11/13/11

Plainfield

In the thirty-eight miles of railroad between Montpelier and Wells River, there is only one full-length mile of straight track--and that is in Plainfield!...Charles Edward Crane

I'm not quite sure why Mr. Crane thought it was so remarkable that the only straight track on that rail route he describes above was in Plainfield, but I would have to agree that "straight" is definitely not a word that I'd associate with this town at the bottom of my hill. "Quirky" and "sleepy" are more what come to mind when I drive down to Plainfield to shop at the co-op or pick up a pizza.


Plainfield lies along both sides of Route 2, that busy two-laner that runs across the northern U.S. Even before this major road was paved in the early 1900's, Plainfield was an enterprising place, with farms in the hills and valleys, and mills and hotels on the ponds and streams. The Winooski River attracted both tourists and small industries, and the rail line shipped milk and butter, wood and textiles. Little Plainfield could take care of itself.

Nowadays things are diferent, and Plainfield has the feel of being a bit of an afterthought along the highway, more of a place to ride through on your way to somewhere else than a destination. When I've stood on the sidewalk painting in Plainfield (and you can't help absorbing your surroundings when you are standing behind an easel) I've been unhappily surprised at the amount of noisy truck traffic driving through town, and by how many young folks walking by me look like they've already seen better days. It's a place that seems like it could use some good old 19th century industry and tourism...

But--I've also discovered that Plainfield offers plenty to see and do, if you get out of your car or out from behind your easel and do some exploring. There's a fine natural foods co-op that's charmingly sited next to an historic cemetery. The Country Bookshop, housed in an old cape on Mill Street, is good for hours of browsing (and had THREE different editions of "The Education of Henry Adams" available when the urge to own that book came on me recently.) Strangely enough, tiny Plainfield used to have two nationally famous restaurants (Chinese and Southern) and then had a tapas place, but now is down to a sole tasty Italian establishment. The town's two blocks also host an art gallery and a yoga studio, a shop for artisan beer makers and a bead store.


This arty and eclectic mix of commerce gives a hint of why I'm glad I settled up the hill from Plainfield. If you throw a stick into the woods around here, you will probably hit a painter, a poet, a potter, and/or an eccentric. That's probably true of much of Vermont, but in these environs the concentration of non-conformists is especially thick because of Goddard College. Goddard was conceived by it's founders in the 1860's as a progressive educational institution that would foster "plain living and hard thinking". By the 1960's it was a free-spirited anti-institution that attracted oddballs from around the country who grew up to be my very interesting and accomplished neighbors.

So if the only thing straight about Plainfield is the railroad track--now a bike trail--that's fine with us.

9/7/11

Hurricane Irene!

Many of the towns I've visited, sketched, and profiled on this blog have been severely damaged by flooding brought by the torrential downpours of Hurricane Irene on August 28th. As I continue to travel around the state in the coming months, I'll be posting what I'm seeing--and I'm guessing I'll see many places untouched by damage, many hard at work rebuilding, and a few that are changed forever.

Meanwhile, to help out on the rebuilding front, I'm offering the painted photos that illustrate this blog for sale at a discounted price, and I'm donating 100% of sales to flood relief efforts in Vermont. You can take a look here for more information, including how to purchase.

Another way you can help Vermont is to come and visit! Most of the state is open for exploring, and as you have seen from this blog, there are endless dirt roads waiting for you and your sketchbook (or camera)...

7/17/11

Royalton

If it be necessary to startle the reader into an appreciation of Vermont's place in education, I can bring up the fact that the state has contributed two important factors--that it "invented" the professionally prepared teacher and the school blackboard. What school could operate today without such essentials?...Charles Edward Crane


I drove into Royalton last week (South Royalton, strictly speaking, which along with North Royalton and Royalton Village make up the town of Royalton, in true confusing Vermont fashion) on my meandering way home from an errand. "I have to get that blog going again!", I remonstrated to myself as I was driving the byways of my beautiful state, and myself answered, "Yes, get on with it!"--which I am happy to be now doing.

In looking up the history of Royalton, I came on this information: "The Vermont Charter reserved five lots of land: one each to support a seminary or college, a County Grammer School, the settlement of a Minister of the Gospel, churches in town, and town schools...58 Proprietors had to plant and cultivate five acres of land and construct a house of at least Eighteen feet square on each share of land or the land would revert to the Freemen of the State..it also reserved, for the benefit of the state, all pine timber suitable for a navy."

