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Connect the Dots: Apples Play a Key Role in Vermont’s Landscape

Published September 30, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Other Paper (South Burlington), Shelburne News, and The Citizen (Charlotte and Hinesburg)

Q: How has the role of apples trees in Vermont’s landscape changed through time?

McIntosh apples, developed in the 19th century, are especially good for eating and applesauce, and are still popular in Vermont today.

A: As I walked an abandoned hill farm recently, I paused to take in the old cellar hole and its companion gnarly apple tree. The research project I was doing for a local community group included mapping the nineteenth-century features. The cellar hole likely fit the bill, with its modest footprint, no mortar between the foundation stones, and its proximity to a late-nineteenth-century style bank barn foundation. Circling the cellar hole, I imagined the old wooden farmhouse held above ground by the stonework. But with the dooryard apple tree, I also remembered the foundation’s other purpose – food storage. It is likely that the apples from this tree were picked each fall and stored in the cellar to nourish the farm family through the winter. This was just one of the chapters of the story of how apple trees fit into Vermont’s landscape through time.

The earliest apple trees in Vermont were planted from seeds brought in the 1700s and early 1800s, and they were not uniform, named varieties. They were placed near the farmhouse and barn on the early homesteads to help protect them from deer and bear predation and from late frosts which killed the blossoms and stopped the apples from forming. Many of these early apples would have been pressed into cider or dried.

 As the nineteenth century progressed, farm families often planted a few more apple trees, but instead of planting apple seeds, they now planted grafted trees chosen for their special characteristics. Small family orchards usually included a variety that kept well in the cellar through the winter. But they also planted varieties good for baking pies, making applesauce, pressing into hard cider, and or slicing into rings and dried. There’s an old Vermont folk song collected by folksinger Margaret MacArthur about making “dried apple pies” that may date to this period. I often find remnant family orchards in the hill farm areas, sometimes surrounded by stone walls that kept out the cows. 

Russet apples: related to the oldest known variety developed in the U.S., and know to be very good keepers in farmhouse cellars and prized for cider.

After the railroads arrived around 1850, some big city markets became less than a day’s journey away. Some farms transitioned into commercial apple orcharding, especially near Lake Champlain which buffered the late frosts. In Shelburne in 1850, orchard products on all farms were only valued at about $5000, but twenty years later they had jumped to about $18,000. In 1880, Shelburne had 19,000 apple trees that produced 37,000 bushels of apples that year. But by 1930 as better mechanical refrigeration allowed apples to be transported from even further away, the number of apple trees in Shelburne dropped dramatically to 2300, as many apple farms transitioned to dairying.

Older USGS Topographic map showing the Twin Orchards before the housing development was built.
Aerial photo of the Twin Orchard Park neighborhood in 1968, with Orchard School in the upper left corner.  Note that there is still another orchard on the west side of Shelburne Road in the foreground of the photo (now developed).  Photo credit: Vermont Historical Society Leahy Library, used with permission.

In South Burlington, the apple history can be read in some place names. Twin Orchard Park housing development was built in the 1950s, replacing orchards at what was then the edge of the city along Shelburne Road. Their elementary school was named Orchard School, and many of the street names reflect the apple varieties popular then: Baldwin, Cortland, McIntosh, Jonathan, Wealthy, Duchess, and Greening. These varieties were especially for good for eating fresh, cooking, and baking. (I remember my grandmother once taking my chin in her hand, looking me directly in the eye, and saying “don’t forget that Duchess apples make the best apple pies.”) 

2012 USGS map of the Twin Orchard neighborhood in South Burlington with apple variety names for street names.

Recently, another housing development has gone in behind the old Chittenden Cider Mill (now The Mill Market and Deli) on Dorset Street, and these streets have apple variety names, too. The decades between this development and Twin Orchards is evident in these names, including Crispin, Braeburn, Royal, and Sommerfield. These varieties were developed mostly after 1950 as the market shifted toward those prized for their looks and for eating fresh.

