- Matthew Thorsen
And then they came for the Leaf People.
Last Friday, state agents hauled off about 20 of the colorful figures known as Leaf People that have lined U.S. Route 7 in Shelburne for most of the past 20 autumns. The Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans) acted just two days prior to Shelburne’s annual children’s Halloween parade, in which the Leaf People play a prominent role.
Of the 60 or so scarecrow-style effigies, VTrans officials said they seized those that had been placed within a roughly 50-foot right-of-way extending from both sides of the road’s center line. It’s a violation of state law for a right-of-way to be altered in any manner, unless a permit has first been obtained.
The agency notified Shelburne authorities on two occasions last week that it would be making a “sweep” of their area on Friday, says VTrans spokesman John Zicconi. The agency’s Chittenden County maintenance district regularly removes campaign signs from rights-of-way at this time of year, he notes. “Unfortunately, there appears to have been some miscommunication. The town didn’t notify the person in charge of the mannequins that we’d be coming on Friday.”
The Leaf People were being held in a VTrans maintenance garage at Fort Ethan Allen following their arrest. “We take good care of them,” Zicconi says. “We haven’t harmed them in any way.”
Confiscation of the Leaf People has irked many town residents, says Susan Grace Pinney, the organizer of the display. “It’s outrageous, just ludicrous,” she declares. “With all the political signs you see along roads, I didn’t think we were doing anything wrong. So many people enjoy these critters.”
The Shelburne Business and Professional Association initiated the local Leaf People tradition. Tod Whitaker, the group’s director, says the idea was inspired by a similar but smaller autumnal display in Brandon. The Leaf People are linked at least indirectly to Vermont’s agricultural history, adds Rosalyn Graham, director of community relations at Shelburne Farms and a longtime volunteer in the annual pageantry.
Pinney says she had a “run-in” with VTrans last year over officials’ claims that some of the Leaf People represented dangerous distractions to drivers. At a distance, especially after dark, some of the figures appear quite lifelike, Pinney acknowledges. She notes that bus drivers occasionally stopped along Shelburne Road as they waited for one or more of the Leaf People to board. Some motorists also stopped at pedestrian intersections, waving to Leaf People to cross the road.
The figures were moved away from bus stops and crosswalks in response to VTrans’ expressed concerns, Pinney says. Other Leaf People were untied from the poles of speed-limit signs following claims by VTrans that those placements violate state law, she adds.
“Very, very few” Shelburne residents complain about the Leaf People, says Town Manager Paul Bohne. “For every complaint, we hear dozens of positive comments about the Leaf People. They’re very popular in town.” Leaf People are seldom vandalized or stolen, Pinney adds.
The funny, festive array has also become a major tourist attraction. “People from away will stop to have their pictures taken alongside a family of Leaf People,” Pinney says. “Every year we hear from tourists about how much they enjoy it and how they want to start something like this in their own towns.”
For a three-year period, however, there were no Leaf People in Shelburne. The business association stopped organizing the celebration due to flagging energy on the part of volunteers, along with the Shelburne Road construction project that made the display impossible along the northern stretch of the road in town. The Leaf People languished in the Shelburne Farms barn, where they were stored after every Halloween.
“People eventually started asking, ‘Hey, what happened to the Leaf People?’” Pinney recalls. “They were really missed.”
And so she took it upon herself last year to revive the tradition. Pinney, who works at Giraf’s Flowers in Shelburne, says she has no relevant artistic training, but so values the “community spirit that the Leaf People bring about” that she began building 30 more figures with help from friends.
The collective name given to the effigies refers to the foliage season, not to their means of construction. Each consists of three wooden frames — a base, a legs-and-torso portion and a set of shoulders — that are draped in clothing donated by locals. Floppy hats often festoon heads that are made of plastic bags or other stuffing wrapped in burlap. Some of the Leaf People are resplendent in chintz fabrics, Carhartt overalls and ankle-length coats.
“In our time, we need to put a smile on people’s faces, and the Leaf People do that,” Pinney says. “Everything else is just so grim these days.”