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Connect the Dots: Hemlocks and 19th Century Tanneries

Published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Shelburne News and The Other Paper, 10/6/22

How fitting to be surrounded by hemlocks, I thought as I scrambled down the steep bank of the brook. Hemlocks were one of the key elements in the 19th-century mill I was exploring and here were some of their descendants as witnesses. Would I find any remnants of the old dam or the foundation of the water-powered bark mill? I continued downslope to see.

The old bark mill was part of the local tannery that operated from the early 1800s to the 1880s processing animal hides into leather. After the saw mills and grist mills creating materials for shelter and basic foodstuffs, the tanneries were the next most important local industry supporting early European settlers. Without shoes and boots for people, or harnesses and saddles for horses, farming life would have been very difficult in the era before plastics, rubber, and gas-powered vehicles.

Transforming animal skin into leather was a skilled, labor-intensive, multi-step process that used a sequence of salt, lime, and tannin treatments with large amounts of water. Tannins are natural chemicals produced by many plants to deter pests (they also give coffee and tea their color and astringency). Tannins in a water solution will chemically bind to the animal skin proteins and alter them to keep them from decaying. Tannins also make the skins more durable, water and heat resistant, and flexible. Hemlocks have large amounts of tannin in their bark, and are common in Vermont, so tanners here used them extensively. The hemlock bark needed to be ground to a powder so the tannins would easily dissolve in water. 

The tannery site I was looking for was on several 19th-century maps, and had all the key environmental features together in one place. To produce the power needed, it was built below a steep section of brook created by a geologic fault line. The tanner built a dam to impound the flowing water and regulate its flow to the bark mill. The water power turned the bark mill’s grindstones to grind the bark into powder, much like a grist mill’s grindstones grind wheat seeds into flour. Of Vermont’s 126 bark mills in 1850, three-quarters were water-powered, with most of the rest horse-powered. The brook’s steady flow of water was also essential to processing hides because many of the steps required chemical solutions soaking in large vats, and rinsing with large amounts of water.

Tanners gathered the materials they needed locally. Farmers brought hides in from their livestock, often paying the tanner with a portion of the hides. Wood lot owners provided hemlock bark, and lime came from the limestone quarries common in the Champlain Valley.  

The tanner’s process began by salting the skins to stop bacterial growth, then rinsing the salt out with water. This was followed by soaking the hides in a lime solution to remove the hair and any fats left, then de-liming them with either water or a vinegar solution. Finally, the hides were put to soak in a series of water vats with increasing concentrations of dissolved tannins.  Hides were moved from vat to vat as determined by the skill of the craftsman over many months to become fully cured leather. The tanning process was known to be very smelly, and the waste was usually disposed of in the brook. 

Cobblers and harness shops bought most of the finished leather. In the end, the community was shod and had the harnesses for horse-drawn farm work.

Later in the 19th century, bark tanning was eventually displaced by a synthetic tanning process using chromium salts, which took only hours to produce finished leather instead of months. Bark tanneries eventually closed.

I looked around the site to see what was left of the 19th-century mill works. Upstream, I could see the remnants of a grist mill and saw mill, but there was little evidence left at the tannery site. Some stonework seemed to line up on both sides of the brook, but it was heavily damaged. Probably the floods through the narrow valley over decades had flushed much of it out, leaving me to imagine the rest from the descriptions.   

It was time for me to head back up the steep ravine, and I steadied my ascent by holding onto the 2-foot diameter hemlock trunks. I paused for a moment to catch my breath, and because the hemlocks’ dense shade keeps out understory growth, I was able to review the valley below. All the pieces had come together here: the geology of the steep ravine creating the opportunity for power, and the rushing water to drive the bark mill, to soak the hides, and take away the refuse. But without the gray, platy hemlock bark under my hands, none of this would have been possible.

Copyright 2022 Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots: Old Brick Houses and Glaciers

Published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen on 7/28/22

Handmade brick house built in 1815 in Shelburne

When the invitation came to visit an old brick farmhouse nearby, I jumped at the chance. The owners walked us around their home and passed along its stories. One wall section had been removed because of water damage, and the bricks had been saved in a shed out back. Looking through the old bricks, I could see they were basically the same size, shape, and heft as modern bricks, but no two bricks were exactly alike. When I found one with finger impressions baked in, I knew they were truly handmade. Once I delved into the bricks’ stories, I also found that they were deeply knit into the story of the landscape.

