Tag Archives: winter in vermont

The Solstice Train: A Carding Chronicle

SH-Solstice train storyYou 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.

Welcome to Carding, Vermont where life always includes a dash of the unexpected. Carding is the small town (population 3,700 or so) that no one can seem to find on a map of the Green Mountain State. You’ll find information about the four Carding novels after the story.

And don’t forget to subscribe to the Chronicles. When you do, Carding stories are shipped right to your inbox.


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 had been 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 back then 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, rock-free 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 by 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 this 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.

You can visit Carding any time in my novels, The Road Unsalted, Thieves of Fire, and The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life. The fourth in the series, Lights in Water, Dancing, has just been published! You can find them all on Amazon or you can order them through your local independent book store.

You can subscribe to the Carding Chronicles by clicking the button on my home page. When you do, my stories speed from my keyboard to your inbox every Thursday without any further effort on your part.

If you’d like to get in touch, my email address is: Sonja@SonjaHakala.com.

Oh Say Can You See?

Tomorrow is Thursday and time for another Carding Chronicle.

This week, we’re continuing the the town’s odyssey from New Year to Town Meeting. Most folks were expecting this year’s annual voting, discussing, and potluck get-together to be a yawn festival. After all, the budget is flat-lined from last year, and there aren’t any huge capital expenses on the ballot.

But then G.G. Dieppe, who lives in the biggest house up on Mount Merino and committed the unforgivable sin of coming “from away,” decided to run for the open seat on the select board.

And she’s one of those people who just seem to go out of their way to rile everyone around them.

Here’s a sample of what’s in store.


So How Cold Is It?

Coping with the way-below-zero temperatures common in New England this month is taxing. Even Amos Handy has made some concessions to the plunge in the thermometer.

But not much stops the town curmudgeon when he spots a likely target for his tongue.

Here’s a sample of tomorrow’s Carding Chronicle.

Please stay warm, everyone. This will end and before you know it, we’ll be complaining about the heat and humidity.

I hope.



365-71The Carding Chronicles are stories about the little town no one can find on a map of Vermont. When you subscribe to the Chronicles, a new story is delivered to your inbox every Friday. If you’re enjoying the Carding Chronicles, please share them with your friends!

And one additional note, the next Carding novel, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, which will debut in this space on April 7. Twelve weekly installments delivered right to your inbox. Tell your friends to subscribe so they can enjoy it too!

It’s that time of year again, Agnes Findley reflected as she joined the stop-and-go line of traffic heading out of Montpelier. You can’t tell what color the cars are because they’re all coated in the same gray dirt, and the roads buck and weave like the ocean in a heavy swell. One second, your car’s up in the air. The next second, it’s bottoming out in a dip.

She sat through two red lights, her fingers drumming a slow-motion tattoo on her steering wheel, silently cursing the traffic. Then she laughed at herself, remembering why she’d fled the eternal car crawl of Boston. In Vermont, her commute from Montpelier consisted of two turns, two sets of lights, and then a nonstop ride all the way home.

A brown UPS truck turned south on Route 14 just ahead of Agnes, and she soon found herself fascinated by the sharp sway of its cargo box as it negotiated the curls and dips of the frost-heaved road. Charlie’s right, she thought, the road looks like a strip of fried bacon this time of year. I wonder how they keep the boxes on the shelves inside those trucks.

As soon as the bottom edge of the sun touched the hilltops, Agnes felt the temperature drop. As the light shifted from bright to gray, Agnes geared down for the turn to Carding, on the lookout for the tire-eating pothole at the corner of the Route 37 bridge. What was it about that particular spot in the road that made it so fragile? Every spring, the town road crew patched it, mended it, repaired it. They’d even hired an engineering firm to figure out how to reconfigure that whole stretch of road in order to overcome the infamous pothole. But the same chasm reappeared every year as the days grew longer.

Her pulse rose a notch when she spotted a knot of people coagulated in the small park-and-ride overlooking the river. “Agnes,” someone called as she got out of the car. “You’re just in time.”

She hustled to claim a spot at the guardrails next to the love-of-her-life, Charlie Cooper. “What’s the report from upstream?” she asked as she turned up her coat’s collar. The air hung chill and damp by the river.

