mckay and old maple

The author stands next to the stub of ancient sugar maple, over 54 inches in diameter.

When we stopped in St Johnsbury on a July day in 1977 and asked realtor Chuck Eaton if he knew of any affordable land for sale, he replied he did have one spot in Peacham. “Just a hole in the woods, really,” he said.

Hailing from Chittenden County, we assumed we could not afford land in Vermont and were on our way to Maine. We had back-to-the-land stars in our eyes, University of Vermont degrees in Plant and Soil Science, and confidence born of Peace Corps experience.

It was a hot day and Chuck told us to grab our bathing suits and hop in his van. He drove us south on Route 5 and up Joe’s Brook Road, then up Rake Factory Road. That road enters the woods and climbs next to a very picturesque brook, leveling out for a bit where a few small fields keep the trees at bay. By the time we got to the top of the road, 3 ½ miles from Joe’s Brook Road, we were well into the boonies and most definitely in the trees. Turning right and then left and then right on the narrow roads, overhung by trees and with grass growing in the road, we emerged a mile later into the hole in the woods that Chuck had told us about. There was a broken down old house with an incongruous addition, an eight-acre hayfield across the road, and a couple of acres around the house that had small cherry trees sprouting up. In the back, the stone foundation had caved in and there was a woodchuck in residence under the kitchen sink. The roof had a nice sag in it, there was a 30-foot fir tree growing three feet from the front wall, the paint was peeling and there was no sign of lawn or any other improvements. What more could we ask?

The asking price for the house and 35 acres had just dropped from $35,000 to $25,000. After we took a naïve look around, Chuck loaded us back in the van and back down the Rake Factory Road (warning - if you’re in an exploratory mood, the road is currently impassable on the Peacham end) to Joes Brook where we stopped to jump in one of the fabulous swimming holes. By the time we got back to St J., Chuck had us sold.

It turns out the time when we found our hole in the woods was the nadir of the property’s long history. The people we bought it from had owned it for 26 years. They had bought a disused farm, torn down the barn, and used the timbers and siding to build the incongruous addition, which they used as a summer camp. The farm must never have prospered. It was only 40 acres, about eight of which are cedar swamp with small beaver meadows. In the 25 years before 1951, the property changed hands seven times. During the Great Depression, the owner committed suicide by climbing one of the high voltage power line poles just down the road. The house was probably built by George W. Clark in about 1850. He farmed for 17 years before selling to the Halls who farmed it for 20 years, who sold it to the Bradleys who were here for 22 years until 1927.

Betsy and I have now owned our hole in the woods for 42 years, by far the longest tenants of this place. We like to think we have brought it back from the brink of obscurity. As I look out my bedroom window to the east at sunrise I can just make out a horizon through the trees. I am convinced that when our house was built, it was not a hole in the woods. From the stone walls in the woods and the lay of the land, this house was likely sited with a view across open fields to the Presidential Peaks of the White Mountains. It sits about 100 yards from what is now the corner of Thaddeus Stevens Road and Morrison Hill Road. Just two miles north is Greenbank’s Hollow, which in the 1850s was home to a village with a post office, store, gristmill, sawmill, school, and several residences in addition to the five-story Greenbank’s Woolen Mill which employed 45 people. The big woolen mill bought wool from many area farms and the route to Greenbank’s Village from Barnet and West Barnet would have been over Morrison Hill Road just below our house. In other words, our house was not built in a hole in the woods. It was built on a pleasant little knoll amidst fields and sheep pasture, with a view of the mountains and overlooking a well-traveled road. The numerous cellar holes in our neighborhood attest to the fact that there were small farms all over the place. Our house was 20 feet by 26, simply built with no frills. From the ownership pattern, our little farm provided a decent living for its first 75 years. That period spanned a time when well over a hundred young men left Peacham, first in the gold rush of 1850, then in the Civil War and its aftermath. Later, the economic depression of the 1890s hit the nation hard, but on a small subsistence farm, it probably wasn’t felt much.

Our farm, which sold in 1857 for $700 and in 1891 for $1,100, was sold by the Hall family in 1905 to Charles and Elizabeth Bradley for $700. The sheep industry peaked in Vermont about 1840 when there were 9,600 sheep in Danville alone. Our farm was likely sheep pasture when the house was built. Cheaper wool from the Midwest was hurting Vermont, but the demand for wool uniforms in the Civil War helped extend the industry a few more years. After that, cows steadily replaced sheep on our farms. By 1905, when the Bradleys took over our place, I imagine the barn held perhaps eight cows, a few pigs, a team of horses or a pair of oxen, a few sheep, and some chickens. I think most of the 40 acres was still open pasture with several acres of hay land.

Charles Bradley was 46 when he was married, apparently for the first time, to Elizabeth Stevenson, who was a widow with a 14-year-old daughter, Maybel. Census records show Charles had been a farm laborer in various places. Charles and Elizabeth died within a few months of each other in 1926 at the age of 72. Maybel had married Chester Clark and, as Elizabeth’s sole heir, inherited the farm, which she promptly sold to Charles and Minnie Wheeler, the first of the string of short term owners over the following 25 years.

From the consistent age of trees I have cut all over our property, I believe that the Bradleys were the last family to seriously farm the land. The land was starting to grow up in the 1930s and by 1950 nearly all the woods we see today was growing trees. An aerial photo from 1943 shows this gradual process underway, with only a smattering of large trees, which today are big sugar maples. Two of those maples were over 54 inches in diameter and presumably 200 plus years old when they finally died and fell over in the last few years. Around their grand carcasses, younger trees now grow tall and the forest that is only 75 years old has begun to look as if it has always been here. Nearby, a cellar hole in the woods reminds us of what was; the time when generations of small farmers looked up from their labors to gaze across open fields to distant mountains. But turn around and a 10-acre “hole in the woods” that now contains an active tree farm and a busy young family hint at what will be.

Tim McKay is a conservationist, tree farmer, furniture maker, and writer who has lived in Peacham since 1977. Tim retired in 2010 from a career with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service field office in St Johnsbury.