So I wonder what the patriotic Americans of today, who fight every tax and government decree, think about this town charter of our founding fathers? It certainly put the good of the many above the profit of the few. Something to ponder upon, no?

Also worth pondering is South Royalton's interesting Queen Anne architecture, and spacious town green with gazebo, memorial arch, and Civil War soldier. Fronting the green is a substantial brick business block, where a hungry wayfarer or peckish law student can find an ice cream parlor, bar and grill, or natural foods coop.

South Royalton is the only town in Vermont that needs to cater to the sensitive stomachs of law students, as it's the only town with a law school. Fittingly for our state, Vermont Law School is ranked as having the best environmental law program in the country.

South Royalton also has a very nice train station, and Amtrak's Vermonter still runs by. VLS students also run by the train station on their way to happy hour at the Crossroads Bar and Grill (as one law student wrote on the bar's website, "the scar on my left knee from tripping over the train tracks to get to your doors will forever remind me of all the good, the bad, the ugly times had therein...")



I need to get back to Royalton soon, both to have a beer at the Crossroads, and to take a look at the other two parts of town. But if I am going to keep this blog going, I need to move on up Route 14 while I still have some gas in my tank, and some light in the Vermont summer sky...

11/1/10

Mt. Tabor

When I can't sleep I do not count an endless line of sheep, but, with my mind's ear, I listen to the hum of industry in the old woolen-weaving mill which I knew in my youth...I am surprised every time that I take inventory of the many things made and invented in Vermont..." Charles Edward Crane

During my long hiatus from posting, I've been traveling abroad to teach or paint, or holed up here on the hill, working in my studio . But enough's enough! It's time to drive dirt roads, and show you, and myself, more of Vermont.

While I've been away from this blog, I've been busy with a series of paintings inspired by Mt. Tabor, a little settlement that lies along Route 7 in the southern part of the state. This crossroads of train tracks and highway, with its old feed towers, depot and storage sheds, is a very interesting place to anyone with an eye for color and composition.
But Mt. Tabor also has a story to tell us about Vermont's past. This town, like most in the area, was founded in the late 1700's by immigrants from southern New England. From the beginning, Mt. Tabor (or more properly, "Harwick", as it was originally called until changed in the early 1800's to avoid confusion with an identically named town) was probably an easy place to miss. Travelers between the busy burghs of Manchester and Rutland have never had much reason to visit this quiet community backed up against Green Mountain wilderness.

Even today it can be difficult (as with so many of the 251 towns of Vermont) to find the center of Mt. Tabor. What I know of it are a few visually intoxicating blocks between Mill and Brooklyn Roads next to Route 7. But-- is this really Mt. Tabor, or is it Danby, a larger and more prepossessing neighbor? Well, let's leave that quibbling to the tax listers, and look more closely at MY Mt. Tabor.
Instead of a steepled church or village green, the heart of this tiny Vermont community is a grain mill. First established in the early 1900's, Crosby & Sons built a reputation for offering area dairy farms top quality feed. Then, as now, heat is essential for surviving the winter in Vermont, and Crosby sold coal that was hauled in on daily trains, eventually adapting to changing times with fuel oil and pellet stoves.
Today the overgrown, deserted train station is a beautiful but sad place, looking like it could be haunted by the ghosts of prosperous farm wives heading off to Rutland to spend egg money on the latest calico. More happily, the tracks running beside the station are again in use by very slow but steady Vermont Railway freight trains.

Mt. Tabor's past, and the history of the state, and of the United States, is embodied in these buildings and this landscape. Our national prosperity was built on the foundation of three pillars: agriculture, industry, and transportation. In this tiny community's grain elevators, silos, train tracks and loading docks, some in ruins, some still in use, we can see our prosperous past, hard-working present, and, maybe, our precarious future.

1/23/10

Dover

And you may come upon old cemeteries with the dates in the 1700's half hidden by rank growths of phlox or grasses. Or you may mount to some sleeping Tibet-like village, like Dover Common, and from the plateau thereabouts get Walt Whitman's sense of "the earth expanding, right hand and left hand"... Charles Edward Crane

After a month of travel to the distant climes of rainy Oregon and the balmy Bahamas, I'm happy to be back on wintery roads for a spell. Let's head north from Wilmington as we continue a meandering jaunt through towns in Vermont's lower corners.

