Walking tour offers stroll through Putney's history

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PUTNEY — If only houses could tell us the stories of those who have lived within their walls.

With that goal in mind, the Putney Historical Society has published a self-guided historic walking tour of 21 houses in the Putney Village Historic District that were built before 1850. Each house in the brochure is depicted in an original drawing.

The brochure highlights, for example, the home of John Humphrey Noyes (No. 11), the utopian socialist who founded what he called the "Society of Inquiry" in Putney in 1839, which met in that house.

Deeply influenced by the Protestant revival movement known as the Second Great Awakening that swept through the young United States in the 1830s and '40s, Noyes came to believe that moral perfection, a sinless state, was attainable in this life through sublimating the self to the welfare of the whole group.

An important tenet of the Putney Perfectionists, as they were called, was the idea of Complex Marriage. One way to master the self was to abandon the exclusivity fostered by conventional marriage. Women and men in the group, even those who were already married, were allowed to form "spiritual unions" with other group members. To free women from the burden of unwanted pregnancy, men in the group practiced what Noyes called "male continence."

Once the citizens of Putney learned of Complex Marriage, Noyes was charged with adultery in 1847, and the group was forced out of Putney. They settled in Oneida, New York, in 1848, where they established the Oneida Community, eventually famous for its silver-plated tableware.

Another house with a hidden history is the Keyes House (No. 2), built circa 1820, occupied by the Keyes family "from 1840 until the death of daughter Caroline in 1918. It is said that Caroline often entertained Rudyard Kipling, who loved to stroll through her beautiful gardens." Caroline was a frequent guest, with her friend Mary Cabot, at Rudyard Kipling's house, Naulakha, in Dummerston.

The idea for the brochure originated with Putney Historical Society president Ruth Barton, who had seen brochures from other towns and wanted something similar for Putney, according to society member Maryann Toffolon.

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"She asked for volunteers, and I raised my hand," Toffolon said. "I agreed to do the drawings. I wasn't an art major in college, but all my electives were art courses. I've been doing art forever."

At the same meeting, society vice president Tim Ragle volunteered to help with the drawings. The two decided to work together.

Ragle has had an interest in antiques, including old houses, since adolescence. He remembers the genesis of the brochure slightly differently.

"The idea had been talked about in the abstract for at least five years," he said. "When it was brought up again, the time seemed right, given the historical importance of the village and especially as it could help the village economy."

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Although he took art courses in high school and college, Ragle said he hadn't done much architectural drawing in 37 years, "but I jumped right in. My skills came back. The first few drawings I did were basically the buildings, not the trees or shrubs, except a little bit to ground it. But I was influenced by a brochure from Bellows Falls and by Maryann's drawings, and suddenly my drawings started to grow trees and have reflections on the windows.

"By the time I drew 71 Westminster Road," he continued, "I drew a whole landscape. In 105 Westminster Road, the winter scene, with the snow piled up, presented another challenge. With each drawing, I learned something new."

Ragle said he worked from January to October 2018 on the drawings, and each one took him between seven and nine hours to complete.

"I wanted to showcase the early houses," Ragle said. "History and architecture are important. Knowing more about why people came here, what motivated them to build houses and live here, helps build a better sense of community. It connects us to the past and makes us think about why we have decided to live here."

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Each drawing is accompanied by a brief history of what is known about who built the house and the different families who have lived in it. Carolyn Handy, a member of historical society, was asked to write them. She relied on materials from the society's archives, much of which had been compiled by society member Laurel Ellis.

"My favorite part was learning the history of the people who lived in these buildings," she said. "I drive past most of them every day and had no idea of their significance. I'm sad that Putney's history is not better known, especially among its residents. Whether a person takes the walking tour by foot, by car, or by reading the material, they have the opportunity to learn more about Putney's pre-Civil War history."

Susan Kochinskas agreed to design the brochure because "I value the record keeping and archiving of history," she said. "(Otherwise,) it will be lost. With my years of experience bringing brochures through this process to final production and print, I was able to help the process along."

Kochinskas also wrote a mini-grant request to C&S Wholesalers, which paid for the brochure's printing.

"Each person involved had a role," she said. "The end product is so much better when there has a been a lot of input from valuable participants."

Available online (putneyhistory.us) and at various businesses in Putney. the brochure emphasizes that all 21 houses are private residences, currently occupied, and thus not open to the public. They can, however, be admired from the sidewalk that runs along Main Street, up Kimball Hill, and along Westminster Road as far as Putney Central School.

Copies of the original drawings, printed on quality paper, are for sale for $30 each at the Putney General Store, with proceeds supporting the Putney Historical society. The group maintains office hours at 15 Kimball Hill (the Next Stage building) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. every Saturday.

Freelance writer Nancy A. Olson, a frequent contributor to the Brattleboro Reformer, lives in Putney and can be reached at olsonnan47@gmail.com. She edited the brochure.


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