Yellow House Tavern

Gone but not forgotten

  • 14 min to read

I grew up knowing about the “Old Hazen Road,” and the “Yellow House” tavern – or the “Smugglers’ House,” as it was also called – because Grandfather Bolton made sure everyone in the family knew where the old military road ran through our farm on Cabot Plain. He’d walk with us to the top of the hill in our night pasture to point out shelf-like indentations along the hillside and marks left on ledges by iron-wheeled wagons during the Revolutionary War days.

My uncle, Bob Bolton, had marked the old road from our pasture through the woods to Joe’s Pond with big swipes of red paint on trees, and years later, when I was asked to lead a group along that section of the old military road, I was able to follow them. A few years after that, I tried to find those marks again, but the landscape had changed; trees had been cut or had fallen down, and I had a hard time locating the route. There are actually two “Hazen Roads” leading to Cabot Plain, but I’ll explain that later.

The Road

Northern Vermont was wilderness in the years of the Revolution. There were Indian trails made by Abenaki or Micmac hunting parties, which were probably the same trails followed by scouts who blazed a trail to Canada in 1776. They were sent by Col. Jacob Bayley, who was originally from Newbury, Mass., and founded Newbury, Vt. He and several other influential men made numerous land deals as new territory opened up. He was head of the Vermont Militia when he advised General George Washington, then Commander in Chief of the Continental Army, that a shorter route to Canada would expedite moving supplies and reinforcements to Arnold and Montgomery during the siege of Quebec. Some historians have surmised Bayley’s interest in the road may have been personal, as much to do with opening the region for settlement as for military use.

Congress had not approved the venture when Bayley sent Thomas Johnson and a small party to find a likely route. They returned two weeks later reporting they had marked a route to St. Johns, Canada, that was 73 miles shorter than going the present route through Crown Point, New York. Bayley immediately sent the news to Gen. Washington, who instructed Bayley to proceed with the road, but added that since he, Washington, would be personally responsible for the cost, Bayley should spend wisely. A few days later, Congress approved Washington’s order so the government would pay for the road.

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Smugglers House marker.

James Whitelaw began surveying the route northwest, and Bayley’s 110 men followed closely. I have not walked the route they took to reach Joe’s Pond, but I have walked it from the pond to Cabot Plain, and it must have been an extremely difficult stretch of road to build and to navigate. It ran along the hillside, first through a pretty maple grove, then through dense soft woods, into deep gullies, across brooks, and up steep banks fit for mountain goats. Tell-tale signs - paths cut into hillsides, deep marks etched into ledges by iron wheels, and ridges of earth that only scores of wagons would make across the forest floor - were far apart and difficult to see in the underbrush, but I was able to trace the route in a nearly straight line running several rods above and roughly parallel to what is now West Shore Road, to the pinnacle high above where Leinoffs’ house overlooks Joe’s Pond. The military road passed just below the house and continued down the hill to where Cabot Plains Cemetery is now.

Bayley’s men completed the six-mile stretch of road from Jonathan Elkins’ place in what is now Peacham, to Cabot Plain in just over a month. From the Plain, St. Johns in Quebec was almost visible beyond the distant mountains. History tells us the attempt by Benedict Arnold and Richard Montgomery to capture Canada did not go well. The Continental Army was defeated. On the Plain, Bayley and his men were met by deserters following the trail Johnson had laid out. They told Bayley the British had discovered the trail. It was obvious completing the road would not be wise, so by the time Bayley received a message from Washington saying that while the road had seemed like a good idea at the time, it was now “inexpedient and unadvisable,” so they should probably stop work, Bayley had already made preparations to abandon the project and return to Newbury. That was in June of 1776.

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This rough map shows early settlers’ locations, the old military road, the route of the Bayley-Hazen Road the settlers used after 1790, as it all relates to Cabot Plain as it is today. 

Two years later there were new plans to attack Canada, and in the spring of 1779, Washington ordered Major James Wilkinson to resume surveying where Whitelaw had left off, and General Moses Hazen was ordered to complete the road to St. Johns. Work continued as far as Westfield, about 40 miles short of St. Johns; but the British again made good use of the trail south, sending regular scouting parties along the route, and there were frequent skirmishes. The military road was proving to be more headache than help, and in September Hazen brought his men back to the Plain, then called “Fortification Hill,” and made preparations to spend the winter there, informing Washington he would “stop any party coming to attack.”

There is a marker, deep in the woods, where Hazen’s camp was, but no path leading to it, so it is difficult to find. It was sheltered from the north wind, and there was a spring for drinking water nearby. That fall, supply wagons from Peacham brought barrels of flour, sides of beef, kegs of rum, blankets, and probably ammunition. There were probably some accidents along the way when horses or oxen struggled up the steep, slippery ledges, and wagons had to be unloaded and reloaded when they became mired in mud or broke through a log bridge. When snow came, the road was impassible except for “runners” on snowshoes carrying messages to and from the encampment.

