Moats: Rutland 1941

Apr 25, 2019

A friend of mine came across some old film recently showing street scenes of Rutland in 1941, and it’s a revealing trip back in time. The Rutland Lions Club made the film, which eventually came into the hands of the Rutland Historical Society.

I worked at the Rutland Herald for many years, but the only face familiar to me was that of the young lawyer, Robert Stafford, who later became governor and U.S. senator.

It’s the faces of all the people on the street that are most captivating to me, partly because there are so many of them. The sidewalks of Rutland were crowded with people, and the film shows all the numerous downtown shops — the drug stores, clothing stores, department stores, plus the several movie theaters — and everyone out on the streets going about their business.

It’s striking that everyone looks as if they’ve dressed up for a 1940s movie, the men with ties and hats, the women with dresses, furs and hats. In fact, it is a 1940s movie, complete with streets full of 1940s cars, except it’s a movie of real life, which makes it all the more compelling.

It’s been Vermont policy for many years to promote the downtown districts of our cities and towns because, as this bit of film shows, a sense of community follows when people are out in public, each on his or her own errand, but sharing the public space together. When we talk about what we’ve lost in an era of online shoppin, Rutland in 1941 gives a good glimpse of it.

The film was made in the spring, which means it was seven or eight months before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. So the smiling faces on the sidewalks are part of a larger historical context. In fact one sequence on the film appears to show a group of draftees climbing aboard a train to who-knows-what fate.

Nineteen-forty-one is gone forever, but that bit of film is a reminder that the present moment is always fresh and mysterious. And now as then, we never know how it’s going to turn out.