The Village Of Secrets

I was told that some have called this place “the village of secrets”, because after its philanthropically intended inception, it instead aged into a shameful place intended to be unseen and hushed from the public.

Its actual name is Letchworth Village, its unfortunate moniker (when I brought it up to a few explorer buddies, they all returned with something like; “Letch-worth? That sounds terrible! What is it?”) was named after the distinguished humanitarian who pretty much conceptualized the place; William Pryor Letchworth. Construction began in 1908 and it was ready by 1911 to shelter the “feeble-minded and epileptic” – or any youth who basically couldn’t take care of themselves or were a danger to others.

At the time, the architected property and its ethos were incredibly innovative – lauded as what should become the new model of treatment of the developmentally disabled, with hopes that time here would increase the chances of many of them actually gaining the necessary skills to return to society and make a life for themselves.

Taking inspiration from the Kirkbride design where a serene country setting could aid in helping cure, or at least quell mental ailments, they chose some 2,362 acres of gentle hills at the crux of three towns; Haverstraw, Thiells and Stony Point in the palisaded Ramapos, with Minnisceongo Creek carving through the almost middle and acting as a contrived delineation of asylum culture.

The grounds were interspersed with several buildings, which gave it the appearance of a village. Each was limited to one or two stories and aesthetically took inspiration from Monticello or from Greek architecture. Almost all the dormitories had column girded entrances fronting hand cut flagstone facades that today, only add an uneasy gothic feel to them.

Letchworth’s design followed several rules when treating/caring for the institutionalized. Basically, boys and girls weren’t allowed to mingle and were separated in different areas on opposite creek banks. Then, they’d be distributed again based on how severely disabled they were.

The patient living quarters were arranged in six groups of cottages laid out in U-shaped patterns with lots of open space and wood patches in between. In the center of each horseshoe were a dining hall and kitchen and a hall used as a theater and a gym. Not far from each cluster was a physician’s and attendant’s home.

Other buildings incorporated administrative offices, a laboratory, library, firehouse, power plant, waste disposal,  a medical building and a farm colony – where until the 1960s, the able-bodied worked where they raised enough food and livestock to feed the entire population, making it a practically self-sustaining community.

But it didn’t take long for Letchworth’s magnanimity to begin writhing in the deep anguish of grief which conjured indelible disconcerts that still haunt its remains.

Unable to deny consent, many resident unfortunates became unwitting science experiments and test subjects – something that became sinister regulars in the Letchworth code of conduct. In 1950, the first human trials of the very experimental polio vaccine happened here. When the first child didn’t die, they tested nineteen more.

Another infamous anecdote tells of brain specimens harvested from deceased adolescents and stored in jars of formaldehyde, then shelved on perverse display in the laboratory. Until a few years ago, a few urban explorers actually admitted to finding some of those jars still in the basement of the medical building, but when I scouted my way there, were nowhere to be found. I seem to be pretty late to the Letchworth party, and many of the artifacts and scenery I’ve seen through photographs has been disappointingly damaged beyond recognition or removed entirely.

By the 1950s, Letchworth had become exactly what it was created to circumnavigate;  a human dumping cache. In the early and mid 20th century, the mentally retarded were treated like second-class citizens, many of which were shipped off to varying institutions. A huge increase in enrollment struck Letchworth and it just couldn’t accommodate. Many of the inhabitants became sickly and/or malnourished, sleeping on excrement sopped mattresses crammed in hallways and dayrooms because the already meager, untrained and overwhelmed staff were tasked with the impossible – leading some to turn to auxiliary detriment. There were no tools for personal growth, and seemingly no future, a sentiment that can wreck just about anyone.

Conditions became so hellish that then-local reporter Geraldo Rivera took a tour around the hospital with a film crew to document the atmosphere, alongside another soon to be notorious New York asylum, Willowbrook. The result was a scandalous and galvanizing documentary called “The Last Disgrace”, which would air on ABC and essentially shake the public hornets’ nest and sight the place in a now contemptuous gaze.

Letchworth followed the plot of many other period asylums and shut down for good by 1996. The state has made efforts to sell the blighted property, with mixed results.  Most of the land was supposed to be condo-ed in 2004, but as of 2017, that still hasn’t happened. However, this now sprawling landscape of failure has had some redemption.

Fieldstone middle school and two golf courses (it’s always a golf course…) make use of several buildings and adjoining tracts of the former girl’s group. Taking a gander at Google maps, I also see the Stony Point Justice Court and the local parks and rec department have taken up residency in other buildings and Kirkbride Hall seems to be nicely restored.

I heard over the social media machine that Lego Land, of all things, was possibly looking at the remaining estate a few years back, but so far, that terrible re-development plan also hasn’t arrived yet.

A forlorn paupers burying yard lies in a hollow on the fringes of the state school at the end of a barely used wooded path. Here, a crooked group of ankle height Ts are staked into the ground, each bearing a different number. These are the graves of those who died at Letchworth. Only, it was considered to be dishonorable to the family to include the identity of these poor invalids, so the 900 dead were simply given a number that further devalued and shamed them. Recently, a monument with a plaque was erected at the cemetery with the names of all the dead inscribed in list form, with a fitting epitaph; To Those Who Shall Not Be Forgotten. I missed the cemetery on my first visit, so I plan on taking a walk over next time.

Too many buildings, not enough time (Letchworth, part 1)

It was a suspenseful 5-hour drive from Vermont, and I was already feeling drained of stamina as we rolled into Haverstraw, New York. Apparently, we were traveling through an area with some pretty rad state parks that take advantage of all the cliffs and their views, but no, my tired, one track mind was devoted to our original mission. Up over a declining bend and a slight hill still decorated with worn out faux historical street lamps, I caught my first glimpse of the massive dilapidated property through undressed oaks.

Finding a place to park, we clambered out of the car, stretched our stiff limbs, and made a beeline for the campus posted with plenty of signs declaring war on trespassers. This was my inaugural visit and I was already feeling a bit pressured to make the most of our hours here, partially because I’m a control freak thanks to my anxiety disorder.

Letchworth’s name seems to have a hyped haunted status for the usual reasons; the many people who suffered and perished here. Paranormal eccentricities are often tourists here, running through the sprawling decay with camcorders – including spook chasers with their own television shows. The asylum’s vine-encumbered ruins that are outlined in sadness are perfect for these legends. Most photos I’ve seen of Letchworth have been shot when the property was in full bloom and green, so shooting it during the starkness of early spring formed a completely different vibe.

Many of the fetid interiors still contain patients’ clothes and eerie artifacts, and quite a few had the gruesome scars of disbanded paintball matches played inside.

The medical building, in particular, is said to be Letchworth’s most haunted, and though I’m generally an interested skeptic when it comes to matters of the paranormal, I discovered that while inside building, the ghosts really did come out.

Days after I had been there, I was uploading a few of my photos to my Instagram account and had mentioned that I was plagued with frustrating and inexplicable camera malfunctions, which de-focused a little less than half of my attempted shots inside. While I was bumming about that, I had a few Instagrammers pick up on my caption, and open up about similar experiences they had in the medical building as well. I’m not saying it was anything preternatural, but it certainly was a strange coincidence.

I felt a buzzing uneasiness while walking around inside the medical building. The basement area was the worst. I couldn’t explain it, but moments into our venturing into dark shadows swearing down its wide corridors, my nerves were on fire and irritation crawled up over me. There was a moment where I actually felt like packing up my camera gear, disappointing my friend, and just getting the hell out of there, which made me sort of miserable seeing how exploring is one of my favorite ways to spend my time. And then there was an incessant clout bang that we could hear perpetually throughout the building. The third-floor hallway acted as a wind tunnel, slamming all of its wooden doors violently in their frames, an unforgettable noise that gave a voice to each and every ghost inside.

Or maybe, my unshakable moods were well validated. After doing some post-adventure research, I discovered that quite a few explorers had a startling encounter with a lurking danger in the innards of that same building – one that was more threatening than spectral bullies. A young woman and a little girl were assumedly squatting in the foul and slimy basement areas, and she was territorial. A few explorers said that they were almost decked in the head by that woman, who was wielding a log. After they explained to the log lady that they were just there to take some pictures, the tension of the weird situation evaporated into the loathsome smells caused by rotting ceiling tiles and papers fermenting into a soupy viscosity. But imagine if you were unlucky enough to not have that time to react…

I’ll have to make a return trip here, there was too much to see and not enough time. I was fighting Lyme disease then, so my energy levels weren’t in tune with my adventure.

And strangely, I’ll forever associate Jesus and Mary Chain’s Just Like Honey with Letchworth, as it was the song crawling around in my head while I was walking the corridors of the medical building.  I even cued it on Spotify while writing this post up.

These grim yet fascinating ruins are an unabashed and raw museum of the human condition, and I really hope and urge that we learn from them and other places like this to build a better reality for all of us.

The first buildings we came across were ominous looking administration buildings, which even in bright April sun, looked eerie.

Historical image of the duplicated layout of a boys’ dormitory at Letchworth.

Inside a boys’ dormitory – Spring 2017. Being inside here was surreal. The interior was smoldering in a terrible silence that almost ran me down, but if you crept close enough to a window, you could hear the strains of people outside enjoying the grounds on a beautiful April weekend.

Hydrotherapy tubs could still be found within the dark corridors of the medical building.

The doors that lined this third floor hallway slam open and shut all day long because of the wind, and made us jump more than a few times.


Since 2012, I’ve been seeking out venerable examples of Vermont weirdness, whether that be traveling around the state or taking to my internet connection and digging up forsaken places, oddities, esoterica, and unique natural features. And along the way, I’ve been sharing it with you on my website, Obscure Vermont. This is what keeps my spirit inspired.

I never expected Obscure Vermont to get as much appreciation and fanfare as it’s getting, and I’m truly grateful and humbled. Especially in recent years, where I’ve gained the opportunity to interact with and befriend more oddity lovers and outside the box thinkers around Vermont and New England. As Obscure Vermont has grown, I’ve been growing with it, and the developing attention is keeping me earnest and pushing me harder to be more introspective and going further into seeking out the strange.

I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to keep this blog going. Obscure Vermont is funded almost entirely by generous donations. Expenses range from hosting fees to keep the blog live, investing in research materials, travel expenses and the required planning, and updating/maintaining vital tools such as my camera and my computer. I really pride and push myself to try to put out the best of what I’m able to create, and I gauge it by only posting stuff that I personally would want to see on the glow of my computer screen.

I want to continuously diversify how I write and the odd things I write about. Your patronage would greatly help me continue bringing you cool and unusual content and keep me doing what I love!

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The Cryptic Castle

My home state of Vermont has much in the way of oddities, but abandoned castles don’t make the list. So when I heard of one in downstate New York, I had a road trip planned in a few weeks to see it.

My friend and I drove through the often long haul destitution of the Catskill Park, an area I’ve already become familiar with. You know you’re in the Catskills when all of the green road signs that label whatever river your crossing over marks them as “kills”, (the other detail is when you figure out none of the towns have gas stations). It might seem strangely morbid, but it’s actually the old Dutch word for creek or river, as opposed to the English equivalent. It’s a cool regional quirk. (Vermont has the fly fishing famed Batten Kill, which is redundantly labeled on state atlases as the ‘Batten Kill River’).

Atop a dim ledged hill above a picturesque river, I would get my first glimpse of this incredible ruin through thick woods that would ultimately conceal it from view, if you weren’t only on that particular back road looking for a castle like we were. This place was something else. The sight of it made me drop my jaw – it was both eerie and serene.

I think it’s in our profiling nature to assume fanciful remains like these accrete some sort of spooky lore or gothic mystic, especially when you add several decades of forsakenness letting weather and moss transmuting what was once a soaring vanity project into a projection of arcane frenzy. Even the history is enigmatic, which has given birth to quite a few myths and whispers of curses that bounce off its turrets and stone walls.

