History of the Old Stagecoach Inn Vermont bed and breakfast, Waterbury
The town of Waterbury was established in 1763 under a grant from King George III, but sustained settlement did not begin until 1780. Many of these early pioneers were from Connecticut. In fact, Waterbury , Vermont , took its name from Waterbury, Connecticut . Then, as now, the town lying where the Winooski River breaks through the Green Mountain chain on its way west to Lake Champlain sits at a strategic intersection: east/ west, from Montpelier to Burlington, and north/ south from the Mad River Valley up to Stowe. Therefore, Waterbury was a logical location for an establishment catering to travelers going in either direction.
The inn was built in 1826 by Waterbury’s first lawyer, later Judge, Dan Carpenter, and his brother who previously had been active in construction of the Congregational Church just to the south. However, a letter discovered behind the walls during a recent restoration indicates that the actual builder of the inn was a Mr. Allen with Horace and Henry Atkins as carpenters and joiners. A Mr. Parmalee is named as the original owner. The inn, or tavern, served as a rest stop for people and horses and as a local meeting house. The King David Lodge of the local Masonic order met there in a hall in the ell at the rear of the building. Because of the strong anti-Masonic movement at that time, the only available meeting places for these groups were the local taverns. The railroad across the state had not yet been built, so travel in both directions was by horse-drawn coach over rutted roads, icy and snow covered in winter, and a bottomless sea of mud in the spring. At that time, Main Street (now Route 2) was known as the Winooski Toll Road, a forerunner of revenue raising practices to come.
In 1848 the railroad came through, so that stage coach travel survived only in the north/south direction. As the XIX century progressed, resort and recreational travel began to supplement trade and commerce. Hotels were constructed in the mountains at Stowe as a healthful antidote to big city summers. Guests would come with entire families and servants for a stay of weeks, or the entire summer. Arriving in Waterbury by train, they would often spend at least one night before proceeding up to their destination at the resort hotels.
By 1898 an electric trolley put the stage coach out of business, carrying passengers, baggage and freight between the two towns. It lasted until 1932 when the private automobile took over.
Before remodeling: note black barn at the rear. Originally, the inn was a large but plain structure of Federal appearance. For a time, records indicate, it was painted “lead black.” One photograph probably dating from the 1880s shows the stable barn to the rear in this unusual color. An explanation has been offered that painting houses black was done as a temporary gesture of mourning and respect for the assassinated President Lincoln. At any rate, by 1890 we see a photo captioned “Miss Annette Henry’s Home, one of the many summer homes for city visitors among the green hills of Vermont.” No vestige of black remains.
The Henrys were prominent in town. The inn had come into their possession through purchase from the Carpenters. During their ownership, and throughout most of the XIX century it continued to serve the combined functions of residence and hotel. Margaret Annette Henry was born in Waterbury in 1848, one of eight children. Her father, Sylvester Jr., was usually known as “Esquire” Henry, and the property was called “the Henry Farm.” Much of what we know about Annette comes from genealogical records of the family, and from surviving neighborhood children and persons who worked for the family. It was she who is the central character in the history of the inn, and who gave to it the appearance it has today.
“Nette”, or “Nettie” as she was known, was not a large woman, but high spirited, with “indian-like” features: high cheekbones, a large nose and hair in a bun behind. She smoked cigarettes at a time when this was considered a capital sin, and, according to her chauffeur, from time to time chewed tobacco. He says he saw the stains at the corners of her mouth. To complete the picture of eccentricity, in later years she became “deaf as a post”, in the words of an employee, used an ear horn and took to wearing a dark celluloid eyeshade much of the time. All in all “Nettie” was a mixture of small town money and salty Vermont farm wife.
Annette married Albert H. Spencer, who was born in Connecticut in 1842, but later emigrated to Ohio and made a fortune in rubber. He was the owner of several factories there and real state properties in Burlington. At one time, their residences, in addition to the Waterbury house, included a suite at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, a house in Newport, an apartment at 37 Avenue Victor Hugo in Paris as well as one in London.
