The Franklin County Wolf Monument

“Wait – there it is!” I shouted, pointing to the top of a long rock emergence that confined a rootsy trail between a steep descent down to more rocks and dead leaves. I hastily bushwacked off from the path, clambered up the small incline thick with lots of scratchy underbrush and got to a plateaued area at the top, and found what I had been searching for – the very camouflaged Franklin County wolf monument.

This boulder clumped pitch on Saint Albans’ Aldis Hill was apparently where the last gray wolf in Franklin County was seen in 1839. But instead of memorializing the wolf, it memorialized how it ended up. Dead. As my confused friend shuffled up after me, I let out a fulfilling “yes!” like I wasn’t still in ear shot of residential neighborhoods.

According to the inscribed story on the supine slab; the beast, 6 feet in length, had been ravaging in unidentified ways, the country around northeastern Franklin County until local businessman and politician Lawrence Brainerd had some sort of run-in with it, pursued it up the hill, and shot it, which inspired someone to then erect a pretty modest, somewhat macabre commemoration of the event. That person remains a mystery. People react to these sort of situations in different ways. Then, shooting a wolf was probably seen as a good riddance worthy of recognition, where currently, I’m sure the reactions would be social media spitfire. Still, the monument serves as a mark of distinction of the area, and makes me wonder what other secrets or conditions have long been buried?

The area around the monument is some of the hill’s wildest topography. It would be easy to envision having a run-in with a wolf up there, or maybe some other wild beast. Though I’m not sure how many Brainerd’s are left in the maple city, there is still a Brainerd Street today that runs upwards from North Main Street in the direction of the hill, commemorating the obviously influential family. Although, it’s disappointingly not marked with the city’s signature white street signs emblazoned with green maple leaf silhouettes.

The monument is a local legend and cool piece of Franklin County obscura. Many don’t know about it – which doesn’t surprise me. And if you do, you fall into two camps; you know where it is, or don’t. And if you do, it’s a pretty hard thing to give directions to. On my second time hiking up the hill, it was July and come down humidity, I was trampling through the heat and trying to discern my friend’s text message directions, only to walk back down the hill no longer caring if I found it or not and just wanting to sit in some air conditioning for a while.

Plenty of others have tried to find it – but it’s a challenge. Trust me, this was my third time on the hill, which is surprisingly steep and tredded with a network of overlapping trails that can screw up a mental compass. Generally, if you use the hum of the interstate nearby, you can get a good orientation of where you are. But the monument is small, doesn’t distinguish itself from the woods, and isn’t really on the trailside.

I knew the Hard’ack ski area existed, a local rope tow operation on the east slope of the hill with both a devoted fan base and volunteer crew, because I grew up in Milton and used to go there as a kid, like lots of area kids did. But I wasn’t aware that there were trails beyond Hard’ack, that lead up and all over Aldis Hill. And that’s a shame, because once I found out just how to get up to the un-signed recreation area, I really liked it. Its terrain was rugged and wild, not what I was expecting for a little green rise that separates Saint Albans city from interstate 89.

Aldis Hill, or, the area that’s not Hard’ack, was gifted to the city of Saint Albans in 1892 by the family that owned it, the Aldis’s. The idea was to turn the rocky eminent into a recreation area for Saint Albans-ites. Somewhere on the 849-foot hill is a lookout, framed by old-growth trees that rewards the finder a pretty awesome view of the architecture of the city, and beyond looking out towards Saint Albans Bay. However, this was one of those Aldis Hill points of interest that I haven’t been able to find yet. Seriously, there are a lot of trails here, and none of them are marked. But the very noticeable lack of signage is, in my opinion, another thing that makes this woodsy area so satisfying.

I was reading some great nostalgia from an article the Saint Albans Messanger wrote up, as one Franklin County resident recalled building forts, wrecking other kids forts, building dams in spring runoff streams, playing games, and having rock fights. That really brought back great memories of me, my brother and friends growing up and doing all of those things in the woods behind our suburban house in Milton, which are some of my fondest memories. It’s great that Aldis Hill exists. If I was a kid, I’d definitely be playing in these woods.

