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March 30, 2016

Remembering Julia Dorr, Rutland’s poet

By Julia Purdy

At the end of River Street in Rutland, where East Creek and Otter Creek converge, flocks of Canada geese gather and fishermen drop their lines. The confluence is a spot rich in nostalgia. As of March 23, 2016, a familiar landmark—the 88-year-old steel truss bridge—is no more; only its stone abutments remain. The new, sleek concrete span that replaces it will keep the name, though—the Dorr Drive Bridge. The location has another association as well: above it on the knoll are the former homes of Julia Caroline Ripley Dorr and her daughter, Zulma De Lacy Steele.

Zulma lived at “Fern Cottage” overlooking the bridge crossing on Otter Creek, and Julia Dorr lived around the bend in her home, “The Maples”—once a generously proportioned frame house with bracketed eaves, window balconies, a shady, columned veranda that wrapped around two sides, and flower gardens bordered by woods. Now stripped and unrecognizable, the Julia Dorr house is owned by a church organization.

Julia Dorr appears in portrait photos as a pleasant middle-aged matron with a friendly, direct gaze, half-smile, and neat coil of braid crowning her head. She is known to old-time Rutlanders as a prolific poet and a leading light of Rutland culture until her death in 1913. Her family story follows a familiar trajectory that paralleled Vermont’s own, from humble beginnings to achievement through entrepreneurship and a love of learning.

Julia Dorr was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1825, the only child of William Young Ripley and Zulma Thomas Ripley. William Ripley had grown up in Weybridge, outside Middlebury, patching together the commonplace livelihood as a horse dealer and delivery boy, until at 21 he followed his brother to Charleston, bringing along character references. There he worked his way up in the burgeoning mercantile business. Although he left school at 12, he was articulate and well informed. “What he read he remembered,” Julia Dorr recalled. He met Zulma through the owner of the house where he boarded in South Carolina and they married in 1822.

In 1826 the young family returned to Middlebury, partly because Zulma was ill; four days later, she died. William Dorr arranged to place Julia with a trusted family who had children of their own—a grown daughter, “Sister Jane,” became Julia’s stepmother in 1831. Six half-siblings followed.

In the meantime, William Ripley became a “new” man of business, always alert to opportunity. By the end of the Civil War he owned two marble mills, a gristmill, a cabinet factory and a “large farm.” In 1868 he became president of Rutland County Bank and built the Rutland opera house next door that year. (It burned down in 1875 and was rebuilt on the same footprint by his son Edward in 1881.)

The Ripleys were a literate family—voracious readers, prolific letter-writers. In an interview Julia Dorr said, “I think I must have been born with a book in my hand.”

William Dorr enrolled his children in the Methodist Troy Conference Academy in Poultney, which he supported generously and served in various administrative posts. There Julia studied Latin, French, history, and the Renaissance poets. She held Latin in the highest esteem, saying later, “It entered my very being and permeated my whole life.” She wrote poetry and stories, publishing many in the student literary journal under the pseudonyms Flora or Florilla, and graduated in 1843.

In the 1860s the academy became Ripley Female College in Poultney, where her father William served as president of the board of trustees for several years—it has been called the “first institution of higher learning in Vermont that awarded the bachelor’s degree to women.”

The Ripley offspring all had interesting lives. Julia’s brothers were Union Army officers: Brig. Gen. Edward Hastings Ripley led the taking of Richmond, Va., and oversaw the military administration there, and William Young Ripley became major general of all the Vermont troops. William later took over Ripley & Sons, his father’s marble business, and served as mayor of Rutland.

The pull of the home in Vermont was strong. Both Mary, who married and lived in England, and Charles, a cattle rancher out West, often wrote home of their craving for “thick” maple syrup, sharp cheese, mince and apple pie, homemade pickles from the garden.

