Remembering Joe Parks, local chronicler

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Joe Parks, who died on May 3 at the Vermont Veterans Home, did not want a memorial service but he had made such a major contribution to local history that he and his work must be recognized. As his successor as librarian of the Bennington Museum, I have been reviewing the many dozens of local history columns Joe contributed, and which appeared in the Banner throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. These columns have been saved chronologically in binders at the museum library. They are not available electronically but are indexed by subject and can be read and photocopied.

Joe lived the kind of life he wanted. He held degrees in business administration, economics, and law from Washington University and another in international law from Yale. Yet he found after working in the law on Wall Street and briefly in Bennington, that it was not what he was cut out for.

Skiing had brought him to Vermont, first in the early days of Mount Snow in the late 1950s, and that led to his settling in Old Bennington in 1965. He bought the Bennington Bookstore, and after seven years of running it with his wife Emmely, he bought the Prospect ski area from Willie Morse and enjoyed more than ten satisfying - though not necessarily prosperous — years at Woodford. It began as a family affair with his son Tony operating the ski school and son Terry as "assistant mountain man" under Steve Whitham. Hundreds of children learned to ski during those happy years at Prospect.

During his brief time here as a lawyer, working with the late Eugene V. Clark, Joe got started on local history with a full-page article in the Banner published on May 14, 1974. He and his son Eric wrote about the three observation towers that were built on top of Mt. Anthony between 1864 and 1882 by George Wadsworth Robinson, proprietor of the Walloomsac Inn. Those towers were blown down one by one, largely due to a misunderstanding of the nature of aerodynamics and the effect of strong wind on large objects. The article was great fun as local history and was so thoroughly researched that it included 42 footnotes.

Then Joe was a natural to be asked to join the committee in 1975 that produced "The Shires of Bennington," a countywide pictorial history that marked the double bicentennial of the nation in 1976 and Vermont independence in 1977. It was a joint project of the Banner and the museum. Several writers contributed to that book, which I edited and designed, and Joe wrote the chapter on industry and commerce. It was about this same time that he worked with the Pownal Historical Society to write a history of their town.

Once Joe got started on a historical subject, he didn't let go. Many of his columns began by someone raising an idle question about the past. Among dozens of subjects, he wrote of native Americans of the region, of Bennington's beginnings, a five-part series on the Walloomsac Inn, about local aviation, railroads, early roads, maps, private and public utilities, police, cemeteries, schools and libraries, and Bennington's war dead — war by war. There was a series on Bennington's many fires, which he expanded to cover the various fire departments and their training. In reviewing his columns I found a series of nineteen he wrote on the life of Trenor W. Park, builder of the Park-McCullough mansion. Joe seemed especially interested in the many legal snafus and law suits in which the ambitious Trenor Park got involved. He gave an illustrated talk on "The Colgates, Jeromes, and Ben Venue."

Joe famously presented a three-carousel lecture on the Battle of Bennington that took longer than the original three-hour battle.     

In 2005 he gave up the local newspaper column for the serious task of writing a book about his experiences in World War Two. He corresponded with a former colleague in France and made a trip to Texas to consult another. Alas, after devoting a great deal of effort to this project, between computer glitches and the advances of age, no such book has been produced.

— Tyler Resch is a local historian, former Bennington Banner editor, and current librarian at the Bennington Museum.


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