As for the companion apple tree near the old cellar hole, its story has a new chapter. Since the farm was abandoned, the old apple tree is now feeding deer and other wildlife that inadvertently spread the apple seeds throughout their territories. “Volunteer apple trees” can spring up where the seeds drop. Now, there are apple trees on old hill farm sites that are not near the old farmhouse, not planted in rows, not enclosed by stone walls. Because they are not grafted, the volunteer apples are not true to any named variety, making them much like the earliest apple trees in Vermont.

“Volunteer” apple tree on an old hill farm, spread by deer.

When I’m out doing field work, I watch for apple trees and look for landscape clues to see which landscape history chaper they belong to. I also can’t resist biting into some of these apples, even if they are green. The variety of flavors I enjoy is a legacy of the variety of roles that apple trees have played in our landscape.

Connect the Dots: Apples Play Key Role in Vermont’s Landscape

My next Connect the Dots column about the role of apples in the Vermont landscape has been published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group’s Shelburne News, The Other Paper, and The Citizen.

Here’s the link: https://www.vtcng.com/otherpapersbvt/opinion/opinion_columns/apples-play-key-role-in-vermont-s-landscape/article_3d62a1aa-2222-11ec-ac79-6f0a49e74241.html

McIntosh apples, developed in the 19th century, are especially good for eating and applesauce, and are still popular in Vermont today.

Connect the Dots: Tracing the History of Hinesburg’s Hollow Road Corridor

Published September 23, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen (Hinesburg and Charlotte).

Q: How has Hinesburg’s Hollow Road been a critical corridor in Vermont’s natural and human landscapes through time?

Hollow Brook Valley on the horizon from Hines Road in Hinesburg

A: On a recent trip on VT Rte. 116 through South Hinesburg, I knew I had to turn up Hollow Road toward Huntington. My mental map of that narrow corridor had recently been redrawn by hearing a talk about its unexpected role during glacial times, which in turn affected its role in the human landscape. I had to retrace the stories’ chapters myself.

As I turned onto Hollow Road, I saw the first hint about its history: Hollow Brook, which hugs the road, crisscrossing it periodically. Hollow Brook is small and drains Lincoln Hill to the north, but it’s also a faint echo of the roaring torrent of ice-cold water that once came through here. 

Hollow Brook in Hinesburg

Geologists remapping the area’s glacial features recently updated the story of the glacial meltwater that came through the Hollow Brook valley almost 14,000 years ago. This valley didn’t just drain the local hillsides then; it played a much larger role as the connector between the upper Winooski River watershed and the large glacial lake that filled the Champlain Valley. 

Geologist’s see evidence of a big ice block in Richmond for a time that dammed the upper Winooski River’s meltwater, impounding the water upstream. This blocked water included that from the Winooski River valley above Richmond as far east as Plainfield and Cabot, but also from the tributaries, including the Little River in Stowe, Mad River in Waitsfield, Dog River in Northfield, Stevens Branch in Barre, and the North Branch through Montpelier and Worcester. All that meltwater accumulated and rose behind the ice dam until it got so deep that it found an alternative drainage south. In its first stage it drained through Richmond’s Gillett Pond valley, then in its second stage through the Huntington River valley and turned west into the Hollow Brook valley to South Hinesburg. The Winooski Valley’s glacial lake is estimated to have dropped 85 feet in depth as all that frigid water poured through the narrow Hollow Brook valley.

Geology map of glacial Lake Vermont, with Hollow Brook valley in the lower center
(Vermont Geological Survey, 2020)

The meltwater running off the bare central Vermont landscape was also carrying lots of sand and gravel left by the glacier. When the sediment-laden meltwater got to South Hinesburg, it encountered a huge glacial lake lapping the Lincoln Hill’s flank. As the meltwater emptied into the glacial lake, it dropped its sediment load building a large delta where Hollow Road meets Rte. 116. Many large sand and gravel pits more than 100 feet deep can be seen there, including ones owned by VTrans and the Hinesburg Sand and Gravel Company. The tops of the sand and gravel pits are at about 600’ elevation, which marks the glacial lake’s level when the delta was formed. 

