Chittenden County's smallest community cops a keep-out 'tude
It's easy to be in Buels Gore without realizing it. As Gertrude Stein might say, there is no "there" there: no village center, not a single business and only a few houses -- most of which are not visible from the road.
What you will find are a couple old farmsteads, the wooded western slopes of Molly and Baby Stark Mountains and a handful of inhabitants who consider themselves awfully lucky.
In geography, a "gore" is a small, sparsely settled, three-sided scrap of land whose outline suggests the triangular pieces of cloth used to make skirts and sails. But you can't get a sense of Buels Gore's pizza-slice shape without looking at a good map.
A few miles south of Hanksville on Huntington Road, a meadow of milkweeds opens onto the rounded haunch of Molly Stark. An electric line sings down the highway, just like the telegraph wires in "Moonlight in Vermont." A discreet state road sign marks the border between Huntington and this 3000-acre parcel wedged between Starksboro and Fayston. You might consider this a good location for a "Welcome to Buels Gore" sign. But don't hold your breath waiting to see one.
In September, about 15 of Buels Gore's 20 citizens gathered in a neighbor's living room to discuss gore business. The question of signage came up. Were they interested in erecting a proper marker? The residents reportedly waited just long enough to be polite. Then they issued their verdict: a resounding "No."
The residents of Buels Gore are getting along very well without a sign, thank you, and announcing the gore's location makes about as much sense as getting their own town hall, store or police force. Along with its picture-postcard vistas, the point of living in this corner of Vermont is its isolation. "We don't like to call attention to ourselves," explains Chris McClure, a 10-year resident. "If you want something with gold gild, move to Shelburne."
In public policy, a gore is an official political designation. While cities are run by elected mayors and towns by representative selectboards, gores, like "unorganized towns," have no home rule. Supervisors appointed by the governor watch over their interests. Bur-lington attorney John Leddy, whom Howard Dean tapped two years ago to take care of Buels Gore, explains, "As supervisor, you're the town government: the selectboard, constable, clerk, dog-catcher and school board."
Buels Gore's one-room schoolhouse hasn't seen students in 50 years. Residents drive to Starksboro, in Addison County, to pick up their mail, and to Huntington, in Chittenden County, to vote. State troopers provide law enforcement and Bristol's rescue squad answers their medical emergencies. Their land and health records are filed with the Chittenden County clerk in Burlington.
All this out-sourcing can lead to confusion. When gore residents John Crosthwait and Kren Hansen needed a copy of their 3-year-old daughter's birth certificate, it took nine months to track it down. Adeline Buell Crosthwait was born at home. When her birth certificate was finally located, the county clerk realized she had to create a Buels Gore file. Adeline was apparently the first child born in the gore in at least 60 years.
Adeline's parents expect her to attend school in Huntington, then go on to Mt. Mansfield High. Her sister Har-mony, 13, started at Starksboro Elementary and is now an eighth-grader at Mt. Abe in Bristol. Buels Gore taxes pay non-resident tuition at whichever school systems families choose, including the private Gailor School in Shelburne. Before the Vermont State Supreme Court ruled the arrangement illegal, public tax dollars paid for at least one Buels Gore child to spend two years at Mater Christi and four at Rice High School. "We never ever were questioned," says Chris McClure, the student's father. "Kellen [McClure's younger son] could go to Phillips Andover, if he wanted."
Like residents in Grand Isle, St. George and other Vermont towns without educational facilities, Gore parents have school choice. But, as Crosthwait points out, the arrangement is akin to taxation without representation: "We have no say in the school's budget." With numbers so small, he adds, just one more child reaching kindergarten age has a huge impact on the school taxes residents pay to the state. "A special-needs kid would make our taxes go through the roof," Crosthwait notes.
Just getting to class can also be a task. Kellen McClure, 17, moved to the gore with his family when Hanksville got too crowded. "When we moved there, it was the end of the world," explains his father, whose hike along the length of the Long Trail was reported on public radio. "It got to be on the way to the end of the world." That isolation requires Kellen to drive more than half an hour each way to Mt. Mansfield High, where he's a senior. And with classmates living nearly an hour away in Underhill, simply catching up on missed homework requires dialing long distance. "I'm not going to say it's awful," Kellen comments, "but it's a pain in the butt."
Not to mention unsafe. "I have frequently said to the state police that if there's a man threatening to take my life, by the time they got there, the body would be cold," says Chris McClure.
