Transcript of a taped, interview
Narrator: Paul Rebillard
Date: March 15, 1981.
Interviewer: Holley Palmer.
Mr. Rebillard is a life-time resident of the Town of Salisbury. He was born and grew up in Chapinville, now Taconic, and attended the village school in Taconic and Lakeville High School. He is familiar with the charcoal and iron industries, his father having worked in both.
Property of the Oral History Project
Salisbury Association and Scoville Memorial LibrarySalisbury, Connecticut 06068
HP: This is Holley Palmer. This afternoon I am talking with my friend, Paul Rebillard… Paul happens to be one of the few people I know who was born in Taconic, Connecticut. Paul, would you tell us why a person with a French name like yours comes from Taconic?
PR: Sure, Holley, it happens to be that I’ve written a few words on the subject and if you don’t mind I’ll tell you about it. Anytime you’d like to interrupt me just go right ahead and ask questions as you wish.
PR: I thought to begin with, I should start at the beginning and the actual beginning is, of course, my father. So I’ll proceed with my thoughts and I hope it comes up with something that you might like.
HP: Would you give us your father’s name?
PR: My father’s name was Ernest Rebillard, no middle name.
And I’ll get into this thing by saying it’s sobering indeed to have people look at you and point a finger at you and recognize you for what you are. Well, it is true that I’m one of a diminishing band of people who have had contact with those who were a part of the past. It is difficult to realize that those who were mature a century ago have memories that went back to the days of Abraham Lincoln.
PR: Isn’t that something? My father knew people who were alive in 1812 and many of them who served in the Civil War.
He was born near Belfort in 1858 and remembered the war in I870 when France was crushed for the first time by Germany.
His parents, my grandparents, were bakers in the tiny village of Chenebier and their home was taken over by German soldiers. They were induced to bake the dark bread the Germans liked so well. My father, at age twelve, was forced to help bury both French and German dead. At age fourteen, my father came to this country for seven years, then returned to his country to serve two years in the French army as everyone must, of course. H.P.s Did he come to Salisbury when he was fourteen?
F.R.s No, actually he went to the area of Buffalo where he had friends and during that time he — I don’t know what he worked at — but I think something connected with the iron industry in Buffalo. But I’m not too sure of that, except at that time I know that he became quite adept at tumbling. He was quite something of an athlete at that time. He was very agile. He told me a lot of things pertaining to that.
But, at any rate, he did return and served two years in the French Army. Then he returned to America in 1381 and settled in Salisbury, or close to it at least. Strangely, he joined several other families whose names are still well-known in the area — the Gobillots, the Suvrards, the Goux, the Bonhotels, the Boutillers, the DeVaux-all came from that tiny little village in France, all attracted by one phase or another of the iron industry that was booming here at the time. All – of the above named people actually were nearer to the Sharon area. That was close to the iron business, too.
My father always said he landed on Mount Washington, but from what mode of travel I never did find out. At any rate, he was one of several Frenchmen who made charcoal, mountains of charcoal, for the forges of Mt. Riga, Lime Rock and, I’m
sure, many other blast furnaces of the area. They chopped and piled wood for the charcoal pits, as they were called, until the mountain ranges that we can see from Salisbury were almost completely denuded of woodland. In fact, some areas were cleared and used as farmland well up on the eastern slopes.
As a matter of fact, when I was a boy, we went up on those mountain slopes to pick berries in some of those open places.
F.R.:Blackberries, mainly. Blueberries, too, on the top of
the mountain, as they still do.
The mountain top was well populated at that time, by those who worked at charcoal and iron. To this day, if you wander through that area, you will find innumerable cellar holes, many still producing lilac bushes. That seemed to be present at every house. Is that not so? You still find lilac bushes almost everywhere around old houses or old cellar holes.
At any rate, the charcoal pits were constructed by the artful piling of four foot wood to a height of about twelve feet and a diameter of twenty to twenty-five feet. You’ve seen pictures.
H.P.:Not very big.
F.R.:They were pretty big. figure twelve feet high and a dia-
meter of twenty to twenty-five feet, it’s quite a large pile. The mound of wood was then covered with soil and sod to contain the fire underneath, so that combustion was slow and incomplete. A lot of people don’t understand how charcoal was made. But that’s how it was made. And woe to the unlucky workman who was careless enough to allow the hole to erupt uncontrollably and thus burn to ashes the work of many hours of back breaking work.
The successfully completed pit produced hundreds of bushels
of beautiful black charcoal, so beautifully wrought that the grain of the original wood was still clearly identifiable, so that the specie of wood used could easily be recognized. You’ve probably seen it, the grain still shows in the charcoal. This charcoal was carted in huge wagons with high sloping sides. The product being so light it permitted great loads to be transported long distances to their destinations. Once again, the actual locations of these charcoal piles are still to be found, which is amazing I think. Usually, by noticing stands of timber, mainly poplar, growing in a circular formation — by digging there, and I’ve done it, you can still find bushels of charcoal that were incompletely removed and, of course, it is just as good as the day it was made, over one hundred years ago.
H.P.: you can find the tracks that the wagons made, still, right?
P.R.: Yes, the old wagon roads, we call them wagon roads, now are deeply rutted and washed by rain a great deal. But those old wagon roads marked the trails that the charcoal was hauled down off the mountain. And, of course, they’re still very visible today.
My eldest sister was born on Mount Washington in 1338, the year of the blizzard, in a very comfortable cabin in which my father and mother survived that fabled fall of snow which occurred on March 12th to l4th of that year. About fifty inches of snow fell in this area in that historic snow. Fifty inches! When I asked my father how in the world they made it through that terrible time, he said it was never more comfortable.
They had the foresight, as all people did in those days, to have a store of provisions laid by. There was no shortage of water, or wood for heat, and I suspect a haunch of venison was not too far away. At any rate, the blizzard completely covered
the cabin. So, as snug as a bug, they just simply waited for it to melt, which it did in a week to ten days, the snow was all gone, according to my father.
A little interesting sidelight. When the men of the mountain felt in need of a little relaxation — my father always called them boys — they, upon a proper occasion, would repair down the mountain to the watering kettle in Salisbury. There they would meet with a select group of boys from the lower part of town and fight. From what my father told me, they fought the good fight. One worthy resident was so bruised that he proceeded to bite the nose off his nearest opponent, which drew a great chorus of praise from his colleagues. An interesting story related to these frays was that the gentleman who did the biting, whose name incidentally would still be remembered here in town so he shall remain nameless, was a very powerful individual. So powerful indeed was he, that he carried a hundred pound sack of grain from Selleck’s mill to Hammertown — about four miles — where he lived, without setting it down once. A prodigious feat of strength, which I do not doubt for a minute, because my dad told it to me.
H.P.: Well, boys will be boys.
P.R.: Boys will be boys and, as I say, my dad always called them boys.
When the need for charcoal had somewhat subsided, my family descended from the mountains and my oldest brother was born in Hammertown, so called because of the incessant hammering by a firm that produced scythes and blades there. The untiring hammering of raw iron, produced in that area, continued day and night, according to my dad.
Next born was my youngest and still surviving brother who was born one hundred yards from where he now lives in Chapin- ville, which is, of course, the name before Taconic received its name. At that time my father worked at the iron works at the outlet of Twin Lakes. There was produced a great quantity of pig iron ingots which were loaded onto the spur of the CNS Railroad, which was as busy as a bee at that time. The waste product of that operation, in the form of a glass-like slag, produced the roadbed of miles of road in the Taconic area, as well as that of the railroad spur. As a matter of fact, along that inlet today, the western bank of the inlet, is solid slag. I know that because I cut my feet on it many, many times as I swam there as a kid… The stuff is like glass and can be very, very sharp. There’s loads of it there, still available.
Anyway, when the pig iron business failed, my father was transferred to another location and he moved to the small house that is now opposite the Dunn family house on the Under Mountain Road, the horse farm there, on Route 41. There he worked on the farm that was then owned by the Scoville family and was held as a sheep farm. Indeed, it was a sheep farm because they had many, many hundreds of sheep at that time. From there he was transferred to the Scoville family farm, known then and still known as Grassland Farm. Since the distance was too great to walk, he rode a bicycle to work, at first. He rode one of the old high-wheelers with the very tiny wheel in the rear.
H.P.: A real energy conscious person.
P.R.: Well, not exactly. But he was so continually thrown head first off the beast that one day he threw it over the fence
and bought one of the modern bicycles, both wheels the same size. He said that restored his sanity.
In this house was born a son who died at eight after falling from a tree: my younger sister was born there in 1904. She is also now dead. Then back to Taconic, still Chapinville, went my father, where I was born. No Sharon Hospital for me. I guess I was the last person alive — I believe I’m the last person alive — who was born, actually born, in Chapinville. This is not intended to be a family history, but I have to connect with the town’s history somehow.
I must tell you that I attended the grammar school in Chapinville. The school building was built in about 1900. The reason why it was built was the school originally was up on the hill near the present Herbert Scoville’s residence and they needed that land immediately around the residence, so they donated the land to the town and in turn built the school in Chapinville.
H.P.: Do you remember your teachers there?
P.R.: Oh, yes indeed. Sure, my first….Well, I hate to quote family all the time, but my mother died when I was twenty-two months old so I never did really have a mother. When I started to go to school in Taconic at age five, my first teacher was Kiss Fish, Edna Pish. Kiss Fish’s father worked at the power station which was run by the Scoville family. It produced power for all the houses in the area that were connected with the Scoville farm and even the power line was run from there over to Grassland Farm. Grassland Farm was electrified from that point at the outlet of the lake. And as I say, my first teacher was Edna Fish. I remember her still, and frankly tears come to my eyes because, as I say, I had no mother.
H.P.: She took over that job for you probably.
P.R.: Well, she became my surrogate mother, I guess. I can still remember her holding me close to her when I wasn’t feeling too well. Holding me to her bosom and….
H.P.: Was that a one room schoolhouse, Paul?
P.R.: No, it was a two room schoolhouse.
H.P.: With two doors?
P.R.:One main door. I’ll tell you more about the school, how
it was set up. Anyway, I attended this school there, starting when I was five years old. The school incidentally is now owned by Mrs. Melanie Barber and is used as her residence. It was a beautiful building, built like they don’t build them any-more. It was built upon a base of grey limestone, the same as the Scoville Library. The timbers that went into it were unbelievable. It was built to last forever.
H.P.: Yes, she’s very proud of it.
P.R.: Oh, yes. It was a two room school. Two large rooms, one at either side, and the two rooms were separated by a very, very tall folding door. Of course, everything seemed very, very tall to me at that time because I was very small. But I’d say that the ceilings and those rooms were about fifteen to eighteen feet tall, and the rooms were about, I would say, thirty-five feet square.
H.P.: That’s a good sized room
F.R.: Those were good sized rooms. The upper grades were in one room and the lower grades in the other. And it was easily the best school that’s ever been built in the Town of Salisbury. Oh, without a doubt. I do not kid you. Even to this present day.
I mean the most solidly constructed
At the rear was a field that generations of kids used as a beautiful playground, and a ball field that sloped quite a bit to the east. Well, we played a lot of good ball on it. It was there that my greatest aspiration was to hit a baseball as far as Gurdon Pickert and Art Baldwin did. Gurdon Pickert and Art Baldwin are still around and pretty well known to the area. They’re some years older than I. They occasionally hit the southern exposure of the school and broke a window. I never did.
• Over the front entrance was a hand carved plaque which bore the first profound statement I ever read, and I was very much impressed. It read, and I hope it still does, “Hear instruction and be wise.”
Here most of the kids and I went to school barefooted, during the warm summer months at least. That may not seem unusual but I merely point it out to show the difference between those days and these. Here, too, I observed what discipline – was all about. When one of the older boys was rapped severely on the knuckles with a sturdy wooden ruler because he insisted on saying, “Ain’t ain’t in the dictionary.” Miss Scott, the upper grade teacher, who was tall, red-headed, rawboned and fully capable of handling any boy in the room – and there were some big ones – but she sure could handle them. The boy’s name incidentally, still will remain unknown because….
H.P.: Is he still around?
P.R.: …his family still lives in the area. Yes.
H.P.: He hasn’t forgotten it.
P.R.:No, he’s still alive. He does not live in the area any
more, but the name is well known. His name was John Matheson.
There were many colorful characters about the village of Chapinville at that time. Old Fred Gordon ran the general store with a real cracker barrel. He chewed tobacco constantly and delighted in spitting the juice on our bare feet.