The castle was the idea of gilded aged businessman Ralph Werts Dundas. And this is where the research gets a bit convoluted. In my inquiry, a few blogs have paid some interest to this place, and the general agreement is that the history here is a bit nebulous – each page describes a slightly different storyline.

Not much is known about Mr. Dundas, other than he was born in 1871 and would eventually become a wealthy man. He wound up marrying, had a daughter, and was known to be a bit of a recluse. He also carried a penchant of becoming a Scotish Laird, in America. Because Laird’s had to have a castle to push their legitimacy card, he wound up buying about 1,000 acres in the Catskills to build one on.

Before Mr. Dundas installed his enigmatic castle, a chunk of the land was owned by Joseph Cammer, a farmer and enthusiastic fisherman who earned a reputation by letting other outdoorsmen from New York City and surrounding Catskill towns board on his land. This eventually attracted the venerable architect, Bradford Lee Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert liked the area so much, that himself and another boarder, Frank Livingston, got to talking and concluded they wanted to buy some of the Cammer property and build a hunting lodge there. They struck up a deal, were joined by three other interested men, and began construction on what would be called the Beaverkill Lodge towards the late 1880s.

A couple of years passed, and Mr. Gilbert wanted the property for himself, so he bought out Mr. Livingston and the other members. He worked on enlarging the lodge from a modest log cabin and purchased more land to buffer it with. His wife, an Irish immigrant, named the area “Craig-E-Claire” – a Gaelic toponym for “beautiful mountain” that reminded her of her native Ireland and is still adhered to the area on both a street sign and a place name label on Google maps. But they only wound up spending a few weekends out of the year at the lodge, and eventually lost interest and decided to sell. Sometime before the 1920s (sources vary with either 1907 or 1915), Ralph Dundas would acquire the plot.

Some accounts say that Bradford Lee Gilbert was the one who architected Dundas’s castle, and that’s sort of true. He at least provided some of the framework. Instead of tearing down the Beaverkill Lodge and building over it, Dundas decided to build around and consume the lodge, and then keep expanding.

Around World War 1, the castle began to take shape looming above the river. 30 Finnish masons assembled it with leaded windows and hand laid stone walls, stone by stone, which legend holds that in some parts of the castle are 3 feet thick. Conical towers with gothic windows and steep parapeted roofs added great architectural flourishes and made this abandonment so much cooler to find out in the woods.

The insides were said to be just as generous, with steam radiators and electricity being added, which were amazing luxuries at the time. The floors and countertops were done with marble which was possibly imported from Italy, and legend has it that a few of the fireplaces were accentuated with gold leafing. Mr. Dundas even had exquisite furnishings and dexterously woven tapestries crated and shipped to the castle to decorate it with.

Ralph Dundas and his family at their castle, around its completion.

But Dundas wasn’t the least stressful of employers. He was a very particular visionary, who had a habit of adding lots of spontaneous changes to the blueprints, often making the laborers tear down entire finished sections of the castle to rebuild it again to his partialities. But regardless, we can at least agree that his fussiness created an astounding home. A home that he would never get to see.

Dundas dies in 1921, but work continued until the castle was completed in 1924 – the final structure was “L” shaped, with 2 curtain walls completing a rectangle and creating a Scottish style bailey in the middle.

His wife Josephine, who was known for being emotionally unstable, suffered from some sort of undocumented malady, which may have been a form of dementia. She was eventually committed to a sanitarium. A creepy legend that seems to be widely trafficked about this place, is that Dundas actually locked his wife away in one of the upper bedrooms without an interior doorknob to keep her worsening disposition out of public scandal.

While those details are a bit hard to parse, what we do know is that their daughter Muriel suddenly came into a lot of money.

She was either completely swindled by the man she married (which may have been a hired caretaker of the castle) or made the decision herself to travel to England to find King James’ lost gold, using her substantial fortune to pick up the bill. She recruited the best scientists, historians and even a dowser and mystic who used a willow wand, but all efforts proved fruitless. By then, those around her considered her insane, and she was committed to an asylum for the remainder of her days.

The keep and its interior riches gathered dust and remained abandoned until it was sold to more thematically fitting owners in the 1940s; the Freemasons. But they never wound up doing anything with the great building, and instead, for reasons unknown, let the place enter multiple decade stasis. Today, the property is off limits, and it’s said that a groundskeeper may live in one of the former castle outbuildings just down the road.

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I only knew of the castle’s vague location, without knowing much else about it – driving down back roads that traversed through a serpentine river glen until I eventually spotted one of its towers through the trees wearing their seasonal verdures.

We found a level-ish shoulder to pull off onto, gathered our gear, and hurried over into the forest cover and up the rocky slope – which at times was surprisingly steep – until we could reach out and touch the stone bulwarks. An up-close look revealed that saplings and sneaking moss were growing freely around the thoughtful stonework and beginning to take root inside the gutters. If the beleaguered prowess of nature isn’t decreased, this place will really look like an ancient ruin in a decade or so. The visual made all the adulated baggage this hunk of rock and slate carries pretty believable.

That was further reinforced by a thunderstorm that began to rage overhead when I was inside, making my explore so much more surreal as shadowed light fell in all directions. The only mood killer was an Ace Of Base song climbing around in my head from my friend’s Best of The 90s playlist on Spotify.

Passing through the climactic barbican into the bailey, we found our way inside and made for a set of spiraled marble stairs climbing up one of the turrets – when my friend noticed “To The Kill Room!” scrawled in red spray paint on the wall with an arrow pointing crookedly towards the ascent upstairs.  I heard a resolute “nope” uttered behind me, and I turned around to see her heading back towards where we climbed in. “I’ll just wait for you outside”.

Now on my lonesome, I moved silently through this literal monument to the epoch of American industrialism and prosperity. A walk through the anachronistic property today is a weird one. Though the lower floors were blackened due to boarded windows, its incredible attention to detail and marvelous stonework could be detected and appreciated through the shine of my flashlight. Upstairs, gray light came through and cast the hallways and the bones of ornate chambers into a dull pallor. Old push button light switches and 4 prong electrical sockets on the walls sort of break the otherwise ‘fairy tale’ illusion here, bringing a castle that remarkably looks ancient into 20th century America. There was even a functional dumbwaiter, (or ‘baby shoot’, as someone re-invented it in black sharpie) where meals from the kitchen could be ferried upstairs to the bed chambers. The castle was sending me the weight of its silence, with the only pause being summer breezes pushing around all the dead leaves that had long collected inside the vacant rooms.

I’m a little late on exploring out of state locations, so a great deal of what I see through the photography of others isn’t what I’m greeted with in real time. Dundas’s castle had lots more vandalism, and the few surviving glass window panes on the third story had by then, all been shattered. This is why I’m obscure about many places I write about. But despite that, the castle was in really good shape – most likely because of its robust construction and not being near much of a population. I wonder if anyone will ever revive it? Or will this go the way of many fascinating sites in America and become something only recalled in wistful stories?

Before departing, we headed down the road a ways to get a look at the defunct iron front gates that once opened up to a gravel carriage road that gradually climbed the ridge crest, went underneath a castle arch and inserted you in the central courtyard. Today, the intricately rusted doors and nudging stone abutments are all that remain – the path has since transitioned into a mowed lawn and make the former grand entry way even more conspicuous in its location at a 3-way intersection.

Being Memorial Day weekend, the huge regional park I happened to be near was crawling with people in trucks and camping gear on almost all the back roads. After I pulled over to shoot this cool entryway, I had multiple strangers in trucks pull over and have rolled down window conversations with me as if I was an old friend, including an awesome middle aged couple who enthusiastically talked about the castle and other Catskillian esoterica.

Being Memorial Day weekend, it also brought out the foolhardy. As we turned around and drove back down the road, we noticed that 3 state police cruisers, 3 officers, a Ford Focus, and 5 bummed looking teenagers appeared outside the castle.

I think local historian Dr. Joyce Conroy reckoned best when she mused that the strangest thing to her about the castle, was how no one has ever been able to live on that land.

More on Vermont castles 

As I said above, Vermont doesn’t exactly have castles, but we do have some creations that come close. There’s the so-called Wilson Castle in Proctor, which is really a castle in name only, and there’s the inspired Gregoire castle up in the kingdom town of Irasburg that’s become a local curiosity and for a brief period was a cafe and later, for sale.

What to do with a defunct quarry and lots of rocks? You could build something like this medieval looking cylindrical watchtower tower in Woodbury, located off a thin back road in a quarried depression. It even has gargoyles perched sentinel around the top rim with faces rictus with gloom.

Property owner Scott McCullough, who also fittingly owns a rock crushing business, decided to begin building the inconspicuous 24-foot cylindrical quasi-mythical structure in 2009, partially in an effort to clean up the eyesore patch of land which locals began to use as a garbage dump, and partially for something to do on weekends. But be warned – trespassers aren’t welcome. And there are several signs to make the point. But I’m told he’s a friendly fellow who is pretty enthusiastic in striking up a conversation about it. Just as long as he’s around and you have permission to be there.

I became aware of this place when I was already en route on another oddity hunt; to find a pair of Indian footprints petrified in stone. This was a cool bonus.

In the past few decades, the Champlain Islands have transitioned from hard to reach farming towns to a tourist destination. Their topography definitely explains the interest – because they’re different than the rest of Vermont. The surrounding water influences the growing season, making it the longest in the state, and it also created a desirable real estate market, to the point where property values are offensively sky rocketing in lake shore areas. More importantly, it’s an area rich in history. French explorer Samuel de Champlain saw the islands when he sailed down the Richelieu River into the large lake that he named after himself. In 1666, Isle La Motte became the first settlement in what became Vermont, where 60 Frenchmen built a palisaded outpost known as Sainte Anne on the northwestern tip, now the site of Sainte Ann’s Shrine. Only 20 of them would make it through the first winter, the rest dying of scurvy.

One particular attribute is also a wonderfully obscure one; South Hero is home to miniature stone castles, some the size of a doll house, scattered around island lawns, gardens or wood patches. Finding them is an intriguingly cool experience on its own, especially if you’re like me and really dig craftsmanship, DIYs, and Yankee ingenuity. Laid down by a Swiss immigrant in the early 1900s, the story is both fanciful and mysteriously poignant.

Some Vermonters just want to live in a castle, like a local pyrotechnics expert and stonemason Jim Bayne. This contemporary broke down palace is located in Georgia – has 12 bedrooms, two full bathrooms and one-half bath, a kitchen, six fireplaces and 19,000 square feet of space, all of it mostly unfinished. It’s also for sale for a 6 figure price.

Being near my childhood hometown of Milton, I discovered this intriguing construction in my late teens, when me and my friends used to pass the time by hopping in someones’ car and driving around as many back roads as we could find with the radio cranked. I recall us slowing down and/or pulling into the tall grasses to get a better look at this place, and surmise the general questions you wonder about someone else’s property.

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Since 2012, I’ve been seeking out venerable examples of Vermont weirdness, whether that be traveling around the state or taking to my internet connection and digging up forsaken places, oddities, esoterica, and unique natural features. And along the way, I’ve been sharing it with you on my website, Obscure Vermont. This is what keeps my spirit inspired.

I never expected Obscure Vermont to get as much appreciation and fanfare as it’s getting, and I’m truly grateful and humbled. Especially in recent years, where I’ve gained the opportunity to interact with and befriend more oddity lovers and outside the box thinkers around Vermont and New England. As Obscure Vermont has grown, I’ve been growing with it, and the developing attention is keeping me earnest and pushing me harder to be more introspective and going further into seeking out the strange.

I spend countless hours researching, writing, and traveling to keep this blog going. Obscure Vermont is funded almost entirely by generous donations. Expenses range from hosting fees to keep the blog live, investing in research materials, travel expenses and the required planning, and updating/maintaining vital tools such as my camera and my computer. I really pride and push myself to try to put out the best of what I’m able to create, and I gauge it by only posting stuff that I personally would want to see on the glow of my computer screen.

