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Remote Possibility | Art connections drive hope in gritty St. Johnsbury

Written by Kim Asch on . Posted in Way of (Vermont) Life

Photographed by Ken Burris

A study in contrasts: St. Johnsbury is not an affluent area, but a foundation for the arts was laid with Gilded Age wealth from the Fairbanks family, whose legacy includes the St. Johnsbury Athanaeum, currently under the direction of Bob Joly.

st j athanaeum

PHOTOS ABOVE: A study in contrasts. St. Johnsbury is not an affluent area, but a foundation for the arts was laid with Gilded Age wealth from the Fairbanks family, whose legacy includes the St. Johnsbury Athanaeum, currently under the direction of Bob Joly (second photo).

By most any measure, St. Johnsbury is an unlikely cultural hub. This town of just 6,200 residents in the remote Northeast Kingdom is about 75 miles from the state’s largest city, Burlington, and almost 50 miles from affluent Stowe. St. Johnsbury is not a wealthy place either — the town’s median household income is almost $20,000 less than the state average — and it is dogged by the same woes that trouble small towns across America: the fraying of downtown, the illegal drugs, the outflow of good manufacturing jobs.

And yet, with a slow-building influx of writers, musicians, painters, filmmakers and community-builders, followed by a spurt of activity in the last few years, the town has pivoted toward the arts as a vital piece of its future. The scenario has played out in varying degrees in other former mill-and-rail towns along the Connecticut River system — White River Junction, Bellows Falls, Brattleboro — and it is playing out here.

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In St. Johnsbury, the foundation was laid in the Gilded Age, when the industrialist Fairbanks family amassed a fortune and used its wealth to build cultural institutions. Both the Fairbanks Museum & Planetarium and the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, on Main Street, are quintessential specimens of Victo-
rian architecture and house impressive collections from the era. The St. Johnsbury Academy, also founded by the Fairbanks family, is a well-regarded independent high school, serving both locals and boarding students on its attractive grounds on the hill.

Today, these institutions are intertwined with a relative newcomer, Catamount Arts, a community-and-arts energizer founded in the mid-’70s by filmmaker Jay Craven. In 2008, Catamount Arts completed an ambitious reinvention project — a $1.7 million makeover of the 1912 Masonic Lodge building on Eastern Avenue, which became its new home — and that same year, Jody Fried signed on to head the organization.

A native of the Northeast Kingdom, Fried had enjoyed a lucrative career in health care administration that took him all over the United States, but he returned to his hometown of East Burke and ran several businesses, including the country store, before realizing that his passion was in community leadership. His mother had been a guidance counselor at the St. Johnsbury public school, both of his parents were civic-minded, and he was determined to raise his four children with the same kind of experience he remembered from childhood — but with more access to arts and culture. “We’ve spent five years reinventing Catamount Arts, and we really have it on an incredible path,” Fried says. “I wouldn’t want my kids growing up anywhere else.”

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An Excerpt from Apples of Uncommon Character

Written by Sky Barsch on . Posted in Taste of the Landscape, Web Exclusives

Apples_HCEditor’s note: We interviewed Vermonter and James Beard Award-Winning Author Rowan Jacobsen in the Autumn 2014 issue of Vermont Life about his latest book, “Apples of Uncommon Character.” The following is an excerpt from his work. 


Ten years ago, my wife and I bought a neglected 1840s farmhouse in Calais, Vermont. For my wife, the attraction was the wide, worn floorboards and the classic Cape lines. For me, it was the four acres of meadows. Both of us liked the sense of continuity, the fact that you could look at any of the old maps in the town clerk’s office and find our little black square with a name penciled beside it. S Laird on the 1858 Beers Atlas; TJ Porter on the 1895. Although we hadn’t known any of the previous owners, that sense of continuity was particularly strong on the day in September when we closed on the house. We drove to the house and walked around, pinching ourselves. It was crisp and sunny, blustery with the first hints of fall, and the line of gnarled trees on the east side of the house were sporting colorful orbs of fruit. Although I hadn’t noticed when we’d first looked at the house during summer, they were all apple trees.

