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Slayton: Climbing Mt. Philo

Meg Malone
Mount Philo offers an 'unparalleled vista of the Champlain Valley.'

Mount Philo in North Ferrisburgh was formed about five hundred million years ago, and ever since humans came along some millennia later, its summit has provided us with an unparalleled vista of the Champlain Valley.

In her new book, “Secrets of Mount Philo” historian Judy Chaves details the long and intricate history of the little mountain, which is really a vest-pocket version of the landscape history of all of Vermont - from prehistory and the coming of European settlers, down to tourism, and the modern-day conservation movement. All are expressed on Mount Philo.

And so, one misty Saturday morning, I joined Ms. Chaves for a walk up the mountain and back through time.

By the mid-Nineteenth Century, sheep farming had rendered Mount Philo almost completely bare of trees. Later, dairy farming kept its lower slopes clear, but because cows don’t climb mountains, trees returned to its upper slopes.

Around the turn of the 20th century, Mount Philo became an early tourist attraction. The innkeeper who owned it built a carriage road up the little mountain, with picturesque gazebos as rest stops. Fashionable gentlemen and women rode in carriages or hiked to its summit and the observation tower built at the top.

Then, in 1924, something remarkable happened. Mrs. Frances Humphreys, a wealthy visitor who by then owned the mountain, was asked when she planned to cut the mountain’s timber and make some money from it.

Declaring, “There is something in the world besides money,” she vowed she would cut “not a stick of it,” and instead set about to preserve the mountain for the recreation and pleasure of all Vermonters.

And so, in 1924, Mrs. Humphreys gave the mountain outright to the State of Vermont, and it was established as our very first state park.

As we climbed the auto road — which closely follows the earlier carriage road - we sampled various historic sites. And from the top we took in the gorgeous, wide view.

As we did, we reflected on how Mrs. Frances Humphreys had saved a mountain from development — and given it to Vermont - making me, author Judy Chaves, and the others on that morning walk, just the latest among the many beneficiaries of Mrs. Humphreys’ generosity.

Tom Slayton is a longtime journalist, editor and author who lives in Montpelier.
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