I won’t give out the location of the monument, because honestly, 3/4th of the fun was actually trying to find the damn thing myself. The wanting brought me exploring all over Aldis Hill, which in my opinion, is worth it. Who knows, you might find the cool stone cut staircase, the lookout, the monument, remnants of barbed wire fencing being consumed by trees, and rusting artifacts that somehow ended up in the woods on the hill.

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If you have found it - you might have scratched your name into the large boulder nearby with smaller rocks.
If you have found it – you might have scratched your name into the large boulder nearby with smaller rocks.
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Or on this tree, which someone decided should have a content face.

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

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! 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!

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!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

 

 

 

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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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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Railroads and Silos

It was an icy Winters day as me and some friends drove through the Champlain Islands; destination unknown. It was one of those situations where we were seeking a place to explore, hoping to find some inspiration and intrigue in the brown fields burned by the harsh blue skies. In the Winter, the Champlain Islands loose the comfort and allure brought with the Summer months, vanishing with the shivers and darkness of the later half of the year as if it were a completely different place.

Not having any real luck in the islands, we crossed the Alburgh bridge into New York, the sturdy ruins of Fort Montgomery were not being pitied by the season as they were battered by the choppy and relentless waters of Lake Champlain.

For a region with such an extraordinary history and important connection to the rest of the country, a surprisingly large amount of it has been buried (metaphorically and literally), the occasional historical marker is scattered across the geography, hinting at what once was.

Rouses Point, New York has always been a heavily trafficked locality thanks to it being a portal into Quebec. It’s where the dotted border lines of New York, Vermont and Canada all meetup, as well as Lake Champlain and Quebec’s Richelieu River, which were the area’s original super highways before the interstate systems were built.

Automobile, rail and boat traffic is all siphoned through the gateway community, and because there are always nuances, that also includes the more illicit of things, like rum runners, smugglers, the underground railroad, and a few wars fought by the British and the Americans skirmishing on Lake Champlain over the past hundred years. Seriously, Rouses Point was such a noteworthy place that the feds financed a fort to be built at the mouth of the Richelieu just in case British troops wanted to invade us through Canada. Only, the United States was a much younger nation then, which meant that no one knew exactly where the border was, and the fort was accidentally built in Canada, later returned to the U.S, and never actually used. It was eventually partially salvaged for parts, and a lot of the small village was built up with the bricks, stone and wood salvaged from the brawny structure. From what I was told, the present day village offices were built on top of a former prohibition era dumping site of all the paraphernalia that was confiscated. Today, a drive through Rouses Point is mostly simple wood frame houses, moored sailboats and a Dollar General, a ubiquitous find in Upstate New York.

The village really did well for itself when the Delaware and Hudson Railroad decided to build passenger and freight facilities here and a rail yard to accommodate. Though Rouses Point is a pretty obscure community overall today, just outside the village limits are the remains of the oldest and last remaining Delaware and Hudson roundhouse turntables. Being battered by fierce winds, our trip here was short as the numbness in my hands began to outweigh my increasingly diluted curiosity. What can I say, I hate the cold.

This building was formerly used for washing down the rail cars

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Interestingly enough, most railroads, the D&H included, didn’t bother to wash their steam locomotives. Every so often, they would go over them with a mop soaked in kerosene to make them shine, but that’s about it. Roundhouses were built in the steam era as a way to store and maintain the locomotives, as well as repair and prepare them for their next trips. Other buildings on the site would be a coach shop, which was used to repair passenger stock, a cooling tower which was used for fuel, water tower for water, and in some cases a freight house where less than carload items were sorted and shipped out.

So, what is the reason that so many roundhouses are now abandoned?  In short, diesel engines need much much less repair than steam engines. When the steam engines faded away, so did the roundhouses.

This building was used for holding freight.
The original roundhouse

Alburg is a 45th parallel town, and one of a handful of Vermont communities that have found themselves in a weird moniker contention, where the United States Board on Geographic Names decided that they needed to standardize place names around the country in 1891. Every city or town ending in ‘burgh’ had their H dropped, pretty much so the mail would go to the right places and to make them easier to write on federal documents.

Well, over a hundred years later, a few Vermont towns decided that the dropped consonant was something to get up in arms about, with a few bringing it back, and the other few not caring that much.

Back across the bridge, in the pancake flat farmlands of the Champlain Island archipelago, the landscape is dotted with trailers, sagging farmhouses done in vinyl siding, and silver silos that reflect the coarse December sunlight from their gleaming surfaces.