Living in Buels Gore has always been a challenge -- beginning with its namesake Major Elias Buel. A Rev-olutionary War officer from Con-necticut, Buel came to Vermont hoping to invest in some land. On November 4, 1780, he, five relatives and Ira Allen -- who was, coincidentally, the Surveyor General at the time -- were issued a grant for a town-sized parcel between Shoreham and Orwell in Addison County. Local standards dictated that a town must cover six-by-six miles. But when Buel tried to establish the town he'd been granted, there wasn't enough room on the map.
Four years later, he asked the legislature to convert his permit into a "flying grant," allowing him to piece together his promised 23,000 acres from separate parcels. He eventually settled on three tracts: the present town of Coventry and nearby Cov-entry Leg, which was later annexed to Newport, and Buels Gore, 60 miles to the south.
Buel wanted to call his southernmost property Montzoar, presumably after the city in the mountains where Lot escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Bible calls Zoar "a little place," a description that fits the tiny parcel. And plenty of people have found refuge here. Major Buel was not one of them.
Though his far-flung grants weren't issued until 1788, the legislature dated them retroactively to the year of his original request and billed Buel and his partners eight years' back taxes. That administrative detail proved Buel's undoing. He became a well-respected citizen of Huntington -- representing the town in Montpelier, serving as assistant judge and attending the Constitutional Convention of 1791 -- but never recovered from his tax debt. He eventually lost his land and moved to New York State. Buel's forfeited property, meanwhile, was transferred to Ira Allen, who picked it up for the cost of its delinquent taxes.
Did Surveyor General Allen cheat his investment partner? If so, Buel would be in good company, observes Burlington historian Sam Hand. As for that original, unworkable grant, Hand points out that during the land speculation rush of the 18th century, Vermont had lots of them -- the result of "inept surveyors, lots of booze" and the challenge of trying to lay a flat grid over hilly terrain. Most of those original gores have long since been incorporated with adjacent towns. Besides Buels Gore, the only other remaining freestanding gores are in the Northeast Kingdom: Warren Gore, population 10, and Avery Gore, which has never had a single resident.
When Buels Gore was first settled in the 1790s, 31 people lived there. But by 1800, the population had dropped to zero, and it remained apparently uninhabited until 1860. That year, a time when the rest of Vermont was losing citizens, Buels Gore's population jumped to 35. The "original" farmhouses still standing in the gore date back to these days on the eve of the Civil War.
Hilda Orbis, who now lives in South Starksboro, remembers Buels Gore as a farming community in the first half of the 20th century. The story of her early life is the stuff of a fabled era. She was born nearby in 1923, and when her mother died three weeks later, she was given to her aunt, a Stokes, who raised her on a tenant farm just across the gore line, where the family raised dairy cows and sugared.
In 1931, two new families moved into the area. The seven children now living in the district prompted the reopening of the Buels Gore School. When she was 16, Hilda married Gardner Orbis and moved into the farmhouse in Buels Gore proper. Their first few years working the Hallock farm, Orbis' chores included hauling water from the spring at the foot of the hill and washing shades blackened from kerosene lamps. Bristol went electric in 1892. But the gore didn't get plugged in until 1945, Orbis recalls.
Even with these difficulties, Buels Gore "was just a very pleasant place," Orbis attests. "You had a good view. It was quiet and peaceful." The gore's unique political arrangement was another plus, she says. "Whover lived there in the gore didn't have any taxes to pay. All they had to pay was the old-age tax and the poll tax. You could live in the gore and not pay taxes."
By the 1960s, Buels Gore's old-time ways were drawing a new kind of attention. The inauguration of the Mad River Glen ski area in 1949 and the paving of Route 17 in 1957 had opened the area up to outsiders. To skiers from Scarsdale and hikers from Boston, what had been a marginal farming community suddenly started looking like an appealing recreation location. It was only a matter of time before the flatlanders passing through the gore on vacation began to make this idyllic area their home.
Buels Gore's farmsteads are still known by the names of their original families, but the people who live there today tend to be transplants. Summer places have been winterized, old houses updated, a barn turned into a home. Locals in the surrounding area snidely refer to "the golden gore." And as residents revel in their rare way of life, they keep a wary eye on outsiders.
"We're not interested in having a story written about the gore," one citizen says over the phone, ostensibly speaking for the entire population. Others are more welcoming, but still careful not to give away details that might attract too many visitors to their home.