VTrans sand and gravel pit near Hollow Road and Rt. 116 intersection

Eventually the glacial ice block in Richmond melted, and the Winooski River went back to its normal drainage pattern. Hollow Road’s corridor went back to draining just the local Lincoln Hill area, but with a lot of leftover sand and gravel as a reminder of past events. Over the centuries, Hollow Brook cut its way down through these deposits to the brook’s current level today.

Fast forward thousands of years, and the human use of the Hollow Road corridor echoes the glacial times. A 150-year-old Hinesburg history mentions some old stories of the Native Americans traveling back and forth along the Hollow Brook-Huntington River corridor as a short-cut connection from the Otter Creek watershed to the Winooski River watershed. At European contact time, the Native Americans were a widely-traveled culture who used the rivers as major corridors, so it’s not surprising they found the same pathway that the glacial meltwater had found.

In the 20th century, the corridor and its large sand and gravel deposits took on a new role in the human landscape. With the advent of faster motorized travel, towns were under pressure to improve the crude 19th-century wagon roads they had used for decades. Major pits opened in 1915 to raise roadbeds, and in 1939 Rte. 116 in Hinesburg started to be paved with asphalt using the sand and gravel. Road building continues to be a major operation for the sand and gravel pits today.

LiDAR image showing the current topography of the Hollow Brook valley near South Hinesburg. The delta deposits on the left side near Rt. 116 have been mostly removed, much of it to build roads in the county, and the upper part of the delta (to the right) is still intact. (Image from VCGI’s Vermont Interactive Map Viewer)

As I drove the road through the narrow valley, I felt the stories’ chapters all connect. From the glacial torrent that found this valley as an escape route from the Winooski Valley and left large amounts of sand and gravel, to the later human use for a regional transportation route, to the last 100 years of re-depositing the sand and gravel in narrow bands across the county to make new travel avenues into the 21st century (including the one I was on), this valley has witnessed many stories about passageways and journeys, both natural and human.

Connect the Dots: Tracing the History of Hinesburg’s Hollow Road Corridor

My next Connect the Dots column about the Hollow Road corridor in Hinesburg has been published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group’s The Citizen (Hinesburg and Charlotte).

Here is the link: https://www.vtcng.com/thecitizenvt/opinion/opinion_columns/tracing-the-history-of-hinesburg-s-hollow-road-corridor/article_455519a8-1ca8-11ec-9d41-07223795f9a3.html

Hollow Brook Valley on the horizon, from Hines Road in Hinesburg

Connect the Dots: Cheesefactory Road’s Name

Published July 8, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in South Burlington’s The Other Paper.

Q: How did Cheesefactory Road in Shelburne and South Burlington get its name?

A: When I decided to research how Cheesefactory Road got its name, I guessed I would find an old neighborhood cheese factory in its past. But I discovered some connected features, too: an abandoned road, and a small but critical brook I’d never noticed. As I dug deeper, other neighborhood features turned up, as well. At one end of the road there had been a church, parsonage, and a one-room schoolhouse, and at the other end a blacksmith shop and an old tavern. This road had stories to tell!

The cheese factory that gave the road its name was built in 1873 and operated for about 10 years. There is no trace of the building left today, but it was on the south side of Cheesefactory Road in Shelburne, right where the road dips a bit near the South Burlington town line. The factory drew milk from neighboring dairy farms, and from the factory you could see some of the pasturing Jersey cows chewing their cud and flicking their tails.

The factory needed access to water, so it was placed next to the small brook that crosses at the dip in the road, called Seeley Brook on old maps but unnamed on modern maps. The factory held water rights to Seeley Brook, and used it to clean their equipment, and more. They also established a wagon road (now gone) following the brook south to where it empties into Shelburne Pond ¾ of a mile away. At the pond, they harvested ice in the winter time. They cut the ice by hand, hauled it up the wagon road to the factory, and packed it in sawdust to keep it from melting. Without any electricity, the ice kept their milk and cheese cold all year long.  

.1869 Beers Atlas map of the northeast corner of Shelburne showing Seeley Brook crossing what is now Cheesefactory Road in Shelburne at the town line with South Burlington, and showing Shelburne Pond where the ice for the cheese factory was cut. The school (No. 5) and M.P.Ch. (Methodist Church) and Parsonage can be seen at the corner of Dorset Street and Cheesefactory Road.

The local farmers may not have realized it, but this was the beginning of a major shift in their livelihoods. Up until the factory came, typical neighborhood dairy farm families not only hand-milked their 15-20 cows, they also turned all their milk into cheese and butter on the farm and sold those finished products. But with the coming of the cheese factory here (and one near Shelburne Falls in 1871), local farmers could sell liquid milk to someone else to make a finished product.

Comparing numbers from the Shelburne agricultural censuses before and after the cheese factories came captures this change well. From 1870 to 1880, cheese produced on farms went from 31,000 lbs. down to 5700 lbs. (about 1/5 of what it had been). Liquid milk sold off the farm went from 3000 gallons up to 360,000 gallons, a more than 100-fold increase in ten years. The total number of cows in town increased in that 10-year period, too, and the increased production went into liquid milk sold off the farm.

The one almost unchanged number in the ten-year span was butter made on the farm. Hand-churning butter is much simpler than the culturing, curdling, pressing, and aging needed to make cheese, so it’s not surprising that cheese making was outsourced first. The change in farmers’ daily lives must have been significant: they mostly stopped making cheese at home, and instead drove their liquid milk daily through the neighborhood to the factory.

For the factory’s 10 years or so, what farmers saw on their drive depended on which way they came. From the Dorset St. end, they might hear the school bell and see schoolchildren heading to the one-room schoolhouse that was once just south of the corner. On Sundays, they might see parishioners going to the Methodist Church that was once at the intersection’s southwest corner, or see the minister coming out of the parsonage just down Barstow Road. 

View southwest from near the corner of Dorset Street and Cheesefactory Road. The brown area on the lower right is the wetlands of Shelburne Pond that haven’t greened up yet in the spring. The mountain on the horizon is Camel’s Hump.

Farmers coming from the Hinesburg Road end might hear the blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil at the corner blacksmith shop. They might see the stagecoach rumbling by on Hinesburg Road, or the old brick tavern/inn just north of the intersection (now a private home). Maybe they were remembering the fiddle music at the community dances held at the tavern’s spring floor upstairs.

.Old brick tavern and inn on Hinesburg Road in South Burlington near the end of Cheesefactory Road

By the turn of the century, most of the small, rural neighborhood cheese factories in Vermont had closed as larger, centralized ones became common and butter production was added, as well. As I drive down Cheesefactory Road now, I wait for that dip in the road, and remember the road’s namesake. Although the cheese factory is long gone, the Cheesefactory Road neighborhood has kept its rural character well into the 21st century. Bread and Butter Farm hays some of the same fields that were hayed 150 years ago. And they sell their finished agricultural products directly off the farm, echoing the earlier 19th century farmers while evolving into the 21st century.

Tractor raking cut hay into windrows to prepare it for baling. On Bread and Butter Farm on Cheesefactory Road.

Copyright 2021 Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots: How Cheesefactory Road Got its Unusual Name

My next Connect the Dots column about Cheesefactory Road in Shelburne and South Burlington has been published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Other Paper of South Burlington.

Here is the link: https://www.vtcng.com/otherpapersbvt/opinion/opinion_columns/how-cheesefactory-road-got-its-unusual-name/article_bc61e59a-dfe4-11eb-a772-7b286ef362ca.html

Hay being raked into windrows on a Cheesefactory Road farm.

Connect the Dots: Champlain Valley Oaks Traveled the Globe

Published May 27, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen (Charlotte and Hinesburg) and the Shelburne News.

Q: How do some uncommon Vermont oak trees connect to a global transportation story?

