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!

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The Vermont Character: Coffin Windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donate Button with Credit Cards

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

 

Cemetery Safaris and Green Mountain Memento Mori.

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

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

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

 

 

The same concept can be said for the forsaken places I explore.

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

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

In Middlebury's West Cemetery, a innocuous headstone has some rather strange markings. For example, the date of death is 1883, B.C! An error on the stonecutter's part, right? Nope. This is the grave of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef, Vermont's only royal figure, the 2 year old son on an ancient Egyptian king. But how did he wind up in Addison County? We have Henry Sheldon to thank, who over a century ago bought the mummy from a dealer in New York. A wealthy man and local oddities collector, he wanted the mummy to be the focal point of an ostentatious cabinet of curiosities he was building. But the mummy was in worse condition than the dealer said it was in, so he wound up disappointedly stashing it in his attic. It was rediscovered in 1945 by a curator of the related Sheldon museum. George Mead, head of the museum's board of directors, decided the best thing to do was to give the mummy a Christian burial by cremation and then buried the ashes in his family plot in West Cemetery, kinda like an adoption.
This is the grave of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef, Vermont’s only royal figure, the 2-year-old son of an ancient Egyptian king. But how did he wind up in Addison County? We have Henry Sheldon to thank, who over a century ago bought the mummy from a dealer in New York. A wealthy man and local oddities collector, he wanted the mummy to be the focal point of an ostentatious cabinet of curiosities he was building. But the mummy was in worse condition than the dealer said it was in, so he wound up disappointedly stashing it in his attic. It was rediscovered in 1945 by a curator of the related Sheldon museum. George Mead, head of the museum’s board of directors, decided the best thing to do was to give the mummy a Christian burial by cremation and then buried the ashes in his family plot in West Cemetery, kinda like an adoption.
11357199_10204398268497321_8085375100663206396_o
Fays’ Corners Cemetery, photograph by Kali Yuga. Used with permission.

“Black Agnes”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Bowman Mausoleum 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grave With A Window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“A dreamless sleep, emblem of eternal rest”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Vermont’s Immortal Man and Frozen Hill Folk?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A vignette into early Vermont life.

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

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

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

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

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Ripton, VT

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

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

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Mermaids and Men of Mystery; Here Curiosities Reside

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

Brookline’s Round Schoolhouse 

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. John Wilson, circa 1842 | Brattleboro History

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

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

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

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

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

 Grafton’s Fiji Mermaid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Scouting Burlington’s Intervale

Spring in Vermont often means weeks of gloom and rain, which mixes up with the sour in my cup. Sometimes the best cure for Spring fever is adventuring.

I knew of two local spectacles in Burlington’s intervale, one a local landmark and another a striking existence of hidden obscura.

Cruising down North Champlain Street, jarring along the many “speed humps” along the cracked road, I gazed at the Old North End’s many brightly colored old homes which seemed to be blazing underneath melancholy skies. Turning into the beltline, I shortly arrived at my first place of interest.

Burlington’s Bridge To Nowhere

If you’ve ever driven the Burlington Beltline before (Route 127), you’ve probably noticed this unique wooden arched bridge that stretches dramatically across the roadway, resting into a steep slope. But upon closer investigation, something seems weird about this particular bridge – it doesn’t seem to go anywhere – the bridge ends abruptly into a steep hillside rising above the highway. More puzzling is that there are at least 2 other bridges that also cross the highway, but they are all in use and connect to a network of bicycle trails. So what’s the story with this bridge? Why doesn’t it go anywhere? Why is it here?

To be blunt – federal law. The Beltline – Vermont’s first planned circ highway- sliced through land designated as parkland by the Winooski Valley Park District, and created a division in a piece of parkland west of the highway, aka that useless steep and over grown slope. Because the highway site was purchased with federal funds, law stated that the park’s land had to be connected for access purposes , thus a bridge had to be constructed to maintain the park’s continuity — even though the western side, in this case, was too steep and densely forested to enjoy or use. But federal law is federal law, regardless of the logic.

