On a stretch of Route 5 cluttered with modest-sized businesses, only the post office sign is a reminder that you’re in the village of St. Johnsbury Center. Fire, flood, ice jams, and old age opened this charming location to “modern” change. It’s easy to overlook the lingering beauty of its past, with Green Mountain Mall just to the north, and St. Johnsbury’s hospital/medical campus to the south.
But turn off the highway and the village is present, along with evidence of many significant lives and rural treasures. And the most often mentioned when people savor the village’s past is chocolate milk: rich, thick, and delivered to home or school or handed to a helper, by Leonard Goss from his Gossholme Farms dairy.
People called him Len or LC, though the children of course said “Mr. Goss” as they gazed up to his more than six feet of height. Steady, reliable, a superintendent of the cattle department at the county fair for more than 40 years, Leonard Goss farmed Guernsey cows and bottled and sold his own milk, right from his home and with his own trucks.
Born in 1904, Len Goss officially began his dairy farm in 1921, stepping into the business young, said his son Courtland “Joe” Goss. “He was a very hard-working person, up at four a.m. and worked all day,” Joe, now 90, recalls. Leonard’s wife Charlotte (Stiles) Goss had essential roles, too, in keeping this going. “She took care of the house and fed everybody, pretty much family. The hired help lived across the street.” Charlotte also did all the bookkeeping for the farm and dairy.
Like his dad, Joe Goss set to work at a young age, delivering milk at age 13. His daughter Jaye Young recalled, “He’d go to school and fall asleep!” Joe confirmed that, adding that even at ages 8 and 9, he’d ride along, then hitch a ride to school. If he fell asleep at his school desk at about 11 a.m., the teacher would send him home for a nap, and he’d be back at 1 p.m.
“Everybody had milk delivered every day, so I had a steady job.” He carried milk, chocolate milk, and cream to some 50 to 60 families, and also supplied milk at the county fair. When he was old enough to drive, he did the route on his own, seven days a week, including out to lakeshore residents around Miles Pond.
Darcie McCann grew up in the village and recalled how Leonard Goss and his dairy entered her life as a child. “Leonard gathered the kids (of the village) to work in the creamery and to help hay. You’d get paid a half-pint of chocolate milk. It was glorious! It was like you’d gotten a million dollars.”
Ice Jams, Flooding, and Fire
St. Johnsbury Center includes both sides of the Passumpsic River, as well as what’s now called Breezy Hill (where Leonard’s cows would graze). The river’s power made it a focal center of St. Johnsbury in the early 1800s. Historian Edward T. Fairbanks wrote that early industrialist Eleazar Sanger, “bought what is now the land included in the Center Village. He threw a dam across the Passumpsic, and soon an up and down saw was running and houses began to be built…Logs were hauled in during the winter on sleds, each man’s logs were stacked in a separate pile, and every log was marked with the owner’s name.”
Mills multiplied in the village, along with a starch factory, and when the railroad extended north, it positioned a station just across the village’s iron bridge. The station’s name was “Centervale,” and its location is still marked by Depot Street in the village.
But the river made the village vulnerable to natural disasters. An ice jam in 1915 tossed house-size chunks of ice onto the streets, blocking horse-drawn carriages and tearing out the “Bacon bridge.” Even across the road from the river, at the pillared Chaffee home, one of a set of 1850s-built houses, blocks of ice littered the front lawn. (Another ice jam would cripple the village in 1935.)
Far more damaging was the flood of 1927, which destroyed homes and lives and infrastructure across Vermont. This time the Center’s torn-out bridge landed down the river and was towed back into position. Of the 47 village homes, only two missed being damaged.
At the Goss farm, Leonard and Charlotte had only been married three years when the flood struck. Len must have already been building his noted herd of Registered Guernseys, and acquiring the knowledge that would make him president of the Vermont Guernsey Breeders Association. The disasters that struck his dairy hardest wouldn’t happen until 1938.
On Oct. of that year, Len and Charlotte’s seven-year-old son “Joe” (nicknamed by his dad, who got tired of explaining the name “Courtland” to others) began to cross the railroad tracks on his way home. He turned and saw a massive locomotive headed toward him—and froze in place. Though the whistle shrieked, he only waited and was struck and thrown off the railbed. Amazingly, the child survived multiple broken bones, and came home from the hospital in a body cast.
Leonard’s son-in-law Peter Eaton, married to the Goss daughter Nancy, tells the sequence of further disaster. Weeks later, there was a fire at the dairy, just before Christmas that year. “The dairy where they bottled milk was on the back of the house and the boiler blew up,” he reported. “People had to carry Joe out (in the body cast).” The farmhouse at the corner of Breezy Hill and today’s Memorial Drive (Route 5) was destroyed.
But Charlotte was expecting a baby, and the dairy couldn’t be neglected either, so a replacement farmhouse quickly rose from the old foundation. A few days later, on Dec. 31, Nancy was born, ending the year on a positive note for the family. Local historian Claire Dunne Johnson noted that the firemen had saved the neighboring First Congregational Church, and “Leonard rebuilt promptly, to have a better milk business than ever.”
Though the dairy closed in the 1970s, Leonard Goss kept raising cattle, switching to beef. Residents of the village smile as they recall the days when someone like “Charlie” Wiggin might walk cows up Route 5. Marty Brown tells of a childhood that included 4:30 a.m. visits to the barn and becoming the milk delivery “runner” for a week when a truck broke down. And Bruce Allen said, “I remember walking just up the street to the Gossholme Farms milk plant and Len Goss giving me free chocolate milk. My father worked there. I remember the kids running all over the town and the parents never worrying because someone was always watching. The sliding trail went from where the upper part of Cross Avenue is now to the Whipples’ back yard down by Rt. 5. St. Johnsbury Center was a great place to grow up.”
