“Mary Shiminski I Love You” appears as the last track on Gary, Margaret, Megan, and Dan MacArthur’s 1981 LP of folk music. “The slogan became immortalized in our community by postcard, book title, sermon and folk tale,” Margaret MacArthur wrote. “After writing the song, I realized that here is still another ballad on the age-old theme of lovers’ contests and trials.”
“Mary Shiminski I Love You” appears as the last track on Gary, Margaret, Megan, and Dan MacArthur’s 1981 LP of folk music. “The slogan became immortalized in our community by postcard, book title, sermon and folk tale,” Margaret MacArthur wrote. “After writing the song, I realized that here is still another ballad on the age-old theme of lovers’ contests and trials.”

Love story turned legend

A love note painted on a railroad overpass captured the imagination of the Brattleboro area in 1974, inspiring poems, a sermon, and a folk song. Now, a Townshend musician has lovingly added to Margaret MacArthur’s ballad of Mary Shiminski and Bert Salva.

In 1974, Brattleboro got a new muse; she may be long gone now, but her legend lives on in poetry and song. Especially in song.

Her name was Mary Shiminski, and she became famous because of a fight she had with her boyfriend, Bert Salva.

Yes, anyone who has lived in Brattleboro for any length of time knows about the hand-painted message on the railroad bridge over Route 9 leading to New Hampshire - the bridge that for many years said, "Mary Shiminski I Love You!"

The graffito was the talk of the town. When the railroad bridge was replaced to accommodate the widened Route 9 that led the new Chesterfield Bridge, the message had become so iconic to the town's image that someone repainted it on there.

Some of the name "Shiminski" can still be seen, although it has long been overpainted with other much-less-iconic graffiti.

For a long time, no one knew who Mary Shiminski was. She remained a mystery until 1978, when The Keene Sentinel's assistant news editor, Dayton Duncan, solved the puzzle after "chasing leads for four years." He published his story in the June 19, 1978 issue.

According to Duncan, the graffiti was a muse to several artists and even a pastor.

A student at Keene State College, Joan Margolis, wrote a poem in the college literary magazine about it in 1975. "Can you imagine how much he loves her?" it began.

In 1976, a pastor at the Unitarian Church in Brattleboro turned it into a sermon.

"It was such a beautiful statement," Bob Holer said. "I don't know Mary Shiminski, but I know the spirit behind the message."

Frank Cordelle, a professional photographer in Bennington, N.H., took a picture of the bridge and its message and published it as a postcard. "Mary Shiminski I Love You!" was sent around the country.

And then Miriam Andrews, a poet in East Dover, published a book of her work, Mary Shiminski I Love You! and Other Poems. On the cover was a picture of the bridge featuring the familiar legend.

Her poem about the graffito ends, "Poets passing simply stop and listen to their hearts beating out Mary Shiminski, Mary Shiminski and think of no poem more complete."

The late Margaret MacArthur, a folksong collector and singer of Marlboro, read a Brattleboro Reformer article about the graffiti and in 1979 wrote a song, "Mary Shiminski, I Love You!" The MacArthur family band - Margaret and her children Dan, Gary, and Megan - recorded this song on their 1981 LP Make the Wildwood Ring.

Now there is a new, updated version of MacArthur's song and a future music video in the making. One of the musicians is Ned Phoenix of Townshend, a well-known organist, violinist, music teacher, and self-described "fiddler extraordinaire" and "composer of tunes and songs, including story songs about local towns and Vermont subjects."

"Mary Shiminski is such a musical name," said Phoenix, who during the 1970s and '80s played and called for square and contra dances and other events in New England.

"I visited Margaret at home in Marlboro shortly before she died and told her I wanted to learn 'Mary Shiminski, I Love You!'" he said. "The song wasn't published, and as she handed the LP album to me, she said, 'I consider this to be my legacy.'

"As I received the record I assured her, 'You've given it to the right person, because I intend to learn it and popularize it.'"

This is a classic love story perfect for Valentine's Day, Phoenix said.

"People don't know Margaret wrote the song or that I improved it," he said. "The song is great. People love it. We are going to make a video with the song."

Who is Mary?

So who was the famous Mary Shiminski?

According to Duncan's Sentinel story, from a reader's tip he found Mary Shiminski's mother and her husband, Theodore, of Long Island. It turns out they owned a trailer on an isolated dirt road in Westminster, where they spent holidays and some weekends.

They had no phone and no mailbox and did not know about the graffiti until Duncan finally tracked them down. That led him to Mary and Bert, who fleshed out their love story.

Here is Duncan's version of the story:

"In the summer of 1974, Mary Shiminski, age 29, had been going out with Bert Salva in Long Island for about a year. 'We used to fight over stupid things,' Salva remembers, and one of their fights was that summer.

"Mary came north with her family for three weeks of vacation.

"Bert Salva followed in the tractor-trailer truck he owned.

"'I was determined I wouldn't see him, and he was just as determined I would,' Mary says now.

