BRISTOL — Not many Vermonters can still recall the days when their town’s roads were unpaved, ice was cut and stored in sawdust-lined containers until summer time, and eggs were commonly known as “hen fruit.”
But Gertrude Lathrop can. The lifelong Bristol resident will mark her 100th birthday on Oct. 13.
“It was very different,” she said, recalling how the town looked in her childhood. “The streets have changed. The buildings have changed.”
Sitting in her living room this week with her son David and a caretaker, Lathrop was gracious and animated as she described the journeys she had taken in a century of life.
She was born in the house where she still lives on Oct. 13, 1912, to Harvey Hewitt and Lena Ruby Rathbun, the eldest of two daughters. The Hewitts had arrived in Bristol by way of Warren Mountain in early 1888 via ox sled; Harvey Hewitt was six years old at the time. The Hewitts had a dairy farm and a homestead on land stretching from Weber’s Bend to Route 116. Harvey worked hard at the dairy; Lena raised chickens. The family also tended strawberries, which was the children’s chore.
A voracious learner, Gertrude Hewitt began school when she was six years old, walking with her sister each day to the Bristol Village School, one mile away. Her high school graduation took place in 1930 in Holley Hall.
The next fall, she began her studies at Middlebury College. French was her favorite subject, and she fondly remembers living in the college’s Chateau building. She graduated in 1934 and brought her love of learning to a rural schoolhouse in Schaghticoke, N.Y. — “I bet you can’t spell that!” she exclaimed — where she taught for eight years.
She saved for three years then went to France by steamboat in 1937, her first of four trips to Europe.
“I had always dreamed of that,” she said. “And I was glad I went when I did, because you couldn’t go by boat after the war. Everyone flew.”
On her return voyage, Lathrop was aboard the French ocean liner SS Normandie, which was described at the time as the largest and fastest passenger liner afloat. The famous ship was seized by the United States during World War II. It burst into flames and capsized in New York Harbor in 1942.
She married Earl Lathrop that same year.
“I always said I wouldn’t marry a farmer, but I did,” she recalled with a laugh. The couple moved to Bristol, Conn., where Earl worked in a war plant. While in Connecticut, they had twins, David and Donald. After the war was over, the young family returned to Vermont, and lived at the historic “Pillars” farmhouse on Bristol Flats, alongside Route 116. They had four more children, Dianne Marie, Douglas Reed, Duane Stephen and Dawn Star.
Much has changed since Lathrop’s childhood, but not everything.
“I was born in this house,” she said, showing a big smile. She was married there, too. With a casual wave of her hand, she indicated the corner of the room where she and Earl were married in 1942 (they moved back to the Hewitt homestead from the Pillars in 1974, after their children were all grown.)
Out back, a weather-worn wooden building still stands over a winding brook, which her father used as a trout hatchery. Known in the family as the Fish House, David Lathrop can recall the visiting his grandfather when the hatchery was still in full swing. Fishermen who hadn’t had any luck used to stop by the Fish House at the end of a long day; Harvey Hewitt would let them pole a big fish out of the brook, so their wives would be none the wiser.
These days, Gertrude Lathrop gets around with the help of her family, her caretaker and a green walker named Molly. She is close to her children and her grandchildren, many of whom still reside in the area. But she never lost the travel bug. Over the years she traveled across the country many times and returned to Europe three times. She recalled a particularly beautiful visit with her husband to Lake Louise in Alberta, Canada. In her adult life, she also worked at the Ben Franklin store in Bristol; taught at the Mountain Street school for 13 years; and worked as a historian and interpreter at the Shelburne Museum for 17 years.
Her secrets to a long life?
“Don’t drink, don’t smoke,” she said. “Oh, and don’t work too hard.”
“She has an uncanny way of shutting things off,” David Lathrop added with a laugh. “She doesn’t get too stressed out, I’d say that’s a big part of it. If we bring up something and she doesn’t want to discuss it, we’re on to something else.”
At noon on Sunday, Sept. 16, the public is invited to join Lathrop and fellow centenarians Bill James, 101 (“He was from a rural part,” Lathrop explained, defending her claim as Bristol’s oldest lifelong resident) and Hazel Devino, 100 (“Don’t remember where she came from!”) for a celebration on Bristol’s Town Green.
“Will there be a chair?” She quipped.
Reporter Xian Chiang-Waren is at [email protected]