Handmade bricks, one showing the fingerprints of the brick maker

The bricks dated to the early 1800s and were made of local clay from a low area just down the road, now a cornfield. I visited the site, and could feel the clay’s plasticity while kneading some soil in my hands. To one side was a square-sided pit where some of the clay had been harvested. The kiln had also been nearby, and the small brick fragments scattered through the cornfield were its tangible evidence more than 150 years later.

In that era, bricks were made by hand using wooden molds. The clay was laboriously mixed and kneaded, then hand-pressed into molds and the excess scraped off with a flat, wet stick. They were then knocked out of the molds and set to dry for days. They were turned regularly to promote even drying and discourage bending. Once dry, they were built into a kiln shape and wood-fired in a carefully monitored process. When finished, the best ones were used for house exteriors, and the others in less critical areas.

The bricks in the shed were idiosyncratic. Some had small embedded pebbles, not unlike the cornfield’s soil. Some had pitted surfaces, or were curved, probably from the molding and drying process. Some had shallow, parallel grooves along the tops, probably from the wet stick scraping off the excess clay. The fingerprints were from handling it while still wet. These brick details were witnesses to the many hands and multiple steps involved in their creation.

Each brick weighed 4-5 lbs, and with the thousands needed to build a house, the total weight of bricks moved from kiln to house site was measured in tons. In these pre-railroad days, newly finished bricks traveled by horse- or oxen-drawn wagon to house sites. It’s not surprising that most were built very near the clay source.  

After this visit, I watched for old brick houses in my journeys, and read any stories I could find. Many Champlain Valley towns have 10-20 brick farmhouses from this era, and there are many mentions of using local clay from near the house site. 

After mapping them, I noticed that most of the old brick houses are at 600’ in elevation or below. We have the glaciers to thank for this. Not only did the glaciers generate huge volumes of clay (and other) particles as they scraped over rock faces, they also moved huge quantities of these particles in their meltwater.  

In the last glacial stages 13,500 years ago, Glacial Lake Vermont was formed when an ice dam plugged the Champlain Valley’s northern end. The ice dam held back the melted glacial water that normally drained north, and filled the basin to about 600’ in elevation for about 1500 years. All of Lake Vermont’s tributaries brought meltwater filled with sediments from the glacier-scraped hillsides.  

Glacial Lake Vermont (in blue) filled the Champlain Valley to about 600′ in elevation

After the ice dam failed, the lake level dropped, and was partly replaced by salt water flooding in to about 300’ in elevation. The Champlain Sea, as it was called, lasted 2000 years, and very heavy clay deposits accumulated during its time. The Champlain Valley below 600’, then, has mostly clay-rich soils dating to these two different stages of the glacier’s melting. 

The valley’s glacial history set the stage for the old brick houses, but it also brought other related landscape features. Because the clay makes very rich farming soil, farms were established early and are still very productive. With few stones in the soil, no stone walls were built around the fields. Instead, early farmers brought in non-native black locust trees to use for fencing (see my CTD column, January 2021), and many of the old brick farmhouses have black locust trees nearby. The lack of stone walls has also made it easier to consolidate farm fields from the early 5-10 acres to the much larger sizes today. These features work together to make a distinctive clay valley farming landscape, anchored by the brick houses.

Now, every handmade brick house I see reminds me of the warm hands that shaped the clay into brick, as well as the ice-cold water that deposited that clay.

Copyright 2022 Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots: 30X40-Style Barns – The Oldest in the Vermont Landscape

Published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Other Paper on 5/19/22.

30X40 style barn with a shed attached on the left

As I walked into the rebuilt 1790s barn, I paced it off and found it was 30’ by 40’, just as I expected. Barns that age are usually English style barns, also called “30x40s” because of their standard size. They were often the first barns built on early subsistence farms here, and had been built in England since the 1600s. I was preparing a field trip about this farm’s evolution for some UVM graduate students, and I decided I’d use this barn as a key piece in describing Vermont’s transition from mostly forests to mostly farms.

The old barn had recently blown down in a wind storm and had been rebuilt using some of the original pieces by Eliot Lothrop’s restoration company Building Heritage. I wasn’t surprised that the pieces that survived were the wooden posts and beams. The internal frame was hefty, with some of the timbers 10-11” square in cross-section. Most were beech, with a little ash and oak. Because the timbers were hand hewn, the original trees had almost certainly been rooted within a stone’s throw of this spot. This farm lot had been completely forested when the settlers arrived, and it seems fitting that most of the barn’s timbers were from the most common tree: beech was 40% of this pre-settlement forest.

