“You know that Annie Rothman’s on to something with her book on Silas Griffith,” said Billy Beauregard at the close of the annual Silas, Griffith Christmas Tree party here Tuesday night.
“Silas was a good man and this was a wonderful thing that he did,” he said, referring to the lumber baron’s will, which left money for an annual Christmas celebration.
The ceremony was played out again Tuesday night, as it has been for more than 80 years. Approximately 92 children from Mount Tabor and eastern Danby between the ages of 2 and 12 were given fruit, candy and a gift in Griffith’s name at Danby’s First Congregational Church.
“If you believe all you hear, he was something of a superman. But if he’s a superman one way, the good way, he’s got to be seen as larger than life the other way. Some of his business dealings are suspect,” said Beauregard.
“But that’s got nothing to do with the Christmas tree,” quickly interjected Beatrice Tifft, who has organized the event for many years now and is anxious to protect the memory of Silas Griffith.
There seemed to be less hostility to Rothman’s book here this year than last, however. Some people are still a little apprehensive that the town hero is going to be portrayed in a negative light in Rothman’s book.
But Rothman said that as she researches the town’s history and shares this research with townspeople, the opposition has diminished. Rothman can’t hide her admiration for Silas Griffith. His name, “Silas” is on her license plate, and she has a picture of him near her typewriter for inspiration.
Dressed in a fedora and a dark, three-piece wool suit with a bow tie just a tad awry, Griffith looks like the self-assured man of the 19th century. Beneath his wire-rim glasses, he has an impish look. Even his lips are set in a wry expression. With his hands in his jacket pockets, he looks both charming and formidable.
And that’s how Rothman sees him. She is a New York writer who moved here part-time, became enchanted with the Griffith myth and moved to Danby permanently to “exhume” him.
“As I research and make this hero more human and therefore more understandable, then the feeling in town is much warmer,” she said.
There are all kinds of tales which paint him as a saint or a sinner, she said, and it’s not up to her to determine which he is. Rather, her book will represent both aspects of the man and, she believes, “show him to be neither black nor white, not all good, nor all bad. I see him as both.”
Actually, she thinks the townspeople will be pleasantly surprised to find her history perhaps kinder than some of the oral history surrounding Griffith.
She sees the book as a kind of historical answer to the current best seller, “And the Ladies of the Club” and describes it as “humorous.” She is currently negotiating with a New York publisher.
Besides Griffith’s tale, the book is also a story of 19th century America, its scandals, politics, business, legal, medical and spiritual values and activities as well as a critical commentary on the accuracy of historical sources.
Griffith was an important Vermont figure in the late 1800s, a proverbial Yankee who went from modest beginnings to great wealth. At age 30, he owned the Danby Store. Slight of body, but vital, he built a logging and charcoal-making empire, established company stores and boarding houses and kilns in Danby, Mount Tabor, Dorset, Manchester, Peru, East Arlington and Stratton.
His 12 sawmills cut 50 million feet of lumber a year. Oral history says the man who cut the most wood each week smoked a cigar with Griffith.
And in 1984, 81 years after his death, his name and his memory live on in the children who benefit from his charity and that of his wife who also left money for the Christmas tree party when she died. Rothman hopes to bring the man’s memory alive, without diminishing the spirit of the tradition he created.