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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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

Wizard’s Glen

Ever since we started narrating our folklore collectively as a species, we’ve always marked the wildest places of our topography as incubators of contagion shotgun blasts for the darkest, grimmest things our human minds can create, existing in a variety of forms. These tales often like to hang around well into the intervening years where they should become obsolete, and yet, they don’t. We all deal with the dangers of the world in different ways. Sometimes, carrying on the traditions of talking about these kind of fabled places is a way of dealing with these dangers. And sometimes, these monsters reveal the most about humanity.

Wizard’s Glen in the Berkshires is a wild, picturesque depression between two steep-sided hills. Intersected by a lone, narrow and often washed out dirt road with it’s to-the-point name of Gulf Road, you are welcomed into this attention-grabbing area by tons of boulders that are stacked up the hillsides, some covered with some impressive and patriotic graffitic murals instead of the flippant teenage rabble I expected to find in such an area.

The name “Gulf” interested me before I even began to think about Wizard’s Glen.  The noun is a distinctive part of the obscure Vermont vernacular. Gulfs are known to the rest of the world as a large area of the sea or ocean that’s almost entirely surrounded by land, expect for its mouth. A Vermont gulf is a landlocked one – found in our mountains. We know them as deep ravines (or more dramatically, an “abyss”) that run between two parallel mountains or rises. To my knowledge, us Vermonters were/are the only ones to use the word in that sense. Vermont actually goes as far as to erect road signs to let travelers know that you’re passing through one. Granville, Proctorsville and Williamstown Gulfs come to mind, all of which are great drives. But finding a gulf outside of Vermont, even only in the form of a street name, was sort of cool to me. There is also a Gulf Road in New Hampshire near Brattleboro.

This particular Gulf Road runs east to west over the bumps that are the Berkshires. Both entry points are unobtrusive and start out as an unremarkable suburban street with storm drains, crumbling curbs and cobra head street light fixtures that run to the very point when suddenly, the pavement ends, and the obsessively trimmed lawns cease to exist, and you’re in a surprisingly sizable wilderness area that runs for about 1.8 miles between Lanesborough and Dalton. But at the slow speeds you are forced to crawl on this winding roadway, it feels much longer.

Wizard’s Glen

The area known as Wizard’s Glen, vs. the rest of the area that’s not known as Wizard’s Glen, co-exist very inconspicuously with each other. If it wasn’t for the wayfinding graffiti marked boulders, I would have driven right by it.

I got out of the car and noticed the temperature was a pleasant few degrees cooler, and the forest was soluble underneath a still silence. I immediately began to get interactive with my environment and started clambering on top of the boulders and under Hemlock boughs and inside the caves and crevices of undetermined pasts.

Godfrey Greylock described the diminutive gorge in 1879 as being “as though and angry Jove had here thrown down some impious wall of Heaven-defying Titans. Block lies heaped upon block; squared and bedeviled, as if by more than mortal art…”

I have to say, the stories about this place were far more waggish than it’s real life locality would suggest, which only intrigued me more. This place has spawned plenty of strange tales of the supernatural and the dreadful, and many of them are almost as old as New England is.

Someone had told me that the hollow is known for its strange sounds and echo-related properties, and claimed that if you banged on one of the rocks with a hammer, it would make a noise sounding like you were smashing the keys of a xylophone, while inexplicably, the surrounding boulders wouldn’t. However, that enticing theory was disappointingly proven false. Well, at least it didn’t work for me.

It was here that Indian priests and shaman centuries ago performed rituals, ceremonies and incantations amongst the rocks in the ravine known for its echoes. Because they revered this area to have special properties, it was said they even offered human sacrifices here to Hobomocko, the spirit of evil. There is a flat, broad square-ish rock known as “Devils’ Alter” where these cryptic sacrifices were said to be imposed. The rock today has faint traces of red stains on it, which some say is the remaining blood from the aforementioned occurrences – but the reality is the stains just come from iron in the rocks.  The unique name Wizard’s Glen was actually derived from these legends. And it makes sense – it’s aesthetically the type of place where strange happenings can’t be easily dismissed.

The best known story of the glen is of John Chamberlain, a hunter from Dalton about two hundred years ago whose whopper of a story was passed on in Godfrey Greylock’s book Taghconic: The Romance and Beauty of The Hills in 1852, when he interviewed Joseph Edward Adams, a ninety-year-old man who had heard it from the hunter eyewitness himself.

