By Yvonne Daley
Special to The Globe
DANBY, Vt. — In the late 1800s, a lumber king named Silas L. Griffith amassed a huge fortune here and in neighboring Mount Tabor by being shrewd, daring and miserly, often at the expense of his employees.
Today, the descendants of those employees are experiencing a different side of Griffith. He is something of a hero now, especially at Christmastime when the children in these two poor and rural towns receive presents in his name at the annual Silas L. Griffith Christmas Tree Party.
The scene was picture-perfect last Tuesday night when the tradition was relived, as it has been for more than 80 years. A full moon lit the white country church and down-town Danby as nearly 90 young children and their parents trekked inside. There, under the church’s tin roof, toys spilled from the altar to the nearby 15-foot balsam tree.
Griffith, who died in 1904, directed in his will that the interest on a $2500 bequest be used each Christmas to buy a present for every child between the ages of 2 and 12 in the towns. Another $2500 was bequeathed by his widow, Katherine Tiel Griffith.
No one knows exactly what prompted Griffith to begin the tradition. Some people in town say that Griffith, who grew up in a poor, hard-working family, remembered what it was like to receive little for Christmas.
Others, such as Beatrice Tifft, who has organized the event for several years, say perhaps it was because all but one of Griffith’s four children died young, two in infancy.
Still others speculate that Griffith was paying a debt for his less-than-generous behavior on his way to the top.
Once, Danby and Mount Tabor were the centers of Vermont’s lumber and charcoal industries and Griffith, or S.L., as he is called locally, was king of it all.
Local legend, which combines biography and oral history, says he started from scratch. His family was too poor to send him to Kimball Union Academy, a private school in Meriden, N.H., where he wanted to go. So he worked in a local store and saved enough for one semester, and, even at that, he had to live on buckwheat cakes and molasses. His education ended after that semester in 1856 because he had to work full time.
His first business, a general store in Danby, ran into trouble from the beginning because bankers denied him credit and would not advance the goods he needed. By the time he died, however, he owned more than 75.000 acres including most of Mount Tabor and parts of Peru, Arlington, Dorset, Manchester, South Wallingford, Groton and Danby.
He owned nine mills, hundreds mill houses inhabited by his employees, six mill stores in which the employees could purchase their goods, several boarding houses, a huge lumber and charcoal-making enterprise, a meat-processing plant and market, three steam mills and three factories for grinding feed, making packing cases, wagons, sleds and harnesses. He had what was reported to be the largest fish hatchery in the world.
Townsfolk say he was loyal to his oldest employees, keeping them on the payroll even when they were barely able to hobble about. But there is also talk he worked his employees hard. He did not allow them to wear a watch, for example, so they did not know how many hours they had worked.
There were only two labor disputes during his time. In the first, the men asked for a wage increase. Griffith settled the dispute his way: he paid the agitators at the end of that day’s work and on the next day hired new help. The second dispute, a strike, was instituted by the Knights of Labor. Here, again, Griffith quickly reconstructed his working force and, thereafter, refused to employ anyone who belonged to any labor organization.
A changed and smaller town
Today, Mount Tabor barely resembles the town Griffith built. The population has dwindled from the several thousand of his day to about 200. Danby also has changed. Once Rte. 7, Vermont’s main north-south thoroughfare, went through town, but the road was moved after Griffith’s death; the town no longer generated enough traffic. Griffith’s legacy remains, however, in the Orphan’s Fund, church and library trusts, water works and countless civic improvements and donations he made during his last years and through his will.
People here don’t want to hear anything negative about the man who left their town so much. So people were expressing outrage at the Christmas party Tuesday night about a book being written about Griffith and his wife.
Ann Rothman, a New York-writer who lives part-time in Danby, is writing the book that will reveal some of the seamier sides of the Griffiths’ past. According to townspeople who have proof-read sections of the book, it talks about Griffith’s passion for women, speculates about his divorce from a first wife and his subsequent marriage. But what bothers residents most are the attacks on Silas and Katherine Griffith’s characters.
“I don’t give a fig what Rothman says,” Tifft said. “The things they both did that she is dredging up we don’t want to hear about. The good things they did, their goodwill go on forever. I do expect that S. L. stepped on a good amount of toes, but why dredge it up after all these years?”
Rothman said her characterization is generally positive. “He was tough, but a much better man than some of those who were also making their fortunes at this time. Something happened to him. Maybe it was the loss of those two little girls in infancy, and his son and only heir at 10 years old. I think it sent a shock through him and changed his life in a really big way. It made him a better man.
”Regardless of his methods, he was a truly brilliant mercantile genius. He was also a notorious ladies’ man,” Rothman said in a telephone interview.
Griffith’s nearest relative, Marilyn Goss of Dallas, Texas, reached by phone, said her ‘grandfather “lived like any guy would who owned the whole town. His business procedures were the same as any climber.”
All this controversy mattered little to the children here, all bundled up for the below-zero weather and some dressed in pajamas and ready for bed. Dulcie Griffith, who may or may not be related to S.L., depending on who is talking, said she was “so excited before we came I could hardly stand it. Last year, I got a tea set with butterflies on it. It was really fun. Griffith was really a fine man.”
Boarding houses are run at all the different jobs by people especially employed for that purpose by Mr. Griffith. As there is no contract work done in connection with the business, everything being done by day’s labor, Mr. Griffith believes it economical to feed his men well, holding to the very reasonable idea that a well-fed man will accomplish more work in a day than one who is not satisfied with the quantity or quality of his food. For many years Mr. Griffith has employed a man for the special purpose of buying cattle and swine and butcher them, and another man to distribute the meat among the boarding houses. A few months ago he fitted up and opened a meat market in this village, principally for the accommodation of the general public—at that time a much needed institution.
