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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The mystery isn’t in the technique, it’s in each of us. ~Harry Callahan.
The dark term dungeon isn’t a common moniker around New England, (unless you count Vermont’s arcane Popple Dungeon Road) yet alone the United States, so when I heard of a place in Lynn, Massachusetts called Dungeon Rock, of course I was interested. Interested enough to take the 3 hour drive from Vermont to the face paced town of Lynn. In a large tract of woods concealing a landscape of boulderous terrain and large ponds with icy waters gently lapping at gravely beaches, lies an especially craggy boulder at the top of a steep rise of land. If you were to get a little closer and squeeze your way through some narrow crevices, you may notice an iron door set in the rock. Behind that door is a knee bending steep staircase that descends into blackness with dripping cold water, twisting passageways, and steep drops in elevation before eventually ending in solid rock and dank water, where the ceiling becomes so low that crouching becomes necessary.
You could probably speculate a lot of practical reasons why such a cave exists. But you’d probably be wrong. It seems that dungeon is a misnomer, it’s not a dungeon at all (but certainly takes on that appearance) It’s actually the product of a man looking for pirate treasure with instructions given by a ghost.
The story behind this interesting location starts in the early 1600s. It was here at Dungeon Rock where where notorious pirate Thomas Veal is said to have buried a sizable treasure here, deep in a well concealed cavern. Veal himself was hiding out in the wilderness of Lynn, the lone survivor of a band of pirates who were caught and returned back to England where they were hanged for their misdeeds. Veal took refuge in the same cave where he hid his ill-gotten treasure. But misfortune struck in 1658 when an earthquake hit New England and sealed up the cave forever, with Thomas Veal inside.
Shortly after, treasure seekers began trying to extract Veal’s treasure, picking and digging around the rock where they suspected the cave once was. But all efforts proved fruitless. It was lost within the Earth. It was around then when the rock earned it’s moniker, Dungeon Rock, maybe due to the fact that it was said that the sealed up cave with it’s dead pirate owner was much like a dungeon.
Interest in the cave stopped until 200 years later, during the craze of spiritualism. The story of Thomas Veal and his treasure attracted the attention of Hiram Marble from Charlton, Massachusetts. In 1852, he bought the property where Dunegon Rock sits, and sought out a spiritualist medium who contacted the ghost of the pirate and learned the precise whereabouts of the treasure.
He erected a house and a few outbuildings, and moved his wife and son there. Confident in the new found information and enthusiasm of finding a vast sum of wealth in the rocky New England soil, he saved a considerable fortune and began excavating operations. Day after day, he would chip at the unyielding stone, which then lead to using blasting powder and drills to dig deeper below the ground. Hiram would hold regular seances where he would have check-ins with Veal’s ghost, to direct the course of his mining. But despite all of his attention into his DIY project, he was only able to dig a single foot every 30 days. Then, in 1856, he ran out of money. But Hiram was committed to continue his laborious plan.
Moving at such a gruelingly slow pace, with no funds, one might wonder what exactly kept him going? The regular contact of Thomas Veal was probably the culprit, because Hiram still had an astonishing amount of faith. But maybe his efforts were about to pay off? His seances were recorded – the dialogue between the two were written down. One such written account revealed that the pirate told Hiram he was close, just one more curve needed to be dug! But that curve would require at least 12 feet of digging, which would take another grueling year of backbreaking labor.
By 1864, they had managed to dig an astonishing 135 feet of twisting catacomb. Hiram’s son Edwin even joined in. And as luck would have it, his big dig was drawing attention far and wide. So Hiram decided to capitalize on his new found fame, and charge people admission for a tour of the man made cave. With the admission funds, he continued to finance his project.
In November of 1864, after they had managed to borrow 200 feet of tunnel, Hiram died. Edwin followed his father to the grave in 1880, (and is buried beneath a Hemlock tree that grows right near the rock) leaving Hiram’s efforts as nothing more but a useless hole descending far below the ground of Lynn. The city eventually acquired the property in 1888. While some family members bequeath personal heirlooms to their loved ones or elaborate (and often vain) monuments that decorate a community, Hiram Marble left a giant hole that is tainted with sadness and intrigue.
Today, the cave is sealed off by an iron door that is open for a few hours each day in the warmer months, or upon special request by a park ranger, which is how I was able to get in on this particular blustery November day.
Dungeon rock can easily be missed. Though it’s one of the highest points around you, it looks like all of the other rock and boulder outcroppings scattered around the woods, and there are quite a lot.
Once you find the rock, you enter through a narrow crevice that leads to the door, which leads into a cold, wet and dark cave. The daylight immediately vanishes and leaves you having to turn on your flashlights and headlamps, which are necessities to explore the cave with – especially navigating the thin wooden steps leading down to the cavern floor that is so slick, it offers no traction. From there, this dank enclosed space twists and turns deeper below the earth, each corner a specific blueprint from a dead pirate. That’s something to ponder as you scramble around down in the dark. Eventually, the cave becomes too small to stand up in and dead ends abruptly in a pool of orange stagnant water. Once back outside, it’s not hard to see why Dunegon Rock is probably one of the strangest places in New England.
Maybe the lesson here is if you probably wouldn’t trust a pirate in the mortal world, why trust one in the afterlife?
I guess at one point, someone made a fake pirate chest and turned it into a geocache in the cave, which may have disappointed a few explorers, but admittedly is still pretty cool. I didn’t come across it on my visit however, or a real pirate chest for that matter.