"Salva would park his huge tractor-trailer in Putney and walk the two or three miles to the Shiminskis's trailer, where he'd stand at a small distance and ask Mary to come out and talk to him. She wouldn't.

"'Wherever we'd go, he'd follow,' says Mrs. Shiminski.

"One day they went to Spofford Lake, about 15 miles from Westminster. Salva knew that if Mary saw his truck, she'd hide, so he walked from Putney again and waited by her car for her to finish swimming.

"'Won't you even give me a ride back to Putney?' he begged her. She drove off without him.

"That afternoon he went to Brattleboro and bought the paint. That night, he was holding on with one hand and spray-painting with the other from 11 p.m. to 5:30 a.m.

"The next morning, Mary and her family had breakfast at the Howard Johnson's restaurant that overlooks the overpass.

"I thought, 'How am I ever going to live this down?' Mary says. 'I was really angry. There were two policemen in the restaurant and I went to them and told who I was, pointed to the sign, and told them I knew who painted it. 'What should I do?' I asked them.

"The policemen told her she should be honored, not mad, and invited her to have a cup of coffee. 'It's not often we get to have coffee with a celebrity,' they told her.

Back on Long Island, Salva remained persistent. Shiminski became receptive to his overtures. And, on Aug. 7, 1974, the couple got married. They moved to California, and the next year Mary gave birth to twin boys. She told Duncan that they all couldn't be happier. They even still had the guard dog.

"Bert Salva says he's the one who gave up three weeks of work, walked 30 miles one day to be snubbed, spent $25 on spray paint, and risked injury and arrest hanging for six and a half hours from an overpass to write 'Mary Shiminski I Love You!'" Duncan wrote. "He says he still does."

In 2014, the Reformer reported that Shiminski and Salva had divorced but remained close. According to public records, Shiminski died in 2021.

A lively tune

Phoenix admits to changing some of the words to the song.

"I realized that Margaret had left out the important turning point: the reason Mary made her conciliatory call to Bert," Phoenix said.

"What impressed me in the article was how the policeman refused to arrest Bert for his expression of love," he said. "So I supplied the pivotal verse, which of course blends in, and no one would know I wrote it if I didn't mention it here."

One of Phoenix's new lines: "So Mary called down to Long Island, said 'Wedded my love we will be.'"

"I did have an opportunity to sing my verse for Margaret; she made no comment," Phoenix noted.

He also composed a new melody for the chorus.

"Margaret's original song used the same melody for the chorus and the verses," Phoenix said. "This guy was way over the top, and he needed an over-the-top chorus melody, so I composed it. It really sounds like he's '...hangin' by one hand from that railroad bridge, writin' by the light of the moon.'

"I also changed a few words and gave the song an ending, so it has already gone through the folk process - fortunately, for the better. Margaret's good song is now a great song. I also added the exclamation point to the title, so it's forever as Bert painted it. He deserves it."

He calls it an "uplifting song with a happy ending."

Phoenix has sung his version at schools, outdoor festivals, and Brattleboro's Gallery Walk.

"People like it a lot," he said. "When the song ends, some audiences spontaneously jump to their feet, arms up, shouting."

Barnstormerz seek photos of overpass

Phoenix and Marvin Bentley of South Wardsboro perform as The Barnstormerz.

Bentley, a self-taught musician, sings and plays acoustic, electric, slide, and bass guitars. The two play their original upbeat songs and tunes featuring Bentley's songs - from love songs to views of the Vermont experience - and Phoenix's improvised fiddling.

They have played for weddings, convention receptions, local fairs and events as The Barnstormerz and as Ned Phoenix and Friends during the first 15 years of Brattleboro's Gallery Walk.

Phoenix and Bentley are currently preparing to make a music video of Phoenix's version of "Mary Shiminski I Love You!" Their video will simply show the song's story in photographs of the time and place. The musicians will be heard but not seen, so illustrative photos are needed.

"We were hoping to contact Mary and Bert to ask for photos, but it seems that Mary died a few years ago, and we have not been able to contact Bert," Phoenix said. "Perhaps Mary's children might hear of this."

So, he continued, "we are turning to the public for personal photos to show how it was and to keep the visuals interesting."

The Barnstormerz seek black-and-white or color photographs from about 1965 to 1985. They would like photos of the former Howard Johnson's restaurant (since remodeled, and now the site of Ramunto's), and the intersection of Routes 5 and 9 and Exit 3 of Interstate 91. All photos of the old black railroad bridge before or after Silva painted his message will be accepted.

Only photos that are not protected under copyright can be used. Those found online, Phoenix warns, may not be permissible.

People with photos can submit JPEGs to a dedicated email address: [email protected].

All people whose photos are included will be acknowledged in the video's credits, Phoenix said.

"We are sorry that Mary and Bert did not hear their song," he said. "But through this song and video, their love story will live on."

Warm thanks to our friends at The Keene Sentinel for permission to reprint excerpts of Dayton Duncan's 1978 story.

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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