Like diamonds dropped from the sky, scores of sparkling ponds lie scattered around the hills of Orange County, Vermont. But none with a name as beguiling as the pond up the road from my place. Old timers call it Aldrich’s Pork Barrel, and the story of how the pond came by such a curious address makes for interesting folklore. Perhaps more significantly, it reveals the dynamic relationship between evolving community needs and the development of natural assets. And an inspiration for all pond owners.
As ponds go, it appears at first to be a homely sheet of water, with a small view from a fishing access beside the spillway dam. Visitors are greeted with a look at the tail end of the pond, which is narrow and shallow. The view north, across the main body of water, is a long, thin runway of murky brown flanked by tall conifers and hardwoods. The first time I saw it, I got back in the car and drove away. Later that summer I revisited the access and tried swimming, but the water was so shallow I quit.
It wasn’t until late in the fall that I put in a canoe and paddled beyond the shallows. Suddenly the shoreline pulled back in both directions, like a parting curtain. The pond was bigger than I’d imagined, easily as wide as it was long. The water cleared and darkened, a sign of depth. To the north, a surge of steep hills deflected the weather, and in the lee of this hardwood watershed a shallow wetland skirted the shore: rushes, cattails, wood duck nests, a beaver lodge, standing dead pines riddled with woodpecker holes. I scared off a pair of migrating ducks, and they flew to the far end of the pond.
I paddled farther along and the water deepened again. There I found a sand beach with rafts anchored on shore, and behind the tree line an assortment of small white cabins, a children’s camp. Completing the circle, I skirted stretches of stoney shoreland, stands of tall pine and white birch, another ribbon of wetland, a small cottage, one more beaver lodge, and then I was back at the dam. I skidded the canoe up on the grass and sat down to admire the view. I knew I’d discovered a pond with a secret.
That canoe trip was many years ago, and I’ve since visited the pond in every season: fishing, swimming, skating. I’ve learned its moods: sensual summer highs, haunted autumns, frostbitten winter, manic spring. Along the way I’ve learned its history, too.
Imagine a time about 13,000 years ago, when the glaciers began their retreat from northern New England, leaving behind a patchwork of immense silt deposits, granite barrens, and potholes filled with meltwater. Many of these potholes would have looked like tempting home sites for returning beavers, whose fossilized remains are closer to the size of bears than the diminished rodents we know today.
Beavers have long been associated with the initiation of life, and in Native American myths the beaver gets credit for creating the very earth itself. Indians have long understood that it is the natural evolution of beaver pond into marsh and then meadow that produces the fertile terrain necessary to support wild and domesticated foods, game animals, and at the top of the food chain, humans.
No artifacts of the Abenaki people who hunted and fished in this part of Vermont have yet been discovered around Aldrich’s Pork Barrel, but it’s easy to imagine a Native American camp there. The cattails and fiddlehead ferns would have appealed to the Abenaki as much as the alders and poplars attracted the beavers.
In the mid-1700s a permanent settlement was established by the pond. The West family began farming, drawn by the reliable supply of irrigation water as well as fish and wildlife. They raised sheep and built a house with brick chimney made from clay dug from a pit close to the pond. One of the fireplace bricks bore the imprint of a stray sheep that left a hoof mark in the soft clay. It was the first frame house in the county and that it happened to be on the shore of a pond was no accident. A sure supply of food, ice, and water was the best household insurance available then.
During the Revolutionary War, as the story goes, the Wests got chummy with the British, serving food to soldiers and Indians, and when their neighbors found out, the house was confiscated by the Revolutionary government. The place was sold, and the proceeds supported the war.
After the Revolution, the Miller family took over the farm. They grew flax to produce linen and linseed oil. Flax needs a damp climate to thrive, and abundant water for fiber processing, and the pond supplied both. When a new road between Concord, New Hampshire, and Montpelier was built past the farm, the family established a profitable way station for stagecoaches. Traditionally, way stations were built near ponds and lakes so that horses and other livestock would have water.
Town records show that a few years later a villager applied for a permit to raise and lower stream water levels below the pond, presumably in connection with milling activities powered by pond runoff. All that remains of those mills is a graveyard of moss-covered stone foundations along the brook. Neighboring dairy farmers also used the pond, cutting and harvesting ice in winter to take care of their refrigeration requirements. The ripples kept expanding and the farms around the pond flourished.
The pond was proving to be a rich and reliable resource for the methodical development of a community, and it could also be useful in a crisis. In 1816, a series of disastrous summer frosts destroyed most Vermont crops. The farmers called the year Eighteen-Hundred-and-Froze-to-Death, which pretty well described the fate of many North Country farmers and their animals during the ensuing winter. But people close to the pond chopped through the ice and caught enough fish to survive. Almon Aldrich, who lived nearby, found fishing such a pleasant alternative to slopping pigs that he quit farming altogether, and the pond had its name.
A little over a century later Aldrich’s Pork Barrel again offered a remedy for disaster. The great hurricane of 1938 flattened woodlots all over Vermont, and the sawmills couldn’t handle the mammoth timber harvest that followed. Much of the wood seemed destined to rot, or harden beyond the cutting capacity of the mills. So the farmers harnessed their horses and hitched the logs down to the pond. Submerged in water, protected from the decaying effect of oxygen, the timber remained moist and resistant to hardening, and the sawmills were able to catch up with the surplus. Once again the pond proved to be a lifesaver.
Ironically, not long after that, electricity came to the hills, and suddenly every requirement for pond power seemed outdated. Mills that had once been powered by waterwheels switched on a different kind of juice. Dairy farmers who had used ice for refrigeration plugged in electric coolers. Much of the farmland grew back to puckerbrush, abandoned as its owners moved down into the valleys to take advantage of the new economy of scale: get big or get out. It would be nice to say that Aldrich’s Pork Barrel once again belonged to the beavers, but in fact it became a dump for old tires, junk cars and refrigerators that didn’t last as long as the ice boxes they replaced.
Throughout the 1950s and 60s the pond suffered other indignities. The dam began to leak, and without repairs, the lower water level stimulated warmer temperatures, algae blooms, and fish kills. Yet while the pond languished and Vermont’s small dairy farms disappeared, new economic engines began to turn, most notably tourism, with its demand for expanded recreation, fishing and hunting, and conservation. Revenues from fishing and hunting licenses, and tourist tax receipts, looked like a good replacement for the funds lost with the fading mills and farms. The state began to expand its role in game fishing, stocking trout in ponds throughout Vermont, and building new accesses for anglers. The Fish and Wildlife Department repaired the dam, built a fishing access, and stocked the pond with rainbows and brookies.
Together, the town and state set aside a long stretch of the shoreland as a conservation zone protected from development, and part of the shore was included in a wildlife preserve. Long ago, the original farm was remodeled into a summer camp for children, and the echo of a square dance fiddle over the water replaced the squeal of hydro-powered saw blades. As ever, Aldrich’s Pork Barrel offers its natural resources to community use. The pond name has changed over the years, almost as often as the sign gets stolen. And
that probably helps preserve its seclusion, not a bad thing in my book. It's a place we go for solitude, as well as companionship with family and friends. And for fishing, boating, skating, and swimming. There’s no better place to teach kids canoeing skills.
Millions of similar ponds inhabit the countryside, treasures to be enjoyed, utilized, and protected. Maybe there's a Pork Barrel Pond near you.
A slightly different version of this story appears in Tim Matson's Earth Ponds Sourcebook.
Illustration by Michael McCurdy.
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