Dungeon Rock is location in Lynn Woods, and can be found on their website
High Rock Tower and the New England Frankenstein
We set off for Lynn, Massachusetts in search of adventure, but little did I know that my real adventure would actually be finding my way around on the harrowing Massachusetts road system. We became frustratingly lost out of staters, the one ones being honked at by locals. With the streamline pace of Route 1 traffic and that famed Massachusetts aggressive driving, the actual transit part of this trip was far more awe inspiring, in it’s own sense. Being from Vermont, the endless sea of strip malls, billboards and 6 lane roads was far more monstrous than pirate ghosts and claustrophobia. But everyone who gave us directions and tried to get us back on track was very friendly, and had that sort of funky vibe that I like to find in other people.
There was another sight in Lynn that I wanted to visit. It’s not abandoned, it’s actually in a manicured park right in the middle of town, but given our time going in circles around our previous circles, we never did make it.
But the story is a fantastic one, and still remains as one of the most bizarre stories I have ever heard.
Rocks are an everyday part of life in New England – most likely because of their abundance and something not so easily gotten rid of. Lynn is no different than any other New England town in that aspect. Just driving around through several neighborhoods with bucolic street names, rocks were everywhere. On lawns, in cemeteries, making up beaches that ringed ponds.
And it’s these rocks that have drawn some other truly spectacular characters apart from The Marble family. Further south of Dungeon Rock, is the highest elevation in town, a rocky bluff rising to about 170 feet fittingly called High Rock. The top of the bluff is adorned with a large stone tower called High Rock Tower, which functions also as an observatory. Back in the 19th century, when spiritualists weren’t aiding Hiram Marble in his quest for pirate’s treasure, they were convinced the geology of the area held some sort of special energy field, and acclaimed the Lynn area as “nature’s warehouse of infinite magnetic force.” – the centerpiece being High Rock.
I read about this story in author and folklorist Joseph Citro’s book, Passing Strange, and I was so intrigued, I wanted to see it for myself. In this tale, another gentleman with a compelling and ambitious idea is profiled here.
John Murray Spear was born in Boston in 1804. Not long after, his father died, immediately thrusting young John into the working world so he could help support his family. John was a product of his family values, and had a kind spirit, gentle nature, showed generosity and an eagerness to learn, which no doubt helped him progress steadily in life.
From early in his youth, John Murray wanted to become a preacher, and with much determination , he soon rose to that goal. His amiable personality made him well liked, and he eventually would conduct his first sermon in Brewster. After that, it was official, he was ordained by the church and became a passionate and forward thinking Universalist Minister.
But things took a completely different turn, when one night, when he was wide awake, his hand suddenly took on a life of it’s own, picked up a pen, and began writing – a process called “automatic writing”. When he was done, he observed the results. The script directed him go to Abington to provide medical aid to a man he had never met before, David Vining. More strangely, the note was signed Oliver, the name of a dead friend that once nursed him back to life after a brutal beating in Portland, Maine.
From here on, John and his dead companion Oliver Denett reunited, and struck up a partnership, with Oliver assigning him other requests to provide medical aid to wealthy individuals. Willingly, he was happy to comply without question, but there was one thing. John knew absolutely nothing about medicine. He would always travel to his destinations on foot at night, and would reliably find that he was always able to help his victims, the spirits would see to that. Over time, the spirits’ influence on John became so powerful, that one night during a seance, they instructed the now inspired reverend to for-fill his new destiny, to revolutionize the world, and to achieve divinity.
Like many others, he became heavily influenced by the Spiritualist movement, so much so that Spear would attempt a Frankensteinian experiment of his own, right here in New England. He began to embark on a journey that involved alchemy, the odd conversion of science and religion and a series of bizarre experiments that he hoped would achieve a stupendous result; he was going to play god, and create life.
In October of 1853, he began planning what would be his transformative accomplishment – a mechanical apparatus that would draw it’s power from those aforementioned rocks and harness their incredible powers. Though he was destitute in the art of science, physics and biology, he soon began construction on his electrical machine, with blueprints drawn up by who else, his spiritual advisers. He took his operation to the ledges of High Rock, a place where spiritualists professed they saw angels. In the thoughts of Spear, no location would be more fitting.
It was said that his workshop was on the dining room table inside a stone cottage owned by the Hutchinson family, who also owned High Rock at that time. Other accounts say it was a woodshed.
Soon, his contraption would begin to take form.
“From the center of the table rose two metallic uprights connected at the top by a revolving steel shaft. The shaft supported a transverse steel arm from whose extremities were suspended two large steel spheres enclosing magnets. Beneath the spheres there appeared [..] a very curiously constructed fixture, a sort of oval platform, formed of a peculiar combination of magnets and metals. Directly above this were suspended a number of zinc and copper plates, alternately arranged, and said to correspond with the brain as an electric reservoir. These were supplied with lofty metallic conductors, or attractors, reaching upward to an elevated stratum of atmosphere said to draw power directly from the atmosphere. In combination with these principal parts were adjusted various metallic bars, plates, wires, magnets, insulating substances, peculiar chemical compounds, etc… At certain points around the circumference of these structures, and connected with the center, small steel balls enclosing magnets were suspended. A metallic connection with the earth, both positive and negative, corresponding with the two lower limbs, right and left, of the body, was also provided.” -from a write up by Robert Damon Schneck, Greyfalcon.us
The idea was with this precise peculiar arrangement, motion -or, life – would be the result. He would call his invention the “Electrical Infant”.