The bridge might not look like anything truly extraordinary, but as it turns out, a lot of detail and planning were included in the design. Rich Ranaldo, the Agency of Transportation engineer who designed the bridge, wanted to do something different than what has been done before. He wanted the bridge’s design to compliment the natural setting of the intervale. The decided idea was a unique timber arch bridge, which they have never designed before. In the end, it was a success.

The Burlington Department of Parks and Recreation has closed the end of the bridge to the public – blocked off by a chain link fence, which has raised a less than positive response from people who view the deserted span as wasteful. At one time, it was proposed to make a bike path connecting the bridge to the New North End, but the idea was declined, saying the funding just wasn’t there. Above the rough slope lies Revere Court, a small cul-de-sac neighborhood, whose residents apparently weren’t that thrilled at the time with more traffic entering their quiet street. The parks department said the slope was too problematic for construction, given the nature of it’s unstable soil.

Walking on the bridge as the mist in the air weighted heavily on my skin, my feet slipped several times on the slick wood as my boots made high and lonesome sounds. For being in such an area of high traffic, I felt strangely isolated up above the highway. Surprisingly, the bridge is reflectively clean for such a large abandoned structure in an urban area. It’s void of graffiti and has minimal rot damage. I walked as far as I could go until I hit the fence. Beyond it, there was evidence that others have climbed over and trekked up the steep hill, a worn footpath made its way through tanglewoods. In the summer, the entire slope would be wild and filled with prickers, making that a path I’d want to avoid.

The good news is that if the bridge were ever to be refurbished and utilized as another pedestrian or cycling trail, the work wouldn’t be difficult. But until that day comes, the bridge will continue to awkwardly span The Beltline, vexing residents and passersby for years to come.

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The Donahue Sea Caves

Burlington can boast an impressive amount of geographical features within its 16 square miles. Rocky points and sandy beaches slide into the lake as steep hills, vast swamps and river bottoms make up the surprisingly diverse land that rises up from the lake shore. But one of Burlington’s most curious features are what have been dubbed as The Donahue Sea Caves, something that many residents in the city are unaware even exist, including myself until a few days ago.

Midway on North Avenue, across from Burlington High School, lies a discrete small brown sign near a bus stop that simply reads “Donahue Sea Caves“, with a dirt path leading down the steep banks into the intervale below. I don’t know how many times I’ve passed this strange trail head before without noticing it, and I was curious. What exactly were the Donahue Sea Caves? So, I followed the trail, down the hill and into a world of woods shambling up steep clay banks and deep swamps. But the roar of traffic from the Beltline nearby brought me back to reality. Eventually, the trail went from dirt to swamp, and the land literally ended at my soaking wet feet as the trail bled into a wide open dark pool that ran along the base of steep ledges. I looked around, and was wondering exactly what I was supposed to see now that I was here. Way in the distance, around a rocky outcropping, was a black hole in the rock ledges. I was staring at the entrance to a cave, and it seemed the only way to get there was with a kayak. Or swimming. I didn’t have a kayak and didn’t feel like taking a swim, so I hiked back up to North Avenue, defeated.

Later that day, I did some research and found out the story behind these mysterious caves. First of all, “Sea Caves” is a bit deceptive, because there is only one cave. The name Donahue comes from David Donahue, who donated the land to the Winooski Valley Park District. The “Sea Caves” part of the name struck me as odd, considering we’re in landlocked Vermont, but I soon found out that the limestone caves are remnants of the Champlain Sea, formed by the waves when the sea once covered this area over 10,000 years ago. However, that might be a bit controversial. A UVM geologist explained that he thinks the caves are instead the product of a glacier retreating, probably shaping the cave when the glaciers retreated from what it is now Vermont.

To add a little more to the mystery, my grandfather told me that Burlington old timers once referred to the cave as “Devil’s Cave” – which is a moniker given to many creepy, dark and remote places across New England.

