2018-02-08 / Features

I Remember

The cabal that saved Norwich Part 16 - The Auction
Peter Young

Hello dear readers. I hope your introduction to the amethyst month went well, that your fuel tank is full and that you’re attentive to your significant other on the fourteenth. When last we were together, five town fathers had just met at the law offices of Frank Plumley over the Northfield Savings bank on a blustery night in early April 1889. They had just hatched a plan, devised a scheme and developed a stratagem that if successful would guarantee that Northfield would still be hosting the nation’s oldest private military college come the fall. There was to be an estate auction of the real and personal property owned by Perley Belknap at his death. The campus of Norwich University was part of Perley’s estate as he acquired it by foreclosure several years earlier. The story continues. 

The scene is set. The cabal is at the ready: three prominent doctors, (Mayo, Bradford and Nichols) a U.S. Attorney, (Plumley) and Northfield’s Town Clerk, (Egerton) who was also Norwich’s corporate secretary. Over their lifetimes, they’d collectively rack up more than 172 years of combined service as Norwich University trustees. And keep in mind that court-appointed administrators, executors, and commissioners act as fiduciaries, which meant they owed unconditional loyalty to the estate and its beneficiaries. Self-dealing was absolutely forbidden. 
September 28, 1889, the day of the auction, was probably an overcast, dreary day. According to the Northfield News, the ninth month of the Gregorian calendar of that year had over four inches of rain and only six sunny days. There had been a frost on the twenty-sixth.
The cabal assigned Dr. William Barnabus Mayo the role of wheelman. Mayo’s task was to pick up a Boston tycoon who was attending the auction (Perhaps the school grounds and barracks building would make a fine prep school or a school of barbering.)  at the railroad station and show him the “grounds” with covert orders from the colluders to “take all the time necessary.” Dr. Mayo, known for his beautiful carriages and thoroughbred horses, was perfect for this role. He enjoyed displaying both his treasured teams and hansoms as well as his adopted town. 
The good doctor not only gladly accepted his assignment; he well carried out its duties. He “showed” the businessman the Norwich grounds and apparently a significant portion of the rest of Northfield, for they missed the public sale on the common by several minutes. Way to go, Doctor!
Town Clerk and Norwich trustee, J.K. Egerton, also had a starring role that day. He was the shill. He duty was to bid at the auction for the appraised value of the school, an appraisal that he had concocted acting as commissioner of Perley’s estate. An examination of the Washington District Probate Court records for Perley’s estate reveals that Commissioner Egerton valued Norwich University, consisting of approximately eight acres (the original estimate of eleven acres was overly optimistic) and a completed Jackman Hall and some other outbuildings FOR ONLY TEN-DOLLARS. Can you believe? The mendacity of it all is astounding. 
He justified that piddling amount by explaining to the court that the property was subject to an outstanding mortgage that Perley had granted his mother-in-law after he acquired it in foreclosure with a balance due of about seventeen hundred dollars. Jackman Hall’s first two floors cost about $23,000 to build in 1867. It is therefore beyond the pale to suggest that in 1889, some twenty-two years later, that the Norwich campus, including Jackman Hall – which by this time had a finished third floor plus additional outbuildings – would only be worth $1,710, which was the outstanding amount due on the mortgage that Perley granted his mother-in-law plus ten dollars.
Stay tuned in dear readers and find out what happens to Egerton’s ten-dollar bid. Conflict of interest you say? Hmmm. One thing is certain. If you enjoy reading about conflicts and interesting goings on, the Northfield News is the rag to peruse. That’s true, Drew.

Hello folks. Peter Young’s latest book, “Tales from the Dog (And More)” is available locally at the Northfield Pharmacy, Shear Edge hair salon and the Northfield Historical Society as well on amazon.com and Kindle. It’s a collection of short stories about Northfield and its college on the hill with a ton of vintage photos of times and people past. Take a gander and try it!  
And don’t forget Peter’s book “Flatlander and the Rise and Fall of Mike and the Ravens” which received the 2016 silver/second place prize from the Feathered Quill Book Awards Program in the best humor category and is also available locally as described above and Bear Pond Books in Montpelier.  It can also be purchased on the Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Kindle web site


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