Locals began calling his new creation “The God Machine”, and that was probably fitting in terms of where the story is going. Spear wanted it to be the equivalent of a modern day new messiah, something that would forever change humanity. The machine would symbolize a newborn baby, much like Jesus in the christian faith, and all babies need a mother. Around this time, he had convinced a woman only known as “The New Mary” to be that mother. Apparently as time progressed and construction commenced, she began to show signs of pregnancy.
The total cost of parts and vital minerals needed was around $2,000, and rather than a detailed precise plan, each component was added in no particular order, much like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Honestly, the description of this machine baffles me, and far exceeds my imagination, but I was able to find an illustration online of what it may have looked like.
Fast forward 9 months – or one pregnancy term – and Spear’s creation was finished, the final product being roughly the size of a dishwasher. Now was the moment of truth, would it be cable of infusing life?
On the big day, “New Mary” was the key component of the inaugural unveiling. She laid down in front of the machine while showing symptoms of labor, and then sat up and symbolically touched it. What happened next was controversial.
Somehow, his calculations came together, and what the spectators beheld was astonishing, it moved! Accounts from even the most skeptical agreed that the thing did in fact move, somehow. But while some accepted it as truth, others were convinced that the movement was most likely caused by wind and magnetic forces. But regardless, his creation supposedly did exactly what he promised it would. So, what would Spear do now with his giant machine?
Sadly, nothing. An angry mob who were furious that Spear was conducting an act of blasphemy, or playing god, destroyed the machine, which broke his spirit. He never made another attempt at recreating his Electrical Infant.
A lot of questions probably surface here. What sort of impact would Spear have had on modern society today if he had continued his experiments? Is High Rock really this so called conductor of magnetic forces? Are these properties still present and detectable today? Today, High Rock Tower stands on the hilltop, which shelters and observatory and related delicate equipment inside (Google maps geotags it as an observatory with a powerful telescope). Maybe they chose a good spot for other reasons than the view? I wish I got to see it.
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Stumbling my way around the impressively dangerous ruins of Fort Montgomery, as my presence disturbed hundreds of Pigeons that are now the fort’s permanent residents, I was nothing short of awe inspired. Though only 1/3rd (give or take) of the fort actually remains, it was immense in anyway you can measure it up. Stone and brick walls several feet thick, uniform archways framing collapsing brick ceilings and leafy hardwood trees lead into cavernous casemates that entombed a dank chilliness that left residue on the aging stones, regardless of the out of seasonal 80 degree fall day that we chose to explore.
For being an abandoned relic relatively hidden in plain sight and yet, out of the way, it’s evident it receives a lot of foot traffic. It’s arched hallways have almost no wall space left intact, covered by layers of graffiti, going back to as early as 1971. Or – the earliest we were able to find at least. Countless names, cultural expressions, slanderous accusations of obvious enemies and the occasional term of endearment could be read as you wondered around the property, which was pretty stimulating and could easily stand out alone as part of the experience.
Fort Montgomery was quite the fascinating place – something that I could explore, but in a sense, never be able to relate too. It was built during a time of when America had real fears of being invaded by British Canada, and our independence was at stake.
But despite the resilient bones gently loosing their will to fight mother nature, the fort has a rather underwhelming and ironic history, which would explain it’s rather unintimidating nickname, as far as forts go.
It’s location was strategic, where Quebec’s Richelieu River empties into Lake Champlain, right on the Canadian Border between New York and Vermont. Construction on the unnamed fort began in 1816 and called for an octagonal structure with 30 foot walls. However, when President James Monroe visited the location in 1814 to see how the progress was going, he discovered they had made a huge mistake. Because of survey errors, the fort was inadvertently built in Canada. Oops. The resulting mistake lead to the fort’s nickname, Fort Blunder, which carried on into the 21st century. Construction was immediately halted and the fort was abandoned.
After much dispute between Canada and the United States over the sloppy boundary agreements and who owned what, the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 finally would resolve the problem for good, annexing Island Point – the location of Fort Montgomery, as part of the United States.
It was decided again that a fort should be constructed there, and in 1844, laborers broke ground on what would be known as Fort Montgomery. Fort Montgomery was a “third system” fort, or, one of the forts that were being built along the Northern frontier. Work on the fort was continuous through 1870, as the civil war raged on and another fear of a possible British invasion (the bad type) had everyone panicking. And when the Saint Albans Raid happened in 1864, that fear seemed very reasonable now.
During the 30 year construction period, the attention to detail was immaculate – nothing was left unplanned, and with cutting edge military tactics and a round the clock labor crew of 400 of the best stone cutters and masons working at the site, it was intended to be a showpiece, a symbol of brazen resilience.
The fort also had a rare feature that only 9 forts in the United States possessed at the time; a moat. With the moat dug around the fort, it was situated on it’s on private island, with a drawbridge and a stone causeway it’s only land entrance. The moat can still be seen today, though, now filled in with layers of mud and runoff, with the creeping forest getting ever closer to ramble down it’s dirty stone retaining walls. The drawbridge also had a very unique feature – it acted essentially like a sea-saw, being able to teeter on both sides with a central balance point.
Though it was intended to house 800 men, the fort never actually saw battle, and was really only used as a form of visual intimidation at the border – allowing your mind to really do the rest. One man manned the fort, and lived in a caretakers house nearby.
