The Worthington 250 Interviews, Part Three: Clarence Witter, Extrovert

Jane and Clarence Witter, 2020. Photo by Evan Spring.

Note: This transcript is from a series of interviews conducted by Harold Anderson of Valley Eye Radio during Worthington’s 250th anniversary celebrations, which took place from June 29 to July 3, 2018. Valley Eye Radio, based in the Pioneer Valley, provides local news, interviews and other content to those with vision loss or other disabilities.

Harold Anderson: Clarence, are you a life-long resident or did you move to Worthington?

Clarence Witter: I moved to Worthington in 1957 out of Vermont.

HA: Had you heard of Worthington before you moved here?

CW: I did not. My mother was driving through town looking for a house with her husband at the time, my stepfather. Came around the corner on 112 from Cummington into Worthington, and could not believe how beautiful Worthington was. The house she chose to buy happened to be the Dingle Shop. It was a neat little store where you could buy crafts or smokes or ice cream. So I’ve been here since 1957. In 1958 we had a tremendous snowstorm in this town. I was going to Smith School and taking trade agricultural, and you could not see the school bus. The snow was up to the telephone line.

HA: Uh oh.

Snow arch by Emerson Davis, c. 1950.

CW: There was a fellow in this town, Emmy Davis. Emmy Davis built some tunnels into the church so that people could go to church, because the snow was too deep to shovel out. So he made tunnels and gave them arches, so they were pretty architectural. He also built the same into the town hall. It was a winter to remember, because Mason’s Hill, Route 143, was shut off completely. They had to call in relief from Boston. They brought in the first snowblower to blow the snow so people could get into Worthington. I believe that was about a week to two-week process, so people could get into Worthington on 143.

HA: Wow.

CW: But people had a way back then. Worthington still has that gift today of helping one another. I noticed changes in the ’70s when the by-laws passed. It changed the way people related to one another. It caused a little session of neighbor against neighbor, watching each other, which really grieved me, because we always were known to help one another. It kind of went through the transition.

The big show then in Worthington was Albert’s Farms. Albert’s Farms was the main employer of Worthington. He brought much progress into Worthington. I was a teenager going to Smith School, taking trade, and Ben Albert took me under his wing. As a matter of fact, he had plans for me for the future. I chose my own route, which most young boys do, but he encouraged me. He actually spent one whole winter allowing me to mess up and make all kind of mistakes as a mechanic, and never complained once. Always made me feel better about myself, encouraged me to do better. He gave the town much money. I ran a mechanic shop, and the town would come in and they would need bolts or something. He was very generous, gave everybody whatever they needed.

Ben Albert’s potato farming operation, from the 1968 Bicentennial program.

CW: I was involved with his aircraft. I took many trips with him, and he was a complete clown. He was always trying to mess me up and scare me or whatever. When my wife and I went with him and a group of ladies to Maine, he had a twin engine at the time. I was in the co-pilot seat, and he said, “Clarence, this is a boring airplane.” He says, “You just kind of watch and take over while I take a nap.” So the engine on the right side slowed down and stopped, and I figured we were going to crash. So I woke him up and he said, “Oh jeez, don’t yell. The women will start screaming and everything.” He says, “So what do you think? Where should we crash?” And I said, “I think we ought to crash in that lake up there.” And he said, “Well, you know, I think you’re smart. I think that’s a good idea.” Well it turned out that it could run on one engine. He thought that was a real comical thing.

Ben Albert had a tremendous impact on this town. It’s never been the same since Ben Albert’s Farms went under. We’re trying to get back on our feet and bring business back in, but that era – there was a lot, I think, of the Gilded Age. People socialized, they had picnics on the lawn. There was one lady that came from Texas that decided she loved it so much, she asked everybody to come. She had tables out on the lawn, checkered tablecloths and wine. It was just like what you read about back in the 1920s or ’30s. So those are special things to me.

My wife and I, we started a business in 1968, the logging business that I still own today. Later we put in a sawmill in 1977, which our family became part of. We employed people in town, we employed people out of town. And for our gratefulness to the town that supported our business by buying from us, we did a pig roast for 15 years. We used to say all friends were allowed to come, but then people would say to my wife and I, “You never invited me.” So I said, “I’ll tell you what, I’m gonna put a sign out there that all friends are welcome.” Then I put a sign outside of the road. Next thing I knew, the biggest event we ever had was in 1990. We had 700 people in our field.

HA: Whoa.

CW: We didn’t know we had friends in California, North Carolina. But this was a special moment. We never had a single troubled time. The town said, “Clarence, you really should get a permit if you’re going to put on that big of an event.” I said, “Well, these are all of my friends.” They said, “There’s no way one person can have 700 friends.”

Anyways, we had cannons there, people setting off cannons. We had horse rides, we had balloon rides. One year, hot air balloon rides. So it was a real special event. My wife and I are married 57 years right now. We’re thinking of maybe doing that again on our 60th to show Worthington how much we love it here and the people.

There’s other people that have been involved in our life in this town. Bob Cudworth used to come around in the 1970s – he was alone, all by himself. So he would come to our house, and my wife would cook him a meal. He’d sit by the wood fire, and he said that he really loved our place. So we got the neighbors together and decided that every neighbor could do something too. So I call Ed McColgan up the road. He said, “Oh, sure. Send him up to my house. I’ll feed him tonight.” We would feed him, the next house would feed him, and all the way down the line. But he would always come back to our house no matter what for dessert.

Bob Cudworth c. 1960.

CW: Worthington is one of the nicest towns I could ever live in. Matter of fact, all these hilltowns – my wife got hurt once, and we had 100 people at our house to help out that knew us from three towns. That’s what you have here in these hilltowns. God has surely blessed this town, and I pray He continues to do that. It’s an honor for me just to be able to tell about Worthington.