As far as we know, the winter was uneventful, and the soldiers’ only battles were with bitter cold weather and boredom. There is no account of them engaging the enemy that winter, and they returned to Peacham in the spring of 1780, leaving behind a big iron kettle used for cooking. John Damon found the kettle a few years later and gave it to Ames Walbridge, who worked for him at the time, as a wedding present. When Walbridge’s brother, Lyman, came to Cabot in 1841, Ames gave the kettle to him for boiling sap. Today it is on display at the Cabot Historical Society.

The following year raiding parties made surprise attacks as far south as Peacham, Thetford, and Newbury, and in the spring of 1781, a small force led by Amaziah Pritchard made its way to the Elkins’ house in Peacham and captured Col. Thomas Johnson and Jonathan Elkins. They took them to Canada and Elkins later to England, but the British eventually released them. Johnson returned to the Plain and for a short time it was known as “Johnson’s Plain.”

Cabot chartered

The Town of Cabot was granted in 1780 and chartered in 1781, and in spite of the possibility of a British raid, settlers began to arrive along the military road. The first, Benjamin Webster, came from Salisbury, New Hampshire, in early 1783 to build his cabin, and he moved his family here that March. His hired man, Nathaniel West, was killed when a tree fell on him as he was helping Webster clear his land. West was the first to die in Cabot, and there’s a fieldstone marker near where the Hazen Road crosses Route 215. Dr. Parley Scott, Cabot’s first doctor, was Webster’s neighbor. Across the road from Benjamin Webster, Nathaniel Webster cleared land for his home. Lieutenant Jonathan Heath came with his family and settled opposite where the cemetery is now, and Lieutenant Thomas Lyford arrived at about the same time with his family and built a cabin nearby Heath, on the south side of the road at the intersection of what is now Dubray road. By 1787, six more families had arrived: Lyman Hitchcock, David Blanchard, Jeremiah McDaniels, John Lyford, James Bruce, and Thomas Batchelder all brought their families from New Hampshire.

The settlers brought whatever goods they could on hand sleds or crude wagons pulled by the family cow or a pair of oxen. After settling their families in crude log homes, built large enough to house the family and whatever animals they had, the men would return to Peacham and Newbury for the rest of their belongings or to buy supplies.

There were very few horses in the area, and the travel was mostly on foot. The military road through the woods to the Plain was too difficult, and the settlers soon found an easier route, which was officially laid out in 1790. This new road was a few rods uphill of the military road as it left Joe’s Pond and followed a natural ridge with a much more gradual climb and fewer obstacles to cross. At the top of the hill, the new road merged with the original. It was still known as “Hazen’s Road,” or the “Bayley-Hazen” Road.

Vermont joined the Union in 1791. As county lines were negotiated, Cabot was first in Cumberland County, then briefly Orange County until it became part of the newly organized Caledonia County. Dr. Gershom Beardsley and Horace Beardsley had come to Cabot in about 1790 and had watched the political development of the area closely. When the new county was formed, they thought Cabot would become the shire town, so they cleared two acres of their land near the town line between Walden and Cabot and began building the first frame house in town, anticipating Cabot would become the county seat. The Beardsleys’ hopes were dashed when Danville, not Cabot, became the shire town of the new county, and they stopped work on their house.

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Iron hinges from the Yellow House. (From the Cabot Historical Society collection.)

Meantime, Major Lyman Hitchcock, Capt. Jesse Levenworth, and Asa Douglas, presented eight acres of land “for public use” at the geographic center of the town where there was a growing settlement. This location was about two miles south of the Plain on what is now Danville Hill Road. They proposed to move the town’s business there, saying it was “away from the harsh weather of the Plain.” The people on the Plain vigorously protested the move, pointing out there were established businesses and farms on the Plain, and Hazen’s Road was a busy thoroughfare. However, land was cleared at the Center for a common, a school was built, and by vote in 1796 the town’s business was moved to the Center. The folks on the Plain threatened to secede.

The town’s business was again moved downhill fifty years later to where the village is today, on the Winooski River. Nothing was left at the Center – even the cemetery was closed in 1846.

Yellow House Tavern

Business at the Plain continued to thrive along Hazen’s Road, the only direct route between Northern Vermont and settlements along the Connecticut River. The Beardsleys saw a need for proper accommodations for travelers, so they took down the building they had started near the Walden town line and moved it to land on the northwest side of the road on the Plain, not far from where the cemetery is now. They sent word for friends and neighbors to come help erect the house, promising a good supply of whiskey to fuel the effort. Whole families came from Peacham, Danville, and Cabot to help with the raising. Men declared they would “drink the Beardsleys dry.” According to old timers, the “raising” lasted two days and two barrels of rum were consumed, “. . . the first barrel of first proof rum, and a second barrel, slightly reduced.”