The fort officially went defunct in 1926 when it became obsolete, and the government sold it. Residents of Rouses Point took it upon themselves to salvage material from the fort, considering it was great material, and most importantly, free. Stone, brick and wood were used for construction projects all around town. Houses, sidewalks and retaining walls can still be seen today that incorporate a little Fort Montgomery in them. My friend, who is also an adventurer and who was playing the role of tour guide that day, said that he remembers someone in Alburgh he knew with original wood from the fort inside their farmhouse.
The fort was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1977, and today, the property is actually for sale, and as far as I know, it hasn’t received any offers. Admittedly, the remains of a 19th century fort in your backyard would be a far cooler feature than lawn gnomes or pink flamingos. While tromping around the overgrown grounds, we were discussing other great uses for the property, like a great outdoor music venue location.
My friend was the perfect tour guide. He used to come here back in high school, along with many of his friends, back when the fort was really forgotten. They had paintball matches here, which seems like an ideal location for such activities, and just generally hung out underneath the brawny yet ethereal stone archways. Countless area kids (and adults like myself) would also hangout there, as evident by the plethora of graffiti and Natural Ice cans left behind. Modern day relics. Walking around, he knew many of the names spray painted on the walls. One person in particular he recalled getting hit by a train when she was walking her dog years ago. Less poignantly, he also pointed out where his high school band rebelliously self promoted themselves on a wall inside.
The ruins of the fort were disorienting, something else I didn’t expect. The place was so overgrown, that there were times while exploring the upper levels, that you actually perceived as just a walk in the woods, until you looked over and noticed you were actually 30 feet in the air, above a row of arches vanishing into thick vines and forests shedding their Autumn jackets. At times, literally climbing up earth banks to get to the second floor, you notice a black hole beneath your feet, with crumbling bricks falling into the dark and the deep below, reminding you that you are on a man made structure.
And of course, walking through the airy hallways as the fragrant breezes blasted through the windows, countless Pigeons would swiftly bolt down the hallways, coming very close to smacking me in the face. Sort of an Alfred Hitchock type of situation, except, this was real.
Walking back across the moat and down the access road – which was no more than a 4 wheeler trail at this point, we noticed the old trees that lined the path had white chalky residue over their aged bark, evidence of the water levels of the lake. The lake was incredibly low this Fall, some of the lowest we’ve seen it we both agreed. It was sort of strange to see those marks well at waist level as we walked by.
“Fort Blunder” certainly added another layer to my prowess, an intimidating ruin that was both venerable and deceitful. But honestly, I enjoyed hearing the stories from my friend and his personal accounts there far more than it’s faded history – it somehow adds an entire new layer of mystery and character to it – something that is a little more tangible to me as I trudged through piles of dead leaves on the way back to the car.
I can’t help but think. What will archaeologists be able to uncover about our time in the distant future, and what will those things say about us?
It’s hard to describe a place like the deteriorating ruins of The Cold Spring House, especially if you’ve never had the experience of visiting it yourself. The remaining residue of The Catskill Mountains and their heyday as a resort destination – hotels such as this one once catered to primarily Jewish clientele during the 20th century, looking for a little relaxation from the turbulence of New York City in the scenic Catskills. Driving through the gripping, winding road through the Kaaterskill Forest, with wild rivers cutting through steep hardwood shrouded peaks that resembled saw teeth, it wasn’t hard to see the allure.
This is the first time I had ever been to the Catskills region before, and my target village of Tannersville made an attractive first impression, which I was incredibly relieved with after the problematic start to my day. It almost seemed like I would never make it to the Catskills, as numerous setbacks, construction projects and traffic jams kept delaying travel time, each hour of precious daylight being swallowed by the oncoming October evening. Because we were making a 5 hour drive down from Vermont, I was determined to make this count.
Navigating the highways of New York, we passed by many derelict structures and sordid towns that were more depressing than anything, reminders of the decreasing amount of tourists in the area. A passing visitor to the area, I admittedly knew little about it apart from conversations with friends who grew up around there, and a few things I’ve read. I definitely had no local insider information, so anything I took in was most commonly coming through the view of the windshield.
As we approached Tannersville, the comedown daylight was filtered through a black sky foreshadowing fury that never seemed to come. The air was crisp, carrying the smell of dead leaves, as chilly mists began to settle on our faces. It felt like it was going to rain, but it never came, and the mists continued to be misleading. There we were, staring up at the imposing ruins of the Cold Spring House, and it’s various stages of decay. The slumping roofs and bending wooden frame ripped open several holes in the building, giving off dead weight that popped out windows and pushed various items through the glass. It was well into the evening now, but we had made it, with just enough light to photograph and do a little exploring. But the question was, where do I even start?
From what I know about the place, it was one of the earlier Catskills hotels, on the outskirts of the Borscht Belt, an area once a dazzling vacation-land now reincarnated as a collection of behemoth and storied abandonments. The Cold Spring House was a grand showpiece, which was very different from the closet cottages and revelrous resorts the area was known for at that time.
Built on what is now Spruce Street in the 1890s, it was the second largest hotel in Tannersville, as well as the first Jewish hotel in town – able to accommodate 200 guests at the base of mountains rising to around 2,200 feet. It started as a hotel called Bieber’s Cold Spring House, but was sold in 1922 to Saber Khouri, and re-branded simply as The Cold Spring House.