In 1846, Julia married New York-born Seneca Milo Dorr, a graduate of Troy Conference Academy. The couple bought land on the knoll overlooking Otter Creek and built a house they christened The Maples. From the veranda Julia could see the confluence of the two creeks and beyond, to West Street and Pine Hill, as yet undeveloped. In the other direction she looked out upon sunny meadows, the bends of Otter Creek, the spires of the city and the distant mountain skyline. Until 1871, when a covered bridge was built, there was no river crossing. River Street ended at the river and the confluence was surrounded by open floodplain.

The Maples was described as a “place fit for the habitation of a poet and scholar.” Here, Julia also raised four children, managed the household, orchard and garden, and created a stable, loving homestead.

Seneca was a businessman, lawyer, postmaster in Rutland, judge, state senator, and Electoral College delegate pledged to Lincoln in 1864. He encouraged her early literary efforts by sending her early poems to the magazine “Union,” edited by Caroline Kirkland, in 1848. Other contributors included Poe, James Russell Lowell, and Longfellow.

Although her formal education remained spotty, Dorr followed where her curiosity and enjoyment led her. Eventually her poems were appearing regularly in Harper’s and the Atlantic Monthly. Scribner’s published volumes of the complete poems between 1879 and 1913, the year of her death.

She received encouragement and accolades from the Cambridge-Concord writers of the late 19th century such as Emerson and Longfellow as well as Rowland Robinson of Ferrisburg, with whom she kept a warm correspondence. Ralph Waldo Emerson included a poem in his anthology, “Parnassus.” She was written up in the Rutland Herald, Literary World, Boston Evening Transcript and the New York Tribune and in 1910 Julia Dorr was awarded the honorary doctor of letters by Middlebury College.

Julia Dorr wrote from the heart, with penetrating emotional and spiritual insight. She shared in the philosophy of the Romantic era as expressed in the Female Seminary prospectus of 1863, which asserted that “surrounding scenery is a powerful but unconscious educator.” While some have dismissed her poetry as “sentimental,” she relentlessly probed the secrets of human existence. Like the other Romantic poets of the time, she found its mirror in nature.

She was also moved by human events: she composed a dedicatory hymn for the new Evergreen Cemetery in Rutland, and depicted with powerful understatement the anguish of the Civil War (“In the Wilderness,” “The Drummer Boy’s Funeral” and others). She also wrote books describing her travels with Seneca in Bermuda (“Bermuda: an Idyll of the Summer Islands”) and Britain. But her imagination traveled much farther: for Julia Dorr, the world was not limited to Vermont but full of material for reflection.

While her spirit was frequently lifted by the sparkle of sunlit water or a tiny flower shivering in the breeze, a strong note of melancholy runs through much of her work. Two half-siblings, Mary and Charles, were lost at sea. Her girlhood was marked by several separations from her family, beginning with the literal and emotional loss of her mother, Zulma, followed by sessions away at school. Seneca died suddenly in 1884, when Julia was 59. The Scribner’s anthology is dedicated to him.

The original covered bridge succumbed to the Flood of 1927; a steel truss bridge replaced it the following year. Vermonters love their old bridges, and it must have made a jarring impression at the time. The Dorr Drive Bridge location is one of many vestiges of Old Rutland that are gradually being transformed to meet the anticipated needs of the future that rushes towards Vermont. In her time Julia Dorr witnessed equally momentous transformations as Rutland grew from a village atop a hill to a bustling railroad and manufacturing city.

In “The Dead Century,” Dorr mourns the passing of the 19th century: “Lo! We come / bearing the Century, cold and dumb.” In “The River Otter,” Dorr looks back one hundred seasons to the time before steeples and farmhouses, finding comfort in timeless, untrammeled nature. Otter Creek, she writes, “had still swept on, unseen, unknown, biding its time. . . . in her own loveliness Nature is glad, / And little she cares for man’s smile or frown; / In the robes of her royalty still she is clad, / Though his eye may behold not her sceptre or crown!”

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