By Doug McClure
HARDWICK – January started out far colder than any recent year and it had nothing to do with the weather. Hazen Union Junior Finn Rooney took his life on January 3. A January 5 memorial was held at the school to honor the young man’s memory. Finn’s death was, in the words of one community member, “the sort of thing that shakes a community to its core.” The school and Orleans Southwest Supervisory Union (OSSU) began discussing mental health, taking honest stock of what more it could do and what it could do better.
The Hardwick Inn gained a new business in January. Johnson residents Harriet and Jim Armstrong opened Harriet’s Whatnot Shop based on a simple premise: “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.”
The OSSU received another shock in January. CFO John Smith said he received an unwelcome email on January 3 notifying him that Hazen Union and the Orleans Southwest Union Elementary District would be on the hook for an additional $910,000 due to a previously unknown – to Smith and the OSSU – provision of Act 46.
On February 5, Hazen Union student Lucas Whitaker won second place in the tenth annual State of the Union essay contest sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Whitaker wrote about youth suicide and mental health care access. He was “the first essay finalist [ever] from Hazen,” said Sanders’ media coordinator Kate Farley at the time.
The Yellow Barn was awarded a $900,000 implementation grant from the Vermont Community Development Program (VCDP) for the purpose of developing an $8.6 million agribusiness accelerator and corporate campus.
Meanwhile, tensions rose between some Hardwick Academy (HA) graduates. At the February 6 Hardwick Select Board meeting, 2014 Hazen Union alum Victoria Foster suggested that the old HA bell sitting in Memorial Park should be moved to the Hazen Union campus. Foster later said the idea originally was Hazen Union student Finn Rooney’s. Some HA alums vehemently opposed any attempt to move the bell. HA Class of 1970s Orise Ainsworth said the bell’s proximity to Hazen meant students could revive old HA traditions of ringing the bell for students’ successes without moving it.
At the end of February, the Hazen Union board discussed a bond vote to fund repairs to the school’s aging infrastructure. An engineering assessment identified numerous major problems with the building; students and faculty claimed that the 50-year-old building’s configuration frustrated the Hazen Union 2020 education goals. The board planned at the time to bring a bond to voters in November to address these challenges, but the COVID-19 outbreak scuttled those plans.
At Town Meeting 2020, approved a measure to join the NEK Communications Union District. Budgets for both the town and the school also passed. Select board member Danny Hale lost his re-election bid against newcomer Ceilidh Galloway-Kane, while both Shari Cornish and Lucian Avery ran unopposed.
The Hazen Union boys’ basketball team made it to the Barre Aud, but fell just short of a championship against Enosburg. Enosburg used its height advantage to slow down the Wildcats and won 66-55. It was an improbable run for Hill and his young Wildcat team after losing senior star guard Cody Davison to injury earlier in the season. The scoring slack was taken up by Isaiah Baker, who was in striking distance of the all-time school scoring record. Baker and junior Gavin Fowler were also selected to the Vermont Dream Dozen team by the VBCA.
The fourth annual Battle of the Badges charitable basketball games was planned for on March 28 but was canceled due to the pandemic.
Things began to move very quickly in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. On Friday, March 13, Hazen Union principal Perrigo came over the public address system and said “This is your captain” to make sure everyone was paying attention and understood it was serious. He instructed students to take home their Chromebooks and everything else because “there is a chance we might not have school next week.” OSSU shut down schools on Tuesday, March 17.
Town Manager Shaun Fielder said that Hardwick was focusing on meeting the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic. “At the town level, we’re doing the steps to make sure the select board is informed. I’m working very closely with [Police Chief] Aaron [Cochran] and [Fire Chief and Roads Foreman] Tom [Fadden], and Hardwick Rescue,” he explained.
The Gazette ran its last print issue of 2020 on April 1. The paper changed completely to digital, a process that would eventually see a completely re-vamped website by the fall.
The town halted work on non-essential projects such as Lamoille Valley Rail Trail (LVRT), and the Yellow Barn’s groundbreaking was delayed.
As COVID-19 continued impacting the daily lives of residents, a group of volunteers, in concert with the Town of Hardwick, banded together to make sure everyone stayed safe and informed. The organization was dubbed the Hardwick Area Neighbor-to-Neighbor Group.
By mid-April, Vermont’s lockdown had been so stringent and people had followed the guidance so well that the feared COVID surge had not materialized. Governor Scott described a loosening of some measures, which would be the first of many “turns of the spigot.” The Hardwick Farmers’ Market was allowed to operate in heavily modified form.
Work on the LVRT resumed. By the end of 2020, the entire Hardwick section of the LVRT would be passable despite the interruption of COVID.
