Restoring History: Project to preserve African-American heritage site

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GRAFTON — The Turner family had a name for their hardscrabble Grafton homestead, and that name reflected a long journey from slavery to freedom.

"The home place was named Journey's End, 'cause father never wanted to go no further after he got up there on that hilltop," recalled Daisy Turner, whose parents founded the farm in the early 1870s.

The Turner family's tale survives because of Daisy's prodigious and well-documented gifts as a storyteller. But their mountaintop home has been mostly reclaimed by nature, and a team of preservationists is now taking action to save the one remaining structure on the property.

The run-down shack known as "Birchdale Camp" doesn't look like much. But advocates say it's a vital piece of African American heritage in a state that has precious few such sites, and they're hoping to renovate the camp and expand public access to the parcel by next year.

"It's so significant for our local history and for the state of Vermont - one could even say for national history," said Liz Bankowski, president and chief executive officer of the Grafton-based Windham Foundation.

The Turner family saga doesn't lack for high drama, and it seems both accidental and miraculous that they ever reached the property that would be christened "Journey's End."

Daisy's legendary father, Alexander or "Alec," traced his ancestry back two generations to the biracial union of an African man and an Englishwoman who had been shipwrecked off the coast of Africa. Alec's father was captured and sold into slavery in Virginia, where Alec was born in 1845. But he escaped as a teenager to join the 1st New Jersey Calvary, and historical accounts say he killed his former overseer while serving in the Union Army.

In the Civil War's aftermath, Turner relocated to New England and eventually settled in Grafton to work for "lumber merchants and mill owners," according to archeological documents on record with the state.

The land where Alec Turner and his wife, Sally, built their home was wild and uninhabited. When the family first arrived, Dairy Turner later said, "there wasn't a place big enough (for) two chairs to set, for the lumber and the trees."

But the family and the family farm grew, as did the Turners' reputation in Grafton and their role in town life. Information recently compiled by a local preservationists says the Turners "had three pews" at the Baptist church in Grafton and also sang at the Phelps Hotel, now the Grafton Inn.

Both Alec and his daughter Daisy, who was one of 13 Turner children, were known as vivid storytellers. Daisy's stories have been immortalized both in print — "Daisy Turner's Kin" by Jane C. Beck was released in 2015 — and in recordings made by the Middlebury-based Vermont Folklife Center, which maintains a Daisy Turner exhibit.

The Turner family history also has a strong and growing presence in the village of Grafton. There's a Turner exhibit at the Grafton Historical Society's museum; also, a volunteer group working under the auspices of the Windham Foundation recently created the Turner Hill Interpretive Center in town.

Given that the Turner property is "difficult to access," the idea was to bring the Turner family's story to life in a self-guided tour and informational center, said Patrick Cooperman, who was involved in the interpretive center effort.

It is "the first stab at getting that story and making it accessible to people who come and visit," Cooperman said.

The museum and interpretive center are listed as a stop on the Vermont African American Heritage Trail. So is the Turner Hill Wildlife Management Area, a sprawling, state-owned property that includes the former Turner homestead.

But much of what the Turners built has disappeared. Their main house, constructed in 1886, burned to the ground in 1962. And several other structures are gone. All that's left is Birchdale Camp. Erected in 1911, the one and a half story cabin was "an important source of revenue" for the family because it was rented to "summer boarders and fall hunters," the state's archeological survey says.

An old ad displayed at the Turner Hill Interpretive Center portrays Birchdale Camp as a "delightful place to rest" with "excellent fishing and hunting" and "reasonable prices."

The camp served a much different purpose in the early 1960s: After the family home burned, Daisy Turner lived at Birchdale for several years before moving down off the mountain. Years of neglect, however, have left Birchdale in poor condition. The yard is choked with chest-high weeds and wildflowers; the front door stands open to the elements; some windows are boarded up; and bright "keep out" signs adorn the ramshackle front porch.

There aren't many visitors to witness the camp's degradation: Access is currently via a steep, one-lane road, which gives way to a rocky trail and a poorly marked access point into the yard. There are plans to change all that, and soon.

Preservation Trust of Vermont has submitted an Act 250 land-use application to restore the cabin, construct a pedestrian path and install interpretive signs.

The project, with a relatively modest estimated price tag of $120,000, is nevertheless expected to make a big difference.

The signs will "really focus on the use of the land — what the Turners did up there, how they lived," said Eric Gilbertson, the trust's special projects manager.

The new, six-foot-wide path will make the site handicapped-accessible, Gilbertson said.

Work on the cabin, he said, will be aimed at making it look as it did in the late 1930s. But there are limits to the project.

"We're not going to try to restore the whole thing," Gilbertson said. "What we're going to try to do is get it safe and secure so that people can visit it."

If all goes well, the site could be open by next summer, he added.

There's also a related land transaction in the works.

Jane Lazorchak, land acquisition coordinator for the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, said her agency owns the entire site at the moment. But the plan is to carve out a 5 acre parcel — including Birchdale Camp — that will be owned by the Windham Foundation.

"We knew there was this house on the property," Lazorchak said of the Turner Hill Wildlife Management Area. "And we knew we were not the best stewards of this house over time."

Bankowski said Windham Foundation administrators are "thrilled to be able to become the stewards of the property." She sees the historical effort as one that's "being built from the bottom-up" based on local interest in the Turner family story.

Birchdale Camp, preservationists say, will serve as a vital link in that story. They also believe that the camp itself has inherent historic value.

Birchdale "embodies architectural form and elements of vernacular structures from Virginia's Tidewater — the region where Alec Turner was raised," said Andy Kolovos, Vermont Folklife Center's director of archives and research.

"From this perspective, Birchdale represents a tangible link between the culture of Alec's childhood and his life on his farm in Vermont," Kolovos said. "It is, in a real sense, cultural experience and personal memory made physical and rooted in the landscape of his Vermont homestead."

Prior to her death in 1988 at the age of 104, Daisy Turner may have expressed a similar sentiment, albeit in language all her own.

"See, we didn't just come from nothing and nowhere," she said. "We've got a background, and the background can be traced right down to the roots."

Mike Faher writes for VTDigger, The Commons and The Reformer. He can be contacted at mfaher@vtdigger.org.

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