Soundscapes, like landscapes, change over time. As the clopping of horse hooves became the hiss of rubber tires, so did tracts of virgin forest become condominium complexes. On this journey there are awkward interactions between old and new. In zoning parlance, a nonconforming (or “grandfathered”) use is one that isn’t compatible with current development patterns but is allowed to continue because it predates the zoning regulations. It’s the tiny deli squeezed between two skyscrapers, or the house abutting a gas station.
And what about the aural environment? Is there a nonconforming sound?
If you’re ever in Woodstock at midday, you may think the answer is yes. Because there, amid the soundtrack of modern life — the ping of a new email, the dull drone of a lawnmower — arises the breathy, anachronistic tone of the noon whistle. It sounds like a supercharged organ, or a steamboat plying a lazy river. Two blasts issue from the top of the fire station on the east side of town; then everything’s back to normal. What’s the story?
According to Phil Swanson, Woodstock’s municipal manager for the past 25 years, “The noon whistle is usually found in factory towns, where it signifies lunch break.” Further investigation reveals this to be true.
But Woodstock’s factory days are long gone, and the whistle continues. Why? Swanson goes on to explain that the whistle was once used to call firefighters to a fire, and to signal when schools were closed for bad weather.
That’s all true, too — and in the past tense. So, what’s the whistle used for today? “The select board wanted to add a whistle for nostalgic purposes,” Swanson finally admits.
It turns out, when the firehouse was moved from the village eight years ago, the whistle was due to be decommissioned. But John Doten, a selectman who’s lived in the area for all of his 79 years, couldn’t stand to see it go. It was a sound to which he’d grown accustomed. So he fought to make room in the budget for the whistle. Maintaining it didn’t cost much; it’s the same whistle that blew from the tower of the previous firehouse, and it runs off an air compressor that the fire department needed anyway.
Doten had to make his case in terms of small-town character, not utility. “It took a while,” he recalls, “but I raised Cain, and we got it installed.”
No one seems to know exactly how long the whistle has been sounding. But Butch Sutherland, 69, the fire chief in Woodstock, remembers the days when it had an important public-safety purpose. Before firefighters carried pagers, the fire department needed a way to bring them all to the fire station when there was a blaze. In those times, most people lived and worked in the same town, so a loud whistle was the best way to send a quick, simple message.
For a general alarm, someone in the firehouse would blast the whistle five times. Nine blasts meant an out-of-town fire. Each street in the town had a box alarm mounted on a telephone pole. When there was a fire in a building on that street, someone would pull the alarm, and the whistle automatically blew a series of blasts that corresponded to the town highway number where the box was located. If the fire was on town highway 15, the whistle would blast once, pause, then blast five times. The blast pattern would sound a total of three times. “On a good, clear night,” Sutherland says, “it would wake you right up.”
But the whistle served a broader purpose, too. Woodstock, like many towns in Vermont, had a few mills and plenty of farms. That meant there were a lot of laborers who needed to know when to start and stop working. “You go back 100 years,” says Jack Anderson, the director of the Woodstock Historical Society, “and not everyone had a timepiece, so it became a public duty to help people keep track of time.” Like the clock in a town square or on the steeple of a church, the town whistle was the town’s watch.
And that’s how Doten remembers it from his childhood. “When I was young,” he says, “it signaled that it was lunch time. Everybody went by the whistle.”
The woolen mill in Bridgewater blew the whistle at noon for the lunch break, and at 12:50 to remind the workers to come back. “It was a form of crowd control,” Anderson explains.
As Swanson notes, “technology has bypassed the whistle.” Today, we’re surrounded by clocks — on our computers, ovens and cellphones, and in our cars. The only way to escape the clutches of time, it seems, is to leave the watch and phone at home and amble off into the woods.
Still, some towns — Rutland being one — sound a whistle at noon and when the sun goes down (curfew). Some people might call it a nuisance. For others, like Doten, the whistle sounds a note of nostalgia. Either way, when you hear the noon whistle, you know it’s time for a break. And who could have a problem with that?