Some things could not go on, though. The Hardwick Kiwanis Club announced at the end of April that the Spring Festival was canceled for the first time since the event’s inception in 1950.
The state hoped that federal CARES Act Funding for COVID relief would expand broadband access in the Northeast Kingdom. The Department of Public Service (DPS) put out a town-by-town estimate of how much it would cost. Hardwick’s estimate: $1.18m.
AT&T put up a balloon to simulate its 184-foot tall tower. Town Manager Shaun Fielder noted at the time that AT&T’s design for the proposed tower on Buffalo Mountain still had not met Hardwick Electric Department’s (HED) construction standards.
While the state mulled measures allowing towns flexibility for residents’ property tax obligations, the town was not sure that would be a good idea because a $2.3m education tax payment could not be deferred.
At the end of May Town Manager Fielder told the board that the town’s wastewater treatment facility was due for an engineering assessment. The board agreed and hired consulting engineers Aldrich+Elliot P.C. to assess the facility’s needs.
For Hazen Union students, the pandemic canceled many traditional in-person activities, including the spring sports season, and graduation. Principal Perrigo set to work with teachers, staff, and students to provide “the best, most celebratory graduation possible under present conditions.”
On May 25, George Floyd, a Black man, was killed at the hands of Minneapolis police, setting off protests across the country. The first peaceful demonstration in Hardwick took place on June 6, largely attended by teenagers who felt an immediate urgency to make their voices heard.
Hazen Union’s 2020 Valedictorian was Elijah Lew-Smith and the Salutatorian was Mariana Considine. Principal Perrigo told the students, on behalf of the Hazen Union faculty and staff, that “the loss of your presence in our daily lives has been unbearable.”
He said “These diplomas are invitations to enter two great arenas of life. The arena of life’s privileges, and the arena of life’s responsibilities.”
With another “turn of the spigot” in mid-June, Governor Scott allowed restaurants to open up indoor seating up to 25 percent of capacity.
The select board began talking about a specific policy for signs posted on town properties and a BLM-supporting resolution.
As June wrapped up, Jeudevine Library Trustee Chair Jodi Lew-Smith told the select board “We are within spitting distance of our fundraising goal.” The bond vote was set for August 11.
On July 2, the Hardwick Historical Society reopened at the Depot, featuring the completion of a two-year project to install climate-controlled storage for documents and artifacts.
Hardwick Rescue began sounding the alarm that its staffing and resources were too thin and it needed more of both. Ballooning call volume even before the pandemic had put a strain on the organization, and many of its largely-volunteer staff were in risk categories for COVID or cared for someone who was. The Squad went before all eight select boards in towns it serves to ask for extra funding for this coming Town Meeting, but just as importantly, sought to attract additional personnel.
A $100,000 Accessibility Modification grant from Vermont Community Development Program pushed the Jeudevine Library’s fundraising over the top and cleared the way for the bond vote on August 11.
Youth sports finally began a limited return in the form of Babe Ruth Baseball in mid-July. The Hardwick Babe Ruth team beat St. Johnsbury in the league finals, 10-0.
With school re-opening approaching, the OSSU started work on health safety guidelines for its schools. The schools took to protect students, teachers and staff upon their return. Funded by CARES act money, Hazen Union added two negative pressure rooms in case a student needed to be isolated, upgraded its entire HVAC system with advanced HEPA filtration, reconfigured classrooms for distancing, added additional ventilation capabilities, and put UV lights in that could kill the COVID-19 virus.
The Hardwick Pedestrian and Traffic Safety Task Force presented a slate of recommendations to the board in mid-August. Many of the recommendations involved improvements to crosswalks in the village.
Voters approved the $550,000 Jeudevine library bond by a vote of 364-280, allowing the $1.8m project to get underway.
A cable on the swinging bridge in town snapped, which proved not to have a simple resolution. The select board began looking at possible solutions.
The engineering evaluation of the wastewater treatment plant provided a cost estimate of $1.6m from consultants Aldrich + Elliott (A+E). The town would need to come up with around $942,000 of that total. A+E stressed in its report that the facility had been well maintained and the bulk of its findings involved equipment that had simply reached the end of its lifespan.
On August 21, Floyd Aloysius Fleaflicker passed into immortality after fourteen years on the planet. The Hyde Park-born feline became the public face of many community functions, especially those promoting spay-and-neuter awareness.
Schools were now open and the community held its collective breath. Hazen Union’s efforts to adapt its teaching programs resulted in many new opportunities for the students through virtual programs such as the Vermont Virtual Learning Cooperative, as well as new in-person options, such as Anja Pfeffer’s Dare To Be Me, the Hazen Academy Makerspace, and the Hazen Arts Academy.
