A view from the Islands: Grand Isle history

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(Host) The five towns of Grand Isle County have a unique place in the state’s natural and human history. The region is home to an ancient reef, and the state’s only sand dunes. It’s also where Samuel de Champlain first stepped ashore. In the first in our series “A View from the Islands,” VPR’s Steve Zind looks back at Grand Isle County’s past.

(Zind) Water separates Grand Isle County from the rest of Vermont. The mountains that dominate so much of the state are off in the distance. Here it’s flat.

For the roughly 7,000 people who live here, life revolves around the lake. Even away from the shore, the blank sky beyond the trees hints at the wide-open vistas of the county: Views of the inland sea that divides the islands from Vermont, views across the lake to New York State and, looking south, an oceanic view that takes in the length of the lake.

The county’s French name comes from the Abenaki word Kitsimenahan, or Great Island. In 1609 Samuel de Champlain became the first white person to set foot in Vermont when he stepped onto a rocky point on Isle La Motte.

Fifty-seven years later, the French built the first European settlement in Vermont on the same spot: Fort Saint Anne. Sandy Kinney is with Saint Anne’s Shrine, at the site of the old fort.

(Kinney) “The original site was basically in this area on the point, because there is an old dock that is still there actually, made out of old quarry stones that they had dragged there. So we’re pretty much sitting right on the site where that fort was.”

(Zind) In the early 1800s, Ichabod Ebenezer Fisk came to Isle La Motte to quarry stone. The Fisk Quarry produced marble used to build the National Gallery of Art in Wahington D.C. Fisk stone was also laid for the floor of the State House.

A little village sprang up next to the Fisk home near the quarry, on property now owned by Linda Fitch and her family.

(Fitch) “This was the company store. This was where the quarry workers came and did their business and there was a post office here. There was actually a little town of Fisk on the maps.”

(Zind) These days, Fitch is concentrating on an island attraction that is much older than the quarry – nearly a half billion years older.

(Fitch) “Over there in the quarry walls you can see the fossil remains of part of the world’s oldest reef in which corals first appeared.”

(Zind) The Isle La Motte bedrock is actually an ancient reef. It’s age and rich fossil record make it unique in the world. The Isle La Motte Preservation Trust is dedicated to protecting key sections of the reef.

On a hot July day, bathers beat the summer heat at Alburg Dunes State Park – one of Lake Champlain’s longest stretches of sandy beach. In places the pale sand is mottled with spongy black patches. Beneath the beach there’s a peat bog a dozen yards deep.

(Mo Theoret) “They did some test borings – up to 38 feet.”

(Zind) Mo Theoret is the park ranger at Alburg Dunes. Only a few feet from the picnic coolers and sandcastles there is a rare and fragile environment – another testament to the unique nature of this corner of Vermont. There are sand dunes normally found only along the ocean shore. Years ago, the dunes were bulldozed. Now they’re protected and beginning to come back.

(Theoret) “At one time these dunes I can recall back in the 1960s, they were 12 to 15 feet high.”

(Zind) There are plants here that are the remnants of a time Lake Champlain was an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean.

(Theoret) “See that nondescript looking grass? That’s Champlain Beach Grass. There’s one little area here that’s about a 150 feet long and two small places on the New York side in the entire world. That’s it.”

(Zind) The vegetation on these islands benefits from the moderating influence of the surrounding waters of the lake. The weather and the gentle terrain make Grand Isle County ideal for farming.

(Ray Allen) “This is a Vermont Gold Tree. We’re the world’s largest grower of Vermont Gold Apple.”

(Zind) Ray Allen’s orchard in South Hero is the oldest commercial apple orchard in Vermont – started in 1870 by his grandfather and great grandfather. For Allen’s ancestors, the lake figured into every aspect of daily life. Going off the island took driving a horse and wagon over the tenuous sand bar that connected South Hero to the mainland. Wintertime travel involved different hazards.

(Allen) “The first person who would dare go across the ice to Plattsburgh from the islands in the early winter would get all these free groceries and stuff.”

(Zind) Passenger trains came to the islands in the early 1800s. The sandbar was built up and a highway constructed. Tourism grew and took its place alongside agriculture as a main feature of island life. Now, as Chittenden County growth spills northward, the islands are taking on a new aspect – the arrival of an increasing number of year round residents.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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