A: I started in on the trail at the Williams Woods Natural Area in Charlotte to get a first-hand look at some very big and uncommon Vermont trees. As I clumped across numerous truncheons, I could tell that the soils here were wet underfoot. But the clay soils are also very productive, whether growing trees in a natural area or growing corn in the neighboring fields. Soon I crossed a tributary of Thorp Brook and started to see what I came for. The huge oak trees ahead had enormous presence, with trunks up to 3 feet in diameter and large arching canopies.  Some of the Williams Woods trees are estimated to be well over 200 years old, dating back to about the time of European settlement. If so, when these big trees were young, they would have witnessed their ancestors playing a key role in a global story.

 The oaks in this story include white oaks, bur oaks and swamp white oaks, which are members of the group botanists call white oaks. All of them have very strong, durable wood that is also water- and rot-resistant, and they are commercially interchangeable. The white oaks are at the northern edge of their ranges, in a very narrow band hugging Lake Champlain, and they are much more common further south from Massachusetts to Georgia. The lake’s moderating effect allows them to be this far north, and their proximity to that same lake played another role in their history. 

An intermediary in the white oak story was John Thorp, whose family name was given to the brook that runs through Williams Woods. He arrived in 1795 and began to cut trees to clear the land for his homestead, which he built just north of what is now Williams Woods. He also established the first general store between Vergennes and Burlington shortly after he arrived, built next to his home. He was described as a successful merchant, and to stock his store with goods the local people could not produce themselves, he went north to Quebec via the lake. As a result of his connections there, and the water connections and world market he had access to, he decided to add another line of business. A British Canadian about this time described the white oak in Vermont’s Champlain Valley as “beyond comparison the best oak timber of any in America” and stated that Canada had “no oak of any value” but that the “deficiencies may be abundantly supplied” by the oak in Vermont. So, Thorp began to ship oak (and pine) timber north.

Thorp Brook in Williams Woods Natural Area in Charlotte

As many more settlers arrived from southern New England, they started to clear their land for farming, too. Those near the lake could also sell the oak trees they cut for lumber, rather than just burning the trees as many inland did. The land just south of the natural area is corn field now, but the white oaks that had been there were felled, squared with hand tools into long timbers, and dragged or sledded to the nearby lake shore (probably in the winter over frozen ground). There they were fastened together to make rafts, and the rafts fitted with sails. They were then sailed north to the lake’s outlet down the Richelieu River to the St. Lawrence River, then down the St. Lawrence to Quebec City (under British rule) where Thorp sold them. They were then loaded onto ships that sailed for Britain, where they were fashioned into new ships for the British navy and merchant fleet, and into staves for wooden casks, hogsheads and barrels used to transport foodstuffs. The oak timber from this area ended up circling the globe: cutting through salty water, keeping people and goods afloat, and rolling down gangplanks at docks in foreign lands.

The fate of the white oak ancestors I can see today in Williams Woods was shaped by their being some of the northernmost white oaks that happened to be next to a connected set of waterways, at a time when trees were being felled and global commerce was expanding. 

The few white oaks now left along the lake (estimates are 10% of the original) are in small, discontinuous remnant forests and worthy of preservation. The Williams Woods oaks probably survived because the soils were too wet for farm fields. In their long lifetimes, these white oak trees witnessed the landscape’s enormous change from forest to farms. Now, they are providing seed to keep this forest going, hopefully long into the future. As our climate warms, I also see them as a seedbank to help the Vermont landscape adapt as the range of the white oaks expands northward.

Copyright 2021 Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots: Champlain Valley Oaks Traveled the Globe

My next Connect the Dots column has been published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen (Charlotte and Hinesburg) and the Shelburne News. It asks the question: How do some uncommon Vermont oak trees connect to a global transportation story?

Here is the link: https://www.vtcng.com/shelburnenews/opinion/opinion_columns/champlain-valley-oaks-traveled-the-globe/article_fd854ea8-bf24-11eb-a7a0-437c46f55a3b.html

Wood from white oak trees in the area around Williams Woods Natural Area in Charlotte ended up being sold around the world.

