was the big outing for me as a child. Every couple of months, Dad piled us kids onto the back of his farm truck and away we sailed down the mountains to the flatlands — of Bennington.

What our first stop would be remained an open question down to the last second: Would our parents sitting upfront in the cab decide to go by the bakery in Manchester or would they decide to buy it? If the latter, it meant a slight detour off Route 7 for a bag of chewy molasses hermits for us to share as we huddled under the blankets in the back.

The Leader children in the back of the pickup truck. Photo by Jonathan Brand.

Next: The hotly anticipated Iron Kettle in Shaftsbury, for a long cold drink of spring water. A breakfast picnic was in order by this time. We inhaled Dad’s bagful of fried egg on white toast sandwiches with mayo and iceberg lettuce.

A short while later the tip of Bennington Battle Monument materialized through the morning mist. At the bottom of Harwood Orchard Hill our rowdy yells of “Kepel!!”  (“Duck your head!!”) echoed off the ominously low railroad bridge, and we eased down onto Bennington flats.

The first order of business was either Aunt Mary’s on North Street or Aunt Eva’s on Adams Street. Neither would have been alerted to our arrival, but each rose nobly to the occasion. By afternoon, sated with cookies, cousins, candy, TV shows, cheese omelettes, meat snuck under the table to my one sibling who defied our parents strict vegetarianism, pin bowling and battle setups involving hundreds of tin soldiers, we were ready to venture forth to Aunt Sadie’s, and onward downtown.

Heaven on Earth was Aunt Eva’s living room on Adams Street. Photo from the 1960s.

Leading single file, Dad threaded a trail through knee-high weeds off Pleasant Street past a graveyard of rusting refrigerators onto a cracked white marble walk. The appliances served as both shelter and kibble receptacles for Sadie’s feral cats, carving out a DMZ against the surrounding neighborhood.

Since it was impossible to locate her otherwise, we yelled “Sadie-ie-eeee, Sadi-ie-eeee” in unison for as long as it took. Then, either from a rooftop where she was dabbing tar or a basement entrance, she finally appeared. Curls waving, house dress billowing, Sadie visited with Dad while we kids lounged in the underbrush, marveling at the dilapidated remains of our grandfather’s housing development.

Finally it was time to head downtown to Woolworth’s. I was obsessed with the little painted ceramic animal figurines on display there. Skunks, tigers, dogs, blue jays, elephants. I coveted them one and all.

The sign from the Leaders Bennington rooms.

My ability to add to my modest collection of them at home was unpredictable. We children didn’t really earn allowances. I could save up from our self-serve used book barn money jar or my grandmother’s birthday gift of a few dollars. I also filched coins from Dad’s suit jacket and sometimes Mom just bought me a new animal. My pride and joy was a family of realistic looking graduated size skunks that I had acquired one by one. The smallest was barely half an inch high.

The granddaddy of the contemporary dollar store, Woolworth’s 5 & 10 cent chain store first flourished in Pennsylvania in the 1880s. The Woolworth brothers carved out their fixed price market niche importing charming, well-made Christmas decorations, trinkets and folk dolls from Germany for pennies each. Eventually the chain opened retail outlets there as well.

Sadie Leader and her cats in 1963.

In 1936 to honor Germany’s upcoming Olympics, F.W. Woolworth’s, by then Berlin’s dominant department store, advertised a fine selection of “Adolph Hitler tea sets for 50 pfennigs- complete.” The company quickly kowtowed to the regime, boasting a roster free of Jews after it fired all Jewish employees in a Nazi inspired cleansing action.

Nevertheless, Woolworth’s, many of whose American stockholders were actually Jewish, suffered surprisingly small backlash from this in the U.S.A. This may have been due to the common misperception that the founders themselves had been Jewish.

Nothing could have been further from the truth. The Woolworths, along with other captains of industry of their time such as Henry Ford, were unabashed anti-Semites.

It was not until the Civil Rights Era that Woolworth’s segregated lunch counters caused the company to be held seriously accountable for its ideological non-stances. In March 1960, Bennington College students boycotted their local Woolworths in protest against its racist policies. Dad wrote the following letter to the editor of the Bennington Banner supporting the ‘girls.’ The editor-generated headline speaks volumes:

He’s Pleased by Picketing of Woolworth

“To the Editor:

The Bennington Woolworth boycott taken from a recent Instagram post.

The Woolworth Company’s stated policy that it operates its individual stores within the pattern of local customs would be unobjectionable in a world of chameleons. But its world is the world of homo sapiens, and it should not be surprising that this policy is being attacked, by way of picketing their local store, by the college girls.

I believe they are using both their hearts and their heads, and I hope they can find time to continue the good work to a successful conclusion. In Nazi Germany Woolworth applied this policy to Jews, which American undergrads of the day also vigorously protested; this chapter in Woolworth’s education ended with the holocaust of World War II and the uninsured destruction of some of its many stores there.

We should be proud of our Bennington girls’ participation in this new chapter of Woolworth’s education.

Herbert Leader

Alas, this marked the end of my own trips to Woolworth’s as well.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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