"Did you see my passive-aggressive sign?" asks Cynthia Clarke, referring to the hand-painted placard posted by the road. It reads, "45 mph or less greatly appreciated."
Clarke, 32, came to Buels Gore as a child. Her father and stepmother had moved here from Boston "with the big movement post-Vietnam," she says. When he wasn't teaching at UVM's education department, her father tried his hand at sugaring and planted Christmas trees. After college, Clarke tried out city life in Brooklyn and Cambridge before returning to the gore last year.
She now lives in "the Philips house" -- the 1860s farmhouse across the road from her parents -- with her husband, Oliver Carling, a graduate student at Harvard who is teaching philosophy at UVM, and their 2-year-old-son Arden. His name hints at Clarke's attachment to this place. In Shakespeare's As You Like It, Arden is the forest where one "finds tongues in trees, books in running brooks, sermons in stones and good in every thing."
Autumn sun pours into the kitchen, where the garden's last tomatoes are piled on a counter. But Clarke wants to take her visitors outside. The house sits on an open, level stretch at the foot of the wooded hillside. Clothes hang on a line. A group of gray rocks stands on a stump, arranged like a sculpture.
"For me, the gore is the forests, the mountains," Clarke explains, stepping into the trees and starting up the incline. Seventy-five years ago, these hills were clear-cut for pasture. The woods are now home to deer and coyotes and wild turkeys, as well as other species Clarke won't divulge.
A section of stone wall marches under the trees. Plastic green sap lines crisscross a small clearing near Cynthia's father's abandoned sugarhouse. There are no sounds of cars, planes or neighbors.
"You can go out in the hills and hoot and no one cares," says Clarke.
After about a quarter-mile walk, the woods end abruptly at a high, sunny field -- pastureland, a big vegetable garden and a pair of Adirondack chairs. Tucked just below the rise is the old tenant farmhouse once occupied by Hilda Orbis. In the 1980s, when Cynthia Clarke was growing up, the place belonged to the Obdrliks, elderly Czechoslovakian immigrants who used it as their summer camp. Today it's the full-time residence of John Crosthwait, Kren Hansen and their two daughters. Clarke and Carling hesitate before approaching the house, even though they're expected. "I don't really like to come up on them like this," says Clarke. They've been living next door for the last 12 months but have only met these neighbors once or twice and have never actually seen the house.
They knock anyway, and are greeted by 3-year-old Adeline Buell Crosthwait -- named for the place in which she was born -- and her sister Harmony Hansen, 13. "We don't get many visitors around here," their mother apologizes as Adeline dances around.
Like other area residents, Crosthwait discovered Buels Gore en route to Mad River Glen. A South Jersey native, he started coming here to ski as a kid. In 1979 he moved up to attend UVM, then worked as a carpenter and lived in the old Buels Gore schoolhouse until the Obdrliks' place became available. Three years later Crosthwait, now 43 and working for Huntington-based Birdseye Building, is still renovating.
"I came here to be close to the mountain," he confirms. He makes good use of that proximity. Crosthwait likes to hitchhike to Mad River Glen and ski home at the end of the day. In the summer, he mountain-bikes through the woods at night, with a head lamp, on trails he maintains himself. "It took me 20 years to buy a house here," he says with satisfaction. "It's a great spot to come home to."
Both Crosthwait and Hansen are less than enthusiastic, however, about other people taking advantage of their special neck of the woods. Hunters are one concern. In deer season, Hansen won't let her kids outside unless they're wearing red. "We hear lots of shots," she says. Once, in deep snow, a hunter came by looking for a place to leave his truck so he could haul his deer out of the woods. Though Hansen doesn't disapprove of hunting, she says, "I wasn't happy about him dragging the bloody carcass through the snow."
"In the summer it's the motorcycles," Crosthwait complains. "The rescue squad is here all the time, picking people up who wipe out going over the Ap Gap."
"We don't see it, but we hear it," Hansen clarifies. "The sound echoes down the gully. There's a mobile home down the road and we can sometimes hear their dog."
Most of what they hear has more wild connotations: owls, coyotes and bears -- sounds that can inspire people to buy themselves a piece of Buels Gore. But solitude and quiet aren't for everyone. Teenage Harmony Hansen, for one, would like to buck the trend. Her ambition? "To move to New York City and never come back."