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Hidey holes in old Vermont houses

04/24/03 12:00AM By C.B. Johnson
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(Host) Commentator CB Johnson examines some of our favorite myths about old houses.

(Johnson) Most everyone loves a good story, and many older homes in Vermont have one. Some of them are even true! A common story I've found is "the secret hiding place." These are usually small spaces that appear to have no clear purpose and are difficult to access. Conveniently the hiding place is evidence for the story, and the story explains the hiding place!

If the house seems old enough, it's where the owners hid from "the Indians," never mind that only a couple dozen houses in Vermont really date from before the end of the Revolution. If the house is not quite so old, it must have been where they hid escaping slaves. Of course the claims for houses built after 1865 are a little suspect! And many later houses are said to have a secret place where bootleggers hid liquor during Prohibition. This one is particularly popular near the Canadian Border.

Now Vermonters did hide from Native Americans, quite a number hid runaway slaves, and probably even more hid illegal liquor. It's just that building a secret hiding place specifically for these things largely runs contrary to logic and the evidence. I mean, would you build a stone room in your basement to hide an illegal immigrant?

Old uses or remodeling explains most "secret rooms." Before refrigeration, homeowners built cold rooms for food storage in their cellars and barn foundations. Early houses retrofitted for stoves commonly had their massive chimneys removed, leaving "rooms" in the basement and "hidden closets" on the floors above. In large houses, remodelings that "hide" back stairs and nooks is common. And exactly how does a trap door to the roof become evidence of a secret signaling station for the Underground Railroad rather than simply a trap door to the roof?

Considering the historical record, among the many accounts of hiding from Native American raiders, none tell of a successful attempt to hide in a house. Despite myriad claims for places that were "stations" on the Underground Railroad, only about two dozen sites have any documentation, and that tells a very different story. An ex-slave wrote from Canada to Zenas Ellis in Fair Haven thanking him for letting him stay in his barn. At Rokeby in Ferrisburgh, perhaps the best documented Underground Railroad site in the United States, the Robinson family had runaways working in their fields and staying in the farmhouse like other hired help. And as for Prohibition, no less than Governor Percival Clement of Rutland didn't bother to build a secret hiding place at home for his barrels of bonded whiskey; he is said to have stored them under a porch at the local convent.

So some things we find in old houses are genuinely puzzling, but usually it's just the previous owner's taste. However, if you do find a sealed-up closet and there's an old flower pot in there, maybe it's from the 1970s when the hippies moved to Vermont and grew marijuana.

This is C.B. Johnson on the Vermont vernacular.

C.B. Johnson is a photographer and cultural resource consultant in Calais, Vermont.


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