Remembrance of Things Past

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like to think of my backyard, the 15 acres of Sterling Valley that I’ve owned for more than a decade, as a wilderness. But I know that’s an exaggeration. Although I occasionally spot a moose, a black bear, or a fisher cat—or signs of them—on my frequent walks across my property, these woods are mostly filled with tamer wildlife, such as white-tailed deer, foxes, gray squirrels, and chipmunks. But it is a wilderness in one regard; these woods are generally free of people. Indeed, in the 10-plus years I’ve traipsed across my land and much of the adjoining Sterling Forest, I’ve rarely seen another person. Granted, I usually stay off the region’s hiking trails, preferring to bushwhack my way through the long-neglected forests and overgrown farmland here, some of which once made up the now-vanished town of Sterling, first chartered in 1782. But I am almost always alone. “Where,” I often wonder as I walk, “is everybody?” A century ago loggers, farmers, and other residents of Sterling filled these woods. And then I’ll spot a cellar hole or the twin ruts of an old logging road and ask myself, “Who worked these woods long ago? Who lived here?” I suppose I’m looking for some connection with these mysterious former residents; some way to link my present to their past. We are, after all, neighbors of a sort.

Remembrance of things past

Chance discovery offers a glimpse into history


/ Robert Kiener

Whenever I see an old cellar hole or a tumbledown stone wall it reminds me of the Robert Frost poem Directive, in which he wrote: There is a house that is no more a house Upon a farm that is no more a farm And in a town that is no more a town.

A half-mile or so up Sterling Brook, the meandering slip of a waterway that cuts my property in two, my neighbor Gar Anderson has also been intrigued by the people who once populated this northeastern corner of Stowe. Almost single-handedly he has peeled back the years and documented with others the location of Sterling’s longvanished homes, farms, and mills. As Anderson cleared the old Sterling land, some of which he owns, he would come across intriguing bits of history, from cellar holes to parts of the old Pike/Shaw sawmill to rusty farm implements. Like Anderson, I was fascinated by these tangible remembrances of things past. Holding a centuries-old plow or a hand-made hammer, for example, offers a direct link to the 1700s or 1800s. It’s a handful of history. For years, as I’ve walked over my property, I’ve hoped to find some link to my former neighbors, some evidence, as Frost might say, from the farmer, or the logger, who is no more. There was nothing. Then last year, hiking through the springmoist lowland near my section of the Sterling Brook, I spotted the gentle curve of a horseshoe that lay half buried in a dry patch of earth. I pried it out of the soil, brushed it free of dirt, and marveled at what looked like hand-made nails still lodged in its holes. It looked very old. Could it have worked its way off the hoof of a logging horse? What was the horse doing down here near the brook? Why wasn’t the horseshoe re-used? Who was working here? While admittedly modest, my find was exciting. After all these years I found, on my own property, evidence that one of my deardeparted neighbors walked, and probably worked, this same land. •••• “It’s a hind shoe. The left hind,” Jim Hurlburt, a Stowe-based farrier and knife maker, told me. “You can tell by the way it’s shaped, the

hind hoof of the horse is pointier than the front.” He holds up the rusty horseshoe and pointing to the front of it says, “This is a toe grab; it looks like it was hammered in or welded. This gives the horse extra traction in the mud or ice, as do the toe calks on the tips of the shoe. These are handmade steel nails and they fit inside the shoe’s built-in creases, so they don’t wear out. The shoe could be about a century old and hand made. “It’s a nice shoe,” says Hurlburt as he holds up the battered horseshoe and looks it over. “It’s definitely made for a work horse. Remember, a century ago the horse was the tractor.”

As Hurlburt explains more about the shoe I begin imagining a scene that may have played out perhaps a century ago—on my property. “He probably lost it when he was working. See the way the nails are bent?” asks Hurlburt. “That tells me the horse hooked it on something. Maybe he got his leg twisted in some rocks when he was pulling logs. And look how it’s a bit out of shape; when he pulled off the shoe he bent it.” Hurlburt smiles and sighs. “I sure wish this shoe could talk!” •••• Thanks to Hurlburt’s expertise, the horseshoe did talk. It spoke of a time before tractors, chainsaws, and electricity. It told me of a time when a logger worked these same woods, and of one particular day when, suddenly, his horse entangled its left rear hoof so severely it threw its shoe. I don’t know much more than that, but that’s plenty for me. It’s proof that the past is not always as distant, as far removed from us, as we think. In fact, sometimes it’s right under our feet. ■