Chamberlain had killed a deer and was carrying it home on his shoulders, when he was overtaken in the hills by a storm. The tired man decided to take shelter in a cavernous recess in Wizard’s Glen. But despite his fatigue, he was unable to sleep and wound up laying awake, lying on the earth with his wide open in the dark. He was suddenly amazed when, according to him, he saw the woods bend apart, disclosing a long aisle that was mysteriously lighted and contained “hundreds of capering forms”. As his eyes grew accustomed to the new faint light, he made out tails and cloven feet on the dancing figures. One very tall form had wings, who the hunter thought to be the devil himself.

As Chamberlain lay watching the through the spiteful deluge from his cave shelter, a tall and painted Indian leaped on Devil’s Alter, fresh scalps dangling around his body and his eyes blazing with fierce require. He muttered a brief incantation and summoned the shadows around him. They came with torches that burned blue, and began to move around the rock singing some sort of harsh chant, until a sign was given, and a nude Indian girl, shrieking, and fighting, was dragged and flung viciously onto the rock.

The figures now rushed towards her brandishing sharpened weapons in their outstretched arms, and the terrified girl let out a shrill cry that the hunter said haunted him for the rest of his life. The “wizard”, (who I’m assuming is the prominent figure with the wings), raised an ax, as the rest of the group waited apprehensively for the oncoming carnalish blood bath. Lightning flashed and quickly illuminated the dark pocket of woods, and Chamberlain noticed the the girl’s face quickly fell on his. The look she gave him tore at his heartstrings. He gathered as much courage as he could, and decided to act. Grabbing his bible he traveled with, he ran towards the debauchery in self-righteous fashion, clutching it in front of him and hollering the name of his god. There was a crash of thunder. The light faded, the demons vanished and the hunter was left sopping wet in the middle of the woods in silence. When morning came, he had almost convinced himself that it was all a dream, until he realized his deer had vanished.

Though not much is really known about Chamberlain, it was apparently well documented at the time that he was “no lover of the Indian race,” which may explain more about the content or the intent of this fanciful legend than anything. In my humble opinion, this eyebrow furrowing story probably shouldn’t be taken as verbatim of a real event. Even as mythology or folklore, it lacks essentially what most of these tales are built on; meaning.

There is no good evidence that any Native American group up in our part of the country even conducted human sacrifices, but I do believe that Wizard’s Glen held some sort of ritualistic importance to the area’s original natives.

Hobbomocco is a real Algonquin deity, though, and was more so associated with darkness and the night. His name is related to all Algonquin words for death and the dead, and has no relation to the Christian idea of Satan, unless misinterpreted by, well, a Christian. In the Algonquin viewpoint, Hobbomocco is actually a side or nuance of the natural world, a potential source of dangerous visions and power, which can be obtained through communication, sort of similar to Voodoo deities, and how it’s said that with enough persuasion, you can persuade them to either carry out good or evil intentions.  I think the rather dramatic story of Wizard’s Glen may be more of a manifestation of the friction between two clashing cultures and their ideas, where everything else is sort of devalued, open for interpretation, or simply cast away.

There is also said to be a talus “cave” known cryptically as Lucky Seven Cave somewhere in the glen. However, after some time clambering around and almost rolling my ankle, I couldn’t find any opening that could shelter a human who wasn’t a small child, so either it’s long toppled, or I just didn’t have good directions. Some speak of covens, convergences and rituals still being practiced in the cave and around the site, given the various paraphernalia and shitty beer cans that you can find there. I find it interesting that this site may still be attracting modern day wizards, witches or spiritualists, or people that think they are these things, but when I visited, I had the beautiful place all to myself under the heat of the day, despite the fact that it’s a geocache location and the famous Appalachian Scenic Trail crosses Gulf Road near the glen, just east of there.

Historic post card image of Wizards Glen, via cardcow.com. Date unknown.

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More Wild Places

While I’m on the topic of gulfs, I’d highly recommend checking out what may be Vermont’s most beautiful; Granville Gulf, a rugged and impressive wilderness area of moss laden cliffs, ferns and waterfalls.

If you’re curious about more of our regional wild places with extraordinary folklore attached to them, my blog entry on Glastenbury and the popularly dubbed “Bennington Triangle” may be worth a read. It’s certainly one of my favorite Vermont tales to tell.

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