The Lamoille runs just across the road from my house, quiet and sunlit, between one dam and another. The peace is somewhat deceiving since a rush of rain or of melting snow in season can turn her wild and thundering. So we co-exist. I keep my eye on her moods, and she ignores me.
When the world was younger and the state was unformed, the Lamoille enticed settlers to stay, her seven waterfalls the gold, promising water power and mills. You won’t find seven now, and it took me a long time to find out that the backwaters from big dams flooded the smaller ones. But with the power for sawmills right beside large stands of old growth pine, the ingredients for a successful settlement were all set. When the nearby lake leading to big markets, nothing seemed to stand in the way of continual prosperity.
Making room to build and sow crops was a kind of afterthought to lumbering, but as the trees were cut, clearings for cabins and gardens were opened. Eventually the clearings melded into farmland, invisible walkways became paths became rutted roads. By the 1840s Milton and much of the state were shorn of their forests– the hills were grassy to the tops and photos of the period are strangely bare. There were several settlements in Milton by then – West Milton, where it all started, Checkerberry, Milton Falls, Miltonboro, Sopertown… Now besides sawmills, there were grist mills fulling (woolen) mills (the sheep craze was building), a paper mill at the main village, plus several smaller streams powered smaller operations.
So you clear off the trees and turn to sheep, dairy, and other agriculture and all is well. Life goes on, the railroad comes through town inspiring a growth of tourists and summerfolk, plus a way to get dairy goods to Boston quickly. There are creameries, cheese factories, tanneries, churches, eleven school districts with one-room schools, an opera house or two, stores, facilities for making tinware, window blinds, bricks. There are women who make dresses and hats. It is a self-contained and bustling town.
But time marches on. One of the results of deforestation is that the land becomes drier. Large streams flow less powerfully; small streams dwindle to mere trickles, except when the water that does come flows off naked hills in floods. The forest floors were spongy with humus and mosses which held back the water. Roots of giant trees held the wet soil in place. The rains fell more gently when the drops were misty, divided by all the leaves and pine needles. Land was wetter, bogs weren’t drained, and there were more places to slow water down before it became a torrent, a flood. In between floods, the streams were getting comparatively sluggish, and mills less efficient. Some couldn’t run at all, some closed or moved.
It takes us a while to figure things out. We forget, or haven’t yet come to grips with the idea that progress can have its downsides. So, of course, can stagnation. There are no real answers – the trees and the prosperity they offered were harvested by people who thought nothing at all of being judicious about the project. The native people who had lived here, carefully, in sunshine and in shade, seemed to have nothing to teach that anyone wanted to hear. We have our beautiful Vermont villages and we love them, but they come at a cost. We have more trees now, smaller than the originals, but trees. But we have very few cows in town, and certainly not the 16,600 sheep the 1840 census credited Milton with.
So I have learned to keep an eye on my river. She is quiet today, and lovely. But I know that two days heavy rain can turn her muddy, roaring, and voracious. No one is really at fault. But perhaps we should be more wary of fast changes.