On September 16, a coordinated early morning roundup spearheaded by the Hardwick Police Department (HPD) yielded five arrests in Hardwick and Greensboro on three different drugs-related cases. The suspects taken into custody for the alleged offenses were James Patten, 38, of Hardwick, for selling heroin; Robert Chaplin, 26, of East Hardwick, for selling cocaine; Shamcie Cota, 46, also of East Hardwick, for selling cocaine and aiding in the commission of a felony; Randy Rich, 24, of Greensboro Bend, for the alleged manufacture, distribution, or sale of a drug; and his brother, Justin, 28, also of Greensboro Bend, for “accessory aiding commission of felony.”
As a part of its continuing efforts to educate the public on the wastewater treatment plant project and that plant’s vital role to the town, Town Manager Shaun Fielder and several members of the Hardwick Select Board gave a public tour of the wastewater treatment facility on September 24.
The East Hardwick Fire District reported that the springs that supply water to the village were running low and that people uphill of the village were running out of water.
Steve Perkins, Director of the Vermont Historical Society, presented two League of Local Historical Societies & Museums (LLHSM) Achievement Awards to the Historical Society at a ceremony at the Depot on September 30. Lorraine Hussey received an Individual Achievement Award for her lifetime of participation in shaping Hardwick’s history and her nearly 20 years of volunteer work with the Historical Society.
On October 3, a new cannabis business, Mountain Mystic, opened in the former Caledonia Spirits building.
In mid-October, a drainage channel adjacent to Route 14 south of Hardwick village received an upgrade to improve water quality to Cooper Brook, a tributary of the Lamoille River, which has historically overflowed during heavy rains.
COVID-19 caused the cancelation of Halloween as most Hardwick residents knew it. HPD decided against cordoning off the section of town around Lower Cherry Street for kids to safely trick-or-treat.
On October 27, the Hardwick Village Restaurant has an unplanned drive-in customer on Tuesday when the take-out window was damaged by an automobile. That damage was quickly repaired, and whether intentional or not, the restaurant referred to its take-out window as a drive-through in a later Facebook post.
Controversy over the AT&T tower proposed for Buffalo Mountain erupted in early November. Local pushback led AT&T to abandon its plans for a tower by mid-December.
Traffic and pedestrian safety continued to be concerns. Residents signed a petition to add a traffic light at the Glenside/Route-15 intersection, which the town began investigating in early November.
In mid-November, the Hazen Union girls’ soccer team got further than any Wildcat girls’ team had since 1987, making it to the finals. The Wildcats’ lost the championship game to Proctor, 4-2. Proctor came into the game undefeated, having outscored its opponents 77-3.
In early November a student at the Green Mountain Technology and Career Center (GMTCC) tested positive for COVID-19. On November 9, an HPD officer tested positive for the virus, which sent two more officers into quarantine, and on November 13, Hazen Union that a person “in the Hazen school community” tested positive, as well. Town offices were quickly closed and the Jeudevine Library returned to curbside lending.
On November 18, Hardwick’s case total nudged up to seven. Thanksgiving week arrived and state and town officials urged people not to gather for the holiday with those not from their households. Fearing people would not heed that advice, the OSSU pre-emptively canceled in-person learning from November 30 – December 14.
Nonetheless, Hardwick’s confirmed cases increased to 24 by December 2. On December 5, COVID testing at the Hardwick Fire Station started thanks to a collaboration between the state, Northern Counties Health Care, and Cambridge, Mass.-based logistics coordinator CIC Health.
Hardwick hired Geoff Sewake for the Community Development Coordinator position in early December. Soon thereafter, the town won a $10,000 grant.
As the OSSU resumed in-person class on December 14, the state believed that a “surge upon surge” of COVID cases due to Thanksgiving gatherings may have been averted. Health Commissioner Dr. Levine said “These [new case] numbers are not something we should develop a new comfort level around.” Vermont had seen around 100 cases per day for weeks and on December 15 recorded its 100th fatality. On December 14, the first vaccines arrived in Vermont for healthcare workers and doses for those in long-term care facilities a week later.
The Buffalo Mountain Co-op began surveying its members and local residents to get their thoughts on a possible move. The limited space at its current location meant that the store had to get creative to safely operate during the pandemic.
At its last scheduled meeting of 2020, the select board tackled plans for next year’s Town Meeting. Without finalizing anything, the board believed that switching to Australian ballot would likely be the only viable option. Three of the five Select Board members are up for re-election: Elizabeth Dow, who said she plans to run for re-election; Shari Cornish, who said she does not; and Lucian Avery, who has not indicated either way.