“The ice is broken in Royalton,” old Henry Wood said. “My cousin Nellie says she can hear the big chunks knocking against one another.” He looked down at the Corvus where a ribbon of gray water flowed over the white of the last month’s snow deposits. He shook his head. “It hasn’t been that cold this year so my guess is that the ice is no more than a few inches thick. Won’t be much of a runoff.”

The sun finally slid behind the hills to the southwest, and everyone glanced in its direction in silent salutation. “Heh, think about it. Three months from now, we’ll be complaining about the heat,” Henry said, and the sun watchers laughed.

Just then, a low roar in the distance hushed the crowd. Every head turned to look upstream at a bend in the river. They felt the rumble through their feet. The crowd tensed.

Wil Bennett leaned as far over the guard rails as he could, pointing his video camera upstream. The rumble moved up a decibel level. The dusk thickened. All eyes strained to see in the gloom.

“Here it comes!” Wil yelled.

Ice shards careened around the bend, and the water level rose rapidly—one foot, two feet, three. The roaring runoff spilled over a low spot in the land just before the park-and-ride, shedding car-sized chunks of ice in its rush. In the span of a single heartbeat, the serene scene of pristine snow below the watchers disappeared in a wild rush of pale blue ice, pewter-colored water, and gray slush.

Agnes felt the guard rail shudder in her hands. Henry had been right. They were only six to eight inches thick but the display of power was still impressive.

“It’s hitting the falls,” Wil yelled, and they all relished the crash as the frozen slurry plummeted thirty feet into Half Moon Lake.

Anxiety zipped through the crowd, and everyone drew back from the guard rails at the same time, suddenly aware of how flimsy the metal rails were in the face of such fury.

“Lived here all my life,” Charlie yelled over the roar, “and that never fails to amaze me. Why?”

“I can’t answer for anyone else,” Agnes said, “but I like seeing human beings humbled now and again. Ice outs, thunderstorms, blizzards, they remind us of our place in the world. And it’s not on the top of the food chain. That’s just a silly illusion.”

Charlie chuckled. “My, you are feeling philosophical today, my dear. How did things go in Montpelier?”

Agnes sighed. She volunteered her legal skills for a consortium of environmental nonprofits, lobbying on their behalf at the statehouse. She squeezed his hand. “Not as well as I hoped, not as bad as I feared. I’m afraid it was all very human.”

The next Carding Chronicle will be published on February 26. If you are enjoying these stories (they’re a great break from politics, eh?) please encourage your friends to subscribe.

Candidates Forum

365-54The Carding Chronicles are stories about the little town no one can find on a map of Vermont. When you subscribe to the Chronicles, a new story is delivered to your inbox every Friday. If you’re enjoying the Carding Chronicles, please share them with your friends!

This particular story, Candidates Forum, is an excerpt from the next Carding novel, The Dazzling Uncertainty of Life, which will debut in this space on April 7. Stay tuned for details.

“Well, well, well,” Andy Cooper said as he unfolded the sample ballot for town meeting. “Will you look at who’s running for school board this year.”

Amos Handy stretched his neck out of his perpetual red scarf to peek over Andy’s shoulder. “Oh gawd, not him again,” Amos muttered. “I thought for sure the Good Dentist would never run for school board this year. He only won by four votes last time. What makes him think he’ll make it this time?”

Andy pointed at the thick paper. “He’s unopposed.”

“But I thought that what’s her face, Pat Evans, was going to run this time,” Ruth Goodwin said, crowding in to look at the candidates’ list.

“She is,” Andy said, pointing again. “See? Right here. Unopposed.”

“Unopposed?” Stephen Bennett said, pushing into the growing crowd. “Who else is on that list?”

“Well, Greta Rutherford doesn’t have to run this year, of course,” Andy said as he stapled the sample ballot to the community bulletin board just inside the door of the Coop. “Her term’s not up until next year.”

“Hey,” Stephen said, pointing. “Do any of you know who this Dick Monroe is?”

“Isn’t that the new president of the country club board?” Edie Wolfe asked as she sauntered up. “I heard he bought that godawful big spec house, the one that’s way up on the hill behind the seventh hole of the golf course.”