There is a rural road off of Route 2 called Missle Base Road, a moniker that supports the notion that this cul-de-sac is different from other Alburg byways . Whether or not it’s misspelling is a VTrans blunder or intentional, it’s sort of a weird road name in a region that only has a sheriff to bring down the law. That street sign is overshadowed by a much larger and more intimidating sign. In fading lettering, it sort of reads “Stop! Authorized Personnel Only Beyond This Point” in attention grabbing orange, while even more faded text behind it once read “Town of Alburg” (spelled without its H)

A drive down bad tarmac puts you dead ending in front of 2 rusted Quonset Huts, a chain gate, construction equipment that has seen better days and a dune of road salt. You’re looking at the Alburgh town garage!
But the Quonset Huts give its past away. Underneath the salt pile is the reason for the huts construction; an atlas missile silo.

This is the site of one of Vermont’s 2 nuclear missile silos. But you’d never know it. Towards the back of the property, a rusting pile of junk and a dune of road salt sits on top of the closed silo bay doors, each concrete door weighing 45 tons, enclosing the dark dripping confines of the flooded silo below.

Peering down the silo today would be a wondrous gaze into man’s eternal battle with evil and glorious ruin, but if you had peered down this shaft in the early 1960s, you would have been gazing at the tip of a nuclear missile.

In the 1960s, the military was scrambling to build defenses against the potential of a nuclear apocalypse that the Soviet Union was scheming, with the Soviets doing the same thing with the role of the villain reversed. The Army Corps of Engineers constructed 12 sites in a ring around the Air Force base in Plattsburgh — 2 in Vermont, 10 in New York, and absolutely no expenses were spared, with each site costing between $14 and $18 million to build, each one coming with a brazen claim that each could withstand a direct nuclear attack.

But these mysterious and aggressive projects were quite a feat to build. Many workers died during their constructions, with urban legends reciting that some unfortunate souls became entombed in the concrete silo walls they were hired to produce. The thought of the cold walls and dark depths of the missile silo as someone’s last vision is an image is a poignant one.

Ironically, despite the large expenses invested in these agents of destruction, the pulses of these missile silos were short lived, only active from 1962 until 1965, thanks to leaps in progressive apocalyptic technology. To add to the uncertainty, many were disputing afterward whether the missiles would have been able to hit their targets, and even be able to lift off the ground.

But they left a lasting impression on the landscape. However today, they hold contaminated waste and shadows smothered with valiant ghosts.

Each launch site constructed included two Quonset huts, a utility shed and an antenna that could detect a nuclear attack up to 30 miles away. The silo itself was 52 feet wide and 174 feet deep, encased in a shell of incredibly thick and durable concrete.

After their demise, the sites were abandoned. Ownership was now the burden of their communities, including this one, which was, uh, gifted to Alburgh, who turned it into their down highway department headquarters and dumped road salt over the perforation. Others were looted, some were sold to private investors and military enthusiasts. According to lots of testimonies over the intervening decades, most of them flooded to some degree.

Because everything has a market, interest in these intriguing properties has picked up in recent years, thanks to curious buyers who see the old silos as great “fixer-upper” projects, especially for private homes. But due to their deteriorating conditions, these sites require a buyer with a lot of money, patience and time. One of the former sites, in Champlain, New York was found and purchased on eBay. The new owner plans to clean it up and live in the remaining Quonset hut, and possibly in the launch control center. Taking his project a bit further, he has created an intriguing website which tracks his progress cleaning up the site, and gives everyone else a cool and rare look into these fabled locations.

Alburgh’s site wasn’t phenomenally interesting, but I still thought it was cool. I snapped a few photos of the Quonset Huts, because that’s more interesting than a photo of a pile of salt. I’m pretty confident in my assumption that the town won’t be opening up those blast doors anytime soon, so it’ll have to do. A town garage that doubles as a weird monument to humankind’s strange tendency to destroy itself. 

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As of 2015, it looks like the street sign was spell checked, but Google maps still uses the misspelled moniker for the road.
As of 2015, it looks like the street sign was spell checked, but Google maps still uses the misspelled moniker for the road.

