Ice fishing in Lake Willoughby, about 1790, new chapter, excerpt

Image

Aunt Melissy and Uncle Joe Hyde, Westmore, Lake Willoughby

“As you know the town was chartered by the authority of the State, Aug. 17th in the year of the Lord over 150 years ago.” I said, imitating Uncle Joe’s voice. Fiona smiled a bit. Encouraged, I continued:” It was then granted to Capt. Uriah Seymour, Abraham Sedgwick and their associates, being 65 persons in all, with the usual reservations and appropriations in the Charters or the grants by the Legislature. None of the original grantees or proprietors ever settled on their lands.”
All of Unce Joe’s stories started like a history lesson. Maybe to put Aunt Melissy’s suspicion over too wild a tale to rest only to sneak it in later. If Fiona was bored by the beginning, she did not let on. The patches on her dress now were of a saturated blue and orange, shining.
“There is no record of the exact time, nor by whom the first settlement was made.. But we do know that some six or seven families finally came to this town from Windsor and Orange Counties and made a settlement, among whom were Jabesh Hunter, Allen Wait, James Lyon, Jeremeel Cummings, Lot F. Woodruff, Dave Porter, Abel Bugbee and my grandfather, Joseph W. Hyde. The town had not been allotted at this time and they settled on such lands as best suited them, and others came too and made a beginning.”

Fiona listened contentedly. Stories were rare in our every day lives and even though I could by far not do it as well as Uncle Joe Hyde, who would pause artfully now and then, and whose blue eyes delighted in the fact that he had someone listening to his old stories gave it a special mellow flavor.

“But soon the cold season came and the Great War broke out between the Colonies and England. The settlers were surrounded by a howling wilderness a long distance from any other settlement, their numbers were few and not all were of kind disposition for you had to be rough at heart to survive on the land even though the soil is rich and productive and well suited to farming. The settlers were a hardy and industrious band of pioneers; like my grandfather they had come a long way into the wilderness, some single men on their own, some had made the way with young families. Each of them knew loss, especially loss of wee ones who passed on into the peace of the Lord before their first birthdays and left young wives sad and dreary.
Their labors on the land were not ordered and peaceful like today, but it was onerous work, with no time for rest, not even on the day of the Lord, their privations were many, but the hope of better times coming and faith in their Lord cheered them on and enabled them to endure the hardships until the War came. Some had even build commodious barns and comfortable dwellings but though all of their hearts were fierce and brave, most were still forced to abandon their homes not yet into the second generation and retreat. Their numbers were scattering, the frost destroyed their crops and the fear of the British and of hostile Indian tribes filled their hearts with fear. So they held a council to see what it was best to do in their perilous situation, and most families decided to surrender at discretion and most left very soon for some of the lower and more thickly settled towns in the State.”

Fiona embraced her legs and listened to me intently. I had given up imitating Uncle Joe but was still using his words. My history teacher in Summerville would have been fascinated as I spoke like a gazette from the early 19th century.
“It took over 30 years until the town was settled again. But my grandfather was among the few and scattered who stayed on, all these years. So did my grandmother who was a small, fearless woman and could hold her own among the men, and she worked like one, too. So my father was born, and was the only surviving child among 12 children who all perished before their 15th birthday. The family lived in a wee wooden cottage for all of the married life of the parents, sometimes with up to four or five children, from cradle to grave, right here on the old clearing where my father later built the stone house. Maybe it was because the cabin was so tiny and surrounded by dense woods, maybe it was because they respected the land they lived, didon very little farming, really just working a small garden patch, and made their living mostly on hunting and fishing, that the enemy overlooked them, and also the tribes who roamed the hills let them be, maybe they were just too insignificant to be noticed, and so they did survive the wild days and years when they had no company but each other.

My grandfather taught my father all there was to know about the lake and he knew as much about fishing and hunting as any Indian. They lived well enough on trout, rainbow smelt, burbot, yellow perch, longnose sucker, lake chub, common shiner and whitefish.

My grandfather took my father and his older brother Will out ice-fishing in winter. They mainly fished for burbot, a fish rich in cod-liver oil which my grandmother extracted and made the children swallow measured out by the spoonfull each morning. It left an ill, fishy taste crawling up from the stomach all day long, but she would not let them leave the house without it. You know, the liver of the burbot is huge. I was told my grandfather would cut it out of the fresh kill and eat it raw, but my father and his brother refused.

When Will died, last of all the brothers and sisters, just shy of his fifteenth birthday, my father became fearless. He said, Will had been his only friend, all others had died too young or had been too sick or had been girls and not fit for the rough hunting and fishing trips my grandfather took my father and Will along on. There had been babies who died before they ever learned to walk and talk, a sister – Abbe – who was funny and quick-witted and who had lived almost nine years and was still missed, but it had always been Joe and Will and they had taken each other’s company for granted even when all the others left them, some not leaving behind more than a shadow. Even when Abbe had taken sick with a high fever and passed on after having been delirious for two days and nights and then unconscious for another day before she faded at nightfall of the third night it had still been the two of them who brought Abbe flowers in summer and put them on her grave as they remembered that she had loved them, still the two of them who did not contract the fever and had lived once again.

Will had been his best and only friend, they had been thick as thieves and one knew what the other was thinking without ever saying it out loud. They shared a bed all their lives and woke up the same minute every morning, Over time they had grown sure that it was this bond that protected both of them from harm – and they had been their parents’ pride because bringing up two healthy, strong boys out 12 children was still an accomplishment in the wilderness by the lake.

Both loved fishing with their father, but ice-fishing they loved best of all. It took a while until the lake froze over in winter because it is so deep, and my grandfather went out every day to test if it was safe to walk on the ice after the frost had come to stay and the ice slowly glazed over. They knew that fresh burbot with its brown and green mottled skin was waiting for them under the ice, deep down, and as they were subsiding on dried fish and meats they could not wait for the fresh catch even if it meant fresh cod liver oil. They say, said Uncle Joe Hyde, that burbot tastes a lot like lobster and they call it the “poor man’s lobster” and, by the good Lord, (here Aunt Melissy would cast him a stern glance) I have never tasted lobster in my live but there is no fish as delicious as freshly fried burbot.

Note: This chapter is based on a historical article in the Vermont Historical Gazetteer, edited by Abby Maria Hennenway. Orleans County – Westmore Chapter: By Calvin Gibson and Alpha Allyn. Published by Claremont Manufacturing Co., 1877, pgs. 365 -373.

I am looking forward to reading your comments!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s