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Mythical village

07/07/05 12:00AM By Joe Citro
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(HOST) History books tell us a lot about the founders of New England, but today commentator Joe Citro recalls a founding father you may not have heard about.


(CITRO) New England is as much an idea as it is a place. An idea created by individuals like Norman Rockwell, Longfellow, Robert Frost...even the editors of Yankee Magazine.

But among lesser known New England architects, we must re- member Hubert G. Ripley. In April of 1920, he published an article in the White Pine Series of Architectural Monographs called simply "A New England Village". It was a profile of Stotham, Massachusetts.

Descriptive text was supported by photographs of 17th-, 18th- and early 19th-century buildings - some of them designed by resident architect Ruben Duren. A detailed town history profiled Stotham's early settlers and leading citizens, among them Salmon White, Obadiah Witherspoon, Nahum Bodkins and, of course, Obijah Podbury, a descendant of the town founders.

Mr. Ripley's article presented an ideal picture of the quintessential New England village, where, he wrote, "...the blighting hand of the real estate promoter, and the withering touch of the speculative builder, are conspicuously lacking." He continued, "Generations of blushing maidens have swung on the old Billings gate, opening on the path leading to the meadows."

He recalls Cadwallader Simpkins and his partner, who got rich opening a general store and then went on to found a profitable and picturesque stone tannery. He describes young men who went off to war and became heroes. And others, like "Icabod Somes, a wild, untamed, red-headed youth," who ran away to sea and became a pirate.

There is even a haunted house (the Rogers mansion) where trea- sure was rumored to be buried. Plenty of references were cited so the reader could learn more about the fascinating small-town treasures so carefully chronicled.

With photographs and flowery language, Mr. Ripley portrayed the iconic New England small town, typical and unspoiled. After the magazine was published, however, readers were puzzled. They had great difficulty locating Stotham on any Massachusetts map.

But this was April, don't forget. And when there is a Ripley in- volved, one is well advised to "Believe it or Not!" Turns out the whole thing was a hoax. Stotham, Massachusetts never existed. It was the creation of Hubert G. Ripley (if there ever was a Hubert G. Ripley), a partner in a Boston architectural firm (if there ever was such a firm). He had invented the entire town as a way of using some photographs left over from other presumably more legitimate monographs. Like any New Englander, Mr. Ripley couldn't let a bunch of good photos go to waste.

And in so doing, he did his small part to create and imprint the myth that is New England.

This is Joe Citro.

Novelist Joe Citro is a native Vermonter. He lives in Burlington.
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