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Linda Hecker

Sweet Pond in Guilford, a beloved place among townspeople, had a rebirth once the state completed renovations on the pond’s dam last year.

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Sweet Pond project was 9 years in the making

For its supporters, the restoration of the dam — and the return of the pond — celebrates the strength of a community, its history, and its need for a place for recreation

GUILFORD—The sun sparkles on the waters of Sweet Pond once again.

The pond’s return to community use symbolizes what the combined efforts of community members, lawmakers, and state employees can achieve.

Last fall, state contractors completed renovating a historic dam that was deemed unsafe, requiring the draining of the 18-acre pond in one of the state’s smallest parks in 2011.

With the project complete last fall, the water from Keats Brook started to fill Sweet Pond once again, marking a new beginning.

It also marked the end of a long process of restoring the dam, a project that took approximately eight years marked with surprises.(1)

Early on, Tropical Storm Irene delayed the project. And now, the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed a community celebration that had been scheduled for late May.

Still, those involved with the Save Sweet Pond movement say the wait was worth it to restore their beloved recreational area.

To them, Sweet Pond is more than just a place to swim or kayak. It is a place of beauty, serenity, and community connection.

In that spirit, the restored dam has been named the Franklin Dam, in honor of the family who farmed the land for approximately 150 years.

“I’m proud,” said Alfred “Al” Franklin about the dam’s renaming. “My family has been in town for so long that I feel a part of it.”

Linda Hecker, a Guilford resident who co-chaired the steering committee that advocated for the dam repairs and the restoration of the water body, lives within walking distance of Sweet Pond. She described the park as “an important site and regional resource.”

She said that she has met people from “all over” at the park. “While we in Guilford feel a special relationship [with Sweet Pond], we don’t own it, we steward it.”

Poet Verandah Porche, who co-chaired the committee with Hecker, called restoring Sweet Pond “a universally unifying issue in the town.”

Porche said the students she worked with at Guilford Central School had used the pond as an outdoor classroom. Townsfolk who normally didn’t agree on anything “almost all agreed” that the community needed to preserve Sweet Pond, she said.

She added that building community extended beyond Guilford to its sister town of Vernon, where former Rep. Michael Hebert, R-Vernon, took up the cause.

“[Hebert] was our man in Montpelier,” Hecker said. “Without Mike really advocating for it, it might not have happened,” she said.

Historically, Guilford had felt shortchanged in representation in Montpelier because it seemed so much energy went into efforts around the former Vermont Yankee Nuclear Plant in Vernon, she said.

Porche and Hecker said Hebert’s commitment to Sweet Pond mended fences between the two towns.

Current Rep. Sara Coffey, D-Guilford, said Sweet Pond represents a “sweet spot in our community” and described it as part of Hebert’s legacy.

“Because of the bridge he built, it gave me a bridge back to Vernon,” she said.

Coffey said after being elected to the Windham-1 House seat, she spoke with Hebert about the Sweet Pond project.

“I felt a real responsibility to steward this project to its completion,” she said.

In an email, Hebert wrote, “I think renaming the dam to the Franklin Dam is excellent. The Franklins have been important to the town of Guilford for generations.”

“As for the community, I would like to express my appreciation for them giving me the honor and opportunity to represent them in Montpelier and the opportunity for me to get the funding for this important project,” Hebert wrote. “Future generations will now have the ability to enjoy this special place as prior generations have done.”

Preserving the dam and honoring a local family

According to the state Division of State Parks of the Department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation, Sweet Pond State Park is named for Dr. Charles and Susan Sweet, who maintained a summer home on the property.

Sweet Pond State Park was established in 1976 after the Sweet family donated the homestead and 100-acre parcel to the state.

Along with the 18-acre pond, the park also offers a 1.3 mile trail.

Coffey, Hecker, and Porche said that this summer the state Division for Historic Preservation (DHP) will add a historic marker at the park in honor of Philip Franklin and his descendants.

According to text from the DHP, Guilford farmer and Revolutionary War veteran Philip Franklin (1707–1797), claimed the land now known as Sweet Pond State Park. A natural pond on the site was called Franklin Pond until the land was purchased by the Sweets in 1928.

Nathan Millet is credited with first building a stone dam on the site in the late 18th century to power a sawmill. The structure withstood the historic Great Flood of 1927 and the Hurricane of 1938.

Coffey said Al Franklin approached her with a request: that, because the state was restoring the dam, it should also honor Franklin’s ancestor, Philip Franklin.

Once Dr. Sweet acquired the land, the Franklin name was “erased from the pond,” Coffey said, and the Sweet Pond committee(2) wanted to honor the Franklins’ role in the pond’s history as well.

