Most people my age aren’t likely to recall Frontier Town, a once prominent destination turned ghost town in the woods of tiny North Hudson, New York, but there are plenty of people who will tell you that it used to be great, and once integral to the once-thriving Adirondack tourism heyday of the mid 20th century.
I’ve mentioned Frontier Town before in an earlier blog entry, but never truly got around to exploring it until recently. Frontier Town is a massive place, it’s kitschy ruins stretch unassumingly from the roadsides of Routes 9 and 84, and far back out of sight on the sprawling property at the bottom of shady hollows and a myriad of cold swamps that pulse with mosquitoes in the summers. Because the property is so large, it’s very difficult to get a good idea of just how much there is to see, until you start exploring for yourself. It’s taken me 3 trips to see a good deal of it, and I still feel like I’ve been unprepared with every visit.
My trips started back in 2012, which were focused on the assortment of abandoned motels and cabins lining Route 9 that once served the motel, and slowly, I would move inwards.
In 1951, Arthur Bensen, a Staten Island entrepreneur who installed telephones for a living, toured the northeast with $40,000, to find a location suitable for building his dream project which would be far more ambitious than his current profession; an amusement park. 267 wooded acres in North Hudson would seal the deal, and despite having no construction skills and no real income after purchasing the property, he went to work. He was known for his amiable personality, someone who was convincing and charismatic, and got many North Hudson locals on board with helping him build the theme park, despite some of them thinking that both him and his idea was crazy. But his tenaciousness and optimism paid off, as his dream began to take shape. Using his 1951 Chevy, he would drag timber behind his car to build many of the log cabins around the site that still stand today.
Bensen was also known to be a quick thinker and good at improvisation – and it was these skills that ultimately would shape the park so many would come to love. His original vision was to build a Pioneer Village, but shortly before opening, the appropriate costumes for his employees never arrived. So, Bensen made a trip down to New York City to purchase some, and returned with Cowboy and Indian costumes instead, which were the only ones he could buy in such a short notice. But he wasn’t worried, and with a little creative re-imagining, Frontier Town was born, officially opening on July 4, 1952.
He soon constructed Prairie Junction to keep with his new theme, which was modeled after your stereotypical Main Street of a dirty wild west town. The low rise wooden buildings were all connected by a broad wooden porch, consisting of a saloon, music hall and a shop selling Western themed clothing. A rodeo area was built nearby, which held two of them a day would allow children to participate. Stagecoaches, trains, tracks and covered wagons would all transport visitors around the park, and outlaws on horseback would rob the trains and engage in shoot-outs.
Frontier Town wasn’t just loved by the tourists and generations of wide eyed kids who made memories there. It was also loved by the locals. The park employed many Adirondack area teens, who spent their paychecks on college tuition. Many friendships and romances were also forged here, some which would last life long, and would later be recalled wistfully on Frontier Town message boards and fan-sites that pop up on Google searches about the place.
Employees wore period costumes, and would teach bemused onlookers how to churn butter, demonstrate how yarn was spun, or cook pea soup in an iron kettle over a fireplace, which was said to be a favorite of loggers in the Adirondacks.
The park would come to it’s peak popularity in the 1960s and 70s and then would enter an inevitable period of decline. The times were changing. The construction of the Adirondack Northway would lure traffic to bypass North Hudson and cut travel time dramatically. Now, travelers no longer needed to depend on Route 9 to get to the Adirondacks from New York City. Some speculate that the park really declined when a new transgressive era ushered in parents becoming uneasy with their kids playing with guns, which was more acceptable when Westerns were all the craze on TV and the silver screen. As one Frontier Town enthusiast wrote on a comment thread; “Cowboys and Indians were big time. Every kid had a gun and a cowboy hat”. Others blame broader travel opportunities that came with the construction of interstate highways and air travel, making places like Frontier Town obsolete.
In 1983, Art Benson sold Frontier Town to another development firm, and would pass away 5 years later. The park was closed until 1989, re-opening with additions, such as a miniature golf course. In 1998, Frontier Town closed for good due to failing finances and weak attendance. The property was seized in August 2004 by the county for past-due property taxes. The stagecoaches, trains, buggies and the tracks were all ripped out and sold, as well as other paraphernalia. Collectors can still find mementos at Gokey’s Trading Post just down the road, which is where a lot of Frontier Town relics ended up during the massive auction after the park’s closing.
Today, awkward and fantastical ruins falling apart in silence underneath the Pines are all that remains of Frontier Town. A walk around the property reveals the tragic process of decay and entropy which is sad and breathtaking to behold, as you reflect on society’s impermanence.
I visited during the dark wintery cold of January, and returned during a far more pleasant 50 degree April Sunday, so my photos are a mixture of winter and early spring shots.
When I took my research to the internet, I found a cool Facebook page, Frontier Town Abandoned Theme Park Now And Then, with tons of great old photos to gaze at. It’s incredible what the transformative power of nature can do to a place in a short time.
Frontier Town in it’s Postcard Prime
Frontier Town, 2015
Joining me for my adventure was my friend Bill Alexander, creator of Vermonter.com, who filmed our walk around the grounds.
Donating is appreciating, and appreciated! Seriously, any amount helps!
Those who know me know that I’m a huge cartography buff. That love really perpetuated when I was 10, when my mother bought me a DeLorme atlas of Vermont, and I became enthralled with it, thoroughly memorizing every detail I could. But what is it about maps that are so irresistible to me?
Maybe because of their limitless potential, and their ability to unlock the mysteries of our world. Maps tell us how things in this world relate to one another, they take data and turn it into something tangible, something understandable, and maybe something that provokes thought or feelings. Several different types of information can be conveyed at the same time, melding several different ideas into a united idea. Lines to convey topography, more lines to convey boundaries between rock layers, towns, states and countries. More lines for faults, colors for bodies of water, forest land and types of climates. Maybe it’s because maps provide some sort of order, putting everything where it needs to be. Or just the opposite. They’ve always helped me make sense of my thoughts and ideas, and even draw ideas from things that haven’t been categorized or plotted yet.
I loved getting to know the great state I lived in. But one place really stood out to me.
A perfect square, that yellow dotted line indicating it was the boundary of a town, with the word “Glastenbury” printed inside. But inside the square, there was nothing but contour lines, indicating several mountains and rugged wilderness. I was enthralled by the fact that this town apparently had nothing in it. In the very top left corner, in small print, was the word “Fayville”, plotted on a dotted line that seemed to be a secondary road, meandering its way from Shaftsbury deep into the hills, and ending in the middle of nowhere. Even for rural Vermont standards, this was pretty desolate. I knew there was something different about this place, it challenged my young and naive view of the world. Why wasn’t there anything in Glastenbury like other towns around it?
It had a mystery to it, and I wanted to know more. My first act of familiarizing myself with Glastenbury was to make the trip down to that curious place on the map called Fayville. Myself and a few friends departed in his pickup truck and drove up the bumpy forest road into a strange clearing in the middle of the hills. Here, underneath summer humidity, we found old cellar holes almost entirelly hidden by tall grasses, beneath the shade of gnarled apple trees. At the bottoms, under layers of decaying leaves and dirt were iron bands, old horseshoes, and other various relics that hinted at human habitation once being way up here. It now made sense, Fayville was a long abandoned village that still appeared on maps.
As we were wondering around, the once sunny July afternoon became dark and cloudy, as a gusty wind picked up and tangled the long grasses. And it came fast, so fast that none of us were aware of a change in weather until things got dangerous. We were suddenly at the mercy of a freak ferocious thunderstorm that seemed to emanate out of nowhere, and became so violent that we literally retreated down the mountainside, in fear of the dirt trail washing out, leaving us stranded in the middle of the national forest. But when we got back down to the flats in Shaftsbury, it was sunny and dry. To make things far stranger, gas station attendants in Arlington were baffled that a thunderstorm – especially one of that magnitude – had passed through the area without them noticing it. Freak storms are common in New England, it’s by no means a rare phenomena here, but the conditions were just right to make this a head scratcher. I still have no explanation to this day.
Over the years, I began to dive into research, and soon would discover that I had stumbled upon one of the most interesting stories I had ever heard, which remains as one of the earliest examples of what got me interested in Vermont curio. Eventually, I decided that I wanted to write about this place that has long held my attention, to pay it reverence for having an integral part of my life, and also, because I love a good story.
But Glastenbury is perplexing and complex, and something I found a little difficult to write about, mostly because there was so much information to take in. I wanted to be tactful with how I approached it, balancing the resilient history, excellent folklore, and my own thoughts. When I was finished, the only conclusion I could draw is that there is no conclusion. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
In southern Vermont, northeast of Bennington, lies an incredible area of backcountry. It’s a vast area, roughly 36 square miles of unbroken wilderness, with 12 peaks over 3,000 feet in elevation, the centerpiece being Glastenbury Mountain at 3,747 feet. Mostly occupied by the Green Mountain National Forest, this is a surprisingly large stretch of wilderness for Vermont. It’s name sake comes from it’s largest mountain, and the ghost town that used to be there which also bore the same name.
Glastenbury seems to yield a prolific Google search, but despite the hits, the information about the vanished community is vague at best, with much that seems to be copied and pasted from one website to the next. That’s where Tyler Resch’s invaluable book Glastenbury, History of a Vermont ghost town, emerged beaconlike in the darkness.
The town of Glastenbury was charted in 1761 by land grabbing Benning Wentworth, governor of New Hampshire. Wentworth was quite the character – granting as many towns in then unestablished Vermont as he could, with the intention to provocatively challenge New York, which also claimed the same land. Of course, Wentworth’s grants doubled as a lucrative endeavor, as he made sure to set aside some acreage for himself.
But Wentworth had no idea of the local geography, and simply drew lines on a map. Though Glastenbury tips it’s hat to a legendary place in England, Vermont’s titular community seemed to be ill fated from the very beginning. The rough and forbidding terrain and short growing season didn’t lure any settlement until the 1800s.
Because they had a mountain of wood to burn, the town embraced the lumber and charcoal industry, and began to slowly prosper as it lured settlement and business. Though Glastenbury town itself is a large area, it only contained 2 small settlements near the western border; the logging town of Fayville in the north, and later, the settlement of South Glastenbury. While Fayville is more known by people looking at a map, South Glastenbury is normally what is profiled in every article I’ve read. The two villages were never connected, the mountainous terrain was so steep that roads were never built.
South Glastenbury became the heart of town, and the headquarters of the majority of the charcoal operations, with 12 brick kilns erected along the cleared hillsides. A massive loggers boardinghouse, and company store – the only store in town, were built to serve the village. A few homes, a meetinghouse and a crude one room schoolhouse were also built for the few kids who grew up there. Because South Glastenbury sat at the confluent of two different branches of Bolles Brook, where the headwaters met and began their descent down the mountains, the small village became known as “The Forks”.
Life here was tough. It was a wild town, sort of a last frontier in Vermont. It was the kind of place where men out numbered the women, and the law often didn’t exist.
