• Eat it on the Radio

    Eat it on the Radio

    In his book Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future, Vermont author and environmentalist Bill McKibben focuses on the importance of strong communities for the health and well-being of the planet and its people. He suggests that we can strengthen our home regions by producing more of our own food, generating more of our own energy, and even creating more of our own culture and entertainment. To achieve these goals, McKibben advises, we need to build or rebuild local institutions that draw people together, and one such institution that he cites in his book is a low-power radio station in the Mad River Valley: WMRW-LP Warren, 95.1 FM.

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  • A Passion for Artisan Soap

    A Passion for Artisan Soap

    My soap-making journey started a decade or so ago, when I was becoming more and more sensitized (allergic) to mainstream, detergent-type soaps. Eventually I just couldn’t use them anymore. As I researched the subject, I became alarmed at what was being used in cosmetic products on the market, not to mention all the harmful chemicals leaching into our waterways as a result of those products. I decided to start making my own soap, and the enthusiasm I had back then for soap making has now turned into a passion and a business for me. My only regret is that I didn’t start making them sooner!

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  • Halal in the Hills

    Halal in the Hills

    Art Meade is a 59-year-old livestock and poultry farmer with a thick Maine accent and a farm on Route 100 in Morrisville. He also happens to run the only state-licensed slaughter facility in Vermont that caters to Muslims who practice halal slaughter. This is the Muslim tradition of swiftly slitting the throat of a domesticated meat animal with a sharp knife; the animal is believed to be killed instantly and painlessly (though there is some debate about that). Muslims, who are directed by their religion to eat halal meat, can purchase such meat in Vermont stores, but some prefer to do the slaughter themselves.

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  • How to Start a Community Garden

    How to Start a Community Garden

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • The Story of Bread

    The Story of Bread

    Green Mountain Flour, a new artisan bakery in Windsor owned and operated by Zachary Stremlau and Daniella Malin, takes a unique approach to its craft: it uses local wheat, local milling, and local fuel to create its flours, breads, and pizzas. Here, woodcuts that comprise the bakery’s logo tell “the story of bread,” echoing a time in early New England when, according to Zachary and Daniella, “the farmers knew the miller, the miller milled with stone, and the baker baked with fire.”

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  • How to Get Grounded

    How to Get Grounded

    On a road in Cabot, not far from the land that Laura Dale and Cyrus Pond bought this past March, you can look out to the west at a horizon dominated by the undulating spine of the Green Mountains. For many young farmers in Vermont, the cost of land can seem as daunting and insurmountable as the largest of those mountains in the dead of winter.

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  • Tapping for Taste

    Tapping for Taste

    There are people in Vermont who prefer fake maple syrup—not just people who are looking for something cheaper but who actually prefer the stuff made of corn syrup. There are other people in Vermont who don’t talk to those fake syrup types. And there are Vermonters who stand by Grade B for all occasions and others who keep a little Fancy on hand.

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  • Classy Wheat

    Classy Wheat

    Last year, I arrived at The Putney School as their new gardener and was tasked with getting the high school students at this Putney boarding and day school excited about gardening. Early on, the farm manager told me he had planted some wheat on the edge of one of the farm’s hayfields. I was intrigued.

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  • Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    Farm Camp—Planting Confidence, Harvesting Strength

    As I downshift off the Putney exit of I-91, my husband, Jerry, is roused from his dozing by the hollow sound of several hundred jostling maple syrup jugs. It’s April, time to buy containers for our maple syrup at Bascom’s 10% container sale, and time to post Farm Camp flyers.

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  • The First Localvores

    The First Localvores

    I have always been fascinated by wild foods. When I was a kid growing up in Indiana we had a copy of Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, and I remember how exciting it was to read about eating cattails, making acorn flour, and brewing sassafras tea. As I recall, the cattail stalks tasted a bit like mild turnips, the acorn flour was tannic and needed a lot of processing before being edible, and the tea tasted like something just this side of root beer. Little did I know as a kid that wild edibles such as cattails and acorns were just a couple of the foods historically gathered and consumed by the first people to inhabit the state I would one day call home.

