For more than a century, the extended Ayers family has gathered in the large rambling house on the corner of Elm and Randall Streets in downtown Waterbury to celebrate Thanksgiving. The house was built to last in 1892 by Orlo Ayers, a local wheelwright and businessman. The sturdy wood clapboard structure at 18 Elm Street has survived floods, blizzards and hurricanes in its 119 years, and it remains the heart and soul of a family: as of this fall, four generations of Ayers were living there.
When Tropical Storm Irene hit on August 28, the Winooski River poured down Randall and Elm Streets. When the flood receded, the Ayers home was inundated. Water had filled the basement and rose several feet into the first floor. When I walked through the house a few days after the flood, slimy grey mud covered everything. The floors, walls and cabinets with their drawers swollen shut were a sad looking mess. It seemed that the old house might not fully recover.
Gleason “Gus” Ayers, 94, has been the patriarch, steward and longest resident of the Ayers’ house. A few days after Tropical Storm Irene laid waste to his beloved family home, I visited him at the Squier House, a retirement home on Union Street, where he was living temporarily while his family dug out.
Ayers was happy to tell me stories about Waterbury and his family home, two of his favorite topics. Despite the upheaval in his life, Gus had a twinkle in his eye and was quick to laugh. He was a remarkably sharp-witted storyteller. A graduate of Norwich University with a degree in electrical engineering, Ayers worked much of his life for the former Vermont Highway Department, where he helped build Interstate 89. As he sat in a comfortable stuffed chair, I asked him what the future held for his family and their home. He replied that his four children held a family meeting the previous day. “Dad, we’re going to have Thanksgiving in there,” they announced. I asked him if he thought that was possible.
“All my life, we’ve had 20 to 30 people for Thanksgiving. There’s no question we’re gonna be there,” he told me with a hearty laugh. “We’ll have some wine and some beer and we’ll have a grand time.”
Surviving two great floods
If anyone in Vermont had reason to panic when the Winooski River began rising on Aug. 28, it was Gus Ayers. The Waterbury resident was among the few living Vermonters to have experienced the Great Flood of 1927. Eighty-four people died in that catastrophic flood, including 20 from Waterbury and Duxbury.
On Nov. 3, 1927, 10-year-old Gus Ayers watched in stunned amazement as flood waters rushed down the streets of Waterbury and rose steadily through the night, finally cresting midway up the second story windows in his family’s home at 8 Randall Street. He was rescued by men who came in a rowboat and evacuated his family out their second story window. Following the 1927 flood, he and his family spent several nights in a makeshift shelter in the Waterbury High School, now the Thatcher Brook Primary School. A granite plaque still hangs midway up the second story on a Randall Street home to mark the high water line of the 1927 flood.
But as the rivers rose during Tropical Storm Irene, Ayers was surprisingly unruffled. He sat calmly in a rocker in his living room in the sprawling yellow house that he shared with his daughter, Betsy, his 36-year old grandson, Jeremy, and his wife, Georgia, and their 1-year old son, Fletcher. As Jeremy worked frantically in the basement to try to keep the flood waters back, the elder Ayers reassured him, “Everything will be fine.”
Jeremy, a potter whose kiln, studio and livelihood were all in the basement of the family home, was taking no chances. He hauled equipment and family photos up to the kitchen as fast as he could. But he and his family were quickly overtaken by disaster. “Less than an hour and a half after I saw water in street, the water outside our house went from ankle high to chest deep,” Jeremy told me.
Around 8 p.m. on Aug. 28, the Ayers clan made the decision to flee to higher ground. Other Randall Street neighbors were frantically evacuating at the same moment. A neighbor wading up the street noticed Jeremy and Georgia struggling and came over to help. Georgia held her baby high, and Jeremy and the neighbor each took one of Gus’s arms and helped him wade in dark, swirling, chest-deep water.
Time and space were suspended as the five people made their way slowly up a familiar lane that was rendered unrecognizable in the stormy night. Jeremy navigated by Braille, mentally mapping where curbs and garden walls would be and moving around them. The baby, he recalls, was “very observant and silent. And grandpops did remarkably well, and was really calm.”
Finally, the sodden family reached the Waterbury Congregational Church, which had opened its doors to receive flood refugees. But the church had no power, so the Ayers continued on to the elementary school. “Well, this is the second time we’ve done this,” the great-grandfather quipped as he entered the same school where he sought shelter 84 years earlier. Only this time, he said approvingly, “It’s more comfortable than in 1927. Back then, I slept on a table.” Now he had the relative luxury of sleeping on gym mats.
