GUILFORD—On the not-too-hot morning of July 2, a large group of people gathered around the entrance to the Andrew G. Weeks Memorial Forest, just steps from a brand new trail. The only thing preventing attendees from venturing into the forest was a few strands of colorful plastic ribbon.
Just a few minutes after 10 a.m., members of the Guilford Conservation Commission (GCC) snipped those ribbons, signifying the opening of the town’s first publicly-accessed, mapped trail. The new Weeks Forest Carriage Trail is accessed across Carpenter Road from the old brick schoolhouse, about a quarter mile from Guilford Center Road.
GCC member Linda Hecker gave a short speech noting the long process and hard work that made this trail happen. She thanked many groups and community members, including the Association of Vermont Conservation, which gave the GCC a “Tiny Grant” of $500 that helped pay for the trail guides and the benches along the path.
Hecker noted this was at least the second important Independence Day weekend for the immediate area. On July 4, 1869, Guilford’s holiday celebration was centered on the opening of a hotel just up the carriage trail from where she stood.
Significance in local history
After the ceremonial ribbon cutting, members of the GCC and the public gathered into smaller groups to hear stories of Guilford’s past and flip through the map and trail guide, offered free to all visitors.
Linda Lembke of the GCC said the group had sought mapping assistance from Geographic Information Systems (GIS) Manager Jeff Nugent of the Windham Regional Commission (WRC) to help the town develop publicly-owned recreation trails.
Lembke said Nugent suggested the GCC start with one trail, and the GCC decided it wanted the first trail to be interpretive — not just a beautiful location, but a place with cultural, natural, and historical significance. Because of its importance to Guilford’s history, and because the land was available, the GCC chose the Andrew Weeks Memorial Forest.
Along the trail are 11 posts marking waypoints — areas of significant historical, natural and cultural resources. The GCC published the trail guide with the waypoints keyed to chapters written by Guilford sixth-graders and a brief history of the forest in the introduction.
In addition to Nugent’s help with mapping the trail, and the sixth-graders’ with writing about it, the GCC also partnered with other public and private organizations such as the town’s road crew, the New England Forestry Foundation, A Black Locust Connection, and many local volunteers.
“It was a nice community-building effort,” Lembke said.
Although none of the ribbon-cutting ceremony’s attendees was old enough to remember when the trail was used to transport visitors by carriage to the Mineral Springs Hotel, the history of the springs and the hotel provided a point of reference for the stories they shared.
In the mid-to-late-1800s, a trend developed in and around Brattleboro: Locals and visitors would bathe in and drink the mineral-rich water that bubbled up from natural springs as a cure for nearly any disease, from kidney and skin complaints to archaic afflictions such as scrofula and dropsy.
In Guilford, employees of the Mineral Springs Company captured the water that bubbled up from the ground and distributed it in barrels, kegs, and glass bottles. According to a brochure, “Guilford Mineral Spring Water: Its History and the Wonderful Cures Performed By the Use of the Water,” published in the late-1800s by owners Weeks & Potter, the water tasted “slightly ironized, with a taste of magnesia, and when drank (sic) cold is an agreeable beverage.”
A hotel — with pavilions and a gazebo (waypoint #10 on the trail guide), spring houses, and a dammed-off swimming area (waypoint #7) — was added to the premises and a four-horse coach ran between the springs and the Brattleboro train station so that those in need of a cure or some rest could partake of the waters on-site. According to newspaper accounts of the time, the springs saw 100 to 200 visitors on some days.
A family legacy
At the ceremony, John Anthony talked about the spring houses (waypoint #8). “My grandfather would take us in his Jeep,” he said. “I remember one in particular had a great view. One was a little unkempt and one was pretty decent.”
Anthony is a descendent of Andrew Weeks, one of the principal investors of the Mineral Springs Company; Weeks eventually obtained ownership of most of the hotel and springs’ property. In the early-90s, Anthony’s family donated 175 acres — including the carriage trail — to the New England Forestry Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust in Weeks’ memory.
In telling his stories to the attendees, Anthony, who came to the ceremony with his girlfriend Jeanne Stange from their New Jersey home, said, “it’s so nice that things are still the way it was ... when I was an 8-to-18-year-old.”
As the group neared the cul de sac at the end of the trail (waypoint #11), Anthony gazed upon Barney Hill (waypoint #9) and said, “when I was a kid, I’d think of running across the field and [lying] down, like in some movie.”
“Those fields — one had corn, one was too wet, and one had hay,” Selectboard member Dick Clark said. “Now it’s all hay."
Teaching on the trail
Clark supplied many of the anecdotes, having grown up in Guilford Center in the 1940s and 1950s.
“My family used this area,” Clark said. “We tapped the trees, then we decided it was a good brook for rainbow trout. We’d get 16-inch, 18-inch trout,” he added.
Pointing to his wife, Kathy Wilde-Clark, Clark said, “I brought Kathy down to the brook to teach her how to fish."
Wilde-Clark, a WSESU district substitute, directed attendees’ attention to a series of modest wooden lean-tos at waypoint #6. These “Guilforts,” she said, were built by the sixth-graders under the instruction of their teacher, Jen Kramer.
“They’re learning such an amazing respect for nature, and their town,” Wilde-Clark said of the schoolchildren, noting that Kramer takes them out to this trail on a regular basis as part of their curriculum at the Guilford Central School.
At the next stop on the trail (waypoint #7), Dick Clark pointed to a hill just beyond the dam at the Broad Brook’s headwaters and said, “I went to school on Sweet Pond Road. We’d come through the woods here. This was our swimming hole."
Reading the landscape
Further up the trail, on the other side of the Broad Brook was a thick stand of trees. It is hard to picture it as a grassy, rolling hill that once held a hotel. As some attendees stared into the woods trying to reconcile the site with the photos in the trail guide, Clark waded through waist-high plants and shouted, “There it is! There was the old logging bridge before [Tropical Storm] Irene took it out!"
GCC member Karen Murphy, who was leading one of the tours of the trail, warned attendees the logging bridge is “not safe! Don’t cross it!” She noted the GCC plans to work on the bridge in the future, but said that for now, there is no safe way to cross the brook to see the site of the old hotel and spring house.
The new trail is a fairly smooth “out and back” trail, a 0.8-mile round trip and, according to the GCC, those who like to walk will have an easy journey. It is open daily from dusk to dawn, and the GCC encourages the public to use it.
But hikers will have to rely on the trail guide and their imaginations to picture a horse-drawn carriage pulling ladies in hoop skirts to an elegant hotel and mineral springs. Now it’s merely a peaceful forest trail.