Dover is somewhat confusedly spread between West Dover, East Dover, and miniscule Dover proper (the smallest typeface of the three in my Vermont gazetteer). These three areas of Dover township are united by Dover Hill Road, but seem to have very different, competing personalities.


From their founding in the late 1700's up to the 1940's, West and East Dover were difficult to span. Though less than seven miles divided the two parts of town , they were a long-distance call away from each other in summer, and an impassable distance in winter snow and muddy spring. By the early 1900's, both East and West Dover had shrunk to a sparse population of struggling farmers and old-money summer visitors.

All that changed with in the early 1950's when Walter Schoenknecht of Connecticut bought the Reuben Snow farm (the name alone would have recommended the purchase) and began the taming of wild Mt. Pisgah into the trails, lodges and condos of Mt. Snow. West Dover's rutted Route 8 was replaced by Route 100, which began its paved life as an access road for the ski industry, and is now one of our main north-south thoroughfares.


Along with development at the West Dover mountain came a golf course, ski academy, restaurants and hotels (replacing the spare bedrooms and kitchens tables of local farms, which for decades comprised the rural Vermont tourist industry.) And along with new jobs and tax dollars came problems that threatened Dover's environment and sense of self--and helped spur the state to enact our land-protecting Act 250.

With over 600,000 tourists visiting every year, Dover's 1,500 permanent residents must sometimes wonder how to keep their town's authentic Vermont personality from becoming a caricature that exists only to serve the ski industry . The Dover Historical Society seems to be hard at work on this mission, offering exhibits and meetings to give visitors a sense of the rich past of the place they may otherwise only see from a ski lift.

12/13/09

Wilmington

Averill's Stand near the present village of Wilmington serves as a reminder of the time when inns or ordinaries served as overnight stopping-places for the stages and six-horse freight teams that traversed the Molly Stark Trail over the mountains to Troy and the Erie Canal...Gone are these old places...Charles Edward Crane


I rolled down Route 9 past Searsburg and Medburyville (or so the map told me), and was surprised at the bottom of the hill to find myself in a real town, and one that I had never heard of before--Wilmington. I pulled out my trusty iphone to see if the internet could explain where the heck I was, and found the very informative town website, full of facts, figures and photos, and plenty of helpful municipal information, including a quote from Plato on the value of a just citizenry.

And Wilmington is justly proud of its Memorial Hall, designed by the renowned New York firm of McKim, Mead (a native of Brattleboro) & White--yes, that would be Stanford White, the most famous American architect of the 19th century. Peek through the front door, because though the hall is plain and brown as a Puritan saltbox on the outside, the interior is an astounding miniature version of Boston's Symphony Hall, with acoustics to match. Right before the turn of the century, local Civil War hero and Wilmington’s richest citizen Major Childs had a hunch that the economic future of Vermont was in tourism, and he hired Stanford White to design this concert hall and the handsome adjoining Child's Tavern, now Crafts Inn. (There were, and are, a high volume of well-moneyed, well-meaning enterprising eccentrics tucked away in our unassuming Vermont hamlets.) In 1891 the railroad finally reached Wilmington, and fulfilled Child's prediction: his town became a tourists' mecca.

I'll have to come back for another hour's stroll up East and down West Main Street, and take a longer and better look at the wealth of architecture in the little town of Wilmington. Dot's Restaurant ("A National Treasure!" according to the late, lamented Gourmet magazine) beckons, and a number of little shops invite. Most of all, I'd be happy to stand on Main Street Bridge and look up the little river that meanders through the little town of Wilmington like slow, unstoppable time .

12/3/09

Woodford

This is the southernmost cross-state road in Vermont (Brattleboro to Bennington)...I once had a New York guest who had come that way over Hogback in the late afternoon, and the next morning before the rest of us were out of bed we discovered that he had got up and driven back twenty miles up Hogback to drink in that view once more...Charles Edward Crane


Woodford is the kind of Vermont town that you pass on the road before recognizing you've entered or left it--then turning around in someone's driveway (hoping he's not glaring suspiciously out his window) you head back the way you came, still searching for some sign of local identity.

Woodford is so lacking a center that it's sarcastically referred to by local scoffers as "Woodford City" ("Woodford City Stream" and "Woodford City Road" can be found in my Vermont atlas, so the insult seems to have stuck.) But like so many other nondescript, seemingly non-towns in Vermont, interesting discoveries reward closer examination.

