Press-Republican

May 2, 2010

Woodstock, Vt.: historic, picturesque


Press-Republican

---- — 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.

GEORGE PERKINS MARSH

Also along the green, one finds the Woodstock Inn, almost a johnny-come-lately from 1969, though an inn stood on the site as far back as 1793. A stop inside reveals a massive stone hearth in the lobby. The barnboard-paneled library displays an assortment of old photos.

A typical 19th-century downtown fills the village center — except that most of the storefronts remain active. Stately brick construction, Mansard roofs and detailed dentil work characterize much of the commercial district. Along with a variety of galleries and artisans, we found the likes of the Vermont Flannel Company, Shire Apothecary, Red Wagon Toy Company and two independent bookstores. Gillingham General Store has served patrons for more than a century. My wife, Marty, who serves as my research associate for shopping, wants me to mention the cadre of high-end consignment shops, too.

So what notable people have emerged from such a place? Well, one was George Perkins Marsh, a politician whose diplomatic career took him to Italy and the Middle East. There, he observed the impact of deforestation, flooding and pollution, and he worried the young United States would make same mistakes. His book "Man and Nature," published in 1864, argued the role of human responsibility for environmental degradation. It's a classic of ecology literature.

Another was Frederick Billings, who grew up poor but worked his way through law school then headed west to seek his fortune when gold was found in California. Rather than stake claim to a mine, he opened an office as the first attorney in San Francisco. By settling disputed land claims, he fared better than most other fortune hunters.

Billings parlayed his wealth into land investments and railroad ownership. A rich man, he returned to his native village. There he purchased and enlarged the Marsh home then built a state-of-the-art farming operation. The fruits of his efforts survive as Billings Farm and Museum. Along with impressive displays on the history of Vermont agriculture and the restored home of the farm manager, there's still an active dairy operation with a prize-winning herd of Jerseys.

GENTLE CLIMBS

Billings's granddaughter Mary French married Laurance Rockefeller, brother of Nelson and grandson of the founder of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller. The couple moved into the family mansion and stayed active in local affairs. In 1992, they bequeathed the 555-acre estate to the National Park Service, which opened the site to the public in 1998. Displays in the carriage barn interpret principles of conservation and land stewardship. A tour of the main house, with its Tiffany windows and impressive art collection, is also well worth the time.

When we travel, I'll often ask locals what notable aspects of the town I'm unlikely to find on my own. Here, the answer came quickly — a pair of gentle mountain climbs whose trails begin within walking distance of the Village Green. Mount Tom is part of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historic site. In fact, carriage trails crisscross most of the property. On the other side of the Ottauquechee River stands less-strenuous Mount Peg, which once boasted a golf course at its summit.

We like to find memorable places to eat. Some suggested Bentley's, a casual downtown spot featuring live music the evening we went. Meatloaf topped with coffee marsala gravy proved quite tasty. Marty will vouch for lunch at Mountain Creamery, also locally known for its homemade ice cream.

Another recommendation was The Prince and the Pauper, a long-established place in an alley off Elm Street. Carre d'Agneau Royale, a preparation of boneless rack of lamb wrapped with mushrooms, spinach and a pastry crust, sets a high standard for excellence. Though not inexpensive, this restaurant, with its inventive menu, delicious food and impeccable service, ranks high in value.

Along with viewing architecture, learning some history, doing some shopping and eating well, the offerings of Woodstock include a few additional simple pleasures. There's a covered bridge over the Ottauquechee River, where expansive views can be enjoyed in both directions. And there's a lot to be said for the "pocket park" below street level near the old linseed oil mill, with its grove of trees and picnic tables along slowly meandering Kedron Brook. And if you're looking for other ideas, check out the chalked entries on centrally located blackboards around town.

E-mail Richard Frost at: rbforiole@aol.com