MIDDLEBURY — The idea came to Amy Sheldon when she was living in Middlebury and walking to Chipman Hill each morning before coming to work. Sheldon noticed that, more often than not, she was the only person using the small stretch of trail in east Middlebury.
This spurred Sheldon, Middlebury Area Land Trust’s (MALT) first executive director, to begin brainstorming what has now become a 16-mile path called the Trail Around Middlebury (TAM). This year the TAM, which encircles the village of Middlebury, is celebrating its 20th anniversary. And without the help of hundreds of volunteers and private land donations, the area’s walking, biking, hiking, snowshoeing and skiing trail would cease to exist.
In 1989, as the land trust was gaining steam, Sheldon hopped on board and went straight to work creating the TAM. A fledgling herself in the world of land conservation, Sheldon was just learning about Frederick Law Olmsted, a man famous for designing some of the country’s most well-known urban parks, one of which, Boston’s Emerald Necklace, inspired Sheldon to manifest a similar design.
Check out more coverage of the TAM's 20th anniversity
“I thought wouldn’t it be cool if we had an emerald necklace around Middlebury that was a trail,” said Sheldon.
In the late 80’s Middlebury was experiencing growth pressure and as the town expanded, the land trust formed to preserve rural land.
“We were mostly interested in preserving the rural character of the community, agricultural lands and scenic vistas,” Sheldon said. “And it didn’t take very long for them to realize that it was a really good idea in terms of building community and organization and getting people to understand the land trust.”
Segments of trail already ran through Wright Park, Chipman Hill, Means Woods and Battell Woods — parcels owned by the state or town. Sheldon’s, and others at the land trust, first mission was to connect the stretches of land with a continuous trail.
But, privately owned parcels separated the stretches of public land. So Sheldon put her best foot forward and traveled from house to house negotiating 10-year revocable license lease agreements with landowners to run the trail through their properties.
“The physical building of the trail in the east was easy to start with,” said Sheldon. “But as we were doing that, we were working with landowners and that was another challenge. But I think most people see it as a benefit and they realize it’s their neighbors walking their dog.”
But, said Sheldon, the work on the TAM would not have been possible without the help of the volunteers.
“These things take time to build,” she said. “It was definitely a team effort. It was very cool because a lot of people just got on board with it.”
By 1992, the northeastern sections of the trail were connected, and volunteer and trail director John Derick hopped on board the project. Today, Derick does the majority of maintenance on the trails. He knows every inch of the trail and spends each week mowing, brushing and graveling the TAM. Derick has built about 25 foot bridges and walkways through the trails, three large bridges and numerous boardwalk — this summer he’s already built a few hundred feet of it.
But Derick’s largest contribution to the TAM was the Boathouse Bridge that connects the trail from Middlebury Union High School over Otter Creek to the Middlebury College Campus. Every Tuesday and Saturday Derick, who works for the Shoreham Telephone Company, and several volunteers, worked after their daytime jobs to construct the 180-foot long pedestrian suspension bridge.
“Building bridges isn’t a whole lot different than what I do with the telephone company,” said Derick. “It’s a little heavier, but it’s called rigging, I’m a rigger.”
Completed in 2000, the bridge was the last link in the circle of trail around Middlebury.
“We put so much effort into it and it was like, son-of-a-gun, we can go across this sucker now, isn’t that something?” said Derick. “Probably this was the most enjoyable part of the whole thing. It’s a great thing for the town, for Middlebury College, it’s good to have that bridge there for any number of people.”
And even before Derick, who Sheldon called “the energy behind the TAM,” hit the trails in 1992, another volunteer set out to cut the trails that now make up the TAM.
Rewinding back 25 years, before the TAM was spark in Sheldon’s imagination, volunteer Al Stiles was cutting paths in the Middlebury wilderness in his spare time a few times a week. Landing in Middlebury in 1976, Stiles trekked into Wright Park, which then was mostly open farmland, early on a Sunday morning with a pair of clippers and using natural trails as a guide, began cutting paths through the land.
Now 80 years old, Stiles estimates he has cleared about five to seven miles of trail himself — and he is still going. Walking in Wright Park, Stiles passes through the multiple trails he has created that are marked with faded Clorox container cut-outs nailed to tree trunks with aluminum nails, making sure to leave room for the tree to expand to the head of the nail as it grows.
Stiles likes to create trails off the beaten path, all of which he can pinpoint on his “mental map” despite their more hidden locations. As Stiles walks along one of these less-traveled trails he points out specific spots where he had made cuts to branches or adjustments as long as 20 years ago. He points out an anthill that was much bigger several years ago.
Eventually, the trail leads to zigzag boardwalk bridge through a marsh area that Stiles, with the help of volunteers, built in 2002. The trail is overgrown and overrun by Prickly Ash and Jack-in-the-Pulpit, and Stiles snips the invasive fauna as he walks along. Just before the bridge is a painted sign that Stiles put up when he finished the bridge. It reads: “Crooked Board Walk from a Japanese Garden Design. Evil spirits fear the many sharp corners.”
“The idea is that the dragons get going that way,” Stiles said as he pointed to the end of the bridge, “and fall off the end.”
Today, Stiles said he cannot spend as much time as he used to maintaining the trail and within the next 10 years, he hopes to see that the trail stays maintained because he “can’t do this forever.”
“I used be out here once a week, now it’s once a month,” said Stiles. “I’m getting too old to do too much work, but I still love it.”
The work of volunteers like Stiles over the years would not have been possible without the people who have donated their land to the TAM, said Sheldon.
“Joseph Battell gave Middlebury our first gifts of land and was really visionary in understanding that over time he knew how important those lands are,” Sheldon said. “And that continued with Dorothy Means and Will Jackson and also the starting of the conservation fund in town and people realizing that we needed to have money set aside so we can buy lands when they became available. We had a foundation to build on because of these visionary people.”
And today, people are starting to realize that it takes time and money to keep the trail maintained, said current MALT Executive Director Josh Phillips. MALT tends to budget between the three to five thousand dollars a year depending on the year and what maintenance is needed, said Phillips.
“If we were to pay for everything that John does, for instance, it would be quite a bit higher than that,” said Phillips about John Derick’s volunteer work.
Phillips hopes this year’s sixth annual TAM Team Trek on Sept. 27 will generate about $10,000 — the amount it raised last year. Participants pay a small entry fee to hike, walk or run one or more of six sections, or two bike loops of the TAM. Pledges from family, friends and coworkers will go toward the improvement of the trail and individuals raising more than $100 or team totals of more than $300 will be eligible to win prizes. Plus, much of the revenue generated by the event comes from local business sponsorships.
“It’s an opportunity for a lot of trail users to get together on one day, and get out on the trail at the same time,” Phillips said. “It’s almost like a trail festival in some ways.”
Looking back at her years working on the TAM, Sheldon recalled how the TAM enriched people’s notion of local recreation and how important it is to area residents.
“The Trail Around Middlebury really did a bunch of things; one is it brought attention to the public lands that we had, got people thinking about getting out locally, instead of driving to camel’s hump or going somewhere else,” said Sheldon. “And it got more people thinking about the land trust and what the role of the land trust could be. It ended up being a great project to kick off the land trust with because it just appealed to so many more people.
Today, MALT has conserved more than 2,300 acres in Middlebury and the surrounding communities with the TAM connecting Cornwall, Middlebury, New Haven and Weybridge. Several hundred acres of town land, conserved properties, schools, and other local landmarks is complete with the construction of 2 bridges that span Otter Creek and numerous footbridges.
But, said Sheldon, there is still a lot of work to be done.
“There is still a lot of conservation needed for the trail around Middlebury to become permanent,” Sheldon said. “And while we love it we still need to make sure that we’re looking into the future and protecting it permanently.”