The Milton Co-operative Dairy Corporation

Being a storyteller is somewhere in my framework. I’d like to think that’s the crux of this blog, to tell stories. This blog has lots of long-winded stories. It’s just one of those things that you’re gonna have to live with for giving an emotionally unstable person a keyboard and a WiFi connection. (That’s me) And whatever it is that I have to tell wouldn’t be complete without the mention of this place.

When I first started this blog, I made sure this was one of the first subjects I posted about, because it was, and still is such a big deal to me, following me around like a phantom through different stages of my life.

The chiseled granite block along the disintegrating roof line reads “Milton Co-operative Dairy Corporation”. Most folks in town call it “the creamery” unless you’re one of the few who are unaware of what the corroding property used to be. I’ve heard people speculate plenty of things, including a train station, a munitions factory or an armory.

The rambling building made of patchwork additions is off a side street in town, and the years run down its crumbling facade. Its forsakenness is obvious. Young trees have grown around and inside the building, disfiguring the structure. If you catch a glimpse through any of the broken windows or an open doorway, you witness a dark world made of peeling lead paint, reservoired floors and piles of fallen bricks, all cast in various shadows in the places the shine of the sun penetrates its way inside. In a state as non-industrial as Vermont, this location is truly a magnificent way to get your senses drunk. And it was this dangerous, virulent location that changed my life around age 12.

Around 1835, Milton’s agriculture scene shifted fads, from sheep based farming, to more profitable dairy. The town saw an increase in farming in the intervening years which began to put a strain on Milton’s original creamery, The Whiting Creamery, located off Main Street near where Oliver Seed is today. By 1919, many Milton farmers got together to form a dairy co-op. They built their headquarters on Railroad Street, a side street off Main Street, which today is one of the village’s primary thoroughfares. At the time, Main Street was actually the Main Street in town, and because titular Railroad Street paralleled the tracks, it was practical real estate.

The Whiting Creamery in Milton, circa 1905 | UVM Landscape Change Program
The Whiting Creamery in Milton, circa 1905 | UVM Landscape Change Program

The building was done unconventionally, with a steel I-beam construction and stucco facade installed over bricks, which according to the late owner of the ruins, was a design unique for anywhere in Vermont at the time. Miltoner John McGrath would become the first president of the co-op. Over time, the creamery’s business ignited, as more farmers from Milton, and rural parts of northern Chittenden County and Southern Franklin County were sending their milk to be processed there – and shipped out. A lot of the revenue made by the creamery actually came from exotic foreign locations they shipped the milk to, like Boston and New York, via the aforementioned railroad that runs inches from behind the building.

In 1935, the creamery would expand for the first time at the height of the great depression in a conspicuous brick addition that today is the worst part of the complex. While most money-making things in the United States were prostrate in defeat, the railroads and the dairy industry seemed to be staying steady. Over the years, several more additions came along, and when cars became common, garages and a scale room were built, until the current uniquely shaped structure that exists today was finished. Those who can remember the creamery when it was functioning said that it was one of the largest creameries in western Vermont. During its most prosperous years, it would do over $5 million worth of business in a year, and employed 50 people. According to a homeless fella I accidentally met that briefly lived in a tent near the tracks behind the building, he recalled his father working there. “I remember how bad the milk lab used to smell” he said in fervent disgust at the memory. “Used to stink so bad, you could smell it down Railroad Street!”

During the cold war, the basement area was also designated as a fallout shelter, an appointed place to seek safety in case of nuclear destruction. Though, a practical observation at the grimy basement now days tells the visitor that the apocalyptic urgency so many people in the 50s were subscribing to would have easily vaporized anyone who decided to wait it out down there. Until recently, a badly warped caution-yellow sign that read “Fallout Shelter” in black lettering could be seen crookedly hanging from a concrete wall. Some local kid most likely stole it for a memento and hung it in their bedroom.

However, as time flowed, business practices changed, and the creamery soon found itself cutting its teeth on the stone of the changing times. McGrath would resign as president in 1953, and Ray Rowley, from another long-standing dairy family in town, would take control. But the Co-Op was already shaking hands with its mortality.

By the 1960s, the creamery’s fate seemed poised to continue percolating in some downward lament. A decline in dairy farming led to a decline in dairy – the stuff that created the business in the first place. It was around this time when bigger monopolies began to appear on the scene, a trend which has only intensified since then. Larger and more resourced operations like HP Hood in Burlington were hard to compete with, and the growing struggle of irrelevancy disarmed many smaller businesses. Sort of ironic is that HP Hood is also long gone, the old plant on the corner of King and South Winooski has been modernly renovated into condos and mixed commercial space, as is the cool trend with defunct industrial properties.

The last 2 decades of the creamery’s life were slow death. Fluctuating milk prices and the cost of refining didn’t show up in the farmers’ paychecks, which irritated some of them. I can’t say I blame them, farming is hard work. A crude barn shaped structure was built next door, and was ran as “The Milton General Store” for a while – an appendage of the creamery. Those who still remember it, say that it was the kind of place where you could literally buy anything – from nails to maple syrup, and had a distinct “dusty workshop smell” inside. But that attempt at savior failed as well, and by 1974, the creamery became a ghost.

The building was put up for sale, and shortly afterward, was purchased by a local gentleman who used it as storage space for his many antiques and the miscellany he either collected or hoarded. That line was a blurry one. But it was clear that this guy was of his own sort. Sadly, mental instability and his own demons got the best of him, and one of the consequences was that he neglected the place. His paraphernalia became either stolen by characters who have no moral issues with thievery, or what was left behind rotted away when the building began to progressively weaken, and rats began to nest inside.

I had struck up a few conversations with the owner before in my teenage years. I used to work at a local gas station then, which was a crash course on social skills for this young Aspergian and his seemingly incompetent switchboards, but the struggles also brought some worthy experiences. Like getting to know him a little better whenever he’d stop in. I knew who he was, but our getting acquainted was a bit coincidental. He’d see me working and just start chatting with me if he was in my proximity, but he seemed a bit lonely and he’d chat with anyone willing to lend an ear. Over time, he began to recognize me as a regular working stiff and always made a point to have some sort of small talk with me, on his own terms anyways. I found out that he was a pundit on Milton history, or really the old in general. I’d risk getting reprimanded by my shift manager and have conversations with him about local history and things I found to be fascinating – information that I didn’t have access to anywhere else. But due to his schizophrenic-esque behaviors, I had to try to be mindful of how I engaged with him.

I found out about his death in the summer of 2016, which saddened me a little. I’m sure he had so many stories and secrets that he took to his grave with him that we’ll just never know. I always contemplated taking the time to contact him and ask for an interview, but anxiety got the best of me. The creamery was hastily and quietly sold, and condos were spoken of. I suppose the momentum didn’t surprise me. Milton-ites have wanted to get rid of the scorned property for decades. Which is also why I’m re-submitting this blog post. The creamery wasn’t just the first place I had ever explored, it was a huge part of my adolescence. I’ve never dealt with change that well, so when I got word of a change coming up in the form of the creamery’s possible demolition, I decided I needed a fond farewell.

I’m going to borrow a quote from the late Leonard Cohen, when he said; “I’m interested in things that contribute to my survival”. The creamery (and Mr. Cohen) has contributed greatly and artfully to my survival and I’m forever grateful. It’s weird to think about as I’m reminiscing and drinking a beer right now – how different would my life have been if I didn’t grow up in walking distance of this place? Did any of you folks have an abandoned building in your hometown, or a place that was a local rite of passage to visit as a kid? Do you have any stories of your first adventure?

Over the years, I struck up a friendship with the great folks at the Milton Historical Society, and one of my first research topics was the creamery. Sadly, not a great deal of information about it really carried over the turn of the most recent century. For the most part, I compiled all the usable information I could in the paragraphs above this one. But that’s not all. Museum curator Lorinda Henry was kind enough to scan for me some historical photographs of the business in operation, and portraits of its employees.

Folklore

I think one of the most memorable things about the creamery, and my childhood affixion to it, were the ghastly urban legends and ghost stories that the older kids told me, a ritual I continued when I aged. Stories that created an inseparable impression about the place.

Murder

I still remember the first story I was told, which I think is also the most popular one in some variation or another. The story of the murdered janitor. Essentially, two custodians were working graveyard shift, and a known rivalry was between them. That particular night, one of them would let all of his animosity towards the other cut loose like a pressure valve. Somehow, one of them fell off of a two story catwalk which is suspended above the scale room, broke his neck when he hit the concrete, and died in the building. The motive, whether it was preempted murder or a moment of unchecked anger isn’t translated into this tale. But the aftermath is. The other employee realized the gravity of what just happened, and he was frightened. He’d be blamed. He’d go to prison! No, he couldn’t let that happen. So, he decided to make his co-worker’s death look like a suicide.

Transporting the body upstairs, he hung him from a meat hook in one of the coolers, hoping when the corpse was discovered the next day, that’s exactly what the shocked observers would believe. Only, they didn’t, and apparently, according to an increasingly vague story line, the assaulting janitor was accused of the crime. The story splits into a few endings from here. One says he was arrested, acquitted and sentenced to prison. Another version tells that he skipped town, and successfully vanished from those who wished to prosecute him. As the older kids told me, the residue of the departed janitor still skulks around the building, which seems to be his tomb in the afterlife. Though not much is known about his apparent haunting, people have admitted to feeling uncomfortable inside, like they were being watched by some unknown specter, especially by the room where his body was hung. Phantom chills and disembodied noises have also been reported, but whoever was the one coming forth with these claims remain a mystery. The historical society couldn’t give me any hard evidence of a murder at the creamery, or even a death, so this spook tale remains in the realm of urban legend.

Broiled Alive 

I remember another, far more ghastly story. I was shown a large rusted vat inside one of the many dark rooms of the basement, leprous with peeling paint, dankness and dripping water trickling down overhead. A dim mag light beam illuminated the robust fixture, and it was filled with some sort of unidentifiable glish. As the story goes, sometime in the 30s or 40s, a young man was tasked with making powdered milk, and somehow, fell into a vat of product heated to boiling temperatures. His skin was filleted from his body and was unable to be saved. A more macabre version of the story was that crooked business practices just distributed the milk afterward because losing money was a more grim thought than their customers drinking liquefied employee.

Well, I couldn’t find any validation on that story either – but the historical society did help me dig up a very brief newspaper snippet from the 1940s, about a boy who did die in the creamery in those days before child work regulations, but the cause of his death wasn’t specified. But one look at the gross vat today does make a good totem for a story like this one, and the basement is a creepy place. Not surprisingly, there have been quite a few reports of feelings of unease down there.

The Homeless Man

Another notable story did happen, and is documented. Sort of. In the 1980s, recently after the building had been abandoned, a homeless man got inside and planned on spending the night. But nothing stays warm in the wintery cold, and he decided to get a fire started. The details here vary on what happened, but somehow, him and the old couch he was sleeping on, became engulfed in flame. The man died on site. Speculations vary on how he died, whether some flying cinders landed on his sleeping form and ignited his clothes, he was drunk and knocked over or fell into the barrel he used to put the fire in, or some hoodlum kids decided to harass the guy, and wound up setting him on fire. Either way, a dead vagabond was the result. Today, there is a pancaked and charred couch on the ground floor, which I was told was the very same one he died on. Though that too is unverifiable. Some ghost enthusiasts like to think that the homeless man adds to the creamery’s fabled layers of ghosts.

That may account for a claim I heard around 2009, when someone told me of a strange experience of theirs. As he was walking by the creamery at night, he saw a ‘black cloaked figure – almost like a robed monk’, moving in the same direction as him as he walked by the building down the railroad tracks on his way home. He could easily distinguish the thing thanks to the dirty yellow glow of the street lights coming through the second-floor windows, giving the figure a distinct outline from the shadows. His claim wouldn’t have been as weird if it weren’t for the fact that he saw it walking in a part of the second story that didn’t have a floor.

The Tunnel

My favorite hearsay was of the old tunnel. In my teenage years, when I began to become more intimate with the building, I was acquainted with a piece of Milton lore; about a tunnel, which supposedly led from the creamery, all the way down Main Street underneath several of the old houses before dumping out near the Lamoille River. My teenage mind sort of just took that in as fact, and I began making trips down to the basement trying to find the opening, or a trace of a sealed up door. I did find something, a door below ground level, that had been cinderblocked off. Most likely, that was the old tunnel, and years later, parts of the blockade were sledgehammered through, giving me a glimpse. The tunnel was there all right, but didn’t run all that far. I could see the collapsed section yards from my position. It actually ran to the brick building next door. Today, its apartments, but it was originally built as another part of the creamery, which is why the tunnel was there, and which is why it was sealed off. I spoke to a few Milton old timers, who smirked and recalled breaking into the tunnel when they were younger, and sneaking beer and cigarettes down there. But was there ever a passageway that ran all the way under Main Street? Well, I wrote about that, if you’re curious.

As for me? Well, I’ll admit that my experiences being a tourist to this old building haven’t been all that paranormal. I generally don’t concern myself with hauntings or ghosts anyways, unless one of them walks right up to me and says hi. It’s not that I don’t believe in those things (I write about weird stuff after all!), I just try to take an agnostic approach first. I do have one strange personal account though. In 2011, I was walking up to take some photos, and found a very strangely placed mannequin inside one of the old coolers upstairs, propped right in the doorway so whoever walks by would notice it. This one was particularly creepy. It looked old and decayed and yellowed, and dressed in a patchwork of old clothes. There was also a pentagram carved into its neck. I went to other parts of the building and doubled back about 40 minutes later, and the thing was gone. I never heard or saw anyone come for it. To this day, I still don’t have much of an explanation for that weird event.

I still recall one person writing to me when my old post was live, and told me how they found old co-op milk jugs that had been found underneath their old concrete front steps. They had apparently been used to help build the framework for them, which wasn’t an unusual practice for old Vermonters, who used their ingenuity to use whatever materials they could for their benefits. Milton’s Main and Railroad Streets are old. It makes me wonder what else is found within these old homes.

Painkillers and a Purpose.

This is the section where I get emotional and hash out my scars. If you don’t dig personal backstories or revelations, skip down to the pictures. There’s lots.

Growing up in Milton, I was a shy, creatively maladjusted boy. As the years and my youth passed on, not much changed, apart from my curiosity, and me never feeling like I was comfortable in my own skin. I was always thinking there was something wrong with me. Being diagnosed with Aspergers at a young age, I quickly found out that I was a pundit on certain things, but hopelessly inept with others, like social skills. It was an unhappy balance, and that led to a coming of age where I was bullied and timid.

I suppose it’s fitting that I began to take interest in what we perceive as oddities, or things that don’t fit our conception of the illusion of normal – and their captivating stories.  Abandoned places fell into that category for me. The creamery was the first. And better yet, it was easily accessible.

I first dared to cross that threshold into a world that conventional wisdom told me was dangerous and forbidden. And that’s partially why I wanted to venture inside, and why I decided to repeat that ritual for years to come, because people frowned on those sort of behaviors, and I wanted answers for myself.

The thing is, I’ve never been like everyone else or satisfied with the pre-prescribed banalities of everyday life, things that are all too generic and sanitized. Whether it had to do with growing up Aspergian, or be it something in my framework, I never fit in. So I decided to put myself in haunted waters, and see what happened. Turns out, bending the rules, thinking for myself and daring to go against what I was taught was one of the best things I ever turned into a habit – and is some of the best advice I can give to anyone, assuming I’m asked for my opinion on these things.

Everything is a language, everything is constantly trying to tell us something or express itself in its own way. The trick was learning how to discern the signals from the din of chaos. It was the first abandoned building I ever explored that fired the engines of desire and curiosity in my mind. It was in those precious hours inside where I heard an obsession being born amidst the damp cold and watchful eye of wild shadows that would haunt me for years to come. Treading over the debris littered floors, slowly opening crumbling doors, peering into a vast basement filled with water and intimidation, the dark becomes your hunting grounds, in the foreground of endlessly dripping water.

I spent most of my 20s in dislocation and learning about the blues while slowly murdered by my anxiety. I was depressed, lonely, still trying to figure out my autism diagnosis, and going through the trials and tribulations of several different antidepressants or booze. Sometime in between all of that, I lost myself trying to please everyone. In those years of learning what heartache brings, I waltzed between things that I did that brought regret and just trying to get by. By age 25, I had given up on myself. I spent years running from nothing but those vicious, self-depreciating thoughts in my mind and not only did I feel inferior to everyone in the world, but I lost faith in people, and hoping that anyone would understand. I even attempted suicide. They say that you grow up believing the narrative we’re told by society, and how people treat you. Either you had it or you didn’t, I guess. I couldn’t be the only one who felt there had to be something better than the imposed adult lifestyle that was bounded by convention. I knew I wanted more.

My tendencies to escape from the pressures of a judgemental society raging over me and all my failures brought me to these forsaken locations. When things got too rough outside, my earnest self climbed inside. My time hanging out in them not only became like therapy for me, but it also picked me up like a drug as unacquainted fires lit sparks in me that took me years just to understand their ways. Urban exploration helped me confront social and emotional turmoil, as I’d disappear into a sea of rebirth, or at least a change of scenery.

It was here where I could try on my heart, and let my walls down. Over time, I didn’t really mind that I was lonely because it felt like home. Whatever things ran through my mind I could keep for myself. I could learn about myself and my environment and observe both and how they changed with the weather. I could study these ruins and what was left behind, getting an extraordinary and authentic look at a sort of museum of humankind than I could ever learn elsewhere as I picked at the bones. Building materials, architecture, electrical and plumbing, amateur archeology, hazardous side effects, irrelevant culture – all things that would give me a better understanding of the world around me, and conjure more questions and a desire to learn. I could learn to gauge my anxiety and problem solve in different ways.

Little did I know that while I spent so much time in the edges between self-awareness and self-loathing, I grew as a person.

Photography was something I picked up in relation to urban exploration, as I pushed myself to learn the mechanics and how to capture this world that I saw. I really digged the feelings I was receiving, that excitement, that push to keep trying, to keep dreaming. I wanted to get lost because I couldn’t be found. When we’re presented with things that we don’t see in our routine days, we get curious and we look. Social norms often tend to discourage looking closer in real life, and that’s why I love photography. It allows us to do so freely.

I still remember the satisfied grin on my face when I first bought my own camera with money that I had worked so long to save. And the creamery was where I honed those skills. Exploring enhanced and enlightened by appreciation for the landscape around me, and matured a sense of wonder in these everyday spaces. Being a photographer really enhanced my self-esteem and gave me a distraction from everything that was bringing me down. Every photo tells a story. Every photo was taken by someone who had to be at that place, who did the planning, who had an experience to share.

In college, I majored in graphic design, which, despite me falling out of love with it after I became wise to how the industry works and how that didn’t fit me, has greatly influenced and improved my imagery and my hobby. I could further my creativity with all that was still stuck in my head.

Writing has something that always came sort of naturally to me I guess, but it’s still something I’m pretty self-conscious about and always trying to develop. Twisting the night away in front of the comforting glow of a computer screen as I listened to those records that almost hit harder than my pain, I tried to translate and find a meaning in my thoughts and experiences and explores. Especially as I grew older, I wanted to spin a thread from my past into my present and try to find a meaning to my suffering, to these forsaken locations, and how being a human is one complicated gig.

I definitely wore my heart on my sleeve, and I remember all the things I felt discovering my favorite albums, the heroes I would worship, fascinating local weirdness and just about anything else that made me shiver. Part of me wanted to contribute, to create, to make sense of everything I could. What do I do with all these feelings and experiences, these things that are crawling up inside my head in my 20 something-year-old wasteland?

I’m not sure what it is about the creamery, or these temples that are a relief to me, but they make great atmospheres to drain my mind, all the more so when my cup is full.

Exploring ironically became some sort of a social endeavor for me in my young adult years when I was searching for friendships and other libertines. I’d often accidentally meet these amiable, intelligent people with the same interests, and I’d take the chance and meet them in person and go on adventures, and I’ve been lucky to form a few strong bonds because of it.

Before I had this blog, I had a Flickr account. In those days, Flickr was really a niche audience. But somehow, my Vermont-based photographs made their rounds, and over time, others started to reach out to me. We would bond over the places we’d shoot and our stories, and sometimes, if we really hit it off, we’d meet up in person and find new exploratory joys (but to be honest, the biggest thrill for me was to finding new places myself). I think any other explorers can vouch for this – that the conversations you have while adventuring are often the best, and the weirdest. I’ve had plenty of amusing chats underneath the creamery’s arched tin ceilings. That’s how I met my friends and role models Rusty and Christina who run Antiquity Echoes and Dan from Environmental Imagery, to name a few.

The internet introduced me to the “urban exploration” community, which was still emerging at the time and pretty underground, and I remember being curiously thrilled that there were other people out there who did what I did. The explorers (“urbexers”) who were creating websites and putting their photography online, I found, had scars, philosophies, and interests similar to mine. And their work was good, it was venerable, and it gave me a direction. I love people who add personality to their work.

That was also where I was introduced to the term “urbex”,  something that attempted to categorize what I was doing. Way different than the modern day urbex explosion that has crawled all over the internet, and alongside the greats, an oversaturation of various disrespectful types who are more into their own vanity and bravado and taking pictures of them smoking vapor cigarettes than the tourism, which often brought drama and something pathetically similar to high school cliques in the social media groups I used to be apart of (another attempt at trying to fit in), so these things turned back into a private affair for me.

I don’t want to be a trite person because that’s unfulfilling and there is no point in following this blog if I sound like everyone else. I’m me, and my thing is to be upfront and honest about where I come from, and often, I talk too much. That may not be everyone’s scene, but I’m okay with it – it’s all I got. It took me years to find my words and a beat, and I’ve learned a murderers row of personal lessons from it.

I’ve been searching all my life for a purpose, some sort of connection to this “humanhood” we’re all supposedly a part of – but I never really found it until I started learning how to live in the present tense and brave through the pain and uncertainties. You have to be vulnerable to grow, and sometimes, letting down my guard was a significant and valuable thing. Proving the static in my head wrong, that I wasn’t too far gone to have a talent.

Exploring, photography, writing, they all sort of united together, and as I chased them, I fell for them. I wasn’t wasting away my soul anymore, and I learned to stand on my own and begin again as my purpose worked its way to the surface. I wanted my life to matter, and for my time to have a positive impact and not to simply pass me by, even if it costs me. I don’t want to just survive, I want to do the best that I can to create a wonderful life. Especially now as my youth and years are passing me by.

Nothing will ever be handed to you. You gotta work hard, or it will never happen. If you want to be an artist or wield a talent, you have to study that art. Get the books, the role models, the media that has to do with what sort of person or thing that you feel you want to become. Study it all the time. Practice, learn, stumble, keep practicing, go. Decide, who are you trying to be? And what’s the motive? Do you want to be an artist that cares about your art, or famous? Those are 2 completely different things. I’d rather be trying to be the best I can be at whatever I’m doing, even if I only have a few other people that happen to like it.