The transition from tree trunks into framing timbers can be read in the marks on the wood. After the standing trees were felled, shaping was done with an ax in two steps. The first marks were made across the grain, scoring the tree trunk to the proper depth for the finished timber. The next marks were made along the grain where the ax hewed out the wood between the scored marks, creating the flat face. Finally, the mortise and tenon joints were shaped with hand tools, then pinned with wooden pegs. 

Hand hewn post

The 30×40 barn was usually the farms’ largest building, providing shelter for animals and harvested crops. Their typical layout was in three sections or bays that served the farm’s multiple needs. 

The barn’s main doors opened onto the center bay which was the threshing floor, a feature later Vermont barns don’t have. Early farmers cleared a few acres around their house and barn to grow grain crops, especially wheat and oats, for themselves and their animals. In the fall, they were harvested, dried in the field, then brought into the barn to be threshed and/or stored. For threshing, the farmers spread the grain stalks on the wooden floor and hit them repeatedly with handheld flails, separating the seeds from the stems and husks. Then, by tossing the mixed grain and chaff into the cross drafts from doors on either side of the barn, they separated the heavier grain from the lighter husks. Sometimes, farmers stood a board across the bottom of the doorway to hold in the grain being threshed – giving us the word “threshold.” 

Grain not threshed immediately was stored in the loft over the threshing floor, accessed by a central wooden ladder. Once threshing machines were adopted by the 1830s, threshing floors no longer felt the repeated hits of the flails.

Wooden ladder to the loft over the threshing floor

The barn’s main doors were a little off center, creating a smaller bay on one side and a larger one on the other. The smaller bay was usually for the livestock that could probably be counted on one hand.  The larger bay was for hay storage. Hay was grown in small fields nearby, harvested with hand tools, dried in the field, forked into a wagon, driven into the barn’s center bay, then forked into this large bay for winter animal feed. 

Including the hay and crop fields, a typical 100-acre subsistence farm had cleared about 10 acres by 1815, and most of those acres’ products flowed in and out of the barn with the seasons.

Later in the 1800s as Vermont shifted into commercial farming with more livestock, the 30×40 barns were often adapted. Some were moved onto banks to add a lower floor, were lengthened, or had a newer, larger barn attached to it for housing more animals and winter feed. As dairy herds increased into the 20th and 21st centuries, the new dairy barns built for many hundreds of cows dwarfed the original 30x40s.

But many of the 30×40 barns remain on our landscape as witnesses to an ever-evolving landscape. In our area, most of the 30x40s built before 1830 were framed with beech from the pre-settlement forest, preserving that wood as much as 230 years later. Like those in the 1790 barn I visited, the wooden beams had gone from being separate, tall trees anchoring the forest to becoming shaped timbers pegged together at many different angles, working as one unit to anchor the early farms.

Copyright 2022 Jane Dorney

My thanks to Eliot Lothrop of Building Heritage for sharing information from his rebuilding of 30X40 barns.

Connect the Dots: Corn’s History in Vermont Goes Back to Its Indigenous People

Published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen on 3/31/22, and The Other Paper and Shelburne News on 4/7/22

Q: How can we see corn’s impact on the Vermont landscape through time?

A: A retired farmer I once interviewed told me that on Groundhog’s Day – winter’s halfway point – he always checked to see if he still had half of the feed his livestock needed to make it to spring. I think of him in late winter as I drive past farms and look at their remaining silage. And as I do, it reminds me how the corn plant, originally a wild grass from Mexico, has changed Vermont over time. Many of the story’s chapters can be seen today.

Today’s corn is descended from a southern Mexican grass called teosinte with cobs 1/10 the size of modern corn. About 9000 years ago, Native Americans started selectively breeding teosinte for larger seeds using hand pollination and hybridization. By the time Europeans arrived in the late 1400s, corn had been shared by Native Americans from group to group across both American continents. They had bred many different varieties to grow in a wide range of temperatures and rainfall, including Southwestern deserts, Canada’s cold areas, high-elevation Andes, Amazon rainforests, and many places in between. 

New England settlers learned to grow corn from Native Americans. Corn’s climate adaptability made it a good addition to the wheat, oats, barley, and rye settlers had brought with them from Europe. Farm animals, including cows, pigs, sheep, and chickens, happily ate corn, allowing settlers to add more protein to their diets with more milk products, eggs, and meat.