I found out that Woodford is defined by its altitude, not its architecture. At 2,2oo feet, it's the highest town in the state (and 400 residents make it one of the smallest towns.) Woodford sits at this great height in the middle of Green Mountain Forest wilderness. Fortunately for local residents, 398 acres of these spruce, fir and birches, lakes, ponds and rills have been set aside for camping, hiking and fishing. This highest state park in Vermont also bears the proud name of "Woodford".

Route 9 between Bennington and Brattleboro is sometimes called the "Molly Stark Trail". Molly's husband, General John Stark, was instrumental in repelling the British near Bennington, thereby turning the tide of the Revolutionary War. (His famous battle cry was, "The Red Coats and the Tories...are ours, or this night Molly Stark sleeps a widow!", and fortunately for all of us, she didn't.) But Molly is also honored with place names all around southern Vermont in her own right as a selfless nurse and brave patriot.


This Molly Stark trail heading east from Bennington is one of the loveliest, and also loneliest, stretches of two-lane road in the state. Rolling down from the apex of "Woodford City", I admire the people who live so comfortably isolated here, every night falling asleep amidst mile upon mile of silent mystery.

11/28/09

Bennington

Vermont was born in a hotel. The Green Mountain Tavern in Bennington, known as Catamount Inn, had as a sign a stuffed catamount lion grinning toward New York. Here the Green Mountain Boys gathered. Here New York sympathizers were delivered for the high chair treatment--hoisting in a chair of ignominy from the porch roof. Here Ethan Allen planned the taking of Ticonderoga. Here the pioneers drank, not only with their eyes, but lustlily with rum to the new republic, as is evidenced by Allen's tap-room bill, still preserved...Charles Edward Crane


I'm happy to say I'm back on the Vermont road again, after a summer and fall of painting deadlines and travels far from my home state. Thank you, dear readers, for a long, patient wait! Let's take up where we left off, on Route 7 heading north into Bennington near the New York border.

Bennington is large enough to have sections with distinct personalities and histories ("Old", "North" and "Downtown"), and venerable enough to have played an important role in the drama of the founding of both the "Republic" of Vermont and the independent United States. A walk in Old Bennington takes you past buildings haunted by righteously angry ghosts--from the Old First Church (the original Protestant congregation in Vermont), to the site of the Catamount Tavern (in the 1770's the favorite watering hole of revolutionary conspirators against the powers of New York and England) and finally up to the heights of the Battle Monument obelisk.




The Battle of Bennington actually took place right across the border in New York, but it was fought by area farmers and woodsmen. British and Prussian troops (worn out by fanatical Monty Python-style precision drilling) were sure they would have no problem raiding Vermont for stores and ammunition on their march south to finish business with the rebellious colonies. Instead the royal army was defeated in a rout, and Bennington went down in history as one of the few battles where improvised troops beat trained contingents. As captured General Burgoyne wrote to his rulers in England, Vermont was a place "that abounds with the most active and rebellious race on the continent, and hangs, like a gathering storm, on my left." (Enter, 230 years later, Senator Bernie Sanders.)


You'll leave the ghosts of our political revolution and encounter remnants of the Industrial Revolution as you drive east into downtown Bennington. Textile and paper mills, iron furnaces and grist mills all provided jobs and fed the local economy until Vermont manufacturers could no longer compete with cheaper products.

This loss of industry was widespread--but one manufacturer from the 19th century that has survived and flourished to the present day is Bennington Pottery--an example of the importance of artistry as well as functionality in a product. Another survivor from the past is artsy Bennington College, founded in 1932 as an experiment in "self-dependence" for its mostly female student body. (All the Bennington graduates I know, including a guy, are smart and creative people, so the experiment must have worked.)

Driving out of town, I kept pulling the car over to the curb to get a closer, slower look at Bennington's old architecture. Some of these mills, stables, factories and homes look lovingly restored, some are reinvigorated and put to new uses, and some are decaying and seem forgotten in time. Each of these glimpses down an old sidewalk or back street evokes this town's long lost past, and seems to hold some meaning (even if I can't quite grasp it) for our future.