According to a 1904 advertisement I was able to find online, the property featured expansive lawns, offering tennis and croquet grounds, surrounded by old trees offering comfortable shade on summer days. There were farms on the property that supplied the hotel with fresh milk and vegetables everyday, which were pared with what the ad boasted as excellent table service in the form of German and Hungarian cuisine. And of course, fresh spring water was offered – from the springs which the hotel derived it’s name from. The hotel was also widely regarded for it’s popular classical concerts on the lawn. Two signature towers at opposite ends of the building, now slumping dangerously, were once observatories, giving guests extensive views of the mountains. Today, that view would be worth the price of your life.
What I found interesting about the advertisement was that it boasted such amenities as “sanitary plumbing and fire extinguishers on every floor” – items that we take for granted today, but around that time period, were new features and were only beginning to be enforced by laws. I’m sure that was a selling point – definitely a plus when I choose a hotel. But it makes sense. The time period was a time of transition. There was a nationwide push that required to implement such systems, but it was a costly expense to outfit these old buildings, and many old hotels couldn’t afford keeping up with the competition.
The advertisement also stated that the hotel was continuously expanding as it’s increasing popularity was luring more and more people to stay there each season. Older photos showed a much different building, with only one tower, and most of the western wing not yet added. The final product was a much larger and grander property – the brooding structure you see today.
But times certainly have changed. During the late 20th century, much of the region fell out of favor as a vacation destination. With an increase of automobile travel and an ever burgeoning highway system, more Americans were driving, and could travel farther distances and see more places,. Now, they no longer had to settle for the closest area available – a trend that I’ve seen so many times in humbled abandonments I’ve visited. Tannersville was no exception. Many vacation homes eventually were abandoned and hotels were shuttered. The Cold Spring House fell into the trend, and was abandoned in the 60s, leaving quite the compelling ruin in it’s wake.
It literally hunches over Spruce Street in it’s old age, leaning in all directions. A symbol of human progress and the change of the times, something inevitable that tends to leave growing pains on the often bumpy road of advancement and the fodder of bandwagon fads. In an ironic sense, this more off beat form of tourism can also serve as a poignant melding of public awareness, a chance to learn from our past.
Today, Tannersville is more known for it’s proximity to Hunter Mountain Ski Area than a summer destination, but while many Borscht Belt towns are still struggling, Tannersville seems to be in the middle of some sort of revival. As it was explained to me, people started to rediscover the town and were taken by it’s natural beauty. Old vacation homes began to be fixed up at expensive costs because of the bad shape they had deteriorated to, and more businesses have opened up on Route 23A.
As for the Cold Spring House though, I had the pleasant chance to speak with photographer Linda O’Donnell, who has been researching and documenting the building’s deterioration for the past several years. She informed me that the place has been scheduled for demolition since 2012, but demolition by neglect may happen before any actual bulldozers arrive on the property. It makes you wonder, when will the familiar become just history?
This was truly one of the most spectacular places I’ve had the chance to photograph (and a great change of scenery from Vermont!), but with it’s awe inspiring profile came very tangible dangers. As I walked around and got to know the place better, I was able to recognize something very quickly. The building was far too dangerous to venture inside, and because of our late start, there was little daylight left. Peeking in through an opened window, I was met with an interior of collapsing floors, wooden walls intended to support the structure were crushed into an accordion like resemblance, and various artifacts collected in indistinguishable piles of fragments covered in dust and lead paint speckles. The weight was so great in some places that many things had actually been pushed through the floor, which was already cracking on the added weight of my body. That musty old building smell wafted out from the opening, mixed with a heavy damp musk. To my far left, a staircase, illuminated by the dull light of broken windows, climbed above the wreckage and into the mysterious upper floors. Or what was left of them. Though I ached to go inside, that would have been an idea that probably would have been counter productive to my travel plans, which were to leave intact and alive.
For a relatively rural back street, the traffic was thunderous, a constant roar of pick up trucks going by, and slowing down when they noticed me with my camera. Because New York State has very unforgiving rules against trespassing, and with me being in such a surprisingly public area where I would no doubt be trapped should I be caught, the odds were stacked against me.
I had no choice but to keep a safe distance. But the exterior alone was worth the drive. The tops of the building still wore it’s yellow paint job, the original color of the hotel, while the lower levels were weather worn into a dull grey and showed signs of various stages of rotten cavities that completely ate through the walls. Older photos showed a sign that read “Cold Spring” that hung over the porch near the front entrance, but when I visited, that was also long gone, the last clue to it’s identity.
Signs of human presence were everywhere. Graffiti was found on many of the upper windows, and not the good kind of graffiti – instead, it was the almost expected profanity and unoriginal racial slur sort of stuff. But, it also meant that some adventurous intruders made the trip to the upper floors…
I often find strange items left behind when I explore – and this was no exception. There was an interestingly large collection of abandoned records found all around the hotel, most on the front lawn, tangled in tall grass and cedar trees. Some of them were arranged specifically, with various items such as kitchen utensils and bottles filled with suspicious colored liquids in them, propped purposely around the sides. I didn’t recognize any of the artists – but some looked like they would have been right at home in some embarrassing 70s porno.
Just gazing up at the place and looking in the numerous windows offered many things to see. Radiators that had fallen out broken windows. A glimpse of a bed post. Dark rooms with holes in the ceiling letting in the dying daylight. Old glass bottles left on windowsills. Then the wind blows, and the eerie creeks of a shutter can be heard, before it bangs loudly against a wall several stories above you – you see the movement, and your pulse quickens as you jump to conclusions. Despite the reliable hum of noise outside, closer to the hotel, things faded into an uncomfortable silence that was almost loud in itself. It was quite startling considering it was just a short walk down the lawn that offered such a fast transition.