With the influx of millions of dollars into the family, Annette and her husband set about transforming the “farm” into an edifice befitting their new status in high society. The house retained the one room deep profile of its original Federal appearance, but the third level, culminating in a Queen Anne gable above the roof line, and pierced by a rectangular balustrade recess, was made to accommodate an upper floor apartment. The late XIX century ells, each with a porch, were appended to the building.
Other Queen Anne period alterations included narrow clapboard sheathing, shingle clad gables, and a decoratively coursed chimney on the south side. Inside, consistent with XIX century taste, improvements now included wood paneling throughout, stained glass around many of the windows, acid etched glass on either side of the main entry doorway, and a framed tapestry in the front hall.
What the furnishings were like we can only surmise, but were likely keyed to the now revailing
feel of Victorian elegance that had been created. However, the net effect, according to local witnesses, was dark and rather gloomy. Despite this transformation, Annette and her husband apparently spent little time in Waterbury, and by the end of the century the house reverted to its status as a hotel.
In 1907 Albert Spencer died in London, and from this time on the saga of “Mrs. Spencer”, as she is still known, is an indeterminate mixture of fact and rumor. It is said that she was not popular with the other Waterbury matrons, and it is not hard to see why, given her sudden catapult from the Vermont Farm at 18 North Main Street to international society. Whether these rumors have any real foundation, or were prompted by envy, is hard to say.
The most serious charge has to do with her husband’s death. In the words of one native, “They say she did him in. Poisoned his soup.” Compared to that, other accusations although lurid are less serious: that she had an unacknowledged child, that she ran a bordello in Cleveland, and that she was actively involved in bootlegging during prohibition. When questioned, one elderly gentleman responded, “No, sir. I’m not going to comment on what she did in Cleveland.” At any rate, some time after the death of Albert Spencer she returned to live in Waterbury as the subject of endless gossip, and the house became a residence once again. What is certain is that she was a racy character with a style all her own, and that she left an indelible impression on the town. “Domineering” is a word often used by those who knew her. One of her passions was automobiles, starting with an Oak-land, later upgraded to a large Lincoln phaeton, cutting an impressive figure on the unpaved streets and roads around Waterbury. Her chauffeur still remembers her instructions to “Step on it,” and, if he advised caution, “I’m paying you to drive the way I want.” She took great pride in her automobiles. When he stopped at the railroad overpass to let a train go by, belching smoke and cinders, she said, “I’m glad you stopped here so we wouldn’t get any of that shit on the car.”
By Vermont standards, Nettie Spencer was very well off indeed, with an annual income in the 1930s of about $30,000 and as the owner of several properties around town. She was a hard person to do business with, bargained down to the last penny, but also had moments of generosity, sometimes with strings attached. One remembered gift of $5.00 was conditional that it be put in the bank immediately.
Elderly Waterbury ladies, who were little girls at the time, remember calling at 18 North Main Street where Mrs. Spencer lived with her housekeeper. The girls were raising funds for their club, selling bags of candy for five cents a bag. Mrs. Spencer always bought two bags. They entered through the side door which opened into the dining room. Directly across the room was a gold chair. “Mrs. Spencer would always line us up on the porch and let us go in one by one to sit on the chair. We were led to believe that it was solid gold, and we all felt that we were sitting on a throne.”
One of these girls returned after World War II as a night nurse for Mrs. Spencer who was by now almost a hundred years old, physically still going strong but mentally disoriented and mischievous, needing constant supervision. As recounted, “She had two favorite pastimes, singing hymns and smoking. We would share a hymnal, rock and sing with gusto for ten or fifteen minutes. She would then have a cigarette or two, and we would start all over again. She would smoke her cigarette down to the very tip and then flick it as far as she could. It delighted her to see me scamper after it. It was an old house, and I was afraid of fire. I would rush and pick up the butts and place them in a saucer. She, however, thought I was collecting them to take home to my husband and accused me of it nightly.”
Shortly after this Mrs. Spencer was removed to a nursing facility in Massachusetts where she died in 1947. A mausoleum just inside the Congregational Church cemetery next door is her final resting place.
Beginning about the time of the First World War and continuing into the 1920’s there were substantial changes to the “Vermont Farm.” A street had been laid just to the north running back about a quarter mile to the river where a bridge crossed over to Duxbury. This is now Winooski Street. From land records it appears that substantial tracts at the edge of the original Henry property were sold off as building lots for homes, so that the “farm” was now no more than a village residence with a tree shaded grassy lawn at the side, widening into a green expanse at the rear.
In November 1927, there occurred a disaster of almost biblical proportions which to this date reverberates in Vermont history, the Great Flood. Three days of torrential rains poured more water
into the Winooski watershed than the river could handle. It rose to unprecedented levels, carrying all
before it, houses, barns, bridges, cattle and live-stock, roads and railroad tracks. Altogether fifty-four people in the Winooski Valley lost their lives. The situation in Waterbury was alleviated by the wide flood plain between the river and part of the village. Even so houses in the low lying parts of town were floated off their granite foundations and left bobbing at crazy angles in the muddy current. A long row of Elm trees along Winooski street caught debris sweeping downstream creating a barricade against which more debris piled up raising the water level. Only the highest ground at the intersection of Main and Stowe streets remained above water.
At the Spencer house flood waters reached well up toward the second story. But the house survived better than the surrounding region, which took many months to fully recover. In 1928 new bridges were built, and a series of three flood control dams were constructed on the Winooski and its tributaries as prevention against a recurrence.
In 1948 the property was sold to Mr. C. B. Norton whose agricultural implement business - “cow stalls
and restraining systems, save their cost every year, more comfort more profit” - he operated out of an office in the house. However, with typical Vermont Yankee frugality, he and Mrs. Norton supplemented
this income by continuing the tradition of renting rooms to outsiders. Some of these rooms were made into self-contained efficiencies with stoves, sinks and running water. After Mr. Norton’s death in 1972, the building became less and less a residence and more and more a rooming house with a deteriorating quality of clientele. For many years all of Vermont’s mental health facilities had been located in a large campus-like tract at the southern end of town. In fact, the name Waterbury to most Vermonters had come to signify “the looney bin.” Not all of its patients required full time institutional care, and many were housed in local dwellings. Several were usually in residence at 18 North Main Street along with a mixed bag of relatives and other persons needing inexpensive shelter. With limited income, maintenance on the house ceased. Bits of furniture were on display for sale on the front porch. Finally, Mrs. Norton was forced to sell off the lawn expanse at the rear so that the property was now reduced to the building itself and little more. A sad but common fate for grand old houses fallen on hard times.
By the early 1980s the building was in a state of gross disrepair, so that at the time of Mrs. Norton’s death, there was a real question of what to do with it. To many Waterbury residents it represented the village’s golden age so that a proposal to locate a discotheque there met with quick disapproval. And the town fathers were agreed that no wrecking ball would ever strike the building. Nevertheless, few prospective buyers were able to come up with the large sums required to bring it back to its former state.
At this point good fortune intervened in the person of two individuals from the Boston area, Kimberlee and James Marcotte, both young people, full of energy and enthusiasm. Kim was a native of Waterbury, and her family still lives in town. In the decayed but still elegant old structure, they saw a unique Vermont treasure with potential for a country inn that in appearance and furnishings would recreate the atmosphere of a bygone era, with original antiques, pictures and craft knicknacks scattered through the many rooms. They were well qualified for such an undertaking. Kim was a talented decorator with a real feel for the old Vermont. Jim was a building contractor specializing in the restoration of old houses.
