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Citro: Hibernating Hill Folk

03/02/10 5:55PM By Joe Citro
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(HOST) A time-honored winter tradition is the telling of stories, some true, and some not. Commentator Joe Citro has one story that - if it isn't true - probably ought to be.

(CITRO) Today I'm kicking off another series of weird Vermont tales, ghost stories, and historical oddities. This one's an undisputed classic.
    
It concerns the odd practice of "human hibernation", first publicly disclosed in a December, 1887 issue of The Montpelier Argus and Patriot.
    
The reporter had discovered information in an old diary written by his Uncle William. The entries focused on the efforts of an isolated family of wretchedly poor hill farmers from up around Calais. Their problem was how to stretch a meager food supply through the long winter months.

Yankee ingenuity led to a horrific solution. Somehow they developed a process to literally freeze people alive. Like hibernating bears, they'd sleep the winter away.

The process began by drugging four men and two women, "one of the men," Uncle William wrote, "a cripple about 36 years old, the other five past the age of usefulness...."  When unconscious, the individuals were stripped and carried outdoors where they were packed side by side on beds of straw.

Their noses, ears, and fingers turned white beneath the full moon. When their upturned faces assumed a tallowy look, they were judged "ready".  They were packed in straw and boxed-up to guard against predators. Accumulating snow drifts buried the sleepers for one quarter of a year.

Just as the Green Mountains were beginning to warm up, Uncle William returned to the cabin to witness the sleepers' liberation from their icy crypt. Able-bodied men lifted stone-stiff relatives into warm baths fragrant with a mysterious hemlock-based potion.  Slowly, pallid faces began to brighten. Muscles twitched. Fingers flexed. Vitality returned. The six were carried inside where they were warmed by blankets, fire, and a hardy meal.

After this vivid account first saw print, the story of Vermont's hibernating hill folk quickly spread around the world. Locally, it took root in our folk memory and was frequently confused with fact.  Having grown up in southern Vermont, I recall hearing it from old-timers who swore it was true.

In his book Inside New England, "Yankee Magazine" editor Judson Hale relates an anecdote that perfectly illustrates this strange tale's unique position between fact and fantasy.  He writes, "I once asked an old Vermont farm couple in the Montpelier area if either one of them truly believed the 'Frozen Death' story.  "Certainly do," the husband answered emphatically, without hesitation.

"Then the wife added, 'The only part I doubt is the thawing out.'"

Please excuse me as I put another log on the fire.

(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Joe Citro on line at VPR-dot-net.
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