Friday, March 18, 2016

Egg Mountain Lost and Found

     Rain and rebellion were in the air. In this strange, snowless winter, warmth and precipitation have this little hook-up thing going. Maybe it's El Nino playing Cupid.  Balmy, drizzily days have begun to feel normal. And what about the rebellion? You'd think we're in for one given the ranting promise of change that we're bombarded with this election season. But the rebellion that interests me happened well over two hundred years ago and the rebels really did "build a wall". Actually, they built lots of walls that are just now being discovered and excavated up on Egg Mountain. It's a great story.

     I was in Salem to hear Steven Butz talk about the Shays Settlement Project. He gave his lecture at the Courthouse Community Center to a standing room only crowd. That so many people turned out on a drenched and foggy night is testament to the fascinating work Butz is doing.

     Do you remember Shays Rebellion? Well, neither did I. The day it was covered in American History was probably one of many I spent skipping school. So here's the refresher we both need: Captain Daniel Shays was a Revolutionary War hero, trusted by General George Washington and befriended by LaFayette. When the Continental Army veteran returned to his western Massachusetts home he was penniless and besieged with high taxes. He wasn't alone. Other poor farmers were being jailed and having their property seized because they didn't have the cash to meet onerous tax obligations. There was a class divide component to the situation with wealthy Boston merchants and their political puppets pushing for hard currency tax collection from the farmers who operated in more of a barter economy.
     A series of conflicts culminated in Shays leading a militia that closed down courts and marched on the government armory in Springfield. They were meet by a privately raised force, there were shots fired and fatalities. Despite honest grievances, things went badly for the rebellion which eventually fell apart. Shays and some of his followers, facing arrest and probable hanging, fled to shelter in the woods of the independent republic of Vermont.
     Ah, but where in Vermont? Well, a great deal of evidence points to Egg Mountain. If you can't remember skiing or hiking on Egg Mountain there's a good reason. It's a privately owned, trail-less, relatively inaccessible peak that's around 2500 feet high. It's not in the iconic Green Mountains. Instead, it's part of the Taconic Range along the New York-Vermont border and there it gets overshadowed by higher mountains such as Bear, Mother Myrick and Equinox which rise just to its east. If you were to climb it, the most likely approach would be from near Salem in Washington County.

     That's how Steven Butz was introduced to it when a friend took him on snowmobile up to the "Fort" many years ago.  Locals have long known of the "Fort", an enigmatic 100 by 100 foot stone foundation structure on a southern shoulder of Egg Mountain. I wish I could tell you I've been up there and describe it but the truth is, I'm not sure.
     There's a confusing jumble of terrain between Salem and Manchester, Vermont that's both beckoning and also forbidding. It forms the eastern horizon from my fields so these ridges seem to be constantly taunting me to climb them. But the only public trails I'm aware of are the ones on the east slope of Mt. Equinox and the network that Merck Forest maintains above Rupert. For a great view of this rugged country climb up thru the sculpture park to the top of Cary Hill at the Salem Art Works.

     You can explore here on narrow dirt roads like the one that goes from West Rupert thru Kent Hollow and Sandgate to (maybe) return you to civilization at West Arlington. This is definitely not recommended during mud season but it is the way I have used to climb Bear Mountain and other peaks. That was a long time ago, before the POSTED sign industry hit its stride. Back then it seemed a little easier to just poke around. Now it's No Trespassing everywhere, hard to even stop and examine a roadside rock outcrop, let alone wander the woods. The truth is I don't have photos, notes or clear memories of Egg Mountain so I can't be sure I've been up there.
     Fortunately, Steven Butz does have photos and notes. Lot's of them. As he recounted at the lecture, he never forgot that early trip to the "Fort". Eventually he did some research and got permission to do archaeology. The Shays Settlement Project was born.

     For a few years now Butz has spent the summers excavating and teaching with students from Cambridge Central School. They have uncovered nine sites and a large quantity of artifacts. Foundations, collapsed chimneys, a well and related structures spread over more than 300 acres of hillside. Nails, tools, glass, ceramics, buttons and a coin have been found. There's also a possible burial site. It appears that the settlement was occupied for less than thirty years, although Shays himself was only there for a couple of years. Apparently there was an epidemic, the mountain was abandoned and all the buildings were burned.