Our house was visited twice a year by an itinerant peddler, once in the spring and once in the fall. He carried an assortment of pets and pans, dress goods, and nick knacks, also patent medicines and herbs. I’ll never forget Atwood’s Bitters, and swamp root, and castor oil. And various times I was induced to sample all of these. I was very much afraid of him. I thought he was out of the Bible, maybe he was.
Also, some of my father’s old friends had succumbed to the automobile and they drove up to our home, behind the former site of Camp Everett, in some remarkable vehicles. The first I remember were open, noisy, smokey and were steered by a tiller. One was a very early Renault. It was enormous and I was afraid of that, too. Thus I have witnessed our progression from the horse and buggy to the Concorde. But I sometimes wonder if our progress has made us any happier.
Perhaps the most interesting of the old timers – I’d like to tell you about these because they are part of my past and part of the memories I shall always have – but about the most interesting were the brothers Funk, called the Funk boys.
H.P.: How do you spell their last name?
P.R.: Funk, F-U-N-K. Dave and Fill Funk, who lived in a little shingled house near Hammertown Pond. The house is still there, it’s been added to in recent years. The house, tucked away in a little depression, is still there and in case you misunderstand the name. The name of the younger brother, his real name was
not P-H-I-L, but F-I-L-L. His name was Filmore, therefore, Fill.
Fill ordered Dave around without mercy and Dave, the elder, was short, stocky with beautiful white hair, and he cheerfully did all the cooking, washing up and all the other household chores. They had worked at charcoal, at the very last of it, and were woodsmen of the very highest order. Dave could chop a tree down and then chop it up and the chop marks left by his axe were as smooth as if they had been planned. You never saw anything like it. During their late years, they made their living hunting and trapping and were extremely skilled in their chosen work. They never lacked for money. Fill carried the pocketbook. Of course, they walked wherever they went and invariably, as they went, Fill walked in front and Dave, with his hands behind his back, walked along behind. Dave always agreed with whatever Fill said. Fill would spin yarns: then he’d turn to his brother and say, “Ain’t that right, Dave?” Dave answered, “That’s right, Fill.”
One of Fill’s favorite stories concerned one night they were hunting coons up on the mountain. The dog began to whimper, and looking up into the moonlit tree where they thought the coon was treed, they saw an enormous wildcat. Just as the cat sprung at the Fill let him have both barrels, the cat hit the ground and, “the next time I saw him he was out of sight”, says Fill, “Ain’t that right, Dave?’ “That’s right, Fill.” responds Dave.
They came to our house a great deal where they played euchre. H.P.: What’s that?
P.R.: Euchre is an old-time game which is still played and it’s one heck of a lot of fun. It involves a deck of cards with the small cards taken out. They use the joker and the jack of the suit of the trump’s that’s played is the right bower and the
corresponding color jack of spades or clubs, is called the left bower. It goes on from there. Anyway, they played with my father and another crony. Dave was always my father’s partner. They hit the table so hard with their knuckles when they played a deciding card that the dishes rattled across the room.. Late in the evening when an appropriate amount of cider had been consumed, off they’d go for home^ Dave carefully following Fill so that he wouldn’t go wrong.
In their last years, Fill bought a model T Ford four door sedan. Fill drove and Dave drove in the rear seat. Fill never called it a Ford. He called it my big glass car.
For many years Dave and Fill acted as wardens guarding Fisher’s Pond. Mr. Fisher – everyone knows Jack – he was Jack’s father, had stocked it heavily with trout, perch, and pickerel, although the trout did not survive. The pickerel did, some grew to enormous size. On the east side of the pond where Mr. Schwaikert built his large house, there was an area where a gently sloping rock slid down into the water. My childhood buddy, Stub McLain, and I would sneak over there with long bamboo poles. We’d catch a small perch and insert a large hook through its head. We’d throw it far out and skitter it to shore. Before many casts, a huge pickerel would become enraged and seize the perch. It would not let go, finally we would haul him up on the slope in shallow water and we’d have him without ever having touched him with a hook.
H.P.:Oh, the pickerel?
P.R.:This huge pickerel, thirty inches and over. I’ve told
the story to many people and no one believes me.
H.P.:You should have had a picture.
P.R.:But, it’s true.