By 1850, corn was the second most common grain produced on Vermont farms, with more than 2 million bushels grown annually. Only oats for horses edged it out in production. Corn was harvested when the kernels were dry, husked by hand, and stored in specially designed corn cribs raised on posts to keep rodents out (the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh has one).

In the 19th century, the Germans started experimenting with fermenting chopped green plants into silage using the same process used for sauerkraut. The still-green plants were harvested, chopped, compacted to exclude air, and left to ferment for several weeks. The silage was so acidic it preserved itself for months with little spoilage.

After these successful experiments, New England farmers started making corn silage in the late 1800s. It had a dramatic impact, particularly on dairy farming. Silage was more digestible and palatable than kernel corn for cows, and feeding the whole plant (not just the kernels) provided much more food value per acre of corn. The higher quality feed could also be available all winter, significantly boosting milk production by milking year-round. 

Square wooden silo, probably dating from the late 19th century

As local farmers continued to experiment, their silage storage methods evolved. At first, a few adventuresome farmers built underground pit silos. When it proved too hard to lift the silage out, farmers tried above-ground wooden silo rooms built in a barn corner or separate structures outside the barns. Unfortunately, the silage in the corners of these square spaces spoiled.  By the early 20th century, farmers tried 8-or-more-sided wooden towers, some of which can still be seen today. 

Concrete silo from the 20th century

As the average farm herd increased tenfold from the late 1800s to the late 1900s, the need for silage increased. Concrete became cheaper and farmers began building round concrete silos, still considered the classic by many. But the most modern silos are the large blue metal Harvestores that are virtually airtight and better preserve silage. 

Modern metal Harvestore silo

In recent years, many Vermont dairy farmers have moved away from using upright silos and use 3-sided concrete bunkers instead. Silage is loaded in the bunkers, compacted by driving heavy equipment over it, and covered with plastic sheets weighed with tires to ferment. In 2020, Vermont farmers grew 80,000 acres of corn at 19 tons/acre. Much of it was stored in silage bunkers.

While farmers are still innovating with new corn varieties and silage, some local groups are preserving Indigenous seed varieties saved for centuries by Native Americans. In 2012, the Seeds of Renewal project sought out Abenaki-saved seeds in the region and established a seed library with Sterling College. Recently, the nonprofit Abenaki Helping Abenaki has partnered with Vermont farmers and gardeners to use some of the surplus Indigenous seed to grow food and distribute it to Abenaki citizens.

Corn changed Vermont, the Americas, and the world.  Developed by Native Americans over thousands of years, corn is now the world’s number one grain crop. It’s raised on every continent except Antarctica and feeds billions. We can see our story’s chapters in the silos and the silage bunkers along our rural roads. The silage may be over half gone, but our dairy farmers are planning the next growing season and will soon be planting corn again, as the cycle continues.

Copyright 2022 Jane Dorney

Next Connect the Dots

My next Connect the Dots column about corn’s impact on the Vermont landscape has been published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group’s Shelburne NewsThe Other Paper, and The Citizen.

Here’s the link: https://www.vtcng.com/thecitizenvt/opinion/opinion_columns/corn-s-history-in-vermont-goes-back-to-its-indigenous-people/article_4aa77c58-b126-11ec-8b6c-cfc8f0006d95.html

This late 19th-century square wooden silo still stands in Hinesburg

The Poetry Of Place: April 3rd from 3-4 pm

Join me and poet Laura Budofsky Wisniewski virtually on April 3rd at 3 pm for “The Poetry of Place” with the Carpenter-Carse Library in Hinesburg, VT as we read from our recently published works. Laura will read some samples from her newly published book of poetry called Sanctuary, Vermont (Orison Books), and I will read several of my Connect the Dots columns published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group. After the readings, librarian Meg Malone will moderate a discussion with both writers.

To receive the Zoom link to join, go to the Carpenter-Carse Library’s website calendar and click on April 3rd, or use this link: https://www.carpentercarse.org/all-programs/poetry-of-place-2022

To order Laura’s new book of poetry, Sanctuary, Vermont, go to Orison Books at:  https://www.orisonbooks.com/product-page/sanctuary-vermont-poems-by-laura-budofsky-wisniewski

To sign up for Laura’s free poetry e-newsletter, use this link: https://lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/4tU668b/poetry

Connect the Dots: Winterberry in the Hedgerow

Published January 27, 2022 in the Vermont Community Newspaper Group’s Shelburne News and The Citizen (Hinesburg and Charlotte)

Q: What role do hedgerows play in the Vermont landscape?

