Popular Posts


Saturday, March 5, 2011

No One Lives There Anymore

This 1925 map shows the extent of desertion of roads and houses in Piermont, Warren, Orford, Wentworth, Lyme and Dorchester. The dots represent deserted houses, and the heavy lines are deserted roads; roads still in use at the time are shown by a light line. The map is a result of a study by Dartmouth geography professor James Goldthwait that was included in his 1927 article "A Town That Has Gone Downhill."

The back of beyond sections of area towns were littered with the remains of abandoned homes and farm buildings as residents moved away and nature reclaimed the pastures. (UVM Special Collections)

The Frank Finney fam was one of the last to survive in Orford's Quinttown. According to Leon Marsh of Fairlee, who was born in this house, the buildings burned in the 1940s. Abandoned stone walls and overgrown cellar holes create a "silence of desolation" in this once thriving neighborhood. (Orford Historical Society) Copperfield, in Vershire, was a booming mining town in the 1890s. In the center of the village was a three-story company store. All that remains of this thriving community are the tailings, or waste materials, from the mines. (UVM Special Collections) In the 1870s, the mining company provided these shanties for miners and their families at the Pike Hill copper mine in Corinth. Like Copperfield to the south, this village disappeared with the closing of the mine. (UVM Special Collections) In August, 2006, my brother, Ray Coffin, Jr. joined me in a visit to the site of our great grandfather's farm on Hodge's Hill adjacent to the road between West Topsham and East Orange, Vermont. He and his family were one of five or six farm families that lived in this little neighborhood just before the Civil War. All that is left are cellar holes, stone walls and overgrown orchards. The road is now just a trail. As published in the Journal-Opinion, February 23 and March 2, 2011 “The traveler through such States as Vermont and New Hampshire in particular finds deserted homesteads at every turn, ruined and empty houses and their ramshackle barns, with open doors and windows looking like eye holes in a skull, and wide stretches of young forest, where once grew corn and potatoes. The inexorable forest comes down and claims its own as soon as the hand of man intermits his patient toil.” This 1897 observation by Daniel Appleton describes the condition in the back of beyond sections of many area towns as population declined after 1820. In December 2009 and March 2010, I wrote about the exodus from the region. This column deals with those area neighborhoods that became deserted. Not all deserted neighborhoods are covered as they have disappeared either in name or detailed memory. These include such sites as Davistown, Baldwin Corners, and Gray City, all in Orford. The population boom experienced by many area towns in the formative decades after 1765 brought farm families to all parts of each community. Many early farmers preferred the hill country because it was less prone to floods or swamps. They believed that the centuries of leaf mold from deciduous trees created better soil than that of the pine-covered low lands. For them, the sun shown a bit longer and the warm breezes prevented earlier frosts than in the shadowy valleys. Marginal though it was, the uplands provided sufficiently for the subsistence farmer. Lumber, firewood and maple sugar were taken from nearby forests, stones for walls were collected from upland pastures and food crops were grown on the place. But for many, the isolation was hard, especially for the women whose tasks literally worked them to death. At some point in the decades from 1820 to 1860, every area town reached a peak of population and began to decline. For a time, in some hill locations, it was true that the “only thing growin’” was the cemetery. These same towns recorded their lowest population since settlement in the period between 1920 and 1950. The following represents the high and low census years for some area towns during the period from 1820 to 1970. Lyme 1820, 1930; Thetford 1830, 1940; Newbury 1850, 1970; Bradford 1860, 1930; Topsham 1840, 1940. The causes of this decline include the lure of cheap land on the ever-expanding western frontier and the promises of the nation’s growing cities. These opportunities held special attraction for young adults. Other reasons given include the inability of these rough country farms to compete with the West in raising sheep and growing wheat, their most profitable. Add to these high taxes, severe winters and the loss of neighbors and kin. Some blamed those who unwisely located in submarginal locations or were too unwilling to do the work necessary to “eke out a living.” One observer blamed the decline on the poor diet of the families. Too much fried meat, potatoes and pie! The impact was most evident in the upland hill regions on the east side of area towns in New Hampshire and the west side of Vermont towns. In his 1927 article, A Town That Has Gone