Soon, when the air turns crisp and the ducks and the woodcock begin to fluff their feathers and look south for warmth, the magical season begins. Soon frost will rim the fat orange pumpkins each morning and smoke will curl from a thousand chimneys each night.
It is the best season in a region that has no bad ones; a time when forests become paintings, when words are inadequate, even superfluous, to describe the autumnal beauty.
In this region of splendor, there is one town that surpasses all others, a town so quintessentially New England you expect Norman Rockwell to step back from the canvas in admiration.
A Perfect Town
Woodstock, a town of 3,200 lucky souls nestled in a valley so beautiful it has been named one of America’s prettiest towns by both National Geographic and the American Architectural Society, is perfect--if any town in any country can be.
Although its lifeblood comes from tourism, the town has avoided the ticky-tacky tourist traps that plague tourist towns such as New Hope, Pa.; Provincetown, Mass., and Central City, Colo.
Tourist shops are mostly classy and intimate (although one storekeeper couldn’t resist calling his shop the--ugh!--"Horses Brass”); the few restaurants are small places of great charm and the splendid houses lining the streets are framed by towering oak and maple trees which will catch the fire of autumn soon, gilding the already glorious lily that is Woodstock.
Woodstock has no traffic lights, just an overworked policeman who directs the heavy traffic of summer and fall; it has no buildings higher than three stories, and no billboards.
It is a town full of small surprises that make a visit very special. I noticed a tiny, hand-lettered sign saying “English Garden” and followed a path to the back of a 19th-Century house where a garden wild with flowers colored a hillside. Just down the street from the garden there is a pretty little park named for conservationist George Perkins Marsh where you can sit in the shade and watch trout dart about a shallow stream.
Further along, on Elm Street, I came upon the stump of a huge elm, the last of the Elm Street trees, a giant which lived for 147 years before it died in 1974 of Dutch elm disease. On the stump is a chronicle of the major events that took place in Woodstock during the tree’s life. Across the street from the elm is the handsome Congregational Church and on its portico is a church bell cast by Paul Revere--one of four such bells in Woodstock.
Village Green Vampire
The boat-shaped Village Green has a small surprise of its own, although you won’t know about it unless you read the history of the town. There is a vampire buried deep under the green, a boy named Corwin, whose heart was removed and boiled in an iron cauldron before his remains were buried 15 feet beneath the green under a granite slab. Real Stephen King stuff.
More benign is the covered bridge that is just off the green, carrying traffic and pedestrians over the Ottauguechee River to Mountain Avenue, a street lined by magnificent homes.
There are surprises just outside Woodstock too, unexpected treats such as a rope swing hanging over the Ottauguechee River which you can grab and use to soar out over the water near the red Taftsville covered bridge. Just upstream, I met a gabbling family of seven loons who swam past me as I cooled my feet in the river.
One of the most pleasant discoveries in Woodstock is the Billings Farm and Museum, which shows visitors what farm life was like in the 1890s. The museum transports you into the living room of a century-old farm, while the working dairy farm on the same grounds allows you to see cows being milked, sheep being sheared and brawny draft horses plowing perfect furrows in fertile fields. The farm was established in 1871 by Frederick Billings, grandfather of Mary Billings, now Mrs. Laurence Rockefeller. The Rockefellers, more than anyone, are responsible for Woodstock’s preservation.
$20 Million Invested
Laurence Rockefeller has maintained a home in Woodstock for nearly 50 years and has, through the years, invested nearly $20 million in the village. From the Woodstock Inn to the Robert Trent Jones golf course to the Billings Farm, his contribution is evident. Many of the restored old houses facing the Village Green are owned by Rockefeller, who controls about 12% of the town’s real estate.
Many of Rockefeller’s houses are lived in by employees who work at the 120-room Woodstock Inn, part of the Rockresorts group of inns and hotels. There has been an inn at this location since 1793 (Woodstock itself was founded in 1765), and the present structure carries an eagle on its portico that was placed on the Eagle Inn in 1830 when it stood on this same plot of ground.
Bicycles for Jaunts
Although the Woodstock Inn is historic, few modern comforts are denied today’s guests. The accommodations are comfortable, with quilted bedspreads adding color to the simply appointed rooms. There are cable television, modern bathrooms, room service--and a view over the Village Green. The inn has three restaurants with good if unimaginative food, a swimming pool and putting green, and a bike shop that will rent you top-quality bicycles to whisk you around the countryside’s winding lanes.
In summer the inn offers golf at the 6,001-yard Woodstock Golf Club, tennis, handball, racquetball, an indoor pool and paddle tennis at the nearby Sports Center; in winter, there are 47 miles of groomed cross-country ski trails, and Suicide Six for downhill skiers.
In all seasons, Woodstock offers the simple pleasures of browsing--and buying. The Vermont Workshop is my favorite store, a collection of goods made in New England snuggled into various nooks and crannies of an 1826 house. There are hand-carved decoys and baskets made of fabrics, handmade sleds and toys to charm both adults and children.
Very General Store
Other entrancing stores include Wigren & Barlow Antiques, Primrose Lane (for wreaths and dried flowers), the Yankee Book Shop (an excellent collection of New England books and classics), the Village Butcher (a great place to sample maple syrup and sharp cheese and the place to buy picnic goodies to take on a bike ride or hike) and F. H. Gillingham’s Very General Store, which stocks everything from hardware to Vermont barbecue sauce and is celebrating its centennial this year.
There are several good restaurants, the best of which are the Prince and the Pauper for dinner and Bentley’s for lunch, and a couple of bed and breakfast inns (the Village Inn charges $60 a night for a nicely restored bedroom with private bath, including breakfast) for those who don’t want to stay in the Woodstock Inn.
Although there are 16 Woodstocks in the United States, including the infamous New York Woodstock of 1969 rock concert fame, there is only one Woodstock for me--Vermont’s snug little village where the business of life goes on much as it has for 200 years, with great dignity, pride and the knowledge that this is one of the best places in the world in which to live--or to visit.
Information on Woodstock, and Vermont, is available from the Vermont Travel Division by writing Dept. R671, 134 State St., Montpelier, Vt. 05602.
Woodstock is about a 2 1/2-hour drive from Boston. Commuter airlines serving the nearby Lebanon, N.H., airport include American Eagle and Eastern Express from both Boston and New York.