Help the historical society solve a mammoth mystery
BRATTLEBORO — This week we have a history mystery. Shortly after the Civil War ended in 1865, a woolly mammoth tusk was found in Brattleboro. It is believed to be over 10,000 years old. There are numerous written accounts of this discovery and the tusk is presently on display in the Brooks Memorial Library. The mystery we are trying to solve revolves around the place where the tusk was originally found. We don't know where it is. Maybe someone out there knows the answer, but those of us at the historical society are still wondering.
Newspaper articles at the time the artifact was put on display in the town library suggest it might have been found near Fairground Road. On the other hand, a podcast posted on the Retreat website states it might have been located in a quarry along the Woodlands Interpretive Trail behind Solar Hill.
The original newspaper articles published in 1865 say the tusk was discovered in a swampy bog on a farm owned by Daniel Stewart Pratt. It turns out Pratt owned farms along Fairground Road and also along Western Avenue. That's why both locations have been offered as possible discovery sites. Here's what we've been able to find. In 1865 James Stanford Morse was a 24-year-old workman at the DS Pratt farm. In early September he was one of a few farm employees given the task of mucking out a swampy bog in a pasture. The pasture had existed for at least 30 years and Pratt wanted to drain the swampy pond.
According to Pratt, "This swamp, which covers nearly an acre of ground ... was filled up to the depth of from five to fifteen feet with decaying vegetable matter." The boggy ground was too soft to safely support the weight of cows or horses so Pratt wanted to see it go. The decaying vegetable matter in the bog could also be spread on fields as fertilizer or, if dry enough, burned for fuel.
While James Stanford Morse was mucking out the bog he came upon a large, long brownish item that he first believed was a tree branch. As he uncovered the "branch" he decided he would show Pratt what he had found because it didn't seem like a normal piece of wood.
Pratt was a downtown clothing store owner in the Granite Block and a gentleman farmer. After looking at the item, Pratt guessed Morse had uncovered an "elephant tusk." Pratt put the tusk on display and contacted the Vermont State Curator Albert Hager.
Within a few days Hager traveled to Brattleboro and verified the legitimacy of the find. He also visited the site of the discovery and described it in his writings. Curiously, in 1865, another mammoth tusk was found on the other side of the state in the northwestern town of Richmond. Seventeen years earlier, in 1848, a mammoth tusk was discovered in the hills of south central Vermont at Mt. Holly.
These discoveries caused Curator Hager to write an article for Vermont newspapers which said, "Permit me to appeal to all who are enriching their farms by the fertilizing elements contained in muck and peat beds, to be particularly watchful and carefully preserve all bones or animal remains found in them ... it is from these records that men are to learn the unwritten history of our globe."
The articles written by Albert Hager stated the swampy bog was located about one mile west of Brattleboro and approximately 2000 feet north of Western Avenue. This seems to rule out the farm owned by DS Pratt on Fairground Road.
The quarry found along the Retreat Trails behind Solar Hill is another story. Pratt bought a 32-acre farm along Western Avenue from John R. Blake in 1858. Blake was another one of those Connecticut River merchants who made their money trading with the slave islands of the West Indies. He was a successful businessman who plowed his profits into the purchase of local real estate. One of Blake's investments was this horse farm where animals were raised to work for the stage coach and carriage trade. Pratt bought the farm from Blake when Blake moved to Boston.
Pratt went on to raise prize-winning Shorthorn cattle and Southdown sheep on the property. The operation became known as Green Hill Farm. Pratt had grown up on his father's farm in West Brattleboro. His father ran a successful meat market in downtown Brattleboro so he had experience in both farming and retail sales. DS Pratt worked for his father until he was 21 and then went to work for an older brother in the dry goods and grocery business. After a few years he branched out on his own in the custom and ready-made clothing business. The entire first floor of the Granite Block was filled with successful Pratt brothers' retail stores.
In 1855, D.S. Pratt and Company was the "largest clothing house in the state." In the "Annals of Brattleboro," Mary Cabot wrote, "owing to his mercantile interests Mr. Pratt did not enlist in the Civil War, though he furnished a substitute and was active in recruiting volunteers." Daniel Stewart Pratt followed the practice of other prominent businessmen and bought local real estate. He owned farms in southern Brattleboro and on both sides of Western Avenue.
The quarry is just to the east of the Green Hill Farm property and operated before the discovery of the woolly mammoth tusk. The quarry was owned by Nelson Crosby and, in 1854, was sold to the Brattleboro Retreat. At the time, the quarry was known for producing "a slate ledge, yielding suitable stone for the foundation of walls and buildings." A stone wall made of the ledge served as the property boundary between the Retreat and Green Hill Farm. It is still standing just north of the quarry.
A walk behind Solar Hill, along Lower Woodlands Trail, will take you past the remnants of the access road to the quarry. Some claim the tusk was found in what is now a quarry pond on the Retreat Trails but that would mean the newspapers of the 1800s got the location wrong when they said the tusk was discovered on the edge of the "old Blake pasture" on property owned by Daniel Stewart Pratt. The quarry was never owned by Pratt and was worked before the 1865 discovery of the tusk. It's hard to imagine that a swampy bog and a working slate ledge quarry are the same thing.
We believe the woolly mammoth tusk was not located near Fairground Road or in the hillside quarry off from Western Avenue. We are looking for evidence that might help us in our quest to know where the old woolly mammoth artifact might have been located. There's a small pond in a swampy area of the Retreat Trails where the Main Trail and Comfort Lane meet. It's a little over 2000 feet from Western Avenue and could be a possibility. There's also a swampy area north of Green Hill Parkway that could be the location of the old 1-acre bog.
When COVID-19 passes us by and we can visit the town clerk's office again we might find new evidence in the old property records of the period. Please contact us if you have any information about this mystery. The Retreat Trails are a wonderful gift to our community and to imagine a woolly mammoth walking over the same land 10,000 years ago is exciting. Part of having a sense of place within a community is knowing what came before. This is what motivates us as we attempt to answer questions of Brattleboro's past.
Brattleboro Historical Society: 802-258-4957, https://brattleborohistoricalsociety.org/
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