A favorite activity of mine is to go shunpiking – cruising around Vermont’s back roads and letting my eyes and mind soak up whats out there. A few nights ago while traveling down a straight-of-way in Addison County, a pancake flat paved rural roadway surrounded on both sides by expansive hay fields, I came across a forested island in the middle of a vast expanse of nothing – a small patch of surprisingly dense hardwood trees, tall grasses, and the Vermont state flower, the Clover. Behind the growth, I noticed there was something man made here that was coexisting with the small jungle – the second story of a sordid farmhouse could be seen above a fortress of clinging vines that were almost consuming the structure. Slowing down to take a better look, I realized there was yet another abandoned house across the street that was nearly invisible, and behind it, I could make out the shapes of a scattering of barns and sheds, all falling and fading. I had stumbled on an abandoned farm.
Pulling off into what was once probably a driveway, I basked for a moment in the silence that hung around the farm. The sounds of crickets and the smell of clover came through the open windows, and the breeze gently rustled the trees. As I was sitting in my late summer reverie, movement caught my eye. From behind the abandoned farmhouse I was near, a solitary figure rode into the opening on a bike, through thick grass and tanglewoods that I assumed were probably very difficult to bike through. Manning the bike was a gentleman, who appeared to be in his 40s, outfitted in moth eaten clothing and a rather new looking bike helmet. He approached the car, and I braced for his encounter the best I could, giving him a small smile, waiting to see what was about to unfold.
“What are you doing here?” was his first question, which I predicted as much. “I’m just turning around, took the wrong road” I said calmly and cautiously. “Do you own this land? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to bother you”. “Oh, I worked here for over 30 years, so I pretty much do own the land” he began. “The farm is abandoned now, the family is pretty much all dead. I still come by almost every week and check up on things though” “Oh wow, that’s pretty incredible. This place looks like it has a lot of history” I observed. And that seemed to light an internal fire – a simple initiation of conversation, and suddenly, his reserves were taken down, and he opened up to me. “Oh man, the stories I could tell you”. I smiled at him and explained my passion for stories and history. His eyes lit up like flashbulbs. “Actually – do you have some time, I can show you around?”
Next thing I knew, I had my camera in hand, and was ignoring my better senses as I followed a total stranger through thick tall grasses, well out of sight from the relative safety of the road out front. He introduced himself as Ivan as we went to shake hands. Putting blind faith in this gentleman, I allowed him to lead me around the property and we began to talk about the shifty ways of time, his stories cutting deep into history.
“I started working here when I was 10, back in the 60s”, Ivan began. “I used to carry hay bails from the fields to the barn all day long. That’s how I got these” he snickered, as he flexed his muscles. “I used to work all day long, never took a water break. People always used to warn me I’d get dehydrated, but I never did” he said proudly.
We found ourselves standing in front of a barn. “These barns are over 150 years old, built from Oak, Cherry and Ash, all cut right here on this property. There used to be a mill over there” he gestured to now open pastureland. He walked over and wedged a sliding door open, it made a loud groaning noise as the door grinded against the building. The entire facade seemed to tremble at this disturbance.
Inside was a forgotten world. Incredibly thick quilts of spiderwebs clung to brawny timber beams and fell from the ceilings like snow, getting tangled in my hair. Hay scattered on the dirt floors 30 years ago was still there, matted and molding. Certain rooms were packed wall to wall with various artifacts. wooden apple crates, tires with wooden rims, old bikes, desks and shelves filled with various artifacts and paraphernalia, accounts of over 150 years of farming now sitting forsaken underneath swirling dust and sunlight coming in through dirt streaked windows. On our way out, he noted me looking at the apple crates. “I love these things. I have a few of them in my apartment, holding books and stuff” I commented. “Oh yeah, I love those old crates too. There used to be an apple orchard right behind this barn. Over 100 trees! I remember, we all used to eat so many apples – they were great on a hot summer day. They tore them all out a few years ago, the entire orchard”
Making our way through the tall grasses, we made our way across the property. In a neighboring barn almost completely concealed by tree growth, he pointed out that that particular barn was used exclusively for trapping. The farmers used to trap unlimited beavers, otters and raccoons on their property and the nearby creek, and used to bring all the pelts to hang and dry in that barn – where a long narrow hallway ran between two sets of walls where the hooks still were hanging. “This barn used to be full of hides – all the walls would be covered” he reminisced. “We used to either eat them or sell them. Any bit of money helped” It was a strange image, staring at those filthy and barren walls that afternoon underneath filtered light streaming through broken boards. I noticed a dated industrial grain sorting machine at the very end of the narrow hall. He told me that the farm used to also produce its very own grain. The floor was still coated in ankle high piles of the stuff and it had gotten in my shoes. Standing inside, there was a moment of silence as we took in our surroundings, and weird sounds seeped throughout, the soft summer breeze clearing my mind.
Wondering back around one of the abandoned houses, he told me that after the farm started to go out, the house was rented out to people outside the family. The last occupiers apparently stole a great deal from the farm. Valuable antiques such as firearms, milk jugs and other artifacts they had been taken. Most of the original family had died off, all but one member, who is now well into her senior years, and still lives nearby. She’s tired and doesn’t have the want to upkeep the farm anymore, and is almost completely unaware of it’s slow collapse. “It’s a real shame” he said. “Once she dies, a guy wants to buy the place, come in and bulldoze all the barns, the houses, everything. They want to expand the fields and farm this area. Everything here will be lost”.
