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Joseph Battell, circa 1860, when he was about 21 years of age.

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The Life and Death of Joseph Battell

February 26, 2015

MIDDLEBURY – Historian and author David Haward Bain captivated an audience of community members on February 23 with an illustrated talk marking the centennial of the death of Joseph Battell, an oft-celebrated member of the Middlebury College Class of 1860.

The informative talk entertained a gathering well aware of Battell’s exploits as the founder of the Bread Loaf Inn, the builder of the Battell Block and Battell Bridge, and the philanthropist who bequeathed 35,000 acres of pristine land in the Green Mountains to his alma mater. The words on his tombstone, “Benefactor of Middlebury,” rang true throughout the lecture, and yet Bain – an assiduous researcher with published histories of railroads and naval missions and noble institutions to his credit – still managed to disclose unexpected and humorous twists to the Joseph Battell story, much to the delight of the crowd.

His subject’s distaste for the automobile was well known, for example, but few in the gathering knew that Battell sometimes devoted full pages in his newspaper, the Middlebury Register, to reports of automobile accidents all over the country.  

“Joseph Battell despised the automobile,” said the senior lecturer in English and American literatures at the College, “not only for displacing his beloved horses” – Battell also founded the Morgan Horse Farm – “but for the clatter, the noise, and the pollution.”

Bain read from an issue of the Register in which “the crusading publisher” reported on nearly 70 accidents from “A collision on Berkeley Street, horse killed” to “Manchester, Mass., man, 67 years old, hit by auto and hurled 30 feet” to Derby, Conn., where an “Auto ran into a wall and passengers thrown into the swamp 15 feet below."

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David Bain has been intrigued by Joseph Battell for decades.

Battell even attempted to get legislation passed in Montpelier to prevent automobiles from using the publically travelled roads, Bain said. Affecting the voice of his subject he added: “If they want to have automobiles, then they can build their own damn roads!”

That Battell was eccentric, Bain left no doubt. “Joseph was emotionally crippled by his lost mother [who died when he was two] and his distant father.” He grew up in the care of nurses and his grandfather in the big house at the corner of Main and Seymour Streets. Battell never completed his studies at Middlebury College, and instead went on an extensive tour of Europe where he “took to following milkmaids and serving girls” – always at a discreet distance, but through a spyglass – “all over Europe.”

Returning home to Middlebury Battell produced a manuscript of his adventures abroad called “Yankee Boy From Home,” which his sister found distasteful and Bain termed “pretty creepy stuff.” His only sibling, Emma, bought out the entire first printing of the book and had it burned, Bain reported, and she “left her brother to his fantasies of a literary future.”

Years later Battell produced a novel, “Ellen, Or the Whisperings of an Old Pine,” which Bain called “elephantine and unreadable.” In it “a sprightly 16-year-old Vermont girl, Ellen, daily would climb the hillsides above her home and have long conversations with a stately old pine tree. [They were] interminable Socratic dialogues concerning science, theology, and philosophy.”

No one knew what to make of the book when it was published in 1901. Many reviewers were “plainly baffled but respectful, but others such as in Boston and Washington, D.C. were haughtily dismissive. No matter,” Bain continued. “Battell brought out an expanded second edition. There was even a deluxe leather-bound edition in royal red.”

The novel did not sell well. In the 1930s, some two decades after Battell passed away, “Copies of 'Ellen' could still be found all over the Bread Loaf Inn, where one Vermont guidebook said they were put into service as casters beneath furniture,” Bain paused. “And as doorstops.”

The circumstances surrounding Joseph Battell’s death were also peculiar, and since the lecture in the Abernethy Room of the Axinn Center at Starr Library marked the centennial of Battell’s passing, Bain both opened and closed his 45-minute talk with remarks about it.