In connection with the works at the railroad station in this village is a large steam mill for grinding feed, of which a large quantity is annually consumed by his own teams. Adjoining this mill is another one for working up the unmarketable lumber into shooks or packing cases, the demand for which comes largely from piano factories and knitting mills. Another shop is used for making and repairing sleds and wagons, and still another for the making and repairing of harness—from twelve to fifteen men being employed in the last two departments we have mentioned, all skilled blacksmiths, wheelwrights and harnessmakers.
As we have before noted, all the details of the business are very finely systematized. The products of the forest are very closely worked up—the unsalable spruce lumber into shooks, the edgings sawed from the boards go to make charcoal, the unsalable hardwood into chair stock, and even much of the sawdust is sold for bedding horses and cattle and filling ice-houses. Each mill is connected with the main office by Mr. Griffith’s private telephone line, for which sixty-five miles of wire and thirteen instruments are required. While a great deal of money is annually expended in the maintenance of this line in addition to the large first cost, it is such a time-saving institution that it is considered a very profitable investment.
The horses and oxen used in the business consume about 600 tons of hay per annum, about a third of which is cut from Mr. Griffith’s land, and about 20,000 bushels of corn and 10,000 bushels of oats are required each year.
Mr. Griffith’s main office, situated just across the track from the railroad station in this village is both commodious and conveniently arranged for the expeditious handling of the business. The building and furnishings cost its proprietor upwards of $6,000, is lighted with acetylene gas, heated with hot water and provided with a large fireproof vault. The ground in front the building is tastefully beautified with growing plants in variously formed beds and urns, which have constant care during the season by Mr. Griffith’s private florist.
When we consider the large number of men employed year after year by Mr. Griffith, it seems somewhat remarkable that the business has been so free from labor troubles and disturbances. There are a large number of cases, too, where men have been in his employ for exceptionally long periods, and not a few of such are still on his payroll. There have been but two strikes in the history of the business. The first one was in consequence of a demand for an increase in wages, which Mr. Griffith’s existing contracts would not permit him to grant; consequently, he paid off the old help the day following cessation of work, and on the second day started up the works with new help throughout. The second strike was instituted by the Knights of Labor, and Mr. Griffith quickly reconstructed his working force, and thereafter refused to employ any one who belonged to that labor organization.
To provide for his own requirements in that direction and the needs of his fellow townsmen, Mr. Griffith several years ago put in a splendid system of water supply, bringing the health-giving liquid from the “Grady Spring,” situated some two miles distant from the village, at a cost of some $12,000, and giving to all who so desired an abundance of pure, cool spring water.
Mr. Griffith has always been endowed with a spirit of progress, both in business matters and general affairs, and the growth of his business is but an exemplification of the putting into practice his progressive ideas. One of his valuable ideas in the lumber business was the employment of specially constructed saws for the cutting down of trees, instead of the old way of chopping them down. The sawing method was first introduced in Mr. Griffith’s works, but it proved of so much time-saving value that it was soon adopted by all the lumbermen in this section of the country—and, in fact, it is now in pretty general use everywhere.
Thus far we have chronicled, in part, only Mr. Griffith’s business achievements, but there are quite as many acts in private life that deserve mention and commendation. He is very generous and public spirited by nature, but his inclinations in this direction have not found full vent till of late years, because of the exacting demands of his business upon his time and means. When the business reached such a magnitude that it was utterly impossible to give personal attention to all its details, and he had schooled a number of faithful and trusty employees in its conduct, he found that by dividing the business into departments and putting a competent man in charge of each, he had more time for doing the things that he had long wished to do.
In this connection we show a picture of Mr. Griffith’s handsome residence in this village, which he has taken great delight in building and fitting up in modern style and according to his splendid taste in such matters. We have not space here available to go into a detailed description of this model home—in fact, words could hardly portray its elegant and comfortable arrangement. Not only is the interior of the house very complete as to all details, but the outbuildings and grounds always present an appearance of luxuriousness.
Mr. Griffith is passionately fond of flowers — a fondness inherited from his sainted mother. He spends yearly for this purpose from $1,000 to $1,500, maintaining extensive greenhouses and employing a professional florist of rare skill. Mr. Griffith has never sold a flower, but has given freely of his supply for funeral purposes and to families where sickness is found, irrespective of race, color or condition. In fact, Mr. Griffith will at any time rob his own home of the flowers he loves so well to give to funerals or supply the sick rooms of his native town, believing not only that “it is more blessed to give than to receive,” but that there is more pleasure in giving than in receiving. There is seldom a Sabbath service in the church here that a vase of Mr. Griffith’s flowers cannot be seen on the pulpit, and on Easter the display of flowers at the special church service would cost in any city from $500 to $300.
In the culture of flowers Mr. Griffith claims no credit for himself, believing that the credit should be given to the Supreme Maker and not the grower, and that he is simply an agent in His hands to do His will. He takes much delight, however, in demonstrating how good an instrument he is in this direction, and whenever his flowers have been shown for prizes they have never failed to capture first honors—even when he has had Dr. W. Seward Webb and Banker Trombly of New York as competitors, as has been the case at two or three of the annual charitable floral shows in Burlington. The Rutland Hospital and Old Ladies’ Home have also been supplied from his conservatories, and many flowers have been furnished to funerals and the sick in the adjoining towns.
Financially speaking, Mr. Griffith is the main support of the Congregational Church in this village, and except for his generous support it is probable there would be no settled pastor for that church, as for the past twenty years he has paid about one-third of the pastor’s salary—and more, if required. He is also deeply interested in children, and not a Christmas passes that he does not see that there is Christ-