I’m not willing to pay the $20 image purchase fee – but the website historicmapworks.com has an 1869 Beer atlas map of Woodford that you can check out – and this is one of the few maps I’ve came across to feature South Glastenbury in it. The map is sideways, so look for “District 2″, beyond the Woodford town line, and the black dots that represent buildings plotted around Bolles Brook.
With a profitable timber industry came demands. People needed to get up into town, and lumber and charcoal needed to get down. The steepest railroad ever built in the United States was constructed as the solution, which started out as a sarcastic suggestion turned into a defiant reality. Starting in Bennington and ending at The Forks, The Bennington-Glastenbury Railroad was formed in 1872, the tracks climbing an astonishing 250 feet per mile at 9 miles long. But depending on a finite resource eventually created the end of the charcoal and logging industry and the mountains were logged until nothing larger than a sapling remained on the slopes.
But the railroad was still around, and they wanted money. The question was, what to do with it? In 1894, the railroad re-billed itself as The Bennington-Woodford Electric Railroad and the town reinvented itself as a tourist destination, using the railroad as a way to bring tourists up into South Glastenbury. The railroad switched over to using more reliable trolley cars instead of traditional rail cars, because they were stronger and more reliable, especially given the elevation they would have to climb.
Much time and money were invested into retransforming the town – turning the brawny old loggers’ boarding house into a hotel and the former company store into a casino. No details were overlooked, and both buildings became showpieces. They wanted Glastenbury to stand out from other summer resorts. After painstaking labor and expenses, the town opened up as vacation destination in the summer of 1897, and had a successful first season.
However, the barren mountains stripped of all their trees, were very prone to flooding and soil erosion. A year later, a devastating flood washed out the tracks, putting an end to the town for good. It’s high elevation and isolation ensured that no one tried to rebuild it, and the buildings fell into ruin under the silence of the mountains.
The population of Glastenbury dwindled down to almost nothing, which later got the attention of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not in the 1930s when they learned that all 3 members of the Mattison Family were the entire town, and held every office. Because of this, the state of Vermont disorgonized the town in 1937, the first time the state ever did such an act, and the area was reclaimed by the wilderness.
It’s even more interesting to think about that a town with such a galvanizing and unique history was actually so tiny in stature. Though many people who write about ghost towns robotically love to use descriptive terms such as “hub” or “thriving”, Glastenbury was really neither – it’s peak population climbed to around 241.
Apart from the town’s fascinatingly unique story line, it may be the obscure and inexplicable events that allegedly happened on it’s slopes that has really given the town it’s considerable attention. The area has since given birth to terrifying legends, if not actual monsters.
“The Bennington Triangle”
While my love of maps inadvertently lead me to my interest of Glastenbury, their ability to organize information and draw conclusions was useless here.
Glastenbury Mountain and the surrounding area has long been considered one of Vermont’s most haunted places. In 1992, local author and folklorist Joseph Citro coined the term “The Bennington Triangle” to describe the area, and the designation not only stuck, it grew immensely in popularity. Over the years, the phrase has been been featured in books, websites and television shows, to the point where the name has taken a life of it’s own.
The theories and enthusiasm have quickly escalated and have continued to morph and stoke the fire. Many are quick to glamorize the region without being objective, only further propelling it into the blurred haze of fact and embellishment.
To better understand the hysteria here, let me try to summarize the more colloquial regional portrait for you.
It started with the native Americans, who refused to venture onto Glastenbury mountain. Fearing the land was cursed, they only used the land to bury their dead. But maybe it was because of a cross wind that met on the summit of the mountain. Even today, hunters will tell you that because of the disorienting winds, it’s very easy to get lost in the woods.
There is also a baffling legend of some sort of enchanted stone somewhere in the mountains, which is said to open up and “swallow” a human being in seconds if it’s stepped on. Another reason they avoided the place.
The weirdness continued when colonial settlers came to the area, whose vague and un-researchable accounts tell of weird sounds, noises and odors that would come from the mountain. But there are human things at work here as well, and those have been documented.
In 1867, there was an alleged wild man sighting, where a mysterious misanthropic specter would venture down from the woods (some accounts say he lived in a cave in Somerset) pull back his coat, and expose himself to unsuspecting women in Glastenbury and nearby Bennington. He was also said to brandish a revolver for intimidation. Whoever he was, he was eventually ran out of town and faded into obscurity.
On April 4th, 1892, Fayville mill worker Henry McDowell went haywire and murdered John Crawley by bashing him in the head with either a piece of wood or a rock, depending on the story. He fled town, but was later apprehended in South Norwalk, Connecticut, where he made a full confession. However, he was babbling on about voices in his head that wouldn’t leave him alone, and as a result, was sentenced in the Vermont State Asylum in Waterbury. But he escaped by hiding in a railroad car carrying a load of coal, never to be seen again. Some say he returned to Glastenbury, and others claim that he still remains hiding on the slopes to this very day. But by now, he would be an impossibly old man, which takes on an eerie resemblance to the tale of Doctor Benton coming from the mountains of New Hampshire.
On the opening day of Vermont’s first hunting season in 1897, 40 year old John Harbour, a respected Woodford resident, was mysteriously murdered at his deer camp in Bickford Hollow, a remote area in the hills south of Glastenbury. While hunting with his brother and family friend, they heard the blast of a rifle, followed by him crying out “I’ve been shot!”. They immediately turned around and searched for him, but it wasn’t until 11 AM the next morning when they found him, his legs protruding out from underneath a Cedar tree. However, something wasn’t quite right. His loaded gun sat neatly beside him, as if it was purposely put there. But something was wrong. His body was a distance away from where he was shot. They now knew that John had to have been moved. But by what? Did he crawl there after being shot? Did he receive human help, possibly by the shooter? There were no signs of him having walked or crawled to his final resting place, no clues at all. The mystery remains unsolved to this day.
It was after these two murders that signaled both the beginning of Glastenbury’s slow decline, and the establishment of it’s reputation as a mysterious and haunted place. Sometime in the early 19th century, a stagecoach full of passengers were making their way over the mountains near Glastenbury, near present day Route 9 in Woodford. It was well past dark and a violent rain storm was washing out the road. The rain was coming down so hard, it soon forced the driver to slow down to a crawl as the thunder cracked the night sky. Things became so bad that the driver eventually came to a complete stop in the dark and wet mountain wilderness. As he hopped down from his perch with the lantern to get a good idea of the situation, he noticed something peculiar illuminated by lantern light. There were unfamiliar footprints in the mud just ahead of him.
The rain hadn’t washed them away yet, so they had to be fresh tracks the driver reckoned. His observations revealed that the tracks were widely spaced, suggesting that whatever had made them was tremendous in size. He noticed the horses were beginning to get spooked, but he just couldn’t stop thinking about those tracks. What made them? He soon hollered back to the passengers and asked for their opinions. At this point, the horses were going wild, which was spooking the driver. That meant that something was skulking nearby, and it might just be what made those tracks…
As the passengers began to step out, something dealt a savage blow to the side of the carriage. Now, all of the passengers scrambled out of the carriage, completely terrified. The blows kept coming, until the whole thing tumbled over on it’s side.
The quivering passengers and driver huddled together in the dark, the rain stinging their faces. Then the creature came into view. Though it was almost impossible to see, two large eyes could be made out staring at them. A vague detail described the brazen creature as roughly 8 feet tall and hairy, before it shambled back into the woods. Shortly after, whatever had attacked them had became dubbed as The Bennington Monster.
Another interesting theory suggests that the Bennington Monster is actually the horrifying transformation of the Glastenbury Wild Man. After he was chased out of the region, he took back to the woods and dwelled, becoming cannibalistic, deformed and insane, wearing animal firs and attacking lone stagecoaches coming over the mountains.
Giant hairy monsters that topple stagecoaches are all good for earning a place an official spook status, but it was the disconcerting events that took place after the town became disorganized in 1937 that have really cemented the area into the public’s imagination and paranormal concrete.
Glastenbury is where one of Vermont’s most frightening mysteries took place, and what’s more captivating is that it really didn’t happen all that long ago. Beginning in the last cold months of 1945, people from the area began to vanish without a trace.
The first one to disappear was 74 year old Middie Rivers. He was a native to the area and worked as a hunting and fishing guide. Because of his job, he was completely familiar with the woods. One day, Rivers led four hunters up onto the mountain. Things were going fine, until their trek back to camp. Rivers got a bit ahead of the group, and vanished completely. Expecting to catch up with him at the camp, the hunters began to panic when they didn’t see him there upon their arrival. Police and a group of volunteers combed the area for hours. But Rivers was an experienced woodsman, so they were fairly confident they would find him in no time. But search attempts continued for over a month, and no trace was ever found. Local lore has it that Rivers disappeared near Bickford Hollow, the same place John Harbour was murdered.
The next person to vanish is the most infamous of all the Bennington Triangle disappearances, the case most talked about. on December 1, 1946, 18 year old Paula Welden decided to take a hike on the Long Trail. she left her dorm at Bennington College and walked into the woods. She was easy to spot, because of her bright red coat. Plenty of people saw her that day, including on the Long Trail itself. But Monday came, and Paula didn’t show up for her classes. The college called the sheriff’s department. 400 students and faculty members assembled to help look for their missing classmate. A massive search party of 1,000 people, bloodhounds, helicopters and even a clairvoyant, combed the area diligently for weeks. A $5,000 reward was even offered! But on December 22, all efforts came to an end. There was no body, no clothes, no evidence, nothing. The quality of Paula Weldon’s search party was met with scrutiny, and because of this, it lead to the formation of the Vermont State Police. Another interesting detail I uncovered was that to this day, there are people who think it’s bad luck to wear red while hiking Glastenbury Mountain.
The third person to disappear was on Columbus Day in 1950. 8 year old Paul Jepson was waiting for his mother in his family’s pickup at the dump they were caretakers for. But when she came back, he was gone. Like Paula Welden, Paul was wearing a red jacket, so he should have been easy to spot, but Mrs. Jepson couldn’t find him anywhere. Frantic, she called for help, and another search was launched.
Hundreds of townsfolk joined the search, scanning the dump and the surrounding roads, even the mountains. They implemented a double check system, where as soon as one group finished searching an area, another group would search the same area. Even coast guard planes were brought in. But all was useless. Bloodhounds borrowed from the New Hampshire State Police lost Paul’s scent at the intersection of East and Chapel Roads. Local lore says that Paul’s scent was actually lost at the same place Paula Welden was last seen. After the search had been called off, Paul’s father disclosed a peculiar piece of information. Paul had mentioned that he had an inexplicable “yen” to go into the mountains lately. Paul’s disappearance made him the third to go missing in roughly the same area. Was there a pattern here?
Maybe. Or maybe not. It was said that there were pigs at the dump his family were caretakers for. One popular theory at the time which the newspapers suggested, was that Paul wondered off and was eaten by the pigs, thus explaining his disappearance.