The trail head off North Avenue
The trail head off North Avenue
Literally, the end of the line. The cave would be in the ledges to the left.
Literally, the end of the line. The cave would be in the ledges to the left.
On the hike back up, I found something sort of cool, what appeared to be an old stone retaining wall that holds up North Avenue from collapsing down into the dark pools below. The wall is most likely as old as when the road was first "modernized", but I'm just assuming. Also located here was the BHS litter gardens - giving an incite into local culture and their eating habits.
On the hike back up, I found something sort of cool, what appeared to be an old stone retaining wall that holds up North Avenue from collapsing down into the dark pools below. The wall is most likely as old as when the road was first “modernized”, but I’m just assuming. Also located here was the BHS litter gardens – giving an incite into local culture and their eating habits.

A year after I had posted this, cabin fever would drive me out of the house. Because most bodies of water in the area had frozen, the Donahue Sea Caves came to mind, and because it was -3 degrees with a colder windchill, I welcomed the idea of a local adventure that would hopefully be sheltered from the horrible winds.

The caves twisting rock walls and undulating textures coated with icy stalagmites dripping into solid ice floors which are otherwise thawed and a murky green in the summer months, with depths that are said to link to underground pools and hold an assortment of urban relics, are just a few reasons why this chamber is a cool place to walk around and explore, even with temperatures well below zero. The best time to access this area is in the winter, when the swamps freeze over. Otherwise, you’ll need a kayak.

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Ice cold beer.
Ice cold beer.
As the cave ascended further back into the hill, I noticed there was movement beneath the layers of ice under my feet. There was running water lapping below in black pools, and the darting motions of hundreds of minnows
As the cave ascended further back into the hill, I noticed there was movement beneath the layers of ice under my feet. There was running water lapping below in black pools, and the darting motions of hundreds of minnows

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How To Get Here:

The Donahue Sea Caves can be reached from the trail head on North Avenue, directly opposite the Burlington High School. The small brown sign can be seen a few feet north of the bus stop across the road. Follow the trail down the hill to the swamps. You’ll need a kayak, boat, or dependable ice to make this trek.

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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!

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The Reading Abduction Stones

Propped inconspicuously off a no-frills stretch of state route 106 in Reading, south of the attractive little village of Felchville are a curious set of stones that are too easy to miss. If you were to take a look, you might be perplexed at the strange, enigmatic hieroglyphs found on them, with pictures of a bow an arrow, people, trees and what appear to be pick axes, what do these curious images mean? Underneath is faded scrawl, scribed in eighteenth-century English. These stones are certainly vexing. So what are they?

These are actually a monument, chiseled and erected in 1799 that mark an older occurrence, an Indian abduction.

Susanna Johnson and her family were abducted by a party of Abenaki in 1754 from Charlestown, NH, and were marched by their captors across Vermont towards Canada. But when they reached the banks of Knapp Brook, Mrs. Johnson went into labor and unceremoniously gave birth to a daughter, before being forced to continue the trek shortly after.

During their years in captivity, her son assimilated into the Abnaki culture, while her daughter was sold to a French Canadian family from Montreal. The details are vague here, but Mrs. Johnson would eventually return home.

But years later, through a series of contacts, the three family members were briefly united. However, they were unable to communicate with each other linguistically or culturally.

Mrs. Johnson had the abduction stones monument made and put in their current spot, both where she gave birth and where they still sit today, and are the oldest such monument in the country. But while the 18th century English is translatable, the weird assortment of carved pictures are pretty peculiar. Perhaps we’ll never know.

In 1918, someone encased the stones in a larger stone monument, to preserve them forever, and today they rest on the side of Route 106, barely noticed by passersby.

If you wish to find them, look for the dirt pull off on Route 106, near the junction of Knapp Brook Road in Reading. dsc_0375_pe-2

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As seen driving down Route 106. What’s in a name anyway?
As seen driving down Route 106. What’s in a name anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

Donate Button with Credit Cards