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Johnson's Bread Oven Draws Community Together

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JIM DESHLER
  • Jim Deshler

Just as a new home inspires a housewarming party, a new wood-fired oven beckons an oven warming. On October 28, Johnson residents answered just such a culinary call to action on the grassy Legion Field beside Johnson Elementary School.

The town of about 3,300 was celebrating an event that was a year in the making: The new community stone oven was ready for its inaugural pizza bake. The project's two champions, Jen Burton and Mark Woodward — a librarian and a former legislator, respectively — stayed busy at the oven, while more than 50 of their neighbors came by to see, and taste, it in action.

Having written grants, attended meetings and organized construction, they were finally ready to make pizza. Burton rolled dough, slathered on tomato sauce from a big pot, and scattered donated local vegetables and cheese on the pies, while Woodward maneuvered them in and out of the wood-burning oven.

The first few pizzas were on the well-done side, but nobody complained. "We've been lighting fires all week, curing it," Burton said, describing another kind of oven warming: the process of building up a new stone oven's heat tolerance. "We didn't have time to do a test run, and it was probably too hot when we started, but it's all part of our learning process."

This part of the process certainly looked like more fun than the many hours spent navigating grant applications and questions from the selectboard. But those steps were vital to growing the project from a seed sown by a 2014 Vermont Public Radio story about a community oven in Norwich.

"I heard that show and just thought it was the coolest thing," Woodward said. He mentioned it to Burton, who had also caught the radio piece. The friends agreed that an oven would be a nice addition to their town: a place to host community gatherings and to foster connections among longtime and newer residents, Johnson State College students, and artists-in-residence at the Vermont Studio Center. But it remained just an idea until 2016.

That was the year when Woodward, a Johnson resident of four decades, wound down a 14-year tenure in the state legislature. "This is my new community service," he said with a grin from his spot in front of the oven.

Burton, the librarian and technology integrationist at Hazen Union School in Hardwick, has lived in Johnson since 1993. She focused on the practicalities of bringing the oven idea to life, signing up for an oven-building workshop at a local farm and investigating potential funding.

Mark Woodward (left) and Jen Burton - JIM DESHLER
  • Jim Deshler
  • Mark Woodward (left) and Jen Burton

Burton had recently helped found the Johnson Arts Council, a nonprofit that works to build community and support a dynamic downtown through the arts, including culinary ones. With the council as the project's fiscal sponsor, Burton successfully applied for two grants totaling $3,500 from the Vermont Community Foundation, including a Lamoille County-specific grant from the Green Mountain Fund.

She also made her first appearance of several in front of the town's selectboard and pitched the project as an opportunity for the community to come together, first to build the oven, then to cook and bake in it and eat around it. After attending an introductory course, town residents would be able to sign up to use the oven.

Historically, community ovens were shared resources that connected people in rural areas, Burton explained at the oven warming. "We hoped the oven would rekindle community around food," she said.

The board and local residents were enthusiastic once issues of location, safety and management had been ironed out, said Eric Osgood, chair of the Johnson Selectboard and an attendee at the oven warming. "We had some questions," he recalled, "but as long as it wasn't going to cost the town money, we were all for it."

Settling on the oven site, Burton said, was probably the biggest issue. While some proposed Old Mill Park at the edge of town, Burton and Woodward always envisioned the oven in the centrally located Legion Field, which hosts Johnson's popular summer concert series, Tuesday Night Live. "We wanted the oven central and visible, where everyone can see it," said Burton.

The oven warming demonstrated the location's value. A steady flow of people kept arriving, some with involvement in the project and some without.

Warren Mingledorff, 96, said he had enjoyed watching the construction from his apartment across the street. Karissa Lowe, 9, was excited to try the pizza. "We can see it from our school," she said of the oven.

Jasmine Yuris and her husband met when they came to Vermont to attend Johnson State. The couple recently bought a house a few doors down from the oven. Busy with two young children, home renovations and their own business, "We call ourselves passive helpers," Yuris said. They gave the project access to water through a spigot outside their house. "We are so psyched about the oven. We plan on using it often," Yuris went on. "We're considering it an extension of our kitchen."

Longtime local resident Steve Engel arrived and examined the oven with interest. "Like how we included your stones?" Woodward asked him.

Engel was among townspeople who had responded to a call to drop off interesting stones as oven construction materials. His donation was blocks of red jasper granite from Johnson's defunct talc mill. "When the mill closed in the '80s, I bought about 400 of them," he said.

A sewing machine repairman, Engel has lived in town for 40 years. "It's a good community, and it's nice to see younger people gravitating toward it," he said. The oven, he added, "is beyond cool. It brings people together, brings a little more pride to the community, and it's something useful."

JIM DESHLER
  • Jim Deshler

Local businesses also contributed materials to the project. Sheltered from the elements by a post-and-beam structure, the oven boasts not just various types of stone but quirky antique adornments, including a horse-bridle bit, a star-decorated cast-iron paddle from a cow's drinking bowl, an elegant marble finial and a fireplace mantel. Its opening arches around an old saw blade.

Most of these items came from Woodward's own collection. "I'm a terrible junk collector," he admitted.

At a final cost of $8,000, not including donated materials, the oven project outgrew its initial plan and budget, Burton and Woodward acknowledged. "We could have done one for the original number," said Burton, "but Mark wanted it bigger, and then he made it happen." Woodward covered the shortfall himself and organized volunteers who helped with construction. "My heart was into doing it," he said.

Stonemason Duffy Gardner, who lives in Worcester and was the only paid participant in the project, said it was a special one for him. "Jen and Mark are visionary," Gardner said. "With this bread oven, you could bake bread for the whole village. Coupled with a community root cellar and community garden, you could start having a conversation about food sovereignty, a community-based type of existence."

After volunteers completed the site work and the wooden structure, Gardner spent about three weeks in August building the oven with a little heavy-lifting help from locals. Woodward and Burton had hoped community members would sign up for a workshop to assist with the oven build. No one did, perhaps because of the multi-week commitment required, they speculated.

Rep. Matt Hill (D-Lamoille) said at the oven warming that he wished he could have lent a hand. Hill, who grew up in Johnson and now lives in Wolcott, had to give precedence to his own carpentry business, he said. He praised Burton and Woodward for making the project happen. "This kind of thing takes at least one very motivated person, and that motivated person needs a lot of support," he said.

After taking a turn making pizzas, Diane Lehouiller, a Johnson resident since 1978, said the oven warming was even more fun than she'd expected. Having helped gather signatures of support when the project launched, she was pleased with the result. "I think this will help people do more things together," Lehouiller said. "Every community can use that."


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The original print version of this article was headlined "Kindling Community"

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