“Yeah? When did he do that?” Amos asked, reeling his neck back into his scarf, and securing his jacket’s top button.

Andy shook his head. “It has to be pretty recent,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve seen him in the store more than once or twice.”

“And he’s running for school board?” Stephen said. “What’s he know about Carding or our kids?”

“Well, he’s supposed to know a lot about money,” Charlie Cooper said as he strolled up to stand behind his brother. “I understand he’s originally a Vermont boy who made good in Chicago, and now he’s back.”

“But that doesn’t make him qualified to be on our school board,” Edie said.

Charlie turned his mouth down in thought. “Well, it doesn’t make him disqualified, either. Many folks think the most important thing the board does is watch how our money is spent.”

“I know what you mean, Charlie,” Stephen said. “But where you put the money can either do a lot of good or a lot of harm.” He shook his head. “It’s been so busy at the bakery, I didn’t realize that the deadline had come and gone for collecting signatures to get on the ballot.”

“Would you have run?” Andy asked.

“I was thinking about it, especially since I figured that the Good Dentist would be gone after this year,” Stephen shook his head. “I’ve never liked that guy. Don’t trust him either.”

Ruth nodded. “I always thought you were a sensible man, Stephen.” Everyone grinned. Ruth was Maxwell Goodwin’s first wife, the one who got the biggest alimony payment, as she liked to say.

“Oh no,” Edie said. She had leaned over to see all the way down to the bottom of the ballot. “Look!”

The crowd, now numbering a dozen, bent over as a single unit to read the two words that had shocked Edie.

“Harry Brown!” Andy said. “Since when does Harry Brown care about our schools?”

“Is there anyone running against him?” Charlie asked.

“Nope,” a new voice added. “Dad was the last person to get on the ballot, just minutes under the deadline. He told Mom that the Good Dentist asked him to run, and it was folks up at the country club who signed his nomination papers.”

Several stunned faces turned in Gideon Brown’s direction. His father, Harry, had put a lot of effort into making himself disliked in Carding, and he had succeeded.

“He got all 50 signatures up at the country club?” Edie asked, her voice rising in pitch as she reached the end of her question. “I didn’t think there were 50 residents of Carding living up there. Most of the condo owners are from away.”

Gideon shook his head. “You forget how many locals work in the club and on the course and on the slopes,” he said. “There’s a lot of folks who rely on paychecks from Mount Merino to buy their groceries.”

A thick blanket of silence rolled over the gathering, and Gideon fidgeted, uncertain how much more to say. He wasn’t crazy about his father either.

“Great,” Amos muttered. “We’ve got a dicey dentist, a woman named Pat that no one knows, a stinking rich finance guy who’s new in town, and—excuse me, Gideon—probably the most hated man in Carding running for school board.”

“Hmph, and Greta,” Ruth said. “Don’t forget Greta Rutherford.”

“That’s not saying much,” Amos said. “She’s loopier than I am.”

Everyone else’s mouth twitched as they bowed their heads to take in the man’s shorts and well-worn boots. Summer or winter, Amos Handy saw no reason to ever change his wardrobe. Amos was Carding’s self-selected eccentric.

“Can’t we do nominations from the floor to stop these folks?” Amos’s voice squeaked.

Charlie shook his head. “Not this year. We switched over to the Australian ballot, remember. So it’s just show up and vote.”

They all looked at one another in dismay. “Great,” Andy muttered. “And we’re hiring a new superintendent this year, too. We’re in great shape.”

“You can say that again,” a voice boomed. Everyone started. Gideon tried to hide from his father’s gaze but Harry had already seen his eldest son.

“There’s gonna be some changes made,” Harry continued. “Year after year, I look at those school budgets and all I see is salaries for teachers and aides and administration, and I ask myself: Where’s the education in our school budget?”

“But…” Charlie began but Edie shook her head. Being Harry’s ex-wife, she knew that opposing Harry with common sense was useless.

Harry’s grin grew wider. “See ya at the polls,” he said as he turned away.

The next Carding Chronicle will be published on February 19. If you are enjoying these stories (they’re a great break from politics, eh?) please encourage your friends to subscribe.