Columns, Weeks Gone By

Growing Up Black in Hardwick

photo courtesy Hardwick Historical Society
Orin Bracey, top left, with his East Hardwick classmates in school-year 1948 to 1949.

HARDWICK – My name is Orin LeRoy Bracey Jr. This article describes the youth of an octogenarian African American man, who had the uncommon good fortune to have grown up in rural Vermont in the late 1940s. It will become obvious upon reading this seven-year snapshot of my recollections of my youth, that I was just plain lucky to have been surrounded by ethnically color-blind, old fashioned, hard-working, small-farm-owning Vermonters.

My family moved from a racially mixed neighborhood in Bridgeport, Conn., to the then all-white village of East Hardwick in the summer of 1948. My father bought a small farm with a 100-year-old house, on Craftsbury Road, located approximately two miles from the center of the village. There were only two other farms on this road between us and East Hardwick.

As was typical in rural Vermont in the 1940s, the neighboring farmers came by to welcome us and brought presents with them. I remember some of those neighbors, one of which was Earl “Buster” Hovey. He was our immediate neighbor at one-quarter of a mile away. The Nolans and the Brocks came from some distance away, and all of them brought presents.

In the fall of 1948, I entered the East Hardwick two-room elementary school in the sixth grade. I was the only black student to attend that school in its entire existence until then. There were four grades in my room which was the secondary room. The primary room also had four grades.

My sister, Phyllis, and I rode our bicycles or walked the two miles from our house down to the center of East Hardwick to go to school each day. Phyllis would then get a ride the train from East Hardwick to Hardwick Academy.

I never heard any racial names or heard any racial slurs towards me the entire time I was in East Hardwick Elementary School. However, I was mortified when our teacher at the time (Mrs. Mabel Green) asked me a question (in class) about the story of Little Black Sambo. Although the question was innocent enough, it demonstrated the complete nonissue of blacks in our 1940s rural, farming community then.

In 1948, the population of East Hardwick, as I recall, was about 600. We attended the local church, which I believe was a Congregational church, and right beside it was the library which I used as often as I could. The grange hall was right across the road from it, and we would go to some events there.

As I remember the town, it had a hardware store, a couple of small general stores and the post office. The post office was in one of the general stores, which actually did have a pot belly stove and a pickle barrel.

The speaker of the House of Representatives in the state of Vermont (John Hancock) and the county deputy sheriff, M.O. Davidson, both called East Hardwick home.

The main industries of our little village then, were the grain store, a public freezer locker, a sawmill and the creamery. My father worked at the Whitings Creamery. He was one of the firemen who ran the boilers there.

The creamery was the place where the local dairy farmers sold their milk. It collected the milk, paid the farmers for it, processed it, and then shipped those products out to other areas – normally to the Boston area. I remember some of the people who worked at the creamery: Bert Sweetland was an engineer; Ara Dunn did some of the tabulation, or maybe all of the tabulation, of the incoming and outgoing milk, and Trigger Rich. Trigger was his nickname, his first name was Harold.

The children of these three men all went to the East Hardwick Grammar School with me. Bert Sweetland’s son, Bob, and Trigger Rich’s daughter, Stella, were my classmates. Ara Dunn’s son Tom, was younger than we were and in a lower grade.

During this time my mother was committed to the Waterbury Mental Hospital for the first time because of extreme paranoia, and no one, including my classmates, ever mentioned it to me.

In the spring of 1949, my father bought about 400 chicks from Montgomery Ward and started our East Hardwick chicken farm. We had now officially joined the East Hardwick farming community. We had our accounts at the local grain store in Greensboro Bend, and dad had secured a market for his chickens from a New York City dealer. Once every few months a big truck would come up from New York City and dad and the drivers would crate up the fryers or broilers (that depends upon how old they were), and the truck would take them away. Then dad would get paid.

We would take that money, and mother would get the Montgomery Ward catalog out and buy clothes and some household items from the catalog. In those days the dairy farmers would get paid for their milk about once a month, whereas dad would get paid for his products three or four times a year.

I started working part time for our dairy farmer neighbor, Earl (Buster) Hovey, shortly after we moved to East Hardwick. I continued working for him or other dairy farmers in the area until I turned 15.

The dairy farmers in Vermont in the ’40s and early ’50s worked as a giant co-op. They shared labor and products at no cost to each other. Their main concern was to get their hay and other products in while the weather would allow it. The common enemy of all farmers was, and still is, the weather.

I primarily worked for our neighbor, Buster Hovey. Initially, I worked just on his farm and in his fields, but then, when we were finished, he and I would go around helping other neighbors with their haying and other chores. I was just another farm hand to all of these old-time farmers, and my race was a complete non-issue.

When I turned 15, I went down to Springfield, Mass., stayed with my grandmother and worked in the tobacco fields in Enfield, Conn.

In the fall of 1951, I started high school as a freshman at Hardwick Academy (HA). My class was composed of children from Hardwick Elementary School, Center School, and East Hardwick Elementary School. The East Hardwick group was less than 20% of the freshmen class. And, I had never met over 50% of my new classmates.

I was immediately elected president of our class, much to my surprise! I do believe it was because my sister, Phyllis, was the president of the senior class, a very popular figure and a very good student. Now, there were two blacks in Hardwick Academy, probably the only time that had happened in its history until then.

During my three and half years at HA, my mother was hospitalized in Waterbury for almost two of them. Our farm was deteriorating with just myself and my father there (Phyllis, HA ’52, was in college at UVM) for a whole year. My father broke his back just before Christmas, 1954. We lost the farm and moved to Bradford, Vt., where he worked for the Whiting Creamery and I graduated from Bradford Academy in 1955. After high school I turned down a full scholarship to UVM, worked a year in Bradford and joined the Marine corps.

In all of my time in Hardwick, the only racially related incident that I can recall is one time when dad and I drove over to Waterbury to visit my mother. I suggested that we stop to eat at a Howard Johnson’s Restaurant (I don’t remember which one), but dad told me that we could not, because they would not serve blacks.

(After he left the Marine Corp, Orin moved to Connecticut where he spent 20 years as the laboratory supervisor in the quality control department of Tambrands Inc. Then he sold industrial software, worked as a quality control manager for a local concern, started his own computer repair business, worked in the IT department of Wing Hospital, and worked for the Mass. Dept. of Mental Retardation. He also served as a volunteer on many local boards and committees. Orin married and has one daughter and one granddaughter.)

This article first appeared in the Hardwick Historical Society Journal, Volume 11 Issue 3 (Winter 2022).

Orin L. Bracey Jr.

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