Sawmill Road checks ’em all.
If you live anywhere near the Wilmington line, you’ve probably heard tall tales about Sawmill Road, like this one about suicide, or this one about a ghost. A Burlington firefighter says he grew up hearing about “dark arts” practiced there.
Why such intrigue?
A very unusual A-frame house, possibly the only one in 20th century Burlington, occupied a tiny slab at the end of Sawmill Road, off Mill St, for some 35 years beginning in the late 60s. Perched on the edge of a stunning rocky gorge, with the Sawmill Brook churning audibly below, the scene befit Burlington for sure. Vermont, that is.
What kind of character would set up a household there? A large, muscular, self-employed carpenter and welder named Richard W. Scott. “Dick was a character, and I mean a character,” recalls David Runyan, his neighbor from Skilton Lane, where Scott lived prior to Sawmill Road. Scott had bought a seven-acre chunk of the Sawmill Road property in 1955 when he lived in Santa Barbara, and then moved to 65 Skilton Lane with his wife Claire M. and three sons, John, Bob and Steve, while he built the A-frame from 1963 to 1968.
He built a skating rink, swimming pool and tether ball court in his Skilton Lane yard, for the neighborhood children. And before he’d finished his Sawmill A-frame, he held large sleepover campouts there for his sons and their friends.
Scott had some quirks:
- He burned his lawn every spring, a valid agricultural strategy in some books.
- He became the Skilton Lane traffic enforcer. “He had this VW bus, and whenever someone came speeding through the neighborhood, Dick would fire up that VW and chase the guy down,” Runyan says. “Sometimes he came back claiming he dragged the guy out of the car.” Chasing speeders with the slowest-accelerating vehicle of modern times? “I know. Perhaps the speeder ran into traffic and Dick caught up. Of course I never joined him on his private cop excursions so I can’t say with certainty that he caught them. But it was a common sound in our neighborhood. Dick firing up the bus and giving chase.”
Scott built the Sawmill A-frame himself, from the foundation to the electrical to the plumbing. For the woodwork, he used his homemade saw mill mounted on a 40-foot trailer chassis and powered by a transversely-mounted truck engine and transmission. The source of the wood? The trees in his yard. Clearly this was no ordinary DIY guy. “For me,” Runyan says, “Dick Scott represents the last of a breed of stubbornly independent males, the likes of which the country would do well to encourage.”
When he and his wife split, he moved to Woburn and she settled in Pennsylvania with the couple’s three sons. The abandoned house left Burlington and Wilmington with a mess on their hands. Vandals gutted the house, tossing the home’s tossable contents into the woods and heaving the furniture down the gorge into the river. Wilmington razed the house in the early 2000s.
Why Wilmington? Because town officials discovered the house was in Wilmington even though the street begins in Burlington. This surprised even the Burlington Fire Department, which had provided occasional ambulance service.
Dick died soon after moving to Woburn. Claire is also deceased. Bob, his wife Denise, and Jon are alive and well in Pennsylvania. Denise says the rewards of woodsy living were many; the drawbacks few. “No lights on the road, just the moon. Lots of animals. I grew up in the city and saw my first fox at that house.” One drawback was the long, unpaved, often muddy driveway. The family sometimes had to park at the very beginning of the driveway, where it was somewhat dry, and walk all the way down the unlit, rutted mire to get home. Bob spread small stones on the driveway to help the school bus get a grip.
The Sawmill “sluiceway,” or water channel, is the only testament to the ancient mill. But stay out. See the tunnel on the right? The ceiling has an ominous crack.
Burlington and Wilmington, along with the state’s Trust for Public Land, conducted a study delineating the various segments of the Sawmill area. The three parties successfully bought some sections, including the Scott property, for preservation. Other property owners weren’t so agreeable, so some sections are still up for grabs, but nobody is grabbing. Burlington realtor Paul Conti cites the expensive site work required. Building roads to town code would devour much of the residential space due to the obligation to replicate disturbed wetlands, says Conservation Administrator John Kelley. Who wants a muddy bog in the front yard? And back yard?
There are no photos of the Clapp Mill. Fogelberg’s Burlington, Part of a Greater Chronicle suggests this “might be” the mill (below). It’s fun to ponder, but the chances are slim. First, the photo shows nothing but conifers, yet the area is now overwhelmingly deciduous. Could the canopy have undergone such a radical succession? Okay, maybe, given the elapsed time. But the pictured ravine is much wider than actual. Plus the actual site has no large, smooth rock formations as shown. Both sides are equally choppy.
Today, only a slab foundation, punctured by a single wiring harness, remains earthbound at the end of Sawmill Road, a spot in Burlington that has zero ghosts but may forever be haunted by the tortured, grinding rasp of saw mills, both stationary and portable, from three different centuries. It could be worse. Skilton Lane will forever hear a VW bus.