A History of Danby
By Ellen Parent
One winter night in the woods behind my house a man named Joseph Soper sat down to rest against a tree and froze to death. His horses wandered off through the snowstorm until morning and were eventually discovered by Joseph Soper's brothers. They later found Joseph himself. Because it was the middle of winter, they buried him in a hollow tree near the spot where he died. Two hundred years later, I was born in a hospital twenty miles away.
I grew up knowing my home to be a cup-shaped nook held up by three mountains, with a river flowing out its eastern side to the world beyond. This cup was called Danby, and in my mind its borders were Four Corners Store, the Cabin, the Notch, and Brook Road. The land was made up of fields split by woods, most of them cultivated or grazed. Right in the middle was Smokey House, the educational farm where my dad worked. Its various outposts had names like Hilliard, Keeler House, Fisk House, and Herrick House. I lived comfortably in that world, which hadn't changed during my life and which I therefore assumed to be unchangeable. Even much later, when I had grown up a bit and had seen cow fields turn to stands of scruffy white pine, I still didn't realize how long the history of my town was. Generations of people had known the same land as intimately as me, though each of us might not have recognized the others' Danby as our own.
The oldest cemetery in my town is also the only one that holds someone I once knew. Ms. Thompson was a surrogate grandmother to me and my siblings. She lived a quarter mile up the road in a red house that had been sinking into its foundations for over a hundred years. She owned a steep hillside of raspberry bushes that she could never harvest fast enough, and she let us come and pick as many as we could carry. She also had a shed that had once been her daughters' clubhouse, though they had long since grown up and moved away to exotic places like North Carolina.
One day my sister and I wrestled the rotting door of the clubhouse open and found a partially-preserved time capsule. Bales of metal chicken wire and forgotten garden tools littered the area around the door, but further in there was a stationary bike, an armchair, and dozens of magazine photographs taped all over the walls. These depicted rock stars from years ago, their contours intact but all the color leached from their faces and clothing. The windows were opaque and glowing, plastered with sticky dust except where they were broken. It was hard to see into the corners. It felt like we were walking into a tomb. My sister and I didn't have a clubhouse like this one, but in that moment it was easy to imagine the objects of our own lives sapped of color, too: our purple bedroom walls turned to brown, our toys dusty and gray, lying forgotten in the corners long after we were gone forever.
The clubhouse was a glimpse into the fact that we were not the first pioneers and explorers of the land we were born to. To us, each stream bend and hollow log was an artifact of an undiscovered country; the woods we tramped through had always been there, pristine and undiscovered. But that day in the clubhouse we saw relics left by girls who had come before us, signs that others had owned the land before even our parents had arrived there. From then on I saw the cracks everywhere, to realize that we were small pieces in the mosaic of people whose marks were left, in fading layers, across the landscape of our home.
When the time came for me to go to college, I had a choice to pick a school in Vermont or a school Not In Vermont. I had been happy growing up in this state, but there was never really any question of whether or not I would stay. University of Vermont would have made more sense financially, but I opted for a school in Massachusetts. I was desperate to get out of the state, and to get away from my town. I hated how Danby was so isolated from my friends and from anything fun. I hated how there weren't any stores or restaurants in Danby, how its population was old; and I just didn't see myself as part of the continuing lifecycle of Danby.
I liked my college in Massachusetts. I encountered people and ideas from all over the world and realized how small my hometown and the view from Vermont really were. But almost as soon as I arrived on campus I felt like something was missing. It wasn't the initial homesickness, though of course that happened, too. I sensed that there was a part of me that couldn't find expression on campus. I wanted to talk about Vermont more than my classmates wanted to talk about their home states. I brought friends home for long weekends and found myself pointing things out to them, not sure what I wanted them to see: "Look, look at the mountains"; "Look there, do you see that old logging road cut into the woods?"; "Look at the general store. It's our only store." Even as I pointed, I realized two things: 1) The things I was pointing out were ordinary, and unimportant to my friends. 2) The things I was pointing out were very important to me.