I want to continuously diversify how I write and the odd things I write about. Your patronage would greatly help me continue bringing you cool and unusual content and keep me doing what I love!

Donate Button with Credit Cards

The Milton Co-operative Dairy Corporation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Folklore

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

Murder

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

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

Broiled Alive 

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

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

The Homeless Man

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

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

The Tunnel

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

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

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

Painkillers and a Purpose.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Requiem Revisited

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

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

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

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

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

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

Historical Images

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

The Creamery Today 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

Abandoned Dairy Farms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

 

Hogback Mountain and A 100 Mile View

Queen Connie

Vermont’s roads are pretty regulated, so there isn’t much here in terms of weird or kitschy personalized properties that people like to put into the broad category of roadside Americana – which includes a perpetually growing compilation of the same genre (nonstandardized) but vary widely in sentiment and imagery.

But, that doesn’t mean obscurities can’t be found along Vermont’s byways. Take the tiny farm town of Leicester, whose most famous denizen can be seen lumbering over the small oval-shaped lawn of Pioneer Auto Sales, right along the side of Route 7 either before or after you approach the tiny village center – which is pretty much an intersection with a few houses and a newly reopened gas station that now has a growler filling station.

“Queen Connie”, which it’s sometimes referred as when it’s not called “that big gorilla holding the VW bug”, is a huge 20-ft. tall, 16 ton, concrete ape, holding up a progressively rotting Volkswagon Beetle in one of her upraised arms, while the other arm is stretched out, palm upward, acting as a place where someone could grab an uncomfortable seat and a gimmicky photo opportunity.

But how did something like Queen Connie end up in aesthetic conscious Vermont? And what’s the story behind it? Actually, the answer is pretty straight forward – according to what I was told anyways. The owner of the car dealership had commissioned local artist T.J. Neil to do some concrete work around his pool at home. He was impressed with Neil’s work, and casually suggested another project; to do something cool to spruce up his business. Neil surprised him by suggesting a hyperbolized gorilla – his only reason was because he wanted to see it holding up a car. In 1987, Queen Connie was constructed using steel reinforced concrete, and she’s been observing activity on Route 7 with a disgruntled facial expression ever since, and for Vermonters who are into the weird, might be one of their first forays into oddity hunting.

Though I’m glad Vermont isn’t carelessly overdeveloped like other states, emblems like this are a pejorative thing to build here in the present tense, so it makes it all the more enjoyable.

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Your blogger and local weird worker, posing for a photo.

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Up The Molly Stark Trail

I was heading down to explore parts of southern Vermont with a friend. My summer turned into a lot of stress and setbacks, and I felt like my life was becoming as standard as my white apartment walls. My prescription was a long drive, and the lure of autumn’s sway just makes road trips better. Passing through my favorite town of Wallingford always cures a frown on my face, and as we got farther south and the trees began to turn gold in the hills around Mount Tabor and Dorset, I enthusiastically recalled a defunct marble quarry I hiked to last summer.

Route 7 turns into a limited access highway through most of Bennington County, until it reverts back to full access in Bennington and brings you right into its historic downtown district, the center of town being where it intersects with state route 9. I took a quick jaunt up the hill to the Old Bennington neighborhood to take a few photos of one of my favorite buildings in Vermont, The Walloomsac Inn, then ventured up route 9 eastwards into the mountains.

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The Walloomsac Inn, my favorite haunt in Bennington.

Route 9, also known as The Molly Stark Trail or The Molly Stark Byway as the state issued scenic byway signs tell you –  is one of my favorite drives in Vermont, and the same sentiment could probably be said for quite a few other people. It’s an extraordinary road to gawk at through the windshield of your car, and even better when you’re stopping to get out and look around. The mountain road twists and turns through the innards of the national forest and gains elevation and grade pretty much as soon as you get beyond Bennington’s limits as it starts to climb the first of many hills and parallels the boulder filled Walloomsac River. To be honest, lots of things on this road vie for your attention.

A sense of awe and anticipation builds in me when I see a trademark brown and white national forest sign, telling drivers that there are various access spaces to Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest for the next 15 miles or so. That includes the massive Glastenbury wilderness, one of Vermont’s largest undeveloped areas, but more known for the titular defunct town and about 2 centuries worth of weirdness that culminated on its many slopes and took off like a contagion shotgun blast into paranormal sensationalism. But it”s hard not to be fascinated by the large expanse of wilderness. The huge area holds ghost towns, a slew of trails and forest roads, man-made feats of engineering, and plenty of mysteries. Just ask the Geocaching community.

We passed through forested Woodford, the highest town in elevation in Vermont at around 2,215 feet, then descended into Wilmington. Which is where I unintentionally found some local curio. A green 1915 iron truss bridge first caught my eye, because it was obviously abandoned, as indicated by all the trees growing through it. The underwhelming replacement was a simple concrete and steel span that bridged the river inches away. As I was gazing at the bridge, I noticed a strange white sign across the bridge that was put up on a small weedy embankment that welcomed me to “Medburyville”, and gave me a precise census of 31 people and 26 pets who I guess lived somewhere nearby in the rural area.

I was at a loss here. The area around the sign was pretty much an undeveloped light wilderness area, and I knew that we had already crossed the Woodford/Wilmington town line. I’m a pundit on Vermont geography and had never heard of Medburyville before, so I was pretty curious. What was/is Medburyville? A local parody or some kind of irony? A name of an obscure back road Wilmington neighborhood?

My camera was acting up, so looks like Google street view will have to suffice for an image of the sign.
My camera was acting up, so looks like Google street view will have to suffice for an image of the sign.

I was curious if there was a mystery or story here, so I sent an email to the Wilmington Historical Society. In their reply, Julie Moore explained that Medburyville was a village in Wilmington, but was erased when the Harriman Reservoir was constructed for the purpose of flood control. There was a mill, several houses and a railroad line that ran through the area at one point.

Today there is only a small aluminum sign that raises more questions than answers. Just a few feet from what was/is the Medburyville area is a narrow arm of the aforementioned reservoir, which is experiencing pretty low water levels lately so it was more sandbars than water when I drove by. Local lore has it that when the reservoir is low, a slimy church steeple from the former village is exposed, but I didn’t see anything that day that looked out of place in a reservoir.

Another obscure footnote is that there once was a placename along the reservoir that had the post office address of “Surge Tank” – a name of a temporary settlement that sheltered the men who built the Harriman Reservoir dam that had it’s own recognized post office. The post office also moved around between Readsboro and Whittingham – depending on wherever construction was happening. I still see Surge Tank sometimes on obscure place name lists. Like Medburyville, Surge Tank is long gone, and without a sign to commemorate it.

Back on the road, the forests occasionally break up a little and you got a positioning glimpse that you were right in the middle of the green mountain chain. Unlike some parts of Vermont where a high elevation isn’t surrounded by other mountains and instead reduces off into valleys, the mountains around Wilmington and Marlboro stretched as far as the vistas, with various 440 million-year eroded summits slanting into other rounded domes. A few “runaway truck ramps” with large yellow signs and rhythmic blinking lights were a reminder that the undulating byway had the potential to be more dangerous than scenic for other drivers, and judging by the scars and pit marks in one of them, it had been used recently.

The “100-Mile View”

But it was the so-called “100-mile view” in Marlboro that was the most impressive. I’m not sure if that name is superlative or not, but I suppose it doesn’t really matter because the view is awesome. From a large wooden deck with coin functioning viewing apparatuses for the tourist crowd, you can see what’s left of southern Vermont before it transitions into the Berkshire Hills, and the bumps of southern New Hampshire, including Mount Monadnock.

One of the ramshackle old lodging cabins from a deceased ski resort, which I was about to hike to, sits on the edge of a drop off below the overlook, and might be one of the most photographed site among the sights. I took a walk down, and there was a laminated sign taped to the twisting floorboards telling people like myself to keep out – it’s not actively maintained (as evident by the peeling paint) and can be dangerous if the building decides to tumble down the hill. But I was able to get a shot through a dusty old window along the side and gaze curiously at a few items of older furniture left inside.

I live in Vermont’s largest city, and dig the scene there, but sometimes my hometown is just too oversaturated with people for my taste. I really ache for having access to land like I did when I was younger, where I could go 4 wheeling and hiking and just let out the things storming in my mind. So my predilection was that I could sit on that porch all day or night and gaze off into the distance in my own reverie, listening to Gregory Alan Isakov albums. 

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It seems like I was racing storms all day as I traveled around the state yesterday. They finally caught up with me at the top of the Molly Stark Trail, one of Vermont’s most scenic byways. Someone once told me how the few street signs (mostly stop signs) in Greenland’s research bases and camp cities are completely coated with stickers. It’s a way to get the story of its visitors or inhabitants. Where you’re from, what you like, what you stand for, etc. I thought that was pretty cool, and remembered that when I saw the guardrail that hemmed in the road atop Hogback Mountain. Though that’s not quite the case in Vermont, I’ve seen a few guardrails covered in visitor mementos, many just confessing fannish love for various companies or organizations, alongside sharpied graffiti, names and dates. Appalachian Gap on state route 17 has a similar theme.

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The cluster of tourist buildings that sort of delineate the maximum height of land between Bennington and Brattleboro were all once a part of Hogback Mountain, a defunct ski area cut out of the slopes of Mount Olga which has mostly been recovered by nature.

Hiking Around Hogback Mountain

Hogback was one of the longest lasting family owned traditional ski resorts in the state, and arguably is one of the best lost ski areas in Vermont to explore, though you’d probably guess either of these things while driving by the few diminutive red buildings sitting in tangled underbrush along a slight rise above the wide shoulder of route 9. You’d probably never guess the property was even a ski hill unless you were able to catch the white lettering affixed to the former first aid building that reads “Hog ark Ski Area”, which in all honestly would be a memorable name for a functioning ski hill.

I decided to walk down from the overlook and have a look around at the property. Good thing I wore jeans – the land was wild with tangled undergrowth, and most likely, ticks. Having been bitten by one a month ago, I didn’t want to go through that debacle again. A few old buildings, the rusted bones of an old lift line and a squint-to-make-out overgrown ski trail could still be traced.

Vermont is the land of skiing (and snowboarding) and our pioneering ski hills ranged from extremely plain rope tow affairs to more detailed mom and pop establishments.

If you’re a New Englander, I’d say we’re pretty lucky to have a great site like the New England Lost Ski Area Project. Between that and the book Lost Ski Areas of Southern Vermont by Jeremy K. Davis, I got a startling impression of how many ski areas we once had just in the lower part of Vermont, and how many of them have been, well, lost.

Hogback Mountain itself seemed to be something special. The ski area warranted a pretty long chapter in Davis’s book and a long entry on NELSAP – considering other areas had merely a few sentences. It has a lot of history, so much I had to condense it a bit for the sake of keeping people reading this blog post.

The truth seemed to be that Hogback was envisioned by a community of people who loved skiing, and the consequences were real. Hogback opened for the 1946-47 ski season on prime real estate owned by Harold White, and was operated by the Hogback Mountain Ski Lift Company out of Brattleboro, as well as several of the families who owned the various businesses along route 9, like the White’s who owned the gift shop, the rental shop, the Marlboro Inn and other rental properties. The Douglass’s who were involved with the ski shop, and the Hamelton’s who were involved with the skyline restaurant.

It featured a Constam T-Bar which could move 900 skiers an hour and was the highest capacity lift in the country at the time. Old brochures and trail maps promote the ski hill’s location in Vermont’s “snow belt”, a high annual snowfall area of the Green Mountains which at the time, received an average of 120 inches. The Vermont winters of today are a bit more disparate.

Hogback’s highest elevation was about 2,400 feet (the base area being at around 1,900), which helped preserve the natural snowfall much better than lower area ski hills, which made it so beloved. I observed some older trail maps, and discovered that Hogback had a unique layout. You’d begin your day along route 9 where a hotel, gift shop and Skyline Restaurant were, and ride a rope tow to the practice slope, but intermediate or expert level skiers would have to transport over to a different face of the mountain to access the main T-Bar and more advanced trails.

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A trail map from the 1970s -Hogback Mountain had 12 trails to ride on. To give you an idea of the weird layout and a wayfinding point: number 21 is the first aid building, and below it is Route 9. The first aid building is abandoned and still visible from the road today. That is also where the practice slopes/beginners area was. The more advanced trails were over on another side of the mountain, where numbers 3, 4 and 6 are.

Over the years, the laid back ski hill caught enough popularity from a top notch ski school, excellent snowfall and a gorgeous mountain where skiers would admire spruce trees crusted in snow. In the 50s, it started to expand, and would continue that momentum through the 70s. More trails were cut down the slopes and made easier accessible by a Pomalift and the addition of 4 more Doppelmayr T-bars. There was also a Quonset Hut brought to the property that served as a ski-in snack hut.

Seriously, this place was a big deal. A lot of the history or accounts I read about the mountain was that plenty of southern Vermont kids learned to ski here. It also helped develop a local interest in ski races and became home to the Southern Vermont Racing Team. If a nearby community, like Brattleboro, had an outing club, they probably went to Hogback. The mountain developed a pretty enthusiastically devoted fanbase. The ski school changed instructors a few times over the decades, each new presence contributing to it in their own way.

One of my favorite images I found of Hogback. Love the front of those old cars parked along Route 9, with equipped skiers ready to ride. The hill was literally along the roadside. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.
One of my favorite images I found of Hogback. Love the front of those old cars parked along Route 9, with equipped skiers ready to ride. The trails were literally along the roadside. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.
People on skies at Hogback, circa 1953. I read stories about how wooden shacks were built around the property and used as warming huts, with pot belly stoves inside burning wood continuously. There were signs nearby warning skiers not to get too close. Several learned the hard way when the back of their nylon packs had melted off. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
People on skies at Hogback, circa 1953. I read stories about how wooden shacks were built around the property and used as warming huts, with pot belly stoves inside burning wood continuously. There were signs posted nearby warning skiers not to get too close because of the heat. Several learned the hard way when the back of their nylon packs had melted off. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Skiers getting on a T-Bar, circa 1956. | Photo UVM Landscape Change Project.
Skiers getting on a T-Bar, circa 1956. | Photo UVM Landscape Change Project.
Skiers waiting in line. Sometime vaguely between 1930-1950. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
Skiers waiting in line. Sometime vaguely between 1930-1950. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program
T-Bar lift, circa 1948. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.
T-Bar lift, circa 1948. | Photo: UVM Landscape Change Program.

But towards the 1980s, snowfall began to change to a lack of snowfall. Between not enough natural snow to ski on, rising costs of operation and increasing competition from bigger resorts that were becoming more common on the scene in Vermont mountains, the small mom and pop ski hill eventually couldn’t compete. Hogback’s story is similar to most of Vermont’s lost ski areas. Not being able to compete or stay consistent, most of them became fading ghosts.

Abandoned ski hills are interesting real estate. What do you do with them? Some have subsumed away in the caprices of nature and others re-opened or became private operations. In Hogback’s case, the Vermont Land Trust and a group of adamant people worked pretty tirelessly over the years to secure the funds to purchase and secure the land to save it from becoming a condominium development with a marketed quintessential nature-esque type of name. The purchased acreage was then transferred over to the town of Marlboro, and the cool Hogback Mountain Conservation Area was the result. It’s now glorious protected land, with an abandoned ski hill in the middle that Vermonters can enjoy.

Some of the old ski trails are still maintained and pruned, so hikers, snowshoers and cross-country skiers can still enjoy them. Though, for me anyways, I found that finding those trails was a bit of a challenge.

To my delight and surprise combination, if you bushwhack through some waist-high tangle weeds and growth, you can still find some of the old ski trails, which were still hikable! Well, it’s subjective I guess, but I thought it was achievable. Using the linear rusted cables of the former chairlift as wayfinding points, I decided a short early autumn hike was a good idea. The trail oddly cleared out the farther up I climbed, until both the trail and the lift sort of ended in a blissful and fragrant silence. I was a little bummed I didn’t find an old chairlift or more paraphernalia. If I had gone up farther, I would have eventually stumbled upon the Mount Olga fire tower, which I’m told had splendid far reaching views. You can get there far easier than scrambling up Hogback Mountain, by hiking over via Molly Stark State Park. 

My list of places to visit in Vermont alone is so long, it’s hard to cross stuff off of. I’ll get up there one day.

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There were still old ski poles left behind in the first aid building
There were still old ski poles left behind in the first aid building

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

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

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

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

 

Time Will Tell

Everything changes, a truth that I’ve always fought a stubborn battle with. This town, once rolled over and turned into a sought after destination built around its exploitable mineral springs, has since witnessed its appeal, it’s many hotels, and it’s identity all become ghosts.

In the 19th century, natural springs were discovered in a hollow near town that had high levels of sulfur, magnesium, and iron in them – which were thought to have medicinal properties if mixed just right – that exact recipe changing quite a bit over the intervening mineral springs craze period, depending on what serial publication you subscribed to. Some even professed that these waters were the equivalent to the fountain of youth. The village capitalized on that, and its efforts were successfully rifled.

In a time period in America where a sizable roster of traditions and foundational history were sparked and now only largely recalled – it’s main drag eventually became dressed up with handsome grand hotels that you’d expect to see from that era, many rising above 4 stories and wearing broad porches and clapboard facades as its reputation swelled to an estimated 10,000 visitors coming in every summer, including the likes of the Vanderbilt’s, which is a name everyone loves to tote about if they had any relation to their area.

Business and tourism stopped coming around during the roaring 20s and the depressed 30s, but after World War 2, the diminutive village was rolled over again by the Jewish community of New York City, who brazenly decided that if they were going to face discrimination in the area’s existing vacation towns, than they’d make a place of their own – and with the natural springs and a bunch of existing hotels and infrastructure, the village was opportune for investment.

But the area and its springs were recanted by the 1980s, and it’s increasingly run down appearance as well as the construction of an interstate highway miles north that moved traffic away from the village, only helped to make it forsaken. What hasn’t been torn down today of those aforementioned hotels were left to transition into decrepitude, and strangely memorialize a haunting tradition of wreck that has plagued more than this town. The village today is pretty archetypal small-town America, it’s just littered with a surprising number of abandoned hotels that mark time and make us pause. Unlike many small towns out east – it was built using the grid system like you’d find a city or planned development to be oriented like. That arrangement accounts for the number of bathhouses and hotels that were once packed in the ravine the community sits in. But today – many of these bygone structures have been torn down because of how dangerous they got, leaving many of the “blocks” as wood lots occasionally interrupted by a stop sign. I liked all the patches of forest in between some pleasantly up-kept old houses, it gave the area lots of character.

I had traveled a few hours out of Vermont to explore one of the remaining ruins, a forsaken property ensnared by sickly looking pines that were once intended to landscape, now left to their own devices and slowly intend on consuming the unattended street the large structure molders on.

From what I was able to dig up, it was built around 1927 as a sister hotel to a much more opulent establishment behind it, now also in ruins. But, this was intended more as a long stay property. Guests here would rent rooms by the week or month. When you checked in, you were given two sets of keys. One for your room, and another to a kitchen unit across the hall. It seems most floors, apart from the fourth floor had them. This may have also been an afterthought – as a desperate attempt at a creative solution when business began its slow descent and they found themselves with a surplus of hotel rooms that weren’t generating profit. It seems that the business kind of limped along towards its later years, in a weird fluctuating state of wondering if it was alive or dead, just barely making it into the 21st century before closing in 2004.

Having a bummer of an experience a few years ago at another abandoned hotel in this town when I was chased away by a very disgruntled woman who power walked out her front door with four dogs on a leash and howled at us a reminder of how we were trespassing, I was really hoping for a good experience this time around.

Meeting up with a good compadre from my college days, whose meetups always seems to happen inside a smelly abandoned building of some sort, we set off for an adventure.

It started off awkward, which turned my nerves up a bit loud. This is the kind of burb that everyone takes the time to look at you suspiciously or slow down their car when you walk by if you’re not a local. But after getting off the main drag, things got pretty quiet, and though it was already a hot and sultry evening, there was a slight breeze that brought the perfume of wildflowers. I read somewhere that the springs still made the town smell like “rotten eggs”, but I didn’t detect that at all. I’m a little sorry I missed the springs themselves because I was later told that there is a dipper handy at the sulfur springs near one of the old bath houses, and you can still sample them today.

Getting in proved to be a bit more challenging than anticipated. But then again, I did say I wanted an adventure. After climbing up a wobbly and very evidently out of code fire escape while doing some acrobatic maneuvers that might have vaguely impressed a free climber, we found ourselves stepping carefully over the threshold into a completely different atmosphere.

The silent interior immediately began to smother us with its festering rot, exhaust from its past and advancing water damage. The floors ebbed and groaned beneath our feet as our boots sank into the stretched, threadbare carpets. We actually spent a good 5 minutes or so debating whether we actually wanted to enter or not, because the floors were so deceptively sketchy. This was not the kind of place you wanted to find yourself injured and incapacitated inside of. But, because you’re reading this blog post, that means we decided the reward was greater than the risk.

Once we got away from the northern section of the building, conditions were surprisingly disparate. Rooms were strange time capsules, in decent states of preservation. It was fun scrutinizing over mid-century furniture, beds, rotary phones and even nob television sets that could still be observed, and better yet, mildly free of vandalism. Clothes, blankets, bars of soap, and other miscellany had been left behind. Most of the doorways had transoms, another feature which you don’t see in modern construction. Many of the bathrooms didn’t have bathing facilities though, and the ones that did were only stand up showers. I read that patrons would do that at the springs, I guess.

There was a heaviness to the place that I just couldn’t describe. Me and my friend both exclaimed that our good moods grew cold and were replaced by a feeling of depression. The narrow hallways, cramped rooms and perpetual shadow that fell on the building built a rather grim atmosphere that looked so gone and hollow, only reinforced by its ugly outdated decor that seemed to bring a big broken heart of an existence.

I had heard from a few other friends and explorers that his hotel was shockingly preserved, thanks to it being very unknown in the emergent “urbex” frenzy of the internet. I even saw striking pictures online of a clean front desk with house plants still sitting on its countertop – it made the hotel look like it was simply closed for the weekend as opposed to years. But when I tromped around, it seems that this place too eventually fell victim to the less respectable aspects of human nature. Entire stretches of authentic tin ceiling, a feature of old buildings which I really love, had been pulled down. We didn’t see it on the floors, so I assume it was scrapped and sold for cash. Decor like light fixtures, an ugly yet obligatorily photographable landmark piano and the front desk had been clobbered. Some features, like an original old fashioned elevator with grate doors and a brawny yet ornate safe was still more or less in great condition and tucked away in the dark innards of the hotel.

But it was the relics from the place’s operational days that gave us a weird impression. Though we were only amateur archaeologists, we had noticed there were several signs that had been taped to walls around the hotel, all handwritten by the same person. The signs, now water stained and curling at their corners, were either yelling at guests or yelling at employees, with words like “no” capitalized and triple underlined, which added a bit of discomfort to the place. I have no idea what sort of place this was in its heyday, but finding all these signs made me assume that in its last days, it seemed like a drab, down on your luck sort of experience. I bet Anthony Melchiorri would have made a disapproving beeline towards the general manager’s office if he read one of those signs.

Every level up the grand staircase was a bit more to bear. The fourth floor was nauseating. It was 92 degrees outside, but upstairs the mercury was boiling towards 100, and the air was stale and fetid, making our breaths labored and my eyes water. Hornets seemed to have colonized the upper levels, coming through structural instability and it’s broken wooden windows. Plenty of them were swarming around us as we attempted to explore the upper corridors.