The winter of 1915 found the 75-year-old novelist-environmentalist-horse breeder-innkeeper-newspaperman-and-philanthropist both “restless and infirm.” So as he had done many winters before, Battell took a train to Florida for an extended stay in the sun. On his way back home to Vermont, there was an altercation by a cigar stand in Washington’s Union Station, and Battell was taken into custody and transported to the Washington Lunatic Asylum for holding.

Bain said Congressman Frank L. Greene of St. Albans, Vt., arranged to have Battell transferred to George Washington University Hospital, where he underwent surgery and never recovered. His death certificate indicates that he died of “arteriosclerosis, dementia, hypertrophied prostate, and exhaustion,” and his funeral was held in the Congregational Church next door to his boyhood home.

Battell was “a man of many parts, not all of them visible. I see sadness in the eyes and a distance.” For Bain the “most telling portrait” of Battell is a large oil painting of his mother and her two small children, and it is in those eyes that he sees the isolation and mystery that marked the man.

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David Bain with several photographs of Joseph Battell. Bain authored the book "College on the Hill: A Browser's History" for Middlebury College's bicentennial in the year 2000. 

The event was sponsored by Middlebury College Special Collections & Archives, the Franklin Environmental Center at Hillcrest, Environmental Studies Program, Department of History, and Henry Sheldon Museum.

-- With reporting and photos by Robert Keren; Battell photo courtesy of Sheldon Museum


I would like to thank Mr. Bain for his contribution to preserving the legacy of the remarkable Joseph Battell. Mr. Battell's masterpiece, "Ellen, or Whisperings of an Old Pine", is worthy of careful reading. This passage gives one a sense of the majesty of Battell's philosophical position. 'All nature is but art unknown to thee, all chance direction which though canst not see; All discord harmony not understood, All partial evil, universal good, And in spite of pride, in erring season's sprite; One truth is clear, whatever is, is right' "But Ellen," I said, "it isn't possible that wrong is right." "It
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isn't possible," she answered, "that God made thing wrong. Ellen can doubt the judgment of men, but she cannot doubt that of the Almighty. We may be sure, old Pine, that there is nothing wrong in this great creation. Any such criticism is the assumption of the fool who makes it, that he could create this universe better than God, when in truth he is not able even to conceive it, or to create the smallest particle in it. Ellen does not know why life should destroy life. She does not know why man should delight in cruelty and inhumanity to his fellow man; but that which we call evil, and even that known to us as sin, ultimately results in good, there can be no doubt. To a great extent creation proceeds by a system of antithesis: as light and darkness, motion and rest, pleasure and pain, health and sickness, attraction and repulsion. And even as it would be impossible for the concave to exist without the convex, or the round without the flat, it may be impossible for anything in creation to exist without its opposite. Thus it may be impossible for the good to exist without the bad." "But," I said, "Ellen, if the Creator is all powerful and all wise, surely His creation might be made without such necessity, might it not? If there is such a thing as necessity of creation, then there is something greater and stronger than the Creator; and this necessity, in whatever it consists, becomes the ultimate authority, does it not?" "God creates, and all necessities are of His making," she replied, "so that, old Pine, there is and can be but one inference, that the manner in which the universe is created is the best possible; that the antitheses which we have mentioned take place, because in such way the highest degree of excellence is attained. We perhaps may not fathom the wisdom of such design, although in the moral world it is easily supposable that the best character must come freedom of choice and independent action. It follows, then, old Pine, that all things conduce to the highest excellence, or universal good. but nothing which so conduces can be evil, suggesting various but never any satisfactory reason."
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by Dr. Kyril Calsoyas (not verified)

I seem to remember that Joe Battell managed to get himself the title of " Colonel." I assume this had to do with his rivalry with Silas Ilsley ? Thank you.

by David Munford (not verified)

Why is his massive and important works: The Morgan Horse and the American Stallion Register not mentioned...his work along with that of John Wallace preserved the history of our horse breeds...they are pillars of America's equine history

by Kathleen Kirsan (not verified)

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