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Valley's Rich Beauty Lifts Body and Spirit

By MICHAEL SCHUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times


When the 20th century was young, however, the woods around Cornish, N.H., were filled with some of the most famous names from New York's literary and artistic set, known collectively as the Cornish Colony.

While that group has long since disappeared, the luscious landscape that attracted artists and writers remains. For the best view, come in the fall and let the bright reds, golds and oranges flanking the roadsides overwhelm you. If you canoe down the Connecticut River, you will be hemmed in by the color-topped cliffs, with Mount Ascutney looming closer and closer as you paddle along.

Travel by car and you can stop to admire thewoods at your leisure. Mount Ascutney State Park on the Vermont side of the river lures picnickers, hikers and relaxed strollers.

More than 200 years of human settlement have not left the area worse for wear: Town greens and covered bridges complement fall colors. You won't find fast-food strips unless you wander up to West Lebanon in New Hampshire; the Vermont side is free of such encroachments.

Of course, one person's eyesore is another's dream. Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, probably the most renowned member of the Cornish Colony, learned that during his first visit here.

Saint-Gaudens' Cornish home is as handsome as a frosted wedding cake, but it wasn't always so grand. The story goes that the structure was built in the 1800s as an inn on a road planned to be a main coach route. However, the primary thoroughfare was built elsewhere and the would-be inn was deserted.

Years later a Cornish property owner convinced Saint-Gaudens to buy the inn. The artist was at first uninterested but the local owner knew Saint-Gaudens was planning a statue of Abraham Lincoln. So he told the artist about all the "Lincoln-shaped men" living in the area. Saint-Gaudens packed his chisel and headed north.

You can tour his white house today, as well as two sculpture studios, a sculpture garden and a brookside walking path. Again, it all looks its best in the autumn.

Art lovers will most appreciate the sculpture gardens or either studio. Those who saw the Academy Award-winning movie Glory will recognize the reproduction of the Shaw Memorial. The actual monument to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and his black Civil War regiment took 14 years to finish and is one of the sculptor's most highly regarded works. In the reproduction, note the detail in the soldiers' guns, the folds in their uniforms and their facial expressions.

Following the example set by Saint-Gaudens, a slew of other creative minds came north, some seasonally, others year-round. Poet William Vaughn Moody, American novelist Winston Churchill, actor Ethel Barrymore, illustrator Charles Dana Gibson and artist Maxfield Parrish all became Cornish Colony residents. Thus, this colony of urban talents became known as "little New York."

While Saint-Gaudens was drawn by potential Lincoln models, Parrish was lured by the dizzying blue skies, which he captured in his dreamy works.

Parrish once explained his switch to landscape painting in his later years this way: "There are always pretty girls on every city street, but a man can't step out on the subway and watch the clouds playing with the top of Mount Ascutney."

To make your own appraisal, a 4-mile-long road in Ascutney State Park leads to the summit. The park is also one of the best places to unpack the picnic basket or to just amble through the woods.

The mountain might be nature's most prominent local landmark, but the honors for human efforts go to the Windsor-Cornish covered bridge. Built in 1866 and restored in 1990, it spans the Connecticut River and is the longest covered bridge in the United States.

For an encompassing view from the river, Linda Hammond of North Star Canoe Rentals in Cornish recommends a spot just north of the bridge; there, one can see the river's islands to the south, Mount Ascutney to the west and colorful trees lining the banks.

If you want to rent a canoe on the Vermont side, head to Wilderness Trails at the Quechee Inn at Marshland Farm, in the growing village of Quechee. Owner Martin Banak rents canoes and kayaks. As does Hammond, Banak provides paddles, jackets, maps and a choice of rides, from 7.1 miles on the White River to about 15, combining the White and the Connecticut.

The 165-foot-deep chasm known as Quechee Gorge makes the former woolen mill town a spectacular place to visit, with or without canoes. The gorge is spanned by Route 4, and you can tell you are getting close when you see masses of parked cars. You can park and look or picnic and hike at the nearby Quechee Gorge Recreation Area.

Any Upper Valley tour should take in Woodstock, the pristine community with an immaculately manicured green, clapboard homes, the stately Woodstock Inn and the gentle pace people in big cities savor. Aesthetics aside, Woodstock boasts enough activity to fill anyone's day. Life-size dioramas, a working dairy farm and the recently refurbished farm manager's house and creamery make the Billings Farm and Museum an eye-opening look at Vermont daily farming, past and present. Plan to spend at least two hours to sufficiently tour the complex.

Time left over? Head to some of Woodstock's antique shops. Try Church Street Antiques (at No. 4 Church) and Wigren & Barlow (29 Pleasant). Who is Sylvia? (26 Central) specializes in antique clothing. F.H. Gillingham & Co. (16 Elm) is a country store with an atmosphere more genuine than packaged.

Woodstock's village center is a great place to stroll and often features a craft or quilt show. The Town Crier blackboard at Elm and Central announces town-wide events. If you go

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, off Route 12A, Cornish, N.H., is open daily through Oct. 31, 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m.; grounds open until dark. Admission is $4 adults, free for those younger than 17; (603) 675-2175.

Ascutney State Park, Route 5, Ascutney, Vt., tollroad is open daily through Columbus Day, 9 a.m.-sunset. Admission is $5 per car and driver, $2 per adult and $1.50 for ages 4-14; (802) 674-2060.

North Star Canoes, Route 12A, Cornish, N.H., offers two-day trips ($32/person), 12-mile canoe trips ($17/person) and five-mile canoe trips ($10/person); multiday trips can also be arranged. Reservations recommended; (603) 542-5802.

Wilderness Trails, at the Quechee Inn at Marshfield Farm, Clubhouse Road, Quechee, Vt., offers canoe trips on the Connecticut and/or White rivers ($40-$50) and on Dewey's Mill Pond ($12); also bicycle rentals, combination canoe/biking trips and half-day fly fishing school lessons. Reservations recommended; (802) 295-7620.

Billings Farm and Museum, Route 12, Woodstock, Vt., is open daily through Oct. 31, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; weekends in December and Dec. 26-31. Admission is $7 adults, $6 ages 65 and over, $5.50 ages 13-17, $3.50 ages 5-12, $1 ages 3-4; (802) 457-2355.

Woodstock Inn, The Green, Woodstock, Vt. includes such entrees as tiger shrimp and rigatoni, provimi veal tenderloin, Australian rack of lamb; dinners $19.95-$26.95; (802) 457-1100.

Lodging possibilities:

Home Hill Country Inn (see above), doubles $125-$175.

Radisson Inn North Country (a motel), Airport Road, West Lebanon, N.H., doubles $110-$120; (603) 298-5906.

Sunset Motor Inn, Route 10, West Lebanon, N.H.; doubles $55-$75; (603) 298-8721.

Woodstock Inn (resort, see above); doubles $155-$295.

Shire Motel, 46 Pleasant St., Woodstock, Vt.; doubles $95-$150; (802) 457-2211.

Juniper Hill Inn (country inn, see above); doubles $90-$150 with full breakfast; (www.juniperhillinn.com). Michael Schuman enjoys living in Keene, N.H.

Originally published September 14, 1997



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