Walking across the road, he brought me over to another abandoned farmhouse. “Back in the 60s – this used to be filled with people from California. Used to come up here by the bus loads – there must have been at least 20 or so people living in this house. They were the ones who were in charge of keeping this farm running ship shape”
The door to the house opened effortlessly, swung inwards and banged against the neighboring wall – the sound was like a shotgun blast in the somber interior. Inside, the life was gone, but something kept on creeping on, the floors creaked as the past walked by. The interior was what I expected to find in an old Vermont farmhouse. Faded linoleum floors, porcelain sinks, peeling wallpaper and rooms filled with garbage. There were holes where stove pipes used to run and heat the house, and an the exposed skeletons of an electrical system that looked like it was done haphazardly years ago. “There used to be rows of bunk beds in these rooms – they all used to sleep in here” he pointed out as he swung open a door of an upstairs room.
As we walked back down the stairs, he paused at one door we hadn’t opened yet – the basement door. The entire farmhouse had shifted and slumped over the years, almost trapping the door in its frame, but after a few hard tugs, it wrenched free, sending splintered fragments of crown molding in the air. The basement was pitch black, and the old wooden stairs were no longer standing. “You know, I’ve always wondered if there was like a chest full of gold or something down there” Ivan said as he scanned the darkness with his eyes. I was now curious. Was he making a joke? But he was quick to explain. “Back when I was growing up – I heard stories that the older members of the family had hidden gold coins around the farm. There was some sort of currency scare in the 1800s where people assumed paper money was going to loose its value, so they all started to switch to gold coins. I guess I heard they had a few stashes hid around the houses” Hidden treasure was certainly intriguing to me, so I asked him if he had ever found any of these alleged gold coins perhaps hidden under a floorboard or in the pipe of a woodstove. “Nope, never. I think it’s just a story” he said. With a little research later, I discovered that there was in fact a large scale panic in the mid 1800s, The Panic of 1837, where wages, prices and profits went down, and unemployment and a general distrust of banks went up. As a result, I’ve heard other stories of old Vermonters investing in gold currency, something they were confident was dependable and safe, and kept it around the house as opposed to opening an account at a bank. Even if his intriguing story was a rumor, or if he was simply trying to spin a yarn, it did have its roots in historical accuracy.
Now outside the house, he brought me over to another barn and stared up at a rusted basketball hoop rim that was hung above one of the entrances. “Used to play here a lot as a kid to pass the time” he recalled nostalgically. “We used to have games, me and the Californians. Was thinking about going out for the basketball team in high school, but I never did”
“How often do you come by?” I asked Ivan, now curious by our chance meeting. “About every week” he replied. “I like to check up on the place, to make sure things are alright, to make sure it’s all as it should be”. It seemed Ivan was waiting in vain for something to happen – throbbing, and wincing, not knowing who to love or who to blame.
Getting ready to leave, I reached out to shake his hand, and sincerely thank him for his grand tour. It always means a lot when people open up to me – those experiences suddenly become shared experiences, and effect both parties involved. “It’ll sure be sad when this place goes, that’s for sure. Just down the road, the neighboring farm already sold parts of their land to other people, and they built houses on them” I knew too well what he was talking about. “Yeah, that’s pretty common. A lot of the farms I remember growing up around have succumbed to development now” My comment seemed to strike him off his feet. “What? Oh no…I’ve never really left town, haven’t really been anywhere I guess. So I wouldn’t really know” he said wistfully, he almost seemed to grieve from the disease of change and urbanism. I felt badly for him, it seemed all he wanted was a sense of place, but there was only silence and heavy humidity.
It’s always interesting to think about how many great stories are still existing in Vermont that have gone untold, and are in danger of completely disappearing. Images of proud men slick with sweat sticking to tractor seats and labor that would break the summer’s back. Farm life isn’t a romanticized escape from the bustle of modern life, it’s sadly an often thankless, lynchian job of back breaking work with little to show for it. But it also is a labor of love and devotion matched by earnest gazes and blue skies that have seen the same troubles as us. Exploring abandoned places like this sometimes compels you to look for answers to your own questions, but all I seemed to find is everything seems to change. As the world progresses into a future that seems like a dream now, countless more farms may find themselves like this one. It’s an experience like this in a haze of turbulent innocence, where you get a hard reminder that nothing stays the same.
Update, August 2015
A month of so after I had posted this blog post, I received a Facebook inbox message from the owner of this property. I opened it hesitantly, thinking that it’s contents would be angry and accusative, but to my very pleasant surprise, he was actually telling me he digged my blog, and loved this particular entry. But one thing was bothering him. He asked me about my tour guide, Ivan, and said that the family never employed anyone under that name on the farm before. A bit befuddled, I gave him a detailed profile of the guy. “I knew it!” He started. “His name isn’t Ivan, he lied to you. That was Tom, the town drunk. He’s the guy who set the meetinghouse on fire a few years ago, then tried to come here and light up one of our barns”. I certainly didn’t expect that.
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