A: Once the leaves were off the trees, I knew it was time to head out to my favorite high meadow to cut a few twigs of winterberry. Its bright red berries add some winter cheer to my kitchen table and my annual trip is a chance to see what’s happening in the hedgerow along the way.

Winterberries are Vermont’s only native, deciduous holly

I headed up through the woods, crossed the hayfield, then started toward the hedgerow. The monochromatic hayfield underfoot contrasted with the hedgerow’s eclectic variety of young leafless brown and gray trees and shrubs, woven together with climbing vines. As I neared the hedgerow I could see something much older peeking through the gaps in the thick vegetation – a broad stone wall. On the far side of the wall was an old pasture. In this group of features I could read parts of three centuries of shifting land uses that enriched my journey.

A nineteenth-century stone wall peeks through the young hedgerow trees and shrubs

The tangle of hedgerow plants dominated the foreground as I walked, but the stone wall was the critical feature that anchored the interwoven stories here. Sections of this stone wall were probably 200 years old, since this farm had been operating in the early 1800s. Typically, nineteenth-century walls were built around the edges of the cultivated fields using the stones heaved up out of the soil by the winter frost. Farmers moved the stones before their yearly plowing so they didn’t harm their plow blades. The three-foot-tall wall was a barrier to my movements, so it was easy for me to remember their original role – they kept the farm animals out of the cultivated fields.

The hedgerow plants were much younger than the wall. A lone, tall elm was probably the oldest. In the early farming days, the edge of the field along the wall was kept clean of seedling trees or shrubs by hand cutting or burning. This meant the wall could be repaired as needed, and made it easier for farmers to keep an eye on their crops and livestock. But in the twentieth century, this elm may have been intentionally left to create some shade for the cows in the pasture.

The rest of the trees along the wall were a young mix of species, including birches, poplars, red maples, and a volunteer apple tree. Most of them were pressed against the stone wall in the narrow zone the haying equipment couldn’t reach. As the twentieth century progressed, the maintenance of walls was let go. The trees that sprouted were mostly wind dispersed species, but the deer prints and chewed fruit I saw near the volunteer apple tree reminded me that some of the trees were spread by mammals. I even had to step over the occasional coyote or fox scat.

Volunteer apple tree in the hedgerow with its last apples dropped in the early winter snow

 Shrubs and vines filled in between the trees and exerted their varied personalities. The brambles had already been picked clean by birds, but many other shrubs brought splashes of color with their vivid tones of late season berries contrasting with the neutral tones of the leafless branches. Red rose hips held onto the tips of their twigs, dark blue wild grape bunches cascaded over other plants, and nannyberry twigs sagged with their pendulous heads of indigo berries. A chipmunk with bulging cheeks poked its head up between some stones and I gave it a nod, realizing its predecessors may have brought the original shrubs’ seeds it was enjoying now.

Rose hips are a favorite early winter food for birds and mammals
Wild grape bunches hang from their vine

I kept walking along the wall toward the top of the high meadow where the woods began. Here were the winterberry shrubs in their full glory. Winterberries are Vermont’s only native, deciduous holly. I cut a few berry-loaded twigs to take home, then turned to enjoy the view below.

All the features were laid out together: the hayfield, the hedgerow, and the old pasture in the foreground, and the patches of woods below and above. I realized that though the stone wall anchored the scene before me, the role it played had dramatically shifted through time.  Instead of being an exclusionary barrier to farm animals, it had become an animal travel corridor providing food and cover.

What I saw before me resonated with the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s recent announcement that it was adding hedgerows to their digital maps used for conservation planning. Research is showing that many animals use hedgerows as corridors to move between large blocks of intact forests, and researchers expect hedgerows to play an increasingly key role in the migration of animals as they adapt to climate change. 

It gave me a lot to think about as I wended my way home with my winterberry twigs in hand, soon to be placed in a vase on my kitchen table and enjoyed for months to come.

Copyright 2022 Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots: Pre-Settlement Forests in Chittenden County

Published November 18, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen (Charlotte and Hinesburg)

Q: What did the county’s pre-settlement forests look like and how do we know?