Jeremy returned at daybreak to find the Ayers’ home, which had survived the 1927 flood, swamped. All of Jeremy’s pottery equipment, including his kiln and all his power tools, were ruined in the flooded basement. The first floor was a muddy wreck.
I was across the street helping clean out the flooded home of a friend, but I witnessed the frenetic activity at the Ayers home. Uncles, cousins and family members were first on scene, soon joined by the volunteer army that invaded the rest of the town.
Jeremy, who had moved back into the family home two years ago to help care for his grandfather and maintain the home, was concerned about how Gus would react at seeing the widespread destruction of his house and neighborhood. Jeremy’s father Bob would periodically drive Gus to the house, where he would sit in the car and observe Jeremy and others working tirelessly to clean up.
“My grandfather first just regarded it very coolly,” Jeremy recalls. “He instructed us, ‘This is what you do after a flood.’ He didn’t appear to be upset by seeing his furniture and books in a pile in the front yard. Later, we learned he was quietly stressed by it. He didn’t let us see that. Being from the older generation, he didn’t wear his heart on his sleeve.”
A few days after the storm, I asked Gus Ayers how a community recovers from such a trauma.
“The way you get through it is one day at a time,” he replied quickly, pointing his finger for emphasis, like a teacher. “Stop worrying about the future. Take one day and do the best you can on it, and you know there’s another day coming. That’s been my philosophy all my life.”
A tradition continues
The day before Thanksgiving, I stopped by the Ayers house to see how rebuilding was going, and to learn whether Gus Ayers’ wish to have Thanksgiving at home would become a reality. When I walked inside, I was startled: The house looked beautiful. Walls that had recently been torn open were repaired and freshly painted, and the original oak floors were refinished and shined softly in the daylight.
I found Jeremy hard at work. He told me that while he was pulling away old floor trim just after the flood, a Mercury dime rolled out. The date? 1927. The house’s two disasters had become one.
Jeremy and his dad Bob resumed were hoisting a butcher block countertop into place to get the kitchen ready to cook for 30 guests. Would the house be ready for Thanksgiving?
“Absolutely,” shot back Bob, who was directing traffic in the living room, just as his father would have done. “We must have Thanksgiving here.”
Why, I asked, was Thanksgiving so important? “Thanksgiving is the one day of the year that the whole family is together,” replied Jeremy. Cousins were traveling from Maine, Pennsylvania and even Nepal to be there. And for his grandfather, “It represents a continuation of a long tradition.”
But as the 119-year old family home was being brought back to life this fall, Gus Ayers has been declining. The family patriarch had lived for two months at the Squier House while his house was being repaired, but then suffered a small stroke in early November. The family had to move him to a nursing home in Berlin. Still, when Jeremy visited, his grandfather would ask, “How long ‘til Thanksgiving?”
“The plan was that he was going to come home at Thanksgiving and have a big family meeting, and talk to all the grandchildren about what he wanted for the future of the house,” said Jeremy.
On Thanksgiving day, Bob and Jeremy arrived at the nursing home to bring Gus home. The 94-year-old patriarch looked up weakly from his bed, shook his head, and said softly, “No.” The son and grandson took it in quietly. Gus’s wife Marion had died in this nursing home in 2010. A week before Thanksgiving, Gus had stopped eating, and stopped taking his medication. “He chose to let go,” said Jeremy, nodding in understanding.
Throughout Thanksgiving day, family members came to visit with Gus. That afternoon, just as Gus wished, 32 members of the Ayers family – including Gus’s four children, 9 grandchildren and 7 great grandchildren – gathered in the family dining room at 18 Elm St. to feast on Vermont turkey, turnip (“only half the people eat that, but my dad loved it,” confesses Bob) and an old family favorite, cream pie.
Gleason Ayers’ last wish had come true: He lived to hear that Thanksgiving was once again held in his home, just as it has for over a century, smiling when family members came to tell him about it. His home continues as the heart and soul of future generations of the Ayers family.
About 36 hours after his family’s Thanksgiving feast, Gleason Ayers died peacefully in his sleep. His family and its traditions have endured through one of Vermont’s greatest disasters, and will carry on. His life’s mission was fulfilled. His work here was finished.