Downhill, Dartmouth geography professor James Goldthwaite describes the impact of depopulation on the eastern half of Lyme as an example of what was happening in many hill country neighborhoods. Lyme’s Patterns and Pieces includes several lengthy descriptions of school districts that reflected this decline. Written in 1948 by Edwin Dimick, they include the Acorn and Whipple School Districts in the north central part of town. The area was settled as early as 1776 and became a farming community with fine buildings and productive fields and orchards. Having lived there all of his 86 years, Dimick describes place after place where the buildings were gone and the fields had grown up to brush. Goldthwaite also mentions the decline of Tinkhamtown, a small settlement in the southeast corner of Lyme south of Gline’s Hill and the area around Acorn Hill and Smart’s Mountain. He describes the decline of farms: “the tide was ebbing fast by 1860.” By 1892, “the entire northeastern quarter of the township, so largely occupied by Smart’s Mountain, thus became a blank on the population map.” The Acorn Hill neighborhood was completely abandoned and “the 1100-foot contour…marks a rather definite population strand line for 1925.” It is no accident that a portion of this almost inaccessible territory is known as Hardscrabble. Neighboring Orford’s Quinttown is another prime example of the abandonment of the hill settlements. In 1792, Benjamin Quint settled adjacent to the base of Mt Cube near Jacob’s Brook. Goldthwaite described the community at its height as having “fifteen houses, a few saw mills, shops, a schoolhouse or two and a store and there was a schoolhouse (gone before 1855) at the top of the long hill on the mountainside, with 50 or 60 pupils.” At its height nearly 200 residents lived in the vicinity.  Farming along with the quarrying of limestone were the two major economic activities. By 1892, the village had been largely abandoned. Several farms held out into the first decades of the 20th century. Lumbering activities were common. By the late 1940’s the only resident was the recluse Billy Brown. The swimming hole at Flat Rock on Jacob’s Brook was the main attraction. To the north was Piermont’s eastern section along the now abandoned North and South Road. This road ran from Clay Hollow along the base of Piermont Mountain. The 1947 history of Piermont describes the road as once being the location of “many large farmsteads belonging to our early most prosperous citizens.” Farms in this section were very productive and in the 1840’s were being sold at high prices. “New purchasers of these farms were not equal in ability to the men whose places they had taken” This, along with other causes, brought about abandonment and the road was eventually discontinued. Just to the east in Warren was Charleston. William Little’s 1870 history of Warren describes that district: “Their buildings were good, their great barns were always filled with hay, and their sugar places were the best in town. But alas! All this has changed. The dwellers in the district by the lake are all dead, the houses and the barns have mouldered away, the spot where they stood can hardly be found, and the fields and the pastures are grown with forest trees.” The conditions in these locations are summed up in a 1905 comment about Benton by William F. Whitcher: “Some sections which were formerly settled and occupied by owners of farms are abandoned.” Across the river in Vermont, western sections of river towns suffered in a similar manner. Brushwood in the northwestern area of Fairlee was “so isolated” that in 1895 the district school had only one pupil. Portions of West Corinth declined in population. Bill Hodge of the Topsham Historical Society says that the area in Topsham near the Groton line, known as “the Territory,” once had as many as 24 farms, three schools and a hotel. It is empty now, as are several of the other most rural sections in Topsham. In Bradford, portions of Goshen, the South Road and Tarbox have their share of abandoned cellar holes and stonewall. All of these are representative of the decline of small hill farms and the reforestation of much of Vermont. In Newbury, the Lime Kiln district and the Grow and Dow neighborhoods along the Topsham border experienced both early growth and later decline. Wells’ History of Newbury states: “The farms that cling to the hills on the west are among the best in town.” Writing in 1902, Wells concludes, “that Newbury has shared in the depopulation of all hill towns in New England. There are more than 200 spots in town where houses once stood, and there are none now.” Two other neighborhoods that experienced booms were Copperfield in Vershire and Pike Hill in Corinth. Copper brought a large number of residents to these mining villages. Located along the road from West Fairlee to Strafford, Copperfield at its height had almost 1000 residents, a school, two churches, a store, barber and millinery shops, a library and meeting hall along with the facilities required for mining and