Dora Frances Tompkins Lawson

A Real Vermonter

By Corinne Lawson

Dora Frances Tompkins was born December 12, 1855, in Barre, Vermont, the eldest child of Julia (Holmes) and Ira Hard Tompkins. She was followed by a brother George and two younger sisters, Nellie and Julia.

On December 9, 1862, her father enlisted in the Vermont Volunteers 11th Heavy Artillery in the Civil War. It was three days before her 7th birthday. Two years later, her father was mortally wounded at the battle of Cedar Creek, on October 19, 1864, where the greatest number of Vermonters were killed in any one single battle of the Civil War. (Author's note: I have two letters written home shortly after Dora's father arrived in Washington DC describing the trip from Vermont - before he saw any battle: all other letters he may have written were never found.)

Dora's only brother was adopted by an Allen family per a battlefield promise made between her father (Tompkins) and George Allen, who survived. (This "promise" literally made as the two neighboring Vermont friends laid one long night for the signal at daylight for the battle to begin. So, said George Allen, a shoemaker from a nearby town, who returned home to offer new parentage for Dora's year younger brother, George Tompkins. Obviously Dora's mother Julia Tompkins agreed to this arrangement. The obituary of George (Tompkins) Allen the 3rd in 1975, stated that his great grandfather George Tompkins the 1st, was adopted by George Allen because of a Civil War battlefield promise. (Author's note: I have a copy of that obituary.)

Three years later, Dora's mother Julia died. Ages 9 through Dora's 12, the three young sisters were "farmed out" to whoever could take them in.

Dora found herself first a kitchen maid in a large stagecoach inn, and by age 14 was serving patrons in the dining area. By 16 Dora was gathering large pitchers of ale to serve the male patrons in the pub. It is unknown if that is where she met her future husband, Freeman Lawson; however, she came to the Lawson farm overlooking Nelson Pond in Woodbury, Vermont in 1872. She was only 17. Here at the little hill farm before Dora, was Ruth Norcross, wife to Daniel Lawson the first, followed by Sarah Lyford, wife to Daniel Lawson the 2nd. (Author's note: Our only son is named Daniel Warner Lawson.)

Within 2 years of her marriage, Dora's younger sister Nellie married Freeman Lawson's younger brother George. Nellie and George built a "bigger" home on the "lower" section of the original 250 acre hill farm. The farm had been divided for the first time by Grandpa Daniel Lawson, the 2nd when his sons, Freeman and George became of age to marry.

As time went by, the newer and bigger house, down the road, belonging to her younger sister, rather rankled Dora, (painted white, with green shutters, with upstairs windows) especially when Nellie and George only had one child and Dora and Freeman were raising five. (Nellie and George's house would burn to the ground 44 years later and their only son and his wife moved away - no offspring.)

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DORA AND THE DYNAMITE Dynamite

Dora's wish to have a new and larger home finally became a reality, some 75 yards across her yard from where she was living in the small red house that Daniel Lawson the 1st, had built in 1819. It was the summer of 1888.

The hilly land belonging to the Lawsons (who were first squatters on King's Land Grants in the early 1800s, before forced to buy) was primarily ledge. In building the new home, Dora insisted on a full cellar and not just a hand-dug 6-foot square crawl space that the existing house had under the corner floorboards. Her husband, Freeman, and other workers were forced to use dynamite to blast out the cellar hole for the new home.

Each time they were ready to blast, Freeman would tell Dora to take the "little ones" down to the crawl space, or down through the steep pasture to the newly named Nelson Pond that bordered their land so the children could swim while she picked berries. (Author's note: Our summer cottage of 33 years is built on the shore of Nelson Pond - and now with the farm recently sold out of the family, we are on 17 acres of what is left and the only family with same name on same land since the town of Woodbury kept records.)

The nervousness and noise of dynamiting out the new cellar hole was rather exciting at first, but as nothing ever came close to being dangerous, it soon became commonplace to hear the blasting and also a nuisance to "run and hide" . . . or so Dora thought.

As the story goes, one early morning as the "little ones" were dawdling over their breakfast, workers came to tell Freeman and Dora they were ready to blast again. Freeman finished his coffee warning her, as always, to take the children to the crawl space.

Looking at the table covered with dishes and children still eating, Dora made some sort of stubborn decision that she wasn't going to continue "this hiding out" foolishness. She assured the little ones that there had never been any incidents before and that Papa "just liked to hear himself talk."

