Christmas in Vermont
Grafton’s attractiveness today owes as much to the Windham Foundation — incorporated in 1963 by a wealthy family with ties to the town — as it does to nature. The organization bought up most of the central village, buried the power lines, revived the general store, and then tackled the imposing three-story Old Tavern. Craftsmen renovated and winterized it, and even added an elevator, all while carefully preserving the building’s historic detailing.
The holidays are a busy time at the Grafton Village Cheese factory, producing some of Vermont’s best prize-winning cheddars. Visitors are welcome to learn how 6,000 to 10,000 gallons of buttery milk from Jersey cows are processed daily, from cutting the curd to waxing the wheels and blocks of cheese. Different colors connote age and flavor, and visitors are welcome to sample.
Within its few streets, Grafton offers a surprising amount to savor, especially once you adjust to its pace. Step into the vintage 1811 Butterfield House, now home to the town library. Stop by The Nature Museum and be amazed by the extent of its exhibits, both interactive and stuffed.
Then step into the Jud Hartmann Gallery and find yourself in the midst of lifelike Iroquoian and Algonkian warriors and chiefs. Hartmann is nationally known for his limited-edition bronze sculptures of the Woodland tribes of the 17th- and 18th-century Northeast. Then stroll around the corner to Hunter Artworks and on up the road to Gallery North Star, hung with a variety of New England landscapes.
Woodstock’s Winter Welcome
“Summer people” began arriving in Woodstock (population 3,232), the shire town of Windsor County, in 1875, with the completion of a railroad trestle and spur line from White River Junction over Quechee Gorge. The town’s year-round resort status was assured in 1892 with the opening of the lavish Woodstock Inn, which drew guests from New York and Boston — even in winter for snowshoeing and skating. And then in 1934, America’s first rope tow began hauling skiers up Gilbert’s Hill.
By 1960, the Woodstock Inn was creaky and the town’s ski areas had been upstaged by nearby Killington but, luckily, Mary French, heir to the town’s largest and most historic estate, had in 1934 married Laurance Rockefeller, the man already largely responsible for creating more than 20 state and national parks and historic sites. Rockefeller zeroed in on “Mary’s hometown.” In the 1960s, he replaced the old inn and created the Woodstock Foundation as a nonprofit umbrella for community projects, such as burying power lines, renovating the Town Hall Theatre, and constructing a new covered bridge. He also restored Marsh-Billings Farm and donated it, along with his wife’s family mansion and forestland on Mount Tom, to the National Park Service.
Rockefeller died in 2004, but his Woodstock legacy continues to build. Recently his executors approved transfer of ownership of the Woodstock Resort Corporation — which includes, among other things, the newly renovated inn, the Woodstock Nordic Center, and the Suicide Six Ski Area (in South Pomfret) — to the Woodstock Foundation. And Woodstock is indeed most welcoming in winter. Alpine skiers have long known that Suicide Six is far gentler than its rugged name, and cross-country enthusiasts head to the beautifully groomed 1880s carriage roads climbing gently to the summit of Mount Tom. Across town, more extensive trails radiate from the Nordic Center and loop up into the woods on Mount Peg.
And then there’s the village itself. Each of its more than a dozen inns has its own story. Central and Elm streets showcase some of Vermont’s best artists and craftspeople and are home to venerable institutions such as F. H. Gillingham & Sons’ general store, operated by the same family for 108 years; Woodstock Pharmacy, with its basement trove of educational toys; and The Prince and the Pauper restaurant, featuring chef Chris Balcer’s genuinely Continental cuisine.
December 11-13, 2009, is the annual Woodstock Wassail Weekend, Vermont’s most elaborate winter celebration, combining outdoor spectacle, indoor performances, and community events at which visitors feel genuinely welcome. “Wassail” is a spiced ale, a drink with which medieval homeowners rewarded the carolers who serenaded them. It’s a great name for this entire yeasty weekend, best savored if you arrive Friday, the better to sample the children’s events, concerts, feasts, and music in Woodstock’s splendidly decorated public buildings and museums. Some of the town’s most elegant private homes are also open for tours.
The big spectacle is Saturday afternoon’s parade of more than 50 horses and many more costumed riders and passengers waving from wagons, surreys, and sulkies, all circling the green, where a top-hatted Father Christmas presides over the lighting of the Yule log and the Memory Tree, while costumed carolers lead the singing. Throughout the holiday season, the Rotary Club’s Christmas star, with its 100 bulbs, beams down from Mount Tom on what remains, especially when the cold and snow settle in, a little Vermont town.