September 17, 2018|By Sally Manikian| Land
Last week, Trevor Cutsinger introduced you to the Cowee Forest—a 23,000-acre forest treasure that The Conservation Fund purchased and protected in 2017 as part of our national effort to prevent the fragmentation and potential conversion of America’s working forests. He described the wide-reaching impact Cowee has on the three states it straddles, including supporting local jobs, improving water quality, providing recreation opportunities, health benefits, biodiversity, and climate resilience.

PDJS00428Photo by Carl Heilman II.

But there is more! Hidden within the forest floor is an incredibly significant piece of this project that reveals the cultural and historical significance of this property. Within Cowee Forest, and spread in a clustered network over 200 acres at the very top of Egg Mountain, are dozens of perfectly intact cellar holes that contain relics of the area’s past. 

A cellar hole is an indentation or hole in the ground indicating where a structure once stood. Sometimes these are true ‘holes’, sometimes they are piles of rocks, sometimes they have still-intact walls. Rarely is there any forestland in the northeast without a rock wall or old foundation indicating the prior history of the land. However, a cluster of cellar holes? An entire settlement, untouched for hundreds of years? That is something to pay attention to. At the Egg Mountain Settlement, there are cellar holes that indicate large foundations, small foundations, pasture walls and depressions that indicate barns. The site is an archaeological wonder; a completely intact and undisturbed settlement from the late 18thcentury. 

Cowee Forest Egg Mountain VT c Jerry Monkman201808091 8Morning in Cowee Forest on Egg Mountain. Photo by Jerry Monkman.

I first learned about the cellar holes on Egg Mountain from a local forester while traveling with my Working Forest Fund peers. I was very intrigued, because my personal reasons for working in conservation are rooted in public access and wilderness, and were forged through a decade of trailwork, historic and cultural preservation, and working with youth. This was a unique angle to our Cowee Forest project and one that really resonated for me: the role Egg Mountain offered to the historical landscape and the texture of human activity in the valley. 

Cowee Forest Egg Mountain archaeological dig VT c Jerry Monkman201808095 5Steve Butz and students in his Archeaology Field School on an archeaological dig on Egg Mountain in Sandgate, Vermont. Photo by Jerry Monkman.

I learned that since 2013, a local high school teacher named Steve Butz has been slowly and carefully excavating at least one pit at each foundation to determine their consistency in epoch, with permission of the prior landowner and now The Conservation Fund. He found the same artifacts of the same age at every site, and we conclude that all of the cellar holes are the same age. While he has been conducting these excavations, he has also been researching the local lore and myth: that this settlement was the refuge for Daniel Shays, the famous post-revolutionary rebel who challenged the oppressive tax policy of the fledgling United States Government. This collection of cellar holes has national significance both as a time capsule of a settlement dating to roughly 1789-1820 and the role it possibly played in national history. 

They have unearthed many artifacts, including hand-painted ceramics that come out of the ground with bright florals and bold stripes; eyeglasses with partial lenses; so many belt buckles; hand-carved pipe stems; the teeth, talons, and long bones of animals; tiny buttons and clear blue glass beads; and shards of glass from windows. The detritus of an age gone by, of hardscrabble lives eked out on the side of a mountain at the frontier edge of a new nation. 

Cowee Forest Egg Mountain archaeological dig VT c Jerry Monkman201808098 6Cowee Forest Egg Mountain archaeological dig VT c Jerry Monkman201808093 7Cowee Forest Egg Mountain archaeological dig VT c Jerry Monkman201808091 6

High school students on an archeaological dig (left; right) and a piece of pottery they found (center) in the cellar holes on Egg Mountain in Sandgate, Vermont. Photo by Jerry Monkman.

We’ve helped to connect Steve and his hard work with the State of Vermont’s Historic Preservation Office. The Conservation Fund, Steve, and the State of Vermont have signed a Memorandum of Understanding recognizing Steve’s work so far, and the State will serve as the archive of the artifacts unearthed. This year, Steve’s field school added additional layers of research and documentation: 3-D photoimagery of every site to create a virtual tour of the entire settlement, along with a thorough catalog of the entire collection of artifacts to be archived with the State. These are the first steps into ensuring that the value of Egg Mountain as a historic site becomes fully realized. 

Cowee Forest Egg Mountain archaeological dig VT c Jerry Monkman201808099 1Cowee Forest Egg Mountain archaeological dig VT c Jerry Monkman201808091 5

Steve Butz (far left) and his students use a tablet to create 3-D images of the cellar holes that they are excavating. Photo by Jerry Monkman.

Egg Mountain is at a pivotal moment. For the first time in the lifecycle of this piece of forestland, we have the opportunity to permanently protect this archaeological resource, as well as continue to support a working forest. Working with Steve Butz, as well as the State of Vermont Division of Historic Resources, we are going to develop the best solution possible to preserve this unique gem of our history. This project exemplifies the Fund’s mission of a multi-faceted approach to conservation: not only is the protection of Cowee Forest good for the environment and the local economy (via its timber production), it also provides rich educational opportunities and connects residents with their area’s history.

9 10 18 Cowee BattenKill River NY c Jerry Monkman201808095 Make sure to read "Forest Health and Social Work" by Trevor Cutsinger to find out more about Cowee Forest.

The Battenkill River in Shushan, New York near the Vermont border. Photo by EcoPhotography.