The View from Vermont Foliage: In the Northeast Kingdom, the autumn festival is not simply about leaves but about taking the beautiful back roads to a simpler time.

August 16, 1998|By Maria Blackburn | Maria Blackburn,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WALDEN, Vt. -- The yellow school bus bumped and lurched over rutted dirt roads lined with puddles.

Inside, a dozen tourists from Massachusetts, Texas, Florida and beyond sat on lumpy vinyl seats, craning their necks for a glimpse of the brilliant red, orange and yellow leaves feathering the birches and maples around Joe's Pond.

It was no use. A drenching rain had been falling since dawn; now thick fog swallowed the pond, and condensation blanketed the bus windows.

They had flown hundreds of miles to Boston and Burlington, rented cars and driven a couple of hundred more down two-lane roads to the Walden United Methodist Church for the Northeast Kingdom Fall Foliage Festival. They had parked their cars in a muddy field, paid $5 each and boarded a school bus for what was billed as a scenic tour of this village of 825 people.

Now they couldn't even see the leaves.

No one seemed to mind. It was enough to know the foliage was out there somewhere on the back roads of Walden, along with the images of Vermont we've come to expect from so many postcards -- red barns, rolling hills, white church steeples.

"I don't come for the foliage -- I have that at home," confessed Ann Marcy, a Hopkinton, Mass., data-entry clerk who has come to the festival, which features events in eight towns over as many days, for the past four years. "I like being in a small town and seeing what's on the back roads," she said. "You'd never get this if you were just driving through."

In 1993, when the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Vermont on its endangered list, it was towns like Walden they were worried about. All over the state, family farms were shutting down. Wal-Marts and outlet malls were blossoming in fields where Holsteins once grazed. Vermont was starting to look like everywhere else.

But the rural Vermont of yesterday is still alive in the Northeast Kingdom. Comprising Caledonia, Essex and Orleans counties, the Northeast Kingdom is the most rural part of one of the most rural states in the country. It is a place as noted for its poverty as its beauty, a region largely too poor for development. So its village centers, 18th-century homes and acres of open land have remained the same for more than 200 years.

"We've been poor, so we've been lucky," said Lorna Quimby, a historian who lives in the picturesque town of Peacham, which was settled in 1776. "Other parts of Vermont have been destrooyed by commercial elements, but we still have the charming villages we've always had."

Every autumn since 1958, residents of a handful of Northeast Kingdom towns have opened their doors to strangers and invited them into their homes, their churches and their schools. The money they raise goes to buy Little League uniforms, send students abroad and help finance volunteer rescue squads and civic groups.

Money doesn't drive the festival, community spirit does.

"You go back to the way things used to be," explained Diane Kreis, who coordinates the Groton town festival. "The festival is all about the town and the people who live here and how we work together. Everyone in the community helps."

Each day during the final week of September, a different town gets the limelight. If it's Tuesday, it's Cabot and a tour of the Cabot Creamery. On Thursday, it's Peacham for sugar on snow ` hot maple syrup over shaved ice. And on Saturday, it's off to Groton for a tour of the Peter Paul Historical House, guided by 92-year-old Norma Hosmer, who dresses for the occasion in the 19th-century gown that's been in her family for generations.

But this is Monday, and we're in Walden.

Only six miles square, Walden has no town center. Instead of having a walking tour, the town coordinates a bus tour so visitors can see where people live and work.

"We apologize for the weather," Norm Moquin said gaily, as he waved throngs of silver-haired tourists dressed in windbreakers and sneakers across the street to the four buses idling outside the town's United Methodist Church. " 'Course it never rains here in Walden."

Once seated, the visitors took turns introducing themselves by geography. Illinois sat behind Rhode Island, and across from California, Florida and Texas for the one-minute ride to the Walden School. They toured the school with the help of a student, watched a square-dancing demonstration in the cafeteria and heard a little about how this gleaming new building replaced the town's four one-room schoolhouses three years back.

The rest of the day unfolded in a blur of trooping off and on the bus. After the school tour it was off to see Elwin Brown's gas engine collection, followed by a quick sandwich and a bowl of soup in the church basement and a hymn-sing upstairs. Back on the bus for the afternoon, tourists went from dairy farm to Christmas tree farm to llama farm, tromping through fields and dairy barns, petting llamas and cows, buying maple syrup when it was offered.

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