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Backstory: Most Satisfying Quest


Published December 29, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated December 29, 2021 at 2:17 p.m.

Rod Noble and Connie Quimby in the schoolhouse where both were students in the 1940s and 50s - ANNE WALLACE ALLEN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Anne Wallace Allen ©️ Seven Days
  • Rod Noble and Connie Quimby in the schoolhouse where both were students in the 1940s and 50s

This "backstory" is a part of a collection of articles that describes some of the obstacles that Seven Days reporters faced while pursuing Vermont news, events and people in 2021.

Years ago, when I was a new reporter at the Associated Press, I liked visiting obscure nooks of Vermont to find stories that nobody else was writing.

Every AP story started with a dateline — the town name in all caps that indicates where the story was reported. The AP bureau is in Montpelier, but I looked for stories from elsewhere in the state and the experiences they promised.

This became what my colleagues dubbed my "dateline map" project. Checking off each of Vermont's 251 towns became a major impetus for the feature writing that I did on top of my primary job of covering actual news. Along the way, I produced some very unusual offerings for my otherwise staid employer. Many found their way to the AP's national wire.

It's not easy to find a story in a tiny town. I perused outdoor bulletin boards and buttonholed local librarians and historians. I chatted with strangers, letting the topics meander to interesting places.

Driving through snowy Morgan, photographer Craig Line and I spotted the body of a coyote hanging from a tree. We were invited into the farmhouse for a conversation about the ins, outs and ethics of hunting these animals, which the farmer said were killing his calves, which led to another story.

My trip to the tiny Northeast Slopes ski area in Corinth included a few uphill runs on the rope tow. It shredded my mittens. A quest for a Wardsboro dateline led me to a little-known vegetable: a turnip-rutabaga cross that was nurtured a century ago by farmer John Gilfeather. Twenty years later, in 2017, the Gilfeather turnip was crowned Vermont's state vegetable.

The challenge of finding odd stories energized me. It led to long conversations with polite, if puzzled, strangers in towns such as Hancock, where I eventually wrote about an all-vegan B&B; Fairlee, which bestows the ceremonial Boston Post cane on its oldest resident; and Whitingham, where the Amos Brown House, the town's oldest, was restored by the Landmark Trust USA and turned into a B&B. I wrote about Vermont's oldest bank, still family-run in Orwell.

New Englanders aren't known for their gregariousness, but my dateline quest has shown me that Vermonters are a generous and openhearted people. When curious flatlanders arrive unexpectedly, they let them into their homes, barns and lives, offering pie, coffee and homegrown honey. They patiently answer hours of questions. They enjoy detailing the labors of love that go into their own hobbies and accomplishments.

I have learned a lot about Vermont this way.

I had about half a dozen towns to go when, after 12 years of working at Vermont's AP bureau, I left the state in 2004. While I was gone, I freelanced for the national AP travel editor, racking up other semi-exotic datelines, like Zihuatanejo and Cholula, Mexico; Adelaide, Australia; and Sandpoint, Idaho. All wonderful places, but it bothered me to think that my Vermont dateline map might forever remain incomplete.

As life and luck would have it, I'm back in Vermont, working again as a journalist. Despite the pandemic, I'm getting closer to my goal of reporting from 251 towns. Since I returned in 2018, I've managed to get to Shrewsbury for a story about the cooperatively run country store and to New Haven for one about a cabinetmaker who offers stingray hide as a finish.

And this summer I finally found a reason to go to Granby, a remote Northeast Kingdom town with just 80 residents, many of them retired. I'd visited the town and had often heard about plans to turn the one-room schoolhouse, built in 1885, into a museum. But the project always seemed to be on hold.

In August, I called the town clerk and learned that fundraising was under way again. This led to an unexpectedly delightful trip to meet two siblings who went to school there in the 1950s.

Connie Quimby, 78, and Rodney Noble, 80, regret that nowadays young Granby-ites don't learn the history of their tiny Northeast Kingdom town, which once bustled with orchards, beekeepers, blacksmiths and a logging operation so large that it had a railroad to transport Granby's lumber to market.

The two, whose parents were active in the community, have warm memories of growing up in a cocoon of family and neighbors.

Thanks to my dateline map, now missing just four Vermont towns, I've seen that you don't need to justify your life's inexplicable quest. Nobody else does.

My Marshfield dateline came through a gathering of David Smiths that was organized by Owen Bradley, then-principal of the Twinfield Union School. Asked why he had invited a dozen strangers with the same name to meet for a barbecue, Bradley replied: "Why not?"