As the Stowe Land Trust moves ever closer to buying the tract of wilderness known as Brownsville, it’s worth remembering it wasn’t always that wild.
Esteemed Vermont journalist Mavis Doyle, writing in The Burlington Free Press in August 1968, called the small hillside Stowe neighborhood of Brownsville “one of the state’s few ghost towns.”
At the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, Brownsville was an active hill farm community, with its own school and several working farms. By 1968, when Doyle wrote her story, almost all of the buildings in Brownsville had disappeared, and a dozen of them were “being helped along in their deterioration by vandals who have stolen timbers from the old buildings.”
Charlie Lord, who headed the crews that cut many of the ski trails at Stowe Mountain Resort, wrote a series of 1974 and 1975 pieces in the Stowe Reporter, sharing anecdotes and histories of the area. Here are some of them.
— Tommy Gardner
By Charlie Lord
Dec. 19, 1974
The economic picture in rural areas has passed through various stages to the present, when it is no longer profitable to operate the smaller farms, especially the so-called back or hill farms.
Modes of transportation and communications have vastly improved, so that people are no longer isolated in small communities. It is now more profitable and easier to obtain a living in shops, mills, stores, construction work, etc., than to wrest a living or existence from the soil of the hill farms. These areas that were once actively utilized and now abandoned are slowly going back to nature or are being developed into estates, summer homes, etc.
Here in Stowe there are several areas that fit nicely into the above category. That area known locally as “Brownsville” is a typical example.
Walling’s map of 1859 shows that portions of Brownsville had been settled, for there was a starch factory and sawmill in the Moss Glen Falls area, a schoolhouse established at the top of the hill and roads extended as far as what is now known as the McCall place and the place towards Brush Hill known as the Sylvester place. The road connecting with Brush Hill had not been built. However, the so-called Elmore Mountain Road was in existence although no school is shown in this area.
By 1879, when the Beer’s map was made, considerable expansion of the area had been made. The road had been extended through to Brush Hill. The road continued beyond McCall’s for nearly a mile and at Moss Glen Falls a road led to the Sydney McClean place.
For a number of years, the Burt Lumber Co. had a steam mill about one-half mile beyond (to the east) the McClean place, which they bought in 1893, plus 2,500 acres of timberland. They operated the mill for two seasons, then moved the machinery to the mill in Stowe village. Levi Taylor operated the mill for the Burt Company while it was in the Moss Glen Falls area.
Does anyone know who operated this mill before the Burts did? A side road to the so-called Warren Place had been built. At one time, there was a road from Paul Morrill’s place to the Warren (Nelson) place.
By toil and perseverance, the farms in this area proved that an existence could be wrested from the environment. The usual crops were grown, such as corn, wheat, hay, plus vegetables for home consumption. Dairy products were generally made into butter and cheese. Most every farm had a sugar orchard and an apple orchard. Wood was cut for heat and cooking plus some lumbering at most farms. Some dairy products, such as milk, were delivered to the local creamery and extra butter might be bartered at local grocery stores, as well as poultry, eggs, beef, pork, etc. So, all in all, a fairly substantial living was made from these farms.
Elementary schooling for the children was established in a central location so that no child had to walk too far to get to school. For a period, the starch factory and sawmill at Moss Glen Falls furnished employment directly, or in the case of the starch factory, indirectly, for they depended on local farmers to grow a type of potato which had a high starch content which the farmers sold to the starch factory. Later on, The Burt Lumber Co. steam sawmill and lumbering operations created jobs in this field.
Slowly the economic picture changed and the so-called hill farms gradually declined. Families moved away, the lumber including the sugar orchards were cut off and the land slowly reverted to nature. As the families moved away, less and less pupils attended the school so that in 1953 the Brownsville schoolhouse closed its door forever.
Incidentally, it was moved and now belongs to Stan Marc Wright and is used as a studio.
Now (1974) no one lives beyond the Moss Glen area. The road up the hill from Moss Glen, by the site of the schoolhouse and through to Brush Hill, is still maintained and passable.
• The sulphur spring is still in existence.
• The buildings, sawmill and starch factory at Moss Glen Falls are gone, the road to the Sydney McClean place impassible and buildings have disappeared.
• Camp Tunkett and the Burt Company sawmill have long since gone.
• The Warren place is now a residential home of the Nelsons as is the St. George farm, which is owned by Mrs. Story.
• All the remaining places are tumbled or torn down or in the process.
• Harry Pike, the former town clerk of Stowe, tells of the following incident: It seems that in the past it was a common practice to “hire money” from local people whenever possible. To this end, the town officials arranged to hire $5,000 from Hollis Brown, so on the appointed day, he appeared at the Town Clerk’s office and proceeded to pull $5, $10 and $20 bills from his pockets to the amount of $5,000. He didn’t believe in banks, apparently. This sum represented many days of labor and frugality.
• Hirsch Brown had a farm not far from the Brownsville schoolhouse. As was the custom of farming in those days, he had a woodlot located across the brook (to the east) of the McCall place. Here during his spare time, he worked up a supply of firewood for use around the farm and periodically it was his custom to get a load now and then.