6/1/09

Pownal

Commonly chosen routes for getting north are the cemented highays, U.S. 7 on the west...known as the Ethan Allen Highway, and for all its length it has associations with the Green Mountain Boys and the early history of Vermont. The gateway is at Pownal...and after a lung-filling and eye-filling view from the Pownal road you are soon in Bennington...Charles Edward Crane


Last week I found myself one warm, sunny morning driving across the southern border of Vermont, thinking about how my nineteen year old son would soon be walking across the same state line with a sixty pound pack on his back. I had just dropped him off at the start of the Long Trail in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where he was setting off for a three week, 270 mile trek along the ridge of the Green Mountains all the way to Canada. The Long Trail is the oldest long-distance hiking path in the U.S., and was the inspiration for the more-famous Appalachian Trail.


Like so many Vermont (and American, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted) enterprises, the Long Trail was conceived, built and maintained by visionary volunteers. The original dreamer was James P. Taylor, who one morning in 1910 while waiting for the mist to clear from the top of Stratton Mountain had the rather crazy idea of a path that could run through the Greens from the top to the bottom of Vermont.

The state's peaks had been largely unappreciated and unused for recreation until Taylor decided to help "make the Vermont mountains play a larger part in the life of the people." His dream took its first step towards reality at a small gathering of outdoor enthusiasts in Burlington, the first of a hundred years of meetings (and subsequent trail clearings) by the Green Mountain Club.

So while my son began his adventure ten miles behind and a thousand feet above me, I drove into the Pownal valley, and as usual when coming back to Vermont felt myself slip a bit back in time.


When I used to drive from Washington to Lake Champlain for summer vacations, I usually crossed into Vermont on Route 7, and I remembered the area for the creepy greyhound race track that was visible from the road. It's been vacant for over ten years now, though plans for some interesting commercial development (including a farmer's market) are in the works.

Now you can see vestiges of the tourism industry of our grandparent's time. I always covet these little guesthouses that are still settled along rivers all over the state, and want to take one up to our back acres, a retreat for mini-vacations at home.

Pownal has a long and complicated history, settled first by native Americans eons ago, then claimed by the Dutch in the late 1600's and finally passing later that century into English hands. By the Revolutionary War, settlers began arriving to the town (named for the head of the Massachusetts Bay Colony) from the more crowded Southern parts of New England. Their claims set the stage for a brewing war with wealthy New Yorkers who thought they'd been granted the same Vermont acres by England, a simmer that was to come to a full boil during the Revolutionary War when towns like Pownal split between Tories and Green Mountain Boys. Guess who won!

An itinerant minister was less than impressed with free and independent Pownal when he came over the mountain for a visit in 1789: “Pawnal ye first town, poor land – very unpleasant – very uneven – miserable set of inhabitants – no religion..." That was HIS opinion, anyway; the Pownalers would have probably answered him disdainfully with a pithy retort about private beliefs and personal responsibility.

By the 1900's Pownal did have churches, plus ten schools, textile mills (a Lewis Hine image of “Anemic Little Spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill" helped inspire the first child labor law), and a Berkshires to Bennington electric railroad. The mills are gone forever, but maybe the train will be back.


Until then, to visit the town of Pownal take a short detour from Route 7 to Route 346, which will also allow you to see North Pownal (look sharp or you'll end up in New York) and best of all, drive the back roads to Bennington.

More about Pownal

5/17/09

Castleton

The Bibical injunction is "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house," but I sin that sin every time I ride about Vermont... Charles Edward Crane


Castleton is home to one of our state's small public college's (originally one of the country's first medical schools) as well as the locus of about the nicest possible conglomeration of nineteenth century architecture. The town has a long and storied history. In 1775 Ethan Allen and a large pack of the Green Mountain boys galluped down Main Street (no doubt much to the alarm and disgust of the staid Puritan residents) and over brews at the Remington tavern plotted their attack on the British at Fort Ticonderoga.

Castleton continued to grow as a farming community following the war, and during the nineteenth century the slate and marble industries thrived. Lovely nearby Lake Bomoseen became a vacation mecca with luxury hotels and trolley service to town--a transportation innovation whose time should come again!

Industry and agriculture flourished, and residents along Main Street replaced log cabins with dignified Federal and Greek Revival mansions. Some of the most remarkable were built by homegrown architectural wunderkind Thomas Dake, especially famous for the elegance of his residential staircases.


Fires, the scourge of pre-electrical civilization, devastated much of the town's center in the early twentieth century, and Castleton's prosperity subsequently declined. But it remains one of the loveliest villages in the state, and I'd argue with any New Yorker that no town over their border (just seven miles away) can compare.