Norton clerk retires after 53 years of service

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(Host) When voters of the tiny town of Norton choose a new town clerk this year, it will be an unusual event. For the last 53 years, that position has been held by Miriam Nelson, who’s stepping down this year at the age of 81. As it turns out, the clerk’s job has been in Miriam Nelson’s family since the town was established.

VPR’s Lynne McCrea has more:

(McCrea) People dropping by the Norton town office are abuzz with a similar refrain. The talk is about Miriam Nelson retiring as town clerk. As people here put it, “she’s getting done.” For her part, Miriam Nelson is flustered by all the attention. She says she doesn’t even like talking on the telephone, not to mention being in the spotlight.

(Nelson) “I like to be humble and in the background. I don’t like to have so much fuss over it, but it’s nice that I’m still alive, and I know what’s going on, nd they didn’t have to wait till after I was dead.” (Laughs.)

(McCrea) The Nelson legacy of civic service stretches back to the town’s beginnings in 1885, when Miriam’s great uncle was the first town clerk. Next came her father in 1911, then Miriam was appointed to the job upon her father’s death. After that, the job just became a part of her life:

The town clerk’s office is actually just a small corner of what was once the Nelson General Store. Miriam’s grandparents – and then her parents – ran a prosperous business in this building, which today stands mostly empty.

Clifford Biron is a native of Norton who remembers the heyday of the Nelson’s store, and its unique location.

(Biron) “The store is built half in Canada and half in the United States. So the right hand door as you come in is Canada, and the left is the United States – Vermont! It was a general store, where you could buy most anything you wanted. Thriving business, it was.”

(McCrea) Miriam’s sister, Ruth, used to help out in the store. Today, 90 year old Ruth Nelson sits in the back of the clerk’s corner and chats with people dropping by, helping her sister with town business when she can.

(Ruth Nelson) “Miriam was more for the bookkeeping. This is the vault where I keep the land records – documents for town.”

(McCrea) Standing barely more than five feet tall, Miriam Nelson carries her small frame with sure footing, as she hauls large record books onto the old wooden counter.

(Miriam Nelson) “When I first started recording deeds, it was by longhand. Then I went from longhand into typing the deeds. Then from that we had the copy machine, which saved a lot of time. The paperwork has increased – lot more than when I first started. Seems to be that there are so many documents that have to be filed, or recorded.”

(McCrea) Today, a woman is in the office for a property transfer.

(Woman) “Here’s the money for the tax transfer that you’ll take care of for me, right?”
(Miriam Nelson) “Yes, I will.”

“I think people are so used to the computer, they don’t realize I don’t use the computer and it’s more work for me than other town clerks. And this is the computer age!”

(McCrea) In her 53 years as town clerk, Miriam Nelson has never missed a town meeting. But, she says, she’s always glad when they’re over:

(Miriam Nelson) “Because, I like to see everyone getting along and not to bring their grievances. Sometimes in a small town they don’t mean it but people will take it personally and then there’s – for a few weeks there’s hard feelings.”

(McCrea) This year’s town meeting will include feelings of loss. The 214 residents of Norton will be losing the office space that the Nelson family has donated all these years. And Miriam has been working for little pay. No matter who becomes the next town clerk, it will be a big change for the tiny town. Perhaps longtime resident Ron Hettinger says it best:

(Hettinger) “Now we don’t know who we’re gonna have for town clerk. So, you know, things are really changing fast for us. I mean, we’re not used to rapid change around here. But, I don’t know….”

(McCrea) For now, her work is done. Miriam Nelson slips on her coat and goes out the side door, crossing a narrow driveway, to her home next door. She smiles and waves.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea in Norton.

Related link:
Town Meeting Day is available online.

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