Fiber-Optic Internet, Fixed Road Finally Reach Long-Ignored Town

Sunday, May 12, 2013
Vershire — By the end of the summer, life is likely to speed up in this tiny Orange County town tucked into the narrow valley where the Ompompanoosuc River begins its 25-mile run to the Connecticut.

If work continues on schedule, not only will very high-speed broadband Internet be available to half the homes and businesses in Vershire, but Route 113 from West Fairlee to Chelsea will have a new — or nearly new — surface, offering commuters a faster, safer and smoother connection to the rest of the Upper Valley.

The changes are expected to make a difference in Vershire, where the population grew almost 14 percent in the last decade and the median age is just over 41; a town with new residents who are attracted to its beauty, slower pace and rural remoteness, but who still want to be electronically connected to the world.

And for those running the 15 or so businesses in town that depend on access to the rapidly changing technology of communication, time will be saved and chances for growth improved.

Patience and waiting are an accepted part of living in Vershire, a town with a history as rugged and hard as the ledge running under its hay fields and verdant hillsides.

But patience can only go so far, and it reached its limit a little over a year ago when ECFiber, the nonprofit consortium of 23 Vermont towns working to bring broadband Internet to unserved areas of the state, watched as its plans got sidetracked.

In Vershire — where homes didn’t get electricity until the late 1940s, where it took until 1980 for the currently unreliable telephone service to arrive and where cell phones still don’t get a signal — people were tired of waiting. They were ready for fiber-optic Internet service with the capability to send and download large files, photographs and documents rapidly. ECFiber was set to provide it — until FairPoint Communications almost killed the project.

“It created a firestorm,” said John Roy, a Vershire resident and the treasurer of ECFiber.

Just as ECFiber was about to get a $2.1 million state grant that would have covered the $800,000 cost of providing five-, 10- or 20-megabit fiber-optic connections to all of Vershire’s customers, FairPoint announced that the company would provide DSL service in the town, making the area no longer underserved in the state’s eyes and ECFiber no longer eligible for the grant.

Although the FairPoint DSL service would be inferior in most cases to the fiber-optic offered by the nonprofit and would, in some situations, be no better than the satellite or dial-up connections residents and businesses already had, the state decided Vershire would be served well enough with FairPoint.

But service good enough for the state didn’t suit Vershire residents, who wrote letters to Gov. Peter Shumlin and harangued state officials until an alternative was found, Roy said.

Based on the town’s history with utility service, Vershire residents feared that if they did not get fiber-optic connections during the state’s current push to blanket all of Vermont with high-speed connections the window would close. It could be decades before service upgrades from the slower DSL would be provided, residents said in public meetings and in published articles.

Under the new deal with the state, the Vermont Telecommunications Authority is stringing fiber-optic cable this spring and summer along Route 113 connecting Vershire to a loop that includes new service for parts of Thetford, West Fairlee, Fairlee, Strafford and Sharon. ECFiber was given a favorable lease on a quarter of the strands in the fiber-optic cable, and ECFiber has raised enough private money through investment from community members to get the service to at least half the customers in Vershire as early as the end of the summer, Roy said.

“We’ll have 20 miles of fiber in Vershire to reach better than 50 percent of the possible customers. We’d love to have more funding to provide more service, but the only money we have to spend now gives us enough for the 50 percent who are the easiest to reach,” he said, adding that ECFiber is spending about $300,000 in Vershire.

“With 99 percent certainty we hope to have half the customers (in town) served by the end of the year. But if everything goes as planned, it very likely will be the end of the summer,” Roy said.

“Less than a year ago, the people of Vershire thought they got diddled out of a grant from VTA. They wrote letters to the editor and the governor to get what we have, and we’re very appreciative of that,” he said.

Boom Times

Much of the town’s history was shaped by the boom and bust of the Ely Mine, said Gary Goodrich, president of the Vershire Historical Society.

Although some residents and town officials see the improvements to Route 113 and the fiber-optic system as a spark for some growth, no one in the town of 730 seems to be expecting a boom period like when the mine was in its heyday.

Vershire was settled in 1779, and by 1791, it had a population of 439 people who made a living mostly from farming, Goodrich said.

Initially, people lived along the hilltops, but eventually settled in the valley around Vershire Center, where churches were built and the first saw mill started in 1810. By 1830, about 1,000 people had moved to Vershire. There was some hardscrabble copper mining — copper-containing ore had been discovered in the area around 1813 — but little industry other than farming.

Things changed dramatically when a group of investors from New York City, headed by Henry Barnard, decided in 1852 to buy the 1,880-acre property on the south side of Dwight’s Hill off of Beanville Road and start a copper mine.

Not long afterward, Smith Ely bought a controlling interest in the mine. The price of cooper soared and Ely Mine grew rapidly. By 1857, the mine became the largest copper producer in New England, and the third-largest in the country. Ely brought in workers from Cornwall, Ireland, and Italy, and they brought their families to live in town. By the Civil War, when copper was in great demand, more than 3,000 people associated with the mine and its smeltering operation were living in Vershire or the nearby Fairlee village of Ely.

People in Vershire were so fond of Smith Ely that they renamed the town in 1879, calling it Ely for a few years. However, in 1883, their attitude changed when the bottom dropped out of the copper market.

More than 300 miners rioted in early July — they hadn’t been paid in quite a while and their families were starving — and took over the Ely Mine property, flooding the shafts, ransacking the offices and looting the company store. They armed themselves with stolen weapons and lots of black powder, which they threatened to use to blow up bridges and to destroy the village of Vershire if they didn’t get paid.

Gov. John Barstow, who was somewhat sympathetic with the miners, sent in state troops. They arrived before dawn, caught the protesting miners still in their beds and ended the riots without loss of life. A handful of protest leaders were arrested and later freed. The troops brought extra food and gave it to the miner’s starving families. The governor forced the company to pay the workers, and Ely, who was in his 80s, died soon after. The town changed its name back to Vershire that year.

The mine, which was an environmentally disastrous operation, kept running unprofitably until it shut down in 1905. World War I gave Ely Mine a new shot of business, but by 1920, it was closed for good. In 2001, about 350 acres of the mine property was declared an EPA Superfund Site, and Vershire residents are waiting for it to be cleaned up.

Fast-Forward to Today

By Friday, ECFiber had already connected eight customers in Vershire to the new fiber-optic system, including attorney Wynona Ward at Have Justice Will Travel, a nonprofit legal service that helps victims of domestic violence and abuse.

“It’s just wonderful. It’s like going from the horse-and-buggy age to the jet age overnight,” said Ward, who got the service on April 23. “I’ll always remember the date. It’s made such a difference in our lives.”

The new system lets all of the firm’s five computers to be online at one time, something that the old system would not allow. Clients and lawyers now can send photographs and case files to her office, which would have crashed her previous system.

“We used to plan an hour a week to do our payroll online. Now, we can do it in a matter of minutes. It’s a tremendous savings of time,” she said. The new system also gives firm members an opportunity to keep up with online training.

“If we filed a grant application before, which can be 70 to 80 pages, we had to go to Hanover to use the computers. Now, we can do it from our office. And now, we’re also going to use social media to raise money. We never could do that before.”

Timo Bradley and his partners at TimberHomes on Route 113 are still waiting for the fiber-optic service to be connected. “We’re hoping it’s going to be pretty soon,” he said last week.

“It’ll make it much easier for us to send plans and to do other things. It’ll be a great benefit to all four partners and our three employees,” said Bradley, whose company builds timber frame structures in Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine and New York.

One of the partners is out of the country at the moment, but is still actively working with the business through its current satellite service, Bradley said. “In the short term, having fiber-optics would help us communicate with him.”

For the town as a whole, having ECFiber connections, along with the long-awaited improvements to Route 113, will make living and working in Vershire much easier, he said.

“There are a lot of creative and artistic people who enjoy the nice lifestyle that we have here. They have a dream of making a living working out of their homes. And there are people here who want to telecommute. This may make it easier for them to fulfill their dreams. It’s finally happening, and up until now it’s been a little disappointing.

“We haven’t had a good road network or cell service that works. Even the telephone lines are atrocious. I think everyone in Vershire are all saying a collective amen. It’s going to be a welcomed improvement. It’s something we need and something that our kids need,” Bradley said.

Diann Ward has just gotten the new fiber-optic system at Ward’s Garage, the town’s only service station. It’s going to help the business owned by her and her husband, Steve.

But there’s a problem.

“Our computer is so old that it doesn’t work a lot better,” with the fiber-optic connection, she said. “It does help us with ordering parts from parts stores now, but it’s going to be a big help after we get a new computer.”

Fiber-optic service hasn’t reached The Mountain School yet, but Director Alden Smith is hoping the connections will be made during the early summer.

“We welcome the change. We love the remote, rural lifestyle, but it will be nice to have a better connection to the world. We’ll be able to update our website without having to drive to Hanover to do it. The better connection will also help our students, who are from all over the country, and the faculty members who live on campus,” Smith said.

“We’re not in a hurry to see cell phone service improve. We worry that might affect the students appreciation of the rural experience here, but improved Internet service will be a help. We have a better control of its use,” he said.

Fundraising efforts will continue to collect the money that ECFiber needs to completely serve the town by reaching the more remote areas, Roy said, adding that it’s hoped the work can be done soon.

The work on improving Route 113 between Post Mills and the Vershire Town Hall is scheduled to be completed in September, according to the state highway department. The stretch between Vershire and Chelsea was completed several years ago.

After a summer of heat, dust and crawling exhaust-filled commutes, most Vershire residents should be able to tap into the speed of the 21st century world while still enjoying the high quality of life at a slower pace.

“Having ECFiber and Route 113 paved will make Vershire more desirable and make it more feasible for the town to be a bedroom area for the Upper Valley. People will be able to more easily work from home or commute. We already have the beginning for that here, and I think this will help us expand and add people without changing the rural character of the community,” Roy said.

Warren Johnston can be reached at or 603-727-3216.

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