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  • Getting Everyone to the Table

    Getting Everyone to the Table

    Back in January, as my husband and I searched for a place to live in Middlebury, we had big plans to create a summer vegetable garden. But it quickly became clear that housing in town with gardening space wouldn’t be easy to find. Apartments that advertised a “big yard” always seemed to have a “scruffy lawn,” and few landlords reacted well to my desire to dig out a portion of that lawn to plant vegetables.

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  • A 10-Year Stroll

    A 10-Year Stroll

    With hundreds of spectators lining Main Street in Brattleboro, the groomed and bedazzled heifers are led down the center of the street to the cheers of onlookers. Hundreds of cows preen for the delighted crowd, followed by more farm animals (bulls, goats, and horses), tractors (also decorated for the parade) floats, clowns, marching bands, street performers, and all manner of groups touting their various farm affiliations.

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  • Cookbooks, Culture,  and Community

    Cookbooks, Culture, and Community

    The case for local nuts. No, I’m not talking about your odd mother-in-law, your bizarre ex-boyfriend, or that whacko who expresses herself, extensively, at town meeting. And I don’t mean aficionados or extremely enthusiastic people. I mean those portable nuggets of nutrition, held aloft by tree limbs. A nut, technically speaking, is a big seed enclosed by a hard shell. And even though you’re now fantasizing about almond and macadamia instead of weirdo and diehard, I’m here to tell you about what nuts we can grow in Vermont, and why.

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  • After the Fire

    After the Fire

    Barn’s burnt down…now I can see the moon. –Chinese proverb

    Yet the converse is also true: Yes, we can see the moon, but it won’t shelter tractors, nor can vegetables be washed, packed, and stored inside its lovely glow. Oh, the moon is beautiful, but what can it do for food and a business after the fire is put out?

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Communities on the Corner

What country stores mean in today’s Vermont

Taftsville General Store

Written By

Helen Labun Jordan
Helen Labun

Written on

September 01 , 2009

The local foods movement can claim its roots in Vermonters’ earliest enterprises. Long before ski vacations and the Golden Dome, there was boiling down maple sap and digging root crops for the winter. But food isn’t the only part of our local economy with a long pedigree. Our country stores have a history that stretches through the centuries, close on the heels of those first farms. And like those farms, today’s country stores are both celebrated by their community and challenged to find a viable business model to carry them into the future.

Vermont’s early outposts of farmers and foresters first bartered with traders for goods they couldn’t make at home, then later purchased goods from itinerant sellers traveling up from commercial centers to the south. These outposts eventually grew large enough to become true villages with enough consumer demand to warrant their own country store with fresh fruit, silk, linens, molasses, sewing kits, shoes, salt, medicine, and nearly anything a customer could desire. As Dennis Bathory-Kitsz writes in his History and Guide to Country Stores of Vermont, “…where there were roads, there came stores. Farmers, stores. Railroads, stores. Tourists, stores.”

That history is still felt today. “Country stores are a critical element of Vermont’s social fabric,” says Charlie Wilson, who runs the Taftsville Country Store. And just as each of Vermont’s towns has developed a unique personality, there is a high level of individualism in each of the estimated 100 country stores in Vermont.
Bathory-Kitsz, who is executive director of the Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores, jokes that “We could have been the Vermont Alliance of Independent County, Village, General, and Corner Stores and Markets and Longstanding Cooperatives and Very Small Groceries with Historic Character and Diverse Goods.” He says that in order for a store to be part of the Alliance, which currently has 42 members, it “has to have been part of its community and really show itself to be part of the diverse tradition of meeting its customers’ needs very personally.”

Wilson is carrying on such a legacy in Taftsville, one that stretches back to 1840, when the Taft family first built the store. It has been a general store ever since, except for a brief stint as an antiques shop in the late 1920s. But tradition isn’t measured only in the age of a building or a business; stores today link back to their heritage by providing some of the same services to their community that they did generations ago.

One of the most important services provided by a country storekeeper, ever since the first store opened, has been an ability to know the local customers and to respond to their needs. This ability to match the quirks of a particular place and customer base sets country stores apart from national competitors. As Bruce MacMillan of the Cambridge Village Market explains, “We’re in a small community…this is the only store I own and we’re able to cater to our customers’ needs.” For MacMillan that catering means an emphasis on an affordable full line of groceries. In other stores it means providing an outlet for neighbors with eggs, jams, syrup, and other home goods to sell. In some places it’s a particular specialization, like the wine cellar in Taftsville.

Yet a community’s needs aren’t always for the products on the shelves.

“We’re both the commercial center and a large part of the social center for our community, along with the Community Club and Music School” says Janet MacLeod of the Adamant Co-op, the state’s oldest food cooperative. That social role is played out in Friday night summer cookouts, arts workshops in the winter, and the annual Black Fly Festival—complete with a theme song, parade, and black fly-inspired pie contest.

Wilson points out that even in the age of the Internet, the informal social networks supported by stores whenever customers pass through serve as important information systems. He’s often the first to receive a call when anyone has a question or wants to get an announcement out to the rest of the town.

Of course, while some things remain the same in village centers, most things change. Community stores have encountered challenges as they attempt to thrive in modern times. Village residents no longer have to travel days by horse or foot to reach a larger town shopping center—it’s only a car drive away. In fact, many people commute to these larger towns for work and can do their shopping at the end of the work day. Stores also face limits of scale when ordering from distributors who are used to much larger volume purchases, and some delivery truck drivers are not able to justify a special trip to reach an out-of-the-way village center. Retail regulations are certainly more limiting than two hundred years ago. Plus, the sheer number of shopping options has exploded—from convenience stores to superstores to shopping malls to online catalogues.

Paul Bruhn, executive director of the Preservation Trust of Vermont, is one of a growing number of Vermonters who believe that the trends pointing away from country stores are a bad direction for the rural towns and villages that rely on these stores not only as the mainstays of a commercial district (sometimes the entire commercial district) but also as a “third place” away from home and work where community members can gather.

Bruhn says that communities can help country stores turn the services that many take for granted—from organizing the search for a lost dog to serving as unofficial welcome centers —into viable business models that can compete with chain stores. The Preservation Trust works with stores around the state to tighten business plans and to develop different community investment models that help keep the business alive through transition times.

Putney residents recently made this type of community-driven commitment to their general store. After 200 years in downtown Putney, the store was largely destroyed by fire on May 3, 2008. Insurance would have helped the store rebuild —but not in the spirit of the original structure or, necessarily, with the same business options. So the Putney Historical Society worked with Bruhn and others to take ownership of the structure themselves. Once the Historical Society purchased the building, they could leverage grants available to nonprofits to preserve both the building’s character and purpose as a store.

“Putney’s never not had this store,” says Lyssa Papazian, who is spearheading the Historical Society project. “We don’t plan to micromanage the business, but we do want to prevent the property from being overburdened with debt and to keep it perpetually affordable as a general store…it’s a cornerstone of our downtown.”

The store won’t be exactly the same. The retail space will most likely be pared back to one floor and the well-loved (if antiquated) video collection won’t return, but the store will continue to meet a range of community needs. It never stopped meeting one need, though. The Viagra Club of local retirees who gathered at the coffee station each Friday morning continued their confab even after the fire, with lawn chairs and a vigil where the coffee would have been.

Wilson observes that “when a store closes it takes some of the soul out of a community.” But the reverse can also be true. The soul of a community can inspire its citizens to be sure that their store never goes away.

If you want to visit some of Vermont’s country stores, check out the tour routes at www.vaics.org. You can also find ordering information for the book History and Guide to Country Stores of Vermont at this site.

Photo by Barbi Schreiber

About the Author

Helen Labun Jordan

Helen Labun Jordan

Helen Labun Jordan lives in Montpelier, where she works for Bear Pond Books. Read more of her work at her website, discoveringflavor.com.

Helen Labun

Helen Labun

Helen Labun runs Hel’s Kitchen takeout restaurant in Montpelier (helskitchenvt.com). She also coordinates events (and reviews many cookbooks) for Bear Pond Books, also in Montpelier.

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Vermont's Local Banquet Magazine illuminates the connections between local food and Vermont communities. Our stories, interviews, and essays reveal how Vermont residents are building their local food systems, how farmers are faring in a time of great opportunity and challenge, and how Vermont’s agricultural landscape is changing as the localvore movement shapes what is grown and raised here.


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