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

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.”

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