Julia Alvarez on Weybridge, VT | Travel | Smithsonian
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We don't have a town center, Alvarez says, but we're "rich in characters and talents." (Corey Hendrickson)

Julia Alvarez on Weybridge, VT

Other towns get more attention says novelist Julia Alvarez, but this is a place where things get done

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You've heard of towns like ours. The kind of place about which city folks say, "Don't blink or you'll miss it!"

You might as well go ahead and blink, because you are going to miss it. There's no real town center in Weybridge, Vermont, unlike our postcard-pretty neighbor Middlebury. No quaint town green surrounded by shops full of trinkets to clutter up your house and a sweet little gazebo to make you dewy-eyed for the olden days.

Drive down Weybridge's main thoroughfare, Quaker Village Road, and you pass the elementary school on your right; then, a little farther down, the fire department/highway department/recycling center, all in the same structure. Why not? It's an efficient use of location and equipment. We're a no-frills kind of town. Keep going, and if you get to the bridge over Lower Falls, you've gone by the town clerk's office, a two-room white house. Out front, there's a raggedy-edged American flag that we're not going to replace because winter will do the same job on the next one. We have a historic town hall and a Lilliputian library, both used only for the sixth-grade graduations. We haven't torn down these buildings because we respect our history. But we're not fools about it. To make the town hall fit for offices, we'd have to put in a septic system and a furnace and do a whole bunch of costly repairs. We're not the kind of place that goes about wasting money just for appearance's sake.

We're made of sturdier stuff. We've had to be. Even before we got going as a town, we were almost erased—twice. When the settlement first got chartered in 1761, mapmaking and land granting were not all that accurate. The original charter granted 25,000 acres to 64 fellows, but most of that overlapped with neighboring towns with earlier stakes. After a 1774 survey, it looked as if Weybridge might be pushed off the map entirely. But our stalwart ancestors persisted and with a couple of subsequent annexations, some 10,000 acres were left, enough to make a decent-size town with plenty left over for newcomers.

Four years after that near miss, our first settlers were attacked by British soldiers from Canada, with the help of some Indians and Tories. They burned down all the houses and took the menfolk and their older sons prisoners. The women and children hid out in a root cellar, eating nothing but potatoes for ten days (I said we were sturdy), until 10-year-old Rob Sanford walked barefoot for help, meeting up with soldiers from the nearest fort, 25 miles away. (Ever since then we've had a soft spot for our junior citizens.) Four years later, when the imprisoned men were finally released, they returned to their hometown and built it back up again.

So, even though we don't have a town center, we hang together—a strong, vibrant community that knows who it is. Other towns get the attention, but we do the work. Middlebury's main bridge and quite a few of the college buildings were built from our quarries, big blocks we used to cut in the summer and fall, then transport by ox-drawn sledges in the winter. We've spilled blood for our neighbor town, yes sir. Our steam-driven quarry machine blew up one time and killed the operator. After that, we closed the quarry, since no one wished to work there anymore. Now, instead of stones, we supply milk to the college, from our Monument Farms Dairy. We're nourishing youngsters from around the country and the world. Building bones and infrastructure—stuff you don't see, but try moving a muscle without it—that's what we're good at.

Without a town center, you might wonder what holds us together. We've wondered that ourselves. It used to be the weekly get-togethers at the Congregational Church up on the hill, but folks aren't as churchgoing as they once were, and we're fine with that. We've seen religions come and go—Methodists, Wesleyan Methodists, Baptists, Catholics. Quakers were among our earliest settlers. They're how the main road got its name, how we got our pacifist streak. It's fair to say that while we won't walk away from defending a principle (we sent more than 50 men to the Civil War, 8 of whom never came back), in the main we'd rather beat our swords into plowshares. We are, after all, a farm community.

In the 1830s, we had a whopping population of 850, to which we're just now returning (824 in the last census). We had a town center back then, a thriving hub with a couple churches; several stores; a post office; any number of mills; a harness, boot and shoe shop; and even a hotel. Before staying here, though, many a drinking man had the stagecoach stop right outside of this dry town so he could stow his half-finished bottle among the rocky ledges. Where our young farm boys would always find them.

Sheep-raising—Merino sheep, to be exact—was the town's main agricultural livelihood, but as the West opened up, so many farmers moved to larger grazing grounds that we almost bit the dust again, like a lot of other Vermont sheep-farming towns in the late 1800s. But somehow we made the transition over to dairy. Now Holsteins moo where Merinos once baaed.

We're a feisty, independent bunch, but we understand what it means to live in a small community. Pretty near the whole town dips its communal cup in that deep, invisible spring that, for lack of a better word, we'll call service. Most of the town business runs on volunteers. There's the recycling center, open every Saturday morning, and the fire department. On "green-up" day in the spring, half the town hits the roads and byways to pick up trash and litter that's been hidden under all the snow.