For someone who didn’t believe he had much of a future after he had left college and feels like he’s spent his whole life less up than his downs, this has turned my whole life around. It’s the long haul, but it’s worth it. I try not to put anything out there that I don’t believe is good. Even if that means a lot of time in between my newer posts. Quality is more important to me than success. And I’m still finding my beat and my voice (and still cringing at my earlier posts haha).

I learned that I can succeed even when I’m failing miserably. I learned not to be as negative as I used to be, and indulgence can be a good thing in moderation. Enjoying a little danger now and then is fun and beneficial, and remembering where I came from doesn’t have to be a condemnation. Being willfully ignorant will get me nowhere, and is counter-productive to the life I want to live, or the people that help me shine.

Others are imbued by my weather, and I flourish in the presence of love. Fear gets me nowhere. Anger and indignation can be useful and rejection can make you resilient. In pain there is wisdom. Waiting out my life to hold onto anything never worked.

I re-wrote this blog entry and re-photographed this place for myself, the people I know now, and those who became ghosts, because I think there is a great story being told here. Our beginnings and ends are all written in the choices we make, and they all lead us in a direction.

In this struggle, something can be found, and it shouldn’t be measured by what conventional wisdom has imposed or implied. It’s the experience that means everything. In some ways, I’d like to hope my story can be several of us. And after all I’ve said here, I’m still shaking as I consider hitting the publish button. If you don’t say anything, you’re not vulnerable.

It took me 28 years to stop playing my old records, to get beyond that point where I couldn’t seem to move on yet knew I couldn’t stay the same. Now, I’m writing this up in an apartment 24 miles away from where I grew up, and where I spent my youth in imagination or hopelessly devoted to misery. Life moves on and our stories are always more connected than distance implies.

Requiem Revisited

The town I grew up in left a long time ago, and we lost touch as I shed my skin. Now, with the creamery’s uncertain future and Hyde Manor’s weight taking over and speeding its collapse, I felt like two of the most influential figures of my past lives, things that really shaped the person that’s writing this right now, are vanishing. And they’re dying breeds – venerable buildings built with a motivation and with dignity, things that our new disposable and tawdry society shamefully doesn’t value. That’s more or less evident with all the pop-up cardboard condos appearing in town. It’s a shame that future generations of curious kids or explorers will loose these mysteries and interactions that are kept inside these constructions that they don’t build anymore.

Because I taught myself the basics of photography here, I thought it was ironic that all the photos I had of this place didn’t really reflect how much I feel I’ve progressed over the intervening years – and I definitely felt like out of all the locations I’ve documented, this deserved good representation. So I was on a bittersweet mission of reverence; to record every corner of the building and do a good job at doing so.

My friend Josh and I got together and decided to spend as many days as we could stomping around the creamery with camera equipment, our footsteps the only things haunting its rooms.

I wonder if I would have even gotten into exploring to the extent that I am now, if it wasn’t for my time spent here and the spell I was under. Would I have ever gone to Hyde Manor? Would this blog be existing? I can’t say if this place that has driven me crazy will fall and fade or not, but I’m glad we let our distress push us back to this old haunt and all my forgotten ghosts. But if I never see it again, well, I’m damn appreciative of my time here.

Thank you for the indulgence here. Part of me was almost against posting this last section, but my feelings that it was somehow meaningful and cathartic overpowered the fears of showing my scars.

I think the Lawrence Arms said it best; the time is never right, the words are never right. I hope it’s helpful. I hope it fires you up.

Historical Images

The newly constructed Milton Creamery. The ground still muddied and rutted from building it. 1919. Via UVM Landscape Change Program
The newly constructed Milton Creamery. The ground still muddied and rutted from building it. 1919. Via UVM Landscape Change Program
Circa 1930. Via UVM Landscape Change Program
Circa 1930. Via UVM Landscape Change Program
Circa 1930. Via UVM Landscape Change Program
Collection trucks in front of the creamery – Circa 1930. Via UVM Landscape Change Program
Weighing and Receiving Room.
Weighing and Receiving Room. Courtsey of Milton Historical Society.
Employees, Circa 1920. Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
Employees, Circa 1920. Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
The original Creamery, before the brick edition and the front garages. Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
The original Creamery, before the brick edition and the front garages. Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
Railroad view, Notice the massive water tower and the absence of the brick edition. Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
Railroad view, Notice the massive water tower and the absence of the brick edition. Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
43 Creamery Employees, in it's later years. Courtesy of Milton Historical Society
43 Creamery Employees, in its later years. Courtesy of Milton Historical Society

The Creamery Today 

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Because this is an old creamery, I think this is the best graffiti in the entire building. Get it?!
Because this is an old creamery, I think this is the best graffiti in the entire building. Get it?!
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According to local lore, this is all that remains of the couch that the homeless man burned alive on years ago.

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According to local lore, this is all that remains of the couch that the homeless man burned alive on years ago.
According to local lore, this is all that remains of the couch that the homeless man burned alive on years ago.

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We found several animal bone fragments in the basement. According to my friend, years ago, people used to have illegal cock fights down here. Over the years, the decayed corpses of dead cats and skunks would also appear. Once, some folks, probably teenagers, stole road flares and had what we guess was a road flare fight down there as well.
We found several animal bone fragments in the basement. According to my friend, years ago, people used to have illegal cock fights down here. Over the years, the decayed corpses of dead cats and skunks would also appear. Once, some folks, probably teenagers, stole road flares and had what we guess was a road flare fight down there as well.

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A reality of abandoned places. They're very commonly breeding grounds for stuff that hates us. Stuff like mold in a Pantone book of colors.
A reality of abandoned places. They’re very commonly breeding grounds for stuff that hates us. Stuff like mold in a Pantone book of colors.
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Always a good reminder to look down, you might be surprised at what your feet crunch over. Like shards of old china plates.

 

The sections of the basement area that ran alongside the railroad tracks were chopped up into several smaller rooms and passageways. In one of them, we found a crooked, rusted ladder that scaled up alongside what appeared to be a giant vat. So, up we climbed to check it out.
The sections of the basement area that ran alongside the railroad tracks were chopped up into several smaller rooms and passageways. In one of them, we found a crooked, rusted ladder that scaled up alongside what appeared to be a giant vat. So, up we climbed to check it out.
Here's a shot of the former tunnel entrance, from the basement. If you notice the indented cinder blocks back against the wall below where the light is working its way through the boards, that's it. The eerie and dank basement levels here were dug down two and a half stories deep, with slate ceilings to insulate and keep in the chill. The foresight in its design worked. Even in the most sultry summer months as a kid, I remember it always being chilly down here in the dark. For half the year, the subterranean areas are a reservoir of stagnant water and the waste of the decaying building.
Here’s a shot of the former tunnel entrance, from the basement. If you notice the indented cinder blocks with holes sledged into them back against the wall – below where the light is working its way through the boards, that’s it. The eerie and dank basement levels here were dug down two and a half stories deep, with slate ceilings to insulate and keep in the chill. The foresight in its design worked. Even in the most sultry summer months as a kid, I remember it always being chilly down here in the dark. For half the year, the subterranean areas are a reservoir of stagnant water and the waste of the decaying building.
The Creamery Tunnel, sealed off at it's other end.
The Creamery tunnel, sealed off at its other end.

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A little DIY reading was found in the dark and the damp of the basement area. It was a moldering manual on how to properly run a creamery. It's fragile pages pretty much covered how to properly clean and sterilize both the machines and the milk, and how to pasteurize it so people won't get sick.
A little DIY reading was found in the dark and the damp of the basement area. It was a moldering manual on how to properly run a creamery. It’s fragile pages pretty much covered how to properly clean and sterilize both the machines and the milk, and how to pasteurize it so people won’t get sick.

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Howe scales came from Rutland, and besides Saint Johnsbury's Fairbanks factory, was one of the domineering weighing apparatuses found around Vermont. The Howe factory went defunct years ago, and it's great building was converted into mix commercial and office space.
Howe scales came from Rutland, and besides Saint Johnsbury’s Fairbanks factory, was one of the domineering weighing apparatuses found around Vermont. The Howe factory went defunct years ago, and it’s great building was converted into mix commercial and office space.

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations throughout the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Gofundme: https://www.gofundme.com/b5jp97d4

Abandoned Dairy Farms

For a blog about obscure Vermont, I’m a little surprised that an abandoned farm hasn’t made the rounds in my posts yet.

Every state has stereotypes that give an oversimplified image of what it’s supposedly all about. Massachusetts is all paved suburbia and Dunkin Donuts, Maine has the ocean and fanfare for an acquired taste called Moxie, and Vermont is a bunch of farms and home to Ben and Jerry’s.

Well, in Vermont’s case, that’s not that far from the truth. Vermont is the most rural state in the nation and to prove it, we have a bunch of statistics with the word “small” in them. We have the second smallest population, the smallest largest city, the smallest tallest building, the smallest state capital, and are the 45th smallest of the states.

Growing up in Vermont, your friends most likely fall into two categories. You love it here, or you think it’s wicked boring. Personally, it’s what we don’t have that I think makes Vermont so great. There are no casinos here, no billboards, few malls and chain stores, and no amusement parks (unless you count the Pump House at Jay Peak?). And in all that space in-between our 9 cities are a lot of farms and their variations.

Agriculture has strong roots up here. Generations of Vermonters have been farmers because you did what you had to do to get by. In such a detached state, other jobs often weren’t here so you had to be self-reliant, until very recently with the emergence of the internet and a growing commuter culture. This hardscrabble lifestyle may be why Vermonters have that reputation for being notoriously stubborn and stoic.

Many surmise that this was the reasoning behind all the Poor Farm Roads that can be found across the state, because so many Vermonters were farmers who lived around the poverty line, but the actuality is more depressing. Poor Farms were institutional farm complexes that were sort of an early form of welfare, created and supported by public taxes, where anyone who couldn’t support themselves would wind up and were made to labor their days away on by doing farm work. In return, they had food, a bed, and clothes. But from what I heard about them – they were often gloomy places, and many unfortunates spent their lives there and went to the grave there. There’s a Poor Farm Road in the town I grew up in, but by the time I was aware of its namesake, most of the place had long been developed by cookie cutter rural suburbia and erased, minus one old barn which the local kids would tell me used to be part of it, and according to them, had bars on the windows and shackles still on the wall. But a trip down to the end of the road as a late teenager revealed it was just a dilapidated barn without the lingering despair.

A thematic name that I found interesting can be found in Jericho called “Raceway”, (today, replacement signs have added the “rd” suffix on the end) and despite both the road’s encouraging name and being pretty linear, the other definition of a “raceway” is a wooden ramp, sometimes with slats for traction, that would allow stuff like horses and tractors to get into the upper levels of a barn. I’m pretty sure that the dirt, lightly suburbanized road was named after the latter of the two definitions, but I could be wrong.

In the 1800s, historical records say that the state was 3/4 deforested with most of the land used for sheep grazing, and later, dairy – which gave us a more cows than people ratio. Over the last century, that proportion has directly reversed, and now 3/4 of the state is back to being forested, and we now have more humans than cows – though I’m still heckled about that by flatlanders. The trend reversal started to develop during the last century when aggravated Vermonters moved westward for literal greener pastures with less rocks. We lost about half our population then, and a sizable number of towns around the state still haven’t recovered the lost numbers of their 1800 population peaks. A good example would be the out of the way southern Vermont town of Windham, which has sort of an infrastructural oddity – where state route 121 is also a dirt road, and is one of the few graveled state routes in Vermont that I’ve traveled on (the other being route 58 west of Lowel and through Hazen’s Notch). The town sharing a name with its positional county had over 1,000 bodies, a half dozen villages and 2 post offices in 1820, but by 1970, had a headcount of just 150.

There is a place name on state maps in the town of Sunderland curiously labeled”Kansas” (there’s also a tinier “East Kansas” a mile or so east), and the odd name is said to have came from a curmudgeonly old farmer who in the 1800s, kept making empty threats to his family, other Sunderlandians, and anyone else who’d listen, that he was so fed up with his rocky fields that he was going to sell his farm and move to Kansas. Only, he never did, and died right there in Bennington County. That part of town became known as Kansas by the locals and soon became a wayfinding moniker.

Today’s Vermont still has plenty of agricultural affairs left though, and unlike many other states with yearly dwindles in numbers, more seem to be popping up here in modern day horticulture fads, which also partner with tons of local restaurants and craft breweries, which means we have an awesomely creative culinary scene up here blazing through wearing the future on its sleeve.

As a kid, I grew up playing in the woods of an old farm behind my house. Most of the land wasn’t tended and had grown up into a mature forest by then. We used to cut 4 wheeler trails through the growth and explore the old farm roads and examine artifacts from yesteryear we’d come across, like old barbed wire fences, a neon green AMC Hornet pushed into a ravine, and the prime find – the grimy miscellany of the old farmers’ junkyard. We used to salvage stuff from the heaps of junked appliances, tires, and barn mementos and use it to build forts with. Old tin, a couch, the front seats from an old Ford Mustang, even an old woodstove. We made some cool hangouts from the refuse we excitedly recycled.

Milton – this fading green AMC Hornet lies on a steep bank behind a rural stretch of railroad tracks, on the edge of a patch of thick swampland. it looks as if someone pushed (or quite possibly drove) the car down the hill, where it lays to rest.
Milton – this fading green AMC Hornet lies on a steep bank behind a rural stretch of railroad tracks, on the edge of a patch of thick swampland. it looks as if someone pushed (or quite possibly drove) the car down the hill, where it lays to rest.

A friend of mine got in touch with me and said she had a new location up her sleeves, an abandoned farm up in the north part of the state, the dumping ground part of it was on her property and she hadn’t gotten around to doing anything about it yet. I thought it was weird that I live in Vermont and haven’t explored a farm yet. So on a beautiful autumn day, I met up with her and she led me through some overgrown tangle woods of nettles, dead apple trees and mangey looking cedar trees that turned the area into a dark entry. A few minutes into our walk and the already fallow landscape began to change, and I began to notice mounds of discarded anything covered in moss and fallen leaves that had been dumped underneath the dead canopy.

A walk through the Vermont woods can often be revealing. It’s not uncommon to find relics from a different Vermont left to disintegrate below the trees. And in my opinion – our ruins are often one of the coolest things about the human race. We create amazing structures and accomplishments or inhabit these laborious lifestyles and let the aftereffects rot without much of a thought, leaving people like me to eagerly trace their occurrences that blur the line between litter and urban archeology. And out of any time of the year, you can be most appreciative of our habit to ruin than the fall, when visibility is best.

There was a time not that long ago, when Vermonters didn’t dig today’s Green culture. Back then, the most efficient and convenient way to get rid of anything you deemed as garbage, was to make the disposal quick and uncomplicated. This was often accomplished by dumping those items on a far corner of the farm, or let gravity take it down a river bank. Over time, these items accumulated, festering in the woods long after the farm went defunct, or their traces bleeding into our waterways or soil.

How times have changed. Today, a growing chunk of Vermonters are building a culture that feels how we coexist with our environment is a virtue, and villainize those things that don’t fall into place. And if you’re not one of those people, well, it’s also the law. But as is the trend, the movement also shakes things up, especially farmers who find it expensive and laborious to abide by new regulations, or the costs of implementing new laws or infrastructure by a government that many are losing faith in.

A lot less of Vermont is farmed now days, and much of the land has returned to forest, but these rusted and forgotten vestiges of the past still remain, now moldering in the silence of the wilderness. This particular junkyard had an eyebrow-raising amount of stuff brought there. Old tractors, snowmobiles, knob televisions, a Ford truck, religious paraphernalia, antique glass bottles, creepy childrens toys decaying in the weather, a small mound of old appliances, and so much more in depths farther down than I felt good about digging to reach. There is even rumored to be some traces of an old prohibition era still coffined back here, but there was so much to sift through, I probably wouldn’t have been able to recognize it if I was standing on it.

“I thought you’d like this, seeing how you’re into old stuff” said my friend as she went to unscrew the top from her iced tea, humorously not following me further into the collection of trash. “I figured I’d show you before I clean this all up”

“Oh, when is that happening?” I called out as I wobbled and stumbled my way over a mound of shifting garbage that squeaked and rustled underneath my crooked feet.

“Welllll…….one day.” she assured me, a tone of defeat in her voice.
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Further down the road, there was the most important cog in the farm machine, the dairy barn, which excited me lots because you never know what you’ll come across in an old Vermonter’s barn. Barns are vital storage spaces, workshops and in some cases, awesomely bizarre museums.

Traditionally, a Vermont farmer would put more money and effort into keeping up the barn than anything else they owned. So much, that many of them would let their houses fall into ruin if they had to make that hard choice of where to divvy up their cash. That even goes as far as the demolition process if the construction gets too far gone. As an old timer up in the Northeast Kingdom once explained to me; “Why tear down a perfectly good barn when it’ll just fall down when it’s ready?”

According to my friend and tour guide, the old barn was close to 100 years old, filled with accumulations of its years. As a side hobby, I’m a picker when my finances allow it, and I used to love shunpiking around rural Vermont and checking out barn finds, yard sales or whatever treasures or weirdness I could spot on our backroads, so I was already wondering what I’d find inside this old barn.

The fading red structure didn’t appear to be in bad shape, or really even abandoned. If I had just passed by, I’d probably thought it was just another working farm. We pulled over in some tall grass and began to tromp our way through the threshold.

I think barns and farms play some role in lots of Vermonters lives, even if you don’t have one of your own, chances are, you know someone who does. I remember my childhood of playing in my paternal grandparents’ dusty old barns on their farm up near East Montpelier, finding ones near Chittenden County to store our 78 Toyota Landcruiser in for the winter, and spending some of the best days of my youth riding my 4 wheeler through sugarbushes and meadows on a 250 acre farm and some of the most beautiful land I’ve had the privilege of having access to in East Wallingford. Now days, I’ve been apartment jumping around the Burlington area, but man, I wish I had a barn of my own where I could set up a workshop and have a place to do projects and space to store the 4 wheeler I would most definitely buy.

While I’m on the subject – do you folks know why red happens to be the ubiquitous choice of barn attire? Simply put – red paint is cheap. But the why behind that answer actually has to do with dying stars. Pretty much; red paint is made from Iron. Iron is created when a star eventually collapses. The ground is loaded with iron, or, an iron-oxide compound called red ochre that makes a good pigment. The ground is loaded with red ochre because when stars die, they explode, and physics decrees they generate a bunch of iron as the result, which is pretty cool.

The dusty whitewashed interior of the barn was pretty cool as well. In typical Vermont tradition, the old farmhands never threw anything away, so the spaces were stuffed with antique furniture, busted farm equipment, and some unexpecteds like a collection of bowling pins. I know barns usually lived double lives thanks to Yankee ingenuity, like this great story on State 14, of an old one in tiny East Granville that formerly was the town’s dance hall that the current owners wish to restore. Maybe these guys used their barn as a makeshift bowling alley to pass the doldrums?

Walking around through hay that stuck to my boots, I realized the barn was a little worse for wear than I had thought. Structurally, it’s wooden floors and walls were beginning their slow descent into wasting away, and some of the older items stored inside were rotting to a point beyond saving.

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While I was writing up this post, I remembered another old barn I had checked out many years ago, and decided to dig up the old photos. I want to say these were taken by an insecure me with my Nikon point and shoot, around the spring of 2010. I figured I’d include them in this post as well. It’s sort of funny how years ago, I thought the only way I would be any good at photography was to get myself a top-grade camera, but looking back, I think that heading out with my old point and shoot actually forced me to become more creative and observant with a limited focal distance and zoom range. Man, young Chad had so much to learn. The equipment sure helps, but it’s really the photographer behind the gadgets that makes the difference.

During that spring, I needed to get out of the house to clear my head, and one of the best ways for me to do that was to go shunpiking – one of my favorite activities still.

I found myself on some swampy backroads up in Franklin County. With the windows down and the wet Spring perfume coming through, I found myself passing by an abandoned farm, and next door, a rundown ranch house where the owning family still dwelled.

They agreed to let me skulk around their abandoned farm, but their elderly teenage son thought I was a weirdo for being interested in their place. Well, I am a weirdo, but I’ll never forget his furrowed eyebrow look and accompanying chuckle. According to him, the town actually condemned their old farmhouse when it began to violate building codes as it aged. So they moved into the ranch next door, which honestly didn’t look much better.

The best feature of the property was a tumbledown dairy barn covered in gray decay. The ramshackle structure was worth the potential threat of tetanus. The interior was filled with the debris of century old farm equipment, hidden doors and other relics. Like a beautiful antique sleigh.

I even found a century plus old book underneath some floorboards in an abandoned barn, which raised a few questions. Why was this book concealed under the floor? What else was below my boots?

I’m not into theology, but it was pretty cool. As a graphic design major, I really appreciated the headlining typography. Finding old religious paraphernalia hidden in Vermont buildings isn’t rare it seems. Around the same time, an acquaintance I knew found someone’s leather bound, ornate family bible from 1848 under his floorboards, along with a handgun and the skeleton key to his basement door, which they had never been able to access until then. The decaying book was scrawled with various notes and births/deaths of a family who used to live in his old house in Milton. The place was built in the 1840s as a hotel, and also functioned as a bar, vaudeville theater and silent movie house and an odd fellows hall, before being converted into shoddy apartments.

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To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations throughout the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Gofundme: https://www.gofundme.com/b5jp97d4

 

Telescopes & Tunnels.

Men and women generally make their mark in life through their achievements, earning fame from them and a place in popular culture, especially if the individual dares to toil in the unknown of a less categorizable pursuit, figuring out the hazier parts of our existence.

Though I can’t claim that Vermont breeds this type of person, our small state definitely draws them, and has been home to quite a few extraordinary people and legends who lived here, worked here, were honored here or cursed here.

James Hartness was one of those personalities who dallied with new frontiers of science and invention in such ways that he would eventually catch the imagination of the public. And as I figured out, his life is far more interesting than even I expected when I set out to visit his former estate and prepare to research for this blog entry.

Springfield is one of those Vermont towns that doesn’t cross my mind all that much, that is until I was told that one of the oldest telescopes in the country is hidden away in an underground observatory connected to an old mansion by secret passageways. That interested me enough to start asking questions.

Inquiring further, I found out that the telescope’s existence in Springfield is because of James Hartness, a former state governor, inventor and astronomy savant, who happened to build his own underneath his home. If you’re vaguely familiar with the name, that may be because you’re aware of the Hartness State Airport in Springfield, which wears his name. Or perhaps if you’re a pundit on state governors, you know that he once filled that spot with his single term from 1921 to 1923, his mission statement being to persuade Vermonters to stay and seek employment in Vermont as opposed to elsewhere, but was incompatible with the economy at the time.

A Google search revealed that today, it’s a bed and breakfast called The Hartness House, named after it’s dead builder and because it’s a business in, well, The Hartness House.

My next conundrum was how would I see such a thing. I had called the bed and breakfast in February of 2014 to see about checking it out for myself, but I found out that not only was it their off season and they weren’t opening the place up to visitors, the business had also been sold and the new owners were at the beginning of the seemingly arduous task of figuring out their game plan. So, I stayed persistent and called back again a year later at the end of May 2015, and after a few somewhat miscommunicated phone calls, I had excitedly scheduled myself an appointment to see it and found myself road tripping down to southern Vermont on a humid June morning where the steam was sliding off the slopes of Mount Ascutney.

Hartness’s mansion is a bit to the right of the center of town, inconspicuous in a spaced out neighborhood that was built up a hillside over the decades, with sinuous stripped asphalt streets and patches of woods between residential lots that gave the area a more detached, quiet feeling from town.

Pulling into the driveway that leads guests in front of the street obscured estate, I immediately saw the unique jelly bean looking white concrete shape of the telescope protruding from their nicely groomed front lawn, which lead my eyes to an architecturally impressive Newport style mansion that looks like it would fit in more on it’s namesake coastline in Rhode Island than the Green Mountain State.

I felt a little out of place being there – and I’m really good at feeling like I’m out of place. It was tacit upscale, I wasn’t a paying guest, and was tromping around in shorts, bowler cap, Keep Vermont Weird T shirt and camera bag slung over my shoulder, ready to grab a greasy breakfast and a few cups of coffee at a low key diner afterwards, before going to find some petroglyphs.

I decided to deal with my anxieties later and just make a casual walk through the dark stained front door. The interior exuded a sort of tamed glamor that you’d expect from such a house, and I followed a trail of intricately woven carpets and polished plank floors to the front desk. To my relief, I was pointed towards a nondescript door towards the public bathrooms. Clutching the old knob that wobbled a bit in my hand, I opened it slowly, and a narrow staircase came into my view that descended downwards, inhabited by cobwebs and your expected subterranean dampness. I took a few steps down hesitantly when I saw a light switch now at elbow level. I flicked it on and the tunnel lit up and filled with the hum of older yellow hued light bulbs that would lead me down to whatever I would find at the end.

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My friend had speculated in conversation that at one point, Hartness has built a multitude of secret tunnels that radiated out from his house, towards downtown Springfield, but the hotel denied it when he inquired. However, when he received a tour years ago, he recalled finding a wooden door down in the main tunnel way, and because he was already underground, that door either met an underground room or another tunnel. He opened it when he had a moment alone, and indeed, there was another passageway that extended back into the dark, but he never got to explore it further than it’s door frame. I did see another door down on my walk, but it was locked, and whatever was behind it was off limits due to some sort of “accident” I found out later. Maybe that was the same door he was talking about. But I guess I’d never find out.

Further down the tunnel was another door which wasn’t locked, and that led into an open concrete space that used to be Hartness’s private laboratory, now a museum filled with older telescope prototypes, newspaper clippings, artifacts and hand drawn sketches of the arctic. It was dedicated to Hartness and James Russel Porter, but mostly James Russel Porter, a name I hadn’t heard of until then.

Back out in the tunnel, I opened another set of doors, which lead me to a narrow neck craning spiral concrete staircase that deposited me inside the post 100 year old Hartness Equatorial Turret Telescope, designed and manufactured entirely by Hartness himself, the turret dome being the only thing manufactured in Massachusetts. I began to eagerly scrutinize its design, trying to get a better idea of how it worked. The rotating turret was the green portion of the strange structure with it’s rounded, port hole-esque looking windows, and it rides on rollers supported by the rounded white, concrete structure. The telescope tube is a replacement made of more modern stainless steel and accommodates a ten-inch achromatic objective. Even the fact that the telescope is sheltered is unique – a feature Hartness incorporated because stargazing during a Vermont winter is rottenly cold.

The telescope also incorporates a sophisticated motor-drive, transmission system and clock drive to replicate the earth’s rotation. Using the equatorial drive system makes it possible to view solar residing objects over extended periods of time notwithstanding the rotation of the earth.

Everything here was fascinating to think about for your blogger. I love stuff like this. But disappointingly, the telescope was missing a part (I forget which), so it was only 97% functional, and not enough functionality was present to actually try it out for myself. That was in 2015 though, I’m not sure if they have replaced the part yet or not. I haven’t been back.

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Sitting back at home drinking amounts of coffee that my doctor would be upset about, I was in research mode. Even though first-hand experience here is cool enough, my curious nature wasn’t satisfied. Why is any of this here? Well, I suppose that anyone who can afford to build an astronomical wonder and tunnel system on their property can build it anywhere they want, but still. What’s the story here?

Springfield

Springfield was once a place of civic pride and a personification of industrial advancement. But turning off Interstate 91 and driving past the Holiday Inn Express and down it’s not so aesthetically pleasing main drag today, is a windshield scene of sad looking old buildings with a bland retail district that doesn’t pry for your attention. But the corpses of its aging legacy has simultaneously inspired a swelling steampunk scene from what I’m told.

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A small pocket park off Main Street revealed a glorious view of some broad cascades on the Black River with a photographic tumbledown old factory built into the river banks. This is one of my favorite views in Springfield.

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What is such a grand historical artifact and adjoining elaborate DIY entrance point doing here in Springfield? To understand that, I needed a better understanding of the man who built it, which was connected with the history of the town itself.

The valley locality that wears an omnipresent name for American communities was known in the nomenclature as Vermont’s original “tech hub”. Thanks to the Black River, which rolls and tumbles through the center of the area’s defining long dip in topography, Springfield became a practical place for machine tool industrial operations and the dreamers who made them happen. This small town became so eminent that it adopted the nickname “Precision Valley”, and became Vermont’s highest per capita income generating community – with around 3,000 people employed in the nuances of the activity.

This didn’t go unnoticed, and apparently, Springfield was also allegedly on Hitler’s list of places to bomb if the Nazi’s ever made it over this way – making number two on his list, just after New York City. Or, at least as local lore fills us in with.

So, what happened? Economic death and postmortem go down best a chaser of assigned blame, and according to who you ask, there is a multitude of theories to tell the story of why Springfield was pretty much defenestrated. Unions are one scapegoat, who helped ensure a few strikes in the 1970s which lead to higher wages. Others speculate that newer Springfield generations had no interest in taking over the family businesses, so many were eventually purchased by outside firms, which employers argued gave them a lot less control. But maybe it was the fact that Springfield factories were still making old school products, and overseas companies were innovating both their products and how they were manufactured. Either way, the final result was a community that fell victim to depression and some bitter hindsight and a new footnote on the town’s Wikipedia page.

James Hartness and Russel Porter

Before Springfield imprinted itself with its economic momentum and national popularity, Vermonters were leaving Vermont in droves, with their compasses pointed west. Local industrialist Adna Brown was forced to look for creatively pragmatic solutions to keep Vermonters working in Vermont. He discovered that Jones & Lamson, a machine tool company in nearby Windsor was for sale. So, Brown got together a group of investors and Springfield put together and instigated a new Vermont law where towns would make new industry exempt from taxation for their first 10 years – hoping to give new business some incentive to stick around in the green mountains. The deal went through, and Jones and Lamson moved to Springfield. To run it, Brown hired a young James Hartness in 1889, who was already proving to be a precocious machinist and earnest inventor, because he looked at things at different angles.

I don’t know much about Hartness’s milieu. He was born near Schenectady, New York in 1861, and would become a highly successful inventor and entrepreneur in his life, becoming a working stiff shortly after completing grammar school and steered away from the insecurity dance many of us learn, and began to build and flex his foundation to enable him to bridge beyond orthodox culture. That phrase sounds sort of like a biographical platitude but really fits him like a hard earned degree considering his truly impressive list of accolades that is something that makes me feel a little down about my own accomplishments.

On his first day on the job, he announced that J&L would no longer be making their wide array of products – which consisted of machines to drill gun barrels, stone channelers and engine lathes. Instead, he conceptualized the company only producing one thing: the Hartness Flatbed Turret Lathe, his own invention, named for himself. According to the folks at the Hartness House, it’s considered “one of the most important machine tools ever made.” – because his was arguably the most efficient at milling and shaping all lengths of metal, despite there being plenty of other lathes already existing.

In 1900, Hartness would become manager of J&L, and 3 years later, president. Hartness’s business practices came down to one thing; that a company should only make one product, and it was that idea that built Springfield and secured his success. He was a mentor to other inventors in his employ, and some of them who became incredibly proficient or innovative in their traits or skill sets branched off and started their own businesses which grew the town’s prowess as a manufacturing power. During this time, he would create over 100 patents for improved machine tools and measuring techniques, and get royalties for them.

Being as ambitious as Hartness was, I reckon it rubs off on you in other aspects of your life, including in your hobbies. The sky seemed to be one of Hartness’s fondest devotions; whether it was flying in its atmosphere, or gazing up at it, and he let that seep into other endeavors.

Hartness had a penchant for aviation. He progressed with a Wright Biplane, got his pilot’s license in 1914, and became one of the first 100 pilots in America. In 1919, he would donate land and help construct the first airport in the state of Vermont which not coincidentally was in Springfield, and is now called the Hartness State Airport. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh was coaxed into landing there after his transatlantic flight and hang out with Hartness at his mansion. But it was his love of astronomy that really stole the show, and secured his place in the public sphere.

In 1903, he was doing so well for himself that he decided to upgrade his digs, and began construction on a mansion atop a slight rise in elevation known as Cherry Hill. The mansion was completed a year later, but he didn’t stop there, and began to customize the place by building a turret telescope in his front yard (finished in 1910), connected it to the house by a tunnel system, and added more subterranean real estate for his study and laboratory. He may have added more tunnels, but that part is still a Vermont myth. Though it’s not exactly known what Hartness did with his telescope, he was so fond of it that he had it painted into his governor’s portrait in the state house, which has confused quite a few visitors who mistook the weirdly shaped object as a UFO.

The Hartness Mansion after completion. Via stellafane.org
Hartness standing in front of his turret telescope. Via stellafane.org

From his knowledge of optics gained from his interest in astronomy, Hartness invented an optical method of projecting an incredibly magnified image of a screw thread onto a drawing. He had the concept, but he needed it developed into a marketable machine – and engineer, former Arctic explorer and inventor Russel Porter was just the guy for the job. Porter was hired at J&L in 1919, and between the two of them, they would invent the optical comparator.

Porter seemed to be an amiable companion for Hartness, and their skill sets and ambitions were mutually beneficial. Eventually, the two formed a friendship and created the Springfield Telescope Makers club in 1920, where they would give classes on how to make telescopes -later renamed the Stellafane Society, which has a name that sounds like something you’d find on the shelf near saran wrap or tinfoil, but is actually Latin for “shrine to the stars”, a club that is still active and still meets in Springfield in a pink clubhouse on Breezy Hill – facing the isolated form of mount Ascutney, a monadnock that has been revered for centuries as an important wayfinding point in celestial calendars used by the original native Vermonters.

According to further research, it seems like it was really Porter that got hands on guiding the club and acted as an instructor and mentor. The original 15 club members were machinists tool makers or pattern makers at Jones and Lamson, who signed up to learn how to grind their own mirrors and make powerful reflecting telescopes – something which Porter was a genius at. He had spent years on Maine’s weathered coast years prior teaching himself as much as he could about building telescopes. He would eventually be recruited by George Ellery Hale and moved to California where he would help design the Palomar Observatory telescope. Now the astronomical presence that seemed to seep down all of Springfield’s walls was making sense to me. Even today, it’s still affixed in. Springfield-based J&L Metrology remains the only company making optical comparators today in the United States.

Hartness and Porter would continue to practice their craft until their deaths in mutual Februaries of 1934 and 1949. Luckily, Hartness left behind a tactile wonder and physical trace for future Vermonters to marvel at.

The thing about these sort of sites is that everyone has their own experiences and observations. The sights I saw that day and their creating personalities came with their gravity and left an impression on me. As I was ravenously waiting at a Bellows Falls diner for my stack of diner pancakes to arrive and sipping disappointing coffee, I was in a contemplative mood. I try to stay hungry, stay free and stay inspired, and recognize when fear begins to call the shots. I know from experience, resistance to personal growth only leads to becoming a figure of misery. Maybe I could learn something from Hartness and Porter.

As Slug said; You can’t escape regret but you might regret escape.

Hartness’s turret telescope on Breezy Hill. Back then, it looks like the views were a little more far flung than today’s property which is cozily hemmed in by woods that block out the distant hills. Via stellafane.org

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly! Especially now, as my camera is in need of repairs and I can’t afford the bill, which is distressing me greatly.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

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The Vermont Character: Coffin Windows

One of my favorite pieces of Obscure Vermont is a mixture of architectural vernacular, and good old fashioned Yankee Ingenuity.

Do you see the diagonally tilted window placed in the gable end of this old farmhouse with its long edge parallel to the roof? A lot of people, Vermonters or flatlanders, seem to be flummoxed about these peculiarly slanted windows. That’s because their orientational existence isn’t found in any other states (though someone did tell me that they think they saw one somewhere in New Hampshire not too long ago.) To add a bit more rapturous froth to the isolated mystery, our Vermont parlance labels them “coffin windows”, or sometimes “witch windows”, depending on who you are I guess. Growing up, my mother would always point them out as “coffin windows” whenever we would take a trip out of suburban Chittenden County to more rural parts of the state, where older structures far outnumbered the new. I wasn’t introduced to “witch windows” until much later.

The etymology behind the monikers vary, and can’t really be traced back to a materialized point of origin.

Going alphabetically – it’s said these are called coffin windows because if a family member died upstairs, it was far easier to maneuver the needed coffin out the window and slide it down the roof as opposed to figuring out just how to haul it down a steep and narrow Vermont farmhouse staircase. And trust me, some of them are very steep and narrow to a point of over-cautiousness when walking up or down one – enough for me to sympathize with anyone who would groan at the prospect of dragging anything up or down them.

The name witch window gets a bit more on the superstitious side. It’s said that an old belief was that a witch couldn’t enter your dwelling through a crooked window or opening. A similar superstition that comes to mind is how the ancient Chinese thought bad spirits traveled in straight lines, so their architecture took on steeply peaked rooflines.

I know old Vermonters were a superstitious bunch. Our collective state history and folklore include such grim things as incriminating real people accused of Vampirism, or desecrating the graves of dead people accused of postmortem vampirism (our most famous Vampire execution was a man named Corwin, whose remains still loam underneath Woodstock’s boat shaped town green).

But witches? There isn’t much known on how scared Vermonters were of witches, leaving this as intriguing speculation. However, I was able to dig up a small number of succinct accounts in old state newspapers around the late 1700s and early 1800s of various Vermonters who locals suspected were witches, but in reality were probably nothing more than eccentrics living in a more narrow-minded time. One article amusingly reported that a Stowe woman was blamed for making several farmers’ milk cows run dry.

A more practical theory and probably the most likely of the three, was that these windows were a creative solution to let light into the cramped spaces upstairs. Gables didn’t often leave rooms for traditional sized windows and poor farmers didn’t want to spend the money on drafty dormers or getting a custom window made – which was a costly purchase many families couldn’t afford. They also enabled fresh air and ventilation to keep the house inhabitable. Though there are far more scolding environments than Vermont, our summers do get pretty humid, and the upper floors of an old house easily turn into ovens. 

Further down the line, these windows adopted yet another sobriquet with less dour and more civic pride; Vermont Windows. Though I haven’t heard that term nearly as much as the afore-referenced other two. 

In a world that loves things to fall into human-made symmetry, who knew that a window installed at a tilt could conjure up so many declaratory ideologies.

It seems that these windows have a bit of cool fanfare behind them, apart from your blogger. Some cool individual even made an Instagram account dedicated to them!

Route 100 in South Duxbury
Found one in this abandoned farmhouse I was exploring.
Found one in this abandoned farmhouse I was exploring.
East Calais
Calais
Calais
South Woodbury village
South Woodbury village
South Woodbury village
South Woodbury village
The NEK is in winter wonderland mode, even though it was a miserable 9 degrees. Saw this nice farmhouse and coffin window in tiny Peacham, what might just be the most iconic village in Vermont.
If you’re a cinephile, “Ethan Frome” was filmed in Peacham.
As seen on my friend’s family’s farm on view-stacked Turkey Hill in Northfield.

Any of you folks know of a coffin window near you? Let me know! I love road tripping around Vermont, and I always make excuses to shunpike somewhere!

—————————————————————————————————————————————–

To all of my fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible. Seriously, even the small cost equivalent to a gas station cup of coffee would help greatly!

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Gofundme: https://www.gofundme.com/b5jp97d4

 

Cemetery Safaris and Green Mountain Memento Mori.

Legacy is one of those nouns that we as humans are all united by. While all of us will leave some sort of mark behind, many of us mull over just what that will be. How will you be remembered?

Some of us make our mark in life through death, and on rare occasions, certain people achieve beyond that and find themselves exhibitioners of the long sought after status of immortality. Humans have collectively been searching for ways to cheat our other unity as a species since we first came into existence; death. And I have to say, we’re a pretty creative bunch, and have gone about it in a variety of forms that are sure to keep anthropologists and storytellers like myself pretty busy with the secrets that they keep. More interestingly – it’s actually been achieved before, but not quite in the way that we might have expected it, that is, it was successful after the postmortem.

Sometimes these surviving inclusions of this manifesto can be found in your local cemetery, memorialized in crafted monuments and in the psyche of regional denizens until enough time has passed for history to forget – if it ever does. Often, someone’s final resting place is our immortal legacy, and what has been left behind is what lives on for generations after our physical bodies return to the earth we’re buried in. The same concept can be said for the forsaken places I explore.

Vermont isn’t short of memorable memorialsm, a few of which I’ve highlighted in this blog post. Ethan Allen’s landmark grave in Burlington is a soaring vanity project of the state’s most pronounced hero, commemorated with a giant spindly pedestal topped by a rather valiant looking life sake statue of Allen himself, standing his limited ground mute and stubbornly. But the real mind boggle is that no one is sure if Ethan Allen is actually buried underneath his own monument, and if he’s not, where did he wind up?

Thanks to a 19th century Middlebury millionaire who was striving to start a cabinet of curiosities to aww his wealthy friends with, there is now a 4,000-year-old Egyptian mummy buried in Middlebury’s west cemetery. And, there is rumored to be a forgotten cemetery near Fays’ Corners where all of its inhabitants unintentionally became members of the exclusive club of dead remembered as they wound up as opposed to who they were, at the end of their line. The cemetery was long ago removed by a local farmer who wanted to expand his haying field. The graves were later returned, or at least re-propped back up, but the farmer had forgotten their original orientation, so he lined them up alphabetically. Today the tiny bone yard is shrouded in shadow light cast in all directions by the woods that have reclaimed the surrounding land.

In Middlebury's West Cemetery, a innocuous headstone has some rather strange markings. For example, the date of death is 1883, B.C! An error on the stonecutter's part, right? Nope. This is the grave of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef, Vermont's only royal figure, the 2 year old son on an ancient Egyptian king. But how did he wind up in Addison County? We have Henry Sheldon to thank, who over a century ago bought the mummy from a dealer in New York. A wealthy man and local oddities collector, he wanted the mummy to be the focal point of an ostentatious cabinet of curiosities he was building. But the mummy was in worse condition than the dealer said it was in, so he wound up disappointedly stashing it in his attic. It was rediscovered in 1945 by a curator of the related Sheldon museum. George Mead, head of the museum's board of directors, decided the best thing to do was to give the mummy a Christian burial by cremation and then buried the ashes in his family plot in West Cemetery, kinda like an adoption.
This is the grave of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef, Vermont’s only royal figure, the 2-year-old son of an ancient Egyptian king. But how did he wind up in Addison County? We have Henry Sheldon to thank, who over a century ago bought the mummy from a dealer in New York. A wealthy man and local oddities collector, he wanted the mummy to be the focal point of an ostentatious cabinet of curiosities he was building. But the mummy was in worse condition than the dealer said it was in, so he wound up disappointedly stashing it in his attic. It was rediscovered in 1945 by a curator of the related Sheldon museum. George Mead, head of the museum’s board of directors, decided the best thing to do was to give the mummy a Christian burial by cremation and then buried the ashes in his family plot in West Cemetery, kinda like an adoption.
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Fays’ Corners Cemetery, photograph by Kali Yuga. Used with permission.

“Black Agnes”

But perhaps one of the most infamous grave sites in Vermont is the monument of John E. Hubbard in Montpelier’s Green Mount Cemetery. But it’s the curse that is attached to his monument that has earned its reputation with paranormal aficionados who chase such tales, and gave me a reason to visit it’s whereabout graveyard. As a matter of fact, my own interest in the idea and mystic of curses began when I heard the story of Montpelier’s “Black Agnes” when I was a child.

Green Mount is located on the outskirts of Montpelier. The cemetery crawls 35 acres up the side of a rolling hillside that runs parallel to the Winooski River just outside the nation’s smallest capital city. You’ll know you’ll there when you see the rather large Gothic stone freestanding arch that marks the entrance.

Green Mount began as a bequest of a local benefactor, who purchased 35 acres in 1854 so the city could bury it’s dead on a nice piece of land, at a time when many existing New England cemeteries were reaching capacity and communities were looking for alternatives outside the city limits. The cemetery is on a gentle slope that rises above Route 2/State Street and overlooks the meandering Winooski River and it’s fluctuating moods; it’s monuments and entombments underneath the shade of old hardwood trees. I couldn’t help thinking of this song when I strolled through trying to find my oddity.

The affor-referenced Hubbard was a local philanthropist and celebrity, and his ideas saw that he spent much of his life in controversy, before dying in 1899. Hubbard’s aunt who died a decade before him, wanted to leave her sizable fortune of $350,000 to the city of Montpelier – about 9 million in today’s money – asking it go towards financing a new library and part of the construction of the front gates and a chapel at Green Mount Cemetery. But Hubbard decided to contest her will and squandered her fortune all for himself. In addition to arguing that his aunt wasn’t “of sound mind” when she wrote up her will, he also allegedly bribed city counselor members not to fight him in court. The whole fiasco struck Montpelier-ites as strange. Hubbard wasn’t exactly short on cash, and that move easily made him a detested citizen of Vermont’s capital city.

But after his death, the Montpelier Argus and Patriot reported the contents of his will, and were surprised to learn that Hubbard generously gave the city $125,000 for a new library, $25,000 for a chapel and gates at Green Mount Cemetery, and $85,000 to establish Hubbard Park, the tree clustered hillside that rises above the state house. Hubbard seemed to be a misunderstood gentleman of some perplexities, that were only beginning to unravel after his death. And those include his death itself. Local lore still permeates today that Hubbard jumped off the stone lookout tower in the titular named park and committed suicide, regardless that the tower wasn’t completed until well after his departure.

Austrian sculpture Karl Bitter was commissioned to cast this rather fraught looking bronze statue for his grave site – a shrouded figure that seems to be in a perpetual state of sorrow. Though over the years it has weathered and turned a greenish hue, it is still just as captivating in its transformation. While some say that the monument was supposed to be the Virgin Mary, the anatomy was actually intended to be male. After it’s installment, the memorial almost immediately became a local curiosity. In an interesting account I was able to find; Mrs. Sumner Kimball wanted to buy an even-tempered horse in 1902, and she thought a good test of its calmness would be to bring it to Green Mount Cemetery and take the horse to Hubbard’s grave. As she told the seller; “if she don’t shy at that, I’ll take her.”

But perhaps it’s what we don’t know about this solemn grave site that is the most baffling. The grave is more known by its official yet inexplicable nickname; “Black Agnes”, but no one is quite sure who coined the nickname, or why. And perhaps more puzzling is the frightening curse attached to it.

However this grave site became the instrument to a curse is most baffling. There is no information on the origins of the curse and when its nasty thorns began growing in urban mythology. Legend has it that if you sit on the statue’s lap, (some say it has to be at night, while others argue at all), you will suffer terrible misfortunes, and possibly even death. 

The most popular accompanying urban legend tells the story of three local teens from an area high school who all decided to put the curse to the test and visit Black Agnes one night. Illuminated by the light of the full moon, all three of them sat on the statue’s lap as the witching hour approached. After nothing happened, they all piled back into the car, feeling bravado in their curse debunking accomplishment. But within one week, one fell down a flight of stairs, breaking his leg. One was hit by a car and the other drowned when his canoe capsized in the Winooski River. Maybe it was just a coincidence that all three incidents were apparently less than two miles away from the statue at the time. Or at least that’s what the story says.

Needless to say, this narrative has made the statue a local landmark, and a hot spot for curious teenagers either looking for a thrill or asking for trouble.

After doing a little further investigating into this curse, I found that Hubbard’s monument isn’t unique. Karl Bitter had sculpted a few similar prototypes, and exhibited one at the 1904 World’s Fair. He called his creation Thanatos, which was inspired by the Greek personification of death. There are also a few surviving examples of Thanatos still existing in other cemeteries nationwide. So I guess the metaphor here is that sitting on Hubbard’s monument is the equivalent of sitting on the lap of death. Sure, that’s creepy and emblematic, but not enough people are aware of that information, making the curse a lingering mystery still.

Whether you believe in curses or superstitions or not, a lot of people aren’t taking chances. I’ve spoken to a few people about the statue, and there have been those who outright scoffed at the curse. But when I asked if they would sit on the statue’s lap, they hesitated and eventually admitted they wouldn’t. Is there something to this curse business? I suppose one may never know, unless you’re brazen enough to plop down on Black Agnes’s lap yourself.

Youtuber Ian Burnette made a short video for the Green Mountain Film Festival’s 48 Hour Film Slam in March 2013 which partially features a cameo of Black Agnes, and my good friend and frequent accomplice to my adventures, Eric Downing. Curse or no curse, the story is compelling enough to continuously inspire people and create other monsters.

Whether you believe in the business of curses or not, it is true that the dead can kill you, and they don’t need a creepy story or supernatural mojo to do it. Old civil war era cemeteries like this one have a secret that is literally just raising to the surface. These old graveyards may be leaking toxins, or, the arsenic used in old embalming fluids, into local groundwater. Two centuries ago, it was customary to have a wake for the deceased which could last several days to a week, depending on who you were, and the family didn’t want the body decomposing while it was laid it out in their parlor, so they were pumped full of arsenic to preserve them until the visitors stopped coming and they could be put six feet under. Arsenic was eventually banned in the early 1900s because of its toxicity, but enough corpses were pumped full of the stuff to leave a lasting effect, the real dangers being that today, many of us – especially who dwell near cemeteries, know little about arsenic or it’s dangers.

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I visited in 2011, heading back up to college after spring break. I declined sitting on his lap.

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The Bowman Mausoleum 

If you wish to visit with Cuttingsville’s most famous denizen, you can find the stoic man of mystery in the village’s only cemetery that is directly across Route 103 from an attractively restored Queen-Anne style Victorian mansion that he once referred to humbly as his summer home. 

I’m talking about John P. Bowman. The real Mr. Bowman is long deceased, but a poignant, life-sized monster of masonry is an exact effigy of the intriguing gentleman, and can be found lurching along a hillside cemetery that rises slightly above Route 103.

I first became antiquated with Mr. Bowman as a child. I saw him whenever we would venture down to my deer camp in East Wallingford for a weekend. His mansion was a rather faded, spooky old place which was then an establishment called “The Haunted Mansion Bookshop”. I had no idea that the name wasn’t just a gimmick, the mansion was, and maybe still is presently, purported to be haunted.

But it was what was across from the old mansion that really drew my attention as a young boy; the somber granite mausoleum with a grief-stricken, proportionally accurate statue of Mr. Bowman frozen in mid kneel along the steps that leads to it’s gated front entrance, depicted wearing a 19th century mourning cloak as well as clutching a key and a wreath in his hands – his blues reflected in the grays of his marble eyes that purposely gaze at the family tomb. Even as a kid, I knew there was something, well, a bit different about the Bowman mausoleum. And as I grew older, I realized that quite a few other people seemed to share my sentiment towards Bowman and his estate.

John Porter Bowman was born in neighboring Clarendon in 1816 in an area of town referred to as Pierces Corner, which today is practically little more than the intersection of state routes 103 and 7B. Educational opportunities were limited for Bowman, but his ambitions landed him employment at a Rutland tannery at the age of 15, where he spent five years learning the art of turning animal hides into fine leather, before leaving to start his own tanning business near Cuttingsville. In the early 1850s, he became so well-liked in the local community that he was either coaxed or self-inspired to run for a seat on the Vermont legislature. He won.

But he much preferred  business over politics, and in 1852, moved to Stony Creek, New York in search of opportunity. And he found it, in the form of a 6,000-acre plot of Hemlock forest, where he started a far more ambitious tannery business. The civil war brought great fortune to Bowman, as there was a huge demand for boots, saddles and other leather made wartime paraphernalia. He hired dozens of people, became a venerable figure of the region, and eventually fell in love and married Jennie Gates from Warren, New York. They ambitioned to building a grand summer home in his home state of Vermont where they could raise a family.

While he prospered financially, his personal life didn’t fare as generously. The couple’s first child, their daughter Addie, died as an infant in 1854. Their second daughter Ella survived much longer, but perished in 1879 at the age of 22, when she eventually succumbed to an illness she was fighting. Not long after, in 1800, Mrs. Bowman followed their daughters to the grave.

The agonized Mr. Bowman sought to find some relief. Shortly afterward, he hired labor crews and sent them to Cuttingsville, Vermont to begin construction on that aforementioned lavish Victorian summer home that his family would now never get to see.

During this time, he became obsessed with death; perhaps as a way to cope with his loss, or maybe influenced by the rise of spiritualism. He drew up additional blueprints to his Cuttingsville compound. Now, they would include a grand Neo-Egyptian mausoleum which would become a monument to his departed, and a local tourist attraction.

The colossal project took over a year to complete, and was the creation of 125 sculptures, stone cutters and laborers, the final cost exceeding $75,000. Construction of its facade ordered 750 tons of Vermont granite, 50 tons of Vermont marble, over 20,000 bricks and over 100 loads of sand. And they did a great job; the robust structure still stands proudly along the roadside, almost looking as if it was brand new construction given the great shape it’s in. But it may be the ghostly statue of Mr. Bowman that is the crypt’s most startling piece of artistry. His cloaked figure, clutching that wreath and key, kneels down on the front steps, peering at the front gates.

In 1887, he sold everything in New York and moved to his new digs in Cuttingsville, broken and alone. According to a few accounts, he would make it a point to look out the window each morning and gaze at the family crypt, a ritual he would keep until 1891, when he finally died, alone and sad, forever becoming a figure of misery.

He had no heirs, and no one to leave the house too. He was wealthy enough where he was able to start a trust to take care of his property long after his death. And this is where things get weirdly fascinating.

Though no actual documentation offers proof of this, the story goes that Mr. Bowman left some peculiar details in his will, where he willed his servants to prepare a freshly cooked dinner every night, turn on the gas lamps and turn down the bed-clothes, as if they were expecting Mr. Bowman to return from the dead and walk through his front door. The strangeness continues to morph. Somehow, the mansion began to inspire myths of phantom crying babies, wispy and frail phantoms moving silently down the halls, and even a secret spot where a vast amount of money was hidden by Mr. Bowman himself, still unfound and within the walls, or under a floorboard, or something…

The hidden treasure is more easily debunked. Though Mr. Bowman instructed that none of his property or belongings should ever be sold, by 1950, the deceased millionaire’s extensive fortune finally was depleted, and the trust went bankrupt when the coast of up-keeping the large property became too much – so all of his paintings and furnishings were auctioned off. If there was any amount of cash left behind, it was probably spent well before that time. The claim of a crying baby is curious to me, as no children ever lived in the house.

Some even claimed that Bowman’s large statue inexplicably came to life, and could be seen slowly walking around the cemetery at night or gazing at his mansion across Route 103. Other stories I heard in passing was that local kids claimed that if you visited the statue at night, his eyes would move and follow you, or even blink. A July 27th, 1950 article printed in the Rutland Herald offers some amusing incite. the wife of a long time caretaker admitted to the interviewer that people kept pressuring them for spook stories about the place, until her husband who had had enough, said: “if they wanted a story, I’d give them one”. While that isn’t necessarily condemning evidence of all of this being nothing more than yarns well spun, it certainly makes me wonder.

If these claims are true, I wasn’t fortunate enough to witness any of the bizarre phenomena while I visited on a beautiful Spring afternoon. But the Bowman statue and tomb are both incredible works of art and craftsmanship.

I can see why his statue would make someone uncomfortable, though. The well-captured expression of his eternal grief is pretty evocative.

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The handsome Bowman mansion, restored and called “Laurel Hall” – as seen from the front steps of his across the street mausoleum. I would have snapped a better picture, but all of my weird detours had made me late and I needed to rush back to Burlington.

Grave With A Window

New Haven’s Evergreen Cemetery is more or less unremarkable, as far as cemeteries go I suppose. That is, apart from one entombment. Among the faded and weathered headstones that are eternal witnesses to the passing generations and the turning of the seasons, is the grave of Dr. Timothy Clark Smith.

Walking through the cemetery, you’ll notice a mound of earth roughly 4 feet in height. On the top is an unremarkable looking square slab of Granite, which really doesn’t allude to the fact it’s supposed to mark a corpse’s final resting place. But upon closer investigation, you’ll realize that there is something more to this seemingly innocuous block. In the dead center of the granite slab is a Plexiglas window. Stained with years of condensation and scratches from the sputtering seasons and many other curious visitors, you find yourself peering down into an eerie undertone blackness underneath the ground your standing on. What is this?

During the 17th century, there were a number of premature burials, enough to make the general public a bit uncomfortable. Medicine was still in it’s momentum of advancement, and as a result, an unfortunate number of patients had a sleeping sickness, or a state of illness that could make the victim appear to be dead, but later to awaken in a cold, dark grave, very much alive. Medicine has thankfully came a long way since those days, and today, we know this strange state of sleep as Narcolepsy.

The horror stories continue. There have an unfortunate number of terrifying accounts in which bodies were accidentally dissected before death, and a few cases in which embalming was started on the not-yet-dead. Not surprisingly, urban legends of people being accidentally buried alive began to surface and spread. Legends tell of coffins opened to find a corpse with a long beard or corpses with the hands raised and palms turned upward, their fingers worn down to the bone as they literally tried to claw their way of their tombs, scratch marks being found on the wooden lid of their coffins.

To stretch the imagination further, Some superstitious old New Englanders didn’t blame these horrifying accounts on premature burial. Instead, they blamed the most logical answer they could muster, the victim had to be a Vampire. Evidence of unfortunate souls being found in a different position after unearthing their graves, with bloody stumps for fingers scared people, and the evidence was used to inspire famous tales as Rhode Island’s Mercy Brown, who innocently became the most infamous Vampire in New England history.

A well-respected man, Timothy Clarke Smith, born 1821, could boast a rather long list of accomplishments in his life. Among many things, he was a schoolteacher, a merchant, a clerk for the Treasury Dept. and obtained his degree as an MD in 1855, which led to his position as a staff surgeon in the Russian Army. But the good doctor also ruminated over those postmortem horror stories and developed a fear – not of dying, but of not being dead. He was terrified at the possibility of being buried alive.

That sentiment wasn’t unique. It was happening so often, that some swindlers decided to cash in on it, and create a market for “safety coffins”

These new models of coffin included glass lids for observation, so people could see in, or out. Ropes from the inside of the coffin were attached to bells fastened on the surface, so that if the poor soul were to wake up six feet under, they could ring it in a panic and hope someone is nearby enough to hear it – which is said to be where the popular sayings “saved by the bell” and “dead ringer” originated from. Breathing pipes were also constructed to run air into the coffin, to sustain the misdiagnosed corpses until they could be rescued.

Dr. Smith was going to make sure this wouldn’t happen to him, and gladly paid up for such an arrangement, which he was buried in at the time of his death in 1893 and has no doubt overshadowed any of his other noble life pursuits. Beneath a grassy mound of earth in New Haven, a tomb was constructed with a six-foot cement tube that protruded the surface into a 14×14 inch piece of Plexiglas. This was to allow groundskeepers or visiting family members to check in on him, just in case they saw his disgruntled face staring up at them through the window…

For extra protection, a bell was supposedly placed in his hands that he could ring in case he woke up. But who could hear a bell under 6 feet of earth? And If he were alive, how long would the oxygen really last?

According to old records from the cemetery sexton, the burial vault has two rooms. One for Dr. Smith (with the window) and the other for his wife. The burial vault is arched with stairs (capped by the stone in the lower front of the mound) and leads to the two rooms, with the viewing window at the top of the shaft.

People from years ago claim to have peered down the window and stared directly at the skeletal face of Dr. Smith, along with a hammer and chisel placed on his chest. But today, you can barely see anything through the condensation that has occupied most of the glass surface, which may make the trip slightly disappointing for some visitors.

If you wish to see this literal monument to a man’s insecurities turned extraordinary tourist attraction for yourself, take Route 7 to the small farming community of New Haven, and make a turn on Town Hill Road. The cemetery will be about a mile or two down the road on your right, just look for the rather large mound of Earth right by the entrance and the square slab dead on top. You can’t miss it.

Here is a neat visual of what your money might have gotten you – should you have decided to purchase one of these special graves. It seems that this model comes with what looks like a periscope, but in actuality, the person buried could spin the handles and it would turn above, letting who ever came and checked on the cemetery that the person moved.

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“A dreamless sleep, emblem of eternal rest”

I once heard a theory that it’s better to have an interesting headstone than to have been an interesting person, because the headstone will be around for much longer.

While I think that theory is open to interpretation, in the case of Lyndon Center’s G.P. Spencer, he certainly left his mark, where even after his passing, he remains a well-remembered figure with his grave pointing an accusatory finger at Lyndon denizens, long after the others that weren’t so kind to him have turned to dust and vanished into fading records.

The story as I know it goes that Spencer, born 1825, was a proudly stubborn atheist in Lyndonville, a suspiciously treated minority absorbed into a larger population of hardscrabble northeast kingdomers that identified as being religious in one way or another. Unlike today’s more tolerant attitudes and Vermont’s time-tested reputation for being far less religious than the rest of the country, the folks of town shunned Spencer.

A stone cutter, he decided to fashion himself a grave that would spitefully give himself the last word in the form of a wrap around epitaph which has weathered to points of illegibility. So I had to look it up.

His epitaph reads; “science has never killed or persecuted a single person for doubting or denying its teaching, and most of these teachings have been true; but religion has murdered millions for doubting or denying her dogmas and most of these dogmas have been false.

All stories about gods and Devils, of heavens and hells, as they do not conform to nature, and are not apparent to sense, should be rejected without consideration. Beyond the universe there is nothing and within the universe, the supernatural does not and cannot exist.

Of all deceivers who have plagued mankind, none are so deeply ruinous to human happiness as those impostors who pretend to be lead by a light above.

The lips of the dead are closed forever. There comes no voice from the tomb.
Christianity is responsible for having cast the fable of eternal fire over almost every tomb”

G.P. Spencer died in 1908, and Lyndon locals immediately began fighting his headstone’s placement in the cemetery which today can be found at the end of a dirt driveway that the village boldly named “Heaven Lane”. They lost, and you can still observe it today. A monument to a man who stood up for his beliefs, and maybe a good example of an archetypal Vermonter; stubborn, not spiritually inclined, and having a sense of humor – depending on who you ask I guess.

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The interesting grave topped with a curious sleeping baby, which may be a metaphor, is located in the only cemetery in tiny Lyndon Center. It was just a short yet freezing walk down College Hill from my dorm at Lyndon State College to snap a few photos of it, then retreat back to my room in search of coffee.

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Vermont’s Immortal Man and Frozen Hill Folk?

There is an old Vermont anecdote that pertains to cemeteries. When passing a graveyard, the joke is to ask “how many dead are in this cemetery?”, with the correct answer of course being, “all of them”. But this “dad joke” of a punchline recently took on a new weight with me.

Not long ago, someone told me offhandedly that they found a peculiar grave in a cemetery near Montpelier – which according to this gravestone and a viral post in the Vermont subreddit page, there is a 157-year-old man (and counting) living somewhere in Vermont. What?

The Montpelier and Barre region seems to be a bulls-eye for some of the state’s most interesting memento mori, which may be one of the many reasons why some Vermonters refer to their capital as “Montpeculiar”. Included in this interesting region’s points of interest is Barre’s celebrity Hope Cemetery. Barre-ites discovered over a century ago that the city was literally built on top of a mother lode of a valuable granite vein that was so robust and unique, it’s incredibly resistant to deterioration, discoloration and great for construction projects. That stone made the town so famous that it drew sculptures and stone cutters from around the globe – a good chunk from Italy due to sour economics back home. As the city’s residents died, the locals did what they did best and sculpted some very interesting monuments in their honor that now proudly decorate the cemetery off Maple Avenue – the commemorations ranging from incredible works of funerary art to the kitschy.

Regardless, the thought of an “immortal” man in the capital region only amused me more, as this wouldn’t be the first time that this trope has played out in this part of the state. Over a century ago, it was sensationalized in the Washington County region in 1887 when an article was published in the defunct newspaper, The Montpelier Argus and Patriot, in which was a compelling and startling tale of poor Vermont hill farmers keeping their loved ones alive through the grueling winters by inducing forced hibernation, via some strange Yankee magic, which emanated like a contagion shotgun blast from the hills.

In the strange account told by a mysterious first and one-time only contributor known as A.M., he dug up the story in the pages of his uncle William’s journal that told a rather gothic and macabre series of events said to be practiced deep in the Vermont hills north of Montpelier. Wretchedly poor Vermont hill farmers had contrived a solution ensuring that the weakest and most vulnerable members of their family could survive the state’s grueling winters without straining the already meager food rations. Life in Vermont’s mountains was hard, and often death came early.

The chosen participants would drink a special potion – the ingredients a closely guarded secret – and would then be placed inside a large pine box that would be lined with straw, before a wooden lid was placed over it and weighed down by rocks to keep predators out. Once the winter freeze came, the buried family members would literally sleep out the winter in a frozen state. When the Spring thaw softened up the ground, they would be dug up, placed in a steaming bath lined with Hemlock bows, and as their muscles twitched and color came back to their pallor, they would be ready to face the summer with vigor. In theory anyways. And according to A.M., his uncle not only knew about it, he was invited to watch the process, and he transcribed all that he saw in his journal, documenting the bizarre.

At the time, The Montpelier Argus and Patriot had the most circulation of any of the state’s newspapers, meaning that plenty of Vermonters must have been horrified by it, but even more tantalizingly, no follow ups about the weird story were ever printed, nor were any letters to the editor. The strange tale probably would have vanished into obscurity if it wasn’t for a Bridgewater gentleman accidentally finding the newspaper article clipping tucked away in the scrapbook of Hannah F. Stevens,his mother, 52 years later.

On May 24, 1939, the Rutland Herald revived the old yarn and printed A.M.’s story word for word, and explained that no one knew it’s source. Interest immediately picked up. The Boston Globe published something on it 4 days later, and it was forever stuck to the flypaper of New England folklore. Yankee Magazine, The Farmers Almanac,  and Vermont Life soon followed, attempting to cash in on the public’s desire to satiate their thirst for this baffling story.

Eventually, writer and lecturer Roland W. Robbins had managed to track the story’s origins in the winter of 1949-1950, and was finally able to give A.M. an identity; Allen Morse, an untypical dairy farmer from Calais who was born in 1835 and died in 1917. Morse’s granddaughter, a Mrs. Mabel E. Hynes of Agawam, Massachusetts was able to reveal more of the mystery. She recalled him telling her that story several times growing up, perhaps influenced by his interest in spiritualism like many Vermonters of the time. Before the distractions of technology, Vermont farmers entertained themselves by “yarnin”, or, seeing who could tell the best lurid tall tale. Allen Morse had considerable talent, and his brother in law William Noyes, aka Uncle William, would often have rounds against one another and test run their tales at family picnics. Morse’s account of the frozen hill folk was his matchless achievement.

But it wasn’t him that submitted the tale to paper, he never even wrote it down. It was Mrs. Hynes’s mother, who in 1887 was working for the The Montpelier Argus and Patriot, and secretly arranged to have “grandpa’s yarn” published on Morse’s next birthday, December 21, 1887. Morse was delighted, and was glad that they had kept his identity a mystery, for anyone that knew him would have labeled it as a hoax immediately, which may have very well put a moratorium on this great regional folk tale. It became so compelling that even the highly respected journal Scientific American picked up on it around 1900. Other scientists were interested into researching just how peoples’ bodies would respond and survive to lower temperatures, and eventually, Cryonic Societies began forming around the country, all interested in the feasibility of resurrecting frozen humans entombed in capsules chilled to -321 degrees via liquid nitrogen.

Regardless of its faux origins, this cryptic fable left an enduring footprint on local culture that is still spoken about today, especially after being revived again when author Joseph Citro retold the great tale in his book, Green Mountains Dark Tales, and later in Weird New England, which was where I discovered it. But as for the grave of Mr. Edward McNalty, Could some Yankee mountain magic actually be at work here?

Taking a drive through the bustling crowds of Downtown Montpelier and up a pothole chocked road into the hills to the cemetery in question, I found the telltale gravestone. Edward McNalty. Born 1857. Died…

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There it was. So, what’s the story here?

As much fun as it might be to romanticize about an immortal being existing in the mortal grind somewhere in Vermont (after all, New England isn’t a stranger to disturbing tales of immortal men and their misdeeds – like New Hampshire’s dreadful Dr. Benton, one of my favorite regional narratives),  the actual story is planted firmly in logistics. As it turns out, according to the limited information I was able to dig up, the mysterious Edward McNalty was born in Moretown, Vermont in November of 1861, not 1857 – they made a mistake on the headstone but it was never corrected. He would eventually enter the workforce as a railroad section man. Edward would marry Illinois born Rosetta Smith on January 7, 1896 at the age of 44, and settled in Washington, Vermont, according to the census of 1930. For both, it was their second marriage, and this marriage produced no children.

Edward died of pneumonia in Montpelier on December 28, 1935. Because his second marriage never bore any kids, his children from his first marriage decided to bury him next to their mom as opposed to his second wife, which explains the missing date of death on the headstone.

And at the end of the day, this amusing gravestone at least offers a good story, and maybe will spark the most curious of imaginations.

A vignette into early Vermont life.

Sometimes, cemeteries can give us clues into our past. Three barely discernible graves deep within the national forest of Chittenden greet you by surprise within the weeds, and are the only things left to tell whoever is passing by that there was once a town here over a hundred years ago.

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This impressionistic headstone found in the vanished town of West Bolton tells the observer how dangerous childbirth, or being a young child could be in Vermont over a century ago, and how much death early Vermonters were actually accustomed to. Thanks to advances in modern medicine, people are living longer lives nowdays.

To finish this entry off, I wanted to include one of my favorite cemetery tombstones I’ve came across so far. Embarking on a random road trip with friend and talented local artist Sam Balling, we traveled the beautiful state route 125 up over Vermont’s green mountain spine which brought us through tiny Ripton, which local lore says its name comes from its land being “ripped” from other Addison County towns to form the new town, but it’s name less interestingly comes from Connecticut, relating to the first named grantee. The town averages an elevation of near 3,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains. Heading towards Middlebury Gap, a pass between the mountains that allows motorists to drop down the other side into Hancock, there is an old cemetery near the Robert Frost Wayside Wilderness of the Green Mountain National Forest. The small burial ground is interspersed with old gnarled trees and centuries-old gravestones that jut from the pine needle fallen earth like broken teeth wearing the different hues of aging. In the background, stark gray ridge lines barren and almost foreboding in their late autumn death, hemmed in the cemetery in isolation.  I loved it.

This simplistic headstone illustrates the tragic demise of two brothers and strangers in detailed brevity. Winfield H. was killed by an overturned load of lumber, and Perley H. was killed by the explosion of a cannon, a vignette into how different, and deadly life was for Vermonters settling up in the mountains over a century ago.

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Ripton, VT

Sometimes having a peaceful, out of the way location can also be a place’s undoing, especially when for whatever reason, it inspires spectral fodder and monstrous legends. But I’m always very interested in these tales that surpass strange. If you’re curious about more local lore involving cemeteries (or indirectly involving cemeteries), check out an older blog post I wrote up years ago, featuring two stories that saw the glow of a computer screen for the first time when I wrote them down.

While we’re on the topic of cemeteries, here’s a link that I thought was very cool; Atlas Obscura’s Guide to Cemetery Symbolism

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Milton Mysteries: The Tunnel Underneath Main Street

This old postcard may be one of my favorite finds from the Milton archives. Published by Raymond A. Coburn, who owned the pictured general store in Milton from 1908 until the flood of 1927. This image of “downtown Milton” depicted a cartoonish almost satirical image of what town had the possibility to be like in the future. That vision included blimp taxi service to South Hero, which I still think would be sort of cool. Today’s Milton of the future has a CCTA bus line. | photo: Milton Historical Society.  

My thoughts on Vermont weirdness often drift back to Milton, my former hometown. I suppose this is where I would further enhance that sentence with an explanation, but to be honest, I’m having trouble coming up with an angle on this. It’s where I grew up, and something about spending a third of my life there has just tattooed it into my framework. It’s where my love of the weird and the offbeat began from inside a quiet suburban bedroom, and began to proliferate outwards – which would become one of my most distinguished aspects of my personality, and why this blog now exists.

I often tote the Milton Creamery as the first abandoned building I've ever explored and became fond of, but more accurately, it was this ramshackle barn on the North Road I used to pass when I'd ride the school bus home. As a kid, I awarded it the moniker;
I often tout the Milton Creamery as the first abandoned building I’ve ever explored and became fond of, but more accurately, the first forsaken place I would ever lay eyes on was this ramshackle barn on the North Road I used to pass when I’d ride the school bus home. As a kid, I awarded it the moniker; “the broken barn”, which wasn’t all that creative but oh well, at least it was memorable. My mom was even cool enough to drive a little 6 year old me there a few times so I could explore it. Today, the faded relic is barely recognizable as the forest has almost consumed it. This was taken circa 1994, and is a scanned photograph.

As I grew older, I let my burning curiosity get the best of me, and began writing down all the urban legends and stories from my childhood, and all the accounts told to me over the years. This was a ritual I began to love, because I was quickly finding out that Milton was a fascinatingly storied town!

Its geographical area is unassumingly large, ranking 10th largest in land area and 8th in population (10,352 bodies at the 2010 census). All of that space is a perfect for hemming in obscure things and historical oddities. In the 1920s, aviation enthusiast and innovative inventor Paul Schill built an airport in town, where Sears and Ace Hardware are today (which accounts for the pancake flat plot of land along Route 7). But his goal of putting Milton on the map as an aviation manufacturer hot spot died in the beginnings of the great depression after he declared bankruptcy. In the later half of the 20th century, we were one of the premier racing towns in the northeast, with the Catamount Stadium (something I’d love to write about in great detail) and a drag strip drawing enthusiasts from around the region. These things have also became faded ghosts with the changing of the times.

Over the years, Milton would be a place where I would begin to shake hands with a lot of ghosts. Some were metaphorical; conjured from inflicting wounds laid upon to me. I began learning a lot about my Aspergers diagnosis in this town and still remember my lonesome youth rolling and stumbling, figuring out how I processed information in different ways from the rest, and how I often felt powerless because I didn’t feel like I understood the world around me, learning the rules out with the wolves.

But some of these ghosts were real. A former friend once told me about how their Bert’s Mobile Home trailer was haunted by the ghost of a little girl, who particularly liked a long narrow hallway connecting the bedrooms behind the living room. Though I’ve spent quite a bit of time there in my past life, I never had a run in with her. But I do recall the hallway always being dark and creepy, even during the day, which is a good breading ground for spook stories. When I asked the family about the girl, it became more complex and amorphous like these stories always tend to do; there were no records of any young girls growing up or dying there, making this story a weird mystery. But, they somehow knew she was there.

There is said to be a house on Main Street where things literally go bump in the night, perhaps because it used to be a funeral parlor in the last century. Weird lights and objects in the sky have been reported around 900 foot Cobble Hill for a few decades, and local lore tells of a haunted island in man-made Lake Arrowhead where a young woman was murdered by her jealous stricken husband in the late 30s, when he became enraged after the men of town kept admiring her. And, I’ll always remember this arbitrary point of non-trivia about Hobbs Road. Though the paved thoroughfare was named after a farming family, my friend once joked to me as he was reading the directions I wrote down so he could find my house; “I noticed that your neighborhood was off Hobbs Road…did you know that Hobbs is an old name for the devil?”

The more curious I became, the more I began to take comfort in the quiet company of weirdness and lore. Some mysteries I would have the pleasure of investigating, others still remain lost somewhere in the haze. Either way, both sets of ghosts would successfully haunt me for years to come.

Underneath The Ground

One of the most impressionable stories from my childhood told of a clandestine tunnel that started in the basement of the Joseph Clark mansion and ran underneath several old homes on Milton’s Main Street.

The stately Joseph Clark mansion, perched on a slight rise above Route 7, used to be the town offices and library back in the 1990s, which was the time when I picked up on the story. According to some, one of the house’s long dead builders is still there, and may be responsible for the next part of the story.

Kids in the library used to do what kids do best, and venture into places they weren’t supposed to. One of those places was the tunnel. But some would come running back up the stairs, visibly shaken, and tell the librarian that they were chased away by a man in the tunnel they thought was a security guard, whose presence was announced by the sound of heavy footsteps approaching them and then a glimpse of his tall dark form. But, the librarians would be confused and explain that the library had no security guard.

Unfortunately, that was where the story went cold. Was there really a tunnel underneath Main Street, connecting many of the town’s oldest homes together? If so, what was it used for? Popular theories guesstimate that it was constructed for use in the underground railroad.

Lorinda Henry of the Milton Historical Society was kind enough to sit down with me and help me in my search for answers. Meeting in the Milton Museum, which is pretty much the town attic that sits in an old church, we dug through countless unlabeled binders and boxes, but sadly, any information containing the tunnel wasn’t in their archives, or had long been lost. But the builder of the Clark mansion, however, was well documented.

The Joseph Clark Mansion
The Joseph Clark Mansion | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

After Milton’s official chartering in 1763, settlement was lackluster for the next 30 years. West Milton on the lower Lamoille banks, became the first part of town to be developed. A few miles up the river was a part of town that was known as Milton Falls, which would be the area around present day Main Street. In 1789, Elisha Ashley would survey the first east-west road in the Milton Falls section of town, by running a straight line from the Westford/East Road intersection, to a stump on the Lamoille River. Noah Smith, one of Vermont’s first lawyers, owned most of the land around what would become Main Street and Milton Village.

Joseph Clark was one of the earliest settlers in town, and his business endeavors made him both one of the wealthiest and most influential residents in Milton. He came to Milton in 1816, a year known by Vermonters as eighteen hundred and froze to death, because of the unseasonably frequent snow and frosts that caused widespread crop failure across the northeast. It’s no surprise that some superstitious Vermonters saw this as the coming of the end of the world.

But while the crops were failing, Clark and his partner Joseph Boardman saw opportunity in the rich pine forests that covered most of Milton, and hired crews to harvest the fine timber. The logs were floated up Lake Champlain to Montreal, before they were shipped to England, many to become used by the Royal navy. By 1823, he would purchase a sawmill in West Milton to process the raw timber. But by 1830, woodlands were replaced by agricultural land, and Clark decided to invest in other opportunities. He would build a gristmill in Milton Falls, then move into the brick mansion on Main Street that now bears his name. Later, he would build himself a two story brick office building where Main Street meets River Street, today’s Route 7. Clark’s move and investment in Milton Falls would lure more people and business endeavors there, and make that the new hub of town.

Joseph Clark's Gristmill, where present day Ice House Road runs over.
Joseph Clark’s Gristmill, where present day Ice House Road runs over. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

Here, the Lamoille River and gravity worked together to form about 5 waterfalls in a few miles of one another constricted in a rocky gorge, before relaxing at West Milton. These falls were ogled and soon sought after for industry. Some however also envisioned bravado and a way to kill boredom. In the 1800s, a growing number of young people in the northeast were jumping in barrels and going over any waterfalls they could find, which would achieve both getting mentioned in the newspaper and sometimes death. I once heard many years ago that around that time, a local boy and self-described dare-devil went over Clark’s Falls in a barrel. But to my huge disappointment, I couldn’t find any verification or information on this man or his leap over the falls. I liked that anecdote enough to include it in this entry though.

Railroads were rapidly spreading their steel arteries across the United States, bringing people, opportunity and growth with them, and because these things were vital for business exploits, this caught Clark’s attention. Partnering with John Smith of the Central Vermont Railroad, they worked to get some tracks built through Milton. In 1845, Milton had a rail line and accompanying train station, and that benefited the town greatly. After the civil war, the railroad brought vitality to the town’s burgeoning summer tourism industry and industrial mainstays like the former Creamery, a building which has shaped my love of exploring and photography.

Clark would continue to remain active in town affairs until his death in 1879. The house was passed down to family members until 1916, when Joseph’s granddaughter, Kate, deeded the house to the town of Milton to use as the town offices, and remained so until 1994 when it was reverted back to a private residence.

Lorinda speculated that the former gristmill behind his mansion could have warranted the construction of a tunnel, which would have sat where present day Ice House Road is. The house was built on a slight ledge, which would have made the tunnel a more convenient way to travel from one place to another, especially in the grueling Vermont winters. But there was no way to know for sure.

The mill and most of the development near the river were washed away during the flood of 1927, making investigations almost impossible.

It was later told to me that someone knew of a “thick iron door” found in the basement of Joseph Clark’s former office building on the corner of Route 7 and Main. This was one of the few buildings on River Street to survive the flood of 1927, so that claim seemed pretty credible to me. (But if it were built at a later date, I would be really curious about that mystery as well)

Joseph Clark's Office Building on the corner of RIver St (Route 7) and Main. Milton denizens today may recall it by it's former reincarnation, as Irish Annie's Pub.
Joseph Clark’s Office Building on the corner of River St (Route 7) and Main. Milton denizens today may recall it by its former reincarnation, as Irish Annie’s Pub, which was sort of a hole in the wall affair where the brick facade almost fell into the road a few years ago. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

Geography would aid me here. The building was built into a ledge that forms the beginning of Main Street hill. Right above sits the Clark mansion. This means that a door in the basement wall would have lead to some sort of subterranean chamber, which may have been a tunnel.

The historical society told me of a former resident and her mother who once lived there, and claimed to have seen the iron door themselves. The facts seemed to be finally adding up here, but it seems my request for information was a few years too late. The building has since been sold, and it’s current owner denies the existence of a door firmly and doesn’t want to talk about such things. I attempted to reach out to the previous owners who brought forth the iron door sighting, but they had told the historical society so long ago, that their contact information had since vanished.

The Irish Annie's building (now vacant) - where the supposed iron door is said to be. Main Street is to the right, which runs up the hill. The Clark Mansion sits behind it.
The Irish Annie’s building (now vacant) – where the supposed iron door is said to be. Main Street is to the right, which runs up the hill. The Clark Mansion sits behind it. Photo: Google.

Another suggestion illustrated that the tunnel once ran all the way up the hill to the abandoned creamery on Railroad Street. And sure enough, there is a walled up door in the basement that once did lead to a tunnel. Could this be the proof I was looking for? I did a little digging around (literally), and talked to a former employee. As it turns out, the door did lead to a tunnel, but it wasn’t the tunnel. It ran significantly shorter, just over to the brick building next door which was also owned by the creamery at the time (now converted to a private residence). But that tunnel also had its notoriety. Former creamery employees and older Miltonians wistfully admitted that they used to sneak down and party in that tunnel, those shindigs usually included spirits and cigarettes, while the creamery was in operation and even in the years after it’s closing.

The Creamery Tunnel, sealed off at it's other end.
The creamery tunnel, sealed off at its other end.

The tunnel story seemed to be disappointingly falling apart. Though it was cool to think about – practically, it didn’t make sense. If we stick to the theory of a tunnel running all the way underneath Main Street, why would such a long tunnel need to be constructed? What was it’s purpose? To further deteriorate the story, the stately homes on Main Street were all built around different times, meaning their construction most likely didn’t accommodate the existence of a tunnel. And to prove this, I had spoken with a few Main Street residents who had never even heard the story of the tunnel, but all assured me the only way into their homes were through the front or back doors.

Vicious Waters and Dislocation

It wasn’t until some time later, after this project had been pushed to the back of my to-do list that something came up which immediately pulled it from memory. A Facebook commenter who knew that I was attempting to get to the bottom of this sent me a message and shared a personal account with me. As a kid in 1960s Milton, he used to play with his buddies down near the river, and he recalled seeing a cave like opening set back in the cliffs near the dam. Popular labeling at the time dubbed it as a tunnel. He even remembers his parents admonishing him and telling him not to go near it because it was likely to be dangerous. He never did, but speculated that it may be what I’m looking for. He also said that some of his friends claimed to get inside, but couldn’t recall any more than that. For all we knew, they may have been embellishing the truth.

One gloomy summer afternoon in August, I set out with a few friends to dig around the Lamoille banks, trying to find the telltale opening. That part of town has long been awarded an odd moniker by local youth who call it The Vector, which is a robust sounding name, but I can’t seem to relate it’s actual definition to the rocky gorge spanning from the Route 7 bridge to the bottom of twisting Ritchie Avenue. But the name has proven very successful at sticking into the flypaper of local culture. I grew up knowing that area as The Vector, and still do.

An early stereoscope view of the area known as The Vector, early 1800s, before the dams and industry. The Lamoille River gorge was a wild place. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
An early stereoscope view of the area known as The Vector, early 1800s, before the dams and industry. The Lamoille River gorge was a beautiful wild place. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Early explorers on the Lamoille River near Milton Falls, early 1800s. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Early explorers on the Lamoille River near Milton Falls, date unknown. Explorer Samuel De Champlain called the river la Mouette, from all the gulls he saw when he navigated it, but it’s solidified name came from an error years later when an early map maker forgot to cross his t’s. The waterway is the only Lamoille River in the world. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Ritchie Avenue is one of Milton's more impressive thoroughfares. The quiet road follows the pools of the Lamoille River before dropping down a series of ledges offering great views of the Lamoille and the towns rolling hills that stretch out to Lake Champlain. The distracting road was built to accommodate the construction of a pulp mill down in the vector, which once employed over 100 people. A strike in 1925 closed it, and the flood of 1927 destroyed it.
Ritchie Avenue is one of Milton’s more impressive thoroughfares. The quiet road follows the pools of the Lamoille River before switchbacking down a series of ledges yielding great views of the Lamoille and the low profile hills that undulate to the shores of Lake Champlain. The distracting road was built to accommodate the construction of a pulp mill down in the vector in the early 1900s, which once employed over 100 people who all built homes in town, which accounts for why so many houses on upper Cherry Street look similar. A strike in 1925 closed it, and the flood of 1927 destroyed it. Most of the area has been transformed into a kayak launch area and substation for Green Mountain Power, but some of the twisted remains and chunks of brick walls from the old place can still be seen at the bottom of the hill. I used to hang there as a teenager and explore the river’s islands, caves and rapids. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
The incline railroad that carted lumber at the pulp mill, ran up the steep banks and towards where present day Mackey Street is. Years and years ago, someone told me that one of the rods or bolts from the supports could still be seen in those woods today, if you know where to look. But I can't verify this, as I haven't been able to find it.
The incline railroad that carted lumber at the pulp mill, ran up the steep banks and towards where present day Mackey Street is. Years and years ago, someone told me that one of the rods or bolts from the supports could still be seen in those woods today, if you know where to look. But I can’t verify this, as I haven’t been able to find it, which sort of makes this a similar tantalizing mystery like NYC’s Central Park and the famous lost survey bolt from it’s creation. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

While doing our amateur urban archaeology, we found a surprising amount of items along the river banks, in the waters and even stashed in crevices that ran like veins through the crumbling rock ledges. Broken pieces of China plates, old glass bottles, rusted tools and even the remnants of an old truck lay trashed down in the rocky gorge, things that blurred the lines of being considered an artifact or garbage.

I knew this area was hit hard during the flood of 1927 and artifacts, cars and even entire homes were swept up in swollen brown tides down this part of the river, depositing much that still rests below wet rocks and Hemlock trees today. I even was able to dig up old newspaper accounts that were printed when the disaster was happening. One vivid memory was reported by a woman, who watched an entire house be swept down the river, almost entirely intact. She said she was able to look inside a broken window and see someone’s bed that had been turned down, as if the person was just about to turn in for the night.

The flood of 1927 is mentioned frequently in conversation of Vermont history, as the flood completely rearranged Vermont culture and infrastructure, and the after-efforts built much of the state we know today. The UVM Landscape Change Program archives had lots of photos of Milton pre and post flood, which gave me a startling impression of what was lost. This is the former town square, Milton's
The flood of 1927 is mentioned frequently in conversation of Vermont history, as the flood completely rearranged Vermont culture and infrastructure, and the after-efforts built much of the state we know today. The UVM Landscape Change Program archives has lots of photos of Milton pre and post flood, which gave me a startling impression of what was lost. This is the former town square, or “Downtown Milton” (1890). Joseph Clark’s office building can be seen on the immediate right, and was the only building in this photograph to survive the flood and exist into present day Milton. Phelp’s Store, which wasn’t photographed, also still stands underneath modern day red vinyl siding. Today, Route 7 is more or less, built right over this area.
Starting on November 2nd, an estimated four to nine inches of rain drenched Vermont and turned rivers into raging destructive torrents. Because it was late Autumn, the dry ground was unable to absorb the water. Soon, Milton residents watched as the Lamoille River turned River Street into an accurate description of it's name. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Starting on November 2nd, an estimated four to nine inches of rain drenched Vermont and turned rivers into raging destructive torrents. Because it was late Autumn, the dry ground was unable to absorb the water. Soon, Milton residents watched as the Lamoille River turned River Street into an accurate description of it’s name. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Flood waters on River Street in Milton, 1927. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Flood waters on River Street in Milton, 1927. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
This is one of my favorite photos I was able to dig up, because it awesomely depicts the destructive powers of nature. In this blurry shot, it shows the Star Theater sink and wash away before a crowd of onlookers. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
This is one of my favorite photos I was able to dig up, because it awesomely depicts the destructive powers of nature. In this blurry shot, it shows the Star Theater sink and wash away before a crowd of onlookers. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Post flood damage. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
By November 5th, it was over, and the post flood damage was phenomenal. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
The remodeled town square after the flood, with Joseph Clark's office building and Phelp's store the only surviving buildings. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
The remodeled town square after the flood, with Joseph Clark’s office building and Phelp’s store the only surviving buildings. The Gold Medal Flour advertisement on the back of Phelp’s Store survived until the building was renovated years ago, and sadly sided over. Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
One of more popular tales of Milton lore is of the village underneath Lake Arrowhead. Basically, people claimed that downtown Milton was flooded underneath the lake when it was built, meaning there are a collection of soggy farmhouses at the bottom of the lake. As a kid, I even heard stories of scuba divers diving into the lake and setting foot on the roof of a house. After extensive digging, I was able to find this picture. This shows River Street, or Route 7 north of the bridge, which is now the Lake Arrowhead Causeway. These houses all sat where Route 7 is now.
One of the more popular tales of Milton lore is of the village underneath Lake Arrowhead.Basically, part of old Milton still remains below the lake after the area was submerged. As a kid, a friend’s mom told me that she knew someone who scuba dived down to the bottom and set foot on the roof of one of the old houses, which I thought was incredible. Then I would find this picture, which would offer some clarity to my fascination. This shows River Street north of the falls. The buildings pictured would be all underwater today, near where Route 7 runs along the lake. When plans to flood the area were made known, homes and businesses were moved and the new road would be built atop a raised dirt bed 90 feet high, still refered by old timers as “the fill”. But local lore maintains that some properties that were too damaged by the flood, somehow weren’t hauled off, and remain at the dark soggy bottom today. If there is in fact stuff down at the lake bottom today, I’m sure it would be in pretty rough shape, but with other stories around Vermont of sunken villages, would also be believable.| Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.
In 1936, The Public Electric Light Company began constructing a dam above Clark's Falls, which would create the 750 acre Lake Arrowhead and provide a source of hydroelectricity. At the time, the Burlington Free Press lauded it as a technological marvel.
In 1936, The Public Electric Light Company began constructing a dam above Clark’s Falls, which would create the 750 acre Lake Arrowhead and provide a source of hydroelectricity. At the time, the Burlington Free Press lauded it as a technological marvel.| Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Luman Holcombe, a longtime Milton resident and respected community physician, was the one who suggested the name
Luman Holcombe, a longtime Milton resident and respected community physician, was the one who suggested the name “Arrowhead Mountain Lake” in 1937, because on still days, the reflection of nearby Arrowhead Mountain in the water forms to make an arrowhead. The cluster of trees in the middle of the lake are growing from the allegedly aforementioned haunted island. I also like the boats in the picture. The lake is a relatively dead place now days.| Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program

A better understanding of the flood also gave me a better understanding of the area I was going to explore. Not surprisingly, its popular with people who like to metal detect who are still finding things transplanted from the flood and years onwards, so seeing all of this rubbish down there wasn’t a shocker. But something didn’t quite fit. One odd find was that a certain crevice seemed to be filled with trash – but it was put there by someone. This wasn’t naturally occurring. Someone had been down there at one point, trying to fill it up…

After a while of picking at the pieces and dislocating rocks, we were able to catch a peek deeper into the crevice, which expanded far back into a dark rocky chasm. It was evident that there was, in fact, more to see, and it did extend backwards, but I knew it wasn’t what I was looking for. Granted, the space had long been filled in by dead leaves and garbage, but it seems too narrow for what could be considered a tunnel. No man could seemingly fit back there, without the aid of tools and a great deal of ensuing noise. Either way, I stopped my efforts.

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The collection of items we were able to dig out of the crevice in the cliffs. All of the following photos were taken in the dying days of summer, 2014.

DSC_0874_pe DSC_0884_pe DSC_0886_pe DSC_0887_pe DSC_0891_peDSC_0873I came up empty on August’s exploration, but in October, another lead would unexpectedly manifest itself, and it was promising. Meeting up with childhood friend Zach, I found myself in a location I normally avoid, a hole in the wall bar and pool joint in Essex Junction.

I was there to speak with a friend of Zach’s, someone who grew up in the Clark mansion and knew the building well. The house still belongs to her family today. When Zach had mentioned I was interested in the Clark tunnel, she said she needed to meet me in person.

And, she happened to be the bar tender who served us our drinks. Those who know me well are aware of the great cosmic relief that I often feel far more in my element in a location that is “off limits” to society, as opposed to legally being inside a dimly lit bar  underneath a perfume of cigarettes and sweat. But she was all smiles, and her enthusiasm put me in a good mood. “Oh man, that house is definitely haunted!” she exclaimed. Though that wasn’t exactly my crux, I had to chuckle. “As the story goes, the house might be haunted by Joseph Clark?” I questioned, now amused.

“Nope” she replied. “We actually think it’s a woman”. Old records state that Clark was once married to a Colchester woman; Lois Lyon, which possibly could explain this. Over the years, she and her family have heard the sounds of high heals clacking on hardwood floorboards upstairs, and of course, whenever one would go and investigate, the second floor would be empty. She also recalled the upstairs being creepy as a kid, a place she wasn’t all that fond of hanging around in. Other accounts like phantom cold chills and the unmistakable feeling of being watched upstairs she also said were pretty common. But damn it, was there a tunnel? 

Much to my pleasure, the mystery was finally confirmed. There was a tunnel, and she has seen it! Now to get to the bottom of things.

Opacity 

In the cellar walls of the Clark mansion is the clear outline of a door that sits well below the grassy lawn, now sealed up. But the distinctive outline of a door cleared up all skepticism. Also in the basement was another relic I found to be very cool – a massive cast iron safe that once belonged to Joseph Clark still sat in the wall. Though much of the mansion had been renovated over the centuries due to its many reincarnations, a few authentic pieces of the place still remained. She explained to me that the tunnel had to be sealed up, because local kids kept getting into the tunnel and using that as passage inside the building, where they would steal and break things. This happened even after the building reverted back to a private residence in 1994, so actions finally had to be taken. What a shame. By now, the tunnel is more or less unsafe to enter as well, due to neglect over the years.

However, I don’t want to deceive you folks. This information was directly given to me from the niece of the current building owner, that owner also declined my phone calls to seek a tour of the place, which disappointed me a bit.

So the fabled tunnel is now proven to exist. But where does it go? It runs down to the basement of the defunct Irish Annie’s Pub at the bottom of the hill. Its original purpose was so that Joseph could travel from his office to his house conveniently, but over the years, it’s very nature of being direct and discrete inspired a few other uses. During prohibition, it was reinvented as a smugglers’ tunnel, which allowed rum runners to transport goods into a speak easy that once operated out of the basement of Irish Annie’s. Astonishingly, the remnants of the actual speak easy can still be seen today below the building, which really hasn’t changed all that much. The basement is a traditional old Vermont cellar, low ceilings, stone walls, and filled with things that crawl. The old iron door into the tunnel is still there too, the very door I was told about so long ago.

Were there other tunnels? Maybe. But the affor-mentioned flood of 1927 and post-reconstruction completely wiped any other leads I could possibly have. And as for that tunnel or cave near the Vector, I wasn’t successfully able to find that either. Perhaps something is still there, just filled in with erosion or a rock slide over the years. Though my lead at The Vector was a bit of a disappointment, I soon found out about other caves in the gorge with their own lore. Some rumored to be the hideouts of smugglers in the embargo act days of the 1800s and dry 1920s, and transitioned as hangouts by local youth and now, cavers looking for a thrill. Some are only accessible by kayak, weather permitting, and offer creepy claustrophobic excursions into dark spaces.

This blog entry has been one of my favorite pieces to write so far. By trying to do research on what I assumed would be a straightforward topic, I kept stumbling on more information and stories that continued to morph and blurred whatever side of the line between reality and fantasy you wanted to be on, far too many for your blogger to fit in this already lengthy article.

One night while sitting in the living room of a former friend’s house, his dad told me their old farmhouse was built in the early 1900s, out of an old barn built in the 1800s, and was dragged to Milton by oxen from its former position where the airport in South Burlington is now. I guess the house contained many other cool details, but sadly we’ve since lost touch.

Another favorite find of mine was a few years back, when a WW2 medal belonging to a Nebraska man was found stuffed in a VCR cassette and stashed inside a tree. No one knew exactly how the medals ended up in Vermont, or why.

Milton is a cool town, and the people who live their have their share of extraordinary stories. I have quite a few other Milton points of interest and esoterica that I plan on writing about in the future. Until then, thanks for the inspiration Milton.

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If you missed it, I was recently interviewed by Stuck In Vermont and Seven Days. If you’d like to learn a little bit more about your blogger, feel free to check out my interview.

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Face Value: The Bellows Falls Petroglyphs

Bellows Falls is a great village, and has a history that goes back to it’s Abenaki populace who were lured here by the great falls, extends past White settlement who built an industrial canal to bypass the affor-referenced falls and continues today through its distinction as a tourist area and waypoint community for the Connecticut River Byway.

There is a cool yet controversial mid century mural painted on a wall downtown that nostalgically reads Bellows Falls is a good place to hang your hat. It’s also apparently a good place to chisel your petroglyphs.

The Bellows Falls petroglyphs are located on a few large boulders found in the dramatic gorge below the defunct Vilas Bridge that cuts down to the Connecticut River.

Basically, the carvings are an arrangement of rough circles with three dots inside, with some containing pairs of lines that radiate out from the top. It’s surmised that they depict a cluster of 24 odd sized faces, but there is some disagreement on exactly what they are, with arguments for human, animal, extraterrestrial, or other. The lines atop the circles prove to be just as interesting. It’s said that they could be anything from hair of that era, feathers from headdresses, deer antlers, sun rays, or alien antennas. But no one can say for sure.

We don’t even know how old they are, with estimates ranging from 300 to 3,000 years old – some considering them the oldest pieces of art existing in Vermont. What we do know however, is that they were made known in 1789, when visiting reverend David McClure from Dartmouth College wrote about them in his notes, and suggested that they were made by the Abenaki, the native people of the area.

The explanations of these cryptic images are plentiful. McClure speculated that they could be translated as an Abenaki warning that the site marked the location of “evil spirits”, a shamanistic idea that came from associating places like river gorges and waterfalls as a place to communicate with the spirit world. But that was contested by an Englishman named Edward Kendall, who while traveling through Bellows Falls in 1808, believed that they were nothing more than the banal doodles of a bored Abenaki fisherman on a slow day at the river. Plenty of other theories have morphed since then and include everything in between, from grave markers, religious symbols, aliens, memento mori from an important battle, depictions of people who had drowned in the rapids, and the carvings from Abenaki shaman who recorded their visions while hallucinating on the river’s edge.

But it may be the orientation of the petroglyphs which may tell us something of their significance. They face west, towards the village. If this isn’t just a coincidence, Abenaki lore dictates that west is the direction where an Abenaki soul travels after death, meaning that they may be preternatural wayfinding signs for their departed. Interestingly, the artificial industrial island made by the Bellows Falls Canal was at one point an important Abenaki burial ground. For decades afterward, development on the island and local road construction projects would continuously surprise the laborers who unearthed numerous skeletons and artifacts, and became sort of a local spectacle.

Here’s where things get interesting. McClure’s description only mention three faces, which are greatly more detailed than what can be found on the bottom of the gorge today, leaving some to postulate that counterfeit ones have been added over the years.

In the 1930s, some misguided locals got together and had the carvings deepened to preserve them from the constant erosion of the river, damaging their value as historical artifacts and keeping their age and purpose still in the realm of the mysterious.

These were some of the carvings that didn’t make it into the 21st century. Image: History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont including the villages of Bellows Falls, Saxtons River, Rockingham – Cambridgeport and Bartonsville.

It actually amazes me that these petroglyphs have survived at all. During the nineteenth century, the Bellows Falls river/canal area was a hive of rambunctious industrial activity. Much of the river gorge was permanently reconstructed by dynamite blasts that were used to clear away log jams, which is a real disappointment, because it seems that those cliffs held more than a few curiosities. One sad account comes from sometime in the 1800s. A fascinating curiosity was found embedded in a rock near the Connecticut River; a baffling fossil of a five foot, clearly defined footprint that looked like it came from a bird, but the species was unknown. This caused quite a stir in both the scientific community, and the local one. What could have possibly made a footprint that big? Unfortunately, we’ll never know. Word of this important discovery got out and a group of rowdy locals found it first, and dynamited it out of existence. It’s very possible that there may have been more of these petroglyphs as well, that were destroyed to make a few bucks.

The petroglyphs are pretty easy to find. They’re located at the end of Bridge Street near the Vilas Bridge, which is the indefinitely crumbling bridge with grass growing through it’s deteriorating surface, and not the other better-kept bridge that crosses the canal onto the island. Once you get to the “Bridge Closed” sign, they’re down in the gorge to the right of the bridge. The rocks have been marked with strips of yellow paint to guide you to their location, and if you have a camera with a good zoom lens, you should be able to see them. Or, you can do what I did, and take the “trail” to the left of the bridge, which I guess is a very debatable definition, and really was more of a distinguishable area of low brush that meandered between taller thick adjacent brush and trees, which eventually dropped you down a steep rocky embankment and into the gorge. From there, it’s all boulder clamber underneath the Vilas Bridge, but from this approach, you can get right next to them. My scratched and bleeding legs were worth it.

What I loved best about these petroglyphs, besides how they are still a lingering mystery, is the obscurity of them. There are no fences around them with colorful “keep out” signs, and no logos from local universities slapped down anywhere. They simply exist just outside town, quiet and more or less undisturbed.

The Vilas Bridge

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The Bellows Falls Train Graveyard

In the cold days of winter in 2013, I explored and photographed scores of abandoned train cars that lined both sides of the Connecticut River. The yards and the scrapped rail cars are owned by the Green Mountain Railroad, which has a long history of perpetuating industry and travel in the Bellows Falls area, and as rail travel became secondary to the automobile, it left quite a few old passenger cars from the 40s and 50s parked along the river banks, slowly eroding with idle time.

DSC_0594_pe DSC_0606_pe_pe DSC_0602_pe DSC_0599 DSC_0597_pe DSC_0596 DSC_0612_pe DSC_0610_peDSC_0646_peDSC_0643_peDSC_0638_peDriving Around Bellows Falls

One of my favorite adventures in Bellows Falls was just driving aimlessly around the narrow streets that climb it’s steep terraced hills above the river, checking out the different neighborhoods, which managed to be so enjoyable that it almost blocked out my friend Daniel blasting dubstep on his car stereo and serially asking me “Chad! Is this your jam man? I bet you know all of these lyrics!”

A Bellows Falls attraction or service?
A Bellows Falls attraction or service?
One of my favorite finds in Bellows Falls – A 275-foot railroad tunnel running underneath a section of the downtown district. Built in 1851, this tunnel is a rather impressive reminder of when three railroad lines were brought through Bellows Falls, helping industrial growth and creating one of the most important railroad junctions in New England. What’s striking about this tunnel is that its partially cut through solid rock and reinforced with massive stone blocks.
One of my favorite finds in Bellows Falls – A 275-foot railroad tunnel running underneath a section of the downtown district. Built in 1851, this tunnel is a rather impressive reminder of when three railroad lines were brought through Bellows Falls, helping industrial growth and creating one of the most important railroad junctions in New England. What’s striking about this tunnel is that its partially cut through solid rock and reinforced with massive stone blocks. Today, these tracks are more or less quiet, a reminder of how the automobile overtook rail travel.

Another Bellows Falls mural.

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Industrial ruins along the riverfront

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looking down where the turbine once was.
looking down where the turbine once was.

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The Robertson Paper Company, another beautiful old building on Factory Island
The Robertson Paper Company, another beautiful old building on Factory Island

 Additional Links:

The Abenaki and the Bellows Falls (VT) Petroglyphs – This great write up was paramount to my research on the petroglyphs.

Mystery is written in rocks of Bellows Falls – The Barre Times Argus, June 21st, 2009

Hayes, Lyman Simpson, 1907   History of the Town of Rockingham, Vermont including the villages of Bellows Falls, Saxtons River, Rockingham – Cambridgeport and Bartonsville. 1753-1907 with family genealogies. There is a digital copy online you can view, if you’re so inclined.

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To all of my amazing fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Gofundme: https://www.gofundme.com/b5jp97d4

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Between A Rock and A Hard Place

For years now, I’ve heard talk of adventures in the caves and abandoned quarries of Southern Vermont, which compelled me to research them. The town of Dorset, northwest-ish of Manchester, has a remarkable 31 abandoned quarries within the town limits, and a drive through town offers some perspective here. Dorset is mostly mountainous, with the Green Mountains rising east of town, and a clump of formidable peaks that fill in the northwestern portion. The cluster of rocky eminents west of the Greens are part of the Taconic range, and consist of Mt. Aeolus, Owls Head, Netop and Dorset Mountain, sometimes called Dorset Peak. It’s here where the geography offered profitable geology; marble.

The oldest commercial marble quarry in the United States was carved into Dorset bedrock in 1785 in the village of South Dorset, along today’s Route 30. Over the next 130 years, about 30 more quarries would pit up the slopes of Mt. Aeolus and Dorset Peak. The marble expelled here was of such a fine quality, with attractive tints of greens and blues, that the demands multiplied and Dorset marble soon found notoriety in several significant buildings in major cities across the United States, such as New York and Washington DC.

One of the quarrying operations accomplished here was the awesome Freedley Quarry, located 1,000 feet up on the eastern slopes of Mount Aeolus. Freedley was unique, because instead of a hole in the ground, it was quarried in a horseshoe shaped tunnel, with caverns and passages blasted through the foundation of the mountain. Servicing the quarry was an incline/funicular railroad, which was built to transport the large marble blocks extracted here down to the mill in East Dorset, which saved laborers from an arduous trip down the mountain.

But by the 1920s, the marble business went bust, largely because of the introduction of Portland cement, which became a cheaper and more convenient replacement. Most of the quarries in Dorset would be bought up by The Vermont Marble Company in Proctor, who then shut them down to consolidate business as demands continued to drop.

In the 1930s the ski craze hit southern Vermont, which would coax the area’s shift into tourism. For a brief time, Fred Pabst of PBR fame developed a J-Bar served ski area on the slopes of Mt. Aeolus, but not long afterwards, he decided to pull the lift and move it to Bromley. In the 60s, a larger proposed ski resort conceptualized as Dorset Hollow was proposed, but was killed shortly after it’s birth from tumultuous local opposition. If the resort had been built on Netop Mountain, it would have offered a 3,000 foot vertical drop which would have made it the largest of any ski resort in Eastern North America. The mountains were left to be reclaimed by nature, but the marble industry has left a lasting impression here in a tangible way. One of those being the distinctive marble sidewalks that still parallel along Route 30 in Dorset village and are slippery when rainy.

Today, the assortment of quarries are popular with the outdoor adventurous type. A few locales and their sharp vertical walls draw cliff jumpers, some who like making edits of their leaps. The Norcross Quarry on Route 30 is a popular place to taunt trauma.

The mountains around Dorset Peak are unassumingly steep back country, which is combed with an expansive network of celebrated 4 wheeler trails and logging roads that draw off-roaders in Jeeps, trucks and ATVs for a radius so large that many of the battered vehicles have out of state plates. Somewhere in those woods is a set of trails which are apparently so gnarly that some locals have dubbed them “World War 3”.

But as I was finding out, people in the know about such places don’t like to give up their locations, for the same reason that I often don’t disclose the places I explore; protection. These personal sanctums are in constant danger of being ruined by disrespectful visitors, or being closed down due to potential injuries making them a jeopardy to public safety or a liability to the property owner. It’s one of those double edged swords which I can sympathize with and be bummed by at the same time. Any invitation I receive is always met with me profusely expressing my gratitude.

Taking to the resourceful world of the internet, I discovered The Vermont Cavers Association and got a background on another intrepid hobby in the Green Mountain State; caving. Even though Vermont isn’t all that known for its caves, there are plenty of people here who seek them out all the same. The state’s geology doesn’t allow for the water permeation and underground flows that form the massive caves found farther south in Appalachia. Author and caving expert Peter Quick noted that Vermont may have around 60 caves that would stretch beyond 100 feet. But we still have a pretty impressive network here that is ardently admired (The quarries in Dorset are included on that list), with many new ones being discovered yearly. Some subterranean passages are described as squirming through twisting spaces the size of your body, which is a deal breaker for me. I’ll take my adventures free of claustrophobia, above ground.

On a humid early summer’s morning, I took the scenic drive down to mountainous Southern Vermont to see if I could find some of these well-esteemed quarries. After driving through Victorian Wallingford, Route 7 south became linear straight, running between the Green and Taconic Ranges which closed in the highway on both sides. Part of this expanse of wilderness is within the easily missed town of Mount Tabor, which Wikipedia condemningly says is “the sneakiest speed trap in the United States” and something about dead bodies occasionally being found along Route 7. That submission may or may not be the work of a disgruntled internet user. I can’t deny or confirm the corpse claim.

via the Mount Tabor Wikipedia page.
via the Mount Tabor Wikipedia page.

I stopped by the Dorset Historical Society to speak with museum curator Jon Mathewson, an amiable and interesting gentleman, who helped point me in the direction of achieving my goal of getting up to a quarry. Inside the museum is a rather cool 3D map of Dorset, with all of the defunct quarries marked on the raised surfaces and information corresponding to each, some having amusing connotations like “Deaf Joe Quarry”. He directed me to the aforementioned Freedley Quarry, and told me where to find the class D roadway that would take me there.

Freedley Quarry, First Attempt.

The Freedley Quarry is easy to get to, as long as you don’t make the same mistake I did and accidentally hike up the wrong mountain, turn around and descend back down the mountain while breathing heavily, soaked in sweat and suddenly no longer caring if you found it or not.

On my first attempt, I had brought my buddy John along for the adventure. Parking in front of the aforementioned road, which in reality was only a really muddy 4 wheeler trail, we entered the woods. Not remembering if I was supposed to take a left or a right at the first fork in the trail, we took a left. What I had assumed would have been at 20-minute walk in the woods turned into a laborious climb up Mt. Aeolus while making the futile effort of swatting at endless clouds of dive bombing mosquitoes and wondering if I was going in the right direction. I now understood why a railroad was built up here over a century ago.

The forests suddenly opened up due to a massive rock slide created by quarrying efforts that vanquished a huge patch of mountainside as they tumbled. The clearing offered impressive views of Emerald Lake cozily embraced by the narrow valley of Vermont, and beyond, the Green Mountains. Directly adjacent to the clearing, I found the Folsom Quarry. Folsom was semi-interesting, really just a cavity in the upper slopes of Mt. Aeolus, it’s visage bearing the scars from years of cutting, now left to the caprices of nature. But, it had some amusing points of interest. One was that Folsom was so high up in elevation (over 1,000 feet), that it never floods. The second was that it’s tall vertical walls gave it the traits of a natural amphitheater. It was cool, both metaphorically, and literally, as it offered relief from late June humidity, but it wasn’t the impressive catacomb-like quarry I was so interested in seeing. Onward we trudged, as the trail zig-zagged up the mountain in a series of deeply rutted switchbacks. Eventually, I came across a startling find. A surveillance camera far from anything, powered by a lone solar panel, both attached to a wooden post. Nearby were some yellow diamond Nature Conservatory signs, announcing that I was now near the Aeolus Cave, and asking us to please keep away as part of an effort to combat the mysterious illness, White Nose Syndrome.

I had remembered Jon telling me about the Aelous Cave and White Nose syndrome, which was first discovered in Upstate New York in 2007 and made it’s debut in Dorset around 2008, as hikers and cavers began noticing the grisly site of scores of dead bats carpeting the floors of the mountaintop cave. The pre-White Nose Syndrome Aelous Cave was the largest hibernaculum in the northeastern United States, but the fungus wiped out about 90 percent of its resident bat population. Today, the Nature Conservatory has designated the cave as a both a protected and research designated area.

Seeing this, I knew I had gone way too far. Descending back down the mountain, I decided that a few pizza slices accompanied by an IPA in Manchester was more appealing than trying the other fork in the trail. I was exhausted.

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Freedley Quarry, Second Attempt

The rain had just come to a dull drizzle by the time we arrived back in Dorset. Somewhere under the fog was the mountain that we were going to hike, and carved into that mountain, the quarry. Parking at the now familiar trail head, me and my friend Eric embarked into the woods and damp mists. The trail split into a fork, and we took the right, hoping that this time, we were on the right path. But another ten minutes into our trek up the washed out trail, we came upon yet another fork. I mentally groaned. Then I audibly groaned. How many trails were there on this mountain? Once again, the directions I had been given weren’t directions, and I had no idea what to do or had any sense of bearings.

That old saying “you can’t see the forest (or in this case, quarry) through the trees” was a very relevant concept at this moment. Any of these paths could potentially have lead to there. The trail actually had at least three unaccounted forks, and we hesitantly detoured on all of them, each contributing unenjoyable climbs up steep inclines serviced by trails reincarnated as mud slides due to the relentless succession of rain storms that had recently drenched Southern Vermont.

As we traveled deeper into the woods and past other defunct quarries that had long silted in with dirt and vegetation, I began to notice a viscous mist that was conspicuous from the rain and fog, accompanied by the wafting acrid stench of sulfur and gunpowder. That was a familiar smell. Someone was lighting off fireworks, and they were near enough where the expelled smolder could reach us. We both assumed that there were other people at the quarry engaging in some festive intimacy, and mentally prepared ourselves to deal with them as we would attempt to photograph the place. The supposition that we weren’t alone on the mountain was confirmed when a few people passed us on the trail riding in Jeeps, some exchanging greetings by waving, and others by flicking cigarette butts at us. I suddenly felt awkwardly out of place, being the only folks on foot up here.

Soon, we came across the creepy dampened ruins of what appeared to be some sort of old shack or hunting camp, which looks like it was the victim of a home made firework and exploded at some point, interspersing twisted and disintegrating artifacts throughout the overgrown brush along the trail. Among the debris were a scattering of beer cans and food wrappers, which told us that even way up here, people come and party/litter.

Ahead, we noticed a four way in the trail and could feel the air become a bit cooler, which was a good indication. To our left, the black mouth of the quarry soon became discernible through a thick strand of white Birches. The smoke was incredibly thick now, and as I slowed down to survey the area, I saw what I had expected to see; there was a rather large bonfire crackling where the cave met the open air. We also noticed the producers of the fire; three slovenly people who appeared to be in their late teens, two boys and a girl, and all of them were wearing hunter orange. For some reason beyond my rational, this seemed to make me a bit uneasy. The weather on the mountain was viciously sultry, far too hot to be clad in full body hunter orange. And why would you wear it in the summer when hunting season isn’t for another few months? We observed as the two fellows headed into the complete blackness of the cave, and the girl sat on what appeared to be a rock and plopped herself startlingly close to the fire.

At a complete standstill, I was about to ask Eric how he felt about approaching the cave and trying to take some photographs despite their presence there, but then came the pivotal point of our encounter. A strange sound came from the dark crevices from within the cave, what sounded like the wail of a goat. We waited in confused and uneasy silence. As our eyes strained for answers, we heard that terrible noise again, only this time, the situation became clear. It wasn’t a goat. Those guys were the ones making the noises.

We took a few steps backwards now, a bit alarmed, and suddenly not wanting to be detected. The two guys, completely unperturbed, continued their strange ritual of making those horrible goat noises inside the cave, loudly reverberating and making empty echoes off the walls that sounded like something from a hellish nightmare. Later, Eric and myself would both agree that what we had heard was the weirdest noise both of us have ever encountered. It sounded inhuman, and yet, we both knew it came from the mouth of one.

It was now when a new detail that I had overlooked before, came to light. None of them were talking to one another. Other than their contrived lunacy, none of them were actually speaking to one another, and wouldn’t for the entire time that we had stuck around. Then, all went silent, apart from the crackling of their fire.

One of them started to maniacally whistle, followed by a few minutes of uncomfortable silence, and then the other guy whistled back in the same manor. This pattern repeated for a few more minutes, followed by the ominous goat noises once again resuming. We waited there, obscured by thick brush and birch trees, for twenty minutes, partially because that the bizarre show that had been developing before us was somehow too tantalizing to walk away from. Then, the girl, who was still crouching by the fire, started making an awful wailing noise, that sounded much like a baby that was in great distress, and this went on for several minutes as we gazed at them from our hiding place with intermittent glances at one another, completely befuddled. The goat noises started back up, and still, none of them were talking to one another.

My disappointment couldn’t be contained. We were so frustratingly close to our destination, and yet, the ghastly activity coming from the quarry ensured I didn’t dare make a move to get any closer. I was far too nervous at this point. A large quarry this secluded was a perfect place for multifarious clandestine activity. Sometimes, the motives of sentient beings can be vexing. We spoke in quiet whispers, and made the decision to get the hell out of there. Just as we began to walk backwards, the mountainsides vibrated violently and gray sulfurous smoke spewed through the trees. They were now lighting off some heavy duty fireworks inside the cave.

Walking back down the trail, I couldn’t help thinking that we had somehow avoided some great danger, and a feeling of sweet relief crept over me. Not long after hastily retreating, we ran into two middle aged looking guys traveling up the trail in a Jeep. We stepped aside to let them pass, but they smiled at us and stopped, and both parties exchanged greetings.

“What are you guys up too?” the gentleman behind the wheel opened with, his eyes falling on our cameras. “We wanted to check out the Freedley Quarry” I answered. “Oh yeah? What’d you guys think?” asked the man in the passenger seat. “Don’t know, we never made it”. Both of them looked at us quizzically, probably because we were walking from the direction that the quarry was in, so we told them what we had just encountered, and why we turned around. The guy behind the wheel just looked at us like he was in a condescending state of awe, then said as a matter-of-factly; “well, it’s a free country”, and drove off. In all the excitement, I had forgotten it was the fourth of July.

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Freedley Quarry, Third Attempt

This time, it was my friend Jay that accompanied me, who found my previous failed attempts and strange encounter pretty amusing. Only this time, we made it to the quarry without and setbacks, and spent three pleasant hours exploring it’s eye magnetic catacombs, flooded passages and exquisite shaft like opening that bore straight upwards through the roof of the mountainside we were underneath. Not surprisingly, the insides of the massive line diminishing space were colorfully graffitied on just about any available surface, and were a mixture of the usual things you’d expect to see graffitied somewhere. Names and dates, slanderous accusations, original artwork and conjurings of the more vulgar variety. The quarry floors were littered with trash and strangely, nails, and rubbed black from numerous tire treads of all the vehicle activity inside the cave. In the winter, the flooded insides freeze over, and people snowmobile up the mountain and utilize the quarry as an awesome skating rink.

Eventually, we were loosing daylight, and the quarry began to take on a more eerie pallor as the temperature dropped and the interior became a dark place haunted by the cacophony of dripping water. I’m glad I stayed persistent.
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To all of my amazing fans and supporters, I am truly grateful and humbled by all of the support and donations through out the years that have kept Obscure Vermont up and running.

As you all know I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to produce and sustain this blog. Obscure Vermont is funded entirely on generous donations that you the wonderful viewers and supporters have made. Expenses range from internet fees to host the blog, to investing in research materials, to traveling expenses. Also, donations help keep me current with my photography gear, computer, and computer software so that I can deliver the best quality possible.

If you value, appreciate, and enjoy reading about my adventures please consider making a donation to my new Gofundme account or Paypal. Any donation would not only be greatly appreciated and help keep this blog going, it would also keep me doing what I love. Thank you!

Gofundme: https://www.gofundme.com/b5jp97d4

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The Vanished Town of Glastenbury and The Bennington Triangle

Those who know me know that I’m a huge cartography buff. That love really perpetuated when I was 10, when my mother bought me a DeLorme atlas of Vermont, and I became enthralled with it, thoroughly memorizing every detail I could. But what is it about maps that are so irresistible to me?

Maybe because of their limitless potential, and their ability to unlock the mysteries of our world. Maps tell us how things in this world relate to one another, they take data and turn it into something tangible, something understandable, and maybe something that provokes thought or feelings. Several different types of information can be conveyed at the same time, melding several different ideas into a united idea. Lines to convey topography, more lines to convey boundaries between rock layers, towns, states and countries. More lines for faults, colors for bodies of water, forest land and types of climates. Maybe it’s because maps provide some sort of order, putting everything where it needs to be. Or just the opposite. They’ve always helped me make sense of my thoughts and ideas, and even draw ideas from things that haven’t been categorized or plotted yet.

I loved getting to know the great state I lived in. But one place really stood out to me.

A perfect square, that yellow dotted line indicating it was the boundary of a town, with the word “Glastenbury” printed inside. But inside the square, there was nothing but contour lines, indicating several mountains and rugged wilderness. I was enthralled by the fact that this town apparently had nothing in it. In the very top left corner, in small print, was the word “Fayville”, plotted on a dotted line that seemed to be a secondary road, meandering its way from Shaftsbury deep into the hills, and ending in the middle of nowhere. Even for rural Vermont standards, this was pretty desolate. I knew there was something different about this place, it challenged my young and naive view of the world. Why wasn’t there anything in Glastenbury like other towns around it?

It had a mystery to it, and I wanted to know more. My first act of familiarizing myself with Glastenbury was to make the trip down to that curious place on the map called Fayville. Myself and a few friends departed in his pickup truck and drove up the bumpy forest road into a strange clearing in the middle of the hills. Here, underneath summer humidity, we found old cellar holes almost entirelly hidden by tall grasses, beneath the shade of gnarled apple trees. At the bottoms, under layers of decaying leaves and dirt were iron bands, old horseshoes, and other various relics that hinted at human habitation once being way up here. It now made sense, Fayville was a long abandoned village that still appeared on maps.

The remains of the Eagle Square sawmill in Fayville, circa 2009-08. Photo: UVM Archives and The Landscape Change Program.
The Eagle Square sawmill in Fayville. Now, ferns, earth and rocks are filling in the foundation. Photo: UVM Archives and The Landscape Change Program.

As we were wondering around, the once sunny July afternoon became dark and cloudy, as a gusty wind picked up and tangled the long grasses. And it came fast, so fast that none of us were aware of a change in weather until things got dangerous. We were suddenly at the mercy of a freak ferocious thunderstorm that seemed to emanate out of nowhere, and became so violent that we literally retreated down the mountainside, in fear of the dirt trail washing out, leaving us stranded in the middle of the national forest. But when we got back down to the flats in Shaftsbury, it was sunny and dry. To make things far stranger, gas station attendants in Arlington were baffled that a thunderstorm – especially one of that magnitude – had passed through the area without them noticing it. Freak storms are common in New England, it’s by no means a rare phenomena here, but the conditions were just right to make this a head scratcher. I still have no explanation to this day.

Over the years, I began to dive into research, and soon would discover that I had stumbled upon one of the most interesting stories I had ever heard, which remains as one of the earliest examples of what got me interested in Vermont curio. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to write about this place that has long held my attention, to pay it reverence for having an integral part of my life, and also, because I love a good story.

A modern day road map of Glastenbury – which is a little misleading. The black lined “roads” that are represented are actually forest service roads/snowmobile trails. US Route 7 and a small portion of Glastenbury Road in the left hand corner are the only real roads in town.

But Glastenbury is perplexing and complex, and something I found a little difficult to write about, mostly because there was so much information to take in. I wanted to be tactful with how I approached it, balancing the resilient history, excellent folklore, and my own thoughts. When I was finished, the only conclusion I could draw is that there is no conclusion. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

An Introduction

In southern Vermont, northeast of Bennington, lies an incredible area of backcountry. It’s a vast area, roughly 36 square miles of unbroken wilderness, with 12 peaks over 3,000 feet in elevation, the centerpiece being Glastenbury Mountain at 3,747 feet. Mostly occupied by the Green Mountain National Forest, this is a surprisingly large stretch of wilderness for Vermont. It’s name sake comes from it’s largest mountain, and the ghost town that used to be there which also bore the same name.

Glastenbury seems to yield a prolific Google search, but despite the hits, the information about the vanished community is vague at best, with much that seems to be copied and pasted from one website to the next. That’s where Tyler Resch’s invaluable book Glastenbury, History of a Vermont ghost townemerged beaconlike in the darkness.

The town of Glastenbury was charted in 1761 by land grabbing Benning Wentworth, governor of New Hampshire. Wentworth was quite the character – granting as many towns in then unestablished Vermont as he could, with the intention to provocatively challenge New York, which also claimed the same land. Of course, Wentworth’s grants doubled as a lucrative endeavor, as he made sure to set aside some acreage for himself.

But Wentworth had no idea of the local geography, and simply drew lines on a map. Though Glastenbury tips it’s hat to a legendary place in England, Vermont’s titular community seemed to be ill fated from the very beginning. The rough and forbidding terrain and short growing season didn’t lure any settlement until the 1800s.

Because they had a mountain of wood to burn, the town embraced the lumber and charcoal industry, and began to slowly prosper as it lured settlement and business. Though Glastenbury town itself is a large area, it only contained 2 small settlements near the western border; the logging town of Fayville in the north, and later, the settlement of South Glastenbury. While Fayville is more known by people looking at a map, South Glastenbury is normally what is profiled in every article I’ve read. The two villages were never connected, the mountainous terrain was so steep that roads were never built.

South Glastenbury became the heart of town, and the headquarters of the majority of the charcoal operations, with 12 brick kilns erected along the cleared hillsides. A massive loggers boardinghouse, and company store – the only store in town, were built to serve the village. A few homes, a meetinghouse and a crude one room schoolhouse were also built for the few kids who grew up there. Because South Glastenbury sat at the confluent of two different branches of Bolles Brook, where the headwaters met and began their descent down the mountains, the small village became known as “The Forks”.

Life here was tough. It was a wild town, sort of a last frontier in Vermont. It was the kind of place where men out numbered the women, and the law often didn’t exist.

An 1865 Rice and Harwood Map of Glastenbury and Woodford shows the village of Fayville in the top left corner of town. South Glastenbury hadn’t been settled yet | via: oldmaps.com

I’m not willing to pay the $20 image purchase fee – but the website historicmapworks.com has an 1869 Beer atlas map of Woodford that you can check out – and this is one of the few maps I’ve came across to feature South Glastenbury in it. The map is sideways, so look for “District 2”, beyond the Woodford town line, and the black dots that represent buildings plotted around Bolles Brook.

A girl, a man and a boy outside Glastenbury Camp, 1933. Photo: UVM archives – The Landscape Change Program
he Loggers Boarding House, and several residents posing for a photograph.
The Loggers Boarding House in South Glastenbury, with several of the woodsman posing for a photograph. Photo: courtesy of Images From The Past
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A few of the brick charcoal kilns in South Glastenbury.
South Glastenbury
A strangely forlorn shot of South Glastenbury that really gives you an idea of what life was like for folks up there in the mountains. Primitive log homes and a charcoal kiln can be seen, with a few locals out front along the road. Photo: courtesy of Images From The Past

With a profitable timber industry came demands. People needed to get up into town, and lumber and charcoal needed to get down. The steepest railroad ever built in the United States was constructed as the solution, which started out as a sarcastic suggestion turned into a defiant reality. Starting in Bennington and ending at The Forks, The Bennington-Glastenbury Railroad was formed in 1872, the tracks climbing an astonishing 250 feet per mile at 9 miles long. But depending on a finite resource eventually created the end of the charcoal and logging industry and the mountains were logged until nothing larger than a sapling remained on the slopes.

But the railroad was still around, and they wanted money. The question was, what to do with it? In 1894, the railroad re-billed itself as The Bennington-Woodford Electric Railroad and the town reinvented itself as a tourist destination, using the railroad as a way to bring tourists up into South Glastenbury. The railroad switched over to using more reliable trolley cars instead of traditional rail cars, because they were stronger and more reliable, especially given the elevation they would have to climb.

Much time and money were invested into retransforming the town – turning the brawny old loggers’ boarding house into a hotel and the former company store into a casino. No details were overlooked, and both buildings became showpieces. They wanted Glastenbury to stand out from other summer resorts. After painstaking labor and expenses, the town opened up as vacation destination in the summer of 1897, and had a successful first season.

However, the barren mountains stripped of all their trees, were very prone to flooding and soil erosion. A year later, a devastating flood washed out the tracks, putting an end to the town for good. It’s high elevation and isolation ensured that no one tried to rebuild it, and the buildings fell into ruin under the silence of the mountains.

A trolley full of tourists arrives in South Glastenbury. The casino can be seen in the background. Photo Source
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A newspaper flyer advertising the upcoming opening of Glastenbury as a tourist destination
A classic image of The Bennington and Woodford Trolley, filled with nicely dress women on their way to Glastenbury.
A classic image of The Bennington and Woodford Trolley, carrying a load of women who are dressed to impress, up into Glastenbury. Photo: courtesy of Images From The Past
he tourist destination of South Glastenbury, with the hotel on the left, and the casino on the right. You can see Bolles Brook and the Trolley line to the right of the brook.
The tourist destination of South Glastenbury, with the hotel on the left (old loggers boarding house), and the casino (former company store) on the right. You can see Bolles Brook and the Trolley line to the right of the brook. A walk up here today has almost entire eroded that there was once human habitation here. Photo: courtesy of Images From The Past
Glastenbury
The casino. Photo: courtesy of Images From The Past
Another hotel at Glastenbury. The identity of this one however remains a mystery. Vaguely dated between 1890 – 1930. Photo: UVM Archives and the Landscape Change Program
A group of individuals hiking on Glastenbury Mountain. When the group came back in the morning, they came back to water that was three feet deep. August 16, 1918. Photo: UVM Archives and The Landscape Change Program
This one is a mystery to me. The image is captured “On The Trolley Line to Glastenbury”. The roof of the building reads “Loafmore” Dated 1910, a decade after South Glastenbury had been abandoned. Photo: UVM Archives and The Landscape Change Program.

The population of Glastenbury dwindled down to almost nothing, which later got the attention of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in the 1930s when they learned that all 3 members of the Mattison Family were the entire town, and held every office. Because of this, the state of Vermont disorgonized the town in 1937, the first time the state ever did such an act, and the area was reclaimed by the wilderness.

It’s even more interesting to think about that a town with such a galvanizing and unique history was actually so tiny in stature. Though many people who write about ghost towns robotically love to use descriptive terms such as “hub” or “thriving”, Glastenbury was really neither – it’s peak population climbed to around 241.

Apart from the town’s fascinatingly unique story line, it may be the obscure and inexplicable events that allegedly happened on it’s slopes that has really given the town it’s considerable attention. The area has since given birth to terrifying legends, if not actual monsters.

The casino, just a few years after its abandonment. It had already fallen into ruin by then.
The casino, just a few years after its abandonment. It had already fallen into ruin by then. Photo: courtesy of Images From The Past
Ripley's
A cartoon published in 1936 by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not featured the Mattison’s of Glastenbury.

“The Bennington Triangle”

While my love of maps inadvertently lead me to my interest of Glastenbury, their ability to organize information and draw conclusions was useless here.

Glastenbury Mountain and the surrounding area has long been considered one of Vermont’s most haunted places. In 1992, local author and folklorist Joseph Citro coined the term “The Bennington Triangle” to describe the area, and the designation not only stuck, it grew immensely in popularity. Over the years, the phrase has been been featured in books, websites and television shows, to the point where the name has taken a life of it’s own.

The theories and enthusiasm have quickly escalated and have continued to morph and stoke the fire. Many are quick to glamorize the region without being objective, only further propelling it into the blurred haze of fact and embellishment.

To better understand the hysteria here, let me try to summarize the more colloquial regional portrait for you.

It started with the native Americans, who refused to venture onto Glastenbury mountain. Fearing the land was cursed, they only used the land to bury their dead. But maybe it was because of a cross wind that met on the summit of the mountain. Even today, hunters will tell you that because of the disorienting winds, it’s very easy to get lost in the woods.

There is also a baffling legend of some sort of enchanted stone somewhere in the mountains, which is said to open up and “swallow” a human being in seconds if it’s stepped on. Another reason they avoided the place.

The weirdness continued when colonial settlers came to the area, whose vague and un-researchable accounts tell of weird sounds, noises and odors that would come from the mountain. But there are human things at work here as well, and those have been documented.

In 1867, there was an alleged wild man sighting, where a mysterious misanthropic specter would venture down from the woods (some accounts say he lived in a cave in Somerset) pull back his coat, and expose himself to unsuspecting women in Glastenbury and nearby Bennington. He was also said to brandish a revolver for intimidation. Whoever he was, he was eventually ran out of town and faded into obscurity.

On April 4th, 1892, Fayville mill worker Henry McDowell went haywire and murdered John Crawley by bashing him in the head with either a piece of wood or a rock, depending on the story. He fled town, but was later apprehended in South Norwalk, Connecticut, where he made a full confession. However, he was babbling on about voices in his head that wouldn’t leave him alone, and as a result, was sentenced in the Vermont State Asylum in Waterbury. But he escaped by hiding in a railroad car carrying a load of coal, never to be seen again. Some say he returned to Glastenbury, and others claim that he still remains hiding on the slopes to this very day. But by now, he would be an impossibly old man, which takes on an eerie resemblance to the tale of Doctor Benton coming from the mountains of New Hampshire.

On the opening day of Vermont’s first hunting season in 1897, 40 year old John Harbour, a respected Woodford resident, was mysteriously murdered at his deer camp in Bickford Hollow, a remote area in the hills south of Glastenbury. While hunting with his brother and family friend, they heard the blast of a rifle, followed by him crying out “I’ve been shot!”. They immediately turned around and searched for him, but it wasn’t until 11 AM the next morning when they found him, his legs protruding out from underneath a Cedar tree. However, something wasn’t quite right. His loaded gun sat neatly beside him, as if it was purposely put there. But something was wrong. His body was a distance away from where he was shot. They now knew that John had to have been moved. But by what? Did he crawl there after being shot? Did he receive human help, possibly by the shooter? There were no signs of him having walked or crawled to his final resting place, no clues at all.  The mystery remains unsolved to this day.

It was after these two murders that signaled both the beginning of Glastenbury’s slow decline, and the establishment of it’s reputation as a mysterious and haunted place. Sometime in the early 19th century, a stagecoach full of passengers were making their way over the mountains near Glastenbury, near present day Route 9 in Woodford. It was well past dark and a violent rain storm was washing out the road. The rain was coming down so hard, it soon forced the driver to slow down to a crawl as the thunder cracked the night sky. Things became so bad that the driver eventually came to a complete stop in the dark and wet mountain wilderness. As he hopped down from his perch with the lantern to get a good idea of the situation, he noticed something peculiar illuminated by lantern light. There were unfamiliar footprints in the mud just ahead of him.

The rain hadn’t washed them away yet, so they had to be fresh tracks the driver reckoned. His observations revealed that the tracks were widely spaced, suggesting that whatever had made them was tremendous in size. He noticed the horses were beginning to get spooked, but he just couldn’t stop thinking about those tracks. What made them? He soon hollered back to the passengers and asked for their opinions. At this point, the horses were going wild, which was spooking the driver. That meant that something was skulking nearby, and it might just be what made those tracks…

As the passengers began to step out, something dealt a savage blow to the side of the carriage. Now, all of the passengers scrambled out of the carriage, completely terrified. The blows kept coming, until the whole thing tumbled over on it’s side.

The quivering passengers and driver huddled together in the dark, the rain stinging their faces. Then the creature came into view. Though it was almost impossible to see, two large eyes could be made out staring at them. A vague detail described the brazen creature as roughly 8 feet tall and hairy, before it shambled back into the woods. Shortly after, whatever had attacked them had became dubbed as The Bennington Monster.

Another interesting theory suggests that the Bennington Monster is actually the horrifying transformation of the Glastenbury Wild Man. After he was chased out of the region, he took back to the woods and dwelled, becoming cannibalistic, deformed and insane, wearing animal firs and attacking lone stagecoaches coming over the mountains.

Strange Disappearances 

Giant hairy monsters that topple stagecoaches are all good for earning a place an official spook status, but it was the disconcerting events that took place after the town became disorganized in 1937 that have really cemented the area into the public’s imagination and paranormal concrete.

Glastenbury is where one of Vermont’s most frightening mysteries took place, and what’s more captivating is that it really didn’t happen all that long ago. Beginning in the last cold months of 1945, people from the area began to vanish without a trace.