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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

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Nostalgic Route 9: Abandoned Motels, Vintage Signs

Recently, I had my inaugural voyage to the Adirondacks of Upstate New York, an area I’ve became quite interested in. Lake Champlain, the massive body of freshwater roughly 500 square miles in size, forms the boundary between Vermont and New York, and with a limited amount of crossings to the next state, as well as a lack of reasons for your blogger to go visit, the state of New York was practically an unfamiliar exotic world to me, an undisputed disparity from the weird bubble that is Vermont. One of the most common things I hear flatlanders say about Vermont, is something like; “man, do you have any idea how weird Vermont is? Seriously, you guys are like a cult up here. It’s almost like you don’t belong in the rest of the United States”, and sometimes they eye me with momentary awe. And I’m immensely proud of that.

The Vermont side of the lake is gentler and up kept, while the New York side is wild and grungy, wallowing in its nostalgia. Boulders and forests slide into the lake, bordered by rural stretches of crumbling highways and tumbledown homes. The Adirondack experience is a multi-faceted one – a region that doesn’t give up all its secrets, but doesn’t hide its scars. A place that’s vast, desolate and intriguing.

Meeting up with a good friend who is familiar with the region, he agreed to show me around some of his favorite haunts on a rather pleasant November day. Crisscrossing the region’s roads in the most inefficient manor possible, we decided to dedicate our escapade to a particular hue; the scores of old motels, vacation cabins and awesomely unkempt vintage signage and their visage of deterioration.

Everything related to this goal can be found along U.S. Route 9, where much of the area’s notoriety once came from. The route cuts through this huge region in a north south direction between the Adirondack Mountains and Lake Champlain. At one point, Route 9 was the original superhighway to the North Country before the Adirondack Northway, also known as Interstate 87, was built. In Route 9’s well traveled heyday, it was crawling with people tromping through its roadside attractions, curio, and motels which made lasting impressions in some tangible way. Today, a journey down Route 9 is more of a reflection of one of the more grimy truths of reality; impermanence. It’s now a desolate and forlorn drive through almost uninterrupted miles of forest, which is often sick and scraggily looking, as the Adirondack Northway carries most traffic now. But it’s a fascinating drive to me.

The landscape changes dramatically from the unanimated city of Plattsburgh and neighboring town of Keeseville as Route 9 heads south towards the tiny town of North Hudson and the ruins of Frontier Town, a frontier themed amusement park that was once the blood and pride of an otherwise easily missed town. The areas around Plattsburgh and Keeseville are lined by mid century motel establishments and their gimmicky retro signs complete with wondering arrows, neon lights and sharp angles; all designed to capture the travelers’ attention. Further south, unvarying one room wooden cabins are scattered in the midst of otherwise scraggly fir forests and increasingly long distances of highway with no signs of life for miles. Depressed hamlets like Lewis and New Russia spring out of the untamed forest like some sort of northern mirage, but are easily forgotten within minutes.

We decided the best route to New York would be The Grand Isle Ferry. From there, it would be a short drive down Route 314 to the destination Route 9 in Plattsburgh. The winds were incredibly fierce, the lake was choppy and full of whitecaps. Because of this, the ferry ride over was twice as long, as the captain attempted to navigate the rough waters safely, the boat viciously rocking back and forth and the waves spraying over onto the deck. For the fun of it, we got out of the car and attempted to get a few pictures of the rough conditions, but my, uh, sea legs had 25 years of inexperience working against me. The boat was rocking so badly that it was almost impossible to gain my balance. Admitting defeat, it was back in the car for me.

The choppy waters of Lake Champlain from the Grand Isle ferry.
The choppy waters of Lake Champlain from the Grand Isle ferry.

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While taking pictures of this sign, the owner of the motel happened to be walking by, giving us a strange look. To relieve some of the tension, we told her we liked her sign, and asked how old it was. She scratched her head in thought, and said it's been here since the mid 50s.
While taking pictures of this sign, the owner of the motel happened to be walking by, giving us a strange look. To relieve some of the tension, we told her we liked her sign, and asked how old it was. She scratched her head in thought, and said it’s been here since the mid 50s. “I can’t believe you guys want to take a picture of it” she said laughing.

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Out of the city limits now, Route 9 returns to stark wilderness. With the motels of Keeseville now gone, the desolation is now occasionally broken by crumbling roadside cabins shrouded in growth, with a decaying sign out front, their paint long faded and neon tubes hanging loosely around the sides.