As for our elementary school, the principal, Christina Johnston, will tell you it couldn't operate without volunteers. Parents run the ground maintenance, the bake sales, the book fair, the bottle redemption, the talent show. They help out with the breakfast and hot lunch program. They even clean the hallway goldfish tank. At the annual appreciation lunch, the list of volunteers is as long as the list of students. All the money the school saves means that the 80 percent of the town's taxes that go to education go to educating. As I said, we haven't forgotten that a 10-year-old saved our town.

We keep an eye out for one another as well. Sometimes it brims over into snooping, but we're working on that. Ida Washington, our dynamic octogenarian town historian, claims her neighbors "know what I've had for breakfast before I've even eaten it!" We know the skeletons in each other's closets, but Ida will also tell you, "Never have I known folks to use it in a mean way." Mostly we just want to check that everyone's all right. Our selectmen, Peter James and A. J. Piper, make the rounds in winter, just to be sure our old folks are OK. When there's an illness, Glenna Piper goes down her phone tree and rouses up a week's worth of donated meals. We've seen each other through the best and worst of times, our weddings and our divorces, our babies' births and our parents' deaths. Nobody stays on a high horse for long around here, but nobody gets stepped on either.

What holds us all together is unspoken, sturdy and as deep as the limestone and marble once quarried from our hills. A love and respect for the land—that's our abiding bond. After a childhood in the Dominican Republic and a dozen addresses in half a dozen states, I got offered a job teaching at Middlebury College. I came and fell in love—both with my husband and the land we settled on. When I'm asked where I'm from, I'm as likely as not to say, "Weybridge." And in fact, the 19 years I've lived here is longer than I've lived anywhere else. Although that doesn't make me a James or a Sanford or a Wright (whose bloodlines go back to the late 1700s), the town welcomes anyone with the good sense to settle here, wherever they came from.

We've got all kinds now, college professors who moved here for our great elementary school and beautiful rolling hills, as well as farmers working on that land, keeping it beautiful for everyone. We disagree with one another, but we're not disagreeable about it. In fact, starting with those Quakers, we've got tolerance in our civic genes. We've needed it, as we've been a quirky, interesting bunch since 1806, when Miss Charity Bryant—aunt of the poet William Cullen Bryant—and Miss Sylvia Drake moved up here from eastern Massachusetts. They were crack seamstresses and made our menfolk's clothes. Bryant wrote that these two ladies "in their youthful days...took each other as companions for life....They slept on the same pillow and had a common purse." Miss Charity particularly liked her nap after dinner, so she had a neighbor build her an adult-size cradle, over six feet long, so she could be rocked to sleep by her companion after a heavy meal. Folks knocked on her door to have her write the verses for a dear departed's tombstone. Like her nephew, she could versify.

The town's still rich in characters and talents, folks who use what they've got to enrich the rest of us. Stanley James just stepped down from being town moderator for 33 years. Before that, his father did the job for 26. Between the two of them, that's 59 years of volunteer moderating, longer than some of us have been around. Art Gibb was another one who stuck around because there was work to do. A New York banker, Art moved to Weybridge in 1951 for health reasons. I guess it worked. He lived to be 97 years old, and a rich life of service it was. Besides farming and serving in the state legislature for more than two decades, Art crafted Act 250, a groundbreaking environmental law that stopped the spread of sprawl and set up criteria for sustainable development. This was the late '60s, mind you, when green was still slang for money or the color of envy. One of the reasons you can still see Vermont is Art's foresight: he worked on the legislation that forbids billboards on our roads and highways.

What's nice about these public-spirited folk is they also have a refreshing sense of fun. Elder statesman Art Gibb used to campaign on a bicycle, walking the talk or rather riding it, door to door to get your vote. Our local state's attorney for some 25 years keeps bees. His honey label reads: "Collected from trespassing bees by John T. Quinn, Addison County State's Attorney. Bees required to pay their fines in only the finest Vermont raw honey! 100% GUILT FREE." Meanwhile, our town clerk, Karen Brisson, is a former world champion arm wrestler. She started out as a local girl doing chores on her daddy's dairy farm, until he noticed she sure had a strong arm and signed her up for a state contest when she was 15. She won and went on to win the world title four times. Not a bad thing to have a town clerk with a scarecrow skill that keeps us all in line.

Along with the pacifist streak and the volunteer spirit, we've got an artistic temperament that makes us, finally, real interesting to one another. It's our people, warts and all, that we treasure most. One of our communal warts is our button-bursting pride in our small, seemingly unremarkable town. But we're trying to work it off the only way we know how, by volunteering some more. Come spring cleanup, I'm heading for those rocky ledges. No telling what I'll find.

Julia Alvarez's nonfiction book Once Upon a Quinceañera: Coming of Age in the USA is in paperback.

Photographer Corey Hendrickson lives in Vermont.

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