On the Side: A dip into old Vermont, where the new is stirred in with care

WEST GLOVER, Vt. - By early August it had been raining here at biblical length; if not precisely 40 days, certainly close to it, though it felt like longer.

The spillway that drains Lake Parker into Roaring Brook typically has a two-foot drop. Not as August dawned: The lake water, turbid with run-off, was flatlining over the dam as if it weren't there.

At the West Glover Country Store the bags of baby greens and tomatoes didn't make it in one morning; the farmer near Craftsbury postponed, saying he was worried about washouts on the dirt road over.

This is Vermont's rustic, far-northeastern corner. As an old National Geographic piece once put it: New England is what America used to be like. Vermont is what New England used to be like. And the Northeast Kingdom, as they call it, is what Vermont used to be like.

Indeed. There was a crash-bang Demolition Derby at the Orleans County Fair during a break in the weather. But there was also a produce exhibit of Red Norland potatoes, and wax beans lined up like the keys on a piano and, harking back, an oxen pull, great weighty stones piled by the ton on a crude sled, the yoked teams straining to slide them a few feet.

There was a maple booth, too, maple products being a signature of the region, if not the salvation of its rather fragile economy. (This is dairy and lake country, beyond the monied flanks of the ski resorts.)

Deep Mountain Maple, one of the small-scale, local operations, does 700-some gallons a season, the lion's share earmarked for New York's greenmarkets and restaurant kitchens. But it's a piker compared to the haul from the fellow who recently bought up a fair piece of sugar bush on Still Hill above the lake: He has it strung with so much sap tubing running tree to tree to tree that hikers get the feeling they're passing some sort of transmission station; industrial-strength sap gathering in sync with Vermont tradition in one sense, but as jarring to the eye as, well, some Gloverites think windmills proposed along the ridgeline might be.

It is as if Glover (of which West Glover is a subsection) were on a toggle switch: The Young farm on Stevens Road across from the store is adding barn capacity once again, bulking up the indoor herd to better serve Ben & Jerry's. But a mile or two away, where New Dublin Road cuts up off East Albany Road, Lilygate Farm is quietly going retro, stringing fencing to pasture lamb, raising grass-fed beef on the rolling hills. There's no sign. But you can walk into the barn past the litter of fresh kittens, hook right, and pick up beautifully textured grass-fed ground beef, London broil and porterhouse steaks in a freezer in the old milk room.

If it kept raining like this, the farmer fretted, there wouldn't be time to get the hay in for winter; feeding the steers would become, if not impossible, prohibitively expensive.

The unyielding weather was a major topic at Parker Pie Co., the pizza pub appended to the back end of the country store. Each Tuesday craft beers are $2, and other nights are reserved for local country singers, but it's the astonishingly good pizza - crisp-crusted and topped with crushed tomatoes or homemade pesto - that reels 'em in, so many from such a radius now that it can take a Vermont hour to get a pie.

It is after all, the restaurant in West Glover, and in keeping with its popularity, plans are under way to spruce things up and extend the back porch by 60 feet so customers don't have to sit out on the woodpile to eat their slices.

The remodeling, of course, is a sensitive subject. No one wants the old wood floor torn up, or any sign of flatlander modernity. The Old School Builders, tasked with the job, are pledging that they won't mess with the mood.

What would be the point, really, in a piece of New England that is like what America used to be, in a kingdom that is like what Vermont used to be, of introducing the faintest whiff of Pizza Hut?

It was still showering fitfully last week. But the lake was clearing: It seemed the worst was over.

The day we left, a woman from nearby Waltzing Bear Farm was arranging a pail of her sunflowers on top of the old oak barrel at the entryway of Parker Pie.

The toggle seemed to be flipping, for the moment at least, in exactly the right direction.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols