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'Hear Their Thoughts And Their Words': Brattleboro Word Trail Tells Region's Rich Literary History

A photo of a person standing in front of ceramic map showing the Brattleboro Words Trail.
Howard Weiss-Tisman
Lissa Weinmann, a co-founder of The Brattleboro Words Trail, stands near a ceramic map showing the many authors, publishers and storytellers highlighted on the audio tour.

The Brattleboro Words Trail is an interactive series of podcasts and maps that lead the listener on a tour around southeastern Vermont.

Audio for this story will be posted.

The trail highlights the storytellers and writers who lived — and live — in the area, and the long history of papermaking and publishing in Windham County.

People have been telling stories around the Brattleboro area for a very long time.

“Petroglyphs are the word that we use nowadays for carvings made on rock,” said Rich Holschuh, a spokesperson for the Elnu Abenaki Tribe, and a contributor to the Brattleboro Words Trail. “And they acknowledge a confluence of spaces coming together, which are important in that cultural worldview.”

The petroglyphs, which were carved more than 3,000 years ago, have been underwater since the Vernon Dam was built more than a century ago. They're one of the sites included in The Brattleboro Words Trail.

More From VPR: 'There's A Bigger Story': Recently Rediscovered Petroglyphs Bring Indigenous Narrative To Surface

The trail can be accessed through an app on a smartphone, and it uses short podcasts to lead the listener around the backroads of Brattleboro, and into some surrounding towns, where writers, storytellers and publishers lived and worked.

“From the start we wanted to start with this place,” said Lissa Weinmann, one of the co-founders of the project. “So we felt it was important that people go to some of these places, and feel the spirit of the people who’d come before. Giving people the sense of the words of the writers, so that they could hear their thoughts and their words while they were at the place they were visiting.”

Saul Bellowlived in Brattleboro at the end of his life, and he’s buried here. You can listen to Bellow talk about winning the Nobel Prize in literature while visiting his grave at a Jewish cemetery in town.

Lucy Terry Prince was formerly enslaved and the first-known African American poet. She lived in Guilford, and you can hear an actress read her words while walking Abijah Prince Road, near where she lived.

Robert Frost had ties to Marlboro College. Rudyard Kiplingwrote The Jungle Book nearby, and Jody Williams, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, went to elementary school in Brattleboro.

All of the stories, many with the words of the authors themselves, can be downloaded and listened to while visiting sites around southern Windham County.

“From the start we wanted to start with this place. So we felt it was important that people go to some of these places, and feel the spirit of the people who’d come before. Giving people the sense of the words of the writers, so that they could hear their thoughts and their words while they were at the place they were visiting.”
Lissa Weinmann, co-founder The Brattleboro Words Trail

Weinmann says dozens of volunteers spent time researching and putting together the podcasts. In the process, she added, they tried to put together an overarching story about why so many writers have called southern Vermont home.

“I mean, one of the fundamental questions that we all wanted to really explore was, ‘What was it, physically about this area, about the Brattleboro area, that seemed to, over time, attract so many writers, and printers and publishers?’" Weinmann said. “Was it something in the water, was it something in the air? So there are physically significant underlying characteristics to this place, we believe, that have really fostered the growth of this kind of identity, this kind of community here.”

One of the physical attributes of southern Vermont that contributed to the area’s rich literary history was its paper making industry, which was built around the trees and rivers in the area.

Paper mills began springing up in the early 1800s, which led to small publishing houses, newspapers and magazines starting up in Brattleboro according to Rolf Parker-Houghton, a local historian who worked on the Words Trail.

“So there was just this huge magnet of people interested in words and making a living from them as part of it,” Parker-Houghton said. “And there’s location after location in town, where these fascinating characters, sometimes very colorful, created lives for themselves by creating words.”

The Brattleboro Words Trail is an ongoing project. It will never be fully complete, the project director said, because any time a new author or poet moves to towns, there will be one more chapter to add.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Howard Weiss-Tisman @hweisstisman.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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