Waitsfield Cornet Band in front of what is now the Village Grocery. Photo: Henry B. Cady.

By Jim Dodds

(With a forward by Mary Kathleen Mehuron.)

Do you want to have some fun? Go to waitsfieldhistoricalsociety.com and click on the “Photos” tab. It’s in yellow. There you will find a collection of over 800 black and white photographs of our Valley from the past. One of them, of the Waitsfield Cornet Band, is shown here. The musicians are standing in front of, what is now, the Village Grocery. The picture begs the question: Why did the very small town of Waitsfield have its own Cornet Band.


Jerry Eldent of Illinois also lives in a small town. He wrote about their post-Civil War cornet band and reminds the readers how hard it was for people to get from place to place before the invention of the automobile.

“As a result of this transportation-imposed isolation, many outlying communities… were more or less self-sufficient, having their own grocery, dry goods and other such stores. Most goods and commodities in those bygone years were transported in and out of town by rail.

“In that time before electric-powered sound systems and studio prerecordings, if people wanted music, they made it themselves. Bands comprised of area citizens provided the accompanying tunes to the various outdoor activities and celebrations of that era.

“One of the more popular of these bands in the years following the Civil War was the cornet bands, with the instrumentation of these groups consisting of varying types of brass instruments collectively referred to then as cornets. What served them well in those pre-electrical days was that the cornet band could be heard over a great distance without amplification.”

In just a few clicks of my computer, I learned something from our local history. Fun right? But then I was left to ponder where all these photographs came from. So, I wrote to Jim Dodds. He’s a handy guy to know. Author, editor, photographer, tech savvy and a former longtime member of the board of the Waitsfield Historical Society. Jim, where did all these pictures come from?

He wrote back:

“The story of the Waitsfield Historical Society photo collection begins in the last quarter of the 19th century, but it never would have been told if Malcolm Reiss hadn’t rescued a dusty treasure trove of large-format glass negatives made by H.B. Cady that was on its way to the dump in the 1970s. When my wife Judy and I got involved in the historical society in the late 1970s we were intrigued by this prospect of a time machine made of glass and silver nitrate that could transport us back to the days when the Mad River Valley was just beginning to enter our modern age. When I spoke to Malcolm recently, he told me that there were originally twice as many, and that he paid $250 for half of what was available at that time. Tragically, the rest were destroyed, and what a loss that is. 

“In the 1860s, Henry B. Cady lived in the house on Route 100 just south of Bridge Street that belonged to George Pakk which burned last winter. Alton and Mary Belle Farr lived in the house briefly about 1908. The early Waitsfield-Fayston Telephone business office was also in this house, as well as a toll telephone. In 1903, the building was a business, store and saloon. Alden Bettis lived in this house in the 1940s. Clifton Livingston lived there in 1945. Stanley Martin was there in the 1950s and worked in Bonnette’s garage.


“Cady’s mobile “photo car” which he kept on the premises next to the house was taken to East Warren by Bettis and the remnants are still there. Malcolm told me that he offered Cady’s portable darkroom to the Shelburne Museum, but they weren’t interested.

“Malcolm secured a second batch of glass negatives from the Jones family, which were pictures made by another photographer, named E.B. Chase. He originally gave the entire collection to the phone company, and they were then donated to the Waitsfield Historical Society through Fletcher and Ruth Joslin. Thanks to his timely efforts to save a wonderful record of the past, we’ve been able to open a window into life in the Mad River Valley from the 1870s to the 1920s, with a collection of 800 historical photos.

“When I was asked to design a book based on the handwritten diary of Adeline Stoddard, a dairy farmer’s wife in the Mad River Valley in the 1890s, I was truly amazed when I found an actual photo for the cover of her standing in her dooryard from our collection. A blast from the past for sure!


“Jack Smith became the conduit for local history for the WHS and Bob Burley, longtime board member, became our historical architecture expert. We began to ponder what to do with all those wonderful glass negatives and in 1991, John Williams generously donated his time to convert all 800 into black and white slides. We assembled 80 of those images into a slideshow for public showing at our meetings and for the historical society website, called “As We Were,” which Jack narrated. 

“It was 2014 when we decided to put the entire collection up on the website. And then we got down to the complicated business of scanning and retouching all of them and trying to find out as much as we could about each one. Jack Smith, who died in 2017, had an encyclopedic memory of both his own life in the Mad River Valley and years of conversations with longtime residents, and while this effort was in progress, he made notes that put flesh back on the bare bones of all those old black and white photographs, some of them showing familiar landmarks, while others were more mysterious. 

“I passed on my job as webmaster after the death of my wife, Judy, who was curator for the WHS until the late 2010s. A small, dedicated group of hard-core history buffs have kept the boat afloat for more than four decades now, and a good thing too. It took a couple of years to do all the work that was necessary to process 800 photos, some of which were actually taken in the 19th century and make them appealing to a 21st-century audience.


“The WHS is constantly in need of younger members, but younger people are busy bringing up families, and everyone has been struggling with COVID 19, so it’s hard to find time for anything about “As We Were.” People who were born after the year 2000 sometimes don’t really believe that we once lived without electricity, and that a phone, if your family had one, was a box on the wall. And you shared the line with several neighbors!

“The whole magical collection is available on the WHS website at WaitsfieldHistoricalSociety.com and the small slideshow of 80 pictures is there on the same page.”

Thank you, Jim, for taking us back. If anyone knows anything about the whereabouts of HB Cady’s portable photo lab in Warren, please write to me at marykathleenmehuron.com. In the meantime, you might want to consider joining the boards of the Fayston, Moretown, Waitsfield and Warren Historical Societies. If you don’t help preserve our history -- who will do it?