HA: Well, you had 700 people at the one pig roast. I have a sneaking feeling in three years if you try it again you might have more people showing up.

CW: Well that’s my gut feeling, and my wife is a little nervous. And I believe the town would have to have more security, I’m not sure. We live in a different time, but I also am an optimist. I’m not one that gets into negative conversations, I don’t like them. I like to encourage young people. My wife drives the school bus, and she is 73. I’m 77, and our mission in life is to leave this world with a legacy that people will remember, that we might have had an impact on them.

Jane and Clarence Witter, 2020. Photo by Evan Spring.

HA: Friends or family that are outside of the area, how do you describe life in Worthington to them?

CW: I go to my daughter’s that moved to Boston, and as you probably realized already – and everybody accuses me of – I’m an extrovert and very outgoing. I’m a public speaker. I confront a lot of people to try to be friendly. But you go to these other towns, and you talk to people, and they don’t know their neighbors, they criticize their neighbors. We don’t have this in Worthington. If we did, they wouldn’t last long, at least in my book.

I don’t know if anybody’s mentioned Henry Snyder to you, but Henry Snyder was the chief of police. Probably I shouldn’t make this known, but we had our own rules here in Worthington. We had some character that was patrolling our house at night. And I took a short term in GE for two months, which I hated very much. I’m an outside person. And this guy was harassing my wife around my house and stuff. I told her to get the gun out and just open the window up and take a shot out the window to scare him away. So I said, “Henry, you gotta come down here.” He said, “Clarence, I can’t do nothing. We ain’t gonna catch him.” I say, “I’m telling you what. I’m going to protect my family. I’m staying home, and this guy’s gonna be in real trouble.” He says, “Clarence, whatever you do, we’ll stand behind you because we know you’re right.” That’s the way we handled things. We tried to be fair with people. If there was a troublemaker, we warned them and tried to encourage them.

Henry Snyder at Worthington’s Bicentennial ball, 1968.

John Tredwell and Henry Snyder at the Cummington Fair.

 

 

CW: Henry Snyder was what they called a one-man town here. He was a selectman, a chief of police, he was everything. He was a self-taught man that ran his own business. He was a very successful man, and another guy that encouraged people when he saw the good in them. That’s what Worthington stands for, which you will not find in many places east of the Connecticut River.

HA: So have you noticed much of a change in the town? When you first were here, how was it?

CW: When I first was here, it reminded me of when I was a kid. People were more involved with each other, sensitive to the needs of one another. I actually counsel a lot of young kids in our church and other people, and I noticed that their whole world is either texting or their smartphones. There’s a lack of social skills, and Worthington always had that. I try to encourage that in young people. The thing that I’ve brought to their attention is that “Your perception is way off, because a lot of times what you text, you have no idea what the person is thinking.” And so I suggest that you get more involved with people.

But as far as how the town has changed, I still feel the same. I love the people here. I know most of the people in this town, although I used to know every single person. When I came here, it was 600 people. Now, it’s 1,300 or 1,400, I believe. I think they come here because they see it’s a town of love. I guess I want to say it that way, that people are caring, and so they want to live here.

HA: Did you go to school here?

CW: I did not go to the elementary. I came from Vermont. I was in the logging camps up there as a young boy, thirteen years old in a one-room schoolhouse, so the teacher came to school on a horse. I originally was from Massachusetts. My mother had to come back. She had ten kids when my dad left us when I was three years old. We all had to work to take care of her. That’s what brought her to Worthington, was the caring of the people. The big difference today that I noticed since I was a kid, the church was there to help poor people, encourage them, to help them to do better, to help them get a job. Today, the government does that, and there was a definite difference when the government decided that they would help the people rather than the people help themselves. And I think John Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.”

HA: What do you do for a leisure time here?

CW: In Worthington, if you’re not a golfer, you’re probably going to be splitting wood or something else. So this is a way we escape. We get together with the boys and we golf and we discuss old days and new days. We used to, years ago, in the back of the store, solve the problems of Worthington. The town meetings could be very heated at times and people expressed – there was no political correctness. And I used to love it, because people said what was on their hearts, rather than trying to be an intellectual genius. It was the common sense deal back then.

HA: You like the climate here in Worthington?

CW: Yes, I do. I traveled the world. I built a house on the island of St. Lucia for a movie star, thinking I might want to live there some day. But Worthington, there’s nothing that can beat it – the four seasons and the people. The only thing I don’t like about it is January. Everybody goes in their hut, and they don’t come out until March.

Clarence Witter and the gazebo he built around 1990, inspired by structures in St. Lucia. Photo by Evan Spring.

HA: The winters here in Worthington live up to or down to their reputation?

CW: They live up to their reputation. As I told you in 1958, we could have a return of that. I hope we don’t. I’m not so sure the people today could handle it the way they did in 1958. I think there was a baby boom population back then and I suspect it was that snowstorm.

James Clay Rice, a Worthington native, brigadier general for the Union Army, and hero at Gettysburg. Harper’s Weekly, May 28, 1964.

HA: Worthington, 250 years old. What does its history mean to you?

CW: I’m a Civil War buff, a history buff, and General Rice of this town was a big deal – he fought in Gettysburg. I felt that we should have honored him. If we had set up a regiment in the parade to honor Rice, I think that would have been a big thing with a reenactment. But it’s never too late.

HA: What’s your favorite season?

CW: My favorite season is May, spring. When the peepers come out and the daffodils bloom, and if there was ever a nicer time in Worthington, that’s it.

Posted August 17, 2020. The interview transcription was funded by a grant from the Worthington Cultural Council, a local agency supported by the Mass Cultural Council, a state agency.

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