Trail will reveal Bristol’s hidden history: Groups collaborate on path at site of old coffin factory

BRISTOL — You can walk two minutes from downtown Bristol and step into another world.
Three local organizations are partnering to create an interpretive trail alongside the New Haven River on the site of what was once the hugely successful Bristol Manufacturing Company. The project is a collaboration of the Bristol Historical Society, the Bristol Conservation Commission and the group newly created to build a series of trails around Bristol.
“Just two steps off the street and into the woods, and you are in a phenomenal natural and scenic environment,” said Porter Knight, who’s spearheading the Bristol Recreation Club’s new efforts to create a townwide trail system, similar to the Trail Around Middlebury.
Kristen Underwood, a member of the Bristol Conservation Commission, said this is an opportunity to provide recreational space close to the village.
“We have a lot of parks in the town of Bristol, we have a lot of federal lands for recreating, but nothing really close to the village,” she said. “So this is an opportunity that within a two-minute walk from downtown Bristol, you can access nature and the river and history.”
At the foot of what was once known as “Mill Hill,” at the spot just before South Street crosses the New Haven River at a bend in the stream, a 60-year-old forest springs up around old stone foundations. An old trail — used these days mostly by kids, possible miscreants and anglers, too — threads its way through young trees soaring up toward the light, past makeshift rope swings, discarded couches and abandoned campfires.
   A CIRCA 1905 photo provides a view of the Bristol Manufacturing Company in its heyday. The business ran from 1869 to 1939, manufacturing such wooden goods as windows, doors and coffins. Twelve factory buildings sprawled across the site, and the factory employed as many as 150 “hands,” doing all kinds of work. 
The site is a ghostly reminder of the horse- and water-powered industries that once put Bristol (and any number of Vermont towns) on the map. It is also a reminder of a time when logging was king in this town.
Much of what’s currently known about the site is thanks to the diligent research of Bristol Historical Society member Reg Dearborn. Dearborn began digging into the history of the Bristol Manufacturing Company in 2013, after leading some Mount Abraham Union High School students on a historic walk through the woods. He’s compiled a thick packet, complete with news clippings, timelines, personal reminiscences and photographs.
In its heyday, the Bristol Manufacturing Company was one of the largest establishments of its kind in New England. From 1869 until it closed its doors in 1939, the company made window blinds, window sashes, doors, wooden clothes drying racks, even baby carriages — and, of course, coffins, the item for which it was best known.
It was a world unto itself. As many as 150 “hands” worked the factory, doing every kind of job. Carpenters, blacksmiths, millwrights, electricians, fabric cutters, seamstresses, wood finishing specialists, office workers, teamsters — and salesmen.
It ran six days a week. It had its own fire department. In summer, children used its mill pond for fishing and swimming.
Twelve buildings, some five stories high, clustered around the main site. They encompassed a paint shop, machine shop, boiler room, finishing shop, wood shop, dry house, office, sawmill.
Across the river stood the workers tenements for the factory.
Teams of draft horses brought in lumber off the mountains by wagon and by sleigh. On average, the factory took in 100 loads of logs a day. Pine, basswood, oak, ash, birch, butternut. The lumber yard processed first over a million board feet a year, then up to 2 million. The factory produced 10,000-30,000 coffins annually; production increasing decade to decade.
“They talk about truck traffic today!” said Dearborn. “When they’re bringing in a million feet of logs and then you break it down into an eight or 10 hour day, you’re thinking, ‘Man, these trucks have got nothing on those wagons!’ It had to be constant.”
A photograph from this era shows a massive hill of logs with the hand written caption: “How we can compete. Bristol Mfg, Co. Bristol, Vt.”
Similar enterprises lined the New Haven River from Lincoln toward the New Haven’s junction with Otter Creek, harnessing the river’s power to make chairs, plows, road scrapers, clam boards, shingles, nail kegs, barrel staves, pill boxes and butter tubs.
   The coffin factory closed its doors in 1939. Then, in June 1947, fire razed the buildings to the ground. Stone foundations are all that remain of the once bustling industrial site. The river rushes by — loud, omnipresent.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
As power changed from water to coal, as transportation and shipping changed, and as foreign materials entered the market, the factory became less competitive. During the Great Depression it finally closed.
In 1947 a fire razed the silent hulks of the former bustling factory. Today only stone foundations remain, their workmanship a testament to the hands and arms that built Vermont over its first century and a half.
When the conservation commission and historical society decided they wanted to collaborate on a project that would combine nature and history and be close to town, the coffin factory project came to the fore, in large part because of Dearborn’s extensive research.
When the Bristol Recreation Club launched its own effort earlier this year to create a trail system around Bristol, a collaboration amongst all three groups became a logical next step.
This summer organizers are poised to move quickly. Using Dearborn’s expertise, organizers and volunteers will walk the existing trail and lay out a route that best leads visitors along each stop at the historic site. They’ll clean out garbage and remove brush and potential “widow maker” trees. As planning and work continue, they’ll address such issues as how much to widen the path, how much to leave or take out the natural growth that sprung up inside the old foundations, and whether the path should be made wheelchair accessible.
Representatives from all three groups have already presented an overall design for the main informational kiosk to the Bristol selectboard. And they’ve engaged the services of a professional team to design the main interpretive sign. Local volunteers from the conservation commission will build the wooden kiosk that will house the signage. In a budget presented to the selectboard, organizers estimated that the main interpretive sign and sheltering kiosk alone will cost $2,580.
Organizers expect to complete most of the trail work in July and August and to have the main kiosk installed by next June.
“This is an area that we feel like a lot of the people in Bristol today don’t even know is there,” said the conservation commission’s Underwood. “So while folks are accessing nature, recreating and having fun, they can be learning a little bit about the history of Bristol as well.”
To learn more about the proposed trail system around Bristol, make a donation to that project, or volunteer for trail building at the Bristol Manufacturing site, contact Porter Knight at [email protected]. Donations for the interpretive signs at the Bristol Manufacturing Company site should be sent to the Bristol town office; make checks payable to “Town of Bristol” and write “Historical signs” in the memo line.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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