FERRISBURGH — A part of the nation’s history — or at least a fanciful version of a local legend — will come to life at Ferrisburgh Central School on Friday morning.
At 10:30 a.m., the 17 members of kindergarten teacher Josh Brooks’ class will present their version of how American Commodore Thomas MacDonough outfoxed the British at the mouth of Otter Creek.
In the pupils’ short play, MacDonough receives help from, among others, a fictional farm boy, George Washington, and Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys.
And the pupils show MacDonough and his troops digging and making use of a mysterious, 454-foot canal — or moat or natural geographic feature; its true identity is a topic of debate — that joins the river with Lake Champlain and exists to this day.
The story of how Brooks’ students came to put on the play starts back with his Panton childhood, when his dad passed on the legend of the 18-foot-wide, 150-yard waterway known as the “dugway” or the “dugout.” It runs west from Otter Creek to Fields Bay, just south of Revolutionary War battle site Fort Cassin Point.
“(My father and I) would go fishing down in that area, and we would always go past the dugway or the dugout, and he told us that he heard it was dug during the Revolutionary War in one night, and the Americans were trying to escape the British fleet that was blockading the mouth of the river,” Brooks said. “That was the story I always believed and that was what his father told him.”
During his five years at Ferrisburgh’s elementary school, Brooks has developed a “folk tales” unit. He told the story to his class, and the group was intrigued.
“It was really cool, they (the American troops) were hiding in the woods, and they dug this thing in one night and snuck around the back,” he said. “The kids liked that.”
Brooks then tried to research the real story of the dugway and learned there are as many theories as there are experts. Former Vergennes mayor and avid local historian Dick Adams and Lake Champlain Maritime Museum founder Art Cohn do not agree, for example. Some suggest it might have been a fortification, like a moat; others, that farmers used it as a shortcut to move products out to Lake Champlain.
“There really is no definitive origin of the dugway story,” he said. “If you talk to Dick Adams ... he’s got one version. Art Cohn’s got another version.”
Brooks is not sure MacDonough snuck gunboats through the dugway in the War of 1812. It is narrow and shallow (although sediment could have filled it in over the years), and turns sharply.
“I think it’s probably a combination. I think maybe somebody dug it to get to the lake more quickly, and it was possibly used by MacDonough,” Brooks said. “There was one battle at Fort Cassin, which is at the mouth of the river, so maybe it was used as some sort of fortification. There’s a walkway (along it) ... So who knows?”
For the 5-year-olds, the dugway is a hometown legend to bring to life, complete with a battle won by the good guys.
“Part of it was the story about the British vs. the Americans. There’s that whole good vs. evil (element), as they saw it,” Brooks said. “I tell a lot of tall tales and folk tales ... and it’s not very often that I get to tell one and say, ‘And this one happened just down the road.’”
But the idea for the play didn’t pop up right away. Brooks found a 1939 magazine story that invented the farm boy who helped MacDonough and dramatized the battle. Brooks turned that into a short book he read to the class during the folk tales unit. In that unit he encourages pupils to act out stories.
“We read it two or three times, and then the kids pick characters,” he said. “The kids started saying, ‘Can we act this one out?’”
Brooks knew the book was too long, and had an idea.
“I said, ‘Why don’t you guys tell me the story,’ and that started the ball rolling. We started talking about what is a play, and what does it mean to put on a play,” he said.
Some of the play’s lines came from students’ ongoing writing work, and other parts of the dialogue are more organic.
“A lot of the play came from the children’s play ... I recorded their conversations, vocab they were using, events and characters when they were playing ‘Revolution’ or ‘dugway’ on the playground, and then revisited (the dialogue) with them during script-writing sessions,” Brooks said.
The finished product is not intended to be historically accurate. George Washington didn’t sleep there, and Ethan Allen didn’t dig into the west side of Otter Creek.
But that’s not really the point, Brooks said.
“We’ve been talking about history, and where history comes from, and how legends are part of history, but how is a legend different,” he said. “So I gave them license to retell it ... It all comes from legend, with a little historical context figuring in.”
Brooks said as well as getting a taste of theater (with help from many parent volunteers, notably Jill Fonte, Julie Gramling and Ellen Edge), the students are developing writing skills, plus learning the roles of oral tradition in history and of Ferrisburgh and its surroundings in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812.
And, with luck, something more.
“I also hope they’ll take away that they have some big ideas and that people will listen to them,” Brooks said. “Most of the school will be coming, and we’re going to have all these parents and families. Sometimes I think with 5-year-olds you get, ‘Oh, they’re so cute.’ But they also have really big ideas, and you need to pay attention.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]