Others speculate that Paul was actually abducted near East and Chapel Roads, carried away in a car. That would explain why the bloodhounds lost his scent. But we’ll never know for sure. Either way, the newspapers did what they do best and ran wild, and soon, others started to wonder what was going on here?
Two weeks later, On October 28th, 53 year old Freida Langer had left her family’s camp east of Glastenbury Mountain near the Somerset Reservoir to go hiking with her cousin. She was an experienced woodsman and was completely familiar with the area. About a half mile from camp, she slipped and fell into a stream. She decided to hike the short half mile back to camp, change her clothes and catch back up. She never returned.
When her cousin got back to camp, he was startled to learn that not only had she never came back, but no one even saw her come out of the woods.
Local authorities were quick to launch another search, alarmed at another unfathomable disappearance in the area. Once again, all efforts proved to be hopeless. They found nothing. The Bennington Banner picked up on the story, and raised a disturbing question: How did Langer disappear completely in an area she was so familiar with?
On December 1st, 1949, James E. Tetford had been visiting relatives in northern Vermont. He boarded a bus in St. Albans, en route to the Bennington Soldiers home, where he lived. But he never arrived. Somehow, he had vanished without a trace without ever getting off of the bus. Even the bus driver had no explanation!
This account seems to be continuously accepted as proof of paranormal happenings, without further questioning the events. It’s worth mentioning that by the time James was actually reported missing, it was at least a week after the fact, when the Bennington soldiers home finally decided to call his relatives to figure out if he was actually coming back or not. By the time the police were involved in the investigation and got around to interviewing the bus driver and other passengers, it had been two weeks, and no one really remembered anything. But some information did arise. James was last seen by a friend of his when his bus made a stop in Burlington, and guessed he might have gotten off there, offering another possible explanation to his whereabouts. But regardless, his disappearance still remains a mystery. I don’t really see a connection here to the other disappearances, but I guess because it happened around the same time frame and James did live in the area, it has just been lumped into the big picture.
And perhaps one of the most arcane disappearance took place on November 11, 1943. As Author David Paulides tells in his book Missing 411, 37 year old Carl Herrick went hunting in the woods of West Townshend, about 10 miles northeast of Glastenbury. At some point during the hunt, Herrick and his cousin, Henry, were separated. Henry eventually made it back to camp, but Carl didn’t show up. As dusk began to fall and Carl still hadn’t arrived, Henry immediately contacted law enforcement, just as the snow began to fall.
The search for Carl lasted three days without finding a trace. But towards dusk on the third day, Henry stumbled upon Carl’s body. He was laying on the ground in the woods, motionless, his loaded rifle found leaning against a tree seventy feet away. Henry reported finding “huge bear tracks” around Carl’s body, but the official postmortem was baffling. Carl was reportedly squeezed to death, his lung was found to be punctured by his own ribs. What sort of bear squeezes a human to death? It would be an impossible act.
In Joseph Citro’s Passing Strange, (which was another heavy source for this article) he further mentioned a Burlington Free Press article dated October 25, 1981 reported that a trio of hunters disappeared somewhere near Glastenbury, and not surprisingly, that too remains unsolved.
Additional Theories and Searching for Answers
If you take these other accounts into consideration, this raises the number of disappearances from four to nine, which begs the question, what happened here? Where could nine people vanish to without a trace?
This is what we do know. The victims ages ranged between 8 and 74 and were evenly divided between men and women. Time is also a pattern. The disappearances all happened during the same time of the year – the last 3 months – and many of them were last seen between 3 and 4 PM. The rest is up for debate.
Because of the vast scope of the wilderness area and it’s inaccessibility, the task of finding a body is difficult. The conditions could easily ensure that someone’s remains would never be found again, regardless of cause of death. Depending on who you ask, there is a pattern there.
Speculations abound, adding many more layers to this fabled region’s already weighted and transgressive reputation. Could the Bennington Monster still be stalking the slopes, carrying its victims to some cave on the mountain? Maybe. As recently as 2003, Winooski resident Ray Dufresne saw something peculiar on his drive down Route 7, near Glastenbury. What he first thought was a homeless man stumbling around in a snowsuit, turned into an alleged bigfoot sighting upon a closer look. That story immediately blew up and was even picked up by local news stations. While some skeptics dismiss it as a prankster in a Gorilla suit, others aren’t buying it, and plenty more sightings have been passed down by word of mouth from the Bennington area, all which remain unaccounted for.
Or maybe, could these unfortunate people have accidentally encountered that enchanted Indian stone, and were swallowed in seconds?
Alien abduction is another hypothesis. Many reports of UFO sightings and strange lights in the sky have been spotted over the Glastenbury wilderness over the last century. Most notably, a “flying silo” shaped anomaly was see over the skies of Bennington by Don Pratt in 1984, which seems to be the go-to example for extraterrestrial sightings in the area.
But my personal favorite was designated by John A. Keel, an American journalist and influential UFOlogist, who used the term “Window Areas” to describe these places, or, some sort of inter-dimensional doorway or vortex into another world. New England seems to have a fair share of them. The legendary Bridgewater Triangle in Massachusetts which has similar phenomena, and the summit of Mount Washington are two of the most notable.
Perhaps the most tangible answer could be something all too familiar, a serial killer. “The Bennington Ripper” and “The Mad Murderer of The Long Trail” were all monikers given to the possibility of a sinister suspect that lurked in the wilds, but no evidence was ever found to prove this. The police during that time were not familiar with serial killers or how they operated, so even if it was the work of such a killer, the facts would have gone undocumented.
Adding to the seemingly ever growing list of theories, this one might be the most plausible. Near the former village of South Glastenbury, there are a few old wells. Some speculate that Middie Rivers accidentally tumbled down a well while on his hunting trip. His party, being unfamiliar with the area, never thought to check. As for the others….
An odd footnote to all of this; the body of Freida Langer did eventually appear, seven months after she had vanished. But sadly, this wouldn’t be of any help. It was in an area that search parties knew they had combed thoroughly, near the flood gates of the Somerset Reservoir. It was a completely open area, and anything there would be impossible to miss. And yet, here she was. Or, what was left of her. Her remains were in such gruesome condition that no cause of death could ever be determined.
Even More Strangeness
Enigmatic situations aren’t contained to the past, things reportedly continue to happen here to this day. Countless internet searches have dug up numerous unusual tales posted on message boards and blogs from hikers, hunters and curiosity seekers.
In the book Haunted Hikes of Vermont, Author Tim Simard mentions a one time incident of hearing a ghostly train whistle while hiking along the West Ridge Trail, miles away from both any functional railroad track, and the old rail bed that runs up into South Glastenbury.
One harrowing account I was able to dig up took take place on Columbus Day in 2008. This time, 2 Long Trail hikers were making their way through the Glastenbury wilderness. While hiking, they ran into a young man named Dave, who helped rebuild fire towers along the trail. They started talking about the mountain’s reputation, which at this point seems almost impossible not to do if you’re visiting. They had heard about the disappearances and shrugged it off as out of control tall tales. But Dave had a weird story to tell of his own. Dave spent some time on Glastenbury mountain restoring the fire tower on the summit, and would work up there for extended periods of time.
While camping in Goddard Shelter, his friends reported that there were nights that he would sit up in his sleep and laugh uncontrollably, and other nights when he would wake up screaming. Dave was considered a down to earth and smart guy, so this behavior had his friends extremely concerned, and disturbed. He had never acted in such a way before. I’ll never know if Dave had any follow up episodes, or an explanation behind these bizarre actions, the thread ended there.
Another story I was able to dig up only adds to the unscrupulousness of the region. In the book Ghost towns of New England, Author Fessenden S. Blanchard spoke with Arlie Greene – the oldest surviving member of the Mattison family. Greene recalled the old days in Glastenbury, and one particularly enigmatic, and possibly nefarious, incident. Two local men went fishing on the Peters Branch – one went upstream and the other went downstream. One of them was never seen again. A short time after the disappearance of the fisherman, someone found a human skull sitting on a tree stump near the brook. Some speculated Panthers got to him, but others weren’t so sure…
Arcane Stone Cairns
Yet another mystery, dressed in the forest light and acting as silent witnesses to times gone by. This enigma is far more benign than the previous ones I’ve covered, but is still just as vexing. There are a series of inexplicable cairns scattered around the mountain, and no one is quite sure why they exist. There are theories to why they are there. Farmers built them long ago while clearing their pastures, or several passing hikers on the Long Trail built them, to act as beacons in bad weather. But nothing adds up. The cairns were built in high elevations where farming never took place, and most of them are located miles away from the long trail in heavily forested areas. So what are they? The work of the Bennington Monster? Perhaps playful hikers built them wanting to add another Glastenbury mystery? For now, these giant piles of stones offer no explanations.
What About Today?
Though Glastenbury is a ghost town and designated wilderness area, it’s anything but deserted. A myriad of outdoor enthusiasts, hikers, snowmobiliers, college students, history buffs, paranormal investigators and hunters all flock here to the undisturbed wilderness – trekking up the expansive network of forest roads, hiking trails or silent waterways, all realizing just how special it is here.
Today, there are about 8 residents that chose to live in this strange paradise. They love it’s obscurity, and I can see why. There are no other towns quite like Glastenbury in the northeast – and with only one road in town, a winding dirt road that snakes its way in no less than 2 miles, privacy is in abundance. And if you know about Glastenbury, there seems to be a sense of pride that comes with your knowledge of this obscure area, if not something that conjures a romantic notion of fantasy. As a matter of fact,”Chateau Fayville”, the last original house in Glastenbury and the former Mattison homestead, was put on the real estate market – and it looks like a nice place.
But there are several people who aren’t all that enthusiastic about its menacing repute and “Bennington Triangle” folklore – mostly because they’re not a fan of ghosts, curses and the bad, inflated outlook it brings to the area. Skeptical people will be quick to assure you that everything has a perfectly logical explanation. As for me, I’m one of the skeptics.
So, is there truly something phenomenal about Glastenbury that has yet to be comprehensively explained? Do curses and monsters really claim their victims? Well….this seems to be a controversial subject of much enthusiastic debate. I’ve heard it all. At the end of the day, some people surmise firmly to their untenable thoughts. I suppose it’s all subjective.
During the height of the disappearances, the local media ran wild with the stories and theories, which not surprisingly, got out of hand, creating vicious accusations and conspiracy theories. If you’re a fact checker, it’s worth noting that Middie Rivers was the only actual person to vanish within the town of Glastenbury itself. All the others were in neighboring communities, many on the Long Trail in Woodford.
To add to this, Author Tyler Resch is one of those who thinks the area is widely exaggerated, and has created preposterous theories carried by inertia. He once noted that he was surprised that more people actually hadn’t vanished, because the wilderness is in fact so large, and it’s very easy to become hopelessly lost if you stray from the trails.
