VERMONT VACATIONING

by Rob Retz

The day after the Stack’s auction in June, 1994, three colonial nuts went out in search of numismatic history. Our goals were to examine the Connecticut coppers in the collection of the Connecticut State Library for a day and then drive over the Green Mountains to view the Vermont coppers in the collection of the Bennington Museum. If we had the time – and you just knew we’d make time! -- we were going to try to track down the probable site of Reuben Harmon’s mint, the one responsible for many of the Vermont coppers.

Gene Kosche, the gracious retired curator of history at the Bennington Museum, arranged for us to view the collection and take notes and then casually dropped a bombshell on use. "Have you folks been over to see the mint building?" Three dumbfounded stares answered his question and a few minutes later one of us recovered our senses enough to blurt out that all accounts of the building indicated that it had been destroyed in a storm nearly 150 years ago. "Nah, it’s over on Bob Graf’s farm – everyone ‘round here knows about it. You really ought to see it."

Talk about waving a red flag in front of some copper bulls! Early the next day, with plenty of sunlight to help, we headed north out of Bennington. About half an hour later we passed through the town of Dorset on Highway 30. This is the "main road leading from Dorset to Pawlet" mentioned in Crosby, and appears to follow roughly the same path as it did two centuries ago. Just north of Dorset we crossed over the Pawlet River. We were on Reuben Harmon’s home turf, and we were getting close. About half a mile further we crossed a small creek and struck paydirt. This is the "small stream of water called Millbrook" that Harmon used to power his rolling mill.

Continuing towards Pawlet we passed the Graf place, called Southwind Farm, made a quick U-turn and pulled into the driveway. Bob Graf was out of town, but his son-in-law was mowing the lawn and came over to talk to us. We asked about the mint building and with a hearty laugh he said "You want to see old Harmon’s mint? It’s right over here." He led us to a small garage just off the main driveway and said "You guys look around all you want. I’ve got to finish the yard, so just turn out the light when you’re done."

The building itself looked promising. While the roof and siding were old they certainly weren’t more than three or four decades in age, and the cement floor was probably not what Reuben Harmon would have put in. The frame of the building, however, was of a much earlier vintage – rough hewn and assembled by mortise and tenon – and almost certainly late 18th Century. We paced out the size of the building, figuring it at roughly 16 by 20 feet, a pretty close match to Crosby’s description of "about 16 by 18 feet." The age, size, and structure of the building fit what we knew about the mint, and local lore has ascribed it as the mint building for at least the last century, usually with that special New England flair that mixes pride for their history and extreme surprise that anyone else should care.

We took wood shavings from the beams on both the first floor and the attic for later chemical analysis, figuring that if copper smelting had gone on in the building over a period of time, the wood should have absorbed metal from the fumes. The results of the chemical analysis are shown on the next page.

Unfortunately, guns rarely smoke 200 years after they’ve been fired, and the results of the analysis are inconclusive at best. Copper appears at only 0.0014%, a level far below what would be needed to prove that smelting had actually occurred. The table does have one surprise in that the high levels of tin found (0.2%) indicate that some sort of metal work could have been carried out in the building at some time.

ElementConcentration in Sample from First FloorConcentration in Sample from Attic
Copper0.0014%0.0013%
Zinc0.0054%0.0038%
Iron0.046%0.020%
Lead0.0045%0.0077%
Tin0.2%0.04%
Cadmium< 1 ppm< 1 ppm
Nickel< 4 ppm< 4 ppm
Silver< 2 ppm< 2 ppm

Table 1. Chemical Analysis of Wood Shavings Taken from Suspected Rupert, Vermont Mint Building

There are a number of possibilities for the inconclusive results of the chemical analysis. The original beams could have been stripped when the building was moved from the mint site or they could have been sanded down enough to remove the trace metals (which would not have penetrated deeply into the wood). There is also the possibility that the actual copper smelting occurred in a different building from the one in which the coins were struck (a logical possibility as the smelting fumes would have been quite noxious, making it difficult for workers to strike coins). It also has to be remembered that the building itself is over two centuries old and whatever uses it has had in that period of time could have affected the results of the chemical analysis.

Circumstantial evidence, however, does hint that this might actually be the building in question. The letter reprinted in Crosby (on page 190) represents just about all we know about the travels of the original mint building. Of interest in that letter is the statement that "Its third removal was to a spot north of the house of John Harwood, Esq., in the town of Rupert, on the east side of the main road." Although contemporary property owner maps (usually for tax assessment purposes) either do not exist or weren’t available, Beers’ Atlas of Bennington County for 1869 (the earliest we found) shows a pair of residences for an S. Harwood and a B. Harwood. A few sentences later the letter reprinted by Crosby states that the fourth location of the mint building was "…on the farm of William Phelps about a mile north of John Harwood’s residence in ‘the edge’ of the town of Pawlet." The same map shows residence listings for both a J. W. Phelps and a J. K. Phelps. Although circumstantial, the map does show that these two families were in the area where the building in question still sits.

With the distinct possibility running through our minds that we had found the original mint building, we left the Graf farm (after turning out the lights) and headed back towards Dorset to see if we could find the original mint site – kind of a numismatic double header.

Where the small stream Millbrook crosses the road it was barely ankle deep and about five feet wide, meandering across the flat land on its way to join the Pawlet river. The mint site was described in Crosby (from a letter from B. H. Hall to Charles Ira Bushnell dated March 3, 1855), as being located "a little east of the main road." A 200 yard trek upstream, at first through the water and then through an unplanted field, let to an abrupt rise in the terrain. From here the brook cut through a steep gorge of shale. The mouth of this gorge, about 200 yards from the road, appeared to be a natural – and perhaps the only – spot that the stream could be dammed up to harness the water power.

Remains of what might have been a dam could be seen, but clearly no man-made evidence could be located. Tantalizingly close, but again, no smoking gun. We spent about two hours searching the area with a metal detector, hoping to locate at least a few landscape Vermonts (or an original die or two!), but only came up with a few broken bits of pottery and a rusted metal ring about two inches in diameter, probably from some type of horse’s tack.

As the sun was beginning to set we headed south back towards Bennington. Looking up at the mountains we all realized that the landscape Vermonts are not the stylized depiction that collectors assume them to be, but are rather a pretty accurate picture of the view from Reuben Harmon’s own land. Gazing up at their majestic beauty, it was easy to understand why the Green Mountain Boys emerged over two centuries ago and fought for their property.

In the end, we all agreed that everything looked right: if we were going to plan a mint, the building on Bob Graf’s farm would have been perfect for the job, and we would have chosen the place at the mouth of the canyon where Millbrook descended from the mountains. We also began to wonder if Sylvester Crosby ever spent a sunny weekend afternoon wading up a river!

References:

[1] Retz, Rob; Rock, Jeff; and Thies, Dick. In Search Of… Reuben Harmon’s Vermont Mint and the Original Mint Site. The Colonial Newsletter. September, 1996. Volume 36 Number 3. pp. 1655-1658. Reprinted by permission of the authors, bless ‘em, and the Colonial Newsletter Foundation.


Copyright © 1997, The Willamette Coin Club. All Rights Reserved.