SPONSORED BY GREEN MOUNTAIN POWER
The winning poetry entry in this year’s contest refers to a “time gone by.”
Similarly, the essay shares a nostalgia for the past.
The essay illustrates an important lesson:
The marks we leave on our communities last long after we are gone.
When Mary Alexander Peet submitted the
essay, she also shared photos from her research. We’ve included them here.
Enjoy this Vermont story and never forget:
One generation does indeed have the power to leave indelible memories on another . . . in this case, through donuts!
Job Site Repair of Worn Out Glove
By Robert Bernstein
The frigid air is whipping hard between the house,
so well maintained, and well-worn barn, a symbol now
of time gone by. And, now, from snow-wrapped ground
the wind, as if with nimble hand, is picking up the cold
and whistles it beside my ruddy cheek. Beside the barn,
out in this blast in fresh plowed drive where I have parked
my black work truck, its tailgate down, two saw horse stand,
their feet on ice, the chop saw there, bright green,
against the white, and three fresh boards,
of clear clean pine, uncut just now and long enough
to do the work. And I stand, too, beside them there,
but not to work but mend my broken glove,
when I have done the earnest patch I’ll do the work.
So, now, I tape two cots on my right glove,
on two frayed fingers of darkened leather,
and worn right through. It is too cold, I think,
for me to work until this glove is well repaired.
The silver tape, of course, is like a bandage here.
But not to stop a stream of blood from inside welling out
but stuck to halt the outside stream of northern air.
I think it will. Accosted here with such cold force
open out and in the drive between the barn and house,
a little bit of tool-box tape I’ll try to aid. And yet I know
this early morn in dismal winter, the stream of time
that you and I are in, and it is that that I recall.
These boards, my tape, my truck, this lavish home,
my hand, my time, seem small.
was born in 1949, in Philadelphia, studied at the University there, and moved to rural Vermont, in 1972. He is a retired local civil servant though a jack of all trades. And a friendly man.
By Mary Alexander Peet
Photography courtesy Mary Alexander Peet
The distance from Jericho to Glover isn’t much more than 60 miles, but with a carload of kids crammed tight inside our Travel All, it sure felt like we’d never get there. Our grandfather’s farm and Shadow Lake, both in Glover, were our destinations. We did our share of quarrelling along the way, but we also sang songs and played car games to pass the time. All that bickering, singing, and chattering must have made a terrible racket, so it was no wonder that Dad always made a few stops along the way to break up the trip.
My favorite stop was in Johnson where there was a bake stand on the side of the road in the center of town. It was a small wooden structure, painted green and white to match the house that stood behind it. There was a buzzer on the outside which was used to summon an older man from the house who, as I remember, had snowy white hair and wore a white apron and a white paper baker’s cap. He would slide open a glass window and serve us freshly baked bread, rolls, cake donuts, and my favorite: raised, glazed donuts. It has been over fifty years, yet my mouth still waters when I picture those simply irresistible, plump, soft, sugary donuts!
For the past forty years I have driven up to the Northeast Kingdom hundreds of times, and when I pass through Johnson, I often think of the donut man and wonder who he was. Some of my siblings recalled our stops at the donut stand, but with only a few additional details than I remembered, unable to totally satisfy my curiosity. In the fall of 2021, I finally decided it was time to do something with my interest. I sent an email to the Johnson Historical Society (JHS) to see what they might know about the donut man. I was delighted to receive an email back from JHS’s historian, Linda Jones who informed me that the man who operated the donut stand was Bill Lower. However, what really should not have surprised me, was when Linda enlightened me that it was actually Bill’s wife, Ila Lower, who did all the baking! Linda had one photo to share – a street view of the
Lowers’ stand, which Bill had built. It looked exactly as I remembered it in the 60s and 70s. Apparently, before they bought the big house in back of the donut stand, the Lowers lived in an upstairs apartment next to that house. Ila started making donuts in that apartment in the late 1940’s. Linda graciously put me in touch with a friend of hers, Mr. Dean West, also on the board of the JHS. He had grown up next door to the Lowers.
