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Vintage Vermont Lore VI: Land, Air, and Sea (or Lake): Creatures of Vermont

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This week let’s take a step away from the paranormal and right into the bizarre. It’s not a surprise that a state as weird as Vermont claims resident “creatures” just as odd. From the woods to the lakes, it’s alleged that the Green Mountains are filled with an odd and numerous variety of otherworldly specimens. From Champ and the Pigman of Northfield, all the way to The Awful, Vermonters lay claim to all of them.

Champ

Let’s start with Vermont’s most famous creature, Champ of Lake Champlain. It’s hard to talk about any lake monsters without mentioning the Lake’s eponymous creature from the depths of Champlain. The story of Champ actually begins with the Abenaki, who knew it as Tatoskok. Samuel de’ Champlain, the first European to chart the Great Lakes, told of tales of a lake creature from the natives that was called by the natives Chaousarou, which is of various lengths; but the largest of them, as these tribes have told me, are from eight to ten feet long. I have seen some five feet long, which were as big as my thigh” in the early seventeenth century. Though Champlain never saw the creature, his account is quoted by many as evidence of Champ’s existence, as before European settlers came to the area native populations already believed that the lake had something lurking beneath its depths.

Most accounts describe Champ in a similar way, though it always varies in length; a large serpentine creature popping its head above the water’s surface, remaining elusively at a distance except when it comes close to bump into or overturn boats and prove itself a general nuisance to local fishermen, or that’s how it was for much of the nineteenth century. It wasn’t until the 1900s that Champ was given a more positive image, as a total of 180 sightings and 600 witnesses showed how beneficial a resident lake monster can be for the community. Since the 1960s, Champ’s image has been plastered all over the Lake Champlain Valley as a mascot and a chance of sighting it is the very reason many people camp there in the summer.

For some Champ is very real, and they have made entire careers out of trying to prove its existence, going so far as to seek out plausible expectations, as in what “real” things it could be, as falling back on the existence of a plesiosaur into the twenty-first century is a bit too far-fetched, even for the most ardent crypto-zoologists. Instead theories of beluga whales being trapped as the glaciers receded, as well as the more likely explanation of over sized garfish have gained popularity in recent years. The garfish is native to New York and Vermont, but current garfish size records put it at less than twenty pounds, so if the ancient, eel like fish is the culprit behind Champ sightings, claims of a creature over 180 feet long can hardly be believed!

Whatever the truth behind Champ, the Vermont celebrity is by far the most well known odd “monster” to come out of the state, and enjoys a special place of prominence for the people on both sides of the Vermont and New York border, with both states passing laws to protect Champ, if it turns out it actually exists, but so long as Champ continues to bring in tourists, we shouldn’t expect anyone to take an official stance on Champlain’s resident monster anytime soon.

Pigman

Northfield is a small town near Montpelier, and apparently home to another one of Vermont’s mysterious monsters. The story of the Pigman of Northfield is a bit more macabre than its slithery, aquatic comrade. As it goes, in 1951 a young man named Sam Harris of Northfield ventured out of his rural home and did not return. Rumors swirled around his disappearance.

No one heard a thing about Harris again until 1971, on the night of the Northfield school dance. A groups of teens were gathered out behind the school when a creature emerged from the trees. According to the teens, it was “tall, naked, and covered in white hair. And although it walked on two legs, it had the face of a pig.”

Pandora’s box was open, as several locals came forward, claiming to have seen the creature and authorities related its appearance with the disappearance of a young boy six months before. From encountering it, dashing across the road, to catching it stealing livestock, it seemed like everyone had had a run-in with the Pigman. 

Investigations into the forest revealed a cave system in the Washbowl, a local name for a bowl shaped area in Northfield. It was filled with piles of animal bones covered in teeth marks. Whether they were from the Pigman or not, it was obvious that there was something out there.

But what or who was it? The legend gives us four theories. The first involves Sam Harris from twenty years before the first appearance on the night of the school dance. One particularly gruesome story saw him making a pact with the devil, in which he devoured “the raw entrails of a pig, and wearing the head over his own.” Apparently he even visited his mother three years after his foray in pig-dom, at which point he gifted here with the carcass of a pig.

The second story simply sees Harris as a victim of the Pigman, one of many, including the young boy from 1971. Which brings us to the third explanation, which does not pertain to Harris at all. The Pigman was/is the boy, somehow transformed into a half pig, half man.

The final story made me chuckle, because “only in Vermont”. Apparently the Pigman is the product of a farmer who got a little too friendly with one of the sows on his farm.

Now, completely ignoring that genetics does not work that way, we are still left with finding an explanation for what some people in Northfield would say, is a very real creature. Perhaps the teens in 1971 were partaking in some less than legal (at the time) activities and merely hallucinated it. I mean it was the 70s. From there others just wanted to join the bandwagon. The power of suggestion can go a long way after all. And the bones in the woods; we do have bears in Vermont, as anyone who has ever had their garbage can stolen off their back porch can attest.

Whatever the case, the Pigman is a very real force in Northfield, and many would suggest you not travel too close to the Washbowl at night, at least if you don’t want to meet him.

The Awful

Further north still in a town called Richmond, right at the Canadian border, a creature of a different sort is believed to make the sky its domain. The griffin-like winged monster of Richmond, known as The Awful, was first spotted in the 1920s, capturing the imagination of even prolific horror writer H.P. Lovecraft.

According to the stories, The Awful was first spotted in by mill workers. The creature was described as “a winged creature that resembled “a very large Griffin-like creature with grayish wings that each spanned ten-feet.” The creature possessed “a serpent-like tail that equaled its wing length” and “huge claws that could easily grip a milk can’s girth.” According to the men, it stalked the bridge above them, before flying up to the mill roof, where it rested and simply watched the men. The ordeal was so startling one of the millers supposedly suffered a heart attack on the spot. Though he did not die, he would go on to be haunted by the image of the cryptic for the rest of his life.

Of course they shared their story, encouraging a wave of similar tales to emerge from other town folks. Apparently The Awful was not shy; it would fly around town in broad daylight, watching the townspeople go about their everyday lives from its rooftop perch. However, other than a single “sighting” of The Awful flying through town gripping something in its claws, the creature did not seem to pose a threat to anyone, and over the years all reports of sightings just stopped.

In 1925 Lovecraft traveled to Richmond, chasing stories. Though he did not see the creature himself, he did say the Vermonters interviewed were “not in the least mistaken about what they had witnessed….The Awful became ample sustenance for my imagination….over time the creature became the basis for many of my own fictional inventions.”

With that said, from the 1920s and on, The Awful was not seen again until 2006, when one citizen reported spotting it, claiming to have seen “an unbelievable looking winged monster. … What I saw was no yarn. Yarns don’t fly and stories don’t look like that. What I saw was real. And I hope to high heaven I never see it again.” This sighting, however, is not seen as credible compared to earlier stories. With that said though, a mysterious jawbone was reportedly discovered in the forest outside of Richmond and, allegedly, sent to UVM for study.

If The Awful does exist, there it is believed to be an undiscovered species, but the same can probably be said of all three of the creatures on this list. Perhaps the best explanation for Vermont’s unique set of cryptids can be found in Lovecraft, who in 1927 wrote “entering Vermont for the first time there is a sense of mystic revivification…..Something in the contours, something in the setting, has the power to touch deep viol-strings of feeling which are ancestral if one be young and personal if one be old.”

Whether Champ, the Pigman, and The Awful are real, it certainly seems like they could not have existed in any other place than the Green Mountain State.

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