Photographed by Ken Burris
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.”