GRAFTON — Before her death at age 104, Daisy Turner — a local storyteller whose autobiographical tales dated back to her African ancestors and formerly enslaved parents — loved to share how her family came to settle in this picture postcard of a town a century and a half ago.
“The home place was named Journey’s End,” she would say, “’cause father never wanted to go no further after he got up there on that hilltop.”
Patriarch Alec Turner fought with the Union Army during the Civil War before finding his way to southeastern Vermont, where he bought 150 lofty Grafton acres and built a homestead in the early 1870s.
The 1886 house where Alec and his wife, Sally, raised their 13 children burned down six decades ago. But a circa 1910 outbuilding called Birchdale Camp still holds memories of the Black family’s success in one of the nation’s whitest states.
“This is a really important site,” Jane Beck, founder of the Vermont Folklife Center, said today. “It’s a real symbol of Alec’s journey from enslavement to land ownership and a testament to his and Daisy’s care in maintaining the family story.”
The local Windham Foundation, receiving help from a host of public and private entities, has restored and reopened the cabin, which was celebrated during the weekend as the new first stop on the state’s African American Heritage Trail.
“While many African American historic sites focus on the horrors of slavery and the indignities suffered by the enslaved or freedom seekers, the Turner family homestead elevates the story of Alec’s forward-looking vision for his family and his grit to make Journey’s End a reality,” Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, told a crowd of more than 100 people.
The cabin, once rented to summer visitors and fall hunters, sat vacant for decades before local and state leaders came up with a restoration plan. It began with the discovery of endangered plants that helped secure federal wildlife funds to buy the property and ended with the Preservation Trust of Vermont raising nearly $250,000 for cleanup and construction work.
“This was an essential part of the whole family complex,” Beck said of the camp where Daisy Turner lived at various times of her life.
Beck, working with Turner from her 100th birthday in 1983 to her death in 1988, recorded more than 60 hours of family reminiscences, “from West Africa through two generations of enslavement, escape, the Civil War, moving north and finally establishing this homestead,” the folklorist said.
Turner recalled how her father led his cavalry regiment to his old Virginia plantation to shoot and kill his former overseer. How she was born after the death of her parents’ eighth child, a boy nicknamed “Enough.” How she sued a man for breach of promise after he broke off their engagement.
“A Black woman against a white man in the courts in 1927,” Beck said. “And she won.”
The Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury now houses the Turner Family Collection of audio and video recordings, photographs and texts cited in Beck’s 2015 book “Daisy Turner’s Kin: An African American Family Saga” and a new collection of nonfiction comics, “Turner Family Stories.”
The cabin, for its part, has become the southern start of the Vermont African American Heritage Trail, which features two dozen landmarks statewide.
“This is a site about freedom and exemplifies all that the trail has to offer,” Reed said. “We want people to understand and the trail to communicate that it's OK to be who you are. This story should ignite in all of us a reimagining of what’s possible for all Vermonters.”