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Book Review: The Great Falls on Onion River by Edward Feeney

Here's an understatement for the ages: I wouldn't have guessed that Vincent Edward Feeney's history of the city of Winooski, The Great Falls on Onion River, would turn out to be one of the best reads of the summer. It's a friendly, informative, richly detailed and always generous account of the only town in Vermont that takes its name from its original inhabitants, the Abenaki, by way of the French, its first white settlers. It's a town that does its best, putting it simply, to stay true to its historical roots.

Feeney is a local writer, historian, runner, realtor, teacher, Vietnam veteran and co-author, with John Duffy, of Vermont: An Illustrated History. He spent five years on The Great Falls, which was commissioned by the Winooski Historical Society and first published in 2002. Neither Feeney nor the society expected the book to devour so much time, but, as former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee has said, "To figure out how long it will take to write a book, find out how long it should take, double it, and add six months."

That's an assessment Feeney won't easily dismiss. He was already deep into research for a history of Burlington before the Queen City's siren twin beckoned from across the Intervale. Occasionally, in the years since both towns were founded, there's been talk of yoking the two together into a cooperative metropolis. The idea has been resisted mainly on the Winooski side, where local pride runs high, and for good reason.

Winooski's history is absolutely unique in the annals of Vermont's nine incorporated cities, 242 towns and four "gores and grants." The city is "stamped as a place apart," Feeney writes, "an urban industrial center with an ethnically diverse population in a state known for its rugged mountains, pastoral landscape, and Yankee culture."

Indeed, there was a time, just after the Civil War, when Winooski's booming lumber, wool, power, furniture and "dry goods" industries prompted The Burlington Free Press to warn its readers, "Burlington will have to be looking to her affairs, or she will find herself one of these days asking to be annexed to Winooski."

It's a thought that might shock anyone who grew up here, as I did, during the long and seemingly permanent decline in Winooski's fortunes that followed the 1954 closing of the woolen mills. When my family moved to Burlington in 1960, Winooski was widely scorned as "the armpit of Vermont." The vulgar, crypto-racist defamation managed to insult simultaneously the descendants of the working-class immigrants who populated the town and the Catholic Church, without which Winooski could never have prospered. This was good old American classism as we used to understand it -- not hostile, exactly, but snobbish and condescending, with ethnic, economic and cultural lines drawn plainly in the sand.

In fact, during all of my childhood, and despite the fact that our house on North Prospect Street overlooked the Winooski Valley and the town that grew around it, I don't remember going there for any reason except to get to Malletts Bay, the Essex Fairgrounds or the Forest Hills Factory Outlet, a dingy, cut-rate emporium that smelled like stale popcorn and sat in the basement of the now chic Woolen Mill apartment-and-office complex.

An excursion to Forest Hills was exclusively a Saturday-morning affair, and you only went if Woolworth's or Kresge's in downtown Burlington, or Gaynes, on the site of the current Staples Plaza, didn't have what you were looking for. At that time, Winooski fairly exuded an atmosphere of decay. Until I was in college and started drinking at the Old Mill, I never knew a single person who lived there.

'Tweren't always so, as the Yankees would say, and as Feeney makes delightfully clear in this book. The key to Winooski has always been the river and, specifically, the Upper and Lower Falls. They've been used to generate energy since colonial times, and have since seen any number of bridges and dams, floods and fires, raids, routs and disasters. The first inhabitants of the current city comprised a single Indian family -- a "band," better put -- around 5000 years ago, who harvested butternuts. Their campground remains can still be detected.

The aboriginal peoples of Vermont populated the Winooski Valley -- spelled "Ouinouski" or "Ouinousqui" by the French and named for the wild leeks that once grew there in abundance. In 1763, the Treaty of Paris put an end to the French and Indian War and the Allen clan -- Ethan, Heman, Heber, Zimri and Ira, the baby, along with their various wives, children, cousins and dependents -- made its way up from Litchfield, Connecticut, and frankly grabbed huge chunks of the land. It was the era of the New York and New Hampshire Grants, of competing claims and dubious authority, and it ended in the founding of the Republic of Vermont. During a strange, precarious period between 1777 and 1791, the state existed as an independent entity before finally, suspiciously, casting its lot with the United States.

Feeney's account of this time and of the Allen family's shifting fortunes is both expert and hilarious; I don't remember what I was doing during my obligatory fourth-grade Vermont history class in 1962, but I never knew that Ira Allen had founded the University of Vermont without giving a single penny for its operation; that he eventually went to war with his niece Lucinda and Lucinda's husband, Moses Catlin, over who owned what in the Onion River Settlement; or that in 1803, ridden with debt and hounded by creditors, he slipped away from his raucous farewell party, literally sneaking out a side door. He left Vermont for Kentucky and Philadelphia, where he died in 1814 after fruitless attempts to recover his fortune.

Nevertheless, of all the Allens, Ira was the man who made Winooski hop, and continue hopping all the way through the 19th century, through the founding of industries, schools, hospitals, religious orders and Fort Ethan Allen. Technically a part of Colchester and Essex, the Fort's construction in the 1890s brought Winooski an order for a million bricks and huge upsurges in every business, "including business it did not want. Put hundreds of young single men together," Feeney writes, "force them to live under harsh conditions for weeks at a time, and let them out occasionally into the surrounding communities to let off a little steam, and trouble frequently follows, usually associated with alcohol and women. One historian who has written about the fort said of its beginnings: 'Burlington, Winooski and Essex Junction suddenly became a little livelier.'" That's as fine an understatement as any Vermonter could wish for.

In his depiction of Winooski's heyday, culminating in its incorporation as a city in 1922, Feeney parallels the whole history of American urban, social and political development. One is led to hope that the proposed revitalization of the city's downtown area will, finally, occur. As it was, Feeney was lucky to come to the Winooski project fully funded and endowed: A local schoolteacher, recently deceased, had left "a large chunk of money" to the Winooski Historical Society, which felt that "at least some of it" ought to be spent on getting the town history written. Such jobs are normally done only out of love, on a wing and a prayer.

J. Kevin Graffagnino, director of the Vermont Historical Society in Barre, estimates that about a third of the towns in Vermont had "book-length" histories written about them during the 19th century, and that "maybe half have had a 20th-century town history published."

"Toss in the town sketches in [Abby Maria] Hemenway's Vermont Historical Gazetteer," Graffagnino adds, "the 1880s Child's series of county gazetteers, the 1880s-90s series of big county histories, various pamphlets and articles on most of the towns, and it's a rare Vermont community for which you can't find at least a handful of useful published sources."

The late Tom Bassett's Vermont: A Bibliography of Its History, remains the starting point for all new research, but "Vermont's history is still wide open," as Feeney remarks, and David Blow's long-awaited history of Burlington has yet to appear. Not for the first time, Winooski has won the race.

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