The blast went off and a piece of stone the size of a bread pan, hurtled through the open window beside the table. Over the head of the 6 year old who told me the story (75 years later). The rock landed squarely and thunderously on top of "Papa's" favorite coffee cup. Not one child let out a sound.

"That's the first time I ever remember my mother not having a single remark to make. Mama simply stared at us children and the rock and Papa's smashed cup, and the general mess it made of the whole table. Then she picked up the stone and put it in the woodbox. She picked up the pieces of the broken cup and put them in a pan under the (soap-stone) sink. She picked up the rest of the dishes and put them on the broad-shelf and took off her apron. Then she climbed the ladder to the loft and took to her bed. She didn't speak a word all day and we never knew if she had to tell my father because of the cup, or if he somehow found out another way. We certainly never told him and we never heard them discuss it. You can know that we went down to the crawl space, or went to the pond, every time they blasted after that." (Author's note: Related to me by Therese Lawson Ainsworth - my husband's great aunt, died age 82 in 1964, 3rd child of Dora and Freeman Lawson, and teller of many family stories.)

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For the next 10 years Dora raised her 2 sons and 3 daughters, cared for her aging in-laws, and established herself as an extremely vocal and capable community leader. She was involved with a variety of "women's groups" and touted women's right to vote. She took an active interest in the school system, Farm League, Women's Relief Corp, Daughters of the American Revolution and more.

Dora taught her daughters on wash day, as her mother-in-law, Sarah had taught her, that "ladies linens" (undies and other "monthly" delicates) were to be washed and rinsed with boiling water 3 times. When satisfactorily clean they were "wrung of water" and placed in old dry pillowcases and hung on the back porch out of sight. The "ladies pillowcases" had to be "turned" and "shook" twice a day so the contents wouldn't "mutter" and "mold" in the bottom of the case. If the weather was damp, the pillow cases were hung on hooks behind the chamber door near the kitchen woodstove, but only at night.

Dora enjoyed entertaining in her well kept new hillside home and was considered one of the best cooks in the area. She brought food for an army to all the community functions and 4th of July celebrations. Dora had learned considerable cooking skills in the stagecoach inn where she worked as a teenager and she rarely "made plain food." She had a large herb garden, and grew her own root vegetables for pickling and sauces: Sweet beet relish, Copper Pennies (Carrot relish), pickles mixed with wild onions, dried onions and spices, AND mashed horseradish, generally served in a small orange-trimmed relish dish with a tiny spoon.

Rhubarb and black-raspberry pies, syrup, jams and wines were a speciality. She smoked beef, pork and venison and also canned same, plus hedgehog (porcupine) with her special spices. She made several kinds of cheese and had a variety of vegetables and fruits "pickling" in large stoneware crocks in her naturally refrigerated "infamous" cellar sunk deep into ledge.

Being a rocky hill farm, only a dozen or so milking cows were kept, and young stock, some raised for beef, piglets raised for pork, and a handful of chickens for eggs and the stew pot.

And with the able start of her mother-in-law Sarah who had been recording family history throughout the early 1800s, Dora began a life-long pursuit of collecting family photos and continued research of the family roots. (Author's note: I feel very fortunate to have nearly 200 year old, hand-written records and marvelous old photos passed onto me from my husband's Aunt Therese who became my best friend when I married into the family [but not onto the farm] in 1959.)

As the 20th century arrived and rolled on, Dora plumply aged and her long brown hair turned white, eternally knobbed to the back of her head in a bun. She gave up many of her community duties that took her away from her home, but remained a pillar of her community right in her own well kept kitchen and from her rocking chair on her broad front porch facing the narrow dirt road that has not changed since.

She had seen her 5 children all married and all sadly leaving the farm for neighboring towns in their youth. She had many grandchildren. Her heart ached over the death of her oldest who died in his early 40s, in a snow-roller accident, just 3 years after he lost his wife. (Author's note: My husband's grandparents who left 3 small children.) But accidents are God's Will as she used to say. She agonized in seething anger over the death of her youngest, a young woman of 28. "Baby" Edith, as our family will always call her, died giving birth to her 5th child at a premature 6 months, all alone (except for her 4 hungry toddlers) in a rundown farm house some 10 miles away, in the height of a winter storm.