The building, made of fine hard wood, was set on a foundation 40 feet square and went up two stories. The house was described by John M. Fisher (Vermont Historical Magazine, published in the mid to late 1800s) as “nicely finished with an ell that had a large meeting room, and there was a long shed that connected to roughly constructed log barns where horses, cattle, and other animals were housed.” It must have been painted yellow, for it was known as the “Yellow House” tavern, and was the first framed house in town.

Professor Archie Stone, (1878-1946), an historian who grew up in Cabot and became Superintendent of Schools in Essex County wrote, “ . . . people used to say that in the hey-day of freighting some sixty or more heavy teams used to pass over the high Plain every day. And besides there were the coaches and the horseback travelers. A day’s haul for a heavy team was about twenty-five miles. The taverns used to stand some six or eight miles apart along the freight roads. So, a tavern like the Yellow House would probably entertain each night some fifteen or twenty teamsters and their helpers, besides other travelers; and probably sixty or eighty horses and oxen would stand in the stables.”

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Iron keys from the Yellow House. (From the Cabot Historical Society collection.)

I like to imagine what it must have been like with that much traffic over the road. They would leave Joe’s Pond on the “new” Hazen’s Road, go up what is now Chatot Road, and round the bend heading northward past where Kate and Jules Chatot’s house is now. They would continue easily on level ground past the remains of a small quarry where big granite slabs were cut out of the hillside for foundations and posts. There were stone walls on either side of the road as it climbed, and giant maple trees as far as one could see into the woods. At the top of the first hill, there was a swampy area that was probably stabilized by cedar logs laid crosswise for wagons to rumble across. There was another short stretch of corduroy road through a small swampy area after the next rise. There, on the right, just off the road, was a cold spring. Travelers would probably stop to fill their canteens and let the animals drink from the little brook that ran out of the swamp. The road was a straight, gradual climb with convenient natural plateaus along the way for resting the animals if they were loaded heavily. Eventually, each plateau had a house on one side, and usually the barn was across the road; trees were cut, stumps pulled, and fields were planted as farmers established homesteads.

Many years later, this road became the lane over which we Bolton kids brought the cows every day. We imagined the wagons and buggies rolling along the road, and we knew each cellar hole we passed – the Dickinson’s, Asa Mack’s, the Roy’s and Gray’s. Sometimes we stopped briefly to explore the rubble, but we knew our herd of fifty or more Holsteins would disperse into the woods if left unattended and besides, we’d been warned the old cellar holes held hidden dangers; but we couldn’t resist the possibility of finding a treasure among the bits of broken glass and rusted metal.

At the crest of the hill there was always a blast of wind straight out of Canada. In summer, like us, those early travelers would welcome relief from the heat of the climb; but in winter the icy blast would penetrate even the thickest woolen coat and freeze an exposed ear or nose in minutes. The view, if one took time to enjoy it was, and still is, spectacular. The White Mountains of New Hampshire to the east gleam white with snow from October to June; to the north, Canada and Jay Peak show pale blue through the haze of distance; and down the hill straight ahead is the broad, flat Plain leading to “Fortification Hill.“

Now, the fields on the Plain that once grew crops of hay, oats, and corn to support families with eight or ten children, are fallow or half-hayed; the pastures where cows, sheep, and horses grazed are choked with bushes and fast-growing evergreens. The old military road is lost in the forest, and modern logging operations have blurred the boundaries of the alternate road. The stone walls and fences that once bordered the road and marked pastures, fields, and the boundaries of those old homesteads are mostly gone.

Today, the road from the Leinoff’s house at the highest point of the Plain, follows roughly the original route to the trailhead where Bayley left off and Hazen camped on “Fortification Hill.” From the Plains Cemetery, the original road is exactly where it was built and is well preserved. It’s easy to imagine the soldiers and settlers traveling that road, worn deep between defining stone walls with years of weather and wear. After crossing Route 215 near the Walden town line, the old road is again overgrown.

When travelers rounded the bend onto “Fortification Hill,” they must have been impressed with the beauty of the rolling hills and distant mountains spread before them. Did they know that from that point on a clear day one can see three of Vermont’s borders – New York in the west beyond Camel’s Hump and Mt. Mansfield; Canada in the north beyond Jay’s Peak; and New Hampshire’s White Mountains in the east? Did they watch a breath-taking sunset or sunrise, or tremble as storm clouds rolled overhead, almost close enough to touch, and hear deafening thunder claps and see great flashes of lightning too close for comfort with no place to hide? And did the winter wind tear at their clothing and drift snow around their feet as they walked? They might have believed they had arrived at the gates of Heaven and Hell at the same time.

