Friday, February 22, 2008

Wilmington Historical Society: Preserving our heritage.

The Wilmington Historical Society is searching for a way to save a historic barn on their Lisle Hill Road property.
Like just about any old barn, the historical society’s barn has seen better days. The mid- to late-nineteenth century barn has rapidly deteriorated since the society purchased the historical Barber House in 2005. Although the historical society has taken some steps to stabilize the structure, they’re concerned the building may be in danger of collapse. The roof, the foundation, and even some of the timbers need repair.
"We’re lucky it didn’t fall in this winter – at least the slate roof still sheds snow," says historical society president Julie Moore.

The barn sits across the lot from the main house, and at an angle that almost seems to welcome visitors to the property. But the toll time has taken shows clearly on the building: the classic red paint is faded and worn, the roof is sagging, and bits of rotted wood and decay are visible along the eaves. The society has posted signs on the building warning would-be trespassers the building is dangerous, and to keep away.
Since the historical society purchased the Barber House, they’ve concentrated their efforts in renovating and restoring the main building. They’ve refurbished two rooms, refinished the kitchen, and have carried out numerous small repairs and improvements. "All things that add up in money," Moore says. "And we still owe money on the house."

Moore says society members applied for a Vermont Preservation Barn Grant, but competition for the grants is fierce and, she says, priority is given to barns that are visible from main roads. Now the historical society has few choices: watch the building collapse, sell or give it to someone for salvage, or find a donor (or donors) who wants to help them save their barn.
"In an ideal world, we’d like to have the barn restored and have it for storage and displays," says Moore. "But we just can’t afford to do that. Right now we’re open to any suggestions or feedback from anyone."
Society member Harriet Maynard says there are no records indicating when the barn was built, but she and other members believe the barn was built sometime between 1850 and 1899. Some hardware in the barn appears to be hand-forged, indicating an early construction date.

"The main house was built first," Maynard says, "and a shed was built behind it. The house and the shed were eventually connected with the addition of the kitchen. The barn may have been added at that time."
The construction date of the house is thought to be 1835, although Maynard says there’s no written evidence of anyone living on the site until 1853. Society member Lenny Chapman says there is some evidence indicating the house was moved to its present location from the site of the original village, at the top of Lisle Hill.
Barber family photos from the early 1900s clearly show the barn.
Maynard says the barn probably wasn’t built for an agricultural enterprise, but for the use of the household. "They would have had horses, and there are stalls in the barn, and storage for hay upstairs," she says. "There may have been a place for chickens in the barn, although later there was a chicken coop near the barn."

In the 1930s, the horses were gone, and the barn was renovated to accommodate an automobile. The original sliding barn door was removed and a spring-loaded garage door was installed in its place. "It was serviceable for many years," Maynard says, "but even when we bought it, I don’t think it had been used in quite a while."
Chapman, who has experience in building and with a barn of his own, says the society is also considering whether it may be in their best interest to sell the barn for salvage before it collapses. Salvaging the barn would be less expensive than cleaning up the debris from a collapse, and would eliminate the danger. "The slate on the roof and some of the beams are worth some money," he says. "We may be able to find someone who will take down the barn and clear the lot for nothing – or even give us a little money."
But Maynard says although the barn may appear ready to collapse, there may be life left in the old building. "It’s still holding together, and we’ve had much more snow some years, even more than this year."For more information or to make a donation to the Wilmington Historical Society, call them at (802) 464-0200, or contact Moore at (802) 464-3004.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Full Moon Rising

Monday evening's full moon rose early over the West River Valley. These views are from Captain Copeland Road in Dover.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Hoot, Toot & Whistle

Sorry the blog hasn't been too active lately - it's the time of the year: the natural light is lousy and the snow creates a colorless, contrastless landscape. So here's something a little different.
This article appears in the current issue of The Cracker Barrel.
All photos courtesy of the Wilmington Historical Society.

How 13 miles of railroad track transformed a town

By Mike Eldred
The Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad is fond but distant memory for only a few Wilmington residents. For younger generations and newcomers to the valley the famed local railroad, known affectionately as the "Hoot, Toot, & Whistle," is a legendary piece of Deerfield Valley history.
But the obscure little railroad was almost wholly responsible for bringing the industrial revolution to the Deerfield Valley and changing Wilmington from an isolated farming town into a vital commercial, manufacturing, and tourist center.
The title of a short article published in the New York Times on November 4, 1891, the day before the railroad’s debut trip to the new Wilmington station, sums up the railroad’s anticipated effect on the town: "Wilmington wakes up." According to the article, the Wilmington of the late 1800s was a "Green Mountain backwoods town."