Cabin Set #1

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Cabin Set #2

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These cabins were practically in someone's front yard.
These cabins were practically in someone’s front yard.

Cabin Set #3

I found these to be interesting because of their unique hillside perch – and their remote location – there was nothing else around for several miles, making me think that these were sort of a “last chance” affair.

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Now the landscape changed again from the cramped rustic abandoned cabins to abandoned motels.

Abandoned Motel #1

This abandoned motel seemed to be relativity up kept, its dated architecture looking almost as crisp as its heyday. The lawn was kept mowed, and the owners lived across the street in another former motel, which I suppose wasn’t very surprising.

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Abandoned Motel #2

This motel was more desolate then the first one, done in a kitschy in a rustic log theme, which was inspired by the defunct amusement park, Frontier Town, which was just down the road. The crumbling parking lot had almost returned to a wild state overran with weeds, and the long front porch was becoming encroached with fir trees growing slowly inside it. This was the first place we noticed that hosted transient people. Some of the rooms had been broken into, and the obvious signs of human presence were everywhere, but thankfully none were around when we arrived.

An abandoned playground weighed down by the desolation of the forest.
An abandoned playground weighed down by the desolation of the forest.

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Frontier Town

Down the road is the uninteresting town of North Hudson, nothing more then a collection of ramshackle homes and trailers amidst the scraggly woods. But years ago, North Hudson was home to one of the most beloved tourist destinations in the Adirondacks; Frontier Town.

In 1951, an enterprising man named Art Benson chose the woods of North Hudson to be the home for his new vision; a theme park that would bring the wild west to upstate New York. He had no income, no background in construction or anything related to running a theme park, and yet, with ambition and bearing his charismatic personality, he managed to pull off one of the most beloved tourist traps in the Adirondacks. Decorated like a primitive frontier town of the 19th century and amusing it’s guests with interactive dioramas from folklore, popular culture and history, the park continued it’s role as a compelling spectacle until 1983, when Benson sold the park to another development firm, who closed the park in 1989, and reopened it shortly after with new attractions to try and lure more people to make up for the park’s dwindling audience. By 1998, Frontier Town closed for good, after being discombobulated by dropping finances and the latest victim of changing trends; the new notion that it was now dated and politically incorrect.

The vast property was seized in August 2004 by Essex County for past-due property taxes. Today, the park is a humble collection of ruins rotting in the woods, or along Route 9, which is where the main entrance was. The property is skirted by a collection of abandoned motels and restaurants that now look rather out of place in town.

There have been a few special interest groups organized with the goal to restore Frontier Town, and have it labeled as a historic landmark. But so far, none have been successful. Nearby the property is the seedy Gokey’s Trading Post, which has a few pieces of Frontier Town memorabilia for those looking for some nostalgia.

To read more about Frontier Town, you can click this link to be taken to my blog entry on that.

Abandoned Motel at the entrance to Frontier Town
Abandoned Motel at the entrance to Frontier Town

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Those swanky chairs.
Those swanky chairs.
this motel also came with a simple playground for the kids, which admittedly looked more disappointing than fun
this motel also came with a simple playground for the kids, which admittedly looked more disappointing than fun
From the motel parking lot, one of the remaining buildings of Frontier Town could be seen - a former restaurant and gift shop against the late Adirondack sun.
From the motel parking lot, one of the remaining buildings of Frontier Town could be seen – a former restaurant and gift shop against the late Adirondack sun.
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Driving through abandoned roads still adorned with battered street lamps and the ruins of the remaining buildings is an eerie experience. Years ago, this area used to be packed with tourists, noises and life – today the only sounds are the mountain winds and the hum of traffic from Route 9.

DSC_0048_peSide Note: There is a ghost town in the mountains behind Frontier Town. If you’re curious, click on here to read about it.

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In addition to the numerous motels, cabins and restaurants that are abandoned here – we found out that the interstate exit that once served Frontier Town was also abandoned as well. This abandoned Citgo station sat a few yards away from the exit ramps. Here, a poor traveler pulled into the parking lot and was panicking. “Hey guys, do you know where a gas station is?” We told him there was on in Schroon Lake, 10 miles down the road. His face dropped. “shit. I don’t think I can make it” he sighed. We watched him pull out and turn onto Route 9. I hope he made it before it was too late.
Abandoned at Frontier Town
Abandoned at Frontier Town
Abandoned at Frontier Town
Abandoned at Frontier Town

Frontier Town is such a large property that I would need to devote an entire day to see it, which I hope to plan.

