BENNINGTON -- Roads do a great deal to shape the character of a neighborhood, perhaps more than some may think. On Tuesday, a man who spent more than four decades shaping the character of the roads in Old Bennington will retire, leaving the future in the hands of others.
Arnold Ricks, a retired history professor at Bennington College, will be leaving his position on the Village of Old Bennington Board of Trustees, as well as his position as village road foreman, and will be focusing on some family projects related to the history of the Quakers.
"It's interesting, you wake up and find 40 years have gone by," Ricks said. "It doesn't seem that long."
Ricks, a soft-spoken man of 90, is originally from Richmond, Va. He taught at Bennington College for about 10 years prior to buying a home at the top of Elm Street from a friend in 1972. His wife, Pat Adams, also taught art at the college.
"I was asked to be a trustee of the village, and knowing no better, I said why not?" He had only lived there a year before getting onto the board. He also served as the village's tax collector, and its road foreman for many years.
Only about 100 people live in Old Bennington, which has just over three miles of roads under its control, including Monument Avenue. Ricks said that like North Bennington, Old Bennington is its own village with a governing body, yet it fits seamlessly in with the Town of Bennington. It pays to maintain its own roads, has its own zoning regulations, and pays for a part-time police officer, mainly to enforce speed limits.
It was chartered in the late 1800s, mainly because people form Troy, N.Y. had moved there to escape the summer heat. In 1984 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
Ricks spoke to the Banner on Monday about his career within Old Bennington, and much of what he had to say was in regards to the roads, and learning from the past.
Somewhat early in his career, the Nixon Administration rolled out a highway funding program that allowed 95 percent of certain highway projects to be funded by the federal and state government. The feds would pay 85 percent of a project's cost, the state 10 percent, and the town only 5 percent. Old Bennington took advantage of this and modernized the southern section of Monument Avenue.
"Modernized" when it comes to roads often means "make wider" which according to Ricks can drastically change the character of a neighborhood, not just in terms of look and feel, but safety. Those on the southern end of Monument Avenue were not pleased with the change.
To get an idea of what Monument Avenue was like before World War I, one only has to look at Monument Circle. Ricks said he oversaw Monument Circle's rehabilitation some years ago, but as far as width and look go, it's the same.
When it came time to modernize the northern end of Monument Avenue, which runs from the Bennington Battle Monument down, he circulated a petition amongst the residents living on it and found most did not want the work done. Ricks said he was the only trustee at the time who was against widening it, which he said would have cost home owners a great deal of yard frontage, but the other trustees did not ignore the people's wishes.
Ricks himself might have been for it, had it not been for a particular citizen.
"First of all, it never would have occurred to me until I moved here that you wouldn't want to modernize, and when it comes to roads, modernizing would mean enlarging a road," he said. "And it took Art Roberts to say, ‘We came to escape the modernization of the road we lived on,' and that just sort of opened my eyes to, if progress means wider roads, maybe I ought to rethink what we want."
David Aldrich, an architect in North Bennington, came up with an idea that would shape how Monument Avenue looks today. For the federal government to contribute funding, the road needed to be a certain width. Ricks said it was Aldrich who pointed out that brick drainage gutters counted towards this, which allowed the drivable portion of the road to remain narrow.
Ricks said people have an unconscious tenancy to drive slower down narrow roads.
"You can learn from history, you don't have to repeat mistakes that have already been tried out, or at least you can learn from what the experience was if you are aware of a history of a particular idea or particular line of action," he said.
Ricks said Old Bennington has others to thank for how it is today, namely former State Rep. Richard Pembroke Sr., and civil engineer Charles Edson, the former having worked in Montpelier to secure funding, and Edson who offered advice and sound judgment.
When one walks up Monument Avenue, they may notice plaques on the homes identifying the original owners. Ricks said many in Old Bennington almost see themselves as caretakers.
"We all, I think, probably have the feeling that we're not so much owners, as tenants for a period of time, because most houses have existed long before we got here and they're going to go on long after we're gone..." he said. "I think sooner or later people who come to live here do get that feeling and act accordingly."
Bennington Town Clerk Tim Corcoran, who began his long political career right around the same time Ricks, said the man has been a trusted resource for decades.
"He was the person who watched out for Old Bennington," said Corcoran, who has served on the Select Board and in the House of Representatives.
"I don't think people realize the amount of knowledge that he has, and what a resource he's been to the village. He's been very, very helpful to me through the years, whenever there's been something I needed to know about the village."
Contact Keith Whitcomb Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @KWhitcombjr.