DOT’S DOWNTOWN BEAT: What Makes Montpelier ‘Montpeculiar?’

story and photos by Dot Helling

Sign in front of Visitors Center

Sign in front of Visitors Center

What makes Montpelier “Montpeculiar?” Start by looking at the “which way sign” in front of the visitor’s center. In the 1960s and 70s our community and its suburbs was a hub for “crunchy granola” types and activists, and to a great extent still is. Today however, I find Montpelier quirky rather than crunchy, and definitely peculiar as far as state capitals go.

In the 1960s Plainfield’s Goddard College was a center of the east coast counter culture. Its activist hippie students spilled into our town. Back then, central Vermont had its share of alternative communal and cooperative living situations, including true communes like Pie in the Sky in Marshfield, Quarry Hill in Rochester and New Hamburger in Plainfield. Over the years retail shops and eateries like Horn of the Moon Cafe, Buch Spieler Records, Hunger Mountain Coop and Riverwalk Records have catered to the hippie culture. Hunger Mountain Coop originated as the Plainfield Coop, changed its name and moved to Montpelier in 1978. Before Hunger Mountain, the Bean Bag Coop operated by Harris and Ellie Tobias was located in the spot now housing Wilaiwan’s Kitchen. When Bean Bag closed, a small bulk co-op named Alowan opened in what is now the Julio’s space. Alowan was owned and run by Mike Woodfield. Woodfield later changed its name to State Street Market, expanded and moved into what is now Positive Pie where he operated until he closed the store in 2004.

One Montpelier resident says the city is peculiar because of our diverse spectrum of individuals, from conservative to funky, average to downright weird, entitled to needy, and a developing breed of political intellectuals. Our resident community often hibernates but always comes out in times of crisis and for celebrations. We swell with the invasion of legislators, state workers and tourists, then shrink back to a small town atmosphere. We are a small, quaint town with cute shops and pocket parks. We remain the smallest state capital in the United States. We have no McDonald’s or Burger King. We are an island in the midst of historic bridges. We have at least six more traffic lights than in the 1960s but still only one in the downtown. One long-time resident notes that we are overly tolerant of pedestrians. We “don’t want to hit them” but it would be nice to get through town a little quicker and safer.

Cindra Connison, owner of the Quirky Pet

Cindra Connison, owner of the Quirky Pet

Montpelier still sports residents in tie-dye, long skirts, body hair, clogs and Birkenstocks. Some “hippie” establishments like Buch Spieler Records have been here for decades. Bear Pond Books has a place in “Montpeculiar” culture. Since opening its doors on the corner of Langdon Street in 1973, this store has catered to the reading habits of all Montpelier’s citizens, and hired its share of hippie-type staff. The Quirky Pet and its owner and her canines are unique and peculiar along with other downtown stores, such as The Getup Vintage and Global Gifts on Langdon Street. If you include whimsicality within the definition of quirkiness, there is the Capital Kitchen on State Street and its fun-filled window dressings, and of course, Woodbury Mountain Toys now in its 23rd year of business here. But it’s more than the businesses that create the present-day quirkiness of our state capital. The weekly farmers market brings in hard working Vermonters from their hill and farm homes to sell a myriad of homegrown and homemade organic products, everything from tomatoes, kale and corn by the “baker’s dozen” to herbs, alcohol, cheeses, soaps, massage oils, pottery and jewelry. Residents have donned t-shirts that say “Montpeculiar,” “Eat More Kale,” and now “Bernie 2016!”

Cycle sculpture at Montpelier High School

Cycle sculpture at Montpelier High School

Montpelier homes are quirky, many constructed and painted like picturesque hill houses in San Francisco, in outrageous multicolors with wild gardens, gazing balls and crazy sculptures. For a time we had a movement of art deco facades on downtown buildings. Thanks to historic preservationists those building covers were removed. I vividly remember the peculiar (I’m being nice) facade on the Vogue Shop at the corner of State and Main. It’s the beautiful brick building and storefront that now houses Cool Jewels. The Vogue Shop was covered in black and white metal and plastic.

Our city is dotted with bicycle sculptures thanks to “SculptCycle 2008″ which was a collaboration between the Montpelier Downtown Community Association (now Montpelier Alive) and the Central Vermont arts community. Some cycle sculptures have been privately purchased and live in resident yards or, in the case of Chris and Jennifer Bean, on their roof. We also have art “growing” in our rivers, some natural, some of human construction. Note the sprouting artwork hanging over the river from the outside wall of The Shoe Horn. And now we have the controversial VCFA sign.

Montpelier events can be peculiar. Take the “Dylan Wannabee” contest that ran successfully, standing room only, for five years until its organizer Pat Mullikin left the state. The annual river cleanup is unusual. The debris is turned into river art and sculpture. A family on Franklin Street holds an annual plant swap or, if you have no plant to swap, it’s a giveaway. Our dogs get to romp and swim in the municipal pool at the Dog Days of Summer event in August. Montpelier hosts the annual naked bike ride, All Species Day, and events like the Vintage Trailer Show and a showing of “ET” on the Statehouse lawn with free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. We have the Bicentennial Time Capsule located on the Hubbard Park Library lawn, World Famous Charlie O’s, “Historic” Langdon Street, and a plethora of talented and not so talented sidewalk music. For years we had a new year’s parade and fireworks that drew crowds from all over, including one of my brothers and a best friend from out of state who came every year to walk in the parade and dance the night away. Talented regulars like Bread and Puppet made it especially festive. Unfortunately we lost that event, but luckily, our July 3 festivities, with Bread and Puppet, fill in some of the void. We also lost the Christmas buying season kickoff, a fireworks display that crackled brilliantly on frigid winter nights lifting our spirits from the gloomy pall of early December and the start of another Vermont winter.

“Montpeculiarites” can be eccentric individuals but they know how to have fun and how to support the community, from citywide tag sales to kids events to organized fundraisers for great causes. From the peculiar to the ordinary, Montpelier appears to have it all. Coming to this column in the future: “The Five Senses of Montpelier” and “The Metamorphosis of Our Buildings, City Blocks and Businesses.” Stay tuned.

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