Dad worked at the G.E. plant on Lakeside Ave for thirty-seven years. He and a friend moved to Burlington from Franklin, New Hampshire in 1949, having interviewed and secured jobs at the manufacturing behemoth’s new facility. Dad wanted a good job before he married Mom.
Before I get into the story, a little background on the G.E. plant. What for generations of Burlingtonians was known as the home of G.E., was built by the Draper Corporation of Massachusetts in the closing years of the 19th century. The new mill―along with its “Lakeside Development” factory housing―would be home to the Queen City Cotton Company. After several decades of success and expansion in the face of persistent labor strife (the mill employed over 600 people in the late 1920s), the Great Depression slowly killed the business. The site sat vacant from 1937-41 and was seized by the U.S. Government in 1943 for essential wartime production. General Electric bought the property from Bell Aircraft in 1949 for $675,000 (about $8.3 million in 2022) for its missile and armament department. In 1969, running three shifts, the facility employed 3,700 people.
My parents were married in 1950 and bought a new factory-built, cellar-less, 850 square foot ranch on Patrick Street across from the Burlington International Airport in the spring of ’51. My brother came along in ’53 and I followed in ’55. It was an easy commute to the mill by the lake; the new suburbs seemed the best of both worlds: so close but so far.
Families had but one car in those days, and nearly everyone bought American. Cars, not trucks. In 1960, to replace the rusted, aging station wagon Mom hated driving, my parents bought a white with blue interior, four-door Chevrolet Corvair. That’s the car we were driving on this day.
Dad was working the first shift at that point; he started each day at 7:00 a.m. On most days, he took the car, but sometimes Mom had errands to run. She’d drop him off and take the car for the day.
It was the spring of 1964; I was eight and my brother was ten. We were off for the week on school vacation. I spent a lot of time baking―cakes, brownies, cookies, you name it; always from scratch―riding my bike, and visiting friends down the street. My older brother and I would walk around the corner to see the houses going up in the field. We’d return with scraps of wood and pockets full of nails―the guys seemed to drop hundreds on the ground. We built a shed in the backyard with our findings.
“Can I go?” I asked over breakfast. I knew I could go, but still needed to ask.
When Dad had finished his breakfast―two pieces of buttered multigrain toast, and coffee with sugar and evaporated milk from his stove-top percolator―his Burlington Free Press neatly refolded on the table, we were off to the plant. He always called it “the plant”. My brother never wanted to come; what he did at the house, I don’t know. He probably read Popular Mechanics or fiddled with something; he certainly didn’t cause any trouble.
As a foreman, Dad wore a shirt and tie, sport coat, slacks, and black leather shoes. His shirts were all white; I was tasked with ironing them when I was a little older. I can see him polishing his shoes, two identical pairs. He alternated days, to make them last longer, he said.
Mom, plagued by a particularly debilitating example of her ever-present migraine, didn’t bother to get dressed that morning. She pulled a long, woolen coat over her nightgown and followed Dad out the door. She wouldn’t be getting out of the car anyway, she thought.
We climbed into the Corvair like always: Dad driving, Mom on the passenger side, me, opening the door for myself, in the back. We all fastened our lap-belts as Dad started it up and moved the column-mounted shifter into reverse. He backed slowly out of our unpaved, single-wide driveway onto the street.
Though it was just a white, four-door car to me, the Chevy Corvair was a special vehicle.It was powered by a rear-mounted, air-cooled flat six. That is, the engine was in the trunk like a Porsche or Volkswagen Beetle. Even today, it remains the only mass-produced American car to use that layout. It was also made infamous as the “one car accident” with a chapter devoted to its “defective” suspension and tendency to roll over in Ralph Nader’s 1965 book on the American auto industry’s disregard for safety, Unsafe at Any Speed. My parents never had any such problems.
We drove through our suburban neighborhood and reached the stop sign at Williston Road. In many ways, Williston Road (U.S. Route 2) was the same then as now: the center of commerce (along with Shelburne Road [U.S. Route 7]) in South Burlington, lined by gas and service stations, restaurants, motels, and used car dealerships. In other ways, it would feel entirely foreign―akin to Marty McFly stepping back into 1955―to modern eyes. We pulled onto the four-lane highway headed west and needn’t stop until we’d gone down the hill into downtown Burlington. There were no traffic lights or four-way stops where row upon row of signals now hang.
