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From Maple Syrup to Morgans

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

If you need an excuse to visit Vermont, blame it on the syrup – the Green Mountain State’s
true claim to fame is found in the buckets of boiled-down sap tapped from its maple trees.
It’s hard to imagine anyone driving through this bit of New England without picking up at
least one jug of the state’s tasty trademark, but they also will leave Vermont with
memories of scenic vistas and historic sites. That’s especially true of any trip through
Addison County. Once encompassing most of northwestern Vermont, the county still runs along
much of the southern half of Lake Champlain — and remains an important part of our
country’s history. During a meandering 85-mile drive through this region of central
Vermont, you can visit the oldest chartered city in the state, visit the remains of Native
American heritages and tour a famous horse farm. Small wonder why the area is often
referred to as “the land of milk and honey.” A good place to begin your tour of this part
of Vermont is at the Mount Independence State Historic Site, situated on a 300-acre
promontory on Lake Champlain. To get to this National Historic Landmark, follow State Route
73 west from the village of Orwell, turning left at the first road. There is a short but
steep hill to the parking lot, which can accommodate large rigs. It was here, at Mount
Independence, during the summer of 1776 that 12,000 soldiers started building a massive
fort, making it then one of the largest communities in North America. The purpose of the
fort, along with Fort Ticonderoga directly across Lake Champlain, was to discourage an
anticipated British attack from the north. The two forts strained manpower, however;
ultimately, the American forces withdrew from Mount Independence because they didn’t have
enough soldiers to man both outposts. That by no means diminishes the fort’s role in
history, however, or your visit. Start your tour of the fort at the visitors center, where
a spectacular mural and other exhibits trace the harsh life of the soldiers who occupied
the fort. A focal point is the statue of five soldiers — two of which talk, thanks to
holographic technology. From the visitors center, six miles of walking trails provide
magnificent views of the lake and lead to sites of barracks, blockhouses, batteries and
other archaeological remains. To reach your next stop, Chimney Point, take State Route 73
to 22A north. Just past Bridport, take State Route 125 west seven miles to Chimney Point
State Historic Site, where you will see remnants from both the Native American and French
heritages that were predominant in the Champlain Valley. For more than 7,500 years,
cultures have taken advantage of this strategic site that juts into Lake Champlain. Native
tribes found an abundance of fish and game along the shore and, in the early 1730s, the
French built a temporary fort on this site. Still standing today, the Chimney Point
building dates back to the late 1780s, when it served as a tavern. Inside, you’ll find
exhibits and artifacts tracing the history of the cultures that occupied the area. Restored
rooms include a taproom that was popular with travelers; in 1791, future presidents Thomas
Jefferson and James Madison visited while touring the new state of Vermont. The original
structure and later additions were owned by the Barnes family until 1968, when the property
was deeded to the state. As you leave Chimney Point, take State Route 17 north, returning
to State Route 22A north and on to the town of Vergennes. Measuring just one square mile,
Vergennes is the smallest city in Vermont (and claims to be the smallest city in the
country). Established in 1788, it also is the state’s oldest city. Downtown Vergennes has
been revitalized but maintains its historic charm: Seeing the stained-glass dome at the
Bixby Memorial Library is worth a stop, as is the Vergennes Opera House. You’ll also want
to check out Kennedy Brothers Marketplace, a converted factory that is a showcase for
Vermont crafts. A short drive six miles west of this little jewel is the Lake Champlain
Maritime Museum, where you can learn about the naval activities that have taken place on
the lake. Of special note is the Philadelphia II, a replica of Benedict Arnold’s gunboat.
The museum is a work in progress as craftsmen continue to build boats in 18th-century
workshops. After touring the museum, return to Vergennes and continue on U.S. Highway 7
south to Middlebury, a thriving college town with a colorful history. As you make your way
to the boutiques and restaurants of downtown Middlebury, you can’t miss the Congregational
Church with its imposing steeple, which some consider the most beautiful church in a state
that is known for its soaring spires. The brick buildings in downtown Middlebury have
changed little since the area was rebuilt in the late 1800s after a series of fires
destroyed the original wood structures. You really will think the clock has been turned
back a century or more when visiting this picturesque New England town. A favorite site
with visitors is Middlebury College, established in 1800, and the on-campus Middlebury
College Center for the Arts. Downtown, you’ll find the Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont
History (housed in an 1829 mansion filled with 19th-century Vermont furniture and
housewares), and the Vermont Folklife Center, featuring changing exhibits of the state’s
arts and crafts. For anyone interested in local art, the most popular place to visit is
Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center, located downtown in an old mill building. The
center is home to a magnificent collection of crafts from 250 of the state’s finest
artisans, including handcrafted glassware, jewelry, paintings and furniture. Across a
scenic footbridge from Frog Hollow is the historic Marble Works, where century-old
buildings and courtyards house a variety of art shops and restaurants. As you cross the
bridge, you can get a good look at Otter Creek Falls, which provided water for the town’s
early industries. Before leaving the Middlebury area, you’ll want to take State Route 23
north and follow the signs to the University of Vermont Morgan Horse Farm in Weybridge.
Here you will see descendants of the first homegrown breed of American horse — the Morgan
— in action as students learn to become trainers of these spirited yet gentle horses. In
the late 1700s, Justin Morgan acquired a colt (born in 1789 from unknown breeds) as payment
on a debt. Morgan was impressed with the stallion’s strength; even though the horse was
relatively small, it had straight legs and deep muscles. During the next 30 years, the
little bay proved to be a strong workhorse as well as a fast racehorse. News of the little
stallion spread, and during his lifetime he was bred to a variety of mares. All the colts
inherited their father’s image and abilities, spawning a new breed and making him the
founding sire. Though called “Figure” by Morgan, the steed became better known as “Justin
Morgan,” named after his master, which was the practice of the day. Today, every registered
Morgan horse can be traced back to Justin Morgan. The horses carved their place in history
by carrying Generals Philip Sheridan and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson during the Civil War.
After returning to Middlebury, continue east on State Route 125 — a state-designated
scenic byway — which takes you up through parts of the beautiful Green Mountain National
Forest. Watch for the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail on the left side of the highway just
past Ripton. Here, you can stretch your legs on an easy, mile-long trail that leads through
a meadow, forest and marsh — along the trail are signs bearing passages from Frost’s
poems. Continue east on State Route 125 past Middlebury Gap (elevation 2,149 feet) until
you come to Forest Road 39; turn left to reach the Texas Falls Recreation Area. While you
won’t find a spectacular waterfall, you can take a pleasant walk alongside a cascade that
tumbles from pool to pool through a deep cleft in the rocks. It’s an especially nice place
to visit on a warm, sunny day. Though this is a relatively short drive, it’s long on
scenery and historic sites. Take your time — and enjoy what attracted early settlers to
this lovely part of our country.

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