News Briefs

Conserving lands, healing people

By Julia Purdy

CUTTINGSVILLE—Just over a dozen people gathered in the meeting room at Spring Lake Ranch’s “Green House” Saturday, June 24, for an informal talk and guided walk to mark a double anniversary: Spring Lake Ranch’s 84th and Vermont Land Trust’s 40th. The two organizations became partners in 1993, when Spring Lake Ranch put a major portion of its property into the land trust.

The two organizations share complementary missions: while the Vermont Land Trust conserves cherished old Vermont farmland, the Spring Lake Ranch Therapeutic Community nurtures and treats adults with psychiatric illness through productive physical work amid a tranquil farm-and-forest setting. “The land is inextricably linked to the therapeutic community here,” said Executive Director Lynn Pilcher, who introduced the talk.

Spring Lake Ranch was the inspiration of Finnish-born Wayne Sarcka, whose father immigrated to Proctor and worked for Vermont Marble, and Sarcka’s American wife, Elizabeth Man, a Barnard College alumna raised in a prominent New York City family. While on their honeymoon on the Long Trail in 1928, the couple discovered Spring Lake and purchased an abandoned farm as a good spot for a summer resort, but in 1930, while employing disadvantaged boys from New York City to fix up the property, their plans changed.

Both Sarckas had been active in social work, helping the disadvantaged, especially youth, during the post-World War I era and the Great Depression. They became part of the progressive movement to de-institutionalize the mentally ill and offer them meaningful lives in community settings. The peaceful hillside farm neighborhood above Cuttingsville offered the perfect opportunity, and the Sarckas founded Spring Lake Ranch as a therapy-based working farm in 1932. The venture attracted national attention and soon was accepting referrals from the psychiatric community.

The Sarckas operated it for the next 27 years; then it incorporated as a non-profit under the temporary directorship of their daughter, Anne. Early on, Anne sold the development rights on 166 acres of forestland surrounding Spring Lake to The Conservation Trust.

There are now about two dozen buildings in all on 700 acres (more or less), including workshops, livestock sheds, residences, storage sheds, a chicken coop, a greenhouse, three large barns, and two main buildings, according to program director Becki Bates. The residents grow vegetables, make maple syrup and granola for sale at the Rutland farmers’ market, and care for goats, poultry, milk cows, horses, and a donkey. A flock of young turkeys, destined for the ranch’s Thanksgiving tables, mobbed their fence as visitors walked by.

Vermont Land Trust got involved when the Spring Lake Ranch board decided to preserve the land forever “for its highest use, a place for healing,” said Bates. In 1993, 500 acres were enrolled in the land trust. Bates walked the land to help locate the boundaries and has done much research into the old deeds and history of the area. The acreage is marked off into traditional use categories such as forest and agriculture, as well as the “campus” and a forested buffer around Spring Lake. Bates said that about 9 percent of the property is forested. Spring Lake is spring-fed and empties into a stream that feeds the Mill River, making the lake part of the Otter Creek watershed.

Bates has been at the ranch since 1980. She told the Mountain Times, “The ranch is a place that has helped a lot of people put together more fulfilling lives and we would like to see that continue. I believe the land is a huge part of that. We all know how healing it can be to just take a walk in the woods. It’s important that there is a place like this for people who have struggles with addiction and mental illness, and also to do work that feels meaningful, that has a tangible result. Another important element of the ranch, for residentsy and staff alike, is the sense of community, being connected to fellow human beings through those things, through work and living in a beautiful natural environment together.”

Photo by Julia Purdy

Participants stand on a dock, June 24, during a Vermont Land Trust outing to Spring Lake Ranch.

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