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Curisouser and Curiouser

Book Review: Curious New England by Joe Citro and Diane Foulds


While doing library research on a description in the New Testament of St. John surviving on "locusts and honey" in the desert, I stumbled on a well-worn reference work called The Book of Miracles. Even more spectacular than the descriptions of marvelous wonders -- the tyrant Theodoric being lectured about his evil deeds by a cooked fish head he had been served for dinner, for instance -- is the index: Miracles are classified in categories like "food multiplied," "resurrection of the dead" and "passing through fire unscathed." The collected miracles are magnified by their proximity to a litany of spookily similar wonders.

Vermont folklorist Joe Citro and journalist Diane Foulds have created their own book of miracles. Curious New England is a tour guide, a reference book and a pleasure read. The authors have traipsed all over the region compiling points of interest far beyond the scope covered by normal travel guides. The resulting collection of "eccentric destinations" is organized by state and covers everything from odd geology (the petrified coral reef at Isle LaMotte, VT) and megalomania ("Lord" Timothy Dexter's shenanigans in Newburyport, Mass., and Chester, N.H.) to bottomless kitsch (a museum of umbrella covers in Peaks Island, ME). How many people in New England remember -- or ever knew -- that during World War II camps for captured German prisoners-of-war were set up in the wilds of northern Maine and New Hampshire? This is where you can find out about it all.

We used an old librarians' trick for evaluating reference resources and looked up items with which we were already familiar to check the accuracy of the descriptions. The greater Burlington area is well represented, with nine entries. These examples will give you some idea of what the authors were attracted to when creating Curious New England:

1. The granite marker on Perkins Pier dedicated to Champ. The entry includes a short history of Champ sightings, and some helpful hints on where you might look in case you are interested in spotting the monster yourself;

2. The flying monkeys that were originally made for the Emerald City of Oz waterbed store (the entry doesn't include this bit of trivia) and now perch on top of Union Station in Burlington;

3. The rhinoceros head that appears to be smashing through the second floor of the building housing Conant Custom Brass on Pine Street;

4. The whale tails originally on display near the Randolph exit of the Interstate and now relocated to South Burlington, complete with an interesting side fact about an Essex Junction couple who offer Lake Champlain "whale watching" tours because so many out-of-staters have requested them from the state tourist office;

5. A fossilized beluga whale skeleton discovered in Charlotte in 1849 displayed at the Perkins Museum of Geology at UVM;

6. The Brautigan Library, a repository of unpublished books conceived by local businessman Todd Lockwood in the 1990s and now at the Fletcher Free Library;

7. The Museum of Kitsch Art located in Williams Hall at UVM;

8. Another UVM possession: a 375-page journal kept by 19th-century Vermont physician Henry Janes describing the most "interesting" medical cases -- with photographs -- that he encountered while treating Union soldiers injured at Gettysburg; and

9. Huntington Gorge, included because of the 18 drownings that have occurred there since 1950. The description of this popular local swimming hole as a "Killer Gorge" may seem a bit over the top, but when you think about it, the statistics do tell the tale. No mention of the cool rock formations.

Each short entry -- there are more than 250 in all -- includes handy instructions on how to find the place or thing, a schedule of hours of operation, any admission charges and some invaluable tips to help the reader safely and successfully find the spot. These include: handicap accessibility; whether the spot is a private or a sacred site; the local rattlesnake population; and -- as in the case of the Gungywamp Bronze Age ruins in Groton, Conn. -- whether it's necessary to write the owners at least a month in advance to schedule a visit. Good to know; you don't want to drive 175 miles only to discover that the gates are locked on Tuesdays.

Curious New England provides a valuable catalog of many wacky, interesting places and things that may not still exist 100 years from now. They all deserve to be remembered. Although the book already has a fine subject index, for the next printing I would suggest a "category" index as well. This would allow fans of, say, stone megaliths or tacky advertising or Native American sites to zero in on their own specialties and make the book even more fun. As it is, Curious New England makes me want to jump into the car right now and embark on a long, strange road trip guided by Citro and Foulds.