WEST BARNET — For the past 4 1/2 years, retired Speech-Language Pathologist and relative newcomer to Barnet, Kathleen Monroe has spent much of her time diving into the history of a town she moved to only a few years earlier.
It all started with the sign at Harvey’s Lake, which famously claims it was the site of Jacques Cousteau’s first dive.
Intrigued, she decided to find out more.
Monroe has lived more than half her life in Vermont and loves learning about the state’s history.
A genealogical researcher, and avid student of Vermont history, those skills came into play as Monroe began delving deeper into the Cousteau legend.
At one point, she said to her partner, Frank Jannarone, “I think I am writing a book.”
That book is now out: Legends of Barnet, Vermont: History, Mystery, Curiosities & Culture of a Small Vermont Town.
Monroe said in an interview at her home on Monday that she has but one regret.
Her late father, Bill Monroe, at one point told her he would have loved to see someone in the family publish a book — and now she has.
The book, self-published with help from St. Johnsbury’s Boxcar & Caboose which has services to help local authors with manuscripts, came out just a little over a week ago.
The 300 copies Monroe ordered are selling fast already, she said with a smile.
Comments are coming in, including this one, from Millie Curtis in Barnet, “Spent the entire afternoon enthralled with your book. Can’t put it down! Thank you for this gift to us!”
Another, Lisa J. Bowden of Barnet, wrote to Monroe this week, “We are thoroughly enjoying your book! So far, we have been sharing nicely and NOT spilling the beans to each other! Thank you for this little gem!”
The Real Jacques Cousteau Story
Monroe said Jacques Cousteau’s legendary diving explorations were the stuff of magic to her growing up, she is a swimmer herself, and she felt compelled to get to the facts about his time at Harvey’s Lake.
The stories that were told locally didn’t completely match what she was finding while doing research.
And so, Monroe kept going.
She said she loves to investigate things and find out the real stories and facts behind them. Her sleuth work that began with a curiosity about Cousteau’s time in Barnet led her to pay for information from none other than the FBI.
“I couldn’t stop at the FBI,” shared Monroe, noting the federal agency was called the Bureau of Investigation in the early days. She dove into any records she could find online, and began looking into as many local sources as she could get her hands on.
Chapter 10 in the book is titled, Jacques Cousteau Takes A Dive. A quote from Cousteau precedes the chapter; “My parents sent me to a summer school in Lake Harvey, Vermont, a time when my parents lived in America. I became a good swimmer. So that was just the beginning.”
The sign in the parking area for the popular lake is a tribute to the famous diver and reads, “Home to Jacques Cousteau’s First Dive.”
When Cousteau visited Barnet the summer of 1921, he preferred to be called Jack, Monroe said. She was searching hard for a childhood photo of him for the book and coming up empty handed, when one was posted on a town social media page by the former librarian, after the son of Cousteau’s childhood buddy from that summer donated a photo of them together.
The caption for the black and white photo of the boys by the lake reads, “Jacques Cousteau and Robert Adolph Viegelmann at Harvey Lake, summer of 1921.”
Cousteau visited Barnet when he was 11-years-old, writes Monroe. He had been a sickly child, and immigrated from France when his father took a job working for a very wealthy American businessman. He and his brother were enrolled in a summer camp in Barnet that summer, coming from their school in Manhattan, N.Y.
Monroe writes, “Of his camp experience, Jacques recalled, ‘My interest in diving started pretty early in my life … One of my instructors, a German named Mr. Boetz, didn’t like me very much, and I didn’t like him at all. He forced me to ride horses and I fell a lot. I still hate horses. He also obliged me to clear the bottom of the lake under the springboard so my friends could dive without danger, because the bottom of the lake was very, very shallow, full of branches and dead trees.’ “
“I worked very hard diving in that murk without goggles, without a mask, and that’s where I learned to dive,” Cousteau wrote of that summer. “I became a good swimmer. So that was the beginning … Vermont … Oh, how beautiful it is. I spent two or three weeks diving into that lake and eventually, I learned how to hold my breath under water.”