Al Franklin, who said that his ancestor Philip Franklin settled in the area in 1775, was a kid when his family maintained a farm in town. He and his twin brother Wilfred swam in Sweet Pond during the summer. His family still lives and farms in Guilford.

He said he took issue with the state’s plans to remove the dam and with hearing early reports that left his family out of the narrative.

He also disputed the history of the structure, which the engineering firm contracted by the state said in a 2012 report was constructed in 1928. He dates the dam as much older.

“I didn’t think it needed tearing out,” he said. “I got a little upset about them saying it was poorly constructed.”

In a letter to the editor of the Brattleboro Reformer, he said that when the dam was built, it had gone through floods and hurricanes for near 200 years, and “I didn’t see how they could really classify it as being poorly constructed,” he said.

He later learned that the state considered the dam a historic structure and planned to restore it.

He laughed about needing an escort to visit the pond now.

“I’m 85 years old, braces on both knees, and I’m on my second pacemaker,” he said.

Building support

Hecker said one reason the state agreed to restore the dam was due to its historic significance. Yet, the pond also represents a “critical piece” of local outdoor recreation, she added.

According to Hecker, the park is used year-round for swimming, fishing, boating, and ice skating.

The pond has also stood at the center of community gatherings, such as a 1970s production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The play took place on a floating stage constructed on barrels.

Imagine — the state allowed “a bunch of hippies to have a production in the pond,” Hecker said.

When the future of Sweet Pond was in question, the Sweet Pond Steering Committee formed under the auspices of the town of Guilford. The committee has worked over the years to advocate for rebuilding the dam and restoring the pond.

The committee held multiple fundraising events(3), intended first as a bellwether of community support to signal to the state that the project had meaningful taxpayer support.

Community members raised approximately $10,000 from multiple individual donors, Hecker said. While a small drop in the project’s overall budget, the money still represented a level of “high citizen interest” to the state, she added.

With the stroke of the governor’s pen in 2015, two line items in a capital construction and state bonding bill allocated $495,000 for the project.

“Southern Vermont is a little cheated in the allocations to state parks,” she said. “It was our turn.”

Hecker said Vermont’s government provides citizens with direct access to their representatives and state departments. This access helped motivate her to keep the project moving.

The committee thanked Michael Snyder, commissioner of Forests, Parks, and Recreation; Laura Trieschmann, state historic preservation officer at the DHP; and Ethan Phelps, parks regional manager for the Southeast Region of Forest, Parks, and Recreation.

Phelps said that community support and fundraising helped the project’s success.

Sweet Pond Park averages 2,000 visitors a year and is small compared to other state parks, which can average 60,000 visitors annually, he said. After the state decided to drain the pond, the community made their support for the park very clear, he added.

According to Phelps, a state inspection in late 2010 found the existing dam was unstable. The pond was drained the following spring to take pressure off the structure.

Phelps then oversaw the state’s process to determine the next best steps.

He said the state considered options, including removing the dam completely and allowing Keats Brook to return to its natural state. Department officials also considered whether build a new dam, he said.

The final option was to restore the existing dam, he said, a choice the state made based on several factors, including public opinion and the fact that a dam had sat on the site for approximately 250 years.

Finally, according to Phelps, a private dam approximately one-quarter of a mile below Sweet Pond would mean that Keats Brook would probably not fully return to a free-flowing natural state, making the removal option unattractive.

In 2015, the Legislature approved $495,000 in project funding split over two years.

Phelps said the state put the project out to bid twice but that the bids came in over budget. The department of Forests, Parks, and Recreation decided to add additional funds from its capital budget, bringing the project to an estimated total of $600,000.

Phelps could only provide an estimate because while working remotely, he doesn’t have the Sweet Pond files on hand.

From 2018 until the fall of 2019, contractors restored the dam. They also dug sediment out the pond, which not only facilitated the repair work but also will make swimming nicer, he said.

The state Division of Dam Safety okayed the restored dam on Nov. 1, 2019, according to Phelps.

The restored dam has a few improvements, such as an eel ladder that will help the American eels in Keats Brook to swim around the dam. The state also made improvements to the pond’s boat launch, Phelps said.

Sweet Pond State Park is open for recreation. The state has updated the park’s information kiosks with COVID-19-related information. Meanwhile, the committee’s celebration and unveiling of the restored Franklin Dam scheduled for May 30, has been postponed due to the pandemic.

This postponement, however, does not seem to dampen Hecker’s or Porche’s spirits.

“The pond is back — that is the celebration,” Hecker said. “It’s such a great present.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #563 (Wednesday, May 27, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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