One day, in the winter, he went to the woodlot to get a load. Came nightfall and he hadn’t returned. His wife, Lena, alerted the neighbors and they investigated. They first found the team loaded and waiting patiently and then they discovered Hirsch dead, pinned beneath a tree which he had cut and misjudged its fall.
• Around 1900, Lena Brown taught school in Brownsville. Among her pupils was a rather large boy, Dan Russell, who one day brought a pipe and tobacco to school and proceeded to use it. The teacher, being rather large physically and determined by nature, demanded of Dan that he immediately give to the teacher his pipe and tobacco. He, feeling his oats, decided he wasn’t about to give up these items, so a confrontation developed.
This situation developed in the schoolroom with the other pupils in class. The teacher, realizing that it was her move, grabbed Dan by his shirt collar and violently pulled him from his desk, which splintered and was torn from its fastenings. She got him down and relieved him of the pipe and tobacco. Needless to say, this incident didn’t occur again.
• Camp Tunkett was constructed from material from old buildings that were nearby. It was designed to be used as a hunting camp by men from nearby Stowe. To name some of them: Frank Stafford, Loat Stafford, Dr. Barrows, Harry Pike, Dr. Morgan, Harry Burnham, Ned Kaiser and Glen Cole. It was washed away in the 1927 flood. Frank Stafford is credited with the following observation re: Camp Tunkett: “When we get to camp, some damned fool will want to go hunting.”
• “Brownsville” got its name from the generations of Browns who lived in this area. Elisha Brown (Book 10, page 491) in January 1846 sold to Edwin Churchill about 100 acres. Edwin Churchill in November 1848 sold to David Brown (Book 11, page J04) about 100 acres. David Brown accumulated more land so that when he died the farm consisted of about 325 acres.
In April 1876 Hollis Brown, son of David Brown, obtained title to the whole farm by quitclaim deed (Book 20, page 126) from Caroline C. and Hattie M. Brown, wife and daughter, respectively, of David Brown. Hollis Brown farmed the place industriously for nearly 60 years. His son, David Brown, sold the farm in April 1936 to Roy C. Stafford.
• Leo Grimes, along with Orson Cole and the McCalls, were about the last families to live in Brownsville proper. The Grimeses owned mostly what Hollis Brown owned plus the St. George (Sylvester) farm. Now (1974), no one lives permanently in this area.
• Mr. Clement Pike, Irasburg, Vt., says in part as follows: “At the head of Moss Glen Falls there was a pond of several acres, with a large dam holding back the water; beyond this pond was the Burt Company lumber operations (referred to previously) which consisted of a large boardinghouse, several barns, a blacksmith shop and a steam sawmill. Down the falls near the bottom there was a small pond with a penstock to a sawmill. This mill was owned by Levi Taylor and he did quite a bit of lumber manufacturing for the Burt Company and farmers in the vicinity. I do not remember of a starch factory being there at that time.”
‘We lived a good life in Brownsville’
By Charlie Lord
March 13, 1975
Mrs. Edna E. Bohannon of Morrisville writes as follows:
There were 10 of us children, along with my father and mother, Arthur and Sarah Spaulding — 8 girls and 2 boys. We lived on the farm near the Brownsville school on the opposite side of the road. Some of the teachers boarded with us.
Our house burned in 1920 when I was a little girl and my father and brother-in-law, Erton Godfrey, rebuilt it as soon as possible so that we could all be under one roof, for during rebuilding we were scattered about with our neighbors.
My dad, Arthur Spaulding, and sons Harold and Howard lumbered in winter and he also had hired help on the farm. The blacksmith for the area was Mr. Malkowski, who lived where Stan Marc Wright does now. One of our neighbors, Mr. Strymolaski, made real home brew.
Dad owned part of Moss Glen Falls. They used to have dances there and “Crazy” Chase played the fiddle — we used to go. Some of the scholars at the Brownsville school when I went there were as follows: Cedric, Cecil and Roselma Patnode; Sarah Sutton, the Bidwells, William, Jennie and Greta Reynolds; and Thomas, Pat, Beatrice, Delores and Alexander McCall. There were also 5 Timolaski children. Our family doctors were Dr. Barrows and Dr. Morgan and, between these two, brought all the Spauldings into the world. Her Dad also owned the last place on the road past the McCall and Strymolaski places. He used to store hay in the barn and in the winter lumbered on Worcester Mountain. Our neighbors were Morton, Winnie, Gertrude, Philip, Thelma and Everett Manning. Mr. and Mrs. Manning taught us our religion and conducted Sunday School.
I remember how a man came around pulling teeth and he pulled all of Dad’s bad teeth without the benefit of any painkiller. Once a year my Dad gave us $3 so we could all go to the Morrisville Fair — that was a lot of money in those days.
We had an organ and a Victrola for entertainment — no radio, but we had chores to do which occupied most of our spare time. However, we had a good time. There was a peddler, Joe Bannaster, who came around with a team and mother used to buy shoes from him for us children. All in all, we lived a good life in Brownsville.