“Dysfunction Junction”

Heading back up Route 9, we drove through a unique, bizarre intersection at Routes 9 and 73 in New Russia, a hamlet of Elizabethtown. When Route 73 hits Route 9, the lanes split off in separate directions, crossing each other in a crazed and seemingly random pattern before coming together again. Everytime I’ve driven through it, I’ve wondered: why does this intersection exist? And the first few times – Where do I go?

A chance find on a Google search provided me with some answers. The locals call this “Dysfunction Junction”. The intersection was built in 1958, using a design that has been instituted (with slightly variations) in other areas of the state. The design is a “bulb type-T intersection” that “favors the heavier right-turn movement from the upper to the lower left leg of the intersection. Sight distances are excellent and approach speeds are approximately 40 miles per hour.”

So why was this design chosen for this spot? We have to go back to Route 9’s heyday as the main artery from Plattsburgh and points South. Before the Northway was built, Route 9 suffered far worse traffic congestion as it does now. Before the construction, a simple stop sign was in place, which overtime was unable to handle the flow of moving traffic. The design allows Route 9 traffic to flow through without stopping, while anyone continuing on 73 would have to wait. Today, they’d probably build a roundabout instead. While this design may have made sense in the 1950s, today’s traffic patterns have changed. But not everything thinks it’s a bad design. “If you just follow the signs, you’ll be alright” says one indifferent local.

Photo: Adirondack Almanac

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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

Donate Button with Credit Cards

Weird South Hero

I love the Champlain Islands. One of the most unique regions in the state, the islands have the special distinction of being the only region in Vermont that are truly isolated – only accessible from 3 bridges. Because of this, the islands have been able to maintain a unique image and way of life – complimented by scenic lake and mountain vistas, verdant pastures and small towns rooted in local tradition.

One of my favorite drives is South Hero’s West Shore Road, a narrow dirt road which winds its way along the many bays of South Hero’s west coast, framed by classic old summer camps, stony beaches, multi-million dollar McMansions and some of the most beautiful farmland anywhere. There’s even a vineyard, with eclectic summer evening concerts on their sprawling front lawn. In the summer months, there is perhaps no place more fitting for a leisurely cruise as the soft summer breezes gently blow summer dresses hanging on clotheslines. But the scenery isn’t the only draw to this road. There are a few quirky yet fascinating sites if you know where to look.

Bird House Forest

Located in the swamps just north of Whites Beach, just feet from the roadside, are hundreds of brilliantly colored Bird Houses that hang from the many hardwood trees in the thick marshland. It’s almost impossible not to notice, and on summer days, it’s not uncommon to see someone slow down to get a better look at them. I’ve driven by them several times and knew of their existence, but I never had taken the opportunity to actually stop and get a good look at them. That summer evening, I had my chance, and my curiosity was piqued. Why are they here? Do they have a story? Why are there so many? It’s not abnormal for someone to own a bird house or 2, but hundreds? As luck would have it, the owner of the birdhouses was actually out wood working on his front lawn, and must have noticed me standing there with my camera.

The story was actually quite to the point. “Well, as you can see, we’re surrounded by swamp” he said, gesturing to the swamps surrounding his house. “So there are a lot of mosquitoes here. Or at least there were before we put these up” He probably saw the amused look on my face, because he laughed and explained further. The bird houses are home to tree swallows, and tree swallows eat mosquitoes. “They make it so me and my wife can sit outside on the lawn in the evening and enjoy ourselves. We don’t get eaten alive” He told me he started this project 15 years ago, with only 20 bird houses. His wife was the one who convinced him to paint them the striking bold colors. “They really stand out” he said while laughing. He said after a year, he went to check on them and found that each one was occupied. So he built more. Now he has over 400 of them. I asked him if he was planning on building more. “We’ll see” he said chuckling.

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The gentleman who made the birdhouse forest also has a knack for wood working, and it’s really cool. You can see his various driftwood creations along the road near White’s Beach and around his yard – including this giant driftwood monster.

