Debbie Griswold first heard of Ella Graves soon after she moved to town in 1977. Griswold owed money for an unexpected trip to the emergency room with a sick child.
Griswold kept waiting for a hospital bill, but one never came. Six months went by, and she finally received something in the mail: a notice telling her that Ella Graves had paid her medical expenses.
"I said, 'Who is Ella Graves, and how did she do that?' " Griswold recalled. "I was floored."
Graves was a native of rural Baltimore born in 1850. When she died in 1918, she left the town $17,500. Her request was that the money be used to pay the poor's hospital bills. Today, the fund is available to help all residents. "There's still some people who've got too much pride to use it," said John Thomas, the town's only dairy farmer. "But most of us say you might as well."
According to the town history, Graves was born on a farm, attended the town school, taught for a while, then worked in a hat factory in Foxboro, Mass. She died in Wisconsin and had no descendants. Town records are sketchy on how she managed to save so much money -- the equivalent of more than $200,000 today -- in her lifetime.
When she left the money, Graves stipulated that it be used for the poor and indigent. But Baltimore, with just 250 residents, does not have any indigent people, Thomas said. So, in the 1960s, after the fund went unused for three decades, selectmen -- including Thomas -- had the wording changed to make the money available to everyone.
Residents can send their medical bills to the select board, which divides up that year's interest from the fund and pays a portion of each. "If you have three people submit bills, whatever is available for that month is divided by three," said Griswold, who assesses the value of town properties for tax purposes. "It doesn't make any difference who you are, how much the bill is for, what it's for -- as long as it's medical."
The fund generates about $1,000 a year. Nobody advertises its existence, although it is mentioned in the town report every year.
Most Vermont towns have special funds, some with specific goals. In the early 1900s, the northern New England states encouraged natives who had found success out of state to establish such funds in their home towns, said archivist Gregory Sanford.
"Often, a successful person now living in Chicago might come back and put money into the library or a municipal building," Sanford said. "Each town was sort of responsible for contacting expatriates."
Most of the public libraries in Vermont are the products of legacies, trusts, foundations and gifts similar to that of Graves, said Paul Gillies, a Montpelier lawyer and historian.
Then there were the private funds for the care of the poor, such as the one established by Graves, in an era long before federal welfare programs came into being.
"That was considered to be part of what a town did: to look after the poor this way by having some fund of money," said Michael Sherman of Montpelier, who has published a history of Vermont. "It was a good idea coming from ideas of Christian charity."