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Fall for Vermont


© St. Petersburg Times

NEWFANE, Vt.-- At one of the flea market tables, a woman was loading her arms with creche figures the size of small children. There was a Mary, a Joseph and a wise man, all ugly, all molded plastic.

As the woman paid, she laughed and said, "I always wonder when I come home from the flea market what the item will be that makes my husband finally leave me. I'll bet this is it."

Her daring purchase came early on a Sunday morning in autumn, when the noted Newfane Flea Market was surrounded by trees blazing bronze in the rising sun. The flea market season begins with the tossing out of the first knickknack in early spring and continues every Sunday throughout the summer, weather permitting. But it reaches its peak at the same time the leaves do, in the fall.

The poet Robert Frost used to say that fall was the only Vermont season he never dared to write about because its beauty defies language. It is something you have to see for yourself -- the spectacular oranges, purples, yellows and golds that the maple trees turn as their leaves die.

Foliage season, which centers on Columbus Day, has become a festival where I live in Windham County.

Windham lies in the southeastern part of Vermont, along the western bank of the Connecticut River. It is easily reached from Boston and New York.

Its market town, Brattleboro, with a thriving, red-brick downtown full of galleries, restaurants and interesting stores, is where most residents work and shop. But each of the surrounding towns -- Dummerston, Guilford, Newfane, Townshend, Marlboro and Wilmington -- has its own identity and economy.

The main road is Route 30, the hub of Columbus Day activities. How often have I driven down Route 30 in fall, only to find a car stopped in the middle of the road, the driver's mouth open in wonder at the view? Behind this car usually wait less aesthetically minded motorists, some of them quietly cursing.

To best enjoy the Columbus Day weekend, I've worked out a schedule:

-- On Saturday, I drive on Route 30 to the ski resort on Stratton Mountain, where one of New England's premier art shows is held. The resort opens its ski lift for leaf peepers, and the view is breathtaking. From the top, you look out over brilliantly colored rolling mountains and, in the distance, shining rivers and white church steeples.

This year will be the 34th for the Stratton Arts Festival, to be held Sept. 20-Oct. 19. It's a juried show in which 200 of Vermont's best artists and craftspeople exhibit, demonstrate and sell their work. Exhibits are constantly changing. Painting, sculpture, jewelry, ceramics and photography are the more traditional categories, but a few years ago, a handmade canoe won best of show.

Judges have come from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.

Heading back to Brattleboro, I stop in Jamaica State Park to walk along the boulder-filled West River. A 4-mile path along the river used to be part of the roadbed of the West River Railroad -- so full of twists and turns and steep grades that it was generally referred to as "36 miles of trouble."

Sunday starts with the Newfane Flea Market on Route 30. This is both a celebration of life and a wry acknowledgment of death. After all, it is hard to look at the contents of dead people's houses without wondering what your own stuff is going to look like, spread out in the sunshine on rickety tables and selling perhaps for just quarters.

I search there for serendipity: for the perfect kitsch painting for my wall, the perfect piece of antique lace for a new blouse, or the perfect overheard remark -- such as the one from the woman buying the plastic creche figures.

Best time to arrive is around 7:30 a.m., to watch the antique-dealer feeding frenzy that happens when someone like Wayne Jakeway pulls in. Jakeway arrives in his overstuffed van, with his wife, Pam, and yapping little dog, Crybaby, named by their granddaughter when she was 2.

Jakeway is typical of those people who buy whole estates; until his cartons are unpacked, you never know if the recently departed had taste, money or a valuable collection.

As many as 20 or 30 dealers quickly descend on the van the moment Jakeway opens its doors. He never has to unload by himself. Instead, dealers elbow each other aside to grab cartons, then unwrap each article from its newspaper nest as if it were a rare vase or a crystal clock, instead of the ordinary plate it frequently turns out to be.

The thrill of the hunt obsesses these dealers, and each one hunts a different thrill: 1940s mixing bowls, or records, old milk bottles, letters and photographs, a collection of Christmas cards, picture frames, rare books, old fabric.

Some treasure tools, from rusted chisels and folded measuring sticks to antique kitchen implements and real cotton thread, which is so hard to come by today.

As the dealers rummage, the dog yelps.

"Stop it, Cry, or I'll spank you now!" Pam Jakeway yells as she flings onto a table a red booklet titled How To Play Your Ocarina; the Brano Ocarina Method, by Fred Brano. He is cited on the cover as ocarina recording artist on Victor and Columbia Records.

After the flea market, head down Route 30 through Newfane -- you might time your visit to coincide with the village's annual crafts fair, held on the commons -- and head over the West River at the covered bridge. Then stop at Dummerston, for its annual Columbus Day Apple Pie Festival. This year's festival will be the 30th annual and will be held Oct. 12.

The night before the sale, I like to sneak into the Dummerston Congregational Church; the pews are packed with puffy, flaky pies and the scent is intoxicating. For two weeks before the festival, Dummerston folks gather to peel the apples, roll the crust, bake the pies, gossip and socialize. If a pie is dropped on its way out of the oven, everyone eats.

Last year, the church sold more than 1,400 pies. The festival is popular with tourists, area residents and, oddly enough, Harley-Davidson owners. Groups of them in full colors and leathers appear each year; the cyclists eat whole pies as if they were slices.

"They're mysterious," said Dummerston resident Roger Turner. "Packs of them roll in with an earth-shuddering noise. But they're here for a nice cause. They like "the ride,' as they call it, up to Vermont, and they like coming to the pie festival. They sell these "ride pins' to raise money, and they donate the money to the Dummerston Fire Department."

Once Columbus Day weekend is over, the wave of tourists recedes and Windham County residents reclaim what is left of autumn for themselves. We greet the gorgeous display of color with wistful sighs as well as gasps of pleasure, and we cling to it until the last leaf is on the ground.

Then we enter the dull brown "t'ain't season," where t'ain't fall, t'ain't winter, t'ain't spring or summer; in fact, t'ain't nothin' at all.

And then winter comes. If you go

Brattleboro, pop. 12,240, was named No. 5 in Norm Crampton's 1995 book, The 100 Best Small Towns in America. It is on I-91, a five-hour drive from New York, two hours from Boston, one and a half hours from Bradley International Airport near Hartford, Ct., and two hours from Albany, N.Y., on Route 9.

For years, the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce has acted as a go-between for visitors and residents willing to rent rooms in their homes to travelers. For information about Windham County, or to arrange for home-stay reservations, call the Chamber at (802) 254-4565.

For information about food and lodging at Stratton Mountain, write to RR1 Box 145, Stratton Mountain, VT 05155-9406, or call (802) 297-2200.

For information about the Dummerston Pie Festival, call the Town of Dummerston at (802) 257-1496.

Check out Route 30 between Dummerston and Newfane, where every other home also seems to be an antique store; the horse farm on Route 30 in Harmonyville, which offers helicopter rides during the Columbus Day Weekend; and West River Lodge, which rents horses.

The Stratton Arts Festival will be held this year from Sept. 20-Oct. 19. Admission is $6, parking is free. Chair lift: $8 per person. Contact the Stratton Arts Festival, P.O. Box 576, Stratton Mountain, VT 05155. Joyce Marcel is a freelance writer enjoying the autumn around her home in Putney, Vt.

Originally published September 14, 1997

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