Students, artisan bring piece of local history to life

MIDDLEBURY — It’s an image that evokes an earlier time: a solitary Vermonter in a flat-bottomed wooden boat, poling through a flooded marshland and pulling muskrats out of traps.
Though the art of building the fur-trapping boat has been all but lost in the past half-century, last fall Vergennes boat builder Douglas Brooks and Middlebury College students Renee Igo, Christian Woodard and Ben Meader embarked on a journey to rediscover — and recreate — that tradition.
Their project was nearly at an end this past Friday, when the group presented the fruits of their labor at an open house held in Middlebury’s Old Stone Mill. They have nearly completed a replica of a trapping boat originally used by Ferrisburgh farmer Gerald Hatch, a vessel that still sits on his son Pat’s dairy farm.
The group members had penciled the outline of the original boat on a large sheet of paper, which hung on the wall behind them at the open house. On an Old Stone Mill floor, they stuffed batting — fiber-based sealing material — into the seams of the boat and painted over the batting to waterproof the vessel.
Brooks had stumbled upon some of these now-defunct fur-trapping boats while researching other historical boats several years back. The boats sat in the back of his memory until he gave a presentation at Middlebury College last spring about the work he was doing on Japanese boats.
After the presentation, Woodard and Meader introduced themselves — they were avid kayakers and canoers, but now they were hoping to build their own boat and looking for advice on how to do it.
“Ben and Christian approached me and said, ‘We really want to build a boat. How do we build a boat?’ and I said, ‘Let’s turn this into a bigger project,’” Brooks said.
So Meader, Christian, Igo and Brooks took a training course in oral interviewing at the Vermont Folklife Center and jumped into the project: They spent the fall interviewing and documenting the stories of former trappers and those whose grandparents and great-grandparents had been trappers.
Woodard and Igo, both environmental studies majors with a focus in creative writing, got course credit for their research after writing a 30-page paper on the stories they had gathered. And this spring, they began working on a scale replica of the Hatch trapping boat.
The boats were designed for a single person, with room for trapping gear and muskrats — or, if the trappers were lucky, mink. From the late 1700s until the mid-1900s, many farmers used trapping as a source of additional income during their offseason. Trappers used the boats throughout the Champlain Valley, usually in the marshes created by springtime flooding.
One person the group interviewed was Bud Smith of Middlebury, who attended the Friday open house. Smith said the trapping boats were both sturdy and easy to make. Smith, whose grandfather and father both did some trapping on Lake Champlain, went out on the water a couple times himself when he was in high school and still has one of his family’s boats.
His father was a carpenter and built many of the boats, which was what drew Smith to the project. He said his family and most others got out of trapping as an income supplement in the mid-1900s.
“Farming got more complex,” he said. “They started adding more cattle, and all of a sudden the farms looked like they do today. They didn’t have time to do all the other stuff.”
At the same time, Smith said, the bottom fell out of the fur market and prices plummeted, making the operation much less lucrative.
Another couple at the open house was Tommy and Pamela Lathrop of Bristol. Tommy Lathrop still traps during the season, but for sport and to control the wildlife populations near town. They donated all of the lumber for the project after speaking with Brooks about it.
Though they and their ancestors, to the best of their knowledge, have always done their hunting in the mountains, Tommy Lathrop said that the boat project sparked memories of stories his mother had told him, since she had grown up with the Hatch family.
“I was very, very interested in (the project),” said Lathrop.
Lathrop said that trapping today is different from back in the days when the trapping boats would have been used. Now there are higher concentrations of animals in the woods, and there is more woodland in Vermont than there was 100 years ago.
But he and his wife have always been fascinated by the history of trapping. They have a collection of trapping gear, some of which dates back hundreds of years. Among them are the steel pan traps made in the 1800s by Charles Stickle, an artisan metalworker from the area.
“The more you find out about trapping, the more there is (to find),” said Lathrop.
By the time the open house rolled around, the group had only been working on the boat replica for a few weeks, but they were close to finishing — the seat had yet to be put in, and the boat still had to be painted. And though the trappers generally painted the boats gray or brown, this group had other plans.
“I think we’re going to start with a white coat, and then we’ll do psychedelic designs on top,” said Woodard. “And eyes. I want lots of eyes.”
Once this is done, Brooks also plans to share the oral history of the Champlain Valley trapping boats with a maritime literature class next fall. He also hopes to continue researching the trapping boats, possibly reaching to the west side of Lake Champlain, where he said that the boats developed differently for different water conditions.
But for now, the four will be working toward the launch of the boat, which they have planned for early next week — and, once trapping season comes around again, they hope to try out some of the trapping techniques they learned.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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