The Real Story?
Why Vermont’s Green Mountain Girl still needs a room of her own
Down a farm road in Salisbury, an 18th-century cabin marks the site of the home of Ann Story. As cabins go, it’s a sorry affair — the roof looks all right, but the rest of the building wears the empty, patient expression of someone who has died while waiting for a bus. The windows are broken and the mullions are frayed; the inside smells of animals. And the stone chimney, held with modern mortar, is steadily pulling away from its moorings.
As a tribute to one of Vermont’s pioneers, the Ann Story cabin is tepid at best. But as it turns out, this is not her place at all — rather, it’s a block house that was brought to her settlement site from Addison and re-erected in a single day by volunteers and a bevy of kids from Camp Keewaydin. Presumably someone came back and put up the chimney. This was in 1976, the year of our national bicentennial — a year of fireworks, tall ships and a kind of misty but curiously militant assertion of our American past.
Those were different days, and now the house is so fragile that I am asked by the farmer whose land I had to cross in order to reach it not to go inside. “It could have been kept up a little better,” he tells me, proving his capacity for understatement.
Ann Story was born in 1741 in Connecticut. She was married at age 14 to Amos Story, and in 1774 the couple moved to “Vermont,” which at the time was called the New Hampshire Grants. Or perhaps not — New York also claimed all the land east to the Connecticut River, and from about 1749 to 1764 New Hampshire sold grants, while from 1765 to 1775 New York sold patents, often for the same chunks of land. A muddle ensued, King George got in on the action, and by the time the Storys came to Salisbury to homestead near the Otter River, the argument over who owned what had escalated mightily. Thus the normal hazards of the Vermont wilderness, which included clearing the land and coping with horrid winters, were compounded by the itinerant meddling of Yorkers, Tories, natives and surveyors.
Shortly after the Storys arrived, Amos died, crushed by a tree. This was tragic but fairly common — death by tree, drowning, sickness, starvation and even stray lightning were just some of the risks of homesteading. After the accident, the prudent, normal thing for Story to have done — and what frontier widows before her did — was to gather her children, go home and look to remarry. Why she stayed on in Vermont is one of life’s interesting imponderables: Her biographers do use words like “brave” and “strong” to describe Story’s response to a demanding world.
To these good words we can perhaps add stubborn, resourceful and manipulative.
She stuck it out in the house by the river even through the dark and unstable days of the Revolution, when sensible people lit out for Rutland and points south.
It seems likely, from looking at Ann Story’s biography, that she may have stayed in the rough wilderness because she genuinely liked it there or — equally likely — there wasn’t much for her to go home to. Her father was poor and “bound out,” a kind of northern sharecropper who worked somebody else’s land. Worse, there were five brothers and a sister, and turning up with five children in tow might have been viewed as vaguely impertinent. Except for the Abenaki burning her house down and sporadic visitations by Tories, it’s possible, that, to Ann Story, Salisbury looked like a better bet.
But stubbornness isn’t heroism, nor does it explain why Ann Story is still sometimes remembered with such interest and admiration — although I would argue that she isn’t remembered nearly often enough, as this dreary cabin indicates. Next to the cabin is a marker, placed in 1905 “in grateful memory of her service in the struggle of the Green Mountain Boys for the defending of Vermont.” This marker points to Ann Story’s role as an informant, supplier and mistress of a safe house during the unstable years of revolution and national infancy.
The New Hampshire Grants were vulnerable, especially after Ethan Allen’s rather slap-happy attempt to take Québec; the next two years brought the defeat of Benedict Arnold at Valcour Island on Lake Champlain and engagements at Bennington and Saratoga.
During war strange things come in handy, and the strange thing Ann Story offered was her hand-dug cave on the Otter River. She retreated with her family to the cave each night to avoid being incinerated while she slept — someone set fire to the cabin in 1776, and she managed to escape, but after rebuilding, she went on to dig a refuge that was difficult to see, large enough for everyone to lay down in, with space for food and valuables. And, so the story goes, gunpowder; the Story homestead became a place where the Green Mountain Boys could drop munitions, sleep, eat, pick up information about local movements and events and then move on.
The cave was partly submerged, and was accessible only by canoe; Story placed it on the less-traveled side of the river, on an outside bend away from boat traffic. The entrance was obscured by bushes, and their comings and goings left no tracks. As a hideout it was exemplary, even if it was a little damp. Story and her children might have gone on indefinitely in these unconventional accommodations had they not taken in a pregnant woman who went on to have a baby, and if that baby had not cried.
It’s never all that clear where oral tradition segues into fiction, but it almost always happens for some good, human reason. In this case, the reason is a moment of nearly magical betrayal in which the muffled cry of a baby rises from the ground. The sound found Ezekiel Jenny, a Tory, who was traveling by night to avoid detection. He stopped on the riverbank and listened, and then listened some more, and then resolved to wait until morning to see what would happen.
What happened, of course, is what happened every morning in this peculiar household — the Story family emerged in their canoe and were met by Jenny, who demanded information about the Green Mountain Boys and waved his gun. Story, backed by a nursing woman, a baby and a pack of children of various ages, sensed the advantage in facing him down and calling him a coward. There’s no question that poor Jenny, whatever his political convictions, occupied the moral low ground during the encounter. He shouted unpleasantly for a while, then slunk away.
What’s fun about this story is that it doesn’t really stop here. Story, suspecting there was more to Jenny’s presence on the Otter Creek than met the eye, sent a message to Daniel Foot in Middlebury, a Green Mountain Boy, telling him about the encounter. About a dozen men followed Jenny northward, staying out of sight, and were gratified when he met up with more Tories in Monkton, where they made camp. Once asleep, they were easy pickings — 14 spies were captured that night, thus ending a string of events that began with the wail of an invisible child.
Or not. The cry of the baby does have an air of myth and retrofit, but it probably doesn’t matter. What matters, in a way, is this tatty cabin that Ann Story never lived in. Although the house sits on town land, it seems to belong to nobody. To get to it you must commit a genial act or trespass, or do what I did and get permission.
Story is buried in the Farmingdale Cemetery in Middlebury, and her headstone identifies her as Mrs. Hannah Goodrich, which is really very confusing. It’s so confusing that the Daughters of the American Revolution felt compelled to add a footnote: “Formerly Ann Story, the heroine of Thompson’s Green Mountain Boys.” Eventually, Story came unstuck from her homestead by the river and sought the comforts of town and remarriage — when she was 51. When that husband died, she married again at 71, securing a brief but probably fairly comfortable retirement.
Richard Adams, a Vergennes antiques dealer who was one of the two men responsible for getting the Addison cabin to its Salisbury site, estimates it might take a couple thousand dollars to make the cabin safe and presentable. Authenticity aside, as the only truly tangible monument to Vermont’s only Green Mountain Girl, the building, and the history it holds, deserves serious shoring.
Helen Husher is the author of Off the Leash: Subversive Journeys Around Vermont. She writes regular features about unorthodox destinations around the state.