Every individual matters.
Every individual has a role to play.
Every individual makes a difference.
~ Jane Goodall
It’s unusual for a small Vermont town like Norwich to be featured on the CBS national news because of its citizens’ goodwill. But that’s exactly what happened in early December when Dan & Whit’s general store owner Dan Fraser put out a plea for help due to the statewide worker shortage. Every position needed to be filled or the store would close. That’s when community members stepped forward and volunteered to stock the shelves and run the registers. Remarkable as the turnout has been, and it has been an amazing event, this is far from the first time the people of Norwich, sometimes as a group, sometimes as individuals, have stepped forward. It seems to be a town tradition. At the top of any list of community caretakers must come Elsie Sniffin, whose good works and selfless devotion to Norwich spread over nearly 50 years.
Elsie was born on August 25, 1915, in Norwalk, Connecticut. Her father was a member of the Masons and as a girl, Elsie joined the Rainbow Girls Club, an offshoot of the Masons that taught leadership training through community service to young women. According to the club’s literature, “The International Order of the Rainbow for Girls believes that through helping others, we truly help ourselves. The benefits a young girl can gain from performing acts of kindness are endless.” The club’s message had a large impact on Elsie. When she turned 21, she became the leader of her local Rainbow Girls club, making her the youngest person in Connecticut ever to hold that position.
Following the completion of a two-year business course in 1935, she became a salesperson for H.L. Green Co., a nationally known variety store. In a year she became a cashier and office supervisor, in 1942 assistant manager, and in 1948, Elsie became the first woman in the company’s history to be promoted from store ranks to executive offices as assistant to the personnel director of the company. In this position, she created and developed training programs and manuals for store personnel in the company’s 140 stores.
In 1959 Elsie and her friend, Ruth Peet, bought 150 acres of land in Beaver Meadow on the western edge of Norwich and visited the property in the summers. When H.L. Green was purchased by a larger firm in 1961, Elise and Ruth moved to the area permanently. According to the town report of 2008 that was dedicated to Elsie, “The road to Norwich was mostly dirt and old Charlie Hodgdon was convinced that ‘the girls’ (as they were affectionately known) would not last that first winter!” They did.
Elsie found work right off the bat as a secretary in the Department of Sociology at Dartmouth and worked there for 13 years. In 1974, she left the academic life to begin her third career as a lister for the town of Norwich, a position she held for sixteen years. “The town office personnel were like one big family,” said Deb VanArman whose mother, Janet Pierce, was the town clerk at that time. “They celebrated birthdays together and socialized together.”
Beyond her jobs, Elsie found time to bolster the spirits of her neighbors. “She was a one-person welcoming committee,” said Donna Wheeler, a Beaver Meadow neighbor of Elsie’s. “When you moved into the area, she stopped by with a card and a small gift.” If someone was ill, Elsie would visit or bring over a meal. “She was so caring and tried to keep the community strong. And she was so organized she could do it.” In addition to her efforts on the individual level, Elsie worked hard to revitalize the spirit of the community, whether it was in Beaver Meadow or Norwich. No better example of her civic spirit can be shown than the work she did for the Beaver Meadow Chapel.
The history of Beaver Meadow Chapel began in October of 1915, when Margaret Kerr, a retired teacher from New York, bought a small farm in Beaver Meadow. Early on, she described her neighbors as “very poor, a good deal of drinking and rough everywhere.” Kerr felt that a chapel could help “raise the standard of living.” The idea was approved by her neighbors and land was donated for the chapel. Men in the village volunteered to build the structure and several women along with Miss Kerr visited business leaders and asked for donations. A druggist in Hanover, L.B. Downing, donated a Bible and the first sermon was given by a Dartmouth student on December 19, 1915.
When Elsie and Ruth arrived in Beaver Meadow, the chapel needed repair and was rarely used. So, Elsie went to work. She “retrieved the chapel organ from the town historical society where it had been kept for safekeeping” and talked with her neighbors about starting services again. Her good name and friendly approach encouraged people from the area to support the project. As Wheeler noted, “She had a way about her that made it easier to say yes than no to her.” Elsie’s efforts paid off and the chapel, with a new roof, reopened. The congregation met on the third Sunday of each month from March to December. In recent years services have been trimmed to the third Sunday of each month from May to December.
From the start, Elsie felt the chapel, with its small steeple and white clapboards, built in a hollow between two hills and tight to the road, was a New England treasure that needed to be preserved. So, she and other members of the community went through the lengthy, but successful process to have the building placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. Using the writing and research from the project, Elsie organized a book about the chapel and the Beaver Meadow community, The Good Men Do which was published in 2003.
According to the biographical notes attached to her funeral program, Elsie’s hobbies “included writing, reading, cooking, and beekeeping.” But when anyone examines the number of organizations that claimed Elsie as a member, it’s hard to imagine she had time to eat and sleep, let alone time for beekeeping. Through the years she was a trustee of the Norwich library, board member and treasurer of the Norwich Senior Housing, and director and treasurer of the Beaver Meadow Chapel Association. She was also a member of the University Grange, the Norwich Historical Society, the Women’s Club, and the Congregational Church. But, according to the program, her favorite hobby was “loving and caring for her family and many beloved friends.”
When people who knew her are asked about Elsie, they acknowledge her community achievements, but then enthusiastically detail the warmth and care she showed to others. Once, a neighbor, recently widowed, needed housing, so Elsie provided her with a rent-free condo for two years. “She was the kindest person and just revered,” said Deb VanArman. “When my mother was failing and about to die, Elsie visited her every day. When she couldn’t visit, she called.” According to VanArman, Elsie helped her community in so many ways. “Elsie was the first person to reach out to those in need. She’d give a ride to anyone in the Meadow who needed a way to get to ‘town,’ provided food for the sick and needy, and shared the history of the Meadow with anyone.”
In 2004, well into her 80s, Elsie helped organize an art auction to fund the Norwich Historical Society’s move from its Church Street location to the Lewis House on Main Street. Over 50 artists donated works and the auction raised more than $10,000. According to a NHS tribute, Elsie was a visionary board member, who “championed the purchase of the Lewis House not only as the home of the Historical Society but also as a community center. She saw the move bringing us all together for the greater good, something for which she worked tirelessly all her life.”
In 2005 Elsie was awarded a Vermont Public Service Award by the Vermont secretary of state for her lifelong service to the town of Norwich. In 2006 she was made an honorary trustee of the Norwich Historical Society.
In her final years, Elsie had discussed with friends how she planned to celebrate her 100th birthday and the 100th anniversary of the Beaver Meadow Chapel in the summer of 2015. She wanted to hire a horse and carriage and ride neighbors by the chapel and around the Meadow. But, alas, this was one goal Elsie did not reach, for she passed away in 2008. Yet her contributions live on today throughout the area, as does the memory of her goodwill and friendship. As Nancy Osgood, a past president of the historical society, noted shortly after Elsie’s death, “I don’t think that I will ever enter the Meadow without thinking of her.”