Together, in 1985 they bought the property and set about bringing it back to life with the help of the Historical Society and a substantial loan from the Small Business Administration. Waterbury natives looked on with interest and astonishment as windows were torn out, walls came down and rooms were gutted. A first floor bedroom was transformed into a library bar. On the third floor ceilings were ripped out to expose the original handhewn beams. In back, the ells and stable barn became five efficiency suites, completely equipped for longer term stays. A sprinkler system was installed as well as a commercial kitchen. Outside, the lawn at the side of the building became a parking lot.
Not much of the original furnishings remained. To preserve the sense of “real” versus “simulated” antiquity, Kim and Jim bought the entire contents of two old houses in Massachusetts from two elderly sisters. This collection was transported to Waterbury. The better pieces were placed throughout the inn. What was left disappeared in a gigantic yard sale held in the parking lot. For finishing touches, Kim decorated the public rooms in colors beloved by Victorians but out of fashion today: pink, lavender and burgundy. Outside, mauve with white trim.
The whole reconstruction took about two years, and the inn opened for business in 1987, offering to prospective visitors both lodging and the creations of a gourmet kitchen. Because of careful attention to authenticity both in construction and decor, the inn was listed in the National Register of Historic Places.
One wishes that so much talent, effort and imagination could have had a happier ending, but that was not to be. For one thing, timing was not propitious for a new enterprise. Starting in the late 80’s the nation was mired in a severe recession which adversely impacted summer travel and tourism as well as ski vacations in winter. Also, it is question-able whether a gourmet restaurant in Waterbury with high salaried chefs could survive the slow periods in early spring and fall. Finally, there remained the demands of the couple’s basic business, necessitating a division of time between Vermont and Boston.
For all these reasons and perhaps others, after an initial strong start, the inn began to lose ground. Effects of the recession showed no sign of abatement during 1990 and 91, and business continued to decline. Finally, in 1992 the decision was made to give it up and close the doors.
From April 1992 to August 1993 the inn stood empty. Many interested parties looked it over, but nothing came to fruition. Just at that time, how-ever, a father/son combination from Westport, Connecticut appeared on the scene. John Barwick and John Barwick Junior had made the decision to abandon the high pressure business environment of the New York Metropolitan area. The break was irrevocable, houses had been sold and the family business closed down.
There was only one problem: neither of the two had the least experience in innkeeping. The Small Business Administration was not at all convinced that this asset should be entrusted to two willing but untried amateurs, especially two individuals whose experience was not in the hospitality field but in advanced interactive technology systems. It was much more than simply writing a check, the SBA had to be convinced that this team could make the inn succeed. In the end, after much discussion, the sale was closed on September 2, 1993, and on September 25th the inn under new management welcomed its first guests. Between September 2nd and 25th, all state and local operating permits and licenses had to be secured, basements cleaned out and a con-crete floor poured to facilitate storage, suppliers identified, orders placed, windows washed, all rooms cleaned, several repainted, and the contents of two houses moved up from Connecticut. Fortunately, since the Barwicks had behind them fifty years of antique collecting, their possessions augmented rather than detracted from the old fashioned atmosphere of the inn.
By opening day, although the inn looked good, both innkeepers were in a state of physical exhaustion. Nevertheless, the “vacancy” sign went up and a horde of foliage peepers cascaded through the front door. Neither partner had been fully aware of the implications of “foliage season” and the crowds of visitors that always come with it. But somehow they made it through the following month, running on adrenaline and a determination to give guests the best service they could.
Since that time, the inn has prospered, operating primarily as a bed & breakfast. In addition, there are occasional private luncheons, dinners, wed-dings and parties. The owners were successful in buying back the lawn expanse at the rear. This green vista onto the hills behind town is now protected against the intrusion of unsightly development. Around it, the town is enjoying a renaissance: many of the fine homes along Main Street have been rehabilitated. More and more travelers have come to appreciate the convenience of Waterbury’s central location as they explore in all directions the sights and experiences that Vermont
has to offer.
