Left in Andover: The other side of Terrible Mtn.

By Susan Leader
©2020 Telegraph Publishing LLC

I was born and still live at the sunny southern foot of Terrible Mountain. At 2,900 feet altitude, our mountain is neither exceptionally tall, nor harsh, ranking  No. 214 in the state.

The accepted explanation for its ominous name is the obstacle it presented to through-traffic between Andover and its western end, leading to the splitting off of “Weston” into a separate town in 1799.

Modern topographical map showing Terrible Mountain. Click illustration to enlarge

But there is folklore as well. The Italian terribilita, “provoking terror, awe, or a sense of the sublime” is a term ascribed to experiencing the art of Michelangelo. Our mountain seems to share that power.

My own vote, or at least sympathies, for the most “terrible” story goes to an elderly neighbor who once described to me a harrowing childhood trip she took with her family by ox wagon over the mountain to Ludlow. Afflicted with a terrible toothache, it was an all-day affair to get her to the dentist in Ludlow.

For her 1982 ethnography Waters of the Lonely Way, Ernestine Pannes pumped long-time Weston resident Marion Boothby on this burning issue:

“Mt Terrible? The story is it was named by a woman who was so careless as to let her fire go out. To start it again, she had to walk over the mountain from this side to a little house on the other side, where they gave her some live coals to carry back in her little iron pot with an iron cover. She trudged over the mountain to get her fire, and trudged back over the blazed trail. There was no road. Before she got back she was of the opinion it was a terrible mountain and Terrible Mountain it is to this day.”

The first official map of Andover, chartered in 1761, bears no mention of Terrible Mountain. The early land speculators cleverly dubbed her Mount Pleasant.

Original Leader springhouse is still extant, abandoned to the fairies up on the mountain.

I wonder if republishing the map in 1920 with its reassuring nomenclature was an attempt to calm the local zeitgeist at the end of the pandemic of 1918-19.

Confidentially though, the mountain is more than pleasant. When I was little, sweet water poured down into our cistern from a spring located on its side. When that dried up mid- summer, my family went with empty milk cans to a high-up brook to collect drinking water. I would drink from that same brook today if necessary.

Abandoned cellar holes, old well holes and spectacular stone walls reveal a history of successful old timer settlement on Terrible’s lower slopes. A historic marker partway up the mountain indicates the childhood home of noted 19th century Universalist preacher Wm. S. Balch. His father, town elder Joel Balch, raised the son in strict probity, witness H.H. Gutterson’s  1886 The Local History of Andover, Vermont:

“Esquire (his common name) Balch was a man of vigorous mind and positive will and character … Above all he held a hatred of shams and abhorred innovations, and counseled his son to avoid them. His caution was ‘not to get on too fast.’ ”

I interpret this old-time advice from Terrible Mountain as a native version of the Himalayan proverb “Money attracts demons which work mischief.”

On the wilder side, we also have H.H. Gutterson’s Great March Wind bouncing around my neighborhood:

Historic market on Terrible Mountain indicating the Balch home place.

“In the early days of the town a fierce tornado known as the great March wind swept down the east side of Marcam’s mountain, taking a northeast course. It done considerable damage to some of the dwellings of the settlers in its path, and blew down an immense amount of timber. Bunker Clark, who had the roof of his house blown off and a feather-bed carried off, jocosely remarked that he could see his bed the next morning flapping in the wind on the north-east corner of Mt. Monadnock.”

When my folks first came to town in 1950, they heard the story of a very young girl, daughter of French Canadian wood-choppers, who wandered away from her family’s camp and became lost somewhere on the mountain. After a frantic hunt, she was found again in the nick of time, unharmed.

Maintaining Terrible’s mystique as well, was the March 19, 1968, crash of a twin-engine Beechcraft plane which killed all seven people aboard.

By the 1950s, our side of the mountain was mostly depopulated except for a biblical looking hermit with a very long white beard and walking stick. Mr. Dorman, who might be puzzled to learn that Balch’s road is now named after him, rarely descended his high bastion.

Blackberrying on Terrible Mountain in 1975.

Presumably he shared the sentiments of settler A.S. Barton, who extolled his own nearby Andover view:

“The dusky mountain towering high,
The streams that wind along,
The rolling clouds, the starry sky.
Inspire my evening song.”

During my childhood at Popplewood Farm, the mountain was a constant presence, assailing us with cold air that sank down in and under our floor boards, cause of my mother’s biggest misery each winter as she struggled to keep the wood cookstove fed.

Mom recalled:

The author’s mom 1952 tiny south porch in background Popplewood

“Herb got hired at a sawmill four miles away in Weston ‘taking away from the big saw,’ the mill’s hardest job. He had only sneakers for footwear, and traveled in an ancient 1 1/2 ton truck which he was allowed to fill with waste wood during the lunch hour. Keeping warm at home with the girls burning the utterly green wood was impossible for me.”

My first winter, 1951-52, Mom had to keep me bundled night and day in a pink snowsuit — indoors.

Mom, who survived a case of the Spanish flu as an infant in 1919, found her happy place on our south-side porch, a tiny sheltered nook facing away from the mountain, buffered by the farmhouse. I can see her clearly even now, seated, face lifted to the sky, soaking up every ephemeral ray of winter sunshine.

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Filed Under: Community and Arts LifeLeft in Andover

About the Author: Vermont native and noted potter Susan Leader grew up on Popplewood Farm in Andover. At age 17, she was inspired to take up the potter's wheel by "a charismatic potter" from the Society of Vermont Craftsman. She spent 18 months apprenticing at pottery villages throughout Japan. She returned to Popplewood Farm, where she and her husband, fiddle player John Specker, raised their two daughters.

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