Others argue that numerous things could have happened to the missing hikers. They could have fallen down an old well, or gotten lost and frozen to death, perhaps taking shelter in one of the numerous caves on the mountain which few people ever venture near. Another theory is that they were the unfortunate meals of a Catamount or giant cat, which would surely dispose of any evidence of a body.
If you put all of these pieces that I’ve covered together and add the intrigue of a town attempting to survive against all odds but still vanishing into the wilderness, you can easily draw a conclusion about something creepy and supernatural existing here. After all, the region does have great triggers for spook stories. I’m personally awe struck that such a plethora of incidents are all linked to a single area.
But at the end of the day, everything is relative. 4 hikers did disappear, and people have claimed to see weird things in the woods. The only absolute truth about all of this is that people swear these things happened. Whether the culprit was something awesome and sinister or innate, is the quandary here. Who knows for sure.
In finality, the Bennington Triangle certainly isn’t in danger of being forgotten anytime soon.
Additional Stuff! (Because this entry wasn’t nearly long enough)
Youtuber Matt Garland made this awesome documentary on the Bennington Triangle, which is in my opinion, a great watch.
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A few days ago, I passed through the village of Willimantic, Connecticut, and noticed an almost impossible to miss, curious landmark in the center of town. A relatively new bridge over the Willimantic River features 4 giant statues of bullfrogs resting on oversized spools of thread, each frog twelve feet tall and weigh a solid ton.
Officially known as Thread City Crossing, the four lane, 476 foot bridge was built in 2000 to replace an older bridge that had reached end of it’s functional life. For reasons that need no explanation, locals call it The Frog Bridge. So, what’s the deal with this weird bridge?
Willimantic is well-known as the Thread City because of the textile mills that once produced high quality thread there, which explains both the name of the bridge and the presence of the giant spools of thread found at both of the span’s entrances. But what about the frogs?
The answer here harks back to a harrowing night in the summer of 1758, when the town of Windham, where the village of Willimantic is, was suffering a terrible drought and the French and Indian War was on everyone’s mind. One dark July night, the already restless townsfolk were roused from their sleep by a frightening cacophony of wailing that filled the humid night air.
When it didn’t cease, many started to panic. Some took cover, fearing vengeful Indians and a possible attack. The volume of the raucous became so reveille that others suspected that the only explanation was that the world was ending. People were even convinced they heard the names of other townsfolk being called from the darkness – with some fleeing into the streets, looking for a telltale sign.
Other more methodical citizens armed themselves with their muskets, formed a group, and went after the source of the commotion. But nothing ever attacked.
As morning came, the frazzled residents of Windham finally figured out what happened as a group of patrollers embarked up a nearby hill and were met with an illuminating sight. They discovered scores of dead frogs were the source of the horrifying noises, who had fought for the last remaining puddles of water in a drought-stricken mill pond known as Frog Pond.
Fast forward almost 260 years after, and four frogs now adorn a bridge in town and have came to the forefront of American roadside kitsch, though I’m not sure what or who exactly inspired the offbeat idea, I thought it was cool.
“NEW ENGLANDERS They buried their emotions deep, Long years ago, with care; And if a stranger dares to dig He finds but granite there. — Catherine Cate Coblentz — Driftwind, May 1925″
A few days ago, I was traveling through New Hampshire’s White Mountains, a compelling region that I wish I had taken the time to explore more of when I was a college student in the Northeast Kingdom, far before the ugly reality of adulthood trimmed the fat off things.
Part of the great Appalachian chain, it’s difficult not to be in awe of the sublimely rugged White Mountains, whose hulking mountaintops rise out of view above the clouds, or the deep trenches of Franconia Notch, it’s walls carved from the oldest rocks around.
The small town of Bethlehem, New Hampshire, has been around since 1774, and in the last days of 1799, it would adapt it’s current moniker, shared with the city of the same name on the other side of the world, though the origins behind the naming of New Hampshire’s settlement are a bit of a mystery. A drive down Route 302, the main drag in town, reveals one of the most architecturally impressive Main Street’s I’ve visited. A great collection of showy Victorians and humble Bungalows that have been very well preserved, and it’s aesthetics can be owed to the town’s heyday as an early tourist destination.
In 1805, the Old Man Of The Mountain was discovered, and by 1819, a path was created that carved its way up to the summit of Mount Washington. The White Mountains, their fresh air, and the mystique of their geographic curiosities were beginning the shift into a tourist area, and Bethlehem found itself conveniently in the middle of it’s many prominent attractions, which proved to be good for business.
In 1867, the railroad came to town, bringing tourists from the urban hubs of Boston and New York City. By 1870, a building boom period began, which would eventually create 30 grand hotels that lined Bethlehem’s streets. Seven trains a day roared into the village, dropping of passengers at five depots. Bethlehem was attracting well heeled people from all around who were building their summer “cottages” up the hillsides that surrounded town, even attracting the likes of the famous Woolworth family. The town became such a spectacle that it even drew the attention of P.T. Barnum, who described an event called “the Coaching Parade”, which was pretty much the wealthy elite flaunting their massive wealth and ostentatious carriages around town, as “the Second Greatest Show on Earth.”
But the rise of the automobile in the early 20th century would be the beginning of the end, as tourists were now no longer limited to only seeing places the railroads could bring you. As a result, the grand hotels eventually vanished, and the tourism culture changed.
One of these hotels was The Maplewood.
Opening in 1876, this hotel would soon become a showpiece, your textbook example of an incredibly lavish 19th century resort which unabashedly marketed itself as “The Social and Scenic Center of The White Mountains”. It would eventually grow to ginormous proportions, encompassing it’s own 18 hole country club, casino, cottages, and was served by it’s own train station, Maplewood Depot. I guess I can see how their claim could hold it’s own. As a friendly New Hampshirite pointed out to me; in the glory days of rail travel in the White Mountains, the small Victorian station rivaled the most revered of north country stations, such as Crawford and Fabyan.
Maplewood Depot was abandoned in the early 20s in the wake of the automobile, and the hotel it served would function for a few more decades, before burning to the ground in January 1963. Today, the grounds have been revitalized as the Maplewood Country Club, with striking views of the Presidential Range. But sitting in the woods behind the links, the old train station can still be found, now leaning at a dramatic angle in it’s slow decay, wasting away in silence as the town thrives around it.
Most of the details depicted in the postcard, such as the expansive porches and apex tower have long faded into postcard memory. The former railroad line had it’s tracks pulled shortly after the station went defunct, but the right of way can still be detected, a ruler straight path that is slightly less overgrown than the woods around it.
The station truly appears ghostly, skulking in the middle of the woods. Minus a few new-ish looking armchairs that have been toppled over, and most likely an addition to the building after it’s abandonment, it’s completely hollowed out, with empty doorways and tall, narrow windows. Inside, time has not been kind to the wooden structure. Much of it had long succumbed to weather damage and vandals, and portions of the original wooden floors had been ripped upwards as the building slowly sagged over the years, forming a jagged rip that ran the partial length of the room. I was a bit surprised at how clean this place was still, completely void of the graffiti and beer can piles which are found in many abandonments. I was still able to climb the narrow wooden stairs that curved around a brick chimney, revealing three rooms that were more or less intact, apart from some holes in the floor.
It’s a spooky place, especially as the winter winds hit the building, creating strange noises. I’m sure it takes on a far different atmosphere once the leaves fill out on the trees, blocking out even more light from reaching it. It’s almost startling to think about the fact that this place used to be a train station, and today it’s nothing but a trembling corpse that gives almost no clues to it’s former life. And at the rate that the place is leaning, I’m rather amazed that it’s still standing.
Maplewood was also apparently featured in the short concept film American Ruins, and after glimpsing the short trailer, it’s completely sold me. The effects and videography are mind blowing, which no doubt took hours and hours and hours of patience, producing and editing. Maybe someday I’ll aspire to creating something great like this.
Over The Notch
Route 3 used to be the main route to get from the top to the bottom of New Hampshire, and still pretty much is, though it’s a bit quieter today in light of the construction of Interstate 93 which practically parallels the road. Both routes are pushed together when they run through mountainous Franconia Notch, joining to form the unique Franconia Notch Parkway, the main access road to all of the scenic points in Franconia Notch State Park, and the tourist attractions and motels farther south in the town of Lincoln.
Passing through the notch, I couldn’t help but gaze at the jagged stump where the Old Man of The Mountain used to be, now being battered by fierce mountain winds and the puffs of snow spray they send. The famous rock profile crumbled in 2004, and after much controversy, the state decided not to synthetically re-create it. Despite the formation’s disappearance, the Old Man is still used as a state marketing icon, and can still be found awkwardly on a variety of things from license plates to state route shields. It will be weird to think about there being a day where no one remembers seeing him in person.
In Lincoln, I stopped at an Irving Station to get gas and a coffee, and got an unexpected surprise in the form of a rather large mural of what looked like a seemingly friendly alien who was hitchhiking, which took up a rather large chunk of wall near the entrance of the store. Not exactly what I’ve came to expect from a stop at a gas station. On the top of the painting were the words; “First Close Encounter of the Third Kind, Betty and Barney Hill, Sept. 19th, 1961.” I recognized the names. The Barney and Betty Hill abduction case is the most infamous in all of UFOlogy.
My amusement was carried from the wintery cold to inside the store, where I noticed the extraterrestrial theme continued in the form of wall to wall paraphernalia, photocopies of newspaper articles and other copied information related to both the Betty and Barney Hill case, other alleged incidents, and an assortment of fan images from science fiction TV shows and movies.
The shop owner who was behind the cash register at the time, caught me staring, and enthusiastically explained to me that right across the road from that exact store, was the actual site of the abduction. However, a friend of mine, as well as some commenters over Facebook, argued this fact, and said that it actually happened a farther down the road, where Millbrook Road meets State Route 175 in Thornton.
Though I can really take or leave UFOlogy, more so on the leave side, I found this offbeat memorial and it’s fanaticism interesting enough to write about.
As the story goes, on the night of September 19, 1961, husband and wife Barney and Betty Hill were traveling South on Route 3 to their home in Portsmouth, NH, when, according to their claim, were followed by a spaceship near the present day Indian Head Resort, and eventually accosted by some sort of extraterrestrial crew, taken aboard their craft, examined, and then released on the side of Route 3 in the early morning hours of September 20 as the sun’s first rays would begin to grey the New Hampshire skies.
The collection I saw above me mounted on black poster board was originally smaller in size, and more of a quirky secret, located on a wall inside the unisex bathroom. The current owner of the gas station has only owned the store for a few years now, and told me how disrespectful visitors kept stealing memorabilia and eventually, he grew sick of it and moved all of it around the store, so everyone could still enjoy it, but couldn’t grab a keepsake. As an extra precaution, they also outfitted the store with lots and lots of security cameras. They apparently get a lot of interested people who stop by, so they also sell alien key chains, bumper stickers, shirts and books about the Hills near the door. I neglected to buy a souvenir, but did get my coffee.