We wound up putting some arm muscle into opening one of the old wooden windows, which hideously groaned in their frames and sent a dusting of grit and lead paint down on our shoulders, but the fresh air coming in from outside was wonderfully refreshing. Far more than it’s view. We appeared to be looking at the inside of the “U” shape of the building, and from that perspective, we could see just how bad the exterior damage was. To my disorientation, it was still pretty bright outside. The inside gave no impression of that due to just how dark it was already getting. As we descended back down the stairwell, I could see the crumbling form of another abandoned hotel from the dirty windowpanes, just over the treeline. This may be one of the only places I’ve visited where you can see more than one abandoned property from another abandoned property.

We left when the shine of the sun wasn’t reaching its way in anymore, and the black vibes came. The talked about restoration of a grander hotel just north of it suggested completely razing this property in its new set of plans, for a parking lot. Structurally, I think the only sensible move would be to demolish it. Though I’m all for preservation, this building is now far too gone. But these rumors have been circulating for years, and the hotel still stands.

I really needed this explore. I needed to get revved up about something and be underneath a spell that only the intoxication of an adventure can bring my way. If you’ve seen my Stuck in Vermont video interview, I talked about how and why this activity, this hobby, is meaningful to me. And this road trip really served as a valuable reminder. I had been losing my wits underneath suffering some terrible anxiety the past weeks, and this was such a relief.

Exploring educates me about several things, and often the stories and nuances of the places featured in my blog parallel the human experience. At least I find. Like the atmosphere of a place you explore affecting you, we are imbibed by our weather, as are the people around us. I flourish in the presence of passion and love, and when I’m doing my thing, I wear that grin and those cherry bombs on my sleeve for all to see. I’ve learned that anxiety doesn’t get me anywhere, but I feel it anyway. Sometimes, like this hotel or other places finding themselves inducted into the fables of the fallen, you can’t be entirely responsible for your own fate. And maybe most prevalent, life always moves on and our stories are always more connected than distance implies. There’s a story to every corner of these places.

Post card prime, date unknown. via cardcow.com

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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

Ephemera

“Wow, how does a place like this even exist?” mulled my friend aloud, lost in her own luminous reverie. I had seen photos of this beautiful dereliction online, but I was just as awed, as the stagnant cold inside stung my hands.

The early morning wintry cold was still hanging over the misty hills of Bolton flats in a hundred shades of blue as we departed for southern New England. While we drove we sat in silence, with heated seats, coffee and the wonderful sounds of Caspian coming through my iPod. After a few hours, Vermont’s brown frozen hills gave way to eight lanes of interstate traffic and lots of Dunkin Donuts signs.

Thirty-two years of fluctuating New England weather and zero upkeep had rotted out the drafty interior. The metal stairwells became stretches of rusty spiderwebs, some were completely untrustworthy. The snow that fell through between broken roof was so loud that you would have thought it was thundering outside. The thick brick walls oozing with slime and glazed by ice blocked cell phone reception pretty well. I received a few texts sent by my friend asking me where I was, hours after she had sent them and on the road back to Vermont, which I guess meant that contact in case of emergencies would have been pretty unaccommodating.

The complex appeared to be a utilitarian and symmetrical layout of two large spaces adjoined by a central row of offices, bathrooms, and mechanical areas. But upon closer and intimate inspection, I was actually more and more surprised at just how many rooms and levels there were, packed in by a labyrinth of confusing staircases and elevated runways. Some spaces were more or less original to their inaugural construction at the turn of the last century, and in the throes of the shifty ways of time, more were accommodated. There were quite a few dank 1970s office spaces put up hastily in areas that contained the infamous giveaway vinyl wall paneling and drop down ceilings, all which were accordion-ing now thanks to precipitous moisture. Some spaces were utterly unidentifiable under the entropy, with collapsing floors and sketchy staircases that lead into ambiguous soggy blackness above. But it was the two main rectangular chambers and their brawniness of broken glass and steel that I was interested in. These cavernous spaces had quite the compendium of artifacts left behind; from magnificent and remarkably intact machinery, actual steel rails still embedded in the floors, to just about anything you can fathom that had somehow found it’s way inside and subsequently left there to waste away. There’s a lot for a person to think about as they walk along the crumbling floors inside this illusion of another world. Just watch out for nails. There are plenty to step on.

The most interesting of things left to rediscover was the extraordinary amounts of sordid books, paperwork and filing cabinet miscellany (and their accompanying filing cabinets) that had been left behind. I’m talking entire floors filled with wall to collapsing wall of old records mummified in decay. Most of the paperwork was illegible, but the oldest date I was able to find was 1931. Another friend and explorer had joked that a photo of mine was the literal embodiment of “squishy”, but as of now, no destination has been able to surpass The Pines Hotel as my “squishy-est” explore, though this place is definitely a contender.

Though we live in a world that has largely been explored, mapped and reclaimed, these human-made spaces become utterly fascinating after their functionality ceases to exist. The mystery continuum of their inner spaces become sort of last frontiers, as nature begins to reclaim everything that has been forsaken by us, transforming these spaces into something incredible. It’s on these explores that I like to attempt a little amateur forensic archaeology, and try to pick at the bones.

The suburban New England town I traveled too became the chosen plot of land for the formerly prestigious Boston & Maine Railroad to build their rail yards and repair/manufacture shops in 1913. What is considered to be one of American’s oldest suburbs was built up in the adjacent area to accommodate the growing need for laborers, many of the garden enhanced neighborhoods eventually were built up over old track beds that were once spur lines leading back towards the roundhouse, depot and loading docks. The continuously shape-shifting property grew to massive scales as the railroad industry became a future facing wonder, as growing mill towns and their populations created a ravenous market. That is, until the automobile became de rigueur.

The popularization of the automobile and the trucking industry seems to be the harbinger of death for a good amount of the ruins I visit, and this seemed to follow the same storyline, as both the automobile and leveling of the same manufacturing that created the demands for the railroad, murdered it. The railroad had grown so much during its boom years, that it went into unpayable debt for the miles of tracks they laid and smaller companies they acquired in the throes of good-natured greedy competition. Towards the latter half of the 20th century, the railroad industry indignantly stepped back into a darker corner of civic and popular culture, and the massive campus was now useless.

The B&M went bankrupt in 1970 and despite efforts to reorganize and restrategize, became a ghost by 1983, when it was bought by another regional rail company. By 1984, the complex was abandoned altogether because all that space simply wasn’t needed by the diminishing industry. But, not before they left a naively irresponsible legacy of destruction and negligence behind them, as the massive yards were also used for toxic waste dumps and a place to haul train wreck shrapnel over the years, which earned the place an official designation on the Superfund site list, a bone of contention that isn’t even expected to be taken seriously until 2031-ish because like everything else, the EPA doesn’t have the money. To the locals understandable displeasure, there was quite a bit of opacity about their houses abutting a literal toxic waste dump – information which wasn’t even made widely public until some neighbors did a little digging in the late 80s when a pervasive chemically smell began to waft through side streets near the industrial park, and became an uncelebrated normal.

I was able to find a few articles on the local public radio website that explained that the entire 553 acres are so swamped with pollution – ranging from asbestos, arsenic, cadmium, lead, selenium, petrochemicals and wastewater lagoons that it not only earned a spot on the national Superfund database list, but it’s one of the worst in America. “You couldn’t leave your house to go out and even have a nice barbecue because the odor was so bad”, said an interviewed resident recalling how bad it was a few decades ago. To makes things more apprehensive, The EPA says human exposure risk is still “not under control”, though it seems far more controlled today than when the report was written. I guess I can cross off walking around a toxic waste site off my bucket list, regardless of the fact it wasn’t on my list.

Today, most of the former property has been reincarnated as a shabby looking industrial park. The largest railway in New England has it’s main headquarters here still, that sits directly in the decrepit shadow of the abandoned shop buildings I was walking around, among a few other places with no-frills signage and creepy vacant looking front entrances. That being said, this is still an active industrial park, with employees, cops, and on my visit, guys who operate plows, that are present on a daily basis. Unlike me, who technically has no reason to be here other than curiosity. The rail lines that hem in the property are also still in use, and some of the industrial businesses in the park receive rail traffic.

There is always a certain reward to risk ratio that I use as the dichotomy or gauge of how I treat my explores. On this trip, my friend and I and my friend decided to simply walk towards the buildings with our cameras, as there was no way we could get inside without someone seeing us, and I didn’t drive through three states just to turn around. The man in the plow noticed us as he was relocating a snow drift. We all mutually nodded our heads in affirmation and confidentially walked inside. We were exploring for four hours or so, and the cops never came, which was great, because this fascinating locale has easily turned into one of my fondest explores. This is one of those places I could return to multiple times and have a different experience at.

But I wouldn’t take that one fortunate opportunity for granted. I know a few people who have been dragged out by the powers that be before, which is why brushing up on trespassing laws in other states isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Until some serious clean up and the accompanying scrutiny happens, these hulking and fetid ruins and all their soggy decay are more or less, in limbo.

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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. 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!

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Underneath The Ground

Vermont’s visage is one of scenic mountains and an eye magnetic lack of industry, which makes the state a notable contrast from its neighbors. But a few decades ago, our Green Mountains were combed with industry that depended on the state’s naturally occurring topography and it’s profitable innards. Many of the state’s rural areas have once been cannibalized for their precious commodities that lay underneath the ground, and if you look below the surface, many small communities still bear the scars from irresponsible practices and their related pollution.

No one is quite sure how copper was discovered in Vermont, but according to hazy hear say, it’s inception to the state economy was pretty much circumstantial. Legend says that farmers and land owners in what’s now Orange County began noticing the indicatory rusty discoloration in snow drifts on their properties while out tapping Maple trees or out while fox hunting towards the late 1700s. That discovery ensured that a few decades later, businessmen were compelled to begin mining for copper in Vermont’s newly emerging copper “belt”. Though the boom was contained in a pretty small area limited to southern Orange County, its mines became fabled for a brief time for their voluminous outputs that took insufferable work to tease out, one of them becoming the largest copper producing mine in America for a brief time.

Vermont’s copper belt, in Orange County | USGS

Vershire’s Ely Mine was said to have a more intriguing discovery. It was said that as early as the late 1700s, inconspicuous trails of sulphury smoke and fireballs were seen over the forests of John Richardson’s farm on Dwight Hill in Vershire. But it wasn’t until after a rainstorm in 1812 that would clear up any speculation, when his daughter Becky stepped on and sunk up to her knee in a mound that looked like a “burnt outcropping” while walking the property. Realizing she was stuck fast, she began to holler for help. When she was pulled out, her leg was found coated in an orange mud and the hole filled with an odorous sulphury mess.

Encouraged by this colorful evidence, in 1820, a group of local farmers got together and formed The Farmers Company and began purchasing mineral rights in the area in order to produce copperas. By 1833, the aforementioned Richardson farm was surveyed by an Issac Tyson, described as “probably the leading industrial chemist of the day”. Tyson was the first to attempt drilling at what would be known as the Ely mine. Around 1833, he started boring an adit (a horizontal tunnel) to intersect the vein from the southern side of the hill, but two years later and ninety-four feet without striking ore, Tyson’s partners lost faith in the project (possibly influenced by the financial panic of 1834) and pulled out despite Tyson’s protests.

But by now, the tantalizing word that copper was underneath Vermont’s hills was out, and more people wanted in. In 1854, The Vermont Copper Mining Company was created and immediately picked up where Tyson left off. They purchased the property for $1,000 and ironically, they only needed to dig an additional four feet in Tyson’s discontinued adit to strike the vein he was looking for.

One of the original investors in the mine was a New Yorker named Smith Ely, who would eventually take control over the mine and company after the civil war, which produced a huge demand for copper. With a new national ban on foreign copper, the need for domestic production stirred an uproar. Under Ely’s leadership, the mine that now wore his last name became a significant operation and would grow to become the largest copper mine in the United States for a time, reaching a peak employment by November 1881 – of 851 curious and voracious miners.

Of those toiling in those dangerous and rather grim conditions were both adults and children, some as young as ten. Most were Cornish and Irish immigrants, with the rest of the employment being made of Germans, Italians and Canadians. This stereoview of the Ely miners was taken sometime between 1860 and 1883, according to vague photograph records. | UVM Landscape Change Program
Of those toiling in those dangerous and rather grim conditions were both adults and children, some as young as ten. Most were Cornish and Irish immigrants, with the rest of the employment being made of Germans, Italians and Canadians. Cornish miners specifically had a reputation for being rough, rowdy and reckless, which made them sought after employees for many American construction feats. This stereoview of the Ely miners was taken sometime between 1860 and 1883, according to vague photograph records. I especially enjoy the miners hanging out the second story windows. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A group of men wearing long pants and shirts, one carrying a lamp, enters one of the small and dark mine shafts at Ely, being supported by wooden poles and piles of rocks. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A group of men wearing long pants and long shirts, one carrying a lamp, enters one of the small and dark mine shafts at Ely, being supported by wooden poles and piles of rocks. Conditions were dangerous. Old records tell of miners packing their ears with cotton to prevent themselves from going death from the loud noises of the drilling. There was no workplace safety protocols and no protection, so miners often had to think creatively when they were concerned with prognostics. The men who were employed in the industry were often just as tough as the harsh environment they worked in. Some old timers who actually recall the copper mines stoically allude to just how obscene they were, described as the sort of place where a man did what he had to do.| UVM Landscape Change Program
A group of men deep down in what they called "The Back Stopes", or the deepest section of the Ely mine, which was supported by steel L-beams and more loose rocks that fell from the shaft walls. Gotta make use of all those rocks I suppose. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This compelling photo shows a group of men deep down in what they called “The Back Stopes”, or the deepest section of the Ely mine, which was supported by steel L-beams and more loose rocks that fell from the shaft walls. Gotta make use of all those rocks I suppose. It definitely takes someone with a particular cast of mind to labor in conditions like this | UVM Landscape Change Program
This is what the miners were looking for. This is the main body of Chalcopyrite ore at Ely, aka, Yellow Copper. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This is what the miners were looking for. This is the main body of Chalcopyrite ore at Ely, aka, Yellow Copper. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This photograph taken circa 1860 shows a large wheel wound with heavy cable, which is most likely used to pull mining cars to and from the site. There is a smaller gear that is propelled by the engine in the bottom left of the image. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This photograph taken circa 1860 shows a large wheel wound with heavy cable, which was most likely used to pull mining cars to and from the site. There is a smaller gear that is propelled by the engine in the bottom left of the image. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A mine crawling with bodies required a village to be built, and one of more than 100 buildings was constructed over hillsides dumped with a gamut of mine related waste byproducts and very little vegetation.
A mine crawling with bodies required a village to be built, and one that would eventually be made of more than 100 buildings was constructed over hillsides melding with a gamut of mine related waste byproducts and very little vegetation. |UVM Landscape Change Program
The village and the mine collectively became known as Copperfield, which would eventually become more prominent than Vershire, the actual town the mine was in. To make things a bit more interesting, Vershire would briefly change it's name to Ely in 1878, but was changed back to Vershire just 4 years later when the mine fell on financial troubles it would never recover from.
The village and the mine collectively became known as Copperfield, which would eventually become more prominent than Vershire, the actual town the mine was in. To make things a bit more interesting, Vershire would briefly change it’s name to Ely in 1878 because of the huge financial success of the mine, but was changed back to Vershire just 4 years later when the mine began to spiral into bankruptcy. Not to be confused with the village of Ely, where the copper was loaded into trains and shipped to Boston. It still retains it’s name today and can be found at the junction of VT 244 at Route 5 in Fairlee, though now days it’s little more than a few old farmhouses near some railroad tracks. | UVM Landscape Change Program

In 1876, Smith Ely’s grandson Ely Goddard would take over the mine. His first act of business was to change his last name to Ely-Goddard in honor of his grandfather. His next act would be to  make himself more at home, by constructing himself a lavish vanity project in the middle of the village; a mansion which he named Elysium (pictured in the photo above, the white building with the central copula), a reference to the ancient Greek concept of the afterlife, and perhaps demonstrating some of his exaggerated swagger with a play on his last name. The mansion was regarded as one of the finest feats of architecture in otherwise hardscrabble orange county, and soon became a place where grand parties would be held where Ely-Goddard’s rich friends from New York, Newport RI and as far away as Paris would come and have nights of debauchery while the miners whose dwellings encircled the mansion enclave were close to starving.

The Ely’s entrepreneurial spirit earned them some lauded accolades in the Green Mountains, including Ely-Goddard being elected to the house of representatives in 1878, and the company lawyer Roswell Farnum being elected governor in 1880, which was no doubt a period that was very kind to the mining industry. Or maybe I’m just being cynical.

The ore was mined from adits that went deep into the mountains. It was roasted for 2-3 months in beds, giving off sulfur fumes, and was then taken to the smelters, huge furnaces lined with brick. A chimney flue ran up the side of the hill to take away the worst of the smelter emissions, but not far away. A contemporary description says that "the country around the village is ... completely destitute of vegetation....For some distance around, all vegetable growth is sparse and stunted. And pervading everything is a most beastly odor from the roasting beds." (To this day, a century after the mine was closed, nothing grows around the smelter site.)| UVM Landscape Change Program
The ore was mined from adits that went deep into the mountains. It was roasted for 2-3 months in beds that gave off vile sulfur fumes and then taken to the smelters, huge furnaces lined with brick (the long rectangular building pictured above). Tall brick chimneys were built up the side of the hill to take away the worst of the smelter emissions, but not far enough, as most of the smoke pretty much permeated around the slopes and the village, creating acid rain which decimated the landscape around the mine. A written historical account of the pollution I was able to dig up says that “the country around the village is … completely destitute of vegetation….For some distance around, all vegetable growth is sparse and stunted. And pervading everything is a most beastly odor from the roasting beds.” To this day, a century after the mine was closed, nothing grows around the smelter site.| UVM Landscape Change Program
This photo from 1860 shows the extensive pollution from the mining operations; a wasteland of tailings piles, slag and wood scraps from older mine structures. | UVM Landscape Change Program
This photo from 1860 shows the extensive pollution from the mining operations; a fetid place of tailings piles, slag and wood scraps from older mine structures. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A view of the Ely mine, Copperfield and West Hill taken around 1900, after the mine's abandonment. The landscape is a barren and desolate one, devoid of vegetation. | UVM Landscape Change Program
A view of the Ely mine, Copperfield and West Hill taken around 1900. Eventually, they built buildings on top of the huge tailings piles because they grew so large. The landscape is a barren and desolate one, devoid of vegetation. | UVM Landscape Change Program

But having an upper hand in politics couldn’t save the mines against more profitable opportunities out west. As a result, the price of copper began to fall as domestic supplies increased. Mining in Vermont was hard. The deposit veins produced little copper that required more work than payoff to access, and most mines were far away from convenient transportation corridors. In 1881, Smith Ely sold his shares in the mind to Ely-Goddard and the newly in the picture Francis Cazin, a German engineer who planned on saving the mine by profusely dumping money into it. But it didn’t work, and Ely-Goddard blamed and fired Cazin, who sued the company in retribution.

On June 29th, 1883, all the bad financial investments and a newly emerging series of lawsuits caught up with the company. By now, the Ely mine boasted the largest copper mining shaft dug in Vermont, unconfidently considered to be anywhere between 3,400 feet, to 4,000 feet deep. For a comparison, our largest mountain, Mount Mansfield, is 4,395 feet. But despite the efforts, only about 3% of what miners were carving out was actually marketable copper, and the cost of operations, such as hoisting apparatuses, pumps that kept the shafts from flooding and the tons of wood needed to burn to keep the smelting processes going, had drained their bank account.

Their solution was posting a sign telling miners that the mines would be closed until they agreed to take a pay cut, which of course didn’t go over so well. The miners who had already gone two months without pay, revolted in what is sometimes called The Ely War, which is both considered the most important instance of labor unrest in Vermont and to my surprise, almost never talked about. Having already worked for months without paychecks, the miners had reached their limits of toleration and went on strike. They raided the company store, started destroying company buildings in the village, acted without foresight and broke the pumps that kept the shafts from flooding to make the mines unprofitable for the owners, and stole all the gunpowder and threatened to do further extensive damage with it if they didn’t get their pay.

To add insurance, they all marched to Smith Ely’s house in West Fairlee chanting “bread or blood!” The startled Ely, who was desperate to get the angry mob off his lawn, assured them that they would all get paid. But instead, he sent out a distressful telegram to governor Barstow and the national guard was deployed to arrest the rioters.

The militia marched into Copperfield underneath the stars, found the strike leaders and arrested them in their beds. As the sun rose above the martian landscape around the mines and the other miners awoke from their beds, they saw their strike leaders indignantly being marched down the main drag in irons. The so-called Ely War was over. Another interesting account I found online told of a different, more earnest story.

On the morning of July 6th, 184 members of the national guard marched into Copperfield expecting to find an unruly mob of miners waiting for them but instead found eerily quite buildings built upon slag pile debris. The miners, who were waking up by then, noticed the national guard soldiers walking around town, and went out to converse with them. After telling them their grievances, the national guard sympathized instead of incarcerated, and gave the miners all their food rations before getting back on the train.

As these stories often end, the miners were never compensated, and the company went bankrupt by 1888 because ironically, they weren’t able to meet their obligations because of all the damning facts pointing  to the company’s inevitable death. And, the mines were now underwater.

Because the mine was now virtually useless, it changed ownership a few times with hopes of re-opening before becoming permanently defunct by 1920. Elysium was sold for $155 and moved to Lake Fairlee, which can still be seen today off state route 244, and the Copperfield Methodist church can now be seen in tiny Vershire village off state route 113, while the rest of the buildings became forsaken and slowly disintegrated to dust.

This is one of the smelting sheds at the Ely mine, taken around 1960, decades after it's abandonment, the wobbly structure still stands. | UVM Landscape Change Program.
Some urban exploring far before my time! This is one of the smelting sheds at the Ely mine, taken around 1960, decades after it’s abandonment, the wobbly structure still stands, regardless of glassless windows, slumping roof and walls that were more hole than wall. | UVM Landscape Change Program.
An abandoned entrance to one of the mines at Ely, summer 2006. | Collamer Abbott/UVM Landscape Change Program
An abandoned entrance to one of the mines at Ely, summer 2006. | Collamer Abbott/UVM Landscape Change Program

My friend Eric, a close friend from my college days, grew up in West Fairlee down the road from the Ely mine, which is how I found out about the place to begin with. So in the dying days of 2015, as the temperature dropped precipitously, we set out in his Subaru to go walk around his old high school stomping grounds.

Driving down state route 113 with Montreal’s Stars playing softly from his iPod, we entered tiny Vershire, a name that’s an agglomeration of Vermont and New Hampshire, and is either pronounced “Ver-shur” or “Ver-sheer”, depending on who you are. It seems like it’s a trivial bone of contention between Vershire-ites. After the closer of the Ely mines, Vershire lost scores of its population until it dwindled to just 236 inhabitants in 1960, making it the smallest town in already low populated Orange County. According to the 2010 census, the population has since grown to 730.

Off the town’s main drag, which is the destitute state route 113, there is an easy to miss intersection with an evocatively incongruous name; Brimestone Corner. While I’m not sure of the story behind this curious name, I have my own theory. There are plenty of locales in Vermont named after the Christian personification of evil, such as Satan’s Kingdom on Lake Dunsmore, and Devil’s Den in Mount Tabor, to name a few. Superstitious settlers gave the suggestive geography their names years ago, when remote and rough patches of wilderness were foreboding, shadowy and full of rocks which made farming almost impossible. It seemed to make sense to them that the Devil himself called these places home. However Brimstone Corner got its name, I love the fact that it still appears on modern day map engines like Google.

