The hardscrabble life of Ernest A. Spinney (1888-1962)
by Elisha Lee, for The Curious Yankee
Thus far The Curious Yankee has focused on places and people of old New England, and stories of the things they left behind. Occasionally, however, an opportunity arises to look for a story where there was none known to exist. As children visiting my grandparents’ farm in Bridgewater, Vermont, evenings usually included a tale or two, either about our father’s and uncles’ misadventures during their own somewhat unsupervised childhood, or about life in Bridgewater during the 1940s and 50s. One of our favorite local characters was “Spinney”, the silent hermit of North Bridgewater Road. Everyone seemed to have a Spinney story, even our babysitter, who swore she had seen him long after his death, standing silently in the dusk as she passed his little cabin. He wasn’t a sinister figure, simply a mysterious one – a reclusive individual rumored to have been a successful naval architect injured in an accident, and a man whom everyone knew, but of whom no one knew much.
A chance conversation with a friend, now the owner of the site where Spinney’s house once stood, brought back memories of this silent fixture of our childhood imaginings, prompting a small group of enthusiastic local historians to set out in search of what could be learned about a man who probably never wanted to be discovered.
When dealing with unknowns it is sometimes easiest to start at the end of the story and work toward the beginning rather than the reverse. Ernest A. Spinney died on 16 March 1962 at his home on the North Bridgewater Road. His death record states that he was born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire on 25 September 1888, thus making him 73 years old at the time of his death, and his usual occupation is given as “hermit”. His parents’ names and birthplaces are listed as unknown.
A search of New Hampshire birth records verified the date and location of his birth, further revealing that he was the son of Frank A. and Etta W. Spinney. Frank’s occupation is listed on the birth record as stone cutter. An older son, Frederick, had died of “fits” as a two-year-old in 1879.
The Spinney family seems to have led a hardscrabble existence. The 1900 Federal Census lists Frank, Etta, and Ernest living with Frank’s parents, Plummer and Olive Ann Spinney, at 1 Manning Place in Portsmouth’s South End (now part of Strawberry Banke). Plummer Spinney, a retired teamster then 85 years old, owned the home. Also living in the household was Frank’s 50-year-old brother, Henry P. Spinney. Both Frank and Henry were employed as stone cutters in the granite industry.
In an oddly prescient incident, the Portsmouth Herald of 18 October 1902 reported that a young boy named Ernest Spinney (then 14) discovered a bottle filled with a dark-colored liquid while playing at the dump on Junkins Avenue.
“The youngster, without ascertaining the nature of the contents, placed the bottle to his lips and took a good swallow. In less than five minutes, the youngster was stretched out on the ground, writhing in pain. His face turned black, and his flesh began to puff out. Two other boys who were in the vicinity with a hand cart happeed along and the unconscious youngster was placed in the cart and taken to his home. The mother of the boy became frightened and joining the boys with the hand cart all proceeded to the office of Dr. Berry on State Street, where the boy regained consciousness.”
“He Swallowed Poison”, The Portsmouth Herald (Portsmouth, NH), 18 October 1902.
A year later, Ernest and a boy named Fred Jones were arrested for breaking into a grocery store and stealing cigarettes and candy. Ernest was sent to the State Industrial School in Manchester, from which he was discharged for good behavior in 1906. There was no home for the 18-year-old boy to return to – Etta Spinney divorced her husband that same year on the grounds of extreme cruelty and, two months later married Arthur H. Dunham, a railroad section hand ten years younger than herself.
Her mental health may have been tenuous at that point as, by 1910, she had been committed to the New Hampshire State Hospital in Concord, where she died in 1915. Plummer Spinney died in 1907 and, in 1911, Frank drowned in the sinking of a fishing vessel in Portsmouth Harbor. Ernest lived with his elderly grandmother at her home on Manning Place, employed as a shoe worker, until her death in 1917. Presumably displaced by the loss of his last immediate family member, he spent the First World War working as a ship fitter at the Portsmouth Navy Yard. His draft registration card describes him as being of medium height and slender build, with brown eyes and black hair.