I stared out my window as we passed all the familiar sights: the Swiss Host Motel and Village, Al’s French Frys, my elementary school―the three-story, barn red Central School―and the newly built Alpine Shop. Bernie’s Auto on the right, and O.K. Used Cars across the street, were each endlessly trying to attract travelers’ attention: with multicolor flags, hundreds of light bulbs, and the huge “S-A-L-E” signs propping open the hoods of four successive cars by the roadside.
We always drove the same way to the plant: down Williston Road and Main Street (U.S. Route 2), south on Pine Street to Lakeside Ave. But the days when old farmhouses and grazing milk cows filled the area between upstart commercial South Burlington and the University of Vermont were coming to an end. A new piece of pavement had sprung up in those fields: Interstate 89. With it came more signs of progress, like the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant and Motor Lodge across the street. Dad told us stories about days passed: the long line of dairy cows crossing the road for the day; they were moved from their barn to the pasture in the morning. If he didn’t leave for work on time, he’d be stuck waiting for the last one to pass.
Dad pulled up to the building, shifted the car into park, and leaned over to give Mom a kiss.
“Bye, honey, he said sweetly, and turned back to me, “See ya later, Lady Jane.” (He sometimes called me “Lady Jane”; I don’t know why.) Dad grabbed his special, insulated paper bag lunch (in which his First National branded ice cream had been packed), opened his door and got out. I got out as well, ready for a turn in the front seat as Mom slid across the bench seat to drive us home.
We retraced our steps, Mom in her nightgown, me in my pjs, both of us hiding beneath winter coats. I was staring out the window at the new “HoJo” on the corner, when Mom slammed on the brakes and I was shaken from my gaze. Before I understood what was happening, a car smashed into us from the right. A loud bang and the squealing of tires and it was over; the shock of the impact is what I remember.
“Are you okay?” Mom asked after we’d come to a stop. We’d been hit on my side, but up front at the wheel, not in the door. My body pitched toward the point of impact, a lap belt the only thing holding me in place.
A police car seemed to show up in an instant; they must’ve been driving through or stationed nearby observing the morning commute. Of course, we were decades before cell phones in those days; they couldn’t have responded that quickly anyway. Two banged-up cars sat still at the junction of Dorset Street, U.S. Route 2, and the in-progress ramps of I-89―at what would, in time, become the busiest intersection in the state―as a policemen approached each, and traffic rolled slowly by.
Mom rolled down her window as a tall uniformed officer bent at the waist to greet her. I sat stock still, fearful and anxious though we’d done nothing wrong. I was shaken; the moment that car slammed into us, my morning went from a fun little routine―something I’d done several times before―to something much scarier. I stared straight ahead, stealing nervous glances as the policeman peered into the car. “Is everyone alright, ma’am?” his voice boomed, assessing the situation, his eyes in constant motion. He asked her to get out of the car, and dutifully, she complied.
In her nightgown and overcoat, she stood by the car answering questions and recounting the situation as the officer scribbled notes on his pad. I sat in the car, focused on two things at once: listening to my mom and the policeman, and staring intently at the scene unfolding at the other car.
In defiance of accident protocol, after slamming into us, the man had quickly put his car in reverse and backed onto Dorset Street. Perhaps he was only trying to get out of the flow of traffic, or maybe he intended to flee the scene. Whatever the reason, the car with the smashed-up front end sat some ten yards away out my window.
I watched as the man stepped out of his car. I’d never seen anything like it; I didn’t know what to make of this man. He wore a dark suit, but somehow, he didn’t look like a man in a suit. Men in suits looked clean-cut and sharp, serious and respectable. They were adults, dressed like adults. This man looked dirty and disheveled. He wore no tie, and his shirt was partially unbuttoned and entirely untucked. He couldn’t seem to stand still, wobbling back and forth as the policeman addressed him. Alone in the car, I asked myself: What is wrong with that man?
Having received answers to all of his questions, the officer and my mom walked around the car to survey the impact. “It looks like just some damage to the body, ma’am; you’ll have to take it to a shop, but it should be okay to drive home.”
I continued to sit quietly as they wrapped things up just outside my window. Having the other driver’s insurance information in hand and having assured the officer there wasn’t anything else, Mom walked around and got back in the car. The policeman marched intently away and joined his partner.
“What’s wrong with that man?” I asked Mom as soon as she was back in the seat.
