Vermont’s Venerable Byway

The state’s Route 100 offers an unparalleled access to old New England, from wandering moose to Robert Frost’s hideaway cabin

Route 100, studded with historic landmarks like the Scott Bridge, "offers such remarkable visual experiences," says filmmaker Dorothy Lovering. (Jessica Scranton)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

The Robert Frost Cabin lies ten miles west of Route 100, near the midway point in the road’s 216-mile ramble through valleys, woods and farmlands between Massachusetts and Canada. Although I had driven to Vermont many times to ski, I had always taken the interstate, hellbent on reaching the slopes as quickly as possible. This time, however, I followed “The Road Not Taken,” to quote the title of one of Frost’s best-known poems, pausing at the Vermont cabin where he wrote many of them.

From This Story

I crossed over covered bridges spanning sun-dappled rivers, past cornfields and grazing cows, into a landscape punctuated by churches with tall steeples and 18th-century brick houses behind white picket fences. A farmer rode a tractor across freshly mowed acreage; old-timers stared at me from a sagging porch at the edge of a dilapidated village. My trip included stops at a flourishing summer theater; an artisanal cheese maker in a state famous for its cheddars and chèvres; the 19th-century homestead of an American president; primeval hemlock stands and high passes strewn with massive, mossy boulders; and bogs where moose gather in the early evening. On either side of me rose Vermont’s Green Mountains, the misty peaks that set its citizens apart from “flatlanders,” as Vermonters call anyone—tourist or resident—who hails from across state lines.

Route 100 grew organically from roads connecting villages dating back to the 1700s, following the contours of the Vermont landscape. “It eventually became one continuous route, curving along rivers and through mountain valleys,” says Dorothy A. Lovering, producer and director of a documentary about the storied country road. “That’s why it offers such remarkable visual experiences.”

The Frost log-and-wood slat cabin stands in a clearing outside the town of Ripton (pop. 566), where the poet spent summers and wrote from 1939 until his death in 1963 at age 88. (Today, the farm, now a National Historic Landmark, belongs to Middlebury College, which maintains the property as a Frost memorial. The public has access to the grounds.) Behind a forest of 100-foot-tall Norwegian pines, the weathered cabin looks out on an apple orchard, a meadow carpeted in wildflowers and a farmhouse. The vista evokes an image from his poem “Out, Out—”:

Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.

A visit to the site is bittersweet. On the night of December 28, 2007, vandals shattered windows, smashed antiques and damaged books inside the property’s main farmhouse. The intruders caused more than $10,000 in damage. Fortunately, some of Frost’s most cherished belongings—including his Morris chair and a lapboard the poet used as a writing surface—had already been moved to the Middlebury campus. Although marred in the rampage, Frost’s pedal organ has been repaired and remains in the farmhouse. The cabin itself, where Frost etched a record of daily temperatures on the inside of the door, was not disturbed.

Twenty-eight young men and women—ages 16 to 22—were charged with trespassing or destruction of property, then turned over to poet Jay Parini, a Frost biographer and professor of literature at Middlebury, who taught the miscreants about Frost and his work. “I thought they responded well—sometimes, you could hear a pin drop in the room,” recalls Parini. “But you never know what’s going on in a kid’s head.”

I had begun my Route 100 odyssey by driving through that hallowed Vermont landmark—a covered bridge. Turning off Route 100 outside the town of Jamaica (pop. 946), I drove southeast for four miles to reach Scott Bridge—built in 1870 and named for Henry Scott, the farmer whose property anchored one end—in Townshend (pop. 1,149). Spanning the boulder-strewn West River, at 277 feet it is the longest of the state’s 100 or so covered bridges—down from 500 a century ago.

“What’s most fascinating about covered bridges is that they take you back to the origins of our country,” says Joseph Nelson, author of Spanning Time: Vermont’s Covered Bridges. Durability was their primary virtue: uncovered bridges were lashed by rain and snow. The wet wood attracted insects and fungus, then rotted away and had to be replaced every four or five years. Today, Vermont boasts covered bridges built in the early 1800s. In the 19th century, the interiors “doubled as local bulletin boards,” writes Ed Barna in his Covered Bridges of Vermont. “Travelers stopping to wait out rainstorms or rest their teams could inspect the bills and placards advertising circuses, religious gatherings, city employment in the woolen mills, and nostrums like Kendall’s Spavin Cure and Dr. Flint’s Powder, two widely known remedies for equine ills.”

Local officials specified that a covered bridge should be erected “a load of hay high and wide.” A rusted plate over one entrance to Scott Bridge posts a speed limit: “Horses at a walk.” But equines gave way to heavier motorized traffic, which weakened the structure. Since 1955, the bridge has been closed to all but pedestrian traffic.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus