Cabot, Vermont | Where the Heart Rubs Against the Place

A unique project in the small Vermont town of Cabot reveals what its people, young and old, treasure most.

By Julia Shipley

Feb 20 2013

The A.M. Foster Covered Bridge
Photo Credit : Hendrickson, Corey
My great-aunt Hope, who visited all 50 states after she and Uncle Bill had retired, once told me that she’d rather read a map than a novel any day. She would have loved DeLorme’s Vermont Atlas & Gazetteer. Take page 47, for example: On it she could have found some of Cabot’s main characters–Menard Road, Urban Road, Churchill Road–all named for families here. Then there’s a theme: Houston Hill Road, Danville Hill Road, Bothfeld Hill Road, West Hill Pond Road. And then, of course, there’s the beginning of the map: If you’re reading left to right, the story starts in Elmore, Calais, Woodbury, and Marshfield; proceeds through Lower Cabot, Cabot proper, Cabot Plains, and East Cabot; and ends in Hardwick and Walden. But of course there are hundreds of ways to read a map, and therein lay my great-aunt’s joy: the territory, the joy of investigating the mystery of a place. As a writer for the Cabot Chronicle, a small monthly newspaper serving a town known more for its cheddar than for the 1,400 folks who call it home, I’ve begun to investigate the mystery of place, joyfully reading routes as if they were chapters, poring over dozens of hand-drawn maps. In “Our Town,” the “sense of place” column I curated for the paper in 2010-11, we published homemade maps of distinctive and personally significant places in Cabot. Created by students, artists, farmers, mothers, historians, and others, these maps documented an understanding of what, specifically, they loved about the roughly 36 square miles of fields, woods, hills, ponds, and roads that Cabot comprises. Although the Atlas & Gazetteer is handy when you’re driving around–it’s got the proper names of town roads, the elevations of hills, demarcations of county lines–it is, in some ways, a fairly sterile document. Hand-drawn maps, though, can express something deeper: the personal connections Cabotians have with their physical landscape, the myriad details that go unknown or overlooked by outsiders yet form the essence of Cabot. — In Cabot’s charter, dating back to 1781, there’s a lengthy paragraph describing the entire 6-by-6-mile parcel. It reads, in part: “Beginning at a stake & Stones near a Maple Tree Marked No. 21, Standing on the north side of a Hill; Thence running south 54 D° East, six Miles to a beach [sic] Tree Marked Cabot Corner …” Basically, the entire surveyed tract of Cabot was defined by four corner trees: a maple, a beech, a hemlock, and a birch. And now, all that’s left of those trees are their names. Luckily we have a map. Sometime between 1790 and 1810 by historians’ guess, Samuel Chandler Crafts (future Vermont governor and senator) dabbed his pen in black ink and drew up the settlement plots of the Cabot land grant. Then he used emerald-green ink for the ponds, creeks, and river. To simulate the dirt roads and main footpaths, he made tiny dotted lines. “Wow, it looks like an Excel spreadsheet,” one observer said of the identical 1-mile-by-half-mile boxes covering the map. Crafts’ lines are flawless and precise, as each of the 72 rectangles has a number and a man’s name inside. This 200-year-old map lives in a calfskin book of other town maps in a vault at the Vermont History Center’s Leahy Library in Barre. I felt like an archaeologist brushing off a dusty find when I deduced that the Chronicle‘s long table rests squarely on a parcel first assigned to one Ezekiel Tiffany. When I shared this tidbit at our editorial meeting, no one looked amazed. Their faces said, So what? Maybe Ezekiel just didn’t seem real to them, lost as he was under the centuries. And so I began to wonder: What happens to landscapes whose history is lost or unknown? And what happens to landscapes whose histories are known and celebrated? What happens when you realize that you’re a part of the epic story of a place’s continuum? Ethan and Jonah Socks, brothers ages 4 and 6, respectively, are two recent additions to Cabot’s continuum. When they drew their home near Danville Hill, they included particulars such as “the place where we found a giant spider”; the pond with ice that “looks like it has wrinkled green house plastic” on it; that “weird gate” in the woods; the big rock and the little rock by the pond; the car and the trailer; and, finally, the X support beams stabilizing the house’s front door. Ethan’s map is faithful to the specific elements of the house (side-door steps, chimney, windows), while Jonah’s map encompasses more; he adds the woods, the neighbor’s land, a friend’s house, a few roads, even the library, in the same building as the town offices. When they presented their charted terrains, Ethan and Jonah realized some things they hadn’t