Monroe said at first some people told her that Cousteau had come to stay at the “German camp” that was for boys in Barnet and she was committed to finding out exactly about his time in Barnet. There indeed was a German camp and it was that camp that Cousteau attended.
She writes, “I uncovered the spellbinding tale of a German language immersion camp for boys begun on Harvey Lake in 1916. Suspected by locals of being an outpost for German government spies, the camp became the subject of one of the FBI’s early investigations. It was that camp that drew Jacques Cousteau to Barnet. But I would also learn that Cousteau’s affection for Barnet never faded. Decades later he donated money to help preserve the lake he loved.”
One of the locals who helped Monroe to learn about Cousteau’s visit to Barnet that summer was Karla Cornelius, whose father, Walter Wirthwein had been a camp counselor. She shared stories and a letter from Cousteau’s father about his sons’ summer in Barnet.
“Many years after his initial Harvey Lake dive, Jacques would gain worldwide fame,” writes Monroe. “He was co-inventor of the Aqua Lung or SCUBA (the first ‘self-contained underwater breathing apparatus’). He also went on to be a “pioneer underwater archaeologist” and achieved worldwide acclaim, she notes.
In a 1987 newspaper story, it was recorded that Cousteau had donate $13,500 to help preserve six lakes along Jewett Brook which flows into Harvey’s Lake to keep it from being developed.
Monroe completes the chapter that this was long ago, almost a century now, “But, Jacques Cousteau’s memorable experience at Harvey Lake still resonates today, not only on the Town Beach sign, but in the summer, in the minds of visitors who marvel at the fact that they just spent the day diving in the same lake where Jacques Cousteau got his start.”
The lake association was to celebrate the 100th anniversary of his dive at Harvey’s Lake this summer, before Monroe’s careful research proved it was the summer of 1921 — and only that summer — that Cousteau swam in Barnet. That event will be marked in 2021, the actual centennial of Cousteau’s formative summer in Vermont.
Lots Of Help, Gratitude
Talking to a person about a piece of one of the stories would give her clues as to where to go next, said Monroe. She was committed to being accurate and corrected a few old stories that weren’t quite right, which ruffled some feathers.
Her book didn’t stop at Cousteau’s connection to Barnet: the book is chock full of stories on how the town got its name; there is a portrait of an early Vermont family, the Galbraiths; a story that tracks a series of five Scottish grandfather clocks which Monroe tracked down; and more.
Monroe researched a story about the Goodwillie House’s “hidey-hole,” which had been believed to be a hiding room for runaway enslaved persons being helped in Barnet, but there is not evidence to support the long-told story, she concluded. There were many local people in Vermont and in Barnet, including Barnet’s Presbyterian Reverend James McArthur and Baptist Deacon Edwin Chase, who were “noted for their anti-slavery work,” the book gives credit, in a short passage titled The Real Heroes.
The legends span time, going back to the town’s founding and it even has a chapter on the visits by the famous motorcycle gang, Hells Angels, to Barnet in the 60s and 70s.
On the back cover, stories are teased out with just a few intriguing clues, such as, “Do you know about the rumors of paranormal activity at one of Barnet’s former inns and at an old village store?” and “Do you know about the time the Hells Angels roared into this bucolic town, aiming to build a summer lodge on the banks of Harvey Lake?”
The book is 239 pages and has 15 chapters and many historical photographs.
Monroe said she owes a debt of gratitude to many local people who shared their stories and memories and photos with her, and they are thanked in the book’s acknowledgements, along with a long list of organizations including historical groups, churches, libraries, academics and more, as well as sources she contacted across the country and often in Canada, as well.
Already, more than 100 copies have sold, and more are being requested.
Many people have fond associations for the town, and there is a popular summer community around Harvey’s Lake, and copies of the new book are being sent all over the country, said Monroe. She had planned to sell copies at the annual meeting of the lake’s association this past weekend, but rain changed that plan since the event was outdoors.
On Saturday, Monroe plans to sell copies of her book at the Mile-Long Yard Sale in Barnet, she said.
The book can be purchased by writing Kathleen Monroe, 668 Aiken Farm Rd., Barnet, VT 05821, and through PayPal using her email, email@example.com. She also sells the books from her home and people can call her at (802) 633-3052.