“He’s drunk as a skunk,” she returned, like she’d said (and seen) it a thousand times before.
I’m not sure how I knew what it meant to be drunk, but I did. I guess it was from the movies or TV; it certainly wasn’t from home. I’d seen those guys in westerns―even in cartoons―stumbling around and slurring their words; it was hard to even understand what they said. They were always the bad guys, about to be put in their place by the hero. A little after seven in the morning on a Thursday, I was watching a dusty bar scene unfold at the corner of Williston and Dorset, the policemen playing John Wayne and his sidekick.
Though I’d have liked to stay and continue to watch, Mom started the car, we put on our seat belts, and we were back on our way home. “What could he have been doing all night?” Mom asked rhetorically. I didn’t know what the bad guys did before the big showdown; I still struggle to understand how a middle-aged man (very likely with a wife and kids at home) could be out drinking until morning.
Safely back at the house, retelling the story to my brother, I thought all was well, the ordeal was over. I was wrong. After a night’s sleep, both Mom and I realized what our bodies had been through. I learned the meaning of “whiplash” at eight years old; I imagine Mom felt much worse. Those lap belts were certainly better than nothing, but shoulder straps and headrests (and airbags and crumple zones) were still some years off.
More than that, there was the matter of the insurance claim. Dad brought the Corvair to a body shop as soon as he could, footing the bill until the (seemingly inevitable) payout was made. It took over a year. How could that be? I don’t know.
Mom thought the guy must’ve been connected. “He must know people,” she’d say. He was obviously at fault, regardless of his level of inebriation. Car 1 runs stop sign and hits Car 2, driving in the flow of traffic. Two policemen were quickly on the scene to document the accident. Why there was any fight or unwillingness to pay on the part of the man’s auto insurance provider seems unfathomable. The details lost to time, we can chalk it up to the insurance industry’s golden rule: don’t pay out a dime unless absolutely necessary by penalty of law, and even then, try to drag your feet.
I don’t know what happened to the drunk man. I’d have liked to have stayed and seen him handcuffed and put in the back of a police car. But truthfully, I don’t know that that happened. Driving under the influence was not treated as seriously in 1964. Today, sure, he could be sentenced probation or jail time, have his license suspended or lose it altogether, complete mandated community service, or be sent for a psychological evaluation to help him work through an addiction. There would be real consequences to drinking all night, deciding to get behind the wheel, and slamming into a mother and her daughter. It wouldn’t be swept aside; his life would’ve changed on that morning.
But I don’t know what consequences he faced. For all I know, the cops drove him home and told him to sleep it off. Maybe when I pictured them interrogating a man who could barely keep his feet under him, they were instead assuring and coddling him and saying “we’ve all been there, buddy.” I don’t know what happened to the drunk man, but I imagine nothing changed in his life: he was likely drunk and behind the wheel again very soon. At most he got a slap on the wrist, only because he made the mistake of running into another car, not because he’d chosen to get behind the wheel. Real consequences for putting people’s lives in danger in that particular fashion wouldn’t come for a number of decades.
Mom never left the house in her nightgown again. She was mortified, and passed her lesson onto me. Dad worked for G.E. at the Lakeside Avenue plant until his retirement in 1986―thirty-seven years. The Chevy Corvair remained our family car until, its useful life cut short by the usual scourge: rust, it was replaced in 1967 by a four-door Chevy Chevelle―white with blue interior.
A wave of changes came to the automotive industry as a result of Mr. Nader’s book. It led to seat belt laws in forty-nine states (all but New Hampshire), and the creation of the United States Department of Transportation in 1966 and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1970. The latter’s mission is to “Save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes…”
G.E. got out of the munitions business in 1993, selling (among other things) its Lakeside Avenue plant to Lockheed Martin, who sold it to General Dynamics in 1997, who occupied the space until relocating to Williston in 2010.
The old mill is now occupied by a number of entities including offices of the VA, IRS, and Social Security Administration, a gym, a digital security provider, and its core tenant, Marvell Technology, a Delaware-based multinational semiconductor developer with over $4B in revenue in the last year.
From the perspective of eight-year-old Rachel Vaillancourt, my mom
Lakeside Avenue manufacturing facility information from the Historic Burlington Project of the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program and can be found at https://www.uvm.edu/~hp206/2013/
Chevrolet Corvair, Ralph Nader, and Interstate 89 general information taken from Wikipedia
All other historical references based on the memories of my parents