Brimstone Corner
Google Maps.
I love the sedentary enjoyment of getting lost browsing Google maps. Even though Vermont's copper belt is little more than a ghost, it's residue still sticks around in the form of names. Places like "Copperas Brook" and "Copper Flats" near South Strafford are a testament to what created the region.
I love the sedentary enjoyment of getting lost browsing Google maps. Even though Vermont’s copper belt is little more than a ghost, it’s residue still sticks around in the form of names. Places like “Copperas Brook” and “Copper Flats” near the Elizabeth Mine Superfund Site in South Strafford are a testament to what created and later haunted the region. | Google Maps.

Death often ends a story, but in the cases of some forsaken places, they can also extend a bit in their celebrity. I’ve covered a few of them in this blog, and the Ely mine would fit right in I’d say. Exploring the historical oddity with Eric also meant that I got some of the inside details of it’s strange and seemingly nefarious local lore that has more or less simultaneously garnered such a reputation and earned it some infamy with area youth, curious visitors and allegedly bad dudes that aren’t necessarily connected to the mafia.

There’s a corollary in the world of abandoned mines that the empty real estate is a great place for humanity’s more ghastly truths. Apparently sometime in the early 2000s, vicinity pets began to go missing, mostly dogs. Eventually, curious visitors to the mine found several decomposing dog corpses stashed within Ely’s dank mine tunnels. Later, the pieces would be put together and it appeared that local boys had been kidnapping and killing their canine victims. I also heard that human remains have been found underneath Dwight Hill as well, but I’m not completely sure of the veracity of both these tales.

In keeping with both traditions of mine shafts being a desirable place to dump unwanted variables or pesky things that could be considered evidence and sometimes buried secrets are difficult to keep buried, there was a local man who made good profit a decade or so ago, by kindly offering to dispose of rural Vermont’s endless junked tire population. Only, he was just dumping them at Ely, which was already considered a Superfund site that the time, and was somehow caught and penalized. A huge mound of tires still sits towards the upper part of the property that ring a beaver dam below a steep birch tree clumped ridge line. That part of the mine was eerily quiet, the only sound was our boots clomping through deceptive ground that was more mud than ground, the unmistakable odor of sulphury perfume inhaled by my nose that doesn’t belie the truth of the matter here.

Eric also recalls the plight of schoolhouse brook which formed the line diminishing edge of his backyard, and how he recalls fish swimming in its shallow waters as a kid, but as he grew and the river grew shades murkier, lifeforms were reduced significantly.

There was a strange beauty to the landscape though that also helped to establish the aura of mystery that tends to surround these sites. The ruins at Ely are a simple yet compelling depiction of our collective history here, a testimony to both prowess and irresponsibility. Not much remains at all of it’s legacy here because of a massive cleanup initiated in 2011, which I couldn’t help be a bit disappointed by, but in the end, there is something about these old mines and their stories that yield an irresistible intrigue to me. Oddly enough, I read that the property is also eligible to be inducted on the national register of historic places, but I’m a little lost as to what that distinction would actually do for the property.

Observing the beaver dam, I couldn’t help but wonder if it was around when the mines were active, or more of a recent addition after the chaotic operations became ghosts. Beaver dams are built to last by design, which makes them historical landmarks, and there are plenty of still existing ones that have actually predated many of our settlements.

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The mine’s presence in the area was immediate from the road. The former smelter area is a stained, stony wasteland of yellow colored gravel and stone foundations encroached by brush.
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With the November winds battering us in a spiteful fashion, we set out onto the huge property. A packed class D forest road lead us from the roadside up the hill towards the mine, passing a literal garbage dump along the way, containing everything from an old stove, literal hills of glass bottles, an old truck, and a gamut of relics from twinkie wrappers to empty boxes of bullets.
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This sludgy waterway of rust is called Ely Brook, which runs through the property and brings all of the waste into other area rivers. The EPA proclaims that acid mine drainage is the primary cause of pollution here, or, the outflow of acidic water laced with high metal concentrations from both within the mines and the large waste dump piles. The tailings on the property are rich in metals and sulfides. As water passes over and through the tailings, sulfuric acid is produced and the metals within the tailings are dissolved and mobilized.  In 2001, the Vershire wasteland got it’s designation as a Superfund site, which meant federal dollars went into cleaning it up. Or, more realistically, attempting to keep the place in a state of arrested progression, making sure it can’t pollute the area environment anymore than it already has. Cleanups began in September of 2011.
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The brawny stone walls of the former ore roast bed site still stand, despite the intrusion of new growth trees through it.
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According to the EPA, there was about 100,000 tons of tailings and slag piles left on the property. Though cleanup has gotten rid of the stuff nearest the road, towards the back of the property is still filled with gigantic dunes covered with mangy looking birch trees, the only arboreal growth that will take root here.
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According to a battered tin sign spayed with bullet holes near the road, The Ely Gun Club calls the shots for the huge property today, which allows hunters and gun enthusiasts to enjoy the property, which is practically the only thing you can do on it. We found much evidence of this on top of one of the tailings piles.
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From the top of one of the domineering tailings piles, we were treated to some great views of Vermont’s low profile hills, and in the distance, the gray saw tooth edged forms of New Hampshire’s brawny White Mountains.
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Some old foundations could still be detected amongst the birch trees and tall weeds.
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At first, we thought this stone-lined hole in the ground was an old well, but now I’m not so sure once I discovered that below the water’s surface, there were dark subterranean passageways that lead back beyond a discernible line of sight.
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The Ely mine shafts are dangerous and unpredictable. With so little experience, I opted against going that far inside. At least until I can head back with an experienced tour guide.

Though I didn’t cover the Elizabeth Mine in this blog entry because it’s already lengthy enough, it’s very much worth noting. It holds the distinction of being the oldest running copper mine in Vermont, running for 150 years before following the trend of Vermont’s other mines and closing for good in 1958. The property was also inaugurated into the Superfund family of sites, and underwent a massive clean up in 2010. But because of the mine’s unique historical status, parts of it have been left alone. Such as the mineshafts. Why? Because according to someone who wrote to me, this is the mine that supplied the northern/union army with copper during the civil war, which in itself is very cool.

Not much of anything remains of the Elizabeth, apart for a uniform green state historic marker on aptly named mine road in tiny South Strafford and a few uninteresting but politely demolished foundations. But it’s the colossal open cut mines, dubbed to the point as the north and south cuts, that still remain on the property that are worth the surprisingly steep and deceptive hike up scrapped rock faces where former tailings piles were left, to the edge to gaze down at these huge and dangerous big digs of showmanship. The south cut is known by cavers as quite the challenging adrenaline rush, and the north cut which is a more eroded copy of the south cut, is flooded and draws cliff jumpers and people looking for a place to cool off during the summer.

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The south cut and it’s adits in the winter of 2016, covered with layers of dangerous ice.

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Sources/For More Information

Lots of research materials went into writing this piece, including:

EPA Superfund Ely Mine Site | EPA PDF booklet on the Ely Mine, which features both a handy map of the site as well as a map that illustrates how the acid drainage runoff effects the area watersheds.

http://www.usgennet.org/usa/vt/county/orange/vershire/

A short history of the Ely Mine by Paul Donavan

The Ely War, VPR | The Ely War, Virtual Vermont Internet Magazine

The blog, Vermont Deadline, which I just pleasantly discovered.

Paul Donavan, a Vermont mine enthusiast,  has a very cool website that includes his photographs of his ventures into the mines, as well as a great drawn map of Ely mine’s subterranean passageways. This gave me a good idea of the lay of the land. **I’d especially recommend my favorite of his photos, a set of slimy and disused rails still can be found underground in the Ely mines.

UVM Landscape Change Program, which is becoming one of my go-to sites for historical photographs and Vermont history.

I was very interested in exactly how copper was made, and got a good amount of information from this site

For other copper or Vermont enthusiasts like myself, you might enjoy this good documentary on copper mining in Vermont:

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

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

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

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

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The Soggy Remains of The Pines

Last weekend, I took a road trip with a friend to The Borscht Belt, a tongue-in-cheek colloquial moniker given to an area of New York’s Catskills Mountains interspersed with decaying hotels from a bygone era.

In the 20th century, the Jewish community from New York City were being battered with a growing antisemitism movement which barred them from many mainstream hotels and vacation destinations. That well-realized awareness encouraged them to build a destination of their own, and the Catskill Mountains a few hours north of New York City became their prospective topography that would be superimposed with lots and lots of blueprints.

Many establishments started out as simple farmhouses that offered hearty meals and a place to sleep, attracting city dwellers with mountain views instead of glass and steel, scented mountain air instead of smog, and noises other than the sound of a city crawling with bodies. Other early attempts at tourism capitalized on the mineral springs fashion of the Victorian age.  It seemed like these investments were working, because towards the 1930s, the area began to turn celebrity. Smaller establishments expanded as new hotels would be envisioned.

Soon, a rather long and boundary debatable cluster of small hardscrabble towns began to become destination communities as lavish all-inclusive resort hotels began to spread out on former farms or woodlots. As time progressed,  some places began so popular that private air strips were being envisioned so they could accommodate a predicted increase of air travel from the city. The most revered appeal of the Catskills was that many of these resorts offered upper class amenities and made them accessible to folks that normally couldn’t afford those luxuries.

The Pines was one of those hotels, once beloved now moldering in the tiny and depressed little hamlet of South Fallsburg. Existing since 1933, The Pines wasn’t one of the largest Borscht Belt resorts, but it was arguably one of it’s grandest. It grew to offer 400 rooms, a golf course, tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, a ski chalet and trails, an indoor skating rink, conference rooms and a night club, and restaurant and bar. It’s once lavish theater hosted the usual ‘Jewish Alps’ (another Catskills epithet) entertainers of the day such as Buddy Hackett and Robert Goulet.

The Catskills popularity found it’s pivot point during the 1970s, when social changes stepped out of the throes of the fight many younger members of the Jewish culture no longer had to face as their parents did.

That, and cheap air travel could take people to other places for around the same price as a trip upstate. Now, people could go to Florida or Europe and didn’t need to settle for the Catskills. Ironically, even the Adirondacks, the loftier and bumpier part of upstate New York, were still increasing in popularity, leaving the Catskills to corrode in rust and sorrow. The Pines’ story seems to end like most of these stories do. The sprawling hotel was sold in 1998 and bought by The Fallsburg Estates LLC, who wished to revitalize the 96-acre property and, in addition to revamping the ski hill and golf course, build shiny new condos over the ramshackle hotel. But by 2002, they filed for bankruptcy, which is consequently why the hotel is in the deplorable and vulnerable state it’s in today.

The remnants of the Catskill craze are still around, even if the craze isn’t. Today, the region is littered with abandoned properties – fantasies of blight whose visages bear slovenly expressions that welcome vandals, explorers, arsonists, scrappers and teenagers who are excited by the prospect of a paintball game or a place to drink cheap beer.

Arriving in South Fallsburg, I felt awkward driving around it’s deserted residential streets. Much of the area looks strangely incongruous, like a mockup community built by the government during the cold war that was awaiting the detonation of a nuclear bomb. The weird inner city like apartment blocks sitting in the woods were oddly desolate and forlorn looking, and the increasing amount of signs in Yiddish further sent me a feeling of dislocation.

Hiking up through the woods on a great 63 degree October afternoon, myself and my friend soon found ourselves staring at the brooding and ugly ruins of what was left of The Pines, and there wasn’t all that much. I had came a bit late, after it’s exploration heyday it seems, leaving me with what remained of it’s rotting bones.