     For archaeologists and historians this is exciting stuff. But perhaps the greatest impact of the Shays Settlement Project will be on the kids who've worked up there. They are discovering the rich legacy that surrounds them while doing hands-on science, getting dirty and, I suspect, having a lot of fun. The project seems like its own small rebellion against an education system infected with too many tests and too much institutionalized homogenization. Our kids are better off in the hands of parents and caring teachers rather than under the control of politicians, bureaucrats and administrators.

     The Cambridge/Salem area is fortunate to have people who know and care about the place they call home and who generously share with the community. I'm thinking of Steven Butz, Howard Romack, Sue Van Hook, Jerry Jenkins, Sally Brillion, Ken Gottry, Al Cormier and many others. They are a valued part of the quality of life in Washington County.

Digging Deeper

     - For lots more photos and information on The Shays Settlement Project check out their facebook page.

     - Butz wrote an article for the 2015 Washington County Historical Society Annual Journal entitled Shays' Rebellion Comes to New York. Get a copy at their Fort Edward headquarters or from their website.

     - The Forest Land Group owns the land where the site is located. Butz says they have been great to work with, granting access and financially supporting the project. There are questions about who can visit the dig, what will happen to the artifacts found there and the ultimate fate of Shays' Settlement. Hopefully some of the discoveries will be displayed in the public spaces of surrounding communities - libraries or town halls in Salem, Sandgate and West Rupert. I'ld love to see a trail leading to the site and on to the summit of Egg Mountain. With interpretational signs this would be a valuable addition to the area's historical and recreational assets. Maybe someday, but for now remember that this is private property and a sensitive archaeological resource that shouldn't be disturbed. 

     - For those who want to learn more about archaeology in the Capital Region there's the Auringer Seelye Chapter of the New York State Archaeology Association. They have meetings and speakers at the Saratoga Library. Find out more here.

     - The Courthouse Community Center on East Broadway hosted the lecture. It was one of several March History Talks. For researchers there are valuable Town of Salem archives here and at Bancroft Public Library. You can also connect with Town Historian Al Cormier thru them. The main hall functions as an art gallery with still lifes and landscapes by Virginia Lynn Anderson currently on exhibit. Very nice. Find out more about the Courthouse here.

     - While in Salem I took in the James Howard Kunstler show at North Main Gallery. In this agrarian area many artists choose rural landscapes and old barns for subject matter. Not Kunstler. Ever the contrarian, his paintings often depict abandon mill sites and transportation infrastructure that's seen better days. I believe the show is down now but you can see his work at James Howard Kunstler. Next up at North Main is Stu Eichel's "Elegies in Oil" of cars rusting back into the earth from which they came. I wonder if Eichel and Kunstler have lunch together?

     - All along the eastern border of Washington County are dirt roads that follow small streams up into hollows. Some manage to crest ridges and connect to roads in Vermont. Many simply peter out into dead ends. It can be hard to know which state you're in. Here's a tip: if you want to give them Hill, you're probably in New York. If you feel the Bern chances are you've crossed into Vermont. And if you sense you're about to be Trumped you're in Deep Trouble. Another way is to look for stone monuments placed on the border near road crossings. They're a little hard to see, being neither red nor blue but just a dull gray.
     This area marks a somewhat arbitrary boundary between the High Taconics to the east and the Low Taconics to the west. The Taconic Range was created by plate collisions that pushed large chunks of rock from the sea floor up onto the edge of ancient North America. The rock moved on thrust faults, sliding in gigantic slices one against another. The remnants of one of these thrust faults lies just east of Salem and is marked by a change from slatey rocks on the west side to more metamorphosed phyllites to the east. There's also a jump in elevation above the fault scarp.

     Dry Creek, Buttermilk Falls Brook and Blind Buck Stream are three small tributaries of White Creek which flow off Egg Mountain and adjacent ridges. Each has a road leading up into the hollow they have eroded into the mountains. Chambers Road follows Dry Creek and you can visit the sugar house here over the next few weekends. Beattie Hollow is at the head of the Buttermilk Falls drainage and is the current access to the Shays Settlement. I heard my first spring peepers in a small pond here on March 10. Blind Buck has a web of side roads with permanent residences and seasonal getaways. This may be the way Shays originally approached Egg Mountain. All are good for quiet (uphill) biking and back road running.

     - The theme song for this post has to be Volunteers by Jefferson Airplane. Google it and watch the live version from Woodstock. Idealism! Rock'n Roll! Grace Slick! If Shays' Rebellion had Volunteers for an anthem things might have turned out different. And if the next revolution is crushed as well, I know this little mountain near Salem where the volunteers could hide.


No comments:

Post a Comment