A mysterious structure in Centennial Woods
During the several years that I taught Natural History of Centennial Woods at UVM, I interviewed many of my neighbors about their early memories of Centennial Woods and how it had changed through time. Stitching together details inscribed in old stumps, decrepit fence lines, ancient oaks, and unruly adolescent pines or gleaned from old aerial photos, I could paint the story in broad strokes. But there was nuance in their testimonies lost somewhere in the overgrowth, a quiet moment of refuge on a park bench with a dying spouse, the heartbreak of accidentally killing a chickadee with a BB gun, the thrill of learning to jump on the old trellis ski jump behind the ball field or feeling of rebelliousness while smoking dope on Horse Hill. But in all the stories I heard, none revealed the mysteries behind an 8′ tall, 20′ wide concrete wall that scars one of Centennial Woods’ many sandy slopes.
One story seemed to hint at its purpose, a story that painted such a vivid entry in my catalog of events that make up Centennial Woods’ life story. It was shared by Susan Alden who, now in her 80s, talked about moving to “Fertile Valley” (aka Bilodeau Parkway, a small development off East Ave built in part to handle a population rise as WWII vets returned home) in 1962. She recalled her early memories of the woods and the dozens of kids on her block that had free run of the woods (her estimate was between 45 and 60 kids lived on the block in the 60s). On one particular day she encountered tanks doing drills along the now tranquil Centennial Brook and “complained loudly that they were a danger to our children.” Though the forest today is contiguous across most of its 160 acres, this has only been true since the 1970s or so when the last of the cows were pulled from the meadows and the barbed wire fences taken down, and given ROTC’s historically larger role at UVM, it wasn’t inconceivable to imagine a military application to the cement structure.
The photo above shows the woods in 1937. Much of the forested area – predominantly even aged stands of white pines – had its roots in pastures abandoned in the 19th century and subsequently sold to UVM (around the centennial anniversary of the first graduating class at UVM, hence Centennial Woods). The farm at the bottom right is now the Double Tree (the parking lot is barely visible at the bottom of the image below) and I-89 had yet to be constructed. A light colored dirt road, now Carrigan Dr, curls up to the farm and connects to a pasture that runs from the modern-day Fletcher Allen parking lot all the way north to Grove St. The mystery concrete structure is barely visible within the red rectangle, east about 200m from the neat rows of apple trees at what was Baxter’s Orchard (now Centennial Court).
I’d heard from multiple sources that the structure was at one time a bunker used by ROTC (possibly connected to Susan’s memories), though it was unclear exactly what kind of a bunker. Not much of a military buff, I imagined some concrete outpost that people could shoot 100m across the valley to the other slope. It wasn’t a very sophisticated image and demanded some follow up research. But I mostly hit dead ends on this front. The rumor was repeated in print in a UVM student’s senior thesis and corroborated only in the recollections of UVM historians. Back in 2011, I went to the ROTC office on Main St, but was informed that the building, which housed all of their archival materials, had caught fire in the 90s and all their historic records, articles, and images had been destroyed. If it was an ROTC structure, nobody knew what it was, when it was built, or when it’d last been used.
Every couple of years, I revitalize my efforts and make a half-hearted attempt to look up “bunkers” + “ROTC” + “military training structures” to see if some new hits would pop up. I recently put the question to the hive mind over at Reddit and here was introduced to butts. Target butts, that is. As in, the butt end of a target range. With a new search term, I found a pretty wild woodcut from an 1873 edition of Harpers that shows what these would have looked like, as well as plenty of other research on old rifle ranges. I finally had a positive ID on the structure.