I couldn't figure out why this might be. But Danby was taking on a new meaning to me, now that I was far away from it. I began crying every time I left Danby. It didn't make sense to me. Invariably, no matter how good my mood, no matter how excited I was to get back to school or go visit a friend, I would start to cry as I drove down my road and out of the cup-shaped nook of my home. I tried to be rational: it wasn't like I was leaving forever. And it wasn't like I wouldn't be able to talk to my family. But I couldn't shake the feeling, each time I drove past the fields and streams and hills of Danby, that I was leaving something important behind. That I was going the wrong way.
After college I traveled to France to teach English. I loved it. I lived in a tiny Beauty-and-the-Beast-esque village tucked into its own hillside. I loved the unfamiliarity of the culture and the challenge of the language. But while I was living there my mind was always filled with Vermont. I wrote poems about it, I talked incessantly about it, I even spent hours on Street View in Google Maps, inching along the roads of Danby in my little computer screen.
In retrospect, I'm glad I left home. If I hadn't, I might never have appreciated just how much Vermont, and Danby, mean to me. Danby is more than the place I grew up. It's like a third parent, responsible for so much of who I am. When I brought my friends home and pointed to the trees and houses, I thought that I wanted to show them what they were missing. Of course, what I really wanted to show them was myself.
Joseph Soper was one of those people. He and his family were the first Europeans to settle on the land known as Danby. He walked into the cup-shaped nook and built a cabin in 1767. I learned about Soper when I picked up a book called A History of Danby, published in 1869 by a man named John C. Williams. The book included a map that folded out, carefully drawn and labelled. Names jumped off the map at me when I first studied it- the farms or homesteads of men named Hilliard and Herrick and Fisk. I grew up knowing those men's names as inanimate structures of Smokey House, the farm where my dad worked: Hilliard House, Herrick House, Fisk House. But on Williams' map, those names were written all over Danby, not just on the Smokey House land. The map was jarring; familiar and foreign, a close friend dressed as a stranger.
I know there must be many for whom my revelation would seem silly- the Bromleys, for example, who have a well-known dairy farm up the hill and whose family name is sprinkled across Williams' 1867 map. For them, the murky past of Danby is illuminated by a lineage that spans centuries. I've heard Hugh Bromley's voice, recorded for the Vermont Folklife Center, discussing his ancestors by first name, all of whom seem to have been from Danby or the surrounding towns. But for me, the product of transplanted midwestern parents, the history of my town feels like uncharted wilderness. And that unfamiliarity doesn't sit well with me, considering how central this place is to my identity and view of the world.
My perspective on the world was so small when it first began, when I first begin. The world literally grew out of the place of my birth like an explosion or, to be a little more romantic, like the blooming of a flower. I studied French in college, and in a class on French culture I was told that the French education system is designed in concentric circles. The youngest children learn material related to their closest surroundings: the name of their town, how the local weather works, the math used at the boulangerie. As they grow older, the circle widens: national geography, political systems within France, history in the region. Eventually the circle expands beyond the country to encompass the whole world. The individual's physical placement remains at the center of their education. In the same way, Danby lies at the center of my world. It has lain at the center of so many people's worlds. As John C. Williams, the author of A History of Danby, romantically muses,
The spots where they lived; the buildings they erected; the brooks in which they
bathed their weary limbs, and the majestic trees beneath whose ancient arms they
found a cooling shade, are more interesting to us than any place on earth.
Williams was a journalist, postmaster, Civil War soldier and founding member of the Rutland County Historical Society, established in 1880. His book and map of Danby are both crammed with factual information, but he was also a very nostalgic guy. He repeats over and over how important it is to record the humanity of Danby, as though the act of pinning names down would save the people themselves. But though his record is a good guideline, like a rope disappearing up a misty cliff, it doesn't give a full picture of, well, anything. Names are listed and family histories are traced, but that's not enough to preserve people's lives. Looking back in time through the lens of Williams' book I see the outlines of men and women standing still in a ghost-world that doesn't resemble my town at all. Of course, it isn't all so impersonal. Some of the family histories described by Williams include personal stories or individual characteristics. In a few instances the people actually seem alive. Joseph Soper's death is moving and vivid. So are the frequent allusions to the pigs that ran unencumbered in Danby in the late 1700's, eventually requiring the election of a Hog Constable. One man is described as telling hilarious tall tales about his hunting adventures. But the majority of the men are only recorded as upright and honorable citizens holding various positions in the town. Women are visible only by the men they marry and the offspring they bear.
