Woodstock, Vermont and Quechee: Small Towns

Middle Covered Bridge
Some small towns are off the radar screen and surprise you; some have oversized reputations and underwhelm. Put Woodstock, Vermont into that second category. It was once voted the prettiest small town in America, but that was obviously before the 2007-09 recession. Downtown Woodstock has its upscale artisan galleries, but it also has some boarded-up properties and some decidedly down-market offerings. Mostly it feels like what you’d expect from a town with a declining population. Although Woodstock is the seat of government for Windsor County, its permanent population is now just 2,980.

Woodstock’s reputation rests on its proximity to the Suicide Six and Killington ski resorts and its historical connection to Laurance and Mary Rockefeller. Woodstock is just 50 miles from the New York State border and we saw more New York cars on downtown streets than Vermonters–not that I can complain having driven there bearing Massachusetts plates.

What one can complain about, though, is New York prices for things not worthy of them. We had heard great things about the Mountain Creamery and decided to give it a try for breakfast. It has my vote for the most overrated joint in which I’ve eaten all year. It’s a diner folks, one that looks as if it last redecorated in the late 1950s. But it surely has updated what it charges. This is the land of the $15 breakfast entrĂ©e and you won’t get anything you can’t find for half the price elsewhere. I was a bit PO’d to sit in a cracked vinyl booth and be handed a tab for $40 for two. Avoid!

Woodstock Inn
Town library
When people use “pretty” and Woodstock in the same sentence, they are usually talking about The Green, an elegant few blocks of Federalist, Georgian, and Greek Revival homes hard by the Woodstock Inn.  Rooms there start at about $250 per night. We were daytrippers, but I will say that the place has charm. Another building that dazzled was the Norman Williams Library, a handsome Richardsonian Romanesque with pretty cool woodwork throughout. We opted out of going to the Billings Farm Museum, which we had visited many years ago. Mostly we stayed away this time because we live in farming territory and, if like me, your grandparents were farmers, you sort of know about old-time agriculture.

Taftsville bridge
Of more scenic interest are three covered bridges either in or near downtown Woodstock. The Ottauquechee River runs through the town and a relatively new but authentic-looking Middle Covered Bridge is an easy stroll from The Green. More impressive is the Taftsville Covered Bridge just east of the downtown. Woodstock is actually made up of three entities: the town and the villages of Taftsville and South Woodstock. If you’re looking for quaint, the last two better fit the bill.

Gallery window
We spent some time poking in a few galleries in Woodstock. We saw a lot of high- quality crafts that also carried big price tags. This is a fun activity if you treat it as the equivalent of visiting a museum. An easier-on-the-wallet thing to do is visit F. H. Gillingham and Sons, which has been around since 1886. It’s a cross between an authentic throwback meets the ersatz Vermont Country Store. Luckily, it’s more the first than the second. What’s your pleasure? Candy? Overalls? Hardware? Cheese? Socks? You get the picture. While you’re at it, check out the old photos and antique displays throughout the store.
Inside Gillingham & Son

The coolest thing in the area isn’t in Woodstock; it’s in Quechee (population 656) and I’m not talking about the Quechee Gorge. We’ve been to the gorge numerous times and, though it bills itself Vermont’s Little Grand Canyon, that’s the very definition of hyperbole. The gorge is, as it implies, a narrow slot canyon carved by the Ottauquechee River. Unless you’re up for a hike, you park your car by the bridge on Route 4 and walk to its middle and look down 165 feet. In the spring there’s whitewater; by this time of the year it’s mostly a shallow, rocky, thin stream. It’s pleasant, but Grand Canyon? Ummmm… no. You’re over and done in ten minutes.

No, my friends, the coolest thing in the area lies in the rather non-descript Quechee Gorge Village shopping mall: the Vermont Toy Museum. For just $4 you can roam amidst a collector’s obsession that was picked up by others. In all there are more than 100,000 toys, games, and layouts that survey childhood diversions from 1900 on. It’s not as slick as the Strong Museum in Rochester, but it’s more manageable. Like the strip mall in which it sits (and occupies much of the second floor), parts of the collection are vintage in more ways than one. None of the train displays were working, for instance. Still, it doesn’t matter what era you were a kid, you’ll find reminders of your past in nearly every one of its cramped corridors. We loved it. Maybe it had something to do with being underwhelmed by Woodstock, but we like to think it’s because its unpretentious charm struck a chord.


Rob Weir

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