smelting copper. The Pike Hill neighborhood was not as large as Copperfield, but did have a school and store along with a number of miners’ shanties. Both of these mining communities are completely abandoned. I will write more on mining in the area in a later column. In 1984, Hal S. Barron wrote a manuscript entitled “Those Who Stayed Behind.” In it he takes earlier observers to task for viewing these changes “in terms of extraordinary decline and decay.” He refutes any assumption that “the quality of life in Lyme [or the other towns in the area] went down hill along with its people.” He suggests that these were “expected characteristics of older agrarian societies.” Despite the decline in population, most area towns had agricultural and non-agricultural sections that continued to prosper. In many cases, farm production remained constant, especially in the intervales along the Connecticut. Village life in towns such as Lyme, Thetford, Newbury and Bradford was vibrant and growing. In the last two decades of the nineteenth century, Bradford village gained a new hotel, three major brick office buildings, factories and a new library and academy along with new sidewalks, water system and electric lights. Despite the title of this article, it is not exactly true that no one lived in some of these rural neighborhoods for very long. In response to the number of abandoned farms both Vermont and New Hampshire established programs to advertise available property. The targeted audiences included potential immigrants from northern Europe and Canada as well as the new leisure class of America’s cities. In one 1889 listing of abandoned farms for sale, four Orford and Piermont farms were offered for between $3 and $11 per acre. New Hampshire listed 1342 “abandoned farms with tenantable buildings” and Vermont listed more than 1000, over half, “with buildings that are in fair condition.” Abandoned pastures turned into second-growth forests, offering opportunities for the lumbering industry. Writing in 1886 on the condition of Vermont forests, Hiram A. Cutting concluded: “Springing up as it does on so many worn-out and abandoned farms, the white pine has made industry and wealth possible to many parts of the state which otherwise would have been wholly deserted.” By the early 1900’s, a slow turn around had begun. There was an increase in the number of immigrant farmers. The “back to the land movement” and the growth of the summer recreation industry created interest in rural property among urban members of the new middle class. The advent of the automobile and rural mail delivery followed by the spread of telephone, radio and electricity to rural sections brought new life to the hill country. Old farm houses that were purchased as vacation homes often became retirement homes for gentlemen farmers. In July, 1932 an article appeared in The United Opinion under the headline “Many Seek Summer Home Sites in Vermont.” Prompted by Dorothy Canfield’s publication Vermont Summer Homes, over 7500 inquiries had been received by the Vermont Bureau of Publicity from “outsiders looking for homes, permanent or temporary.” Over the past four decades, life has returned to many rural areas as the overall population of local towns reached new highs. In the late 60’s there was a resurgence of the “country life movement” that resulted in new residents, full or part-time. The extension of the interstate highway in the early 70’s allows young families to build in remote areas and work in larger communities. With capital from home sales to the south, retirees are able to purchase tracts of land for new homes, often with the most desirable mountain views. While not equaling the home building boom experienced by some other parts of the nation, all area towns have experienced new construction, often in neighborhoods that had been most depleted of population a century before. Additionally, the reforested areas offer hunters, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts ample opportunities for recreation. I am the descendant of many generations of New England farmers. Interest in the topic of depopulation was enhanced by my trek to an abandoned neighborhood on Hodge’s Hill adjacent to the West Topsham-East Orange road. There my great grandfather Coffin lived with his family just prior to the Civil War. All that remains of that small collection of hardscrabble farms are cellar holes, stone walls and overgrown orchards. Both my grandfathers were born on Vermont hill farms. The small farm on which my father was born in East Brookfield doesn’t appear to have a single flat acre. While I grew up in Fairlee and Orford villages, we owned a 300-acre farm in Archertown near Sunday Mountain in Orford. Most of it was hilly. It was there that I was personally introduced to the idea that the best annual crop was often stones. Being descended from those who struggled to pull a living from often unforgiving land gives one an appreciation for thrift, hard work and a good dose of stubborn determination. And those are traits worth honoring.