H.P.:I believe you.
P.R.: Now, after completing eight years of schooling at Taconic School, I went with all the rest of the kids to Lakeville High School, which at that time was located where the Post Office now stands. Do you recall that?
H.P.:I do. Miss Esther Frink was the nurse? Well, maybe not
when you were there.
P.R.:Not really. The upper grades of the grammar school were
on the first floor, supervised with an iron hand and a velvet heart by Miss Mahar, now Mrs. Eggleston. Never was a school run by a firmer hand. Upstairs was high school, consisting of one large assembly room and two classrooms. At the rear was a rather constricted playground and baseball field. Left field ran into a very high embankment and only mountain goats could play that left field. While a game was in progress, which was anytime weather permitted, the non-playing boys and girls played the best they could in amongst the ball players. It wasn’t exactly safe, but we had a lot of fun anyway.
Transporting us to school usually was J.C. Pickert. At least he carried us to Ticknor corner where the Taconic Road meets Route I very well remember his 1922 Chandler touring car.
H.P.:It wasn’t a school bus? It was his own car?
P.R.:It was his own personal car. He always gave us the great
thrill of going over the railroad bridge at Taconic station. The road went abruptly up and over the track and when it hit a certain speed, the occupants of the rear seat flew into the air and came down approximately anywhere, but hopefully still in the car. Often in the spring the Taconic read was a sea of mud. Then Gurdon Pickert, J. C.’s son, drove a grey model T touring
car. Gurdon would locate the wheels safely in a rut and then that Ford would track that rut, either in low or high gear, and chug along with the mud really up to the hubs. I don’t ever remember getting stuck.
H.P.:You always got to school.
P.R.:I always got to school. Gurdon was going to Hotchkiss
School at the time where he starred in football and basketball, er, baseball, I should say.
Two winters when the roads were really impassable, we rode the CNE railroad from laconic to Lakeville. This was great fun. One special morning, that will remain forever in my mind, while the other kids were getting on the train – the milk was being taken on at the Borden milk station there – I ran to the head of the train – I was just a little kid at the time – I ran up to the engine and I said, “Please, Mister, can I ride in the locomotive?” To my complete surprise, the engineer looked around, scared like, and said, “Well, OK, come on.” So, he reached down and lifted me up in the cab and I rode in that locomotive from Taconic to Salisbury.
H.P.: Wasn’t that a thrill!
P.R.: Well, it was more of a thrill than you can imagine, because going down that road bed at high speed, which I would say was forty to forty-five miles an hour, perhaps, the locomotive swung from side to side and I was absolutely petrified. At any rate we got to Salisbury in one piece and then the engineer, because I’m sure he was afraid he would get in trouble for letting a kid ride in the cab, says, “OK, son, that’s as far as you go.” So I got out of the cab and ran to the rear of the train and jumped on the car with the rest of the kids and proceeded from there to Lakeville. I’ll never forget that ride.
I don’t think there are too many kids in the area who did actually ride in the cab of a locomotive, especially a steam locomotive.
Speaking of those locomotives, I know that millions of people will agree with me when I say that we really lost something when we lost the old steam locomotives.
H.P.: Yes, not to hear them at night anymore it really is…
P.R.: …to hear them at night. I would lie in bed up in Taconic, which was higher than the railroad station, the track that ran through Taconic and over the lakes to Twin Lakes, and I’d hear those whistles from a great distance. They were so mournful and yet I’m just sorry that sound has disappeared from the American scene.
H.P.: Yes, I am too.
P.R.: As a matter of fact, records have been made of the old locomotive sounds and they recall that great day.
Of course, the ONE at that time was, as I said before, as busy as a bee. I remember when I was a small kid, we had four passenger trains each way per day, running from the Millerton-Poughkeepsie line to Hartford.
H.P.: Oh, but that train you came down from Taconic to Salisbury would be going all the way into Millerton, wouldn’t it?
P.R.: Yes, that proceeded on to Millerton.
H.P.: And right across – it went right through Lakeville.
P.R.: Yes, it sure did.
H.P.: Yes, right near where our filling station is, crossing by Farnum Road and all the way up there.
P.R.: Right, it crossed there on a high trestle which wasn’t – removed until too many years ago.
So, those were the great old days, I guess.