After the war ended Ernest relocated to Bath, Maine, where he was employed as a fitter at the Bath Iron Works. While there is no known record of an accident, anecdotal information provided by multiple Bridgewater residents suggests that he suffered a head injury, probably at some point between 1920 and 1923.
On 23 September 1923, Ernest Spinney purchased a 62-acre property on North Bridgewater Road in Bridgewater, Vermont from Francis E. Hardy. The purchase price stated in the deed was “$1.00 and other valuable considerations”. Neither the actual price nor the source of Spinney’s funds is clear – was he awarded some sort of settlement for his injury? He had no known family or other ties to Bridgewater, which lies some 220 miles from Bath and 137 miles from Portsmouth. Francis E. Hardy was a single 39-year-old who had owned the property for four years and operated it as a general farm. Spinney’s plans for the property are as murky as the rest of the picture. The Biennial Report of Vermont’s Commissioner of Forestry states that he bought (and presumably planted) 2,000 Norway Spruce trees from the State in 1924, 2,000 Red Pine in 1925, and 2,000 Scotch Pine in 1926. In 1931 the classification of his property on the town’s Grand List was changed from “farm” to “homestead”.
Local residents recalled that Spinney was a regular fixture at the Bridgewater Tavern and known to enjoy an illicit beer with his lunch while working at the mill. In February of 1928, he was taken to The Brattleboro Retreat, a facility catering to both addiction and all forms of mental illness.
The 1930 Federal Census lists Ernest Spinney as a boarder in the household of Walter D. Newton on Curtis Hollow Road in Woodstock, a short distance from the Bridgewater Woolen Mill. He was employed as a spinner at the mill. Walter Newton worked in the mill’s card room. Why was he boarding with the Newton family when he owned a home some three miles up the road? He may have been incapable of caring for himself at that point, but it’s equally possible that the walk from his home to the woolen mill and back was simply a burden to a man who never owned a car.
By 1935 Spinney appears to have been living once again in his own small house on North Bridgewater Road. The 1940 Federal Census states that he was employed as a spinner in a woolen mill, working 40 weeks in 1939 and earning a salary of $700 which is the equivalent of roughly $14,700 today. The reported value of his home was $1,000 which was typical of other home values reported along the North Bridgewater Road and suggests that the property wasn’t a tarpaper shack.
Despite his famously taciturn nature Spinney appears to have had a sense of humor. When visited by the Census Enumerator in May of 1950 he informed her that his marital status was “separated” and his place of birth “China”. His occupation was “spinning room help” which was probably accurate and suggests that his employment was no longer regular. In September of that year, he deeded his 62-acre property to the Town of Bridgewater, reserving “the right to live on the place and fuel for heat during my lifetime.” Presumably the arrangement relieved him of the obligation to pay real estate taxes that he couldn’t afford.
Ernest Spinney’s body was discovered by the mailman, having died of a heart attack at his home on 16 March 1962. His remains were sent to the Vermont Medical Department in Burlington and their final disposition is unknown. The Town sold the land at auction four months later, and the little house was presumably torn down at that point. All that remains of his existence is a small cellar hole on North Bridgewater Road. The fieldstone foundation suggests that it was constructed long before Ernest Spinney or Francis Hardy arrived on the scene, although one of them probably added the poured concrete reinforcements. Sitting on a nearby boulder is a rusted beer can.
What we’ve learned of Spinney’s story leaves many questions unanswered. Did he suffer from a traumatic brain injury, mental illness, chronic alcoholism, or some combination of all three? What brought him to a small town in central Vermont? Ernest A. Spinney was a man at peace on the margin of society, as self-reliant as his circumstances allowed, and he asked very little of the world. Perhaps a man who so valued his own obscurity should be allowed to retain a few mysteries.
Author is an independent researcher based in Greater Boston and Central Vermont. His column, The Curious Yankee, appears on Substack.