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Faith in Vermont: The Disappeared

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Posted on October 21, 2014 | Blog Category:
By Faith Gong



This is a ghost story, except that the ghosts were never living; they were things that humans built assuming they'd endure: roads, houses, towns.

I used to read with fascination about the disappearance of ancient civilizations. In a world where Google Maps allow us to access satellite views of anywhere we please with a mouse click, it seems incredible that entire cities -- all those Biblical locales like Ur of the Chaldeans, or the settlements surrounding Stonehenge -- could have simply vanished, returned to desert or grassland.

Well, that's what happened thousands of years ago, when everybody built with wood, I reassured myself.

Until recently, when I realized that things still disappear. Even in Addison County, where change is slow and many buildings date from centuries past -- where old houses become inns, old churches become houses, and old mills become shopping centers -- things have vanished from both landscape and memory within the past 200, 50, even 10 years.

In the middle of a cornfield on the outskirts of Middlebury, next to a dirt road, there's a stone marker carved with the words: "NEAR THIS PLACE BENJAMIN SMALL BUILT THE FIRST HOUSE IN TOWN -- 1773 -- HE MARRIED WIDOW STORY."

Needless to say, the house is no longer in evidence. Nor is any sort of "town." The original Middlebury settlement, including Benjamin Small's house, burned to the ground; after subsequent false starts, the center of town came to rest where it currently stands, several miles to the northwest.

And poor Benjamin Small? It seems town historians can't even agree on his correct name; in most written histories of Middlebury, he's referred to as "Benjamin Smalley." His fellow settlers, John Chipman and Gamaliel Painter, have their names memorialized as local streets and hills, but Benjamin Small(ey) lives on only in the form of a lonesome stone marker in a cornfield, his name possibly misspelled.

A stone's throw from Benjamin Small's marker is Old Middle Road, which in the 1800s was the main thoroughfare between downtown Middlebury and the farms south of town. Unmaintained sections of the original road can still be accessed; I drove down one of them, bumping between trees on a narrow, potholed dirt drive that ended abruptly in a field. A northern portion of the road may disappear soon beneath a new housing development.

North of Middlebury, a corridor of vanished industrial settlements stretches from the New Haven River to Otter Creek. I'll begin at New Haven Mills, which in the 1800s was a bustling community with a school, church, twenty houses, shops, a saw mill, grist mill, tannery, woolen factory, and butter factory. Everything except the church was wiped out by fires, floods, and economic competition; some stone foundations remain visible along River Road.

Five miles from New Haven Mills is the Belden's Falls Hydroelectric Power Station on Otter Creek. My daughter attended a summer nature camp that met in the Belden's Falls parking lot, which is accessed by driving under an ancient stone railroad bridge; no trains stop there anymore. The area surrounding the Falls is now wooded parkland. So I was shocked to learn that Belden's Falls used to be a thriving settlement in the early 1900s, when the Vermont Marble Company used it to power a marble cutting factory. In its heyday, Belden's Falls had houses, businesses, a post office, and a railroad station where many trains stopped. That's all gone now, although the graves and stone foundations of the original settlers, the Belding family (another misspelling), can be found in the woods on the opposite side of Otter Creek.

The intersection of the New Haven River and Otter Creek was the site of Brooksville, a community that flourished for about 50 years as the site of the Brooks Edge Tool Company, which manufactured axes and other edge tools. In addition to the factory, Brooksville had houses, an Advent Church, and a post office. Everything except the church disappeared after the tool company folded in 1892.

Brooksville had a renaissance of sorts in 1936, when Sir Wilfred and Lady Grenfell built the Dog Team Tavern on the banks of the New Haven River, next to the vacant Advent Church. The Dog Team Tavern was originally conceived as a tearoom to showcase the Grenfell's extensive collection of handicrafts from Labrador, which they sold to finance the Grenfell Labrador Mission -- a network of hospitals and orphanages that Sir Wilfred established to aid the poverty-stricken fishing community along the Labrador coast. The Grenfells also restored the adjacent church. When both Grenfells died a decade later, the Dog Team Tavern was sold to a couple who turned it into a popular restaurant.

By 1987, when it was sold to Christopher Hesslink, the Dog Team Tavern was a landmark, the oldest continually operating restaurant in Vermont. My friends who ate there speak fondly of the hours-long waits, the spinning condiment wheels, the sticky buns, and the Labrador crafts that decorated the dining rooms.

Then: tragedy.

In the early hours of September 1, 2006, it appears that Christopher Hesslink parked his truck (containing his two dogs) behind the Dog Team Tavern and shot himself in the head inside the restaurant. Neighbors reported an explosion and flames at 2:30 AM, and firefighters who arrived at the scene found an unstoppable fire burning the restaurant to the ground. (Mystery still surrounds that evening, but earlier in the summer Hesslink had pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor sex charge involving a former employee.)

Six years later, my husband and I took our daughters swimming in the New Haven River, near Dog Team Falls. At that time, one accessed the river via the old Dog Team Tavern parking lot; I recall catching glimpses of the restaurant's cement foundation through a tangle of weeds. The Advent Church still occupied its original position, next to a historic marker.

That was two years ago; last month, I drove by the restaurant site again. It's all gone. No more parking lot, no more overgrown foundation. The lot is now private property, with a gravel driveway and well-maintained lawn. The old Advent Church has been moved across the lot, completely restored, and now forms part of the new house that's being built next to the river.

I suppose this is a cautionary tale. Every generation believes itself to be the apex of civilization, the builders of things that will last. But the graves in the woods and the overgrown foundations and the dirt roads ending in cornfields prove otherwise. Things disappear. Who's to say the same won't befall Route 7, my house, my grave?

At least they probably won't misspell "Gong."

 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit manager. Since moving to Addison County in 2011, her work has involved caring for a house in the woods, four young daughters, one anxiety-prone labradoodle — and writing for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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