A: When I passed the sign marking the Shelburne-Charlotte town line on Rt. 7, I could see that line imprinted in the landscape features heading off into the distance. Both fence lines and tree lines stretched roughly east-west along this town line that was first drawn in the 1700s. But the original surveyors who created this line had walked through a mature forest to blaze it. What had they seen?

I found an old hand-drawn surveyor’s map of Charlotte in UVM’s Special Collections drawn by John Johnson, a prominent Vermont surveyor in the late 1700s and early 1800s. Its 200-year-old ink revealed big clues about the pre-settlement forest’s composition. No notes have survived about how this map was created, but typically these early town and property boundary maps were made by a team of people, with a compass, axes, and chains. 

The mapping team marking town lines was led by a surveyor wielding a compass to sight along the designated bearing through the forest. Axemen cut trees and brush to clear the sight line. Chainmen stretched their 66’-long metal chain taut along that compass line, then repeated that about 500 times to measure each 6-mile-long town boundary edge. At each mile and at the town corners, markers blazed trees with an ax or pounded in a stake as witnesses to the line. They then noted the tree type (or stake) in their field book. The marked trees made it possible for buyers to find the lines, but they were also indicators of the soil type. The potential buyers were farmers looking for good agricultural soils and they judged the soil quality by the tree types.

The northeast corner of surveyor John Johnson’s map of Charlotte (circa 1800), with the names of blazed trees along the town boundary (from the Digital Collection of UVM’s Special Collections, no copyright)

With the data collected, Johnson drew his map, and included the tree types around the perimeter of Charlotte. Starting at the lakeshore end of the Shelburne-Charlotte town line, he noted these trees at each mile: hemlock at the lake shore, stake, another stake, hemlock, beech, another beech, and hemlock at the northeast corner. Along the eastern town line with Hinesburg were a stake, maple, hazle (hazel), stake, maple, and beech at the southeast corner. Along the south line with Monkton and Ferrisburgh, he noted a beech tree, another beech, stake and stones, three more beeches, and a stake and stones at the lake shore. (Trees were not marked along the lake shore since that boundary line was obvious.) Altogether, his map shows 8 beech trees, 2 maples, 3 hemlocks, 1 hazel, and 6 stakes or stakes and stones on the town boundary. This small set of data points suggests the forest type that ecologists call northern hardwoods, but I decided to dive deeper for confirmation.

About 175 years after the first surveyors’ maps of Chittenden County were drawn, a UVM graduate student named Tom Siccama reconstructed a county map of original forest types using early surveyors’ data. From archival maps and field books, he collected the tree data from the county’s original town boundary surveys. But he added hundreds more data points by also using the lotting surveys which marked trees at the corners of all the ~100 acre lots that most towns were subdivided into. After methodically plotting 2000+ trees in essentially a grid pattern, he created a detailed map of the forest types of Chittenden County in the 1700s. 

Beeches were the most common tree in the county’s pre-settlement forests.  They are easily identified by their smooth gray bark, and their distinctive, long slender buds

Siccama found that most of Shelburne, Charlotte, Hinesburg and much of South Burlington’s landscape was covered by 40% beech and 16% maple trees, similar to the John Johnson map. These trees prefer rich, moist soils, which aptly describes these areas. They are also the dominant species in Vermont’s most common forest type: the northern hardwood forest. He found smaller percentages of yellow birch, hemlock, and white pine associated with the beech and maple. With this more detailed data collected, Siccama also discerned a very thin band of white oak forest along Charlotte’s lakeshore (as I described in my May 2021 column), as well as other specialized natural communities around the county. 

Sugar maples were the second most common tree in the county’s pre-settlement forests.  The bark of a mature sugar maple has vertical furrows.

The Shelburne-Charlotte town line is now bounded by open fields, with much of the original forest gone. The open fields show the continuing value of the soils for farming. But forest patches remain in the county’s landscape today, especially those that were maintained by farmers for woodlots and sugarbushes. Some of these patches of woods have been turned into parks with hiking trails that let you immerse yourself in the original forest types. Even with the leaves gone, you can enjoy the smooth gray bark and long, slender buds of the beech trees, the gray, furrowed bark of the sugar maples, and the bronze curling bark of the yellow birches that once covered much of Chittenden County.

Yellow birch was a common associate of the beech and maple in the pre-settlement forests.  Their bronze-colored bark with horizontal curls make them easy to identify.

Copyright 2021 Jane Dorney

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 chapter 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.

Copyright 2021 Jane Dorney

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.