Greg Dennis: The flatlanders’ guide to local history
With the tourist season upon us, thousands of flatlanders are in the process of invading Vermont. It would be nice if they returned home from their vacations with an understanding of Vermont history that extends beyond Ethan Allen furniture. So, I offer the following tongue-in-cheek guide to local spots of historical significance.
Robert Frost Cabin, Ripton
While many know Frost as the Bard of New England, few know the story of his small writing cabin deep in the Green Mountains. This ramshackle structure was the wellspring for his most mordant and profoundly pessimistic poetry. Visitors can peer through dusty windows into The Bummer Room, where Frost penned many of the poems that led the critic M. L. Rosenthal to say Frost’s work was marked by a “shocked sense of the helpless cruelty of things.”
Bonus attraction: Sagging floors, musty smell, high likelihood of rain.
Bread Loaf Campus
Often mistakenly thought to be named after a nearby mountain that looks much more like a large septic mound, the mountain campus of Middlebury College was in fact named after the Bread and Puppet Theater. This famous troupe of circus-like performers and activists initially took up residence in the woods of the campus, passing out loaves of astoundingly dense bread to unsuspecting passersby. When Addison County proved too tame for the merry pranksters of Bread and Puppet, however, they moved to Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom. The legacy of their early days lives on through the name Bread Loaf.
The campus is now home to the Bread Loaf School of English and the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, also known as the Schools of Sleeping with Other Writers.
Bonus attraction: Deer flies
Middlebury College campus
Noted for having more coldly imposing stone buildings than any other campus on earth, the college was created by Middlebury’s founding town fathers as a way for them to get away from the founding mothers. Because fathers and mothers are nonetheless prone to producing daughters, the college soon acquired a reputation as an early pioneer in co-ed education — leading to the production of additional daughters and sons. And so on through the generations.
Thanks to the still-secret Freshman Mind Meld, the college has the highest rate of alumni intermarriage among all institutions of higher education. It is currently tied with Amherst and Williams for the highest known rates of ridiculous overachievement among first-year students.
The 1970s was a time on campus that gave a new dimension of meaning to the phrase “higher education.” In the 1980s the college became famous for producing a record number of Yuppies who spent the next several decades living in Manhattan, making obscene amounts of money, and longing for Vermont while they spent their summers in the Hamptons. There’s no accounting for what’s happening up on campus nowadays. But the kids do seem to be having a pretty amazing time of it.
Bonus attraction: Perversely diverse collection of outdoor art including an America’s Cup yacht, a giant black metal spider and an anatomically correct Frisbee dog.
On these hallowed fields on July 7, 1777, the Green Mountain Boys got the living (and in some cases the dying) daylights beaten out of them by British Redcoats. American historians have spent the past 240 years trying to sugarcoat this shellacking.
Bonus attraction: Special days when adult re-enactors, who really should know better, dress up and play “war” 18th-century style.
This charming burg was once known as “America’s smallest city” until the emergence of Wikipedia made that claim easily proven to be false. The city took its name from the Shaker religious community that marked the first white settlement on the site. Shakers were fervent believers in celibacy, and the name of the city is in fact a French variation on the English word “virgins.”
Bonus attraction: You don’t have to wash your clothes at the Vergennes Laundry.
Lord’s Prayer Rock, Bristol
This prominent boulder creates a dangerously abrupt curve in the road just east of downtown Bristol. The harrowing experience of nearly hitting the boulder has long led motorists to swear profusely, speaking words the kids in the backseat had never heard mommy and daddy use before. As penance, many of these drivers then recite the Lord’s Prayer in hopes that their profanity will be excused by the lord above.
Bonus attraction: Sudden change in the speed limit increases your chance of getting a ticket.
Rokeby’s website says it “presents a nationally significant Underground Railroad story tucked inside a quintessential Vermont experience.” The Underground Railroad, which stretched several hundred miles from the slave states into Canada, was created by woodchucks to ferry their distant southern relatives from overly hot country to the cool northern realms of Quebec.
Little is known today about the technology used by the woodchucks to create the Underground Railroad. Their methods have been lost in the mists of antiquity as they regressed to merely digging holes with their paws. But ever since the Underground Railroad was created, Vermonters have been proud to call themselves Woodchucks.
Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @greengregdennis.
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