I connected with Dean West, who indeed had more details to share. As a child, Dean remembers smelling the delicious aroma of donuts coming from the Lowers’ place while Ila was baking. He, his sister, and other neighboring children would frequently call on Ila who always gave them the donut holes to enjoy. Dean also remembered that the Lowers raised their grandson, Ernest LaBrie, from infancy. He knew that Mr. LaBrie had moved away to the Montpelier area years ago, but did not have any contact information for him. I have to credit Google for supplying me with a post office box address for Ernest. I sent him a letter inquiring about his
grandparents’ baking business, and eagerly waited and hoped for a response.
When I shared what I had learned about the Lowers with one of my sisters, Joan, she gladly got involved in my pursuit. With her accounts with ancestry.com and newspapers.com, she was able to uncover more details. Joan suggested we go on a “field trip” to Johnson to find the Lowers’ gravestone, and to try to pinpoint, from the photo, just where their home and donut stand stood all those years ago! We made a date for the following week to meet in Morrisville for lunch, and decided to drag our sister, Martha, along to join in on the fun!
From the Lowers’ obituaries we learned that Bill died in 1971, at the age of 73, and Ila died four years later, in 1975 at the age of 67. They were both buried in the Lamoille View Cemetery in Johnson. After our lunch that day, we set out to find the Lower’s gravestone in that cemetery. The family monument was a lovely polished, black, marble stone. The back of the stone showed the years of Bill and Ila’s deaths, and, to our surprise, the names of twins, Adrian and Adrianna, who had a birth date and a death date of 1935. We hadn’t learned of these twins yet as they were not in either of the Lowers’ obituaries.
That night, I was flooded with emails. Joan was finding a lot of treasures on the online newspaper websites containing several newspaper articles that showcased Ila’s baking talents! It turns out, Ila was a first-prize winner in many baking contests at the Champlain Valley Fair throughout the 1960s. She won prizes for her plain donuts, glazed raised donuts, cinnamon donuts, jelly donuts, cakes, breads, and baked beans!
When I had just about given up hope in hearing from him, right after Christmas I was thrilled to receive a voicemail message from the Lowers’ grandson, Ernest LaBrie! A few days later, “Ernie” and I talked on the phone. He confirmed that he came to live with his grandparents, Bill and Ila, when he was three months old.
According to Ernie, Ila started baking in her own home in the early 1950s, rising early to start the donuts before reporting to work at the mill. At first, she sold donuts to the neighbors, and then it grew from there. When Bill and Ila would vacation on Lake Champlain in the summer, Ila was selling donuts to other campers in the campground. When Bill retired from the Woolen Mills several years later, Ila quit her job as a seamstress there, and it was then that they went into full swing, creating a substantial business of baking pies, cakes, bread, and of course, donuts. The Lowers then converted their garage into a bakery, purchasing a big commercial oven to bake multiple loaves of bread and started selling donuts and bread to local restaurants and stores.
Some people may wonder what my drive was behind this obsession with the Donut Man. I’m not really sure how to answer that. Perhaps it was the novelty of stopping at a roadside stand to buy donuts before there were “Dunkin Donuts” in our area. Or maybe it was the warm connections I made with memories of making donuts with my own grandmother, and a special childhood friend whose mother always had homemade glazed donuts waiting for us.
It’s possible that we all have faint memories that leave us wanting to know more. Whatever the reason, my curiosity has led to uncovering a sweet piece of history in the rural town of Johnson, Vermont. I never imagined that my search would be such a fun and fascinating adventure, meeting interesting people along the way, and that it would lead me to find both the “Donut Man” and the “Donut Woman!” Bill and Ila Lower may have been gone for 50 years, but plenty of people still remember them!
Mary Alexander Peet
is a retired teacher living in Richmond, Vermont. She has never made a batch of donuts herself. Mary would love to hear from anyone who might remember the Lowers and their baking business and/or have photos to share. Please reach out to Mary at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Vermont Writers’ Prize is a collaboration between GMP and Vermont Magazine. It was created in 1989 as a way to celebrate Vermont, writing, and to honor Ralph Nading Hill, Jr., a Vermont historian, author, and long-time GMP Board member. The contest is open to all Vermont residents, including seasonal and college students, and you can be a professional or amateur writer.