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Westford Ho!

One Chittenden County community marches quietly into the past

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As the old joke goes, the best thing about Burlington is that it's so close to Vermont. That line can now be applied to more and more parts of Chittenden County. One notable exception to this homogenization is Westford, where the early 19th century still resonates, from the authentic wooden pegs holding up an 1836 covered bridge to the stained-glass windows at an 1822 church. Lately, the sleepy little town's 2000 or so residents have a new reason to celebrate their collective legacy. Outside observers are applauding their efforts to make the past a present-day concern.

In mid-July the Chittenden County Historical Society awarded a 2003 Preservation Award to Westford for several community-based restoration projects launched over the last 15 years. Diverse participants -- preschoolers, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, senior citizens, even a theater company from neighboring Fairfax -- have joined forces to revive aging landmarks.

"It's for posterity," suggests architect John Doane, who heads Westford's Brick Meeting House Society. His all-volunteer group has already raised half of a $150,000 construction budget to renovate the 181-year-old building, where Baptists worshipped until the 1930s.

Since then, that denomination has been under the same roof as the Methodists and Congregationalists at the nearby United Church of Westford, which dates back to 1840. The Preservation Award recognized that structure as a work-in-progress, too -- along with the Browns River Covered Bridge, the 1844 public library and a revitalized village green.

The tiny common is the heart of a bucolic 36-square-mile burg that was incorporated in 1763. Bordered by Essex, Jericho, Underhill and Fairfax, it's a rural enclave with suburban bedroom-community tendencies. The populous has more than doubled since the 1960s. "We're now equal to the highest point during the Civil War," says lister Caroline Brown, president of the town's historical society and a key player in the meetinghouse undertaking. "There was no growth at all from the 1880s to the 1950s."

A burgeoning population can overwhelm a small town's resources and endanger the connections to its own history. The preservation awards, which bring prestige rather than money, honor projects that inspire collaboration in several heritage-related categories. Westford is among seven recipients, which range from a Burlington social service agency for the homeless to elementary school classes in Jericho to four individuals who rescued the old Wesson Diner on Shelburne Road from demolition.

The contemporary citizens of Westford have been busy. "Fourteen years ago we decided to fix the bridge," recalls Brown. "You could look down into the water from the holes in the floor. It was unsafe."

Initially, organizers thought that the arch -- reduced to foot traffic since a sturdier span was built under the adjacent dirt roadbed in the mid-1960s -- would require no more than $60,000 worth of improvements. "It turned out to be $200,000," Brown says.

A federal transportation grant provided most of the funding. The quaint 90-foot-long bridge, completed two years ago as a pedestrian and bicycle crossing, would be a major attraction if remote Westford had much tourism. On a steamy July afternoon, only the occasional car drives past it en route to somewhere else. But townspeople seem content to let Westford remain a well-kept secret. These are folks who prefer to do for themselves.

A $25,000 sprucing-up of the town green came in the 1990s, courtesy of the late Henrik Kruse. Over a nine-month period, his donation and matching funds from fellow Westford residents paid for better drainage, playground equipment, a gazebo and new trees, shrubs and flowers. In winter, an outdoor hockey rink now keeps devotees on ice.

The Brick Meeting House has proved to be a more ambitious endeavor. Although mostly vacant for decades, the facility had an unofficial guardian angel -- Dan Jackson, a member of the original Baptist congregation. According to Doane and Brown, he kept the place from falling into total disrepair and has gotten involved in its current rehabilitation.

"We have a 20-year lease," Doane says as he glances around the 45-square-foot sanctuary with cracked plaster walls and a pressed tin ceiling in need of patching. "The plan is to get it going as a community center."

Thanks largely to private contributions and fundraising activities, a complex schedule of reconstruction was launched in 1996. The plumbing, heating and electrical systems have been upgraded, and the structure itself was reinforced. The front entrance and bathroom are now handicapped-accessible. A kitchen and an upstairs office have been added. Whenever possible, locals are hired to make the alterations.

Other items on the to-do list: a means of support that's less intrusive than the bolted-in two-by-fours that now keep it from sagging; stabilization of the steeple so the heavy bell doesn't topple.

In 1912, the exterior of the red building was changed from Greek Revival -- a somewhat ornate look, with a tall belfry on top and white columns out front -- to a chunkier, more subdued Queen Anne style. Doane wonders if the original architecture was "perhaps deemed to be too grand" for the modest Baptists.

One quirky feature of the building will remain untouched. Where the pulpit once stood, a four-foot-deep baptismal tank made of galvanized metal is embedded like a trap door on the low stage. It seems just big enough to have accommodated a pastor and the person being baptized. Asked why the tub stays put, Doane explains: "We want to be very respectful of church history."

The raised section is ideal for presenting entertainment at a site that otherwise has only been used for periodic events such as "holiday ham suppers," Brown says. The Fairfax Community Theater Company has mounted one production a year in the Westford venue. Doane likes to think the troupe may some day find a way to include the baptismal tank in one of its shows. Once the meetinghouse renovation is finished, the town's recreation committee has expressed interest in holding yoga classes there.

The members of the Brick Meeting House Society, with a core of about 10 people, are understandably proud of their accomplishments so far. "Our little group is really pleased," Doane says.

About a dozen decorative folding "opera seats," made of wood and cast iron, are arranged along a wall in the front of the room. They came from the United Church, which replaced them in the late 1980s with what Doane calls "new used pews from a 20th-century Jewish synagogue." Apparently, the Baptists, Methodists and Congregationalists became even more ecumenical. The arrival of those pews was accompanied by the installation of a better floor. Ten years later, the church was painted; it now awaits a new roof.

Over at the library, an accessible bathroom and spiffier children's reading room are among the updates that began in 1992; the ceiling, the electricity, the siding and the paint job are next on the agenda.

But the Meeting House Society faces an even greater challenge. A recent $10,000 state grant will allow reconditioning of the two tall, stained-glass windows -- panes with blue, green and yellow tints -- that commemorate various church officials of the early 1800s. Deacon Isaac Chase and Reverend Isaiah Huntley may have been gone for more than 150 years, but the sacred space where they saved souls will itself be saved for future generations.

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