The old hotel was absolutely trashed, being inside was like stepping into a rotting cave. The perpetually soggy carpets and dripping water immediately soaked my boots and the air was absolutely foul without a resporator mask. Some levels had entirely collapsed, while other wings were more hole than floor. Moss, mold and plant life grew wild on the the carpets and walls. Some rooms were completely destroyed, while others were strange enclaves of preservation, the difference at times depended on which side of the hallway you were on. Mimicking the residual motions of the long gone guests, I spent several hours walking around it’s dark passages, feeling disparate nostalgia for a time I never even lived through.

Scrappers had ransacked the surviving sordid buildings for any valuable materials they could rip out of the walls or ceilings. Evidence of squatters camps could be found in a few rooms, which was a real poignant and sobering sentiment that there are some who do spend the night in this grim place, leprous with mold, rot and water damage that was beginning to make entire buildings buckle and bend as sections begin to lose their ability to do what they were designed to do.

A few different arson attempts were successful around 2003 and 2007, and consumed a few smaller outbuildings. Later, the indoor pool, famous theater, and indoor skating rink were razed, with an implied intent that the rest of the property was soon to follow. But demolition was halted, and the property sits in perishing limbo, somewhere between what it once was, and whatever it’s turning into.

Vintage Postcard of The Pines, circa 1960s. via cardcow.com
The Persian Room, the nightclub and theater at The Pines, now demolished. via cardcow.com
The Pines’ kidney shaped outdoor pool with concrete arch bridge. via cardcow.com
Indoor Pool, now demolished. via cardcow.com
Indoor/outdoor skating rink. The Pines was one of the early resorts to use artificial snow making in the area. Now demolished. via cardcow.com
Oof. A Very dated guest room at The Pines, circa 1960. Those sheets look pretty interesting, how they are designed to fold snugly around the shape of the bed and over the pillows, like housekeeping wanted to make sure you had the most sanitized night sleep of any hotel you’ve stayed at. via http://uglymotelrooms.blogspot.com/

Here is a promo made around the 1980s I found on Youtube, to give you an idea of what this place used to be like.

My talented friends at Antiquity Echoes made this great edit of their exploration to The Pines a few years ago, and their thoughtful camerawork shows much of the hotel that has long vanished.

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The first building we came upon was the former clubhouse on the golf course, a cool mid-century building with an angled roof line. The building was two stories, and housed locker rooms and a pro shop. The interior was strewn with soggy insulation and broken glass, skis and ski boots, golf bags and pairs of cleats, and a weird pile of plastic ‘Hawaiin’ leis in the basement.

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First up was the two story Regency wing.
Next up, the two story Regency wing.
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The dark interiors were a ruined and spongy creation of hip 1970s avocado pallets.

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All that remains of the Persian Room is the signature concrete terraced levels.

 

DSC_0347_pe.jpgIn the 1990s, convention centers were becoming Catskills de rigueur, so many hotels, including The Pines, built them up on their properties.

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One of the catwalks that connected the many buildings of the hotel together, so guests could get from place to place in convenient comfort.
One of the catwalks that connected the many buildings of the hotel together, so guests could get from place to place in convenient comfort.

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The soggy remains of the lobby. The entire carpet had grown a lawn of moss and plant life, and the eerie sound of dripping water through rotten ceiling tile was the only sound that could be heard in the otherwise silent building.
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One of the former bars of the spacious two-story lobby. This reminds me of a story I read somewhere on the internet a while back (whose source I’ve forgotten). Years ago, an explorer who was visiting The Pines found some Zima’s in a refrigerator that had clearly not been refrigerated for years. For some reason, they drank all 6 of them. About a year later, they were at a party, and a girl opened a fresh Zima. In horror, they discovered that Zima were supposed to be clear in color. Though not drinking suspicious beverages left at an abandoned location is exploring 101 for me, I strangely know a few people who have done this and were absolutely okay with it. I love adventures, but that’s a bit more adventurous than I want.

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What remained of the restaurant. There was quite a bit of leftover evidence of a paintball game that had happened here. But that got me questioning. The floors here were more hole than not, with us stumbling into several occasions when we discovered that the carpet was the only thing preventing us from falling down into the basement. How the hell did they play paintball here??

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The massive kitchen was lit up generously by lots of skylights.
The massive kitchen was lit up generously by lots of skylights.

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Straight ahead is the Essex building. The dark space underneath is where guests would have driven under upon arrival.
Straight ahead is the Essex building. The dark space underneath is where guests would have driven under upon arrival.

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The Savoy Wing was a funky, kitschy nightmare of shag carpeting, red and pink walls, and guestrooms outfitted with mirrored walls and faux window treatments. Excessive water damage and clogged gutters allowed years of water to pour down through the ceilings and eventually lead to a large collapse in the center of the building.
The Savoy Wing was a kitschy experience of psychedelia, with shag carpeting, red and pink walls, and guestrooms outfitted with mirrored walls and faux window treatments. Excessive water damage and clogged gutters allowed years of water to pour down through the ceilings and eventually lead to a large collapse in the center of the building.

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Autumn just makes road trips better. Driving north towards Middleburgh, we were immersed deep within the surprisingly vast destitution of the Catskill Park Wilderness, which meant driving on curvy paved back roads around beaver meadows and rolling hills all dying in a brilliant uniform yellow for several hours, occasionally passing through a small town that was a collection of unmaintained old houses and maybe a church. There are no gas stations in the Catskills, which always makes my anxiety glance at the gas gauge needle and sucks if you need a bathroom.

Another noticeable difference between the Catskills and Vermont, besides the singular foliage color of yellow, was that while I may encounter 3 deer wandering out into the middle of the road in 3 years in Vermont, in the Catskills, we had to slam on our breaks for 8 deer in a single drive.

Eventually, we happened upon a state park and camped out for the night on the last available night of the state park season. The temperature dropped into the teens and I was kept awake all night by wailing coyotes and things that scampered through the dead leaves around my tent. But with a cozy campfire and some microbrews bought at nearby Middleburgh; a startling and mood improving oasis of blue collar businesses and a Christmas light covered main street, it was a great night. The next morning, I was as rested as sleeping on a tent pitched on a gravel bed in 18 degree weather would get me, and we were off.

Gross at Grossingers

About 20 minutes from The Pines sat another enormous abandonment where I briefly stopped to photograph. This hotel was legendary, and was arguably the hotel that became the representation of the region, growing to a size of 35 buildings on 1,200 acres. In 1952, it would enter its place in worldly accolades as the first place that used artificial snow making on its ski slopes.

So large was this property that a private airstrip was once constructed to handle predicted private aircraft traffic that never came. The hotel’s rise and fall echoes The Pines own tragedy, and became a ghost just as fast as it triumphed. Today, the property is a victim to one of the grimmest truths of reality. It’s so deplorable after two decades of raving and destruction that its disgusting ruins were sadly a disappointment to walk through – a sad fall and postmortem.

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The first thing I saw as I bushwhacked my way onto the property was the area below the former landmark outdoor pool, which is a ruined storage area of poolside lawn chairs and boilers completely ruined by corrosion.

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The Olympic sized outdoor pool. This hotel was famous for it back in the day, and it’s remote positioning at a far flung and overgrown corner of the 1,200 acre grounds make it a mostly missed site for visitors.

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The eeriness of the property was unshakable as I walked around. The ugly and dated buildings were reduced to indignant and unsettling billboards that reckless destruction wrote. All the windows were broken, the doors and walls kicked in. A fetid stench was the first thing I noticed long before I tromped under the coolness of the building shadows, a stagnant foul entity that permeated around the entire property.
The eeriness of the property was unshakable as I walked around. The ugly and dated buildings were reduced to indignant and unsettling totems that reckless destruction wrote. All the windows were broken, the doors and walls kicked in. A fetid stench was the first thing I noticed long before I tromped under the coolness of the building shadows, a stagnant foul entity that permeated around the entire property.
The eeriness of the property was unshakable as I walked around. The ugly and dated buildings were reduced to indignant and unsettling billboards that reckless destruction wrote. A fetid stench was the first thing I noticed long before I tromped under the coolness of the building shadows, a stagnant foul entity that permeated around the entire property.
I actually had reservations going inside, which was a startling sentiment than my eager mood I was conduiting a few minutes ago. It felt like I was being watched the entire time I was there.
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Creeping down the dark hallway with my mag-light in front of my like a weapon, my feet sinking into some unknown mush, my friend suddenly stiffed up, motioned for me to push up against what was left of a hole filled wall, and pointed at this guest room as my hand went for my knife. “See that stuff? I think someone was here, very very recently. He may still be around…” Thankfully, we didn’t run into anyone who left behind a new looking sleeping bag and a pack of cigarettes. But I didn’t stick around.
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Rumor has it that somewhere on the grounds, there is a single, bizarrely intact/preserved hotel room, which is sort of an amusing urban legend of this hotel. I’ve seen a few photos, but many have failed to find it, or at least include it in their blog entries. (This isn’t the room). We had to be back in Vermont by nightfall, so on this trip, I didn’t get to find it.
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What would have been a foyer off the grand ballroom, now a mess of a structure with collapsing floors that fall into the blackness of whatever is below.

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What might just be the most recognized building of the Catskills is an abandoned 1960s wing of the hotel, which also happens to be the tallest on the property.
What might just be the most recognized building of the Catskills is an abandoned 1960s wing of the hotel, which also happens to be the tallest on the property.
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In the 80s, the hotel was loosing money, so the idea was to build a new resort – a bigger, better showpiece! But the gaudy, shopping mall-esque editions that were going up around the more traditional buildings only differentiated from the place. But their ambitious new image wouldn’t save them, and the whole resort closed in 1986 when it, and the Catskills fell out of style. This would have been the new lobby, halted and abandoned in mid construction.

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These 4 rotting bar stools are a photographic icon of this property. At one point, there were more of them, and they were all standing in a row lining the bar that they once accompanied. Today, only these 4 remain, barely.
These 5 rotting bar stools are a photographic icon of this property. At one point, there were more of them, and they were all standing on supporting vertical poles in a row lining the bar that they once accompanied. Today, only these 5 remain, barely.

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An old beauty salon chair, located down in dank and dark levels below, seemed to have been dragged outside and left out near the bar.
An old beauty salon chair, located down in dank and dark levels below, seemed to have been dragged outside and left out near the bar.

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Another wing of the property, which looked almost identical to all the other buildings now in their incarnation of wasteland and mystery.

That is, expect for its extraordinary natatorium.

The mid-century marvel was under the weight of its silence, not even the birds were chirping as I walked around the massive space. Though the electricity was shut off decades ago, the atrium’s great design ensured the place was nicely lit up by plenty of skylights in-between some striking starburst chandelier style light fixtures from the 1950s that were still shockingly preserved . Walking around coats your boots in slick sludge and stubble white mold that has been reclaiming the buckling pool tiles. The pool itself is a chaise lounge graveyard, tossed into some murky filth and curating rot that has collected in the Olympic-sized pool’s deep end.

This place has achieved legendary status for explorers, photographers and curious visitors all around the east coast. A visit here jestingly pushes your explorer legitimacy card. Just before I walked in with my camera, a bunch of teenagers were just finishing shooting a music video here.

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The scariest part of my visit here was actually trying to leave. When we were walking back to the car, my friend and I were inducted into a circumstantial game of face off with a vicious dog, who was creating a raucous of barking and snarling at our presence walking down a quiet back road with our cameras.

After about 20 minutes or so of keeping our tentative distance and wondering if he was going to dash off the front lawn in our direction if we got any closer, it walked around the back of the house and oddly, disappeared. No one came outside, and we heard no doors opening (we were that close). We waited another five minutes or so, and finally decided we were going to chance moving forward. Luckily, we made it safely back to our car with our internal organs in their places.

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Between A Rock and A Hard Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freedley Quarry, First Attempt.

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

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

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

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

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

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Freedley Quarry, Second Attempt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Freedley Quarry, Third Attempt

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

Eventually, we were loosing daylight, and the quarry began to take on a more eerie pallor as the temperature dropped and the interior became a dark place haunted by the cacophony of dripping water. I’m glad I stayed persistent.
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