Just over the brow of the hill was the Yellow House. They could smell the wood smoke from the big stone fireplace before they saw the tavern. At dusk they would see the welcoming orange glow of lantern light as they started down the hill, and when they pulled into the big front yard, they would be met by one or two young lads who would scramble to unhitch the teams and lead them to a dimly lit stable where they’d be fed and watered and bedded for the night.

Brushing away the dust or snow from the road and stamping their feet on the big stone doorstep, visitors probably entered the tavern through a wide front door that swung on long black iron hinges. We can imagine the welcoming great hall, its warm air heavy with wood and tobacco smoke. They’d know the stink of unwashed humans, wet wool and barn boots drying by the fire, and the pungent odor of meat searing on a spit at the big central fireplace. Teamsters and their helpers at a long, rough-hewn plank table would be leaning over tin plates of pork or beef sliced from the roasting carcass. A young woman might ladle beans or turnips and potatoes from a big iron pot hung over the fire, and the smell of the stew would mix with the sour smell of spilled ale and rum. Whenever the door leading to the barns swung open, a rush of animal-scented cold air would sweep the room.

There would be heated discussions of politics and bits of news shared over a mug or two of whiskey. Finally, they’d follow one of the servants – perhaps the black boy known as Tone Beardsley, said to have been owned by Dr. Horace Beardsley – up the narrow stairway lit by a tallow candle held high overhead, to a row of straw-filled pallets in a room heated only by the bodies and breath of already sleeping roommates. It’s understandable that some preferred to spend the night in the barn with the animals. Female travelers and children would be accommodated in only slightly better quarters in another part of the house.

The next morning, they’d be on their way, or perhaps they’d stay to transact some business. A trade embargo was enacted in 1807 prohibiting Americans from trading with Canada and Great Britain, but many northern Vermonters ignored the law. The Yellow House was soon known as the “Smugglers’ House,” as the illegal business of arranging for the transport of local goods to the Canadian border became routine. To settlers struggling to make a living on their small, backwoods farms, or at fledgling businesses, the incentive to trade with the British in Canada far outweighed any patriotic allegiance they may have had.

John W. Dana had a small store just below the yellow house. He and his friend, John Damon bought, sold, traded, and dickered until they became almost sole owners of land in the region, at one time about 1000 acres. According to author John M. Fisher, Damon and Dana frequently “wintered 100 head of cattle, beside a large amount of other stock, at the yellow house barns.” Although they may not have directly engaged in smuggling, it’s a fair bet that Dana, Damon, and the Beardsleys all profited well from those who did.

Local authority was scarce, and it was likely town officials turned a blind eye since they were as inclined as anyone to take advantage of opportunity. A customs officer once attempted to stop smugglers near a small pond a mile or so north of the Yellow House. He was unceremoniously thrown into the pond, which was afterwards dubbed “Smugglers’ Pond.” Another officer tried to prevent a herd of cattle from being driven to Canada, and he was given “a good smart thrashing.” However, that time the culprits ended up in a “long and expensive lawsuit.”

The wagon loads of potash, salt pork, whiskey, potatoes, and grain continued to be sent north to the border, and errant settlers returned with goods and cash from the British. It was said there were large droves of cattle that overflowed the roadways and “trampled the woods like herds of buffalo.” Both American and British officers acknowledged that the British army was well fed by beef provided by Americans along the Vermont and New York borders.

As the years went by, the long line of wagons ceased over the Plain. A new road, Market Road, was opened in 1820. It followed a relatively flat route along the shore of Joe’s Pond to Walden Heights, completely bypassing the Plain. That road is now known as West Shore Road for about two miles, and then becomes Brickett’s Crossing Road.

One by one the buildings that were part of the Yellow House tavern were taken down, so by 1855 all that was left were some stones from its foundations, a few pieces of iron strapping and old hinges, and a key to one of the doors.

The Plain is still a favorite spot for visitors. They come for the view and perhaps to spend a quiet moment imagining what it was like there years ago. They may walk in the field opposite the cemetery, down the hill past the Foster Covered Bridge to the small marker that reads, “Smugglers’ House,” or take pictures of the restored one-room schoolhouse that sits across the road from where the first school in town was located. The road is commonly known as the Bayley-Hazen Road now. There are new houses along the northernmost section in Cabot. People are drawn to the high ground, flat fields, and gorgeous views, just as those first settlers were. But on this once busy Plain there are no more working farms, no barns with cattle or oxen, and the nearest tavern is in Montpelier.