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Castle Island

Did you know that there are several miniature castles scattered around South Hero? I didn’t, until one unseasonably warm spring day, I found myself taking a picture of a dilapidated old barn near Whites Beach. It was around evening, and there was a brilliant sunset, a harsh wind was blowing in from the lake. As I was setting up for my picture, I met an elderly couple who were out enjoying an evening walk down the road, which was completely free from traffic. “Pretty cool, huh?” The elderly gentleman greeted me in a thick Vermont accent and pointed towards the old barn. I told him it was, and introduced myself. Because he was an old Vermonter, he carried on a good conversation, and asked me a lot of questions about myself. When I told him I was into local history and weird points of interest, he pointed over to the white farmhouse directly across from us and asked if I had seen the castles yet. I had no idea what he was talking about, so he motioned me to follow him and lead me behind the house.

Well, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at. It looked like the crumbling remains of some sort of fountain, maybe a bird bath? But it had been made entirely out of field stone. Admittedly, my first impression wasn’t all that great. “This is one of the original Barber projects” he said. “Used to be a Castle somewhere on the property, but they got rid of it when they added the porch onto the house”. Now he had my attention. I had never heard of Harry Barber before, or his castles, and I wanted to know more about this mysterious gentleman.

Through talking to the kind old man, and doing some additional research online, I was able to put together the pieces to this great story.

Harry Barber was born in Switzerland and as he grew up, he developed a strong fondness for the castles found throughout the country. Sometime in the 1920s, he lost a piece of his finger, either in a mining accident or sawing wood. With the insurance money, he decided to utilize his new found wealth and travel to the Americas. He made it to New York at the age of 21, and from there, eventually made his way up to Vermont and ended up in South Hero.

He fell in love with a local girl and married her, starting a family and learning English along the way at his various caretaking and maintenance jobs on on nearby Providence Island, just off the coast of South Hero. Harry worked several jobs through his life, but his true passion was always the beloved castles from his homeland. He was a passionate gardener and groundskeeper and often loved to enhance the look of his properties by constructing beautiful castles, fountains and stone walls made from local field stone. The castles were all modeled after the castles of his homeland, which he had always been taken by, with his creative whimsy added in.

Harry was known as a likable guy in general and was known for his kind heart, sense of humor, and his yodeling. But it was his fine craftsmanship that the locals were inspired by the most, and as a result, many patrons asked him to build castles for their properties. There are no records of if he actually profited from them, and for how much.

It was said that every castle he built had a different story behind it, and featured lavish details such as glass windows, flags and even drawbridges. Local lore even has it that some would use the castles for trade or bartering.  I heard one story of a neighbor offering a bed and breakfast one of the castles in return for free trash removal service. The castle was later moved to the inn’s property where it rests today.

Despite his amiable personality, tragedy was also woven into his framework. For reasons unknown, he committed suicide in 1966 at the age of 66.

Many of his original castles can still be seen scattered around South Hero today. The exact number of structures he built and the number of ones that are surviving are unknown. But some tell me that there is, in fact, a number – there are seven of them, and they are called “the seven castles”. One can be found as far away as mainland Milton. And a few months ago, I was able to confirm this on a chance encounter with the owner of the castles – a descendant of Mr. Barber who was kind enough to show me around his property so I could get a look at them.

Some of the castles on private property, and trespassing is frowned upon, and others are hidden behind other obstructions such as plants. But some are visible from the road, and are easy to photograph with a good zoom.

Compelling monuments of man, dreams and the cold hand of tragedy.

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One of Harry Barber's castles, as seen in front of The Crescent Bay Bed and Breakfast, on the West Shore Road.
One of Harry Barber’s castles, as seen in front of The Crescent Bay Bed and Breakfast, on the West Shore Road.
The Rockwell Bay castle on the West Shore Road. A tiny sign out front said it was constructed in 2006, and even features a small light in one of the towers.
The Rockwell Bay castle on the West Shore Road. A tiny sign out front said it was constructed in 2006, and even features a small light in one of the towers.

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One of the Barber castles in Milton. The owner eventually wants to restore it to it's former glory. *bad cell phone picture - I know!
One of the Barber castles in Milton. The owner eventually wants to restore it to it’s former glory. *bad cell phone picture – I know!

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