Part of the character of old homes is the story of a former resident, now deceased, who lingers on through the years to keep watch over their former domain. Not that they don’t trust the newer generation, just that the home was such an important part of their lives, they can’t seem to let go. This fits very well with the local attitude, to whom an old house is not really the genuine article unless there is a ghost in residence.
The Old Stagecoach Inn cooperates to make this all the more believable. From years back there were stories of strange goings on there, which the new owners dismissed as products of hyperactive imaginations. But as time passed a continuing series of “happenings” forced them to reconsider.
These “happenings” are mostly minor, almost practical jokes, as though someone or some-thing
was having fun with a bewildered housekeeper or guest. They would occur as often as not in broad daylight with people present, at other times in the dead of night. But never was there anything sinister or
malicious involved. For example, a rocking chair suddenly begins to rock in an agitated manner and continues for several minutes with no one near it; furniture items are moved; beds have their linens stripped and neatly folded while the housekeeper is working nearby, and other similar incidents too numerous to mention. The only ill effects have been a reluctance of cleaning staff to work alone upstairs.
Not long ago a professional “ghost hunter” came by the inn having heard rumors of strange phenomena there. His intent was to verify by objective methods the existence of paranormal activity. The tool for this purpose was a dowsing instrument which in the presence of an extra-sensory energy field behaves in an unusual, erratic fashion, different from its usual motion above a concealed water source. Although the best time for such research is at night, he proceeded to go through the inn room by room, noting variations in energy activity. His finding was that the force field in the inn was “the strongest in my experience.” This was particularly true for rooms two and eight. Oddly enough, most of the previous ghost
sightings” had been in room two, but at the time the researcher did not know that. Perhaps there are ways to account for such other worldly phenomena. But one event still puzzles Mr. Barwick, who, by the way, is a confirmed skeptic as far as ghosts are concerned.
It was a busy summer weekend in at Sunday morning breakfast. The dining room was still mostly full. Mr. Barwick was helping the waitress, by keeping the coffee urn and orange juice pitcher full, and by removing dishes. All rooms were booked, but the reservation for room three had been unexpectedly cancelled the previous evening. Mr. Barwick had taken the cancellation himself, and no one knew about it but he.
As he was standing at the dining room entrance two people came down for breakfast. They were unfamiliar to him. He had registered all the other guests and chatted with many of them, so he had a pretty good idea who was staying there. He thought perhaps it was a couple come in from off the street looking for breakfast, which occasionally happens. But it was odd that they had come down the stairs instead of through the side door.
To make sure, he asked if they were guests of the inn.
“Yes,” they replied. “We’re all in room three.”
“How many of you are there?” Mr. Barwick asked.
“Three,” they answered.
“Three,” said Mr. Barwick, “That room accommodates only two. Where did you all
“Oh, we managed,” they replied. “We couldn’t find a place to stay. This was the only one.”
Still puzzled, Mr. Barwick asked, “Well, what time did you come in?”
“Oh,” they said, “it was around two-thirty this morning.”
“Well, who let you in?” Asked Mr. Barwick.“Why, it was a lady, an older lady. Very nice.”
More puzzled than ever, he now asked, “What did she look like?” thinking it might have been one of the other guests who had been unaccountably awake at that hour.
“Gray hair, kind of in a bun, and wearing a long dress,” they replied.
That didn't match any of the other guests. But even if it had been another guest, it would have been extremely unusual for them to have unlocked the door and allowed three people to come in for the night. And how could they have known that the room was available? After the newcomers had been seated and their orders taken, Mr. Barwick queried the other guests as they left the dining room to see if anyone had any knowledge of the incident. No, no one did. He thought for a long time about this. There was probably a logical explanation, but he couldn't think of it then, and can’t think of one now.
And there it stands, a small mystery among many. Maybe not enough to certify the inn is haunted, but very odd, nevertheless.