Again, to quote Aunt Therese, one of Dora's three daughters: "My sister married a worthless man, and besides that he was a Catholic. My mother said that no good would come from that marriage because Catholics used God as an Excuse and not a Excercise in how to live a good life. In the 6 years they were married, he was home five times to try his hand at farming, but only long enough to get Edith in the "family way" again. Then he was gone for months and months, up to no good for sure. And he drank!! Most of the time she didn't even know where he was. Her 4-year-old said she started having a terrible belly-ache the night before, after wading through waist-high snow carrying pails of water to the barn to their half-starved cows. Mother and I sleighed over the day after the storm because we knew he was gone and her expecting again. We had the sleigh full of wood and food because likely they were all out of everything as usual. We found her and the four little ones all in her bed, but she was already dead with the "new one" and blood everywhere. There was nothing we could do but bundle up the little ones and bring them home. Papa went after Edith and brought her home the next day and we had the funeral in the front room. We never did get hold of him."

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DORA AND THE HORSERADISH

Well into her 60's, now a widow, with daughter Therese back living on the farm with teenage children, Dora's earlier penchant for entertaining with glee, every character that walked on two legs and knocked on her door, had been replaced by "selectivity" due to her "slowing" down and a growing cantankerous disposition.

A certain politician (who, of all things, was not born in the Vermont, and worse still, was a Catholic) had been making frequent visits knowing Dora's continued popularity and influence on her neighbors and community.

One afternoon, Dora announced to her daughter that there would be a guest for supper and it would be Mr. Politician. And she would help with preparing the meal. (Aunt Therese was stupified that her mother would invite him to the house, let alone to a their supper table.)

Whatever the meal was, mashed potatoes and gravy were part of the fare. It seems that just before supper was served, she excused herself from the "visitor" and went down to her "infamous" cellar, returning with one of her many specialities. She put the entire jar's contents in a round serving bowl, the same size as the bowl the mashed potatoes were put in.

As the women put the food onto the huge kitchen table, Dora made sure she placed the bowl she had filled, directly in front of Mr. Politician's designated place at the table. Invitingly beside it, she placed the gravy boat. The mashed potato was clear across the table where Dora would be sitting. She invited her guest and family to be seated.

In her most charming voice, she interrupted Mr. Politician's constant blather by suggesting he have some mashed potato and gravy with his meat, etc. He smiled and nodded and proceeded to spoon a large amount of the white contents from the bowl in front of him, poured on gravy, talking all the while.

As the story goes, Dora said later, "I knew he'd get hungry after a fashion and stop talking."

He did, and took a heaping forkful of "mashed potato" and gravy - only the bowl he served himself from was full of home-grown, mashed horseradish. It took a few seconds before he realized the heat in his mouth wasn't hot mashed potato, but another kind of HOT. His eyes got huge, his face got dangerously red, and tears were already flowing down his face as he swallowed the offending fire. Upon reaching his stomach his condition worsened. He spied the giant water pitcher in the middle of the table and leaped to his feet, knocking his chair over. He unended the whole pitcher into his mouth, thoroughly soaking his clothes, gasping like a fish out of water. Minutes later he recovered enough to glare at Dora and march to the kitchen door, slamming it behind him, never to return.

After a lengthy time of helpless laughter Aunt Theresa said to her mother, "You could have killed him you know." To this Dora replied, "So?"

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DORA AND THE BANTY ROOSTERRooster

Now very old and overweight, Dora found herself on the farm alone one afternoon. (Supposed to be napping.) She decided to go out the kitchen door, to the shed door, to the porch, and down the steps to a black-raspberry patch across the yard, near the old corn-crib. She got herself over to the berry patch with the help of a broom she found on her way out.

She was pickin' away, dropping berries in the little bonnet she had taken off her head. Around the corner of the corn-crib came BOSS ROOSTER, a prize Banty, more for looks than the cooking pot...and behind him, his broodies and other larger poultry, including other prized egg-layers and stud-stuffy roosters (always allowed loosed).

He didn't like her being where she was and began to attack her from head to toe (as the story goes) and probably scared the be-jezuz out of her as he backed her up the ramp to the closed door of the ole' corn-crib. There leaning on the door was a huge shovel. All 5 ft. - 180 lbs. at 87 years of age, picked up that shovel and came down that ramp just a-swinging and a-smashing feathers.

When the rest of the family came home, Dora was sitting on the porch steps, bonnet on her head, with berries falling around her cheeks, broom in one hand, shovel in the other...and swearing like a parrot! (And several prize fowl bleeding and fluttering in death throes all over the yard!) As the story goes, Dora said, "I was married into this Godforsaken place 61 years ago and never allowed any disabuse from no man...I'll be damned if a son-of-a-bitch rooster will chase me off the place now!" (No one ever remembered that this woman swore, EVER!)

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