Going Rugged in the Green Mountain State

Posted on 23 March 2011

Damien and I have on the whole been loving our time in Vermont.  Great state, great people, breath-taking scenery.  A general and refreshing absence of strip malls, traffic, chain restaurants and grey cityscapes.  A long, cold winter…but all the winter sports and activities you can think of to help it fly by.  In fact, our biggest regret so far is our steep, poorly paved driveway; which looked short enough when we signed our lease in sunny September but, it turns out, is agonizingly long.  I mean, 10 plus hours of shoveling that monster per week.  Yup.  Learned our lesson there.

The big “spring” storm we had a few weeks ago—and associated 5 hours of shoveling—had me hobbling around like a 70 year old.  The plows couldn’t even get up to our street to clear it for almost two days afterwards, for fear of getting stuck on the hill (yes, another one—it is after all the green mountain state!).  On more than one occasion this winter I’ve considered how grueling it must have been to live in this environment as a Native American or a European homesteader, back in the day.  It was even colder back then—for instance, in the 1830s they slid granite blocks from the neighboring town down the frozen Winooski River while constructing the state capitol in Montpelier.  How these confoundedly mountainous, rocky and frequently frozen surroundings ever seemed hospitable to people is a great mystery.  I guess we can chalk it up to testosterone, politics and that indomitable human taste for adventure?

In any case, I recently came across a great description of life in the early homesteading years, just after the Revolutionary War.  The 1989 Vermont Historic Preservation Plan entitled Our Cultural Heritage (written by the State of Vermont) aptly summarizes the situation, thus: “The main concern of Vermont’s pioneer settlers was basic survival, and the early years of settlement were spent clearing land and ensuring that the family was provided with the basics of shelter, food and clothing.  As land clearance took several years, the initial crops of corn and wheat were often planted around the stumps of felled trees.  Eventually the stumps were removed to the edges of fields and placed in a tight line to form fencing.  This served the dual purpose of keeping the livestock from wandering and marking the farm’s boundaries.  In addition to the raising of foodstuffs, another primary concern of the early settler was the provision of shelter, for both family and livestock.  A family’s first house was typically a crude cabin built of logs, and the livestock were housed together in a single shed or barn, also built of logs.  It was not until a community grew large enough to support a sawmill that sawn lumber was available for building and the early log structures were replaced with more permanent houses and barns.”

The massive scale of these clearing operations is evidenced by the fact that until the early years of the 19th century, Vermont’s primary cash crop was potash, or processed tree ashes.  The ashes were stored in small masonry structures, or ash houses, and used to make soap, gunpowder and bleach.  By 1800, the clearing of land and associated mass tree burnings had slowed as the newly improved fields began producing wheat, Vermont’s new cash crop.  Other crops raised during this period included “flax for clothing, hay, oats, barley, rye and buckwheat.  Small kitchen gardens were planted next to the farmhouse to raise foodstuffs such as peas, cabbage, beans, turnips, beets, pumpkins, carrots and potatoes, all of which were typically stored in the house cellar, or separate root cellar.  Apple trees, ranging from a single planting to whole orchards, were a common feature on the early farms.  Other fruits such as berries, pears, grapes and plums were raised on some farms, though with less success as apples not only thrived in Vermont’s climate but they were also the easiest fruit to ship long distances.”

Hooray for apples!  I am happy to report that they continue to play a central role in Vermont life.  And so many delightful apple products!  Apple butter, apple sauce, apple pie, apple cider, apple cider donuts…mmm.  Really, Vermont’s not so bad these days.

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