Ropes Course: Grim Reminder of U-32’s Troubled Old West History

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Last week, the seventh graders’ walking tour with local historian Wayne Farnsworth veered into the macabre.

According to J.B. Hilferty, the students “weren’t paying much attention” and “were doing a lot of texting” during the first part of the tour, which focused on the Shapiro Building’s turn-of-the-century role as a processing center for Italian immigrants.

This prompted a frustrated Farnsworth to cut his lecture short and lead the students into the woods, where, he told the students, “…I’ll show you something you can’t ignore.”

Their first stop was just north of campus, along the side of the road, where Farnsworth pointed out a few remaining log pyres, abandoned after the last U-32 witches were burned at the stake in 1698.
“It’s amazing to think,” said Hilferty, “that so much paranoia and scapegoating, and violence, surrounded the founding of the school.”

As they made their way further into the forest, Farnsworth explained a little-known fact of history: that what we think of as the “Old West” actually started much farther east. “Before the settling of Montana, or the Gold Rush in the Yukon, Vermont had its own turn as a lawless frontier community, with U-32 at its center,” he said. “It was a wild, bustling town of gambling saloons, brothels and the occasional shootout.”

Farnsworth went on to mention that in its frontier heyday the U-32 area was briefly home to many western legends — including Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill, John Wayne, Annie Oakley and Kevin Costner — who passed through on their way to greater fame.

By the time the group came to the ropes course, it was clear some of the students had again lost interest, trailing behind to chat in twos and threes. Farnsworth got their attention when, after scuffing around in the dried leaves and pine needles a few moments, he held aloft a pair of yellowed human skulls and rolled them along the ground into the crowd of stunned students.

When our reporters asked Hilferty to summarize what Farnsworth told them next, he seemed reluctant to answer. Then he tried to put a positive spin on a ghastly chapter in our learning community’s past.
“U-32, as it is now, was a venue for many cultural events that brought the community together…. The most popular gatherings — it’s true — were the hangings, which took place every second “blue” wednesday, from 2:00 to 4:15, at the spot known as “Gallows On The Hill”, a name slurred over the years to become the familiar ‘Gallison Hill’ of today.”

Hilferty seemed eager to conclude our interview. “We need to own this part of our history, too, and take pride in the fact that our school has always been a… special place…. The U-32 Gallows program of the era was widely respected, especially for its musical hangings, which were real productions. And the crowds had a great time — they picnicked with Raider Sandwiches and enjoyed the beautiful views of the Winooski River.”