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Bushnell: Green Mountain Scrooge

If Vermont ever had an Ebenezer Scrooge, it was Silas Griffith.

He was bold, ambitious and often shrewd to the point of heartlessness. Griffith lived to make money, and was tremendously successful at it. During the late 1800s, his lumber and charcoal enterprise employed 600 people and made him Vermont’s first millionaire.

Griffith’s business required huge tracts of land, which he bought, often through foreclosure, and amassed 50,000 acres that sprawled over the towns of Danby, Mount Tabor, Dorset, Arlington, Peru, Manchester, Wallingford and Groton.

Efficiency was key to Griffith’s operations. He had nine sawmills constructed within his vast holdings so that timber could be hauled shorter distances. To connect his enterprise, Griffith had the first telephone lines ever installed in Vermont strung between the main office and each sawmill.

He had loggers use saws instead of axes to reduce the wood wasted in felling trees. His sawmills produced great mounds of sawdust, which he sold to ice houses to keep the ice cold.

Griffith’s efficiency system even included baking leftover wood scraps in kilns to make charcoal. The giant kilns annually produced 1 million bushels of charcoal that fed factories throughout the Northeast, and added to Griffith’s fabulous wealth.

Griffith found every way to squeeze money from his land. He did the same with his workers. He even refused to let them carry watches so they wouldn’t complain they were being overworked.

The company ran general stores, where workers could buy essentials like food and clothing. Their meager paychecks sometimes failed to cover even the basics, so some workers fell into Griffith’s debt. When a worker quit one day and walked away from the mill, Griffith intercepted him to remind him of his unpaid bills, including the purchase of his pants, which Griffith then made the man hand over on the spot.

Griffith was no more sentimental in his personal life. He divorced his first wife, who had borne him four children, then married a much younger woman, who refused to live in the home he had shared with his first wife. So Griffith built a new house next door, then had the first house burned into charcoal.

But late in life, like Scrooge, Griffith suddenly became generous. We don’t know why. Perhaps it was the tragedies he endured. Three of his children died in childhood. Whatever the cause, Griffith decided to leave behind a different legacy.

He financed a library and water system for Danby, and started giving clothes and gifts to workers’ children at Christmas. Thanks to money he left in his will, children in Danby and Mt. Tabor still gather in a church each Christmas, waiting to be called forward to receive their gifts from Silas Griffith.

Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author and co-author of several books on Vermont history, including It Happened in Vermont. His regular column, Life in the Past Lane, appears in the Rutland Herald and Barre-Montpelier Times Argus.
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