When I heard that there was an area of Vermont called the Northeast Kingdom, I knew that I had to go there. It just sounded like a fairy tale. It’s located, of course, in the northeast corner of the state and is the most undeveloped area in Vermont.
We had a lovely campsite by the Moose River in St. Johnsbury (Moose River Campground … imagine that). We’ve come to really appreciate the smaller, privately owned campgrounds. Many of these campground owners are very proud of their campgrounds and keep them immaculate and nicely decorated. Much appreciated.
St. Johnsbury is the largest town in the Northeast Kingdom, by population (over 7,000). We arrived just as the leaves were starting to turn, which was our intention, since we planned to be in the state for a month.
On our first day we took a nice drive around the area and stopped in at Dog Mountain, 150 acres of privately owned land on a mountain stop nearby. The artist Stephen Huneck, who made beautiful paintings and carvings of dogs, usually black or golden labs, bought the property and turned the barn into a studio space. During a near death experience, Mr. Huneck was inspired to build the Dog Chapel on the property. It opened in 2000.
I was not prepared for the impact that the Dog Chapel would have on us. As we walked in, the first thing we noticed was that the walls were completely covered (more than once over) with notes and photos memorializing dogs. Combined with the beautiful place, stained glass windows and wood carvings designed by the artist, it took our breath away and made us choke up. What a wonderful inspiration.
Sadly, Mr. Huneck commited suicide a few years ago, after financial problems forced him to close down some of his galleries and lay off a number of employees. His wife, Gwendolyn, committed suicide earlier this year. The chapel now memorializes them as well, making it even an more impactful place.
Next we took a tour Ben & Jerry’s Factory, located just outside Montpelier. I must confess that I never tried Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. I’m not sure why, but I was always more of a Hagen Dazs kind of girl.
Anyhow, the tour was great fun, and the story of these two guys, who built this ice cream empire after splitting a $5 correspondence course on ice cream making from Penn State University, is very cool.
Ben & Jerry sold the business a few years ago and it’s now a wholly owned subsidiary of Unilever with “a (very!) independent Board of Directors that’s empowered to protect and defend Ben & Jerry’s brand equity, integrity and product quality”.
Staying on the food topic, on Saturday we went to the farmers market in St. Johnsbury, continuing our “tour” of farmers markets. When we arrived in the town center, we saw a very cute town parade, which kicked off their fall fair. And the farmers market was a smallish but quality market.
The fall fair also included various outdoor concerts and activities at the Catamount Arts Center. We spent some time watching women drumming at the Arts Center. I find drumming very hypnotic and fun.
That same jam packed day, we took a quick peek at the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium and found out that the Planetarium was offering free shows as part of the festival, so we stayed. The museum is northern New England’s museum of natural history and the planetarium is Vermont’s only public planetarium.
This museum is possibly one of the most unique museums I’ve ever visited. The building itself is magnificent, made of red sandstone, with towers, rounded arches, eyebrow windows and carvings. The interior has an oak barrel vault ceiling running the length of the building.
The museum was a gift to the town by Franklin Fairbanks, nephew of inventor Thaddeus Fairbanks, who invented the platform scale, and his wife, Frances.
The main floor of the museum is dedicated to natural science. There is an extensive collection of preserved animals including snakes, a Kodiak and Polar bears, a koala, birds of all kinds including a fascinating collection of hummingbirds and many, many more. Mr. Fairbanks’ original collection was housed on the third floor of his mansion, referred to as his “Cabinet of Curiosities”. It contained 450 birds, rocks and minerals and various artifacts from several countries including Japan, China and Egypt.
The museum’s late taxidermist, William Balch, of Lunenburg, Vermont, was one of the first to create lifelike dioramas. The museum contains dioramas of flamingoes, opossums, muskrats, Birds of Paradise, bison and moose. All of Mr. Balch’s work was accomplished without the help of plastic, Styrofoam or aluminum.
The second floor’s collections include artifacts donated by friends and employees of the Scale Company who brought these back from their travels. These include fossils, arrowhead, Egyptian mummies, early toys, a doll collection and objects from the Civil War. In total the museum contains over 175,000 objects.
The Northern New England Weather Center is located in the basement of the building. where two of Vermont’s meteorologists broadcast weather forecasts on commercial radio and Vermont Public Radio. They are called the “Eye on the Sky” and get it right most of the time by the way. The meteorologists from Maine and Eastern Canada could use some coaching from these guys :-).
The planetarium show was pretty interesting, though not exactly “out of this world”. What was out of this world was their Omniglobe, a 60-inch diameter sphere that allows viewers to display patterns and trends of our planet by pressing different buttons. The globe can show tectonic plate movement, weather graphics, languages of the world, antique map views, and global systems and how we experience them locally, for example, there’s a display of the Japanese Tsunami and its global reach. The globe can also become the moon and other planets. I could have played with it for hours! But the museum closed :-(.
The next day we took advantage of the fact that St. Johnsbury is located six miles from the New Hampshire border and crossed over to New Hampshire. We drove around a loop called the White Mountains Trail, New Hampshire’s most scenic drive.
Of the multitude of options for hiking and touring found along the drive, we opted to take the short loop trail in Flume Gorge, a natural gorge located at the base of Mount Liberty and extending 800 feet.