- Luke Awtry
- Samantha Ford speaking with Steve Goldstein at his home in Shelburne
Samantha Ford sees dead people — and brings them to life. An archaeologist of sorts, she digs into documents, not dirt. Instead of a spade and sieve, her tools are deeds and vital records.
Ford's enterprise, Williston-based Turn Stone Research, can put the limbs on your family tree, find secrets buried beneath the hearth, or help you record and preserve your home's historical records. While the future is unknowable, the past can literally be an open book.
We found this out a few weeks ago when Ford, a 32-year-old Charlotte native, sat on the porch of our house on Falls Road in Shelburne and, like a latter-day Scheherazade, told the tale of the land.
The road takes its name from the falls of the LaPlatte River, which powered a thriving commercial district in the 1800s and early 1900s, she told us. A towering sycamore, thought to be close to 200 years old, is a local landmark. Ford's investigation revealed that the owner of a large swath of land surrounding a sawmill, gristmill, forge and woolen mill was Ira Allen (younger brother of Ethan), a lieutenant in the Green Mountain Boys and a land speculator who helped found the University of Vermont.
To my wife and me — newcomers to the state — this connection to Vermont's most famous family was, well, thrilling.
"Allen didn't live here, but he spent time here overseeing the building of the mills," Ford explained. "Eventually, he sold the property to some other wealthy men."
And there was more: In the 1780s, a speculator named Thaddeus Tuttle bought the property, then sold the mills in 1795 to a Connecticut Yankee named Joshua Isham for "60 pounds of lawful money," including "5 potash kettles." That same year, Isham purchased the adjoining farmland holdings for "182 pounds of lawful money."
The land changed hands many times before Jeremy and Elizabeth Smardon bought it in 2005. Using architectural details of the Smardon house to aid her research, Ford determined that the structure was likely built in the 1890s and at one time housed a tannery and a carpentry business. Jeremy Smardon revived the carpentry operation before selling the house in 2017 to Scott Gardner of Building Energy in Williston.
Gardner hoped to renovate the old house, but its poor condition ruled out that option and, following Shelburne Village historical district dictates, he constructed a near replica on the same site. Our 2020 home — on whose porch we sat — cost a hell of a lot more potash kettles.
Ford unearthed this history by spending hours combing through town records and knowing where to look for them, skills that presaged a career. At 19, she'd already tried attending Colby-Sawyer College and Green Mountain College, and neither was able to keep her. Back home, her best friend's mother offered her a job "so I had some stability until I figured out college," Ford explained.
The woman was then-Williston town clerk Deb Beckett, who hired Ford as her administrative assistant. Ford thought a desk job came with chains, but "the office drew me in," she said. She spent the next seven years there and eventually became assistant town clerk, as well as registrar of vital statistics, and learned the dark art of managing land records.
- Luke Awtry
- Steve Goldstein's home in Shelburne
"It's amazing what you can learn about families based just off of their deeds and vital records," Ford said. "Our Vermont records date back to the 1700s, and you can learn about someone's lifestyle, their values, their families and their land.
"So, yeah, I can't imagine what I would be doing if I hadn't taken Deb up on her offer," Ford said. She called Beckett, who died last year, her "mentor and cheerleader."
Family legend has it that, at age 5, Ford was already watching the History Channel. Perhaps that made her more attentive to history close to home. One of the oldest buildings in the area, a log cabin built by French Canadian homesteader Antoine Lorraine and christened the Settlers' House, had been located near the Ford home in East Charlotte. It was later moved to the grounds of the Shelburne Museum.
"I was volunteering at the museum's preservation and landscape department a few years ago," Ford said, "and I found photos of the cabin in the process of being moved and was able to pinpoint our property by means of an old ash tree."
When Ford was 14, she recalled, her grandfather took the family to an exhibit at the Timothy Knapp House in Rye, N.Y., the oldest residential dwelling in Westchester County. They were amazed to find an exhibit on "the Fords of Rye." Grandpa Ford casually explained that he'd lived there as a youngster before going to boarding school.
Ford was fascinated by this bit of family lore but didn't know what to do with this interest until she was studying at UVM in 2012 and walked into a classroom where Vermont history was being taught.
"I remember sitting in that class and just being so overwhelmed and excited. I was like, Finally, someone has brought this full circle for me," Ford recalled.
Kevin Thornton, who taught the course, said Ford's enthusiasm made an impression on him.
"I was never very good at remembering students, but Sam was memorable," he said in a phone interview. "She was an eager historical student and understood how you can find history in the landscape."
Ford enrolled in the historic preservation program — which is now on the chopping block at UVM (see Seven Days story on page 42) — and emerged with a master's degree in 2013 and a vision of the path open to her. "I was totally floored that old buildings could be my career, and learning about them and saving them," she said.
But the Wild West lured her away for a couple of years.
Following graduation, Ford went to visit a friend in Wyoming and fell for the frontier. She snagged an internship and then a full-time job at the Jackson Hole Historical Society & Museum. She became an ardent student of Western history and was struck by the easy accessibility of historical structures. Her one complaint? They weren't old enough.
"I was really missing that magical 1700s date that was back here in Vermont," Ford said. "And I started to get worried that, the more I was away from it, the more I would start to lose my training specifically to Vermont history and our landscape and the architecture." She returned to the state in 2015.
Ford launched Turn Stone Research about a year ago — perhaps not the best timing, at the beginning of a pandemic. But she knows there's strong local interest in the past based on the historical field workshops she has led.
Not long ago, she said, while leading one of her walks, a participant asked, "'I've got an old house; I'd love for you to come take a look at it and maybe do a title search to figure out who lived here — and how it changed over time.'" Noting the recorded age of the house, the person excitedly described it as "a once in a 200-year opportunity" to uncover its secrets.
"That," said Ford, a smile evident in her eyes, "was a really neat take on what I do."