By KATHRYN FLAGG
STARKSBORO — The parking lot was crowded, and Robinson Elementary School’s cafeteria even more so on Thursday night, when nearly 200 Starksboro residents gathered for the simple purpose of listening to one another’s stories.
“We wanted to ask people about their stories living in this place,” explained Middlebury College professor John Elder, whose class — students in a course titled “Portrait of a Vermont Town” — trundled into Starksboro this fall to collect residents’ stories.
On Thursday, with a captivated audience on hand, they gave those stories back.
Starksboro, a town of fewer than 2,000, was selected to participate in the “Art & Soul Civic Engagement” project earlier this fall. The pilot program is co-sponsored by the Orton Family Foundation and the Vermont Land Trust (VLT), and holds at its core the belief that the arts can fuel discussions about community values — discussions that in turn can be translated into planning strategies to protect the “heart and soul” of a town.
Of the six towns in the county that applied for the grant, which is valued at around $55,000, Starksboro was selected in part because its agricultural character, concentration of low-income housing, and proximity to Chittenden County commuter sprawl made the town especially interesting to Orton.
Thursday night’s community supper marked the end of the project’s first phase, a three-month storytelling stint during which students conducted more than 65 interviews.
These stories were turned into essays, compiled with old photographs and maps, and turned into multimedia presentations including audio/visual portraits of the town. The interviews that students recorded will all be archived at the Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury, and their digital projects will be linked to the town’s Web site (www.starksboro.org).
The community supper’s headliners, so to speak, were these Middlebury College students. Though the dozen or so students all emphasized that their presentations touched on just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Starksboro’s stories, they shared a far-ranging narrative with the town’s residents. One group painted a portrait of hardscrabble farming in the town. Another group collected stories “up south” in Jerusalem, while a third combed through Hillsboro and Little Ireland for recollections and old photographs.
Then the stories came to life after the lights came up, desserts were distributed, and the evening’s last reflections were shared.
Tim Heffernan, now a Bristol resident, rose from his seat near the front of the auditorium. He was interviewed by students about growing up in Hillsboro, a Starksboro community that was abandoned in the 1940s and converted to the town’s forest. During the students’ presentation, photographs of Hillsboro’s old homesteads and current ruins flashed on the back wall of the elementary school cafeteria along with a photograph of Heffernan himself as a child.
“I was the little guy with the big ears,” Heffernan said. He said the students had done a fine job, and he found the interview was a welcome opportunity to revisit his Starksboro childhood.
“There’s not enough money in the world that they could give me for growing up in that time — the late ’40s and early ’50s,” Heffernan said. “These people are talking about something that we lived.”
Nearby, Sue Shepard chatted with some of the students who had visited her and her husband, Larry, at the Shepard farm. The Shepards featured largely in one digital story featuring interviews and photographs from the farm. (As Larry Shepard speaks, the students write in one reflection, “he climbs over words as he would a stonewall, with a staid, practiced efficiency.”)
“Until you’ve watched the sun come up through the barn door that you know your grandfather watched the sun come up through — it’s powerful. It locks you in,” Larry’s voice rang out in the auditorium earlier, as he talked about the land his family has farmed for generations. “I’ve always tried to do things so that I would live up to that higher standard that somebody else lived up to.”
Sue Shepard clutched a card from the students, and a few copies of the collection of Starksboro stories that students compiled for the town’s residents.
“It was just a chance to really reflect on where we are, what we’re doing, how meaningful it is, and to share that with somebody who was really interested in knowing what was going on for our farm and our family,” said Shepard.
Even many Starksboro residents who weren’t featured in Thursday night’s storytelling lingered after the evening’s presentation.
Sarah Adams and her friend Catherine Williams, who both used to teach at Robinson Elementary, marveled at the stories.
“We are so lucky to have had (the students) do this,” said Adams. She’s lived in Starksboro since 1968, and is a member of the town’s historical society — but she laughed that the Middlebury College students had put them to shame.
“I was just bowled over by the depth with which they were looking at our little town,” Williams agreed. “What I really hope that this project does, is I hope that it breaks some of that isolation, that feeling that we don’t know our neighbors.”
If attendance on Thursday night was any indication, that’s already happening. One hundred sixty-five residents RSVPed for the dinner — and one member of the Starksboro Art and Soul planning committee estimated that between 170 and 200 people packed into the cafeteria for the evening’s event.
“I can’t recall, in 25 years of living here, that we’ve had this turnout before for any event in this room anyway,” said Robert Turner, another member of the planning committee that prepared the town’s initial grant application months ago.
“It must have touched a chord,” Turner said. “I think the students making it out into the community certainly got the buzz going, but I think there was more to it. I think the story itself had enough content, enough draw.”
The students themselves seemed reluctant to be on their way. Holding Starksboro T-shirts and certificates dubbing them honorary town members, the students raved about their experiences — and expressed sadness at leaving the town they’ve grown to known over the past several months.
It was work, explained senior Lindsay Patterson, was not about getting a grade, it was driven by a sense of fellowship with the community.
“It’s very emotional,” agreed classmate Max Kanter.
That care, according to Betsy Rosenbluth, the Northeast Director of Projects at Orton, showed in the work students turned over to Starksboro residents on Thursday night.
“So much of this work is about relationships,” Rosenbluth said. “Here are these students from the college that came in and took the time to listen and build those relationships. It wasn’t just coming in, grabbing stories, and taking those stories away. They came in, and they listened, and then they gave those stories back.”
But Starksboro’s foray into storytelling this fall is just the first step in the Art and Soul project. Now, the town is charged with selecting an artist to turn these stories into artwork. Three finalists — Liza Myers of Brandon, Circus Smirkus mastermind Rob Mermin from Greensboro, and North Bennington artist Matthew Perry — toