by Trudy Folsom
Long before the days of established hiking trails with accompanying guide books, early settlers blazed their own trails through the wilderness of North Fayston to discover a summit of great scenic beauty. They explored the mossy glades, secluded hollows and rocky outcrops which led to commanding views of rugged mountainsides. From the top of what came to be known as Burnt Rock Mountain, peaks and ranges near and far were visible in most directions, only Camel’s Hump and the Allens (Mt. Ethan Allen & Mt. Ira Allen) limiting the view to the north. These adventurous pioneers found a view to the west spanning Lake Champlain, to the east, the Northfield Range and the Granite Mountains, and to the south, Lincoln Ridge.
How did Burnt Rock Mountain get its name? Vermont Place Names simply tells that it was “named because there is a hole near the top that looks burned.” Here’s a tale handed down for generations in the Boyce family, early Fayston settlers. It offers a plausible though unproven explanation of how this Fayston landmark got its name.
How Burnt Rock Mountain Got its Name
“Ma, have you seen little Blackface? He’s not by the gate.” Young James Peck Boyce and his brother Caleb burst into the small frame house where their mother sat busy at her flaxwheel, one foot on the cradle where two month old Mason lay sleeping. The two boys and their younger sister Catherine had just returned from the little district school, a half mile up the road where a total of twenty-six pupils were now enrolled.
“Little Blackface”, one of twin lambs born a month earlier, had been disowned by his mother. “If you can raise him, he’s yours.” David told his oldest son, who joyfully accepted the task. James spent every spare minute with his lamb. As the wobbly little legs grew sturdy, Blackface followed his young master everywhere, except to school. He waited at the split rail gate when the children ran noisily down the road. But today he was neither at the gate nor with the rest of the flock grazing on the fresh spring grass.
“I’m afraid it’s a bear, son,” said David Boyce, who returned from his task of pulling tree stumps from a fertile strip of land by Beaver Meadow. “This time of year those old mother bears are pretty hungry after sleeping all winter, and a month old lamb is mighty tempting.”
And so it proved to be. Father and son had gone only a quarter of a mile up the mountain when they came to a bloodstained lamb skin. The bear herself had long since disappeared, probably back to one of the small caves dotting the Fayston mountainside.
“I’ll get her!” vowed the boy, fighting to keep back his tears — a twelve year old Boyce must not cry. “I’ll get every darn bear on this mountain.”
And so was born the legend of James Peck Boyce, mighty bear hunter. At first he could only accompany his father or one of his uncles on hunting trips, but by the time he was sixteen — as strong and muscular as any man — hunting bears became an obsession. He spent every spare moment in the Fayston wilderness. When James pulled stumps for his aging Uncle Paul, he was rewarded with a muzzle loader for his very own.
One early spring afternoon James and his cousin Dan drove an old bear into a deep cave at the foot of a small peak, one of many along the Fayston Ridge. “Let’s smoke him out,” said James. After several attempts with a small flintstone, the dry leaves caught and a good smudge was going. The bear came out all right, and was promptly dispatched with a well-aimed shot from the muzzle loader. But the boys had not reckoned with the dryness of the woods that spring. The fire took off and soon the whole top of the mountain was aflame with a blaze that could be seen for miles. Farmers left their plows and fence building to fight the fire, which was finally extinguished, but not before it had consumed all growth on top of the craggy rocks. Young James and his precious muzzle loader were grounded for the entire summer.
The fire burned so deeply into the thin soil that vegetation never did return. To this day the peak is known as Burnt Rock Mountain.
After his marriage to Mary Boyce, a distant cousin, his expeditions became less frequent, but whenever a farmer lost a new-born lamb or bear tracks were seen in the neighborhood, James was off on his relentless search. He came to know each small cave where a bear might “hole up”. By now he had become known as the mightiest bear hunter in Fayston. Fewer lambs and young calves disappeared in the spring, and mothers felt safer letting their children venture into the woods.
Can we doubt that during his term in Montpelier as representative from Fayston, when he met his fellow lawmakers in the corridors of the State House, more conversation turned to his prowess as a bear hunter than to the enactment of new laws?
When he was ninety years old, two years before his death, James Peck Boyce shot his last bear. Little Blackface was avenged.
Trudy Folsom, who lives in Waitsfield, wrote this story for her family in December, 1982. James Peck Boyce (1820-1912) was her husband Ike Folsom’s great grandfather. The author graciously consented to its use by the Town of Fayston.