Bat Rehab, Summer 2016
Our Secret Season Safari, 2018
Kilns In the Woods, a guide for the amateur archaeologist
My fascination with kilns began when I read Victor Rolando’s book, 200 Years of Soot and Sweat, The History and Archeology of Vermont’s Iron, Charcoal, and Lime Industries; my fascination with stone began about 200 million years ago. I still find it difficult to see stone and not think about the utilitarian possibilities, whether it be an out cropping, old cave, or just a beautifully shaped specimen lying on the ground, this modern day Homo sapien can’t help feeling there has to be something useful I can do with it.
Though the research for Victor’s book was done in Vermont, he actually started in New York, but he could have chosen any eastern state, for kilns are not unique to Vermont, they are unique to an industrial era. Vermont also provided Victor with a somewhat manageable study site, though after 14 years (1978-1992) of driving and hiking thousands of miles, many sites in Vermont have still not been found.
My aim is to help you see stone differently as you hike through the woods; to see stone structures as part of the natural world, and just like birds or trees or animal tracks, something that can be identified and interpreted. This small contribution to the “naturalists handbook” addresses lime kilns, circa 1850-1900 and charcoal kilns, circa 1860-1900--a time of small industries, the ruins of which are now scattered throughout the eastern forests.
Even if you don’t get off the beaten path, you are likely to discover stone structures on your journey: old stonewalls and cellar holes are a history lesson waiting to be researched. Find a good swimming hole and you will likely find evidence of Vermont’s iron industry. The same deep pools and rushing water that make for good swimming once provided the power to turn a water wheel, which could have powered the bellows of a 19th century bloomery forge where a bloomer worked ore into a ball of iron. The same gorge may have powered the tilt hammer that flattened that ball of iron, removing impurities.
Charcoal provided the heat for this operation and Victor, who began his research on the iron industry, soon realized that to understand the iron industry, he would have to know something about the charcoal industry. But of course if he found an old kiln, he had to identify it as either charcoal or lime. One thing always leads to another.
Along waterways you will also find evidence of old dams for power or water diversion, gristmills and sawmills. These structures were water dependent. Kilns, on the other hand, do not have to be built on a river. Lime kilns will be close to a source of limestone. Charcoal kilns were often located close to sawmills, which do require a direct source of water for power. Having access to water was also essential to help maintain a controlled burn in a charcoal kiln, so charcoal kilns are usually not far from a river or stream. However, in the hills of Vermont, you are rarely far from a river or stream.
Some stone structures are so old their origin is mysterious and the source of folklore and legend. It’s quite possible that my fascination with stone structures began when I read Shadow Child by Joseph Citro back in the late 80’s. In this suspense filled novel, the special powers of little people are attributed to the presence of old Celtic root cellars. These old root cellars can be found in many places in the east and as far as I can tell, Mr. Citro’s description of these stone structures is accurate. Unfortunately, I can’t speak to his accuracy about little people.
In Rochester Vermont, on the top of a mountain, before the dirt road becomes a class four road, there are at least 100 cairns on 10 acres. And this is not the only site. These structures are different than the root cellars, and though many people have speculated as to their origin, they remain a mystery. The piles have no entrance but are not like the field stone piles made by farmers when they cleared land for farming in the 19th century. They have symmetry and are very well made, but they are not kilns. Kilns collapse.
Victor found 85 lime kiln sites (93 ruins), and 71 charcoal kiln sites (130 kiln ruins and 51 mounds), so I needed a much smaller number to work with. I set out to find 8 lime kiln ruins and 8 charcoal kiln sites. With Vic’s book as my bible and GPS data from the state archeologist, the quest was on. I entered 16 data points into Google Earth, most of which formed a line along the spine of the Green Mountains, from Ripton to Stamford.
