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Not-So-Hot Spots

Tracking down Vermont's lesser-known tourist attractions


Published June 15, 2005 at 4:00 a.m.

It's summer. Your sister and her family are coming to visit. But you've already taken them for a stroll down Church Street. You've hiked Camel's Hump, toured Ben & Jerry's, wandered through the Vermont History Museum in Montpelier, and seen the bug art at the Fairbanks Museum in St. J. What's left?

Plenty. Vermont boasts a wealth of quirky, second- and third-rate tourist attractions that are easily as interesting as anything on the A-list. Just don't expect these diamonds in the rough to sparkle at first glance. Sometimes you have to dust them off --and ask the right questions --to truly appreciate the seldom-trafficked treasures.

The Chester A. Arthur Historic Site

Oh, how the mighty have fallen! The 21st president's official state historic site is a monument to obscurity, proof that even a U.S. president can be forgotten. Every American ought to pay a visit, if only to put in perspective the currently inflated powers of the office.

Yes, Chester Alan Arthur, known to locals as "Chet," was --probably --born in the Green Mountain State, making him the first Vermonter to hold the country's highest office. Arthur won the vice presidency in 1880, and got a promotion when James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. He served until 1885.

Still, Vermonters are more likely to name Calvin Coolidge as the Green Mountain president. Even the tiny cabin museum at Arthur's former Fairfield homestead acknowledges that fact; visitors are greeted by a nearly life-size photo of the distinguished, mutton-chopped man with the accompanying label, "Vermont's other president."

Just finding the cabin is tricky. It's situated on an apparently nameless dirt road between Fairfield and Enosberg Falls, miles from the centers of both. Site administrator Shirley Paradee says it's best not to visit during mud season.

Paradee, guardian of all things Arthur for the past 13 years, is miffed that he's been neglected. "I'm a little jealous of Calvin Coolidge," she says. "He gets a lot of things at the museum in Plymouth, and we don't get much up here. We don't even have a public restroom."

The dearth of interest might stem from the fact that the details of Arthur's life in Vermont are fuzzy, even contradictory. The site was once billed as Arthur's actual birthplace; a massive granite marker erected in 1903 boldly states that he was born on this very spot.

But that's not true. A newer, green-and-gold sign by the side of the road says only that he was born in Fairfield, and lived in a cabin at the site when he was a year old. He never lived in the building now frequented by visitors; it's a replica, built in 1953.

Actually, no one knows for sure where Arthur was born. An exhibit in the cabin reports that, during his lifetime, some suggested his mother gave birth in Quebec, which would have made him unfit for the presidency. Arthur might have solved the mystery had he allowed his papers to be studied after his death in 1886; instead, he had them destroyed.

Old Chet didn't leave much of a legacy. He created the Civil Service. But when asked to name another of his accomplishments, Paradee has to think a moment. "He was the first president that allowed the military bands to play in public," she says. "He thought everyone should enjoy them. Or so I've heard."

The Spider Web Farm

A creepy, ramshackle house slumps at the base of Spider Web Farm Road in Williamstown, but don't let it scare you away --the "original web site" is actually farther up the road, and far less frightening. Unless you're afraid of spiders.

Terry Knight, who runs the family farm with her copiously tattooed 79-year-old husband, Will, remembers a motorcycle club that rode up for a visit from Massachusetts a few years back. One of the women was a little freaked out. "She would not get off the motorcycle," recalls Knight, who works for the state tax department when she's not tending to her sticky, icky crop.

The Knights moved to Vermont from Brooklyn 35 years ago; they started collecting spider webs and turning them into art in 1977, shortly after their arrival. Their set-up is simple: Each spring, they pluck a few egg sacs from their front porch and put the baby "spiderlings" into empty plastic cottage-cheese containers in one of their two spider sheds.

Inside the sheds, they hang several rows of empty wooden frames, each of which contains 21 rectangular openings. They place the baby barn spiders on a shelf above the frames. As the spiders mature, they climb down into holes to spin webs. Once the spiders are established, the Knights mist the sheds with white spray paint. They identify the best webs, which they collect using blocks of wood slathered with adhesive. Then they spread lacquer on the webs to create one-of-a-kind works of art that sell in their barn-turned-gift shop. They go for between $15 and $90, depending on size.

Every few years or so, the Knights' creations attract media attention --they've been featured on the "Today" show, and Boston Globe and in The New York Times. Despite their fame, though, they've kept their operation rough around the edges and real. That's what Terry Knight says she likes most about the webs --their imperfections. The rips and tears are what make them valuable. "They just show a day in the life of a spider," she says.

Porter Music Box Museum

The Porter Music Box Museum looks less like a museum than a funeral parlor. The granite slab of a sign out front could be a tombstone. The drawn blinds, plush burgundy carpet and heavy velvet ropes hanging from brass posts imbue the interior with a hushed solemnity. It helps that many of the objects scattered around the room are old, such as a musical Victorian-era shadowbox of the British Royal Family.

But when tour guide Eileen Paul pops open one of Dwight Porter's enormous, hand-cranked music boxes, the image shatters. The sound that bursts from these booming, treasure- chest-sized boxes is archaic but innovative, mechanical but undeniably full and rich. Even when it plays Celine Dion.

The Randolph retailer is the only manufacturer of large-disk-model music boxes in the whole country --the disks are 15 1/2 inches in diameter. Porter, a native Vermonter, was 8 when saw his first music box at the Shelburne Museum. He began making them in the 1970s, and opened his shop in 1974. Today, Porter sells his machines --still made in Vermont, but often contained in inlaid Italian cabinets --for tens of thousands of dollars. A single copper-plated steel disk with a 59-second arrangement of a popular song can cost $60.

The tour guide says the museum is a popular stop for senior bus tours. The old ladies love it when Paul opens the triple-disk box that plays "In the Garden." "As soon as they hear it, they start singing," she says. "The first time I heard it, it made me cry."

Seniors aren't the only people moved by Paul's collection. "Have you ever heard of Björk?" she asks. Apparently, the Icelandic pop star purchased one of Porter's double-disk Lucite models, and uses it onstage. "Hers is just like this one here," says Paul, pointing to a floor model that plays "Moon River." "I have no idea what Bjork plays in hers, but I don't think it's 'Moon River.'"

Birds of Vermont Museum

None of the 446 birds in this small building will squawk at you or bite your finger --they're all made of wood. But lifeless birds aren't the only attraction on this dirt road half an hour from Burlington; the power of vision, persistence and one man's single-minded mania are also on display.

White-bearded bird-lover Bob Spear carved all but a handful of the models in this unique collection, starting with a too-cute pair of parakeets he made when he was 18. Now 85, Spear spends most days working at the museum he founded in 1987, after retiring from General Electric. If you catch him while he's not carving, he might even give you a tour.

The first question you might ask is, Why carve wooden birds? It is, after all, an unusual pastime. Spear, who also founded the Vermont chapter of the National Audubon Society, says he wants to inspire people to learn about and love birds. And he points out that for educational purposes, wooden animals beat stuffed specimens. "You can make them much more realistic," he says, noting that the colors are less likely to fade, and the handcrafted critters are easier to pose. He points to a bright orange Baltimore oriole that's sticking out its tongue. "You couldn't do that with taxidermy."

Spear doesn't just whittle the wood --he uses a variety of electric saws to cut and shape it, then paints it, and uses a small tool to burn each individual feather or line. It takes hours to complete even a small specimen --Spear estimates that he spent 500 on the 80-pound California condor in the endangered and extinct room.

Spear's birds may be a bit dusty, but they're surprisingly compelling. They range from the exotic, green-tufted resplendent quetzel to an ordinary olive-sided flycatcher. And his displays aren't all bland and wholesome, either. A gyrfalcon frozen in attack posture before a defenseless duck, a hawk standing defiantly atop a wee chickadee, and a falcon poised above an unsuspecting chipmunk imply a subtle but shocking violence.

Spear has written descriptions to accompany each display. They're easy to overlook but worth reading, even after you've seen a few hundred of them. On one, near the predators, he's included a lesson about the cruel calculus of survival. "We should not judge nature," he writes. "It is the way things are ... this is the facts of life."

Rokeby Museum

The brochures that advertise the Rokeby Museum in Ferrisburgh invite you to tour a stop on the Underground Railroad, but if you go there expecting to find a network of tunnels and secret rooms, you're going to be disappointed. Ask to see the closets instead --the Robinsons, who owned the homestead, have some interesting skeletons.

Thomas and Jemima Robinson, a Quaker couple from Newport, Rhode Island, bought the house and the land from the Dakin family in the 1790s. Their son, Rowland Thomas, and his wife Rachel were the abolitionists who refused to use any products made from slave labor. They reportedly housed ex-slaves on the run.

But tour guide Jenel Wildermuth suggests that legend is overblown. She points out a cramped room on the second floor, where at least one man known as "Jesse" stayed after fleeing a Southern plantation. "Supposedly, when the slave catchers came, they pushed furniture in front of the door to this room," she explains, adding that with three windows visible from outside, the room wasn't easy to hide. "Maybe they weren't really trying to catch him. Vermont is pretty far away from the plantation."

Perhaps the more interesting story is that the third generation of Robinsons at Rokeby turned out to be bigots. They weren't thrilled about the guest in their home. And the museum displays an anti-Irish drawing by Rowland Evans Robinson, a celebrated author in his day. "And you should hear what he said about the French," museum director Jane Williamson quips.

There are more tragic stories: about fourth-generation Rachel Robinson, who studied art in New York and died of influenza during the 1919 epidemic; and of her brother, "Scowlie Rowlie," who drove the farm into ruin. But it would be a shame to spill all the good dirt here. Just be sure to ask about the seances. And the menage a trois.