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Northeast Kingdom Is Sheer Poetry


© St. Petersburg Times

In the summer of 1909, poet Robert Frost and his family traveled north to spend the summer on the shores of a remote lake. An amateur botanist, Frost wanted to explore the untrammeled forests of northern Vermont.

An inn now occupies the property where Frost camped in a tent that long-ago summer. But if Frost were to return today, he would probably find much of the Lake Willoughby area as it was nearly 90 years ago.

Lake steamers no longer ply what Frost called Willoughby's "fair, pretty sheet of water." But the lake's fiord-like beauty, guarded by the towering heights of mounts Pisgah and Hor, continues to draw summer visitors. Deep forests still line the edges of the 5-mile-long lake, and the area continues to inspire writers.

Even in one of the nation's most rural states, the region around Willoughby known as the Northeast Kingdom is notably pristine.

Vermonters from other parts of the state are among the most frequent visitors, seeking a taste of "the real Vermont," as one of them put it to me.

Though I had once lived in Vermont for six years, the Northeast Kingdom was unknown territory for me until last summer, when my wife and I decided to spend several days there.

In addition to Lake Willoughby's storied beauty and isolation, we found a wooded countryside of rivers, lakes, bogs and hardscrabble dairy farms. In the valleys were lovely villages mixing the state's Yankee heritage with more recent influences from the counterculture. One of the last best places

We chose a lakefront cottage at the Willoughvale Inn as our launching point for daytime forays. Although we didn't know it at the time, it was on this property that Frost and his family had camped, providing inspiration for A Servant to Servants and other poems.

We had ambitious plans to explore the Northeast Kingdom, a land that Vermont novelist Howard Frank Mosher (Where the Rivers Flow North) has called "one of the last best places."

On our list was the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury, a museum filled with 19th-century treasures including more than 3,000 stuffed animals in glass cases. Perhaps we would amble down to Stowe and spend a day doing the shops or visiting the Trapp Family Lodge.

Our first look at our cottage and private dock changed all that, however.

It was a warm, late-summer day with a gentle breeze stirring Willoughby's "fair sheet." Within minutes of unloading our bags into the comfortable, pine-paneled Robert Frost Cottage, we were charging off the end of the dock and into the cool water.

Watching the light play across the twin peaks at the other end of the lake, we spent the rest of the afternoon swimming and sunbathing.

Dinner consisted of red wine and hot dogs, cooked in the ample kitchen and consumed on the screened-in porch. As evening fell, we used the inn's canoe to paddle the calm lake. Bats swooped harmlessly nearby.

A warm white moon rose and we guided our canoe to the shore by taking aim at the lights of the Willoughvale, where we topped off the day with a drink in the tap room. Sampling the countryside

While Lake Willoughby's simple charms led us to curtail our plans to explore the Kingdom far and wide, over the next few days we did manage to sample a bit of our surroundings.

I spent part of every day fly-fishing. The lake itself is known for its landlocked salmon, but I was out for rainbow and native brook trout in the Willoughby River.

Inspired by Mosher's writings, we drove the 10 miles to Brownington. Among the busiest of the state's hill towns in the early 19th century, Brownington now consists of a few old buildings on a dirt road.

One of those buildings, however, has a special place in American history. The Old Stone House was built by Alexander Twilight, said to be the first African-American graduate of an American college and the nation's first black member of a state legislature.

Working largely alone, Twilight built the four-story stone structure to resemble the buildings at Middlebury College, his alma mater. He used it as part of the Orleans County Grammar School, where he reigned as headmaster for many years, and the building now houses a fine historical museum run by the Orleans County Historical Society.

A walking tour of Brownington Village Historic District begins at the Old Stone House and includes the Congregational Church, the former Rice & Going Hotel, the Twilight homestead, and the graveyard. Free bread and puppets

The highlight of our wandering away from Willoughby was the Domestic Resurrection Circus, held on the Glover, Vt., farm that is home to the Bread and Puppet Theater.

Polish-born Peter Schumann and his puppet troupe travel widely to stage spectacles that feature clever satire, performed with giant, intricately painted papier-mache puppets on poles.

Bread and Puppet stages a free extravaganza one weekend each year. The two-day event draws thousands of would-be hippies and just plain folks to a natural amphitheater in a former cow pasture.

This community effort is conducted with the aid of local residents and concludes with the distribution of homemade bread. The circus is one of many happy byproducts of the peaceful coexistence among old Vermonters and relative newcomers.

We saw the afternoon Bread and Puppet show and later wandered into the troupe's museum, an old dairy barn that houses huge puppets from previous shows.

When it came time to leave the Northeast Kingdom, we stopped at the lake's end on our way south to climb Mount Pisgah, which is reached by a trail past beaver ponds and up through the state forest. On clear days, Pisgah's cliffs offer views across to neighboring Mount Hor and eastward to towering Mount Washington in New Hampshire. If You Go Events and attractions: The annual Domestic Resurrection Circus staged in Glover by Bread and Puppet Theater is usually held in August. The circus is free, but expect to pay $5 to park in a nearby field. Call (802) 525-3031 for more information on the circus and museum.

The Old Stone House Museum in Brownington opens for the season in May, with a $3 admission charge. It is open daily in July and August, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hours are limited at other times of the year. Call (802) 754-2022.

The Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury is open daily year-round with a $4 admission charge, $9 per family. The main hall housing the preserved animals features a 30-foot-high, barrel-vaulted ceiling. (802) 748-2372.

Accommodations: For information on accommodations including various lakeside cottages, contact the Greater Lake Willoughby Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 403 Barton, VT 05822. (802) 525-1137

To learn more about accommodations and attractions throughout the area, including a number of bed and breakfast inns, contact the Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, 30 Western Ave., St. Johnsbury, VT 05819; (800) 639-6379.

The Willoughvale Inn is in Westmore. It has four cottages, each with private dock and deck, perched on the lake shore. The one- and two-bedroom cottages rent from $149 to $179 per night in summer; the better deal is to rent by the week ($670 to $805).

The inn also has eight recently redecorated rooms ($99 to $145 per night), a cozy tap room and a popular restaurant with good views of the lake and mountains. RR 2, Box 403, Westmore, VT 05860; (800) 594-9102; e-mail grnmtinn@aol.com.

Books and Films: Willoughby Lake: Legends and Legacies by Harriet F. Fisher tells the story of the lake's history and Robert Frost's visit. The book is published by the Orleans County Historical Society, (802) 754-2022.

Howard Frank Mosher's novel Where the Rivers Flow North was made into a movie, now available on video and starring Michael J. Fox and Treat Williams. Mosher's other books include A Stranger in the Kingdom, set in a fictionalized Brownington and inspired in part by Alexander Twilight's life. A former Vermont resident, Gregory Dennis is a travel writer based in Encinitas, Calif.

Originally published September 14, 1997

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