I had grown up in Vermont in the 1970s, where I’d learned that the McIntosh was the be-all and end-all of apples. Although it was clearly a step up from the Red Delicious and Granny Smith apples in the supermarket, I still thought the mushy, thick-skinned Mac was pretty awful, and I’d crossed apples off my life list.

But the apples hanging in these trees didn’t look like any I’d ever seen in a store. In one tree, they were large, round, and striped red and yellow like little beach balls. In another, they were brown and fuzzy, more like miniature Asian pears than what I thought an apple was supposed to be. I tried one. It was strangely dry, yet very sweet, crunchy, and nutty. A third tree was full of misshapen fruits speckled with red and orange over a background swirl of greens and yellows. I picked one of these, found a relatively un-scabby section, and bit into it. Juice exploded into my mouth, fragrant with cinnamon and spice. It was heavenly, and I realized right then and there that I’d been missing out.

That fall, driving the back roads of Calais, I began to notice that an extraordinary number of the trees along the roadsides were wild or abandoned apples. Every few hundred yards, the road would be scattered with little green apples, or big yellow ones, or nearly black ones. I took to sampling every tree I could reach. Quite a few were spitters, so sour and astringent that I couldn’t even pretend to enjoy them, but a significant minority were not. Some tasted like pineapple, some like anise, and they were so much more interesting than apples I’d tasted before that I couldn’t believe it. The world was littered with fascinating fruit! Free for the taking! It was as if an apple-centric civilization had passed from existence, and I was living amid the ruins.

Which was, in a sense, exactly what had happened. Apple culture was a huge part of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American life. There were few national apples, but endless regional ones, each adapted to the local climate and needs, iconic apples like Rhode Island Greening and Roxbury Russet in New England, Newtown Pippin in New York and Pennsylvania, Winesap and Hewe’s Crab in the Southeast; Black Twig and Arkansas Black in the Mississippi River Valley; Ben Davis and Rome Beauty in the Midwest; Sierra Beauty and Gravenstein on the West Coast. Each one had been propagated because it did something superb. Some came ripe in July, some in November. Some held their shape in pies. Some started off hard and sour, but sweetened outrageously after a few months in your root cellar. Some had purple skin so full of tannins that eating one was like biting into a bar of soap, but if you pressed it and let the juice ferment in your basement all winter, it produced a dry, fragrant cider—the default buzz of agrarian America.

The New York minister and abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, whose delightful essay on apple pie can be sampled in small servings throughout this book, described a typical mid-nineteenth-century cellar thus: “On the east side stood a row of cider barrels; for twelve or twenty barrels of cider were a fit provision for the year,—and what was not consumed for drink was expected duly to turn into vinegar, and was then exalted to certain hogsheads kept for the purpose. But along the middle of the cellar were the apple-bins; and when the season had been propitious, there were stores and heaps of Russets, Greenings, Seeknofurthers, Pearmains, Gilliflowers, Spitzenbergs, and many besides, nameless, but not virtueless.”

The flavors of these apples ran the gamut, from lemon tart to pumpkin sweet, with lots of citrus, pineapple, and spice notes to bolster that classic

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Farms, Food and Feeding the World | Vermont High School Students Tackle Food Issues in Summer Institute

Written by Melissa Pasanen on . Posted in Taste of the Landscape


VTC agronomy professor Sosten Lungu explains to Governor’s Institute Food, Farms and Your Future participants how a combination of compost application and cover crops can reduce the amount of synthetic fertilizers needed to grow corn.

On a recent summer day, under a scorching blue sky, 15 Vermont high school students rotated between stations on Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus in an activity named, “Follow the Carbon.”

In the fields of the college’s market garden, the teenagers pulled carrots to chomp on and dug up plant samples. They learned how growing cover crops like clover and soy, and applying compost can build carbon naturally and help reduce the need for synthetic fertilizers.

At another station, they used stethoscopes to listen to the sound of a cow’s rumen doing its work, then toured the campus bio-digester, which uses bacteria to break down organic matter including farm and food waste. It then captures the methane that is produced to provide power for the college campus. “We do in one month what it takes a cow to do in a day,” VTC professor Joan Richmond-Hall noted, directly linking to the animal “bio-digester” which they had just heard in action.

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