Sports, School, Church, Grange
Though the dairy meant a lot to Center life, so did sports and social life. Sisters Linda Whipple Guyer and Carol Whipple Priest, who described the Center’s mink farms for a North Star Monthly article printed in January 2021, delighted in the skating pond Mr. Goss kept shoveled off for the kids. Linda also recalled baseball games, where the St. Johnsbury Center kids and the ones from East St. Johnsbury, which also had a village school, would compete. “The two graded schools would have joint picnics,” she added.
Driving through St. Johnsbury Center on Route 5 won’t show you the village school, which still stands, cupola and all, as a private residence on a side street. It hosted six grades, and upon its closing in 1991, a lot of the community identity faltered. One of “Joe” Goss’s daughters, Jaye Young of Concord, attended the school through fourth grade and described each of the five classrooms as “maybe six desks across, the same back, maybe thirty kids per class.” Because her family’s dairy didn’t close for holidays, she and other kids “would get to go on the milk run with them because we had school off!”
The village church still holds services, as the Church on the Hill, next to the Center Village Burying Ground. Poignantly, the Grange building, which hosted so many family celebrations over the years, closed about a decade ago and became a private structure, but it still stands. Clusters of homes on the side roads house families and gardens, and even a produce farm across the river now offers its crops with signs by the iron bridge.
In the road near the church is a small dividing segment that was once a “triangle” where, each Christmas season, Joe Goss would bring a “giant” tree he’d cut, for the village to decorate, a tradition his father had started before him.
It’s also possible to walk the village (carefully crossing the highway) and rediscover what was the Thurber store, where a cleaning business now operates; a former country store/deli that’s become artist Larry Golden’s gallery; the Goss farmhouse, now housing a kitchen design firm and auto broker; the location of the Gossholme barn, transformed into All Around Power; and what once was a field belonging to St. Johnsbury Trucking owner Harry Zabarsky, finally developed into the Green Mountain Mall in 1974 through a joint effort by local businessmen William and Orlando Costa and Harvey Caplan, and three more men from Massachusetts (according to the Mall Hall of Fame blog).
Lana Chamberlain noted, “I lived across the road from the mall. I remember watching it being built. There used to be a small brown house where the entrance to the mall is. Then towards the left, right before the cemetery, there was a white farmhouse where Clarence and Ruby Priest lived.” That field had been hayed by the Goss family for the farm, and Nancy (Goss) Eaton, Leonard’s daughter, used to do the “dump raking” that lined up the hay in rows for gathering. A favorite family tale recalls when there was a “fellow up the power pole” who kept saying “whoa!” as Nancy would approach with the horse-drawn rake—causing the horse to repeatedly stop and undo their labor, until Nancy figured out the cause!
More Stories of Village Life
There are more stories of this hidden village to uncover, including the stagecoach inn that stood beyond the Goss farm buildings, and 1930s Depression-era home businesses like the tourist lodgings offered at “The Elms” by Mrs. Flora Bonette (“Five minutes’ walk to station, post-office, store and garage … Home cooked foods … rooms $1 to $3 per day; meals 50 cents to 75 cents each”) and at Grey Gables by Mrs. George Wesley Cushman (“an old New England residence with modern conveniences and a homelike atmosphere. Bathroom and running water in bedrooms”).
Memories of the Gossholme Farms dairy range from the “tame” Guernsey bull that Leonard Goss posed with on the lawn or strolled with at the fair, to the scrumptious chocolate milk, and to the glass creamers and milk bottles that remain. Promotional creamers still surface marked with both the dairy and local eatery Brickett’s Diner: Peter Easton’s wife Nancy, Leonard Goss’s 1938-born daughter, “would ride the milk truck, help deliver the milk, have breakfast at Brickett’s Diner, then go to school,” Peter Easton says with a chuckle.
There are also many more Goss family stories. As LC’s grandson Dave Russell talks about Leonard Goss, his eyes widen with amazement over his grandfather’s long, steady Congregational church affiliation, preceded by a family background of Christian Science, which taught that the body could heal without medical care. In a hushed voice, like the kid he once was back then, Dave recalls that an accident once nearly severed his grandfather’s finger, and LC somehow sewed it back on—it was always stiff after that!
Describing his grandfather’s routine of hard work and predictable habits (including gum and candy), Dave itemizes LC’s morning wake-up at 4:30 a.m., the usual clothing of “tan Dickies and long-sleeve shirt, barn hat,” a pause to heat the stove for a cup of coffee, then off to the barn to turn on the radio right away for the WTWN voice of Don Mullalley.
“He knew every cow,” Dave marveled. After milking (Dave cleaned the gutters and had other tasks), the dairy farmer would come back to the house for a hefty breakfast of Kellogg’s corn flakes, water, juice, coffee, fruit for the cereal, then bacon, eggs, and toast, provided by Charlotte. A farmer’s chair nap in the office often followed.
For area residents Jean Desrochers, Sherry Lynch Bowers, Anne Brown, and Laura Morrissette, life around St. Johnsbury Center and Gossholme Farms is also captured on the glass milk bottles they treasure today with the familiar advertising jingle of the dairy: “From early morn ‘till late at night we work together with all our might to give you a product rich & pure, and it’s the best, you can be sure!"