Not wanting to draw attention by staying too long, we left and began the journey back to Vermont, the Cold Spring House leaving a lasting impression.
The Cold Spring House Today
There doesn’t seem to be a lot of information on this place. Most of what I was able to compile in this post came from speaking with various people, and a good article I found online from the Register-Star
There is also a group on Flickr I found, dedicated to sharing memories and photos of it.
This is one of my favorite things I came across while researching. Here is a fascinating article and photographic journalism piece about the Borscht Belt
It was the mid 1950s, and the United States and The Soviet Union were in the middle of the Cold War. The race was on, both nations stockpiling enough firepower to wipe out most major cities, vaporized in a discharge of enormous mushroom clouds. The ensuing radiation would take care of the rest. According to those in the know, if a nuclear bomb was dropped, the result would be an obliterating flash of light, brighter than a thousand suns.
Paranoia gripped the nation, and preventative measures were taken by the government. Vermont’s desolate Northeast Kingdom became one chosen location to detect and be an early warning against the end of the world.
The United States Air Force chose East Mountain, a 3,438 foot sprawling ridge line surrounded by some of the most remote wilderness in all of Vermont, to be the site of a radar base. Construction started in 1954, and by 1956 and 21 million dollars later, the North Concord Air Force Station was functional. The base was designed to provide early warning signs and protection from nuclear fall out, as well as sending information to Strategic Air Command Bases.
About 174 men lived in the base in a village of tin and steel Quonset Huts, situated on a mid mountain plateau surrounded by almost impenetrable bogs. Their job was to guard the radar ears, which resided in massive steel and tin towers on the summit of East Mountain – constantly straining to hear the first whines from Soviet bombers coming from the skies above. The giant buildings were topped with large inflatable white domes that protected the radars. The government spared no expense protecting the United States from a possible soviet attack. People were urged to build bomb shelters in their basements, school kids were taught to hide under their desks in case of a nuclear blast, and almost every town had a fallout shelter.
The Quonset village offered amenities such as a store, bowling alley and theater, barber shop and mess hall. But the wilds of Vermont were a tough place to live, especially in the winters, when snow drifts could often reach the edge of the roofs. Sometimes, the air boys would be stuck on the mountaintop when the mountain road became impassible, and would have to wait out the storm up there. Some enlisted men dreaded serving their time in Vermont because of this, but it was the city boys who hated it especially – many who served from the Chicago area. A mural of Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive once covered an entire wall of the mess hall in an effort to make the men feel more at home (but that mural can’t be anywhere near detected today). The base also provided a bus that drove to Saint Johnsbury every night, for a little stress relief and therapeutic contact with civilization, so the men could see a movie and hit the bars.
At first, there was only one way to access the base, a dirt road that traveled through deep mountain valleys and up steep slopes to the base, a 9.3 mile drive. Later, a paved road was constructed from East Haven on the mountain’s western slope, offering another approach. Though the base was a cold functioning monument to man’s urge to destroy itself and the trembling hands of fear, it also offered a boost to the area’s economy as well as social impacts to area towns. In 1962, the base’s name was changed to the Lyndonville Air Force Base.
But the functional life of the East Mountain Radar Base was brief, as expensive costs to keep it running were adding up, and advancing technology made it obsolete before construction was even completely finished. It officially closed in 1963. Since then, it’s became the idol of local legends. Strange stories of death, UFOs and unknown characters skulking behind rusting ruins and evergreen forests slowly began to haunt the place.
The weirdness started before the base even closed. In 1961, a strange object – which many speculate was a UFO – was identified in the skies above East Mountain, which the military reported as lasting for around 18 minutes. A few hours later, Barney and Betty Hill were allegedly abducted by a UFO near Franconia Notch, New Hampshire, which lead some to believe there is a connection between the two coincidental events.
In 1965, Ed Sawyer of East Burke bought the property from the government for $41, 500, and what a purchase it was. The base was in pristine and authentic condition at the time, and he loved it. Sawyer made money by selling surplus equipment and scrap metal. He moved into one of the Quonset Huts and also ran a woodworking shop there. In 1969, a group of snowmobiliers rode onto the property without permission. As they were traversing the lengthy access road, one of them hit a chain slung across the road as a makeshift gate, and was decapitated.
Not long after, trespassers and vandals discovered the base, and started making trips up into the vast wilds of the mountains hoping for an adventure. Sawyer installed several gates going up the roads to deter people from coming up, but he would numerously find several padlocks had been pried off and ruined. Sawyer had to replace about 35 padlocks a year. He would eventually result in shooting at trespassers to protect himself when menacing visitors became destructive and violent. He had even been threatened before.
Not only would they loot and steal everything from wiring and original furniture, but they destroyed the buildings. There was even an account where he woke up one night to a bunch of snowmobilers who were able to ride over the roof of his building because the snow drifts were so high!
The constant influx of vandalism and weather took its toll on the radar base, which has since further deteriorated and taking on a forlorn, haunting appearance underneath bounding hills and silent forests.
The property was put on the market, and remained unsold for many years, until recently when Matthew Rubin purchased it, who envisioned building a wind farm on the site, and anyone who has been on East Mountain would understand why. But after years of attempting to get permits from the state, he postponed the project indefinitely. The property has since been added to Vermont’s list of hazardous places, for massive soil contamination from oil and other motor fluids.
Around 1990, another person met their own mortality on East Mountain, when they fell from one of the radar towers and was killed. To add to the radar base’s already mysterious reputation, it’s been said that the rotting ruins have also been home to hobo camps and a hideout for the Hells’ Angels at one point.