Have a weird encounter of your own? There is also a blank black board outside to the left of the mural, where you can share your own stories. I noticed that stuff had been written there, but nothing UFO related, which I suppose didn’t surprise me.
I didn’t think of this until after I had gotten back home and was writing up this post, but I have sort of a strange tie in to all this. A location I explored last year reported seeing unidentified flying objects hovering above the skies shortly before Hill incident happened, but as for an actual connection between the two events, that remains subjective.
If you’re interested, just take Route 3 through Lincoln, New Hampshire, and look for the Irving Station near the Indian Head Resort.
Around the turn of the 20th century, there was a changing attitude on mental illness. Children with intellectual and learning disabilities would no longer spend their days festering at home, thanks to a bunch of bureaucrats putting their heads together and creating special institutions for them to live in. Some parents sent their kids to these places to give them a shot at a better life and access to help they couldn’t provide. Other parents, who didn’t know how to deal with their children, now had a resource and exhaustingly shipped them away.
This undisclosed 876 acre state school was constructed in 1922 to serve these troubled youth, and would expand to encompass 50 buildings. While many institutions before this one were gloriously centered around magnificent Kirkbrides, times had changed, and this facility was streamlined, focusing more on functionality in the form of duplicate buildings which were pretty drab.
Though it’s considered a school by name, that’s a misnomer. No forms of education were carried out here, this was a warehousing facility. It was built to house around 700 residents, but shortly after it opened, it far exceeded it’s capacity, topping out at around 1,500 between the ages of 1 and 18, all housed in 13 dorms.
The fate of the hospital sadly followed suit with most others in the United States, and is the stuff of nightmares. Overcrowding and understaffing lead to the campus to sink into deplorable conditions. Because employee responsibilities were stretched so far, treatment of the those in their care became atrocious. Many of the children were left unattended, and would wonder the halls, moaning, and covered in their own excrement. Others who were physically handicapped would be simply left restrained to their beds and forgotten, often for weeks. Sometimes, if a stubborn inmate was really unlucky, all their teeth would be removed to make feeding them easier, especially force feeding. If they weren’t neglected, many staff members would physically beat them to keep them under control, or worse, because they felt like it. If this wasn’t bad enough, the buildings were deteriorating because of neglect and no funding to maintain them, and eventually, that lead to a vermin infestation.
Conditions and life here were unknown to the outside world, until 1971, when the father of a patient filed a class-action lawsuit against the school, claiming that its young residents were not only the victims of sexual abuse, but were also living in horrific conditions. He wrote of abhorrent things like; “maggots wriggling inside or crawling out of the infected ears of several helpless, profoundly retarded persons while they lay in their crib-beds.” Investigations began making their way in, as public outrage exploded. From there, the school awkwardly hobbled along, sinking further into a spiral of decline until all operations officially ceased in 1992, leaving the sprawling property a hazardous and continuously corroding ruin which is ambivalently being forsaken by those who don’t want to think about it, or kept alive by a different population of urban archaeologists and curious adventurers, contributing to it’s fluctuant story line.
A Winter Visit
I heard the end was coming. Asbestos abatement had began in a few buildings, and plans had been announced to slowly begin demolition on the school. I didn’t have to sneak around much. Though the entire property was covered in snow drifts that often came up to knee deep levels and filled my boots, the attitude here was relaxed. Other photographers meandered their way around various buildings, and a few people were walking their dogs.
A majority of the buildings were sealed up, but a good amount had their doors torn open, and security was nowhere to be seen. Many of the buildings were boarded up and were pitch black. If it wasn’t for the wintery cold, the mold and asbestos inside would have probably been insufferable. Others had entire sections which had completely collapsed.
Though there was much to see, most of the buildings were void of anything of interest. The auditorium was by far the most splendid place to explore, and also the most dangerous. The overcast and bleak landscape made the cavernous interior more sad and dreary that day. The entire building was coated in a dangerous layer of ice, so moving around the collapsing structure had to be done carefully and methodically. Some of the wooden floors were more soggy than I felt comfortable with trusting, and every staircase was coated so thickly with ice that I had almost debated not taking the risk climbing them. I was already exploring an abandoned hospital, I didn’t need to visit a real one! But I took the risk, and I’m glad I did. The floor plan kept continuing, and became a bit of a maze as more hallways and staircases kept revealing themselves.
Below the rotting auditorium was one of the better finds, the old gymnasium, a spacious area outfitted in grungy yellow hospital tile that was coated with mold and rot. The basement area consisted of two levels, and it was inky black. The lowest level was filled with knee deep water, with a layer of ice underneath, making passage treacherous. With the aid of our maglites, we made it into the gym. All I could hear was a roaring cacophony of dripping water raining down from the decaying abyss above our heads which ran down the back of our necks. It was so cold downstairs that I could see my breath in the beam of my flashlight. A friend of mine later told me that it wasn’t much different during the warmest months of the summer.
Another find worth photographing was the large cafeteria building far back, and the old power plant complete with dysfunctional and rusting machines sitting in dark spaces. The wooden floors in there were suspicious so I didn’t spend a great deal of time inside. Though I had arrived relatively early, I was surprised at how much time I spent shooting here, and now I was loosing daylight. Between that, and the effort it took to trudge through the snow, I was exhausted.
But I’m glad I got to see such a place, an epoch of human history and how far we’ve came, or maybe how far we still have yet to go. If the powers that be stick to their schedules, it should be luxury condos and mixed use space come next summer.
photo: Ray Parizo
Mount Mansfield is literally the largest thing in Vermont. The state’s loftiest peak rises above everything at 4,395 feet, coming to an end on a wind battered rocky summit covered with the blinking lights of transmitter towers that serve area media companies, throngs of hikers, and one of the few places in the east that can support rare arctic alpine tundra – actual surviving vestiges from the ice age. The sprawling ridge line’s anthropomorphic profile explains the names behind it’s distinct standout topographical features, such as The Forehead, The Nose, The Chin (officially the tallest elevation), and Adams apple, although not everyone apparently agrees on seeing a human face. Interestingly enough, the idea of seeing a human face in the rocks may just come from some Yankee competition around the 19th century, when neighboring New Hampshire officially decided that a rock formation in the White Mountains looked like an old man, turning it into a regional mascot and a symbol of state pride in a time when the mystic and science of geology was a growing interest. The best Vermont could do was to find one in the upturned profile of Mount Mansfield, but it was nowhere nearly as admired.
If you arrange the pieces of the face together, “the chin” is much higher than “the forehead”, so I guess it’s sort of a stretch of the imagination. On an interview with VPR, historian Jill Mudget had a humerus observation. During the 19th century, a time where new and radical ideas spread like wildfire, there was an introduced theory that you could tell a lot about a person’s intelligence by their facial features, which I suppose would mean that Mansfield’s profile isn’t very intelligent.
The gargantuan landmass separates two counties, Chittenden and Lamoille, and it’s eastern slopes contain one of the more popular ski resorts in the eastern United States; the ritzy Stowe Mountain Resort. The rest of the mountain is forever protected by the Mansfield State Forest and Underhill State Park, which has spared the mountain from ruinous development, including one notable 1930s project when it was actually proposed to build a scenic highway that would have ran right over the summit! Today, a different sort of highway runs along the top of the mountain, the oldest long distance hiking trail in America, the celebrated Long Trail.
Mount Mansfield is a grand mountain in many considerations, with a complex biography of history and myth, but perhaps one of my favorite aspects of the topographical area is how things here got their names.
It’s original Abenaki name, Mozodepowadso, was English translated to Moosehead Mountain when people began to settle closer to it’s slopes, but unlike other Indian names that have stuck around and worked their way permanently into local parle, Moosehead didn’t, and the mountain eventually became known as Mansfield. But the origin of the name is mysterious. Some speculate that Mansfield was named after the town of the same name, which was charted literally on the steep and practically inaccessible slopes, making development slow and survival far tougher than the surrounding towns. Eventually, Mansfield, and the neighboring town of Sterling, became ghost towns, and were carved up into the present day towns of Stowe, Cambridge and Underhill, giving them their unusually large and weird shapes. Other theories speculate that the state’s most prominent feature may have derived from the name “Mans Field”, named after the burly and intrepid early settlers who endured strenuous labor to make a living in the harsh wilderness. Either way, the name stuck.
Another much smaller monument to mankind can be found along the summit. There is an innocuous cairn with an interesting name. Called Frenchman’s Pile, it marks the spot where a man was struck by lightning many years ago, and killed on the spot.
Hiking is one of my favorite activities to do, and with so many trails that snake their way over the mountain and such varied terrain, I always have some sort of new experience that keeps me wanting to come back and explore. While hiking the mountain a while ago, I came across the most peculiar name for a hiking trail I had ever seen in my time in the woods – Wampahoofus Trail. I had to stop for a second, the name wasn’t familiar at all. I couldn’t help but wonder, just what the hell was a Wampahoofus? What did it mean?
I took my search to the internet, and got a wonderfully strange story behind the etymology. The name derives from an animal which is now extinct, and their story is a tragically ironic one. The Wampahoofus, (sometimes referred to as Sidehill Gougers), was a large mammal, that some say resembled a hybrid that was part deer, part wild boar. The only place in the world you could find one was limited to a certain area of Mt. Mansfield, usually between 2,600 and 3,200 feet in elevation, and some say the slopes of the deep and remote Chateauguay wilderness near Bridgewater.
The Wampahoofus wondered around the mountainsides, moving in lateral directions across the slopes, and were well adapted to Vermont’s mountainous terrain, especially because of a peculiar characteristic. The males traveled in a clockwise direction, and the females in a counterclockwise direction, never deviating. Because of spending generations moving laterally in these patterns, their legs adapted, and one of them became much shorter than the other as a result, depending on the direction they moved. This also allowed them to graze quite comfortably on steep hillsides.
They stayed in their particular region, never venturing to the valleys below or the summits above, the females taking an especial liking to the Nebraska Notch area. The only time males and females interacted with each other was during mating season, and because of their odd traveling patterns and different sized legs, mating could only occur then, when they literally came in contact with each other as they traveled around the mountain.
They were said to move at haste speeds, theoretically making them very difficult to come across, but if you did want to encounter one, maybe all you need to do is travel straight up or down a slope?
Their unusual evolutionary adaptation wasn’t an issue for many generations – but unfortunately, it would eventually be their undoing. The males’ right legs and the females’ left legs kept getting shorter and shorter, until eventually, when a couple met to mate, they were no longer able too. As a result, the Wampahoofus died out, leaving these great terrestrial beings unceremoniously remembered by their name carved on a sign.
But how did this trail officially receive its name? That honor was dubbed by a Professor Ray Buchanan, when he saw a rock formation nearby that he thought resembled the profile of a Wampahoofus. (source: Joe Citro’s The Vermont Monster Guide)
As long as we’re on the topic of Mount Mansfield mysteries, The Abenaki told legends of beasts called Gici Awas, or, giant hairless bears that they said used to roam the mountain and were dangerous if encountered, but no trail is named in their honor. Perhaps Wampahoofus is just a catchier name?
