Native Son by James Tabor
Vermont, the green jewel of a state tucked up North, and I am a native son. I was raised in deepest, rural Vermont in a small town called Groton. Groton is a stereotypical small town in Vermont. It has one Main Street running right through it, which has not changed since I was a boy. It is a very nice town in many ways. Located about forty minutes below Barre, VT, the “Big City,” Groton has many campgrounds and outdoor activities in the Groton State Forest area. Hiking, fishing, hunting, snow machining, etc.
I was raised in an unusual way for the times, even twenty years ago. I grew up in the country outside of Groton with my parents and three sisters and 3 brothers. The unique part was that we all lived in a tiny cabin with no running water, no phone and no electricity. I am now forty years old and have a Masters Degree and when I tell colleagues or students about my childhood they are incredulous, especially when I tell them I never used a phone until I was sixteen years old. I have been called “Daniel Boone” more then once.
Even though I live in the city now and wear a suit to work I always consider myself a Green Mountain Boy. Two events that have brought my childhood sharply back to the forefront for me are turning forty years old this Spring and having my younger brother purchase our old family cabin and land back. My brother Roy bought the old place back and fixed it up and now it is used by the family as a camp or jump off point for hiking, fishing, hunting, and just getting away from it all. I had not been back to the old cabin in about twenty years and when I finally did go back it brought back a lot of memories. I left my home in Concord, New Hampshire early one Saturday morning to head north and visit my family as I do quite often. It was an early spring day and I decided to stop at my parents in Newbury, Vermont. As I arrived at their home very early I did not want to wake them up so I continued through Newbury to Wells River, where I stopped and got a big coffee at the Jiffy Mart which is the social center of Wells River. Then I took Route 302 and drove about twenty minutes and arrived in Groton, hung a left at the end of town and took Powder Spring Road right up to the road leading into the cabin. There is a dirt road leading into the cabin and one thing has not changed, it is rough! I slowly eased my car into the driveway and made my way to the parking area of the driveway and turned the engine off and just sat there and looked around. I remembered the first time I had ever seen the cabin when I was about five years old. It was a tiny blue cabin sitting in a heavy patch of huge cedar trees, barely visible. I remember being so excited and running up and the door being locked and one of my brothers lifted me up and I crawled through a window and unlocked the door. I remember my muddy, bare footprints on the side of the cabin where I had crawled in the window. Now coming back twenty years later the place looked a little different. My father had cut down all the cedar trees and put us to work digging stones and chopping roots to make a lawn. Well, there is still a thick, lush lawn there and a huge pile of stones off to the side where we had thrown, carried and wheel barrowed them on many a long summer day. My brother had done a good job of brush hogging and restoring the lawn.
The first thing that struck me about the cabin is how small it is. I was thinking how did we ever all fit in there? The inside of the cabin consists of one main room and a small bedroom where my parents slept, and a loft where we kids slept, or were sent when we were bad. The loft was roasting in the summer time and freezing in the winter. There was one small wood stove that was used to heat the whole cabin. I remember going to bed wearing all my clothes and waking up and looking up from my bed to the ceiling which was about 3 feet from my head, and seeing all the roofing nails that protruded through, as there was no insulation, completely white and covered in frost. Sometimes I would get up and go downstairs and try to jockey with our huge Great Dane, Atlantic, for a warm spot by the wood stove. I remember many a night lying there snuggled up to the dog roasting on one side and freezing on the other, watching the light dance on the walls from the chinks in the stove and listening to the snaps and crackles of the fire.
Woodcutting was a family affair with Dad running the chain saw and all the boys hauling the wood out by hand and then splitting and stacking it. I still have a huge scar across the top of my right hand where my brothers, Brian and Roy ran a buck saw blade across it as I was holding a log they were sawing. Still not sure if it was an accident, and they’re not talking.
There was never any running water in the cabin; we used to haul it from a spring that ran into a tiny brook behind the cabin. The spring bubbles up from the ground between two mossy, ancient boulders and we used to bring the water back in one gallon plastic milk jugs. After years of training by my Mom, mostly unwillingly, I could carry three milk jugs full of water in each hand. We did have an inside toilet that we used to flush with buckets of water from the spring. The spring water is exactly the same today as it was back then, ice cold and full of Brook Trout. The water is so cold it burns your hand when you stick it in the water.
When I was a kid I spent countless hours in the woods fishing for the beautiful native brook trout in all the surrounding streams. We used to collect bottles and cans and then walk about five miles to the Groton General Store and turn them in for the deposit and then buy hooks and sinkers with the money. Our only fishing poles were willow branches that we would whittle down and tie on about five feet of fishing line, hook, sinker and worm. I fished the spring this summer for the first time in over twenty years, except this time it was with an L. L. Bean bamboo fly rod.
It was like deja vu fishing with my brother, Roy, just like when we were kids. He goes through the woods like a rocket, talking up a storm while I am behind him ready to pass out from exertion. I was walking behind him while we were at a beaver dam on the brook and he jumped an eight-foot channel of water and never looked back or stopped talking. I was, aha, ok, and slowly eased into the water and waded across. I went out on the dam and was catching beautiful brook trout on a White Miller dry fly, while he had run ahead and disappeared into the woods. Exact same scenario from when we were kids. His son Thomas reminds me of us when we were kids being a highly skilled trout fisherman at eleven years old.
The physical environment has not changed that much around the cabin, as it sits right on the edge of the Green Mountain Wildlife Management Area, which stops any development and is managed for sportsmen. In the fall we all spent most of our time hunting the woods around the cabin for deer, partridge, and especially rabbits. My first gun was a single shot full choke Winchester, 410. caliber shotgun, and my Red Ryder carbine BB gun.
Growing up we had a huge amount of dogs, Beagles, Red Bones, Black & Tans, Catahoula Mountain Leopard Curs, Treeing Walkers, etc. We used to rabbit hunt all day with our Beagles and then spend the night coon hunting with a local legend, State Senator Gerald Morse. To me he was the template that all old time Vermonters were made from. He was the richest man around and drove old Scout trucks and was about the thriftiest guy I have ever known.
Going back to the old cabin surrounds me with memories and tangible physical reminders of my childhood. The huge granite rock that sits on the lawn that still has our names carved into it with a hammer and a roofing nail, out back all the old dog houses remind me of the dogs I used to love, Susie, a tiny little female Beagle who was the best rabbit dog I have ever known, who would wait in her house until a stranger got within range then barrel out, bite them and sprint back in her house, a perfect set up for kids bent on mischief. Then her sister, Candy, who was an equally good hunter, but so shy she had to be dragged out of her house if there was a stranger around. If we walked up towards the Beagles and they saw we had shotguns they would howl and go nuts and hit the ends of their chains knowing they were going hunting. Our Treeing Walker Coonhound, Taber’s Bible Hill Prancer, a show champion, and one fine coonhound. I remember like it was yesterday when she was old and got really sick one winter and I was about ten years old and I prayed to God to make her better and not let her die. I look at the side of the cabin and see the ancient oak tree where our massive Great Dane is buried, Atlantic, undisputed King of the Yard. I can still see him going up to my dad and laying his head in his lap and leaning on him and just standing there not moving or making a sound.
Under a huge pine tree I see the remnants of one of many “forts” we built all over the woods. This particular one has special significance as I used to go there and read all the time, as we had neither television nor radio. One book I read there is “Where the Red Fern Grows”, about a boy and his family in the Ozark Mountains, and his two Redbone coonhounds. I remember crying so hard when his dog was killed in the book that I had a headache. I would recommend every country boy or girl read this book at least once, especially if your a hound person.
The best part of the cabin now is when we all get together and go up there and camp and barbecue and let the kids run wild and my brothers and sisters all talk about the old days and things we used to do, and bring up old and sometimes forgotten memories. It is fitting and full circle when I see my tiny little baby niece Olivia toddling around the yard playing and my nephews, Sean, who is thirty, and Tom, who is twelve, and Chad who is eleven taking off into the woods to go hit one of the brooks for some native trout. To me it is a symbol of Vermont, green, beautiful, wild, and my little slice of memories.