included. “I forgot the sandbox,” Jonah admitted. Also omitted were the treehouse, the garden, the apple trees–and yet they captured what was most important to each of them about their place at that moment: a home with chickens, a pond with new islands of ice, some great trees, and a Really Big Spider. “The fun part is putting in the details,” said 9-year-old Gage Hale, who lives on a big hill in Cabot. Indeed, Gage’s map is riddled with details: his best climbing tree, a cedar by his house; the field that in spring and summer is filled with cows; the strands of barbed fence that keep the cows from ravishing his mother’s rosebushes; an X to mark his bedroom in the house; and a tiny oval over the garage: the sign from his grandfather’s former Westwinds Bookshop in Duxbury, Massachusetts, depicting clouds and sea. As our project progressed, map by map, I saw how these nearly trivial particulars revealed where the heart rubs against the place. As Gage and I stared for many quiet minutes at his map, I had a hope that it, or at least the making of it, would serve him in the future when, as a grownup, he’ll begin to decide the fate of landscapes, of places. Instead of denoting each Main Street business, 12-year-old Maya Morse’s map, full of dots and bold thoroughfares, shows us exactly where to buy Starbursts and chocolate bars–and then the best place to consume them. Hers is a map of happiness. And 13-year-old Donavan Bigelow’s map also shows where his joy lies: Along the town’s utilitarian roads and privately owned yards, his map charts a kingdom of play, with the best places to kick a soccer ball, ride a bike, and drive a snowmobile all vividly inscribed. In fact, if you overlaid all the maps the seventh- and eighth-graders made, you’d have a Republic of Recreation, where inhabitants pledge allegiance to swim in the O’Connors’ river, jump on their trampoline, go to the Creamery and eat cheese samples, ice-skate on the common, run in the woods in the rain, bike from Cabot Plains to Danville Hill, go apple picking at Burtt’s Orchard, chase cows, ride pigs, drive tractors, hang out with awesome Emma, bomb on your four-wheeler, get a haircut, fix up trucks, and drift canoes with Forest. While Cabot’s terrain may be owned in deeded chunks and parcels, these maps attest that it’s also an unincorporated territory: the great estate of rambunctious, joyous youth. And as for mapmaking itself, there’s the joy of being the author and writing the story. Cia Considine, mother of four grown children, drew a map of Cabot that can be read as a “choose your own adventure” guide. On it she offers three ways to find her house from Cabot village, and in relating this information, she conveys their quirks. “One way to get here is really twisty and serpentine–it’s the best choice to travel when there’s snow, but people who don’t live on this road don’t know its bends, and so they tend to go off the road,” she explains. “Then there’s another way that’s convoluted, with a hard right-angle turn at the Talberts’ sugarhouse. It’s steeper–you can’t drive very fast. And last is a pretty straight three-mile route up from Lower Cabot, a steady incline, steep at times, which can be tough if you don’t get some momentum or traction. On the crest you’ll pass the farmhouse where Pauline Churchill lives, undoubtedly the hill’s matriarch.” Cia’s map also discloses the adventure’s reward: where to find wild onions, chives, currants, the best apples for making pies. And those tiny red dots? Wild strawberries. These maps may not be accurate documents whereby historians can gauge the exact placement of structures, the agreed-upon boundaries, or the proper names of roads and rivers. And you’d be hard-pressed to find your way around navigating by a hand-drawn map; nothing’s drawn to scale, and north is anyone’s guess. But no matter how crude, elaborate, or abstract, these maps celebrate the secret ordinary feeling of Cabot. Each imperfect document contains a totally unique short story about what that person notices around him or her day by day. And if we allow that “noticing” is a form of affection, then these documents show a kind of ownership, legalized not by a courthouse but by awareness, by abidance, by love. And so on the one hand you could argue that the People’s Atlas of Cabot project just facilitates the creation of unnavigable maps and fallible diagrams–but on the other hand, it has helped further a discussion about what matters here and now. Cabotians have the chance to recognize something they love, the facets of this place before, not after, it has been irrevocably changed. Perhaps those who peer into the Atlas & Gazetteer 200 years from now may still be able to guess where kids go biking and bombing on four-wheelers, and point to the woods, with its descendants of those long-ago boundary-marker trees, and find the pond with a new skin of ice and the prize patch of wild leeks.