Connect the Dots: Making Way before the Covered Bridge

Published April 22, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Other Paper (South Burlington) and The Citizen (Charlotte and Hinesburg)

Quinlan Covered Bridge in Charlotte

Q: Before covered bridges were built in the early 1800s, how did settlers cross the rivers?

A: I was walking at the mouth of Shelburne’s LaPlatte River trying to imagine a scene from more than 200 years ago. Before the first bridge was built here in 1801, settlers who wanted to cross the river needed to wade or drive their wagons through it to get to the other side. It was a long shot, but I was looking for a sandspit like the one town histories describe that helped settlers with the crossing. The water was high that day, and I saw no sandspit. But the high water drew me to the alternate route the settlers used in similar circumstances. I started on the trail of the LaPlatte River Marsh Natural Area along the river’s west bank. Was the old rough wagon road somewhere under my feet? Too many years had passed to be sure, but it wasn’t too hard to imagine the wagons driving along to one of the other crossings further upstream. 

West bank of the LaPlatte River near its mouth in Shelburne

In our well-watered state’s early years, crossing the rivers took thoughtful planning and even shaped the road system. On the smaller rivers, the early settlers learned to assess the land along waterways to find shallow places with gently sloping banks. Then, they laid out roads to use those gentle slopes as places to wade, ride their horse, or drive their wagon through the water. 

When I’m in Montpelier, I sometimes walk to the Main Street Bridge and look down at the Winooski River and remember how the early settlers forded here. Before the first bridge was built in 1802, settlers placed a carefully calibrated stake in the river to help them decide whether to ford. If the top of the stake was showing above the water, the water was low enough to be safe to cross. If the top of the stake was underwater, travelers knew it wasn’t safe to cross since the water was high enough to float people and wagons away in the current. 

The fords were so important that some Vermont towns were even named for the presence of a good fording spot – Pittsford is one.

In rivers too deep or too swift to ford, or too wide for a simple log or plank bridge, settlers sometimes resorted to ferry boats. In West Ferrisburgh, a ferry operated for several years on Otter Creek. To keep from being swept downstream by the current, a metal cable was attached at both banks, and the ferry boat was drawn back and forth across the river along the cable. The ferry was big enough for carriages, and gave a discount if you went over and back in the same day. At the Winooski Falls, a dam was built in the 1780s, and the mill pond behind it had still water. In the winter, people crossed on the ice. In the warmer months, ferry boats at the bottom of Burlington’s Chase Street were rowed across the quiet mill pond to take people to the other side.

Some early log bridges were built, including the one at Shelburne Falls in the 1780s. But as Vermont became more settled and towns had more resources, more bridges were built. Sometimes roads were realigned up or downstream away from the shallow ford to a steeper high bank that made a better bridge placement. When Charlotte transitioned a ford on Lewis Creek to a bridge where the Quinlan Covered Bridge is now, they moved the road upstream. The bridge was built at the narrow falls area near the saw mill, although I believe I can still see the ford they had used for decades in the gently sloping area downstream.  

When a statewide bridge building program started in 1820, many covered bridges (whose roofs protected the wooden decking from rot) were built on public roads in the rest of the century. With the coming of the covered bridge, crossing the river meant listening to the echoing rumble of wagon wheels over the wooden floor instead of the splashes of feet or horse hooves, or the water lapping on the ferry boat’s sides.

Holmes Covered Bridge in Charlotte near Lake Champlain

With the advent of modern metal trusses and reinforced concrete, crossing the river in Vermont evolved away from covered bridges. Now some modern bridges look so much like the roadway that I don’t even realize I’m crossing a river at all. But if I want to, I can take a moment and stand at any Vermont bridge, and look at the water running past. I can let my thoughts go back to the earlier residents who needed to understand and work with the river itself to find ways to cross it, and may have gotten wet in the process.

Copyright 2021 Jane Dorney