Often times we have to let go of the narrative we’re given in order to find the true story.
On a warm September Sunday I decided to revisit the abandoned farming community on Ricker Mountain in Waterbury, Vermont. Ascending the steep Hedgehog Hill Loop Trail was a small reminder that life was not easy on the mountain. There were better, more productive places to farm, and by the end of the nineteenth century, the community began to be abandoned.
Heading up Hedgehog Hill Loop Trail
There were some who made money here. George Randall, born on the mountain, went west for the “gold rush” and returned with $5000. He bought up land and leased it on shares, meaning his tenants had to give him half of what they took in—crops, produce, and maple syrup. They also paid half the property taxes.
In stark contrast to George Randall, there was a farmer described in the park’s pamphlet as a westerner who bought the William Clossey Farm sight unseen in 1912.
This was the destination I had in mind as I climbed the mountain. I wanted to revisit the site of this farmer’s grave. His name was Jack Cameron, and, since I first visited four years ago, his story—or rather the synopsis of it—has remained with me.
Here’s what the state park’s walking tour pamphlet says about him:
“Jack Cameron, a westerner, bought this land sight-unseen from William Clossey in 1912. He was unable to make a living on this unyielding land, and died a poor and homesick man. He was cremated and his widow buried his ashes at the corner of the stone wall, northeast of the home site. A small ring of stones marks the spot.”
A placard at the farm site adds that she returned west after burying his ashes.
Jack Cameron’s Cairn
That’s it. That’s all we know about Jack Cameron. You get a sense he was rube from the West who got fleeced by the wily old Yankee farmer. He had a dream that turned into, if not a nightmare, a heavy burden that cost him his health and eventually his life, dying as a “poor and homesick man”.
I wanted to know more. I wondered what opportunity someone would see moving from the more fertile western lands to a dying mountainside community to coax life from the worn-out soil.
Pieces of Jack’s story emerge
Using newspaper archives and genealogy websites, Jack Cameron remained elusive and I began to despair that everything about him was buried with his ashes under the ring of stones. But one thing a genealogist requires is patience—and the ability to recognize when to let go of “family stories” in order to approach the problem from a new angle.
When I dropped the state’s narrative, parts of Jack Cameron’s life emerged.
Like many good American dramas, the lead actor is Canadian-born. John “Jack” Cameron was born in Bexley, Ontario, to Peter and Ann (McLeod) Cameron. The northwest bay where the Cameron farm was located was populated by Gaelic-speaking Scots, so it’s very likely his first language was Gaelic.
As an adult, Jack migrated west to British Columbia. It’s here, while living in a bunkhouse, that he was probably exposed to tuberculosis, the disease that would claim his life.
There’s a gap in his life journey I’m still researching and trying to piece together, but on 14 November 1912, the Vermont Central Railway manifest lists John Cameron as crossing the border into Vermont from St. Albans. His destination is Waterbury (no address); at 46, his health is listed as good. He is carrying $2300 (in 2018: $59, 754). Exactly two weeks later, the Burlington Weekly Free Press newspaper confirms John Cameron from British Columbia, Canada, bought a farm in Waterbury, Vermont, from Canadian-born William Clossey through the E. A. Strout Farm Agency.
I can’t tell you why he chose to move all the way across North America from Aspen Grove, British Columbia, to Waterbury, Vermont. He had family in Saskatchewan, Alberta, and Ontario. The disease that was to kill him in a few months’ time apparently had not fully manifested itself. After years as a farm hand in B.C., he felt fit enough to move to a new area to establish a farm and a home of his own.
Jack’s farmhouse several years after his death
On 07 February 1913 Jack married Minnie Sadler Falconer. By June he was sent down to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston where he spent the last twenty-five days of his life. Jack died there on 06 July 1913. He was cremated and his ashes sent back to Vermont to be buried by Minnie in the northeast corner of his property under a ring of stones.
So now you know a little more about Jack’s very brief stay on Ricker Mountain. His sudden decline in health never gave him the chance to prove he could make a living off the land. As for dying poor, after his estate went through probate in 1916, his insurance policy paid his wife $174.27 (in 2018: $4,174.04)–a tidy sum in those days. That doesn’t include any household property she disposed of herself or money in the bank.
Don’t let others write your story—It’s okay to question
I shared what I’ve discovered of Jack Cameron’s story with you not just so you would know some truth about him, but also because it serves as a strong reminder to me. I don’t have to accept the narratives I’ve been given whether from an external source or self-imposed, especially if they place limitations on me and keep me from realizing my potential. Once I let go of those narratives, my true story will find the freedom to unfold.
I can realize the joy that exists in making my own life statement and living with a soul-enriching purpose. My dreams are gifts meant to be cherished, and, as I uncover my true story, I also discover the strength and confidence to set them free to create the pole star for my goals.
The biggest adventure you can take is to live the life of your dreams. ~Oprah Winfrey
It’s never too late to erase the false narratives we’ve come to believe about ourselves, but it starts by asking questions. Why did it become a belief? Because the same story gets told so many times that, like Jack Cameron’s tale, it becomes accepted truth until someone questions it and begins to pick it apart with facts.
We get to know our true selves by asking questions, by searching for the truth and discovering the reality for ourselves. Curiosity awakens the creative self; creativity feeds curiosity. Speaking for myself, I have found that cycle’s renewing energy nourishing me on my path of self-discovery.
…Unfold your own myth. ~Rumi
Finally, it’s true, we have no say about our life’s story after the last chapter has been written. Some of us, like Jack Cameron, may find ourselves filling a role in someone else’s narrative, our lives interpreted and passed on by hearsay. But we have the present, and the journey of now is ours to enjoy. And in the process of living, we, like Jack, can leave breadcrumbs for someone in the future who really wants to know the truth about us.
Like me, your life story is yours to write—enjoy it, savor each moment, and live true to yourself without regrets.
And never let anyone else tell you how to write it.
Just a reminder–This article originally appeared on Medium.com: