by Doug McClure
EAST HARDWICK – At the October 15 select board meeting, the board heard a long-standing concern raised by some in East Hardwick over one particular street that may or may not be a legal town street. That street is now known as “River Street,” but was previously known as “Mill Street,” since a mill was sited there in years past.
The East Hardwick Fire District (EHFD) has property on that street which it has allowed a resident to use, and those present tonight said the resident had assumed or been told that meant the street itself was their property and therefore parking on River Street was not allowed. While some maps recognized River or Mill Street, what is unclear at this juncture is whether the street is in fact town-owned or if it is just a private drive.
While the issue has been percolating for some years, bringing the issue to the board now centers on the former Post Office adjacent to the bridge. Like the White Water Gallery, it is effectively locked to just its footprint, and as such, relies on that street for parking. The resident who feels the street is theirs believes otherwise, and Doug Cassavant of the EHFD said in an e-mail “‘River street’ in East Hardwick is not a town road, I would consider it a driveway!” Resident Tracy Martin noted that in White Water Gallery’s former use as East Hardwick Lockers, customers parked diagonally on the street.
Martin said the disagreement is “limiting development in our little village to two very important structures,” and if not solved, “we’ll lose that [old] Post Office [building’s prospective tenants]”. She said her research had unearthed two documents in town records that suggested the road was town-owned. In 1929, she said a deed showed one Clarence Smith had “deeded what we call the Grist Mill Lot and the right-of-way and water rights to the Village of Hardwick.” Town Manager Shaun Fielder clarified for the audience that while Hardwick Village is no longer an extant entity, the 1988 disincorporation and merger with Hardwick Town meant that the village’s property then became the town’s.
Board chair Eric Remick said the odd fact that this property was not contiguous to Hardwick Village’s boundaries at the time might indicate water rights were behind the sale. At the time, as noted in Hardwick Gazette archives, Hardwick Village was trying to secure water rights to avoid befalling the same fate of other towns that had caught fire.
On January 17, 1929, the Hardwick Gazette reported that “Inquiry has been made as to what the options held by the Village Electric Department at East Hardwick consist of and for information of the voters the Gazette gives a general outline:
“C.A. Smith Option—Gristmill, water and flowage rights, right in dam, horse sheds, rights of way; lot of land near tracks known as the Eldridge property; frame block, sheds and storehouse known as the Pope property and land on which it stands. Price $10,000.
“Wallace Thomas option—sawmill property and all the remain of sawmill, lot on which same stands the mill yard, small house and lot and all Thomas real estate house in which he resides and small building lot near Smith store. Included are individual or joint water rights in the dam, right to draw water, and right of way to property.
“Eldridge property—the pasture land and meadow land lying southerly of the Thomas sawmill property consisting of about 20 acres of land. Price $700.”
Just a week later, on January 17, the Gazette reported that the town had bought all three properties using funds from the electric department.
Martin said a second deed unearthed was from 1963 and was the Village of Hardwick deeding just the “Grist Mill lot” to the East Hardwick Fire District, and, Martin said, “that deed specifically spells out that it does not include the right-of-way or water rights.”
What is unclear is whether the right-of-way mentioned in both deeds means River/Mill Street was an official town street, as would normally be the case when rights of way are mentioned. Martin said the deed specifically stated “public right-of-way” and that would indicate a town road was involved, but Fielder did not have that document prior to the meeting and wanted to make sure it was clear that without the word “public” any street, private or public, can have a right-of-way associated with it.
Fielder said, “If it turns out there was never a road there, that’s a different discussion.” He said in an initial review with Town Attorney Bill Davies “the official street survey does not recognize River Street, in the 1930s the name was Mill Street.” Remick said further investigation was needed. Board member Elizabeth Dow pointed out that Riverside Street in Hardwick had not been officially named as a town-owned street, either, and Martin said given the short length of River/Mill Street, an omission could simply reflect a lack of importance deemed since official maps focus on total miles of road.
Kate Brook of the East Hardwick Neighborhood Organization said that the parking dispute created a problem and as an organization “our interest is to promote growth and community in the village, and we really would like to see a resolution to this that provides equal right-of-way… it sounds like we’re headed in a positive direction.”
The owner of one of those structures is White Water Gallery’s James Teuscher. He said he has operated that gallery that “is morphing into a museum” for fourteen years and the conflict over parking has been ongoing.
“This is an aberration to the thought of community development,” said Teuscher. He expressed specific concern over whether the parking situation would make the Post Office building untenable for the prospective occupants looking to use it for an office space. “[That building] is a gem, an absolute gem,” said Teuscher, adding that if not for that use it might prove difficult to find another given the footprint and proximity to the Lamoille River. He said the river sometimes got so loud that the building would be difficult to justify for residential use.
For his own use, he said the White Water Gallery has “maybe five feet” more than its footprint to work with. He said the resident would often create a problem any time that boundary was disrupted, such as Teuscher trying to put in a set of stairs to access a new section of the gallery at the back which is several feet higher than the ground level. At the select board meeting, Teuscher recalled “when I went to put in a set of steps, I was immediately opposed by the neighbor.”
Teuscher said his connection to the property dates to before the gallery. He moved to the area in 1972 from Maryland, seeking out a better political climate and a more natural lifestyle. He found work cutting meat for Levi Cole at what was then called East Hardwick Lockers. The “Lockers,” explained Teuscher, were used for larger-scale food storage back when few people had significant refrigeration, and as a butcher shop.
Teuscher has restored that building over years to create White Water Gallery, which is a growing exhibition featuring many local artists including Bread and Puppet’s Peter Schumann, Janet van Fleet, Kathy Stark, Liz Nelson, and Marie LePre. Recently, he created a separate small NASCAR museum to try and attract another type of audience.
With a second space literally up in the air as it has no stairs from the outside, the issue frustrates him, he said. With more visitors come more challenges for parking. Teuscher emphasized his goal is to help East Hardwick flourish.
“I want people to come into town,” he said. The gallery does not charge an official admission fee (there is a suggested $5 donation) and does not charge artists for exhibiting works, but does take a commission of sales, which Teuscher pointed out at the meeting partly goes to funding for community groups like GRACE and NEK Arts, as well as the Jeudevine Library. He guessed that he had donated as much as $9,000 to those organizations over the years, mostly to the Jeudevine of late to help with its expansion project.
Standing out front of his Gallery in a steady chilly drizzle, Teuscher pointed to the old Post Office directly across from it. While he said he’s had to work out sometimes-inconvenient parking for his guests and one resident’s objections won’t cause the White Water Gallery to close, the old Post Office is a different matter. He wants to see it occupied, put back to useful life, and not sitting there empty as it does now. “The building’s tight,” he said of its construction. He then looks at the street and shakes his head.
East Hardwick’s Post Office is the subject of some confusion in history as well. The town was the original Hardwick, and the first Post Office was designated in 1810. Historians speculate that the reason for naming the town “Hardwick” was that numerous settlers to the town came from Hardwick, Mass. But residents decided in 1846 to honor Samuel Stevens, who founded East Hardwick in 1798. Stevens was also the founder of the mills that are this street’s original namesake. Somewhere in the process, the spelling ended up wrong and the official Post Office designation became “Stephensville.” Despite garnering the ire of villagers, the spelling was not corrected, so the town alternated between “East Hardwick” or “Hardwick” for the next twenty years. In the following years, what was then South Hardwick rose to prominence due to its burgeoning granite industry and soon took over the name Hardwick.