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May 2, 2010

Woodstock, Vt.: historic, picturesque

Last week, I had the privilege of discussing travel writing with students in a journalism class of my colleague Dennis Aprill at Plattsburgh State.

After some general remarks, I decided to outline how I might go about researching a column. I especially enjoy preparing articles describing areas I don't know well. In this case, I chose Woodstock, Vt., an unusually attractive village. There's history there, I told the students, some of it whimsical. America's first rope tow for downhill skiing opened outside Woodstock in 1934. Justin Morgan, progenitor of the horse breed that bears his name, once lived in the village. Paul Revere was never here, but four bells cast in his foundry are.

Upon arrival, I try to get a sense of why a place came to be where it is. Here, as in so many New England villages, waterpower proved the attraction, powering lumber mills and gristmills first, then later woolen and other mills. One attractive stone building on Main Street survives to symbolize such early industry. Now an art gallery called Studio 47 (with quite an interesting selection inside, by the way), this originally served as a linseed oil mill.

ABOLITIONIST TOWN

Woodstock became a government and trading center, with more than its share of merchants and lawyers. That may explain why a stroll through the community passes by an abundance of impressive homes. By purchasing "Woodstock — A Walking Guide," I learned that most of those along Elm and Central streets were built before the Civil War. Many were built in Federal-style architecture. Unusual features include recessed arches over windows (Fitch House). Two early Greek Revival duplexes, Lockwood House and Edson House, are especially handsome.

The Civil War was important to this community, which saw a significant percentage of young men going off to fight. The First Congregational Church, distinguished by its tall white clock tower, served as a center for local abolitionists. (Vermont had been the first state to abolish slavery.) Titus Hutchinson House (1794) allegedly served as an Underground Railroad station. Five-pointed Grand Army of the Republic stars decorate more than a few graves in River Street Cemetery. A monument at the intersection of Pleasant Street and Route 4 pays tribute to those who fought in the "war of the rebellion."

Woodstock serves as the shire town, or county seat, of Windsor County. Along the elongated oval Village Green (which served as a drill grounds for Civil War enlistees) stands the Courthouse, distinguished by its cupola, and the columned Town Hall, which also doubles as a theater for live productions. The Romanesque-style Norman Williams Public Library, fashioned of redstone, granite and limestone, makes quite a statement. So does the Greek Revival Chittenden Bank building standing sentinel at the head of the green.

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