So when I look at the history of Danby, I see mostly the woven blanket of a singular humanity, rather than the complex and varied threads of individual lives. The town lives and breathes in the past as a single creature, though I know it was made up of many smaller stories. Even though I can only see the general outline of the past, I am drawn to it by the lingering echoes of the individuals whose stories are almost forgotten. Time and space share this quality: as you get further away, the smaller things disappear.
The United States rests upon a foundation of exploration, of people plunging headfirst into uncharted wildernesses. Though most Americans don't spend their lives doing that anymore, it's part of our national identity. My instinct when faced with the unknown is to search for answers, to find out what's out there. I've always loved exploring, whether it be a neighbor's clubhouse or the continent of Europe. Some of my earliest impulses were to go into the woods and find what might be hiding there.
But there's another way to describe early explorers on the American continent: trespassers. Europeans claimed discovery of a continent that had been populated for thousands of years. They claimed ownership of land that didn't belong to them. And that crime, too, is part of our national identity. Perhaps for that reason, my urge to explore my home has always been paired with hesitation.
Vermonters have some of the strongest state pride in the country (am I showing excessive pride by making that comment?). To be a Vermonter is a badge of honor awarded to the lucky few. The general standard is that you have to be born in this state to be a Vermonter, though it's preferable that you have several generations of family from Vermont. According to this standard, my sister and I are sorta kinda Vermonters. My mom and dad, definitely not. My brother misses the cut, too, because he was born in Indiana and lived there a full year before moving to Vermont.
But even though I was born here, I grew up feeling uncertain of my status. I loved my home fiercely, I was proud to live in the cup-shaped nook of Danby, but I also felt like a trespasser. What right did I have to this town, to this state's history, when my own history here was so short? Should I instead feel a connection to Indiana, where my grandparents lived? Or to wherever their parents were from? Even within Danby, I sensed a conflict over who counted as a Vermonter and who didn't. I lived in the hippie enclave of Smokey House, up in the hills, but there was also a population of Danby that defined Vermonters as hunters, pickup truck drivers, country music fanatics. I couldn't have verbalized any of this as a kid, but I never fully believed that I belonged.
Even now, I am uncertain of my right to tell this story. It's more than just whether or not I'm a Vermonter; I don't know whether or not the history of Danby is my story to tell. But even with the uncertainty, even with my short lineage in this state, I feel connected to Joseph Soper, who died behind my house. And I feel connected to lines of shadowy people receding into the past, people who have loved the same land that I love. As the concentric circles of my education widened, as I left Danby to live in Massachusetts and left Massachusetts to live in France, I kept looking back to my first home and realizing how little I really understood about it. I wanted to know the people who had lived there, how they had viewed and changed the natural world, how they had made it into the landscape I love so much. I can't shake the feeling that the story of this town is a part of my story, and that learning about the past, no matter who you are, is vital to understanding the present.
I spent a long time wandering around the woods, scouring the Internet, reading books, and petting the sweet dog in the Danby library to find out what I can about the history of Danby. I'm biased towards the information that I find interesting, which has resulted in a fairly random and far-flung research net. I'm interested in the intersection between landscape and culture. I'm interested in the biases and omissions of the town's early record-keepers. I'm less interested in the economy, though I tried to soldier through it. And I found the 20th century hard to research, though undoubtedly there's a lot of incredible information I failed to capture.
I've split this story into four chapters, organized chronologically. Feel free to peruse them at your leisure by clicking the chapter links or navigating through the chapters tab in the menu bar.
- Dreary Wilderness
- Native Americans
- Getting Lost
- First Settlers
- Finding Traces
- New Hampshire Grants
- Local Government
- Economic Decline
- Contradicting Vermonts
- Two Catalysts for the Hippie Invasion
- Crash and Bounce
- Leaving (and Coming Back)