80 Years and Still Going Strong: The Putney Community Center

on Jul 27th 2008

By Laurel Ellis and Leon Cooper, August, 2005

The history of the Putney Community Center can be said to rightly begin even before the construction of the Baptist Meeting House Church which was to become its home.

The 1883 Meeting House deed indicates that a one-family dwelling house was already standing on the site where the Church was slated to be built. A close examination of the present structure makes a strong case for the rear portion of the building being in fact the dwelling house referred to in the 1883 deed. An exterior-wall window is still visible from the interior stairway leading to the second floor, making it clear that the rear part of the building must have once stood as an independent structure.

Town rumor has it that the Baptist Church had been moved to its present location from somewhere either on West Hill or on Putney Mountain, but deeds and other research indicate that this is not the case. The Fortnightly Club’s 1953 History of Putney tells us that the original Baptist Church in Putney was sold around 1860 and was “taken down and the material used for other purposes”. It adds that “the front door of Mrs. Mary Thwing’s house came from this building.” The Baptist congregation did not reorganize again independently in Putney until 1880, when it temporarily held services in the Town Hall. The new Baptist Church was built on Christian Square in 1884 and thrived “until 1919 when the members joined the Methodist and Congregationalist congregations to form the present Federated Church” [now the United Church of Putney]. It makes sense, then, that the 1884 church structure was built to abut the house that was already existing on the lot so that this house could be utilized as extra space for other church activities.

The Baptist Church was purchased by Miss Sara Andrews and Miss Bertha Estey who then donated the property to the newly formed Putney Community Center on September 10, 1925. Charter Community Center members adopted a constitution and by-laws which state that the organization’s purpose was “to unite the community through education and recreational activities for better citizenship.” The organization’s first Board Chair was George D. Aiken, who history shows then parlayed this prestigious position into becoming Governor of Vermont – and later, U. S. Senator.

The first officers were President, Miss Bertha Estey; Vice President, Mrs. E. H. Richardson; Secretary, Mrs. Esther Pratt; and Treasurer, Harry Monroe. Mrs. Pratt also served as director from 1925 to 1942 and played a major, positive role in the development of Putney’s children during that period.

In the early days, funding came from proceeds from the Center’s annual “Opportunity Sales” and other events. Also, an Annual Drive was held each year seeking donations of $1.00 (“or more”) from each member age 16 or over to help with operating expenses.

One of the best accounts of the activities of the town can be found in the Community Center archives, and is a paper entitled “A study of the Town of Putney, Vermont – 1936″ written by one of Putney School’s first students, Monica Owen. A valuable resource for many other subjects, she devotes two pages to the Community Center, from which the following is taken:

The Community Center is primarily for recreation. The children used to be at a loss as to what to do after school, and so a very full program has been arranged. Something is nearly always happening here.

Each of the various organizations, such as the Scouts, has an evening for a meeting or to put on some kind of entertainment once a week. Monday someone from out of town comes in and entertains any who may want to come. Tuesday night the Boy Scouts meet, Wednesday the boys’ basketball team plays an out of town team, (40 boys come sometimes from the town), Thursday the Putney orchestra meets (with its 11 members), Friday there is usually a dance or something lasting until midnight. Sometimes card parties are held then. Monday and Wednesday afternoons there are sewing classes for the girls, two afternoons someone takes care of all the little children in the town so that the mothers may leave if they wish to. Then there are pool and shuffle board tournaments for the older children. Some afternoons the children from the Central School receive instruction in basketball, their only chance at this sort of thing, as there are no extensive playgrounds. In summer there are picnics, a field day, swimming, boxing and wrestling for the boys (given by the Center’s instructor). For the parents there are the dances, the outside entertainments (movies, magician and marionettes for the children as well). …Mrs. Pratt said that there were a number of moronic children in town and there were others whose tendencies to wander off the straight and narrow worried her a good deal…The main difficulty seems to be that there are quite a few unemployed boys hanging around with nothing to do except get into trouble with the girls younger than themselves at the school. Unfortunately the girls seem to take to this…”

During World War II, a very active Putney Community Center published its own newspaper, the “Putney Reporter”. Mimeographed, on a machine in the office of the Aiken Nurseries, it was produced bi-monthly from November 15, 1943 through October 30, 1945. The paper was filled with local news, news about service men and women, editorial comment, poems, humor, and letters written “home” to the Center from soldiers on active duty. Copies were mailed free of charge to all Putney residents in the service. Now a historical treasure in the archives, the venture was paid for by many local businesses of the era that faithfully purchased advertising on the back page of each issue.

M. P. Sherwood, the Putney Reporter’s first editor, wrote the following in the first issue: “Not many communities are as fortunate as Putney is in having an equipped and staffed recreational building like the Center. Newcomers to the village, like some of us, are constantly impressed with the limitless advantages of such a gathering place. The children of Putney need never grow up socially maladjusted. All of the elements that are necessary for the development of the individual personality are to be found at the Center.”

In the later forties and fifties, local businessman Dwight Smith, a member of the Board of Directors from its beginnings until his death in 1960, kept people informed of activities at the Center in his frequent newsletters. Childless himself, the Community Center gave him an opportunity to help raise a village full of children he loved.

Dances and after school activities for teens continued through the seventies, and for a time were affiliated with the YMCA in Bellows Falls. In its first 50 years, at least 3 generations of Putney’s children grew up knowing the familiar old building as an extension of their home. It was a place to have fun and to learn – without necessarily being aware that you were learning.

Sadly, however, by the end of the 70’s, declining usage and a deteriorating building let to a less vibrant period for the Center.

In 1994, a group called Putney Community Group consisting of representatives from five non-profit organizations – Putney Community Center, Putney Day Care Center, Putney Family Services, Putney Cares, and Putney Recreation League – met with the Putney Central School Board to share concerns, needs and wants for the town as a whole. A list of questions was devised and carefully answered by each group. The Community Center’s Board of Directors (at the time Linda Brooks, Anita Coomes, Ian Eddy, Kate Hudson, Tammy Severance and Connie St. John) then began the effort to see what could be done to renovate the Community Center so that it could once again return to play a pivotal recreational role for the Town.

Fundraising efforts were undertaken, sleeves were rolled up, and the work began. In April of 1998, an Open House was held to show off the tremendous improvements that had thus far been accomplished, and to dedicate the newly constructed office space and bathrooms as “The Ellis Wing” in honor of the long time work and devotion of Ken and Shirley Ellis.

The Town of Putney continues to give its support by paying to heat the building, and the Community Center is once again home to a wide range of uses and events which currently include: The Village Nursery School, monthly dances for 6th – 9th graders (September through May/June), Boy Scout/Cub Scout meetings, Tai Chi classes, children’s performances, weddings, memorial gatherings, concerts, dances, indoor games, community rummage sales, plays and play rehearsals, meetings, dog training classes, sewing circles, and variety shows. The Putney Community Center remains a “happening” place in Putney.

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