Victor’s book has pictures of some of the kilns he found, so I assumed he would have used his best pictures and that the best pictures would have been of the kilns in the best shape. These kilns, I assumed, 24-38 years later, would be the easiest to find and photograph. I found 6 of the 8 lime kiln sites (I also found one I wasn’t looking for, so my total was 7), and 4 of the 8 charcoal kiln sites, with a fifth being questionable. I quickly gained an appreciation for the work Victor put into writing this book and doing the research for his thesis.
Lime kilns need to be hot enough to convert limestone into calcium oxide, but not so hot the limestone melts. When the lime is hydrated, calcium oxide becomes calcium hydroxide, the commercial form that is then used (or was used) to manufacture paper, glass, mortar, cement, antacid and an agricultural neutralizer of acidic soils.
The old lime kilns I was looking for are classified as intermittent kilns. They were typically small, producing lime for local use only. As new kiln technology took over, and business expanded to regional markets, some of these older kilns were modified by making them taller and adding firebrick to the inside, but in most cases they were abandoned.
Lime kilns are not difficult to find, if you know what you’re looking for. In fact, you don’t have to go into the woods to see them. Cavendish and Bristol, for example, have large ruins visible from the road. Even the ones in the woods are adjacent to a road; though it may be an old dirt road, possibly class four. When Victor set out to find lime kilns he looked for quarries on Beers county maps from the 19th century. I of course had Victor’s book. In my research I discovered that road names change, but old road names can provide clues to the whereabouts of kilns. Names like Quarry Hill and Lime Kiln Road suggest you are getting warm.
The lime kiln ruins I found ranged from a pile of stones that resembled a culvert, to the magnificent Thayer kiln in Jamaica, with its gothic arches still in tact. In many cases, the remains are collapsed walls, buried in vegetation, and barely suggest a kiln. If you were paying attention to the local topography, you might stop and look at the curious pile of stones, and possibly see a circle or semi circle with a slight depression, and maybe wonder why it was there.
I found a substantial kiln in Tinmouth, in a pasture, with a large opening in the side. Apparently a cow got stuck in it many years ago and the opening was created to free the cow. There was also an old cellar hole close by. Once you see a few kilns it is not likely you will mistake them for a cellar hole, however, a shallow kiln site and an old cellar hole, over time, with the movement of earth from frost, erosion and human impacts, may come to resemble each other more and more.
In Fair Haven, among the slate quarries, after searching the hills in the rain for some time, I found a kiln ruin beside the road, looking exactly like Victor’s picture. Not surprisingly all of the stone was slate and this made it very easy to overlook.
According to Victor, and I often found this to be true, “farm-type kilns were usually found at the base of a hill, sometimes just below a limestone outcrop.” It made sense, from an architectural standpoint, to use the landscape to your advantage. In Vermont you are never far from a ledge or steep hill, so why not build your kiln right into the earth.
Charcoal burns hotter than wood and because it is mostly carbon, creates a reducing environment whereby the carbon combines with oxygen in the ore, producing carbon monoxide. When used for the production of iron, this achieves the desired result of improving the quality of ore by removing oxygen from it.
Long before kilns, many different cultures made charcoal using a pit or mound method, where wood was stacked in a conical arrangement with a central opening that acted like a chimney. The mound was covered with earth, set on fire, and allowed to smolder until the smoke stopped and the pit no longer shrank. If you come upon a raised circular shape in the woods, approximately 30’-40’ in diameter, it may be an old charcoal mound. If it is, a little digging should produce charcoal.
Sometime around 1860 New Englanders began the transition from mounds to kilns, but mounds persisted for some time. The first kilns in Vermont were rectangular or round, usually with red brick on top of a stone foundation. These are the easiest kilns to find because much of the stonework is still in tact. It’s a different story for the brick. Over the years, the many wagonloads of red brick that were hauled up into the Green Mountains have been pirated. Given that each brick-type kiln required 33,000 to 40,000 bricks, that’s a lot of missing bricks that were taken for chimneys, fireplaces, trail maintenance, or other projects. Yet the presence of red brick is still the best indicator you are close to an old charcoal kiln site.
At Mt. Tabor, I hiked down the Long Trail from the parking lot off Seasonal Forestry Road. The trail eventually parallels the Big Branch Brook, which, according to my Gazetteer, becomes Ten Kilns Brook. At this point red brick appears. Most hikers probably think nothing of it, but why should there be red brick all along a wilderness trail? The red brick led me to the remains I was looking for, though they were not substantial any more, the only other sign being charred, black earth and, if you poked around, iron hardware, such as reinforcement bands that held up the kilns, and doors and covers. Had the U.S. Forest Service not dynamited these kilns years ago, there might have been something more interesting to find. Apparently hikers had been staying in the remains and this was considered dangerous.
Of the 71 charcoal-making sites Victor Rolando found in Vermont, 38 were in Bennington County, 13 in Rutland County, 13 in Addison County, and 5 other counties had one each. I spent a day in Bennington County, where Victor found 19 sites with kilns that were either all stone or had a stone base. Stamford looked the most promising, with two sites consisting of multiple kilns that once had a stone base 8-9 feet high and brick that completed a bee hive shape. Old pictures of these kilns from Vic’s book, and Victor’s notes indicating some of the ruins were still in good shape, fueled my intrigue. The remoteness of these kilns increased the chance that some of the brick structure still stood.
When people say, “you can’t get there from here”, they may be referring to Stamford from Pownal, using County Road. Vic’s book made it sound as if the road would be passable in August, well it isn’t. So I drove north to go east, and eventually got there. I did a lot of hiking that day in Stamford, only to find out, later on, the GPS point I had been following was about 1.7 miles off. Finding the other two sites seemed less likely and I wasn’t up for any more bushwhacking. A return trip seemed imminent. I had just turned around when I saw the first vehicle of the day up there on that mountain—a pick up truck with MA plates.
Jerry was 77 and said he had been coming up here since he was eight. He hunted these woods and knew exactly what I was talking about when I described the kilns. One site he said, was very close. He gave me directions and when I asked him to repeat them for a third time, he said, “follow me” and hoped in his truck. We parked, he pointed north, and told me to follow an old “wood road” along the stream—said I couldn’t miss the ruins. He was right.
The Gully Brook site consisted of two kilns with only a few feet separating them, both now reduced to large, uneven circles of stones, with part of one wall taller than me. Moss covered much of the stone, and the canopy filtered the mid day light. Gully Brook (or Cowan Brook) was all I could hear as I walked around taking pictures. This was the pay off; it had all been worth while, and all thanks to Jerry, the guy with an old-timer accent somewhere between Boston and the hills of Vermont.
It’s difficult to characterize Vermont during the last forty to fifty years of the 19th century. In general, the forest, which had largely been cleared, was returning. Charcoal, potash and lumber were still viable industries. It was a boom and bust time, when someone might have built a kiln in his or her back yard to make a buck, and then abandon it a year later. Lumber towns like Barnumville, Old Job, and Rootville sprung up and disappeared a few years later. And where there were lumber mills, there were charcoal kilns.
I wanted to look for the Bourn Brook charcoal kilns in Windhall, but it turned out to be too much of a hike. The old Rootville road is still there, east of Manchester, and you can drive it for a short distance, until it becomes the Long trail. Somewhere in this expansive Lye Brook Wilderness area, west of Little Mud Pond, and a few hundred feet west of Bourne Brook, are the ruins of eight kilns. Victor spent many hours and hiked many miles just to find this site and indicates that some of the brick walls were up to four feet high. I wasn’t able to make the trip. But you should!
“Many ruins still lie out there along sides of roads and trails, waiting to be discovered and interpreted”. -Victor Rolando
Hope you enjoyed the read!
Mark Paul, firstname.lastname@example.org
I am a freelance writer, photographer and videographer living in Starksboro, VT