Home Commentary History Corner: Traveling by Rackets in the Great Snows

History Corner: Traveling by Rackets in the Great Snows

Montpelier historian Daniel Pierce Thompson.
Winters here were harsh, and as related in the last History Corner, Col. Jacob Davis stranded three of his kids alone for months when snowstorms made it impossible for him to return to their Montpelier cabin. But they survived and their place became a stopover for others according to Daniel P. Thompson, in “History of the Town of Montpelier” (1860). Thompson mentions another family of early settlers who had harrowing winter experiences.

James Marsh, the first permanent white settler of Waterbury, was nearly destitute by the time he arrived. He incrementally relocated from Connecticut in 1783 after dodging service in the Revolutionary War and following some bad land deals. As Col. Davis had done, Marsh cleared wilderness and planted crops to store for future use. He then went to retrieve his wife and eight children. They got as far as Corinth, where he left all but three: James, age 8 or 9; Elias,15, and Irene, 12, to continue on to Waterbury using what Thompson calls “rackets” (snowshoes). 

They brought their belongings by handsled. But when they got to the cabin, much of the stored food was gone. Marsh then left his children to get the rest of the family. However, according to C.C. Parker’s “Early History of Waterbury” (1867), “The week ended, but so did their provisions and their father did not return.” After three weeks the children headed out to find sustenance. During the journey, Irene fell in the river, and they faced a bear, but made it to the nearest house. Weeks later the rest of the family arrived and they survived the season on leeks boiled in milk from their one cow, plus any game they caught.

A couple of winters later, Marsh traveled on rackets 20 miles through “unpathed wilderness” with a bag of grain on his back. After grinding his grain at the nearest grist mill, he stopped by another settler’s house to use his molds for making pewter spoons. He had his spoons made, then headed back across a frozen stream in the night’s darkness. The ice broke, and, weighted down, he got swept underwater. His body was recovered days later. Snow made it too difficult to bring him home, so he was buried in Richmond. Marsh’s daughter Irene, the only family member at the funeral, traveled 17 miles on rackets to get there. Another account by C.C. Parker states that Irene went those 17 miles accompanied by her brother and a neighbor, who took turns carrying her because she couldn’t walk in the deep snow. In any case, they traveled in deep snow, by sun and by moon, on rackets.