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Mansfield: A Town Divided (1/00)

By CHRIS HANNA. Photo by Jay Collier.

Late afternoon on a snowy March day in 1983, I snowshoed into the woods above Lake Mansfield headed for some winter camping at Taylor Lodge. Icicles formed on my beard in the subzero temperatures. After a half mile trek, the shoulder strap on my overloaded frame pack severed and broke. By the time I made the repair, it was dark, so I camped under a large stand of pines.

The next morning eight inches of fresh snow covered everything except an old foundation wall made of loose rocks. The trees I had camped under towered overhead in long symmetrical rows. I guessed they were 75 to 100 years old. A nearby stream flowed quietly beneath a layer of ice. I discovered another smaller foundation that went eight feet deep into the ground. It looked as though this had been a farm. I believed that where the rows of trees stood there once had been a front yard with an easy walk to the stream for water.

I wondered: how could anyone have survived here a hundred years ago, miles from the nearest town. When I returned home, I began learning some of the history of this place.

Benning's Folly

In the early 1700s, before the State of Vermont had been established, the land between New Hampshire and New York was claimed by each. According to Robert Hagerman in Mansfield, The Story of Vermont's Loftiest Mountain, Governor Benning Wentworth (also known as Lord Mansfield) divided this disputed land into plots, each six square miles in size. This division of land was likely performed on a primitive map with little regard for or knowledge of terrain. On June 8, 1783, he issued a charter for the Town of Mansfield and gave ownership to 64 people. These 64 new owners probably never saw this land but did subdivide their shares into 327-acre parcels.

Ira Allen, brother of Ethan Allen, was hired for 90 pounds to survey Mansfield. As an investment, before he had seen it, Ira purchased one-third of the land he was about to survey.

As luck would have it, the towns boundaries fell on the east and west sides of the mountain that later became known as Mt. Mansfield. On the east side, the town line bordered with Stowe. On the west side, the border was Underhill. To perform the surveying, Ira, with business partner Captain Remember Baker of Arlington, bushwhacked up the trailless sides of the mountain. Ira Allen may have been the first white man on top of Mt. Mansfield.

When Ira Allen saw the ruggedness of the terrain he was surveying, he realized it would be a difficult place to farm and that he had made a bad investment. He knew that if he listed the trees in the area as spruce and fir on the surveyor's report, he would be questioned closely about the condition of the land, since these species of trees are plentiful high in the mountains. Instead, he listed the trees as gumwood, being tall and straight, much like the gum of cherry trees. He also made it known to the other owners of the property that he would not sell his newly acquired shares of Mansfield. They then believed the land must be valuable indeed and made Ira offers to purchase his shares, which he accepted.

Zimri Luce from Hartland, Vermont, was the first settler in Mansfield in 1700. The journal of one of his ten children describes some of their hardships:

    I suffered hunger. We ate only wild leeks during the weeks Zimri went to Hartland in search of grain.

Only on the east side of Mt. Mansfield was there any suitable land for farming, and that is where most of the settlement took place.

The Fight for Mansfield

By 1815 there were enough inhabitants to organize a town and elect officers. The population grew from 12 in 1800 to 223 in 1840. During this time town meetings were a tumultuous affair, with threats of violence and intimidation as the citizens argued about whether to merge with another town. The culmination was a vote in 1848 by Mansfield residents to be annexed into Underhill and Stowe. Land to the west of the center of Mt. Mansfield became part of Underhill, and land to the east became part of Stowe. The line drawn down the ridge of the mountain was not straight, thus the chin of Mt. Mansfield became part of Underhill; the nose and forehead part of Stowe.

One important citizen, Ivory Luce, continued to fight annexation and had some support in the Legislature but ultimately was unsuccessful. He and his sons farmed his 500 acres on what is now known as Luce Hill. He died in 1870 and is buried on Luce Hill in a family cemetery. Familiar Stowe names that were once part of Mansfield are the upper Nebraska Valley, Luce and Harlow Hills, Ranch Camp, and part of Edson Hill.

The fate of Mansfield might have been different if it weren't for the railroad. In the early 1800s only a difficult footpath existed through Smugglers Notch. The easiest way across the mountains was through Nebraska Notch, located at the southern base of the ridge of Mt. Mansfield, within the borders of the town of Mansfield. A road was built for oxen so that goods and produce could be taken from Stowe to Burlington. The highest point of the road in Nebraska Notch crossed what is now the Long Trail, close to the current location of Taylor Lodge.

In 1850 the railroad was extended through Waterbury, and the Nebraska Notch Road was no longer needed. Attempts to revive this road for tourist revenue failed, but in the 1920s the Civilian Conservation Corps, under the direction of State Forester Perry H. Merrill, continued construction of what had been known as the Half-way House Road, in Mt. Mansfield State Forest. His intention was to build up and through the Notch and connect with dirt roads on the eastern side. Only a mile of road was constructed before the CCC program was terminated.

Each summer I lead hiking groups up through the old pines where I had camped on that snowy night in March. We stop briefly to look at the rubble of the former town of Mansfield. It is a beautiful place: the sound of the wind in the pines, the waterfall, the views of the Worcester Mountains to the east. But I think also of harsh winters, hunger, loneliness, and the long treks for food. I understand why only the stones of the foundation remain.

Chris Hanna, a member of the Burlington Section and a frequent hike leader, combines his interest in outdoor adventures with teaching, carpentry, and freelance writing.