The first one to disappear was 74 year old Middie Rivers. He was a native to the area and worked as a hunting and fishing guide. Because of his job, he was completely familiar with the woods. One day, Rivers led four hunters up onto the mountain. Things were going fine, until their trek back to camp. Rivers got a bit ahead of the group, and vanished completely. Expecting to catch up with him at the camp, the hunters began to panic when they didn’t see him there upon their arrival. Police and a group of volunteers combed the area for hours. But Rivers was an experienced woodsman, so they were fairly confident they would find him in no time. But search attempts continued for over a month, and no trace was ever found. Local lore has it that Rivers disappeared near Bickford Hollow, the same place John Harbour was murdered.

The next person to vanish is the most infamous of all the Bennington Triangle disappearances, the case most talked about. on December 1, 1946, 18 year old Paula Welden decided to take a hike on the Long Trail. she left her dorm at Bennington College and walked into the woods. She was easy to spot, because of her bright red coat. Plenty of people saw her that day, including on the Long Trail itself. But Monday came, and Paula didn’t show up for her classes. The college called the sheriff’s department. 400 students and faculty members assembled to help look for their missing classmate. A massive search party of 1,000 people, bloodhounds, helicopters and even a clairvoyant, combed the area diligently for weeks. A $5,000 reward was even offered! But on December 22, all efforts came to an end. There was no body, no clothes, no evidence, nothing. The quality of Paula Weldon’s search party was met with scrutiny, and because of this, it lead to the formation of the Vermont State Police. Another interesting detail I uncovered was that to this day, there are people who think it’s bad luck to wear red while hiking Glastenbury Mountain.

The third person to disappear was on Columbus Day in 1950. 8 year old Paul Jepson was waiting for his mother in his family’s pickup at the dump they were caretakers for. But when she came back, he was gone. Like Paula Welden, Paul was wearing a red jacket, so he should have been easy to spot, but Mrs. Jepson couldn’t find him anywhere. Frantic, she called for help, and another search was launched.

Hundreds of townsfolk joined the search, scanning the dump and the surrounding roads, even the mountains. They implemented a double check system, where as soon as one group finished searching an area, another group would search the same area. Even coast guard planes were brought in. But all was useless. Bloodhounds borrowed from the New Hampshire State Police lost Paul’s scent at the intersection of East and Chapel Roads. Local lore says that Paul’s scent was actually lost at the same place Paula Welden was last seen. After the search had been called off, Paul’s father disclosed a peculiar piece of information. Paul had mentioned that he had an inexplicable “yen” to go into the mountains lately. Paul’s disappearance made him the third to go missing in roughly the same area. Was there a pattern here?

Maybe. Or maybe not. It was said that there were pigs at the dump his family were caretakers for. One popular theory at the time which the newspapers suggested, was that Paul wondered off and was eaten by the pigs, thus explaining his disappearance.

Others speculate that Paul was actually abducted near East and Chapel Roads, carried away in a car. That would explain why the bloodhounds lost his scent. But we’ll never know for sure. Either way, the newspapers did what they do best and ran wild, and soon, others started to wonder what was going on here?

Two weeks later, On October 28th, 53 year old Freida Langer had left her family’s camp east of Glastenbury Mountain near the Somerset Reservoir to go hiking with her cousin. She was an experienced woodsman and was completely familiar with the area. About a half mile from camp, she slipped and fell into a stream. She decided to hike the short half mile back to camp, change her clothes and catch back up. She never returned.

When her cousin got back to camp, he was startled to learn that not only had she never came back, but no one even saw her come out of the woods.

Local authorities were quick to launch another search, alarmed at another unfathomable disappearance in the area. Once again, all efforts proved to be hopeless. They found nothing. The Bennington Banner picked up on the story, and raised a disturbing question: How did Langer disappear completely in an area she was so familiar with?

More Disappearances

On December 1st, 1949, James E. Tetford had been visiting relatives in northern Vermont. He boarded a bus in St. Albans, en route to the Bennington Soldiers home, where he lived. But he never arrived. Somehow, he had vanished without a trace without ever getting off of the bus. Even the bus driver had no explanation!

This account seems to be continuously accepted as proof of paranormal happenings, without further questioning the events. It’s worth mentioning that by the time James was actually reported missing, it was at least a week after the fact, when the Bennington soldiers home finally decided to call his relatives to figure out if he was actually coming back or not. By the time the police were involved in the investigation and got around to interviewing the bus driver and other passengers, it had been two weeks, and no one really remembered anything. But some information did arise. James was last seen by a friend of his when his bus made a stop in Burlington, and guessed he might have gotten off there, offering another possible explanation to his whereabouts. But regardless, his disappearance still remains a mystery. I don’t really see a connection here to the other disappearances, but I guess because it happened around the same time frame and James did live in the area, it has just been lumped into the big picture.

And perhaps one of the most arcane disappearance took place on November 11, 1943. As Author David Paulides tells in his book Missing 41137 year old Carl Herrick went hunting in the woods of West Townshend, about 10 miles northeast of Glastenbury. At some point during the hunt, Herrick and his cousin, Henry, were separated. Henry eventually made it back to camp, but Carl didn’t show up. As dusk began to fall and Carl still hadn’t arrived, Henry immediately contacted law enforcement, just as the snow began to fall.

The search for Carl lasted three days without finding a trace. But towards dusk on the third day, Henry stumbled upon Carl’s body. He was laying on the ground in the woods, motionless, his loaded rifle found leaning against a tree seventy feet away. Henry reported finding “huge bear tracks” around Carl’s body, but the official postmortem was baffling. Carl was reportedly squeezed to death, his lung was found to be punctured by his own ribs. What sort of bear squeezes a human to death? It would be an impossible act.

In Joseph Citro’s Passing Strange, (which was another heavy source for this article) he further mentioned a Burlington Free Press article dated October 25, 1981 reported that a trio of hunters disappeared somewhere near Glastenbury, and not surprisingly, that too remains unsolved.

Snowfall over Glastenbury from Route 7
Snowfall over Glastenbury from Route 7

Additional Theories and Searching for Answers

If you take these other accounts into consideration, this raises the number of disappearances from four to nine, which begs the question, what happened here? Where could nine people vanish to without a trace?

This is what we do know. The victims ages ranged between 8 and 74 and were evenly divided between men and women. Time is also a pattern. The disappearances all happened during the same time of the year – the last 3 months – and many of them were last seen between 3 and 4 PM. The rest is up for debate.

Because of the vast scope of the wilderness area and it’s inaccessibility, the task of finding a body is difficult. The conditions could easily ensure that someone’s remains would never be found again, regardless of cause of death. Depending on who you ask, there is a pattern there.

Speculations abound, adding many more layers to this fabled region’s already weighted and transgressive reputation. Could the Bennington Monster still be stalking the slopes, carrying its victims to some cave on the mountain? Maybe. As recently as 2003, Winooski resident Ray Dufresne saw something peculiar on his drive down Route 7, near Glastenbury. What he first thought was a homeless man stumbling around in a snowsuit, turned into an alleged bigfoot sighting upon a closer look. That story immediately blew up and was even picked up by local news stations. While some skeptics dismiss it as a prankster in a Gorilla suit, others aren’t buying it, and plenty more sightings have been passed down by word of mouth from the Bennington area, all which remain unaccounted for.

Or maybe, could these unfortunate people have accidentally encountered that enchanted Indian stone, and were swallowed in seconds?

Alien abduction is another hypothesis. Many reports of UFO sightings and strange lights in the sky have been spotted over the Glastenbury wilderness over the last century. Most notably, a “flying silo” shaped anomaly was see over the skies of Bennington by Don Pratt in 1984, which seems to be the go-to example for extraterrestrial sightings in the area.

But my personal favorite was designated by John A. Keel, an American journalist and influential UFOlogist, who used the term “Window Areas” to describe these places, or, some sort of inter-dimensional doorway or vortex into another world. New England seems to have a fair share of them. The legendary Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts which has similar phenomena, and the summit of Mount Washington are two of the most notable.

Perhaps the most tangible answer could be something all too familiar, a serial killer. “The Bennington Ripper” and “The Mad Murderer of The Long Trail” were all monikers given to the possibility of a sinister suspect that lurked in the wilds, but no evidence was ever found to prove this. The police during that time were not familiar with serial killers or how they operated, so even if it was the work of such a killer, the facts would have gone undocumented.

Adding to the seemingly ever growing list of theories, this one might be the most plausible. Near the former village of South Glastenbury, there are a few old wells. Some speculate that Middie Rivers accidentally tumbled down a well while on his hunting trip. His party, being unfamiliar with the area, never thought to check. As for the others….

An odd footnote to all of this; the body of Freida Langer did eventually appear, seven months after she had vanished. But sadly, this wouldn’t be of any help. It was in an area that search parties knew they had combed thoroughly, near the flood gates of the Somerset Reservoir. It was a completely open area, and anything there would be impossible to miss. And yet, here she was. Or, what was left of her. Her remains were in such gruesome condition that no cause of death could ever be determined.

Even More Strangeness

Enigmatic situations aren’t contained to the past, things reportedly continue to happen here to this day. Countless internet searches have dug up numerous unusual tales posted on message boards and blogs from hikers, hunters and curiosity seekers.

In the book Haunted Hikes of Vermont, Author Tim Simard mentions a one time incident of hearing a ghostly train whistle while hiking along the West Ridge Trail, miles away from both any functional railroad track, and the old rail bed that runs up into South Glastenbury.

One harrowing account I was able to dig up took take place on Columbus Day in 2008. This time, 2 Long Trail hikers were making their way through the Glastenbury wilderness. While hiking, they ran into a young man named Dave, who helped rebuild fire towers along the trail. They started talking about the mountain’s reputation, which at this point seems almost impossible not to do if you’re visiting. They had heard about the disappearances and shrugged it off as out of control tall tales. But Dave had a weird story to tell of his own. Dave spent some time on Glastenbury mountain restoring the fire tower on the summit, and would work up there for extended periods of time.

While camping in Goddard Shelter, his friends reported that there were nights that he would sit up in his sleep and laugh uncontrollably, and other nights when he would wake up screaming. Dave was considered a down to earth and smart guy, so this behavior had his friends extremely concerned, and disturbed. He had never acted in such a way before. I’ll never know if Dave had any follow up episodes, or an explanation behind these bizarre actions, the thread ended there.

Another story I was able to dig up only adds to the unscrupulousness of the region. In the book Ghost towns of New England, Author Fessenden S. Blanchard spoke with Arlie Greene – the oldest surviving member of the Mattison family. Greene recalled the old days in Glastenbury, and one particularly enigmatic, and possibly nefarious, incident. Two local men went fishing on the Peters Branch – one went upstream and the other went downstream. One of them was never seen again. A short time after the disappearance of the fisherman, someone found a human skull sitting on a tree stump near the brook. Some speculated Panthers got to him, but others weren’t so sure…

Arcane Stone Cairns

Yet another mystery, dressed in the forest light and acting as silent witnesses to times gone by. This enigma is far more benign than the previous ones I’ve covered, but is still just as vexing. There are a series of inexplicable cairns scattered around the mountain, and no one is quite sure why they exist. There are theories to why they are there. Farmers built them long ago while clearing their pastures, or several passing hikers on the Long Trail built them, to act as beacons in bad weather. But nothing adds up. The cairns were built in high elevations where farming never took place, and most of them are located miles away from the long trail in heavily forested areas. So what are they? The work of the Bennington Monster? Perhaps playful hikers built them wanting to add another Glastenbury mystery? For now, these giant piles of stones offer no explanations.

One of the stone cairns on Glastenbury Mountain. Via rock-piles.com/Norman E. Muller. Photo: David Lacy

What About Today?

Though Glastenbury is a ghost town and designated wilderness area, it’s anything but deserted. A myriad of outdoor enthusiasts, hikers, snowmobiliers, college students, history buffs, paranormal investigators and hunters all flock here to the undisturbed wilderness – trekking up the expansive network of forest roads, hiking trails or silent waterways, all realizing just how special it is here.

Today, there are about 8 residents that chose to live in this strange paradise. They love it’s obscurity, and I can see why. There are no other towns quite like Glastenbury in the northeast – and with only one road in town, a winding dirt road that snakes its way in no less than 2 miles, privacy is in abundance. And if you know about Glastenbury, there seems to be a sense of pride that comes with your knowledge of this obscure area, if not something that conjures a romantic notion of fantasy. As a matter of fact,”Chateau Fayville”, the last original house in Glastenbury and the former Mattison homestead, was put on the real estate market – and it looks like a nice place.

But there are several people who aren’t all that enthusiastic about its menacing repute and “Bennington Triangle” folklore – mostly because they’re not a fan of ghosts, curses and the bad, inflated outlook it brings to the area. Skeptical people will be quick to assure you that everything has a perfectly logical explanation. As for me, I’m one of the skeptics.

So, is there truly something phenomenal about Glastenbury that has yet to be comprehensively explained? Do curses and monsters really claim their victims? Well….this seems to be a controversial subject of much enthusiastic debate. I’ve heard it all. At the end of the day, some people surmise firmly to their untenable thoughts. I suppose it’s all subjective.

During the height of the disappearances, the local media ran wild with the stories and theories, which not surprisingly, got out of hand, creating vicious accusations and conspiracy theories. If you’re a fact checker, it’s worth noting that Middie Rivers was the only actual person to vanish within the town of Glastenbury itself. All the others were in neighboring communities, many on the Long Trail in Woodford.

To add to this, Author Tyler Resch is one of those who thinks the area is widely exaggerated, and has created preposterous theories carried by inertia. He once noted that he was surprised that more people actually hadn’t vanished, because the wilderness is in fact so large, and it’s very easy to become hopelessly lost if you stray from the trails.

Others argue that numerous things could have happened to the missing hikers. They could have fallen down an old well, or gotten lost and frozen to death, perhaps taking shelter in one of the numerous caves on the mountain which few people ever venture near. Another theory is that they were the unfortunate meals of a Catamount or giant cat, which would surely dispose of any evidence of a body.

If you put all of these pieces that I’ve covered together and add the intrigue of a town attempting to survive against all odds but still vanishing into the wilderness, you can easily draw a conclusion about something creepy and supernatural existing here. After all, the region does have great triggers for spook stories. I’m personally awe struck that such a plethora of incidents are all linked to a single area.

But at the end of the day, everything is relative. 4 hikers did disappear, and people have claimed to see weird things in the woods. The only absolute truth about all of this is that people swear these things happened. Whether the culprit was something awesome and sinister or innate, is the quandary here. Who knows for sure.

In finality, the Bennington Triangle certainly isn’t in danger of being forgotten anytime soon.

Additional Stuff! (Because this entry wasn’t nearly long enough)

Youtuber Matt Garland made this awesome documentary on the Bennington Triangle, which is in my opinion, a great watch.

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Mermaids and Men of Mystery; Here Curiosities Reside

Vermont’s hills seem to be a beacon in the smog for the offbeat, things that don’t quite fit into a world obsessed with categorization. For some reason, we offer ideal real estate appeal for people of mystery and fantastical artifacts to come and dwell, sometimes going undetected. I suppose I can understand why. After all, I certainly don’t want to live anywhere else.

Brookline’s Round Schoolhouse 

Americans seem to love round buildings. Probably because we live in a society of increased standardization, so in a world of square things being the norm, round buildings just stick out. But for a society who loves them so much, we sure don’t build more of them. I guess that just makes them all the more special.

The out of the way town of Brookline, population roughly 500 at the last census, holds such a building. Brookline’s round schoolhouse was built in 1822, and is possibly the only one in the country. It was designed by the same person who would mold the minds of local children there, Dr. John Wilson, who in addition to being a school teacher, was also the town’s resident physician.

Dr. Wilson however was an indisputable enigma. A distinguished gentleman from England, he had an amiable personality and a brilliant mind. He was also gifted and proficient in the field of medicine, so much so that the locals began to wonder why such a talented and cultured man would work as a lowly schoolteacher, in Brookline of all places? He could easily earn a much more substantial income as a doctor in Brattleboro or Burlington.

But there were more questions that would add to the man’s already weighted reputation. Year round, he would wear high collars or thick scarves, even during the hottest of summer days, and he would always walk with a noticeable limp. Despite his charm, he was also very remote, and would avoid questions about his behaviors or attire, or getting too close with anyone. In a small Vermont community where everyone knew everyone, Dr. Wilson inevitably became the subject of local gossip.

But perhaps the strangest of all was his equally obscure schoolhouse. It’s construction was off red brick, with windows facing in all directions, making it a distinguishable and unique piece of Vermont architecture. There were some who thought the round building was just as suspicious as the doctor himself. Why go through the effort to build such a structure?

Dr. John Wilson, circa 1842 | Brattleboro History

In May 1847, Dr. Wilson lay on his deathbed. During his time in Brookline, he had apparently befriended someone, someone he liked enough to bestow trust in. He called on them and exacted a rather peculiar last request. His odd promise stated that he was to be buried in the clothes he was wearing, including his scarf and boots. Dr. Wilson’s strange story may have been entirely forgotten if it wasn’t for his friend breaking that promise. What happened next would finally reveal the answers that the residents of Brookline had long waited for.

When they undressed the corpse, they found that Dr. Wilson’s heel had been blown away by a musket ball. In it’s place, was a cork prosthetic heel. They also discovered that his neck had also been horribly disfigured, as if he was unsuccessfully hanged or slashed. His cane held another shocking discovery – there was a stiletto concealed inside. A trip to his home uncovered that it had been turned it into a make shift ammunition locker, filled with guns and swords.

Eventually, the pieces would come together. John Wilson, man of mystery, was actually an infamous British highwayman known as Captain Thunderbolt. Terrorizing the Irish countryside and the England-Scotland border, the scoundrel was said to be a Robin Hood figure; he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. During his many dauntless escapades, he certainly didn’t forget about himself, and slowly saved up enough funds to to escape to America, choosing the wilds of Vermont as his new home. In Brookline, he decided to take a new lease on life, and “retire”, becoming a respectable and well liked citizen. But he never stopped worrying. He had a price on his head after all, and the law didn’t exactly see eye to eye on their varying principles of justice. So, his schoolhouse became an asset; his lookout. There, he could hide out as the local schoolteacher, while slyly looking wearily in all directions. If a law man came his way, he would have ample time to flee.

This fascinating story sounds much like a folktale, but it’s very real, evident by the brick schoolhouse that still stands along the main drag in Brookline. More delightfully, I was told that some of the doctor’s possessions, like his false heel and cane sword are still around! They’re on exhibit at the Brooks Library in Brattleboro, which if I had the time, I would have liked to make the drive over to see.

DSC_0503_pe DSC_0506_pe

DSC_0504
What I also found equally as interesting is that the small schoolhouse was said to accommodate 60 students in a single setting.
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Awkward.

 Grafton’s Fiji Mermaid

It might strike you as odd to find out that Vermont, far away from any ocean, can lay claim to a mermaid sighting. The mermaid after all, isn’t a native species of Vermont, or New England. But they’re seen here from time to time, and the best place in Vermont to see one is at the Grafton Nature Museum.

Upon first impressions though, this probably isn’t what you had envisioned when you thought of your foundational image of a mermaid. Instead, this one is hideous and startling. Comprised of half parts Monkey and half parts Fish, with rows of nasty little teeth and sharp claws, this dexterous DIY Frankenstein of a project is a gruesome little creature that almost looks human. So, what’s the story here?

The tiny, shriveled up artifact is the elaborately planned hoax of famed showman and huckster, P.T. Barnum. While today, in an age of skepticism and the internet, this most likely wouldn’t fool an audience, but over a century ago, this mesmerized and baffled carnival patrons, and it was the legendary entrepreneur P.T. Barnum that decided to capitalize on that.

The Fiji Mermaid would slowly enter western culture in the 1700s, when mariners began to come across them in newly opened oriental trade ports. Japanese and Polynesian seafarers used them for good luck charms, believing their powers would protect them from rough seas and ensure a prosperous catch. American sailors who had never seen anything like them before, started to bring them back home as souvenirs and they became instant conversation pieces and objects of fascination. In my opinion, a Fiji Mermaid is a much better souvenir than a coffee mug or key chain.

Barnum was one of the many who were drawn by them, and bought one in 1842 thinking that he could turn it into profit. If he could fool his audiences and convince them that they were mythological mermaids, he could make a small fortune. He exhibited it as an “authentic Feejee Mermaid”, and the name stuck. The mermaid was an immediate success, so much so that his competition would soon imitate him and make several fraudulent ones that were passed off as authentic imports. The real faux creatures and fake faux creatures began to circulate in carnival side shows, or payed top dollar for in someone’s private cabinet of curiosities.

In an era when the world was really beginning to be discovered at a larger extent, and there were so many animals that had never been seen by the western world before, people were enthralled.

But while the public took the bait, scientists and biologists weren’t buying it, and would constantly ridicule Barnum for displaying something that was clearly fraudulent. Over time, carnival sideshows became a thing of the past, and the Fiji Mermaids began to disappear, the surviving ones ending up in various museums or maybe forgotten in a box someone’s attic somewhere. Fiji mermaids today are very hard to find, and an authentic one as opposed to an antique replica like most places seem to have on exhibit, are nearly impossible.

In the case of the Grafton Nature Museum, this one was a gift from the Odd Fellows Hall in Brattleboro roughly over a decade ago. As for why the Fiji Mermaid was gifted to a nature museum mostly geared towards children, museum curator Lynn Morgan had no idea. Lynn was kind enough to open the museum briefly for me and let me have a personal encounter with one. But as for the information behind it, sadly, that seemed to be a mystery. There wasn’t much to trace. I’m not even sure if this one is the real deal or another replica. She had a bit of information stuffed inside a small manila envelope, containing a few internet printouts of Fiji Mermaid information, a photocopy of a newspaper article, and an old black and white photograph of the mermaid’s pre-museum home, displayed randomly on a wall, hung above a much larger attention swallowing trophy fish. She wasn’t sure if that photo was taken at the Odd Fellows Hall or not.

The mermaid is a bit out of place in the nature museum, because it’s not a real creature and therefor can’t really be included in any of their exhibits. If anything, it says far more about history than biology, which sort of makes it a bit difficult explaining it to curious children who are there on a Zoology field trip.

For the most part, the general public isn’t even aware it exists of that it’s there, which in my opinion is a shame. But observing the tiny figure which was placed on the table infront of me brought awareness to something else; it’s age. A closer look at it’s requisite monkey/fish body revealed that it was showing signs of wear and tear, with some parts slightly damaged. But that tends to happen with old things, they disintegrate with age, making the preservation of this grisly curiosity even more important.

The good news is that I’m sure they’d be willing to show it off to interested parties if you ask politely.

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Another interesting curiosity at the Grafton Nature Museum are the Dueling Frogs, a pair of actual century old frogs turned into a dueling art project. This was also a gift from the Odd Fellows Hall, because I guess someone wanted two frogs sword fighting each other. I'm pretty curious what else can be found in the Odd Fellow's attic. They certainly live up to their name!
Another interesting curiosity not on display at the Grafton Nature Museum are the Dueling Frogs, a pair of actual century old frogs turned into a dueling art project. This was also a gift from the Odd Fellows Hall, because I guess someone wanted two frogs sword fighting each other. I’m pretty curious what else can be found in the Odd Fellow’s attic. They certainly live up to their name!

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