Today, the radar base sits abandoned in a nebulous haze that hangs over the kingdom forests, the incongruous ruins littering the mountain top – the eerie silence is occasionally broken by the winds and the scraping sounds of rusted metal. A disconcerting and questionably regressive riddle to the end of one apocalyptic dream, and the uncertainty of what the future will bring.
Historical Images via The Air Defense Radar Veterans’ Association – photos from the 1960s
The East Mountain Radar Base was one of the most unique places I have ever gotten the chance to explore. Approaching from the small town of Victory underneath the bravado of September skies and rambling mountains, we made our way up the long gravel road, along the banks of a boulder littered river and underneath fallen trees that hung over the road, as our tires jarred into pothole washouts. As I’m writing this, I can’t think of accurate words to describe the sense of isolation we felt up in the mountains of East Haven. Miles away from anywhere, no cell phone service, no sounds of the familiar world to ground you and give you a sense of place.
Eventually, we came across a weedy clearing in a sea of Green forest, the formidable forms of the Quonset Huts with their rusted steel facades and broken glass skulking behind the fading colors of early autumn. We had reached the former living area of the base – the sentinel forms of the radar towers high above us could be seen on a steep ridge where congested softwood forests climbed out of the swamps. Many of the huts had been razed already, leaving cement slab foundations choked with weeds. One of them was dismantled and given to the Caledonia County Snowmobile Club, where it was re-assembled. The remaining buildings were low profile, almost completely obscured by the forest that was slowly reclaiming what it once had.
A walk through the buildings was a sentient experience over broken glass, soggy and exposed insulation, a storied compendium of generations of graffiti, and evidence of human habitation, arson and partying.
The radar base was already proving to be a creepy area to explore. The compelling silence up there was occasionally met with auditory hallucinations – we would jump at the sound of what we thought were other people lurking somewhere nearby, or the oncoming roar of a motor of a passing vehicle, only to be greeted by nothing but our own fears and the self imposed things that crawled into our heads.
From the Quonset Village, we climbed back in the car and drove up the remaining stretch of Radar Road, and were immediatly met with the most imposing road I’ve ever traveled on. The forest literally was swallowing the road – the cracked paved surface immediately pitched upwards on a grueling steep grade that kept on climbing – the growth was so thick that tree branches came in through our open windows and began to smack us in our faces, until we were forced to roll up the windows. The road was only wide “enough” for one car, and that was even far fetched. There was no place to pull over, no place to turn around. If another car was coming in the opposite direction, especially around one of the many blind hairpin turns that also happen to travel uphill, you would be screwed. One of you would have to give. At this point, the orange glow of my friend’s low fuel light illuminated on the dashboard, giving us another reminder of just how far away we were. If we ran out of gas up here, it would be a very long walk back to civilization.
But the drive to the top was exhilarating – the intoxicating scent of Spruce and Balsam trees blew in the winds and filled the car. Soon, the trees became stunted and the horizon began to open up from the dark forests, and the shapes of hazy blue mountains with their knife sharp ridge lines began to undulate in the horizon. All of the sudden, we were underneath the imposing steel skeletons of the radar towers. We had made it.
The best part about the visit here was no doubt the magnificent 360 panorama of the Northeast Kingdom and New Hampshire from the top of the tallest radar tower, but getting there was a game of nerves. Climbing up the already questionable structures reverberating with the groans of rusting tin moving in the wind, and up a rusted ladder coated in a layer of mysterious slime that gave you no traction. If you slipped, you plummeted several feet down towards a hard concrete floor into pools of fluids obscuring soggy insulation and rusted objects. But once on top of the tower, as you gaze into unbroken wilderness as far as you can see, and you bask in the profound silence, it’s completely worth it.
At the summit, there were visible campsites made on the slopes beneath the towers. I couldn’t help but think about how amazing it would be to camp up here in the deep, underneath the constellation light. I’m sure it would be a spectacular experience, perhaps even unsettling. As we were leaving, another car came up the road and parked, before a group of teenagers climbed out holding quite a few packs of Twisted Tea. I guess other people are taken by the strange allure of this place as well – and it draws characters of all kinds.
Proving this point, on the way back down the road, we met up with another vehicle, its roof and grill lights flashing, and it was barreling up the road. Thinking it was the police, we found a place to pull over. As the car passed us, we clearly read the words” Zombie Apocalypse Survival Vehicle” written on the sides in police-esque decals, the car soon sped out of sight as it headed towards the mountaintop.
Sometimes, the pursuit of life can bring you to some incredible places.
On my quest to discover Vermont curiosities, weirdness and mysteries, I made the mistake of overlooking my former hometown of Milton, a community steeped in stories and legends. But Milton presented a challenge to me. While some lore seemed to be well recited among local residents, the actual stories behind the stories simply weren’t there. Over the past year, I began talking to people, writing down notes and choosing things I wanted to research further in detail. I wanted to bring these great stories to life once again, and through arduous research, I was finally able to fill in some missing pieces. This will be the first in what will hopefully be a few entries on Milton mysteries.
A year ago, I stumbled upon an old photo which fascinated me. The photo depicted a large mound of earth dubbed as “The Indian Mound”, it’s vague description locating it somewhere near the shores of Lake Champlain. Was there an Indian Mound in Milton?
I’ve traveled the many dirt roads of West Milton all my life, but have never seen a geological formation like this before. If there was such a mound, surely it would be of great importance. Why was it so discrete? Do people know of its existence? And, the most heavily weighed question, where was it?