"Old fashioned people with old-fashioned notions have lived and ruled in the town and have clung to the old fashioned customs. There are 1,300 people in Wilmington, and nearly all are descendants of the sixty-seven settlers who founded the village in 1763. There was not a resident of foreign birth in the town until a couple years ago when a few Swedes were brought to cultivate some abandoned hill farms, and no one now living can remember seeing a negro in the town. There is not a brick or stone building in the town."

The Wilmington railroad depot, now a private home.

It’s a fascinating description of a rural town with little direct contact with the rest of the region and few outside influences. "This area was very rural then," says Wilmington historian Peter Morris. "Everything moved by stage coach or buckboard between Brattleboro and Bennington."
Farming was the main economic activity in town, and there were various small cottage industries. But most of the goods produced in Wilmington were consumed within a few miles of their point of origin. Products intended for wider "export," were taken to Brattleboro on what could be a long and treacherous journey. Morris says his father-in-law, Andy Crawford, could remember making the day-long trip to Brattleboro and back by wagon with his father. "It was an all-day trip," Morris says. "You bundled up under a bear-skin blanket and got home after dark."
Goods purchased in Wilmington came in by the same route. It’s often said that people used to "make do" by improvising their own repairs and inventions, but if their ingenuity was part frugality and part poverty, it was also part desperation. Any item that wasn’t already available in town had to be mail-ordered and shipped by rail to the nearest train station, then picked up by horse-drawn wagon. The machinery needed for any large-scale manufacturing business would have been costly and difficult to get over the mountains from Brattleboro to Wilmington

Leaving the station

There were no tourists, and no reason for them to come to Wilmington. Although there was a hotel in town, the Vermont House, it wasn’t a "travel destination." While the town’s economy must have been sufficient to sustain the 1,300 descendents of the 67 original settlers,
There’s little doubt that Wilmington residents looked forward to the economic benefits a railroad would bring. In January 1883, Wilmington voters overwhelmingly authorized the investment of $43,000 in public funds in a "Brattleboro and Bennington Railroad" that would have also served Wilmington. The east-west rail route was never built, but another railroad, the Deerfield Valley Railroad, was built connecting the southern Vermont mountain town of Readsboro to the large manufacturing center of North Adams, MA and points east and west via the Hoosac Tunnel railroad station.
The 11-mile Deerfield River Railroad was completed in 1885. The purpose of the privately owned railroad was to provide hungry Massachusetts factories with the Deerfield Valley’s most abundant raw material: lumber and pulpwood. "
But the railroad also brought an economic boom to the Deerfield River towns. With regular railroad service to bring supplies and equipment in, and finished goods out, it was economically feasible to build factories outside of large cities, closer to the source of the raw materials. Soon, Readsboro boasted a number of industrial facilities, from sawmills and pulpwood processing plants to box and furniture factories.

Wating for the train to come in

Towns along the railroad became affluent communities with better access to goods and services on their own Main Streets, as well as passenger access to North Adams.
Wilmington residents must have watched Readsboro’s good fortunes with envy. When the track was extended another 13 miles to Wilmington in 1891, it was an invitation to the ‘backwoods" town to join the industrial revolution.
The invitation was accepted. The railroad’s chief purpose was still transport logs. According to George Cook, a railroad historian who has been researching the Hoot, Toot & Whistle in its various incarnations, whereas the line to Readsboro was built to feed industry in Massachusetts, the Wilmington extension was built to supply raw materials to new factories in Readsboro. "There was a paper factory in Readsboro that needed to be fed pulpwood," Cook says, "so it sponsored the construction of the railroad."
The ownership and names of the various railroad companies is somewhat convoluted. The "Hoosac Tunnel & Wilmington Railroad existed long before the track to Wilmington was ever laid. The track from the state line to Readsboro was owned privately under another name, and leased to the HT&W. At the completion of the Wilmington line, the three entities merged to become a single HT&W.

But it wasn’t long before industrialization came to Wilmington. The first major construction was a complex of sawmills and other lumber processing operations known as "Mountain Mills." Part village and part factory town, Mountain Mills drew employees from around the valley. But the demand for labor was high enough that foreign workers were also brought in. "The Newton Brothers (of Massachusetts) built the mills in Readsboro, and they had controlling interest in the entire operation," Cook says. "In 1905 they sold it off to Amos Brandin and Martin Brown."
Up until that time, the river was dammed up below Mountain Mills and logs were floated down to the sawmills. Brandin and Brown built a second railroad, the Deerfield River Railroad, from Mountain Mills into Somerset, some 35 miles of track used only to bring logs out of Somerset to feed the growing operation at Mountain Mills. "The railroad also allowed them to bring hardwood out – hardwood doesn’t float," Cook explains. "The mill was rebuilt to handle hardwood."
In 1918, a pulp mill was built at Mountain Mills, and the pulpwood that came out of Somerset was used even closer to home. "They used a sulfite process," Cook says. "Everyone in town knew when the paper mill was running because of the smell, like rotten eggs."

Approaching Wilmington

By 1924, the pulp mill was discontinued and the shores of Harriman Reservoir were lapping at its foundation. "Four quite a few years you could see the smoke stack," Cook says. "The water level came up so fast during a rainstorm in April 1924 that some people were caught with their cars in their garages and still in their homes."
In Wilmington Village, the new economic activity was creating affluence. The train may have come to take away logs, but it brought in new opportunities. After the completion of the railroad terminus in 1891 and 1905, Wilmington became a tourist destination. Large hotels were built catering to affluent urbanites looking for an escape from the summer heat of the city, and a return to the rural enjoyments of their childhood. Raponda Hotel was the first "lakefront" resort in town, built on a peninsula of land that juts out into the lake. The Forest and Stream Club, located in the Chimney Hill area provided fishing and other outdoor recreation opportunities. The Vermont House added a "tea room" to serve the new visitors to town. The Crafts Inn, one of Wilmington’s architectural crown jewels, was designed in 1896 by the famed firm of McKim, Meade, & White, of New York. The inn was completed in 1902.

Luddington Factory, now the site of the DVTA MooVer's headquarters

There’s no doubt that many of the town’s former "cottage industries" grew to take advantage not only of the availability of materials coming in by rail, but also of a new ability to distribute to far away locations with nothing more than at trip to the train station.
In 1914, some of the hardwood and softwood logs coming out of Somerset were diverted to Wilmington, where they were turned into clothespins, spindles, and plywood trays at the newly-built Ludington Woodenware Company factory. Portions of the factory still stand, as part of the former barnboard factory on Mill Street. The Ludington factory sat right next to the railroad tracks.
According to a 1914 newspaper article announcing the completion of the factory, the plant was designed to turn out an incredible 604,800 clothespins in a single day. The factory also produced 400,000 plywood trays per day. The trays were used in the delivery and sale of butter, lard, and "other commodities" at grocery stores. Large yarn bobbins, used in woolen mills, were also produced at the plant.
The new woodenware factory provided 128 jobs in the small town of Wilmington, instantly becoming the town’s largest employer.

Vermont House

For the average household, the train brought in foods and goods that weren’t available otherwise. The first banana, or orange, ever seen in the town of Wilmington probably came in on a rail car. But the train also brought a better standard of living. "Think about how you kept your house warm," Cook says. "Before the train, there was no coal, and wood was starting to get scarce. Coal was a big item."
Mail, medicines, specialty goods – nearly all the earmarks of a growing modern and affluent lifestyle depended on the train. "And if the snow blocked the train from getting through, there was real concern," Cook says. "There were times when people were hurting because the coal didn’t come in."

The HT&W continued to serve the community for more than 45 years. But the rise of the automobile, along with improvements in the roads, robbed the railroad of its preeminence as the town’s connection to the rest of the world. A series of natural disasters led to the discontinuation of the track from Readsboro to Wilmington. The railroad company considered discontinuing the track when the reservoir was flooded, but the town convinced the company to build a trestle crossing the lake. In November 1927, the trestle was washed out in a hurricane. While the trestle was under reconstruction, goods were transferred by truck from train’s northernmost passage, and passengers were taken into town by car.
According to a news clipping on file at the Wilmington Historical Society, the train didn’t return to Wilmington until July 8, 1929. The town was so excited at the prospect of renewing its connection with the outside world, the locomotive returned to town with cacophony of factory whistles, train whistles, and fire sirens.

Childs Tavern Porch, now the Crafts Inn

But in 1936 another hurricane struck, this time leaving the trestle and much of the track between Wilmington and Readsboro in ruins. Instead of rebuilding, the track between Wilmington and Readsboro was removed for good. The truncated HT&W continued to serve the valley until 1971, when service between the Hoosac Tunnel station and Readsboro was discontinued.