How to get there:
The Wampahoofus Trail can be reached via the Butler Lodge Trail from the Stevensville Trailhead in Underhill Center. Follow the trail around the back of the Lodge, pass the start of the Rock Garden Trail.
Happy Hiker: My First Hike to Mount Mansfield – great account and pictures from a hike on Mansfield, that gives a better idea of the rugged mountain.
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In your typical Vermont forest near the hillside campus of Johnson State College stands an otherwise unremarkable tree except for one tiny peculiar attribute to it. Though this may sound like I’m going to jump into a lesson on Botany, this abnormality is man made, and very explainable. It’s incredibly easy to miss and is surely to raise questions if you find it. There is a USB drive lodged deep inside the tree, the distinguishable plug protruding out of the bark surface, allowing anyone to access it. But why?
This seemingly random and thoughtfully suspicious USB drive is actually part of a vast system of hidden flash drives that span the globe. Hidden in just about anyplace a creative mind can think of lodging such an item – brick walls, underneath bridges, trees like in Johnson and even in innocuous objects such as padlocks, this is part of a project and growing cyber society called Dead Drops, which is absolutely nothing like it’s ominous sounding name.
Created five years ago by Berlin-based media artist Aram Bartholl, Dead Drops is an anonymous file-sharing network via the use of USB drives that have been hidden around the world in public spaces. Anyone can find them and use them, downloading whatever files that have been left on the drive, or uploading files of your own to share.
If you’re so inclined, you can join this cool project yourself and install one into a wall or other spot in your own neighborhood. They’ve even included a useful how to video if you want to do so.
But with a project on this large of a scale, it also is bound to raise quite a lot of questions. How many of these hidden USB flash drives are out there? This project is five years old now, do they still work? Do people still actively contribute? Until very recently, this would have been a guessing game, but now, you can check out the Dead Drop Database, where you can find the Dead Drop closest to you, with updates from the most recent user telling you if the site is working, broken or gone.
Johnson seems to be the only one in Vermont, and according to my last check on the database, it still appears to be in working order! However, the location is a little vague, and may require some detective skills to find it’s exact whereabouts. But a USB drive successfully tucked away in a tree definitely helps to establish an aura of mystery that surrounds the project and it’s contributors, which is pretty alluring and may be worth the search. I’m actually pretty surprised that Burlington of all places doesn’t have one. Yet.
If you browse the map, the database lists another Dead Drop being located on Gore Road near Morse’s Line in Franklin County, but that seems to have been incorrectly geotagged. If you click on the icon, the real site is actually in Mont-Saint-Bruno, Quebec.
On Twitter? You can also follow the project on Aram’s Twitter account
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Vermont’s hills seem to be a beacon in the smog for the offbeat, things that don’t quite fit into a world obsessed with categorization. For some reason, we offer ideal real estate appeal for people of mystery and fantastical artifacts to come and dwell, sometimes going undetected. I suppose I can understand why. After all, I certainly don’t want to live anywhere else.
Brookline’s Round Schoolhouse
Americans seem to love round buildings. Probably because we live in a society of increased standardization, so in a world of square things being the norm, round buildings just stick out. But for a society who loves them so much, we sure don’t build more of them. I guess that just makes them all the more special.
The out of the way town of Brookline, population roughly 500 at the last census, holds such a building. Brookline’s round schoolhouse was built in 1822, and is possibly the only one in the country. It was designed by the same person who would mold the minds of local children there, Dr. John Wilson, who in addition to being a school teacher, was also the town’s resident physician.
Dr. Wilson however was an indisputable enigma. A distinguished gentleman from England, he had an amiable personality and a brilliant mind. He was also gifted and proficient in the field of medicine, so much so that the locals began to wonder why such a talented and cultured man would work as a lowly schoolteacher, in Brookline of all places? He could easily earn a much more substantial income as a doctor in Brattleboro or Burlington.
But there were more questions that would add to the man’s already weighted reputation. Year round, he would wear high collars or thick scarves, even during the hottest of summer days, and he would always walk with a noticeable limp. Despite his charm, he was also very remote, and would avoid questions about his behaviors or attire, or getting too close with anyone. In a small Vermont community where everyone knew everyone, Dr. Wilson inevitably became the subject of local gossip.
But perhaps the strangest of all was his equally obscure schoolhouse. It’s construction was off red brick, with windows facing in all directions, making it a distinguishable and unique piece of Vermont architecture. There were some who thought the round building was just as suspicious as the doctor himself. Why go through the effort to build such a structure?
In May 1847, Dr. Wilson lay on his deathbed. During his time in Brookline, he had apparently befriended someone, someone he liked enough to bestow trust in. He called on them and exacted a rather peculiar last request. His odd promise stated that he was to be buried in the clothes he was wearing, including his scarf and boots. Dr. Wilson’s strange story may have been entirely forgotten if it wasn’t for his friend breaking that promise. What happened next would finally reveal the answers that the residents of Brookline had long waited for.
When they undressed the corpse, they found that Dr. Wilson’s heel had been blown away by a musket ball. In it’s place, was a cork prosthetic heel. They also discovered that his neck had also been horribly disfigured, as if he was unsuccessfully hanged or slashed. His cane held another shocking discovery – there was a stiletto concealed inside. A trip to his home uncovered that it had been turned it into a make shift ammunition locker, filled with guns and swords.
Eventually, the pieces would come together. John Wilson, man of mystery, was actually an infamous British highwayman known as Captain Thunderbolt. Terrorizing the Irish countryside and the England-Scotland border, the scoundrel was said to be a Robin Hood figure; he robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. During his many dauntless escapades, he certainly didn’t forget about himself, and slowly saved up enough funds to to escape to America, choosing the wilds of Vermont as his new home. In Brookline, he decided to take a new lease on life, and “retire”, becoming a respectable and well liked citizen. But he never stopped worrying. He had a price on his head after all, and the law didn’t exactly see eye to eye on their varying principles of justice. So, his schoolhouse became an asset; his lookout. There, he could hide out as the local schoolteacher, while slyly looking wearily in all directions. If a law man came his way, he would have ample time to flee.
This fascinating story sounds much like a folktale, but it’s very real, evident by the brick schoolhouse that still stands along the main drag in Brookline. More delightfully, I was told that some of the doctor’s possessions, like his false heel and cane sword are still around! They’re on exhibit at the Brooks Library in Brattleboro, which if I had the time, I would have liked to make the drive over to see.
Grafton’s Fiji Mermaid
It might strike you as odd to find out that Vermont, far away from any ocean, can lay claim to a mermaid sighting. The mermaid after all, isn’t a native species of Vermont, or New England. But they’re seen here from time to time, and the best place in Vermont to see one is at the Grafton Nature Museum.
Upon first impressions though, this probably isn’t what you had envisioned when you thought of your foundational image of a mermaid. Instead, this one is hideous and startling. Comprised of half parts Monkey and half parts Fish, with rows of nasty little teeth and sharp claws, this dexterous DIY Frankenstein of a project is a gruesome little creature that almost looks human. So, what’s the story here?
The tiny, shriveled up artifact is the elaborately planned hoax of famed showman and huckster, P.T. Barnum. While today, in an age of skepticism and the internet, this most likely wouldn’t fool an audience, but over a century ago, this mesmerized and baffled carnival patrons, and it was the legendary entrepreneur P.T. Barnum that decided to capitalize on that.
The Fiji Mermaid would slowly enter western culture in the 1700s, when mariners began to come across them in newly opened oriental trade ports. Japanese and Polynesian seafarers used them for good luck charms, believing their powers would protect them from rough seas and ensure a prosperous catch. American sailors who had never seen anything like them before, started to bring them back home as souvenirs and they became instant conversation pieces and objects of fascination. In my opinion, a Fiji Mermaid is a much better souvenir than a coffee mug or key chain.
Barnum was one of the many who were drawn by them, and bought one in 1842 thinking that he could turn it into profit. If he could fool his audiences and convince them that they were mythological mermaids, he could make a small fortune. He exhibited it as an “authentic Feejee Mermaid”, and the name stuck. The mermaid was an immediate success, so much so that his competition would soon imitate him and make several fraudulent ones that were passed off as authentic imports. The real faux creatures and fake faux creatures began to circulate in carnival side shows, or payed top dollar for in someone’s private cabinet of curiosities.
In an era when the world was really beginning to be discovered at a larger extent, and there were so many animals that had never been seen by the western world before, people were enthralled.
But while the public took the bait, scientists and biologists weren’t buying it, and would constantly ridicule Barnum for displaying something that was clearly fraudulent. Over time, carnival sideshows became a thing of the past, and the Fiji Mermaids began to disappear, the surviving ones ending up in various museums or maybe forgotten in a box someone’s attic somewhere. Fiji mermaids today are very hard to find, and an authentic one as opposed to an antique replica like most places seem to have on exhibit, are nearly impossible.
In the case of the Grafton Nature Museum, this one was a gift from the Odd Fellows Hall in Brattleboro roughly over a decade ago. As for why the Fiji Mermaid was gifted to a nature museum mostly geared towards children, museum curator Lynn Morgan had no idea. Lynn was kind enough to open the museum briefly for me and let me have a personal encounter with one. But as for the information behind it, sadly, that seemed to be a mystery. There wasn’t much to trace. I’m not even sure if this one is the real deal or another replica. She had a bit of information stuffed inside a small manila envelope, containing a few internet printouts of Fiji Mermaid information, a photocopy of a newspaper article, and an old black and white photograph of the mermaid’s pre-museum home, displayed randomly on a wall, hung above a much larger attention swallowing trophy fish. She wasn’t sure if that photo was taken at the Odd Fellows Hall or not.
The mermaid is a bit out of place in the nature museum, because it’s not a real creature and therefor can’t really be included in any of their exhibits. If anything, it says far more about history than biology, which sort of makes it a bit difficult explaining it to curious children who are there on a Zoology field trip.
For the most part, the general public isn’t even aware it exists of that it’s there, which in my opinion is a shame. But observing the tiny figure which was placed on the table infront of me brought awareness to something else; it’s age. A closer look at it’s requisite monkey/fish body revealed that it was showing signs of wear and tear, with some parts slightly damaged. But that tends to happen with old things, they disintegrate with age, making the preservation of this grisly curiosity even more important.
The good news is that I’m sure they’d be willing to show it off to interested parties if you ask politely.
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My travels to New York state often start with the same question; Who is John Galt? Usually, I cross into New York via the Crown Point Bridge over Lake Champlain, and I always find myself observing this busted sign on dysfunctional wheels with two cryptic messages arranged on both sides. I’ve found plenty of questions, but no answers.
Good friend, mentor and fellow explorer Dan Koopman of Environmental Imagery tells me that the sign used to have a smorgasbord of anti Obama hate messages on it’s dented sides, which I assume was the work of the mysterious and aforementioned John Galt, ruler of the titular Galt’s Gultch, which seems to be a collection of ramshackle campers alongside the railroad tracks. I recall him showing me the sign years ago, but it seems the sign has gotten a bit more enigmatic and stagnant since then. I always make a point to look whenever I pass, to see if there is a new message. So far, nothing.
