Most Vermont towns have a mystery house: a dilapidated hovel gradually crumbling into the landscape. The townspeople may tell differing stories about who lived there, why it was abandoned and whether it’s haunted. Over time, the legends might loom larger than the house itself.
Filmmaker Dave Smith had a long time to contemplate such things: He lived aside an abandoned 19th-century house for 16 years. In 2006, he and his wife purchased a home next door to the Stockwell House in Middlesex Village. The large old house, sometimes called the Old Joiner’s Shop or “the haunted house” by locals, had been derelict for as long as anyone could recall.
The building’s owners finally had it razed in 2021, and Smith, a former journalist, decided to film the house, what it meant to locals and its dismantling.
The resulting short, titled “Eyesore: A Building Concludes,” has its big-screen premiere on Sunday, April 24, in the Made Here Film Festival, hosted by Burlington Beer. The festival runs April 22 through 24, presented by Vermont International Film Festival in partnership with Vermont PBS and Vermont Public Radio and cosponsored by Maine Public Television. It features 38 shorts by 26 filmmakers from northern New England and Québec.
“I don’t really consider the film a history project,” Smith told Seven Days by phone. “I have no qualifications as a historian and, really, there’s not much history to the house that you can even find. They kept awful records back then. To me, the film is more a tribute to the house and a meditation on the passage of time.”
The film’s opening footage offers several long takes of the decaying two-story building, showing its massive size, shattered windows and rotting wooden exterior. At just under 20 minutes, the film eulogizes the doomed house with slow, contemplative shots of massive wooden beams, cracked walls, rusted metal furniture and a squirrel living inside.
No one knows exactly when the Stockwell House was built, but Smith’s research indicated it was likely constructed in the 1850s to house Irish workers. They were in Middlesex to move Route 2 and make way for the railroad.
“I don’t think it was ever painted,” Ada Alger, a lifelong village resident, says in the film. Smith interviewed several locals, including the founders of the Middlesex Historical Society, over 12 months as he made “Eyesore” in his spare time.
All of the interviewees have unique memories of the old house, and their recollections give the film warmth. But Smith’s cinematic choices reveal his own strong connection to the building and his existential curiosity about its demolition. Perhaps that’s because he was responsible for it.
“The old owners of the property called me in January of 2021,” he recalled. Over the years, they had asked Smith a few times whether he wanted to buy the Stockwell House, but they’d always asked for more money than he was willing to spend. This time, however, they were offering the property with a caveat: If he didn’t buy it, they’d raze it.
“We were ecstatic,” said Smith. “I had fantasized in the past about someone fixing the place up, but that was never really practical. The property is tiny, only a fifth of an acre, so you wouldn’t have even been able to install a septic system. So, I knew it had to go.”
As he began to contemplate life without the hulking building beside his home, Smith started to feel a bit of empathy for the structure. In pictures he’d seen from the 1950s, his own home looked as derelict as the Stockwell House. The thought that one had been saved while the other languished seemed strange to him.
One day, Smith wandered over to the empty house and walked around inside. The detritus of past occupants still littered the wooden floors: empty liquor bottles and newspapers, props from when it had been the town’s Halloween haunted house in the ’70s, a rusty bed frame.
Barre’s Jay Southgate, whom the owners hired to disassemble the house, even found a child’s shoe during his work. Southgate, who owns restoration business Southgate Steeplejacks, donated the shoe to the Vermont Historical Society.
“I’m not someone who really believes in ghosts,” Smith said. “Being in the house never scared me. But there were so many fingerprints of the people who had lived there. It just felt like I didn’t really belong in there, like I was trespassing.”
Smith, who makes what he calls “personal history” videos for clients who want their life documented, decided to make a passion project of the house’s final year. As he did so and explored the building’s past, he uncovered evidence about life in Middlesex a century ago. A former assistant town clerk himself, Smith found that the Stockwell House’s fortunes likely rose and fell along with those of the town.
“Middlesex used to be a five-gas-station town, with hotels and travelers coming through,” he said. The Great Vermont Flood of 1927, widely considered the worst natural disaster in the state’s history, massively damaged the town and significantly affected its future. “After the flood, the house really started to decline,” Smith said. “The whole village diminished after that, really.”
Once Smith had shot and edited “Eyesore,” he began seeking places to screen it. Though he’s a professional videographer, he had no experience with independent film festivals. After releasing the short through social media channels and on Front Porch Forum, he contacted Vermont PBS about its weekly show “Made Here.”
“The producers did end up wanting to show the film, but it probably won’t air until the fall,” Smith said. However, their decision to include it in the Made Here Film Festival “is incredibly exciting to me,” he added. “I’ve never done something like this or done an in-person screening of something I’ve shot.”
The exposure may benefit him as a commercial filmmaker, but Smith said he made “Eyesore” for another reason: He needed to make it.
“There had to be some kind of document that [the house] existed,” he said. “Now that it’s gone, it’s hard to believe it was ever really here. There’s just these beautiful retaining walls in my yard. So, I’m very grateful the film is there to remind us that it stood for as long as it did.”
When asked how it feels to have the old house gone, Smith laughed a little guiltily.
“Do I miss it?” he wondered aloud. “No, probably not. But I’m glad it was there.”
And the Winners Are…
The Made Here Film Festival is the only competitive festival of works by filmmakers in the New England region. Presented by the Vermont International Film Festival in partnership with Vermont PBS and Vermont Public Radio and cosponsored by Maine Public Television, it runs Friday through Sunday, April 22 through 24, at Burlington Beer, and Monday, April 25, through Sunday, May 1, on VTIFF’s Virtual Cinema. It features 38 shorts by 26 filmmakers from New England and Québec.
Burlington Beer is a fitting film festival location: It’s housed in the historic building at 180 Flynn Avenue once occupied by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière, who are generally credited with giving birth to cinema.
Last Thursday VTIFF announced that a six-person jury had selected the winners of three awards and one special mention from among the festival entries.
The Vermont PBS Award for Best Documentary and $500 is split between Nora Jacobson for Passion in a Pandemic: Making Opera at Hanover High, about a former opera singer starting a program at a New Hampshire high school, and Joannie Lafrenière for Gabor, a portrait of Canadian photographer Gabor Szilasi.
There was another tie: The Penny Cluse Award for Best Fiction and $500 is shared by Philippe Grégoire for The Noise of Engines, about a customs agent enduring a scandal, and fellow Canadian Guillaume Collin for “Babatoura,” which chronicles a young couple’s unexpected dinner with family.
Rick Groleau takes home the Class Four Award for Best Cinematography and $500 for “Type Cast,” in which three typewriters possessed by the personalities of their dead former owners engage in a battle of words.
Three films received the Special Jury Mention: Chris Spencer’s The Price of Safety, which chronicles the upheaval around policing and racial bias in Vergennes; Joris Cottin‘s “Expiration,” about a man in his final days with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; and Alex Anna’s “Scars,” a hybrid of animation and documentary that addresses self-harm.
The Media Factory Audience Favorite Award, which also confers $500, will be determined by popular vote. Purchasers of in-person or virtual-screening tickets can vote at vtiff.org between Friday, April 22, and Friday, April 29, at noon.