You can always tell when Andy Cooper is winding up to tell a story.
Drink in hand (just in case his throat gets dry), he settles into the room’s best chair (one of the benefits of being a storyteller is that others give way to your personal comfort), and waits for quiet to settle over his audience.
The story he tells about his great-grandfather’s ride home on a rather sketchy train has become an integral part of the Progressive Tree-Trimming Party that happens every December in Carding, Vermont. One year, his brother Charlie took notes during Andy’s telling, and then wrote the story up in a little book that gets sold in Cooper’s General Store during the holiday season.
We thought you’d enjoy it too.
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I hope you enjoy The Solstice Train.
Wallace Cooper was the eldest child in the third generation of the family who own and run the general store in the center of Carding, Vermont.
He was a quiet man, one not given to open displays of affection.
Except when it came to his wife, Annie.
She made his eyes sparkle.
Wallace and Annie always wanted a big family—at least four children—but the beginning of that path was star-crossed for this deeply-in-love couple.
No matter how much pleasure they took in their efforts to conceive, pregnancy eluded them. But as the fifth anniversary of their marriage loomed on the horizon, Annie was finally with child.
Now 1874 was not the ideal year to have a baby in Vermont. The little state had given generously of its male population in the War Between the States that had ended only nine years before. Few families had been spared the demise of a son or an uncle or friend or cousin or father.
Wallace was too young to enlist in the regular Union Army but he followed an uncle to Washington, D.C. to help with the wounded. To say that he left his hometown a carefree youth but came back a careworn adult is an understatement.
He would have been a lost man if Annie had not made his eyes sparkle.
Times were hard in the rocky hills of Vermont. In addition to the casualties of war, many of the state’s younger people had moved west to farm where land was flat and fertile. As a consequence, fewer and fewer people needed what Cooper’s General Store sold, and there were days when Wallace wondered if he and Annie should move west too.
It was the tail-end of the year, the winter solstice, when the normally tight-walleted people of Carding decided to spend a little money on gifts for their children. Peppermint sticks were a favorite, of course, but what folks really wanted were oranges.
But Wallace, short of available cash, had not stocked any of the exotic fruit.
That’s when Annie folded her husband’s fingers around a small bag of coins, her egg money, and told him to go to White River Junction to buy oranges for the people of Carding.
So Wallace reluctantly left an anxious and very-pregnant Annie that morning, promising to be home on the last train, no matter what.
Nowadays when we look back at the age of train travel, it all seems so steady and reliable. But when you look closer at the history of railroads in America, the reality is anything but tranquil. Railroad bankruptcies and corruption were rife, even in Vermont.
Wallace had read about the financial duel between the Vermont Central and the Rutland Railroads but he thought it was just more squabbling among the shiftier members of their boards of directors.
But it is a truism, seldom voiced, that corruption at the top of a food chain is always matched by corruption at the bottom.
Wallace didn’t notice anything unusual about the train he rode to White River. But when he and his precious orange cargo boarded the train to head back home, he definitely had cause to worry.
First off, there was no coal or wood to burn in the stove meant to keep passengers—and fruit—from freezing. Then Wallace noticed the absence of several wooden seats, their legs sawn off near the floor.
There were a half dozen men in the car with him. Wallace knew three of them by sight if not by name. When they nodded greetings to one another, they looked equally worried about the condition of their transportation.
Suddenly the door slammed open, and a conductor stepped inside, his mouth set in a thin, grim line.
“Sorry to tell you this, folks, but the train won’t be running tonight,” he said.
“Why not?” One of the other passengers, a man with a full white beard, asked.
The conductor shrugged. “Seems the Vermont Central Railroad does not pay its bills, and as a consequence, no one will sell us wood for the boiler.” He paused to look around the passenger car. “And there aren’t enough seats left to burn.”
An image of Annie’s anxious face rose in Wallace’s mind. “How much do you need?” he asked.
The conductor looked confused. “How much of what?”
“Wood. How much wood do you need to get us to Carding? I promised my wife I’d be home tonight. We’re expecting a child…soon. And my oranges,” Wallace shook his head, “will be spoiled.”
The other passengers regarded their fellow traveler in silence for a long moment. They all knew Cooper’s General Store was struggling.
Then the bearded man turned to the conductor. “How much money do you need to buy the wood that will get us to Carding?”
The conductor started using his fingers to calculate.
“Without figuring in a profit for yourself,” the bearded man interrupted.
Wallace hid a grin as he suddenly remembered the bearded man’s name—Jack Candon, a lawyer originally from over Norwich way.
The conductor looked up sharp. “I wasn’t…,” he began. But something in the bearded man’s’ face stopped him. “Seventy-five cents.”
Wallace started fumbling for coins in his pockets but Jack put a hand on his arm.
“So there’s going to be a new Cooper in Carding, eh?” he said. “That calls for a celebration.” He took off his hat then dropped some coins from his own pocket into it. “I’ve got twenty-five cents. What can the rest of you do?”
“But…,” Wallace began.
Jack shook his head. “Let us do this for you, okay?”
Penny by penny, Jack eventually collected enough to buy wood to get the train to Carding. Then he dropped in another half dollar of his own. “Wood for the stove to keep your oranges—and us—warm,” he told Wallace. Then he shook the hat in the conductor’s face. “Take me to your wood seller.”
“Oh you don’t have to do that,” the conductor protested, his face cinched up with insincere sincerity. “I’ll be happy to take care of it all.”
“Not a chance. I want to be sure that the wood you buy is at least as dry as the seats you burned to get here,” Jack said. Then he clapped Wallace on the shoulder. “We need to get this man home.”
Years later, when he told his children the Solstice Train story—he and Annie eventually had six little Coopers—Wallace always said it was the longest ride home on the longest night of the year. But every orange made the journey without freezing, and he sold them all but the one he saved for his wife.
That fruit saved the store in 1874, a fact that the Cooper family still celebrates by giving away oranges every year on the winter solstice.
By the way, Jack Candon was not on that train by accident that night. Wallace eventually found out that his bearded friend had been hired by the state inspector of railroads to look into corruption, including the buying and selling and disappearing of wood.
His report eventually led to the merger of the Vermont Central and Rutland Railroads, a move that ensured better and safer travel for everyone in the Green Mountain State.