After a little internet research, the search term John Galt introduced me not to a New Yorker, but to a character created by author Ayn Rand from her novel Atlas Shrugged. Galt is a philosopher and inventor who believes in the power and glory of the human mind. Galt stood for the ideals of free thinking, individualism and Egalitarianism rather than a society embracing conformity oppressed underneath the government. That’s something to think about on your commute.
Though Dan was the one who introduced me to his stomping grounds of New York state years ago, on this trip, I would venture to the exotic world upstate with another friend and adventurer Eric Hodet of Cabbages and Kings. We made a quick pit stop for gas in Port Henry, a jaded village that climbs up some steep ledges above Bulwagga Bay.
Port Henry, Home of Champ
Though we once had a very short lived christening as the 6th great lake, Lake Champlain is still pretty great, being shared by 2 states and Quebec. It is also large enough to completely conceal an elusive unidentified swimming object of monstrous proportions. “Champ”, which I suppose isn’t the most creative name for a lake monster, is said to take on a Plesiosauric resemblance, and is most often depicted as your typical water dinosaur, with it’s defining humped back, small head, long neck and ending with a long tail.
Of all places that border Lake Champlain, Port Henry proudly claims itself to be the home of Champ, the lake’s renown lake monster, and they take that distinction pretty seriously. So much so in fact that the first Saturday of August is designated as Champ Day, which brings a street fair and entertainers, with the centerpiece being, a Champ float.
What’s made the legend of Champ so important, apart from the various marketing campaigns, bumper stickers and business names, is the numerous eyewitness sightings, consisting of a rather long tradition of reports. French explorer Samuel De Champlain’s journals told of a sighting of some strange beast near Isle La Motte when he first traveled down the Richelieu River into the lake. But his records were lost to knowledge until the 1800s, when the first verifiable report of a Champ sighting came into public consciousness. It captivated the public so much that P.T. Barnum once offered a reward for it’s capture, dead or alive. More interestingly, in the 1970s, Champlain’s records were once again studied, and it was discovered that the intrepid explorer’s account may have been mistranslated, making his sighting officially unofficial. Instead, it was most likely that Champlain saw a Garfish, which still live in the lake today.
But what really propelled allegations into fixation was in 1977, when Sandra Mansi captured a photograph of what she claims is Champ. The photograph in question shows something that vaguely takes on Champ’s described appearance rising out of the waters of the lake – but a sense of scale is hard to determine here. Was it actually Champ? A giant Sturgeon? Or maybe, just a piece of driftwood?
Regardless of Champ’s existence, countless sightings have been reported over the years, and people hold firm to their stories. My grandfather even claims that he saw it – as well as quite a few other people, whose names have been memorialized on a wooden memorial south of the Port Henry on Route 22. The sightings unsurprisingly start with Samuel De Champlain in 1609, and escalate into the 21st century. Even local celebrities like WCAX’s Gary Sadowsky made it on the list. The dates stop at 1989, which raises a few questions. Have there been any reported sightings in Bulgwagga Bay since then? Are any plans to extend the list?
I’ve sort of made it a point not to write about Champ in this blog, because admittedly, I’m just not all that interested in the Champ hype. But it’s almost impossible to not pick up some information about it along the line, and I found myself slowly giving in, because some of it is actually pretty interesting. This is probably my favorite; Documented sightings of Champ actually predate those of the Loch Ness Monster by fifty years! I find this amusing because most cryptozoology enthusiasts consider Champ to be “America’s Loch Ness Monster”, but maybe it should be the other way around?
To be fair, Lake Champlain is a large lake, with depths said to be beyond 400 feet in some places near the Charlotte-Essex ferry crossing. With many areas uncharted, I suppose it’s possible that something could live harmoniously in the lake undetected. That, and scientists did discover a sonar sound emanating from the depths of the lake that was so unique, they named it after the lake monster (they did however claim that the odd sound did not belong to Champ)
So, why did Port Henry land the distinction of being the home of Champ? The first modern day sighting of Champ was reported here in 1819, by a “Captain Crum” in Bulwagga Bay. His eyewitness report illustrated a rather graphic spectacle of a black monster resembling a seahorse with three teeth, large eyes, a white star on its forehead and a red band around its neck. So I guess that’s as good of a reason as any.
Ironville, Birthplace of the Electric Age!
When traveling to unfamiliar territory, one of the first impressions of a community you take in is their welcome sign. The small town of Ironville’s sign stood out from the others I’ve noticed (apart from Port Henry’s, of course). The sign had a pretty groundbreaking claim written along the bottom in capital letters; “Birthplace of the Electric Age”. That left me and my friend scratching our heads a little. But a little après-adventure research was able to put the pieces together for me.
The hills around Ironville were known for their rich iron ore deposits, and mining activities brought great prosperity to the rural region. Curious about the natural magnetic rocks in the area, Joseph Henry, an early pioneer in electricity and professor of mathematics and natural philosophy in Albany, was interested in the phenomenon of magnets and how they worked. He traveled to the Penfield Iron Works in town where he obtained some high quality Iron to study. His goal was to attempt to create magnets of his own. At the time, magnets worked by wrapping bare wire around an Iron core, creating magnetic fields. But they were short lived, as the fields always rapidly collapsed into the iron core. Henry then got an idea; why not insulate the wires?
He attatched his new prototype to a battery, the only known producer of electricity at the time, and created the world’s first electromagnet – and the key component to making all electric power possible today. Eventually, Ironville became the first town to use electricity for commercial use. It was this breakthrough that would inspire Vermonter Thomas Davenport to invent the electric motor, and eventually, a world ran by electricity would become the norm.
The real reason for visiting upstate New York was to visit Aiden Lair, a sizely rotting wooden building, deep within the forests of the Adirondacks.
The history of Aiden Lair begins around 1850, with the construction of a crude log cabin to house travelers and hunters going into the interior of the Adirondacks, at at time where the rugged region was only beginning to be more accessible. The cabin eventually burned down, and in 1893, the first Aiden Lair lodge was built, a grand Adirondack hunting lodge ran by an Irishman named Michael Cronin.
But the lodge truly gained notoriety for being a vital part of the so called Midnight Ride of Theodore Roosevelt in 1901, which would be the first stop of a remarkable presidency.
Being president of the United States can have contingent natures with the responsibility, and I don’t think there are many American presidents that have been more fit for the role than Theodore Roosevelt.
On Sept. 6, 1901, President William McKinley was in Buffalo attending the Pan American Exposition when he was shot by Leon Czolgosz, a hot tempered anarchist. At the time, vice president Theodore Roosevelt was a guest of the Vermont Fish and Game Club in Isle La Motte. When word reached Roosevelt on the attempt on the president’s life, he immediately left and traveled to Buffalo.
But McKinley’s surgeon insisted he was fine, and that he would surely recover. Roosevelt, no longer feeling needed, decided to travel to join his family who were vacationing at the Tahawus Hunting Club. He had campaigned laboriously during the election of 1900 – an effort which involved much traveling and speech giving. Some rest and relaxation in the Adirondacks sounded damn good.
In Tahawus, Roosevelt decided that a great way to kick off his vacation would be to have an afternoon hike up Mount Marcy, the tallest elevation in the state. He sought out some guides and set out up the slopes. While relaxing near Lake Tear-of-the-Clouds, the source of the Hudson River, a foot messenger named Harrison Hall found him and gave him word that McKinley’s condition had worsened, and it didn’t look good.
According to local lore, Roosevelt’s reaction after reading the message was to say “Gentlemen, I must return to the clubhouse at once,” before calmly finishing his lunch, and then making the 12 mile hike back to Tahawus in 3 hours.
Roosevelt was reluctant to go back to Buffalo unless he was truly needed. He was just there, and that would be a long trip to make for a false alarm. But soon, another telegram came with news came that president McKinley was dying. Roosevelt set out for Buffalo immediately, but first, he had to get to the nearest train station which was 35 miles away at North Creek. That would be an arduous journey on muddy rut choked roads in the middle of the night, through vast mountainous wilds, a journey that would take at least 7 hours to complete today. The 35 mile stretch would have to be completed on horseback, with a stop somewhere in between to switch the exhausted horse for a fresh one. He departed Tahawus and made the grueling journey to Aiden Lair Lodge in Minerva, where he would switch horses.
A team of wagon drivers were organized, and would switch off driving Roosevelt at different legs of the trip, until they made it to the train station. David Hunter, the superintendent of the Tahawus Club, drove the first leg, a 10-mile stretch from the Tahawus Club to the Tahawus post office. The first stretch took two hours to complete because the road was practically washed out due to rainy conditions. From there, he would swap drivers again until he would get to Aiden Lair Lodge in Minerva.
By the time he got to Aiden Lair around 3:30 AM, he was already president. McKinley had died at 2:15 AM, while Roosevelt was still rushing through dark wilderness and rough roads. Though word had reached Aiden Lair, Michael Cronin decided not to tell Roosevelt. The staff knew he was dealing with great stress, and tried to urge him to rest there for the remainder of the night, and leave a day break. But Roosevelt was having none of it, and hitched up his team. Cronin drove him the remaining 16 miles, partially in an altruistic gesture, but mostly because if anything were to happen to Roosevelt en route, he was threatened that he would be held accountable. The wagon barreled and slid down slippery and sinuous mountain roads, with Roosevelt himself holding the lantern in front of the wagon so they could see where there were going. They made the journey in an hour and 41 minutes.
By the time they arrived, the news had been broken. A telegram awaited him with the news of McKinley’s death at the train station. Roosevelt boarded the train en route to Buffalo and his oath of office. Apparently, Roosevelt’s final leg of his ride achieved so much fame that other drivers had attempted to make the same route and beat the time, but no one has been able to succeed. As far as I know.
But, there is a little deception here. Though it makes a good story, the ramshackle building that skulks behind the the state historical marker on the side of the road is actually not the Aiden Lair that Roosevelt stopped at. The first hotel burned down in 1914, and a new 20 bedroom hotel was built shortly after, the 16,000 square foot decaying wooden structure you see today.
Though Mr. Cronin seemed to play an important part in the earliest hours of Roosevelt’s new found presidency, cosmic relief would pay a visit to the Irishman. Not long after the midnight ride, A New York Tribune article from April 1914 ran a headline that announced: “Roosevelt Guide Crazy.” Michael Cronin was hospitalized for mental health reasons. The lodge burned a month later, and was rebuilt by his family without his help. He died shortly after.
The hotel continued to serve travelers to the Adirondacks from hunters, outdoor enthusiasts and as the times changed, skiers and snowboarders heading to Gore Mountain, until the 1960s, when Adirondack hunting lodges began to go out of style and Aiden Lair closed for good. According to a segment of Adirondack Attic on North Country Public Radio – a gentleman from Albany bought the property a few years ago, with the intentions of restoring and reopening it, to continue it’s storied legacy. But the hurtles of renovations and reaching out to historic preservation proved to be too much, and it has since faced demolition by neglect – rotting in a state of limbo.
I drank copious amounts of Stewart’s Shop coffee before the long drive up to Aiden Lair, fighting the urge to pass out in the car. Long drives with the heat on and a prior week of insomnia were wreaking havoc on my body. It was much colder in Minerva. The temperature had plummeted to 11 degrees somewhere along the ride from Schroon Lake, and there was at least a foot of snow in the high peaks. Immediately after exiting the truck, my hands and face stung painfully, and I found myself not being able to control my shivering. But we didn’t travel 2 hours just to turn around, so onward we trudged.
I hadn’t had any expectations to get inside Aiden Lair, as I heard it was sealed up very well, but we found a door around back, near an old dam that created a small pond. The bottom had been kicked out, leaving a human sized hole to crawl through onto a rotting sun porch – the afternoon sun was pleasantly warming the peeling yellow lead paint that speckled the weather beaten floors.
I gazed into the interior dubiously. Because the floor had already began to sag underneath the weight of my hands as I pulled myself up, I wasn’t sure if this was going to be worth the risk or not. The lack of maintenance has caused serious damage to parts of the buildings – especially the roof. The damage has festered its way down to the stone cellar, causing the entire structure to rapidly fall apart from the mercurial freezing and thawing of the seasons.
Aiden Lair was a now formidable and sizable husk of a building, devoid of most of it’s original details that have been effaced with time. Being on the upper floors in cramped rooms flourishing with mold that discolored disintegrating walls and suspicious water dripping down my neck, I found it almost difficult to believe that this was once a respected and comfortable place to want to be. But some beautiful details remained. Two massive and classic Adirondack stone fireplaces could be found illuminated by my flashlight, and a balcony overlooking Stony Pond Brook had that identifying mountain woodwork on the railings that many Adirondack lodges have synonymously featured in their architecture.
The vastness of the floor plan took me by surprise as well. Though it looks relatively tiny from the outside, once inside, it becomes apparent at just how much there is to see. I was quite surprised with how many hallways and rooms there were. We were humbled at least once when we found ourselves loosing our bearings.
The cold was having deleterious affects on my nervous system. At this point, I was already trembling in my coat, and I was beginning to get hasty. The floors throughout the entire building were so perilous, that we were exploring at a very slow crawl of a pace. This is definitely one of the most dangerous places I’ve ever been in to date.
The place was incredibly silent, void of life, so sound carried through remarkably well, not being obstructed by competition. The cold rushing waters of Stony Brook could be heard inside, and provided some white noise behind the clomping of our boots and steady breathing. The movement of a door banging against a wall from a gust of wind flickered in our peripheral vision – making us someone else was inside with us. Another urban explorer perhaps, or a cop…
I’ve always thought that the term “lair” in the name was a little ominous sounding, but after seeing it’s state of slow collapse and dark places within, that part of the name now seems very fitting.
When writing these blog posts, and comparing my photographs to historical ones when these places were in their prime, it’s almost surreal. A place that was once frequented and celebrated in many ways, now is forsaken and seemingly unwanted; a burden. We human beings are sentimental creatures, and those sentiments can transcend far beyond other humans. Man made things, constructed from wood, stone, mortar and slate also have powerful emotional bonds to otherwise utilitarian objects, and as they were once so easily loved, they can also be so easily lost.
Admittedly, the cacophony of all that we were taking in here can make you want to stay for quite some time to enjoy it all, finding a different world that doesn’t exist in the superfluous found outside. But, there was much wanted heat back in the truck…
The Glebus Count
I’m a bit of a weirdo, so it’s great that I’m also friends with weird people, with plenty of inside jokes between us. This one is definitely a time honored one, now being practiced for a few years running. Whenever we travel to the northern reaches of the empire state, we found ourselves engaging in something that I call “The Glebus Count”. What is this strange ritual?
While Vermont seems to have it’s fair share of real estate agencies represented, across the lake in the high peaks region, one name reigns supreme on red and white signs emblazoned with a bold, down to business, san serif font; Glebus. They’re everywhere. I’m not kidding. Almost every piece of property that listed as for sale has a Glebus sign in front of it, with the occasional other Realtor found in between. But who are they kidding, they’re not Glebus! Over time, we began to start pointing out when we’d come across one of their signs, and soon, that turned into trying to count as many as we pass during our trip. You’d be surprised at just how easily you’re drawn into it.
“Who do you think this guy Glebus is? He’s pretty much selling everything in upstate New York” The best satire we came up with thus far, was that the mysterious man had to have an old timey name evocative of infamous business moguls from the golden age of unprecedented capitalism- something like, say, Cornelius Glebus, (according to their website, his actual name is Gary) and he could be found in his real estate lair sitting in a gilded throne drinking wine from a chalice. Sometimes it’s those long drives that inspire the best conversations that you probably wouldn’t have elsewhere. You know what I’m talking about. It’s unintentionally became such a integral part of my treks here that I feel it’s that if I’m writing about upstate New York, it wouldn’t be fitting unless I included it.
Next time your in the high peaks, see how many Glebus signs you can count. And if you were curious, we counted 21 on this trip.
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The ballad of hiding things behind walls is a pervasive one that’s well sung. I’ve always had a fascination with things lost and re-discovered, and often can’t help wondering what sort of clandestine things exist in the mundane world we see everyday, and if uncovered, what sort of power would it have on it’s discoverers?
Years ago, I remember an old farmhouse in Colchester that was getting a face lift. As the rotting clapboard siding was removed, work grinded to a stop when laborers found quite the surprise underneath. The entire side of the humble dwelling was covered in Barnum & Bailey circus posters from the 1890s. This is an old trick used by Vermonters, who used any material they could to help insulate their houses during the long winters. Newspapers and in this case, circus posters, were all utilized. Though at the time the posters were the modern day equivalent of junk mail, today they remain as important relics of human history and culture, and of course, valuable collectors items. It’s always made me wonder just what else could be found behind a seemingly innocuous wall or structure, and what sort of stories could be told. Sadly, I never got the chance to to photograph those Barnum & Bailey posters, but recently, a new opportunity would come my way.
A lost mural, 104 years old, found deep within the walls of a former Old North End synagogue turned apartment building, was on public exhibition for 2 short weekends before being restored and moved to a new location. On a gloomy monotone Sunday of bland whites and cold winds, I found myself on the second story of a wooden building on Hyde Street, coming face to face with something spectacular. It was a strange feeling, seeing something so luminous and mysterious in the middle of a sterilized room with new stark white drywall and plywood floors.
Though it spent years in a state of limbo and neglect, the delicate surface and fading paint were remarkably well preserved and still were very successful in moving the observer. Arranged in a compilation spanning dramatically angled ceiling panels that forms the inside of a wooden turret, the mural is lively, dimensional and complex, featuring several scenes with incredibly ornate details.
The tour guide of the affair explained that the mural’s survival is nothing short of lucky itself. If it wasn’t for the original slate roof that caps the historic wooden building, the mural would have been already long lost. Between Vermont’s infamous cold winters, and the drastic temperature changes between interior and exterior, the naturally occurring elements are bad for preservation and great for corrosion. When the mural was walled up, the paint and wall insulation were sharing direct contact with each other, thus transferring moisture from the insulation to the mural face. It was really amazing that it survived in the condition it did.
But what’s the story here? Why is this painting so important? And why was it walled up?
Around 1880, Jews from the Kovno area began to migrate to Burlington, and soon began to congregate together for worshiping, establishing an insular neighborhood known as Little Jerusalem. In 1889, The Chai Adam Synagogue was built on Hyde Street, two years after the first synagogue, the Ohavi Zedek, was built. It was the second synagogue constructed in the Old North End.
In 1910, Lithuanian immigrant Ben Zion Black immigrated to Burlington. The son of an artist, he had attended several art academies in Kovno and was showing interest in the theater, especially theatrical writing. The move to Vermont however was out of love. In Lithuania, he had developed strong feelings for actress Rachel Saiger, who came to audition for a play he had written. Her parents however disapproved of the relationship, and in 1905, decided it would be best if they brought her with them to join family in Burlington. But he wouldn’t be deterred, and after 5 years of sending her postcards and letters, he eventually also moved to Burlington, and the two married in 1912.
When he arrived in Burlington, he was commissioned $200 to paint a mural in the Chai Adam synagogue in the Old North End, in the style of the wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe.
The congregation could gaze admirably at an eye catching optical illusion of an open sky with birds in flight that can be viewed through openings underneath suspended shrouds of heavy and colorful curtains adorned with tassels and ruffles. The centerpiece are the brazen Lions of Judah planted regally on both sides of the ten commandments, written in Hebrew, with the crown of Torah floating above, all bathed in golden rays of the sun. As I was taking everything in, an animated woman and her son raised a good question; if the artist was thinking of the landscape of the Champlain Valley and birds found in Vermont when he was painting the scene.
But this mural was unique for some other curious details it contained apart from the familiar tropes carried over by tradition. Black included angels and musical instruments in his work, elements that were banned on the Sabbath and were considered taboo by the community, thus creating some displeasure by some worshipers. While his evocative mural made lasting impressions on some, others weren’t that pleased, and he was never hired to paint another mural again.
Decades later, the synagogues in Burlington merged together, and the Chai Adam took on a secular life in 1939 as a dry goods store and then, a carpet warehouse, before eventually being converted into apartments in 1986. Though the synagogue was painted from floor to ceiling originally, most of the artwork was destroyed during the renovations when it was being converted into an apartment building. The only reason the remaining part of the mural had survived was because of the fact that it was covered by a wall and forgotten. The mural lay in darkness until 2012 when it was uncovered, and this time, the community was determined to make sure this treasure wouldn’t become lost again, or worse, destroyed.
Called “The Lost Shul Mural”, the name can stem from the term Shoah, or, The Holocaust. The mural comes from a formerly widespread tradition of Eastern European synagogue paintings that were almost entirely wiped out during World War 2, when entire Jewish communities vanished. Since then, remaining Jewish folk art has almost nearly been wiped out due to a myriad of reasons, from war, weather and neglect. The Lost Shul Mural in Burlington may be the only surviving example of it’s type in America.
Now, efforts are underway to preserve it. In a laborious and delicate process, the paint and plaster have to be stabilized to prevent any further flaking. Once the mural is prepared, the roof of the Chai Adam Synagogue will be removed, a steel frame will be constructed around the mural, and it will be transported to it’s new home at the Ohavi Zedek Synagogue. Then, it will be cleaned and restored to it’s former glory, making it available for Vermonters to come view it’s story.
You can read more about the project, the mural’s history, and donate to the fundraiser on the official project website
Good Read: A blog post by architectural historian Samuel Gruber explains why the mural is so significant.
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