Between the Lines: Tree house, once upon a time

A few months ago, I was asked by an editor at the college’s “Middlebury Magazine” to write about a tree house that had been constructed during our college years. That piece appears in the current issue of the magazine. Because it’s a story I’ve also wanted to tell in this space, I’ve adapted the magazine account for today’s column.

The tree house was the vision of two members of the Middlebury College Class of 1974, John Abbott and my close friend Dan Flanagan. They dreamed it up fireside in a lounge of Stewart Hall, where Dan had moved to escape his roommate and several cats that refused to use the litter box.

One bright day in the deep-snow winter of 1970-71, they found their tree.

“Being freshman, we really had no idea of Middlebury geography,” Dan recalls. “We took off from the corner of the old gym and headed southeast. At the end of a long field stood the most magnificent tree I had ever seen, an American elm with a champagne-glass shape and full canopy.”

They immediately knew this was where they would build.

Three other members of the Class of 1974 — David Stone, Tucker Swan and Craig Severance — soon joined the effort.

Though they had no engineering background and not all of them knew how to hold a hammer, they devised a way to build a multi-story house 30 to 50 feet in the air.

Erica Wonnacott, then a Weybridge resident and the dean of students, later recalled being visited by “bushy-haired young freshman” seeking official OK for the project.

Wonnacott readily gave permission. It must have seemed like an interesting lark to her during the Vietnam years, an era when the administration was prosecuting students for disrupting ROTC recruiting on campus.

The Tree House Five started making their dream a reality in the late winter of 1971, enlisting friends to haul lumber out to the tree. But as the snow melted, they realized the spot they had chosen was adjacent to the seventh tee of the college golf course.

“That spring, golfers were greeted by sounds of hammering and sawing, which teed off many of them,” Dan laughs.

The five young men kept a diary of the endeavor. Entries show them trying to figure out how to build the house so it had creature comforts, a rope-and-pulley system for hauling up food and water, and a lattice of support beams so the limbs of the giant elm could move in the frequent winds.

“During windy nights,” says Craig, “the kerosene lamps would sway and the whole thing would creak and groan like a ship at sea.”

To build the walls, they “borrowed” old barn board from the decaying barns of nearby farms.

The builders’ progress was steady, if not always clearheaded. The diary, for example, records a day where one of them “screwed around with too many joints and didn’t get anything done.”

Soon the college administration grew worried about the ever-expanding project.

But the determined builders ignored the dire warnings from Old Chapel. “Every time we were told to stop,” Dan muses, “we just built another floor.”

In an inspired ploy to persuade administrators to let them continue, the five young men invited the deans up for tea.

A contingent from Old Chapel came out on a bright autumn afternoon to see the tree house. Doing so meant they had to climb the makeshift ladders and wooden planks hammered into the tree.

“Dean Wonnacott was the last one to climb up,” Dan recalls. “I was behind her, just in case I needed to catch a falling dean of students. As we approached the last ladder, Erica froze. I knew we had a problem — because if she didn’t make it up there, our project would be sunk. So I very unceremoniously placed my hand on her rear end and pushed her up the last two feet, into the safety of the first floor.”

It worked. The deans immediately understood the magic of the tree house and allowed it to stand.

The structure grew to have sleeping cubbies, decks facing the Adirondacks and Greens, a wood stove, and a loud stereo system powered by a car battery.

“I remember studying on the top deck, listening to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young singing ‘Our House,’” Dan recalls. “A yellow canopy of fall leaves surrounded me, with the sun streaming through the leaves and giving everything a golden glow.”

Monthly full moon parties were a tree house specialty in all seasons. The gatherings were the occasion for intense conversations, loud music and the consumption of Mateus Boone’s Farm, and other, less-legal substances.

 “We had venison stew and metal bowls brimming with fresh fruit and so many people that it was practically impossible to move,” says Craig. “Guitars, mandolins, drumming and truly inspired singing propelled the glowing orb through the nights.”

The magic, though, could only last for so long. A year after our graduation, the tree house was gone.

A boy staying there, who had lit candles on the first floor and then fallen asleep upstairs, woke up with the tree and tree house in flames around him. He barely escaped by using a rope to rappel to the ground.

Dean Wonnacott broke the news of the fire to the Tree House Five in a letter, which Tucker Swan kept. There would be no second tree house, she said, but she added this:

“You should all feel very proud I think of the kind of élan and skill that led you to build it and for the great pleasure the tree house gave a large number of Middlebury students since 1971,” she wrote. “It was a landmark and will now become a legend. Not many of us have a chance to author a legend!”

Gregory Dennis enjoyed many a tree house gathering. His column appears here every other Thursday and is archived at http://middleburyvt.blogspot.com. Email him at gregdennisvt@yahoo.com.


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