Time and Again at Journey’s End

by John Delach

The rustic charm of Journey’s End spread by word of mouth. Young families mostly from Boston and New York City flocked to this unique country retreat for their two-week summer vacations. In some ways it became a middle class “fresh air” experience. Popularity grew and families began to book their next year’s stay during the two-weeks they were there. As families became comfortable with their cabins, they booked them for the same two weeks the following year. Margaret Rilling began her annual ritual of marking these reservations on a large piece of oaktag that she divided into a grid. Across the top, each square designated a different cabin and on the left side, each week was listed in a separate square from July 1 to Labor Day.


The price was right and remained so. Helen found a price list from about 1950. The smallest cabins, the Chickadee, Bobolink and Oriole cost $45 per week for two people, $50 for three. Three family-size cabins, the Robin, Cardinal and Swallow went for $60 for a family of four, $65 for five. (The Bobolink and Oriole would subsequently be enlarged to family size.) The price for the two big cabins, the Raven and the Whip-poor-will, that could accommodate six to ten was “based on size of party.” For the odd person who desired to stay in the main house, the price was $35 per week.


During those early years, guests were encouraged to swim in the Connecticut River where they had a dock and a diving raft anchored to the bottom. Fortunately, the current moved slowly because the river was dammed in the village of Guilford just south of Brattleboro. Bob recalled that the path down to the river was via a thousand-slate staircase difficult to walk on. “One year, we found some trees had been cut and Mr. Rilling had made a trail from the first cabin parallel to the river through the woods down to the dock. I think you just had to go down a few cement stairs, but it was shorter, and you didn’t have to go up or down all of those slate steps.”


Bill recalls that Helen was a good swimmer. “I remember the float as being off the end of the dock, somehow anchored to keep it in place. I knew for sure I was not going to attempt going out to it even in the inner tube I used as my personal floater.”


Helen respone, “I can’t believe I swam to it. Despite swim lessons, I could barely stay afloat for more than a few strokes. I do remember waving to the passing trains on the other side of the river.”


Bill, “Yes, I too remember the train crews waving back to us from the engine and caboose, as well as passengers from passenger trains particularly during afternoons when we were all on the dock swimming.”


Eventually, the Christman family discovered a beach on Lake Spofford open to the public. Spofford was about ten miles east of Rillings via Route 9. But that beach wasn’t nice and had a rocky bottom, not much of an alternative from the river. Bill recalls that it was Helen who found Ware’s Grove Beach. Both the beach and lake bottom were sandy and offered a gentle slope into deeper water making novice swimmers more comfortable. The large dirt parking lot was home to a drive-in movie by night for many years. The order of the day was pack up the car with kids, food, drink, blankets and floats to spend the better part of the day there. (The beach at Ware’s Grove is still in business but the drive-in is long gone.) At some point Charles and Margaret Rilling added a full-size pool that included a diving board and a separate kiddie’s wading pool, virtually ending river swims. But Ware’s remained a welcome alternative for adults and kids.


Rituals and traditions were quickly established. Fathers were relatively young and in good shape. So was Charles Rilling and this led to almost nightly spirited softball games on the grass field behind the cabins. Fast food was far from common and a Howard Johnson’s was one of a few alternatives, close by, just across the bridge in Vermont where Route 9 met Route 5. Margaret established a weekly spaghetti dinner on the handball court near the main house. Burgers, hot dogs and spaghetti with strawberry short cake for dessert.


Bob remembers the heavy brown cooler. “We had it for umpteen years. It weighed a ton and hurt your hand to carry. My father also brought his ‘portable’ radio so he could listen to NY Giants baseball games. It also weighed a ton. Two batteries powered it, one was 69 ½ volts. Of course, it had vacuum tubes as transistors were not invented yet.”


Somehow, their father fit the cooler, his radio and an outboard motor into the car. Helen reported, “Dad enjoyed attaching the outboard to one of the rowboats Mr. Rilling had tied to the river’s edge. Once or twice he took the boat down to the junction where the West River flowed into the Connecticut River, a place where cattails grew. He’d bring back a bunch. He’d take them home to dry out so that they would be ready the following year, dried out so he could get them smoking so we could enjoy keeping the mosquitoes away with last year’s cattails.”


“Dad also used his power boat to make ice cream runs.” Bill continues, “Once or twice during our vacations, Dad would motor to the Dairy Bar by the West River Bridge, climb up from the river, get plenty of their home-made ice cream, climb back down and motor back to the dock with a treat for everyone.”


Bill, “There were grocery stores in Brattleboro where we could re-provision as needed. But shortly after we checked in on Saturday, a local milk man came to the cabin to ask if we wanted delivery. Mom always said ‘yes’ as she didn’t drive back then. The milk came in glass bottles and unlike at home, the bottles had to be manually shaken to mix the cream on top. As kids, we didn’t realize the milk was not homogenized and thought of it unique to Journey’s End.


Bob, “One year, I was flying a kite in the ball field with my father and mother. The kite took a dive and tangled in some wires above the field. I remember my parents yelling, ‘Don’t pull the string.’ So, you know what came next, I pulled on the kite pulling two uninsulated wires together. Bingo, I knocked out the power for the town of West Chesterfield. The power company was happy that Mr. Rilling reported it as they did not have to search out where the problem was. I feared the police would be called.”


Bill provided a final thought regarding their packed car: “However cramped we might have been on the trip up, we could always count on at least two boxes of liquor from the cheap state liquor stores being added to the load on the return trip.”