Raponda Hotel

Friday, January 4, 2008

Condo Fire in West Dover

It seems incredible, but every year there are deck fires, dumpster fires, and even residential fires like this that are caused by homeowners or their guests placing hot ashes in or on combustable surfaces. This condominium was a complete loss. The cause was determined to be a bag of fireplace ashes that had been left on the front deck.

Fire had just broken through the west side of the building in this photo.

By Mike Eldred
DOVER- No injuries were reported in a New Year’s Eve fire at a condominium unit at Greenspring at Mount Snow.
The fire was reported at about 7:30 on the evening of December 31. Even as the first firefighters were arriving on the scene, dispatchers were reporting that witnesses saw fire engulfing the structure. With fears of the fire spreading to other condominiums in the same unit, or worse, to nearby units, firefighters raised the status of the fire to a second alarm, bringing in units from around southern Vermont.

Looking toward the front of the building

In addition to the West Dover Fire Department, Wilmington, East Dover, Wardsboro, Stratton Mountain, and Brattleboro responded to the scene. Units from a handful of other southern Vermont towns were dispatched to provide cover at stations that had equipment at the scene.
By the time firefighters arrived on the scene, all occupants of the unit were out of the building.
Wilmington assistant fire chief Richard Covey assumed command of the scene, and firefighters from the various towns worked flawlessly together.
According to West Dover Fire Chief Rich Werner, water supply at the large condominium complex isn’t a problem, thanks to a number of fire ponds with dry hydrants scattered around the area. Pumpers from East Dover and Wilmington were able to pump water to firefighters battling the blaze.

West Dover Ladder Truck

It took some time to get water to West Dover’s ladder truck, which was strategically positioned on a hill above the burning unit. Once the water was hooked up, firefighters were able to use the ladder’s aerial hose to knock down the fire from above.
Meanwhile, teams of firefighters attacked the fire from the ground, despite cramped quarters between the building and the nearby hillside.
It wasn’t long before ladder trucks arrived from Brattleboro and Stratton Mountain to join in fighting the fire from above. Brattleboro took up a position near the front of the building, and Stratton set up near the back of the building, and soon the fire, which had been burning brightly, had been knocked down and was under control.

View from atop an embankment behind the building. The roof is burning in this photo.

Werner says the condominium unit was destroyed. "The roof is gone, and a couple of the walls were severely damaged," he says. "There was a lot of smoke and water damage on the main floor and throughout the unit."
Miraculously, however, damage to the adjoining unit was relatively light. "The fire was contained to just the one unit," Werner says. "The unit next door got a little smoke damage."
The good news for the neighbors is a testament not only to the quick action of firefighters, but also to Greensprings’ construction methods. The condominiums were built with fire breaks and firewalls between units to halt the spread of fire. Werner says they worked. "That’s good quality construction," Werner says. "They did everything right, in fact, I think they did more than code required."

Firefighters notified fire marshals from the Vermont Department of Fire Safety about the incident even before the blaze was fully extinguished. The state police and DFS conducted their investigation on Wednesday, January 2, and determined that the fire started on the front porch near a trash receptacle and some trash bags. According to the report, the occupants placed ash from their fireplace in a trash bag and put it on the porch near the other refuse. "Ignition from the ash to surrounding combustible materials in the trash bag and surrounding area caused this fire." No injuries were reported in the blaze, but the family’s pet hamster died in the fire. Damage was estimated to be in excess of $300,000. The fire was ruled accidental and no charges are to be filed.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

View from the Mountain

I was driving along Route 8 on my way to Stamford one recent Friday when I looked up and noticed this strange strip of clouds just in front of the wind turbines.

The tint of the setting sun on the frosty trees almost looked like autumn colors.

There was hoarfrost on the trees all over the mountain. It was a little surreal driving along in a world turned completely white. It reminded me of last year's spectacular ice storm, only without the drooping and broken tree branches and power outages.

Moon over mist.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

View from Boyd Hill Road

On the Horizon

Plowed and Sanded

High Road

All of these photos were taken from Boyd Hill Road in Wilmington.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Fiery Car Crash

No serious injuries were reported in this fiery car crash in Wilmington Wednesday morning. The accident occurred at the corner of Route 9 and Hall Road. It appeared that that the operator was turning onto Hall Road from Route 9, struck the guard rail, flipped over the guard rail, and into the snow bank. The occupants of the vehicle were already out when these photos were taken.