Speaking with Lorinda Henry from the Milton Historical Society, she explained that the mystery about the Indian Mound was far greater than the information about it.
After digging through stacks of papers and unlabeled binders at the historical society, I was able to find my first clue; that the mound was located down near Camp Everest in Milton, a hidden area off a series of remote back roads that don’t receive much traffic other than locals, and a name that may very well be lost to many Milton residents today.
A vestige of the days when Milton was a summer tourist destination, Camp Everest was just one of the many large camps that dotted the practically unpopulated shores of Lake Champlain.
In the mid 1800s, camping in summer cottages and tents drew locals and tourists alike to the shores of Lake Champlain – and because of its scenic and quiet location, was a desirable escape from the bustling and dirty urban centers of east coast metropolises.
The camps all had farms, providing them with fresh food. Many of them boasted luxuries such as proximity to clear mountain springs, and the availability of fresh cream, eggs, milk and vegetables. The properties also offered many amenities such as recreation halls, lawn sports, fishing excursions and hayrides. Some camps even had handsome hotels standing proudly above the waters, with classic New England verandas and dramatic peaked roofs. Old advertisements even boldly claimed that they had “positively no mosquitoes” – although, being quite accustomed to Vermont summers, I can’t help wonder just how they went around keeping that promise.
The area along the lakeshore became known as Miltonboro, which included schoolhouses, a church and meetinghouse which catered to the campers and locals who didn’t want to travel all the way to Milton village. Today, most of Miltonboro has vanished, leaving only a small cemetery ringed by a stone wall, and a name on a map.
Camp Everest, the southern most of Milton’s lakeshore camps, was established in 1878 by Zebediah Everest and A.W. Austin, and they couldn’t have chosen a more splendid location. Bordered to the south by serpentine marshlands that now make up the Sandbar Wildlife Management Area, and to the north by the dizzying ledges of Eagle Mountain, with a sweeping view of South Hero island and the Adirondacks across the lake. The camp included a camp house, bowling alley and eight cottages, occupied by both family members and renters. It was here at Camp Everest where the alleged mound was located.
However, the information I read didn’t portray the mound as culturally significant, but rather in a bureaucratic sense – it was simply a piece of property. A camp was built atop the steep hill in 1927 by the Hutchins family, and named “Indian Mound”, perhaps romantically after what the earlier campers viewed the mound to look like. I was able to reach out to Barbara Hutchins, whose family originally owned the camp, and she was kind enough to give me further information.
She explained that the mound itself was probably formed during the glacier age, most likely a remnant of the Saint Lawrence Ice Sheet that once covered this part of North America. UVM did some digs around the mound in the 1950s, and found nothing of Native American significance, but they did find some old sea shells and fossils, evidence of the Champlain Sea, the tropical sea which covered what is now Vermont millions of years ago.
The Hutchins eventually sold the camp, and lost track of the property. I was able to dig up choppy pieces of information at the historical society – listing the names of various people who leased the camp throughout the years. The dates got sparse after 1970. Eventually, the information just seemed to cease. So, what happened to it? Was it still there?
Lorinda Henry explained that the state of Vermont wanted to hack apart the mound and use it to fill in a nearby swampland in 1948, but further research told me that because the area was prone to flooding, they decided not to, because the amount of dirt they would have gotten from the mound would have most likely been lost within a few years, leading me back to my original question.
The existence of an Indian Mound is also curious, because Vermont was never thought to be associated with mound building Indians. But then again, at one time, it was thought that Native Americans never settled in what is now Vermont. But Milton farmers would constantly find artifacts and arrowheads while clearing and plowing their fields. Arrowheads were also allegedly found when Andrea Lane, a small neighborhood off Route 7, was being constructed years ago. Lorinda Henry explains that because of native traces in the area, there are parts of the neighborhood that can’t even be developed because of archaeological significance. If that myth was debunked, than would the presence of an Indian Mound be that hard to believe?
On a breezy August day this summer, I took the beautiful drive back down towards Camp Everest, with the intention of solving this mystery. The camp is much different from it’s heyday, now a series of private camps, owned by various people. The bowling alley and other amenities have long vanished into history and the creeping forests.
With the hand drawn map featured above in this post as my only reference, I scanned the roadside and across the many meadows bordering the area, but the imposing sight of the Indian Mound was never seen rising above the various clover filled fields or cedar forests near the roadside. I ran into several people, some jogging, others washing their SUVs in their driveways, and they were all happy to talk with me. But sadly, none of them knew about an Indian Mound or a camp of the same name. Some were out of staters and weren’t aware of the area’s history.
From the map, I was able to sort of pin point the general location of the mound, but the area is much different than when the picture was taken. I had assumed, the mound might be still existing, now deep in the woods and covered in vegetation. But shortly after publishing this blog entry, I stumbled upon some further information.
Laurie Scott, who is an Everest, explained to me that the mound was eventually purchased by the grandson of the Hutchins family. The Everest’s lease most of the land where the camps sit, but her grandmother, Ethel Everest, sold the mound to them. The mound and the camp are still there, and as I assumed, is now obscured, hiding successfully behind a Vermont forest – an ideal getaway.
An interesting footnote to this story is that while trying to solve the mystery of this “Indian Mound”, Barbara Hutchins recalls that she heard there were a few other professed Indian mounds somewhere in Milton as well, but as for their locations, she doesn’t remember, leaving this intriguing mystery currently ongoing.