Photo Is Courtesy Of Nat Worman

Esther Gillin Kearney Keeps History Alive

By NAT WORMAN - Messenger Correspondent - Published Friday In The March 23, 2007 Edition

(Esther Gillin Kearney was born 100 years ago, March 30, 1907 at 275 Carroll Hill Road
Above Current Photo Is Courtesy Of David Shea )

BURLINGTON - To be ready to leave for school by barge by 7, the little girl had to be out of bed into a cold upper room by 5. It would be even colder in the barge and you had to know how to keep your feet warm.

Downstairs by the wood-burning stove in the Fairfax Buck Hollow farmhouse in which she was born, she had to wash, dress, help her mother, Mary King Gillin, prepare her lunch, and have breakfast. Around the table were her father, George, and her brothers James, Frank, Henry, Charles, and her sister, Loretta.

Who better than Esther Gillin Kearney to tell you about those bygone days? She celebrates her 100th birthday, March 30, and knows all about those mornings for she was that little girl.

She is "the last of a generation, the only remaining witness to the history of (her) family," writes her daughter, Mary McClintock, of Burlington, secretary to three Roman Catholic bishops. Now, seven grandchildren and 16 great grandchildren, the oldest 25, the youngest five months, will carry her mother's memories into the future.

Esther Kearny is also the only person with Franklin County roots alive today whose husband arrived in the county on the Orphan Train. And one of the last alive who taught in Franklin County one-room schoolhouses, St. Rocks, Fairfield, Cherrier, Fairfax, and in Georgia, Conger - and Stone, which still stands.

Irish on both sides of her family, the Gillins and Kings emigrated via Quebec from the eastern counties north of Dublin, according to Mike King, the clan historian. Her grandfather, Peter King, came with his parents in 1847.

And over on the Fairfield side of St. Albans Hill, there was another husband and wife, Gillin, and King farm, that of Mary's sister Agnes and George's brother, Mike. They, too, raised orphans, Catherine and John, whom they went to New York to adopt, from the Sisters of St. Vincent orphanage from which Esther's husband had been sent on the train.

Photo is Courtesy of Esther Kearney

(Harley McNall was Win McNall's father and lived at the end of Austin Road at 2108 Main Street)

The barge was a covered wood wagon, on sled runners in winter, pulled by two horses, her father at the reigns. Seven covered the town. Ten to a side, students sat face-to-face. On really cold days, chunks of burning embers were transferred from the cook stove to a heater in the barge. The seven-mile trek to the new Bellows Free Academy in Fairfax village took two hours.

"I sat on your feet and you sat on mine," said Esther when asked how she kept her feet warm.

Later, when she was in high school, brother Frank drove the barge; in the fall, the boys got off at the bottom of a hill to lighten the load, picked apples they tossed to riders as they walked up the hill; once at school, Frank stabled the horses and then hustled to class.

Esther sits in her chair with authority. When she tells you she seldom had discipline problems in her classroom, you believe it. We are in her neat apartment at 3 Cathedral Square Assisted Living facility.

When I admit I didn't pronounce her name correctly (it sounds like Carney), she lets me have it: "No you didn't," she says, lowers her head. And smiles.

For little Esther Gillin every minute on the barge was worth it. The new Fairfax Bellows Free Academy had bright rooms with Venetian blinds and telephones, and a teachers' room with bathroom. Because her mother was a teacher, she would be a teacher, too. She would graduate from BFA with her friends and then go to the University of Vermont. Neither came true.

Where she was not disappointed, was in the man she married, Edward P. Kearney. She met him at a party at the Soule, one-room school in Fairfield, where she was practice teaching. Later, she heard him sing an Al Jolson song.

"So when it was all over, something behooved me to go up to him and thank him for singing that song. That's where our friendship began," she says with a teacher's clarity.

Eddie Kearney was of average height and skinny, tunes always running in his head. People warmed to his cheerful friendliness.

"You've got to learn to take care of yourself," Esther quotes a priest telling him. "The best way to do that is to learn to arm wrestle."

And he learned how. One day, while building his house, he threw a man twice his size, "much to the delight of the other workers." He plunged into work and worked hard. One night she woke to his side of the bed empty only to find him asleep in the bathroom, his carpenter's hat on his head.

He was a born showman, ordering rain coats from New York and persuading a young woman from a prominent family to teach other girls to dance to put on the musical, "Singing In the Rain." He played the organ, directed the church choir and sometimes "was the choir himself."

Where did such a fellow come from? Esther and her children will never know.

"I have a one-sided family tree," Esther quips, dark eyes almost laughing.

Edward Kearney, four years old, a tag on his jacket, with his name and the name of the family who had agreed to take him, arrived with 19 other orphans on one of the legendary Orphan Trains.

Three other orphans rode on to Enosburg where the father of an historian of the trains, Dr. Daniel Bean, of Shelburne, was dropped off.

"By 1910," he writes, "Two-hundred and sixty-five children had been sent to Vermont."

Kearney's group was from the New York Foundling Hospital, run by the Sisters of St. Vincent, where her mother's sister's orphans came from. A priest had visited parishes to sign up volunteers to take the children.

From 1905, when the practice was begun by Charles Loring Brace, a founding director of the New York Children's Aid Society, until 1928, when Congress stopped it, 250,000 foundlings, street children and runaways had been sent to almost every state in the Union and Canada.

Esther never forgot her dream: to graduate with her class from BFA Fairfax and then enroll at UVM. But a father who knew best stepped in. Ever since he had moved his family from Fairfield to Fairfax for better schooling.
George Gillin had been satisfied he had done the right thing. His boys were good students, his daughter, Loretta, went on to become a nurse, Frank went to Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston, and Esther, when she finished her junior year at BFA, was well on her way to becoming the class valedictorian in her senior year.

Then fate stepped in. Boys threw rotten eggs at the house of the BFA principal. That was enough for George Gillin: a school, which had such boys for students, was not a school for Esther.

Three articles appeared in the Burlington Free Press about this incident at BFA-Fairfax in June, 1925:




She was sent to St. Albans to live with maiden aunts, Sarah and Margaret Gillin, to attend St. Mary's Catholic High School. And after graduation, instead of UVM, George Gillin sent her to the less expensive Swanton Teachers' Training School.

Memories of good outweigh bad. There is the frost on the window to which she stuck a penny which, taken away, left the imprint of Abraham Lincoln. There are her children and there was her older brother, Henry.

"I don't know but what in the big families one of the older children were assigned to look after a younger. I don't know that happened in our family, but I know my older brother Henry was always very kind to me, not that the other's weren't, too," she says.

When she was attending St. Mary's High School in St. Albans and he worked as a groundskeeper for Dr. George C. Berkley, he might drop by and say, "I'm going to the farm today. Want to go?"

Of course she did. The car would go only so far and they would make the rest of the way through woods on foot - and there came her home into view! And when she was teaching at the Cherrier School over another hill and through other woods, Henry hitched an old scalding kettle to his horse and the path he made dragging the kettle through the snow made a path that lasted the whole winter.

The only remaining witness? A witness to those early mornings, the fragrance of baking bread, to a mother who lived to be 93, a brother just short of 100, and an Uncle Eddie King who played canasta right up to his death at 102.

A witness to those barges moving about the countryside, picking up students and a families of loyalty and hard work.

What advice does she have for anyone who wants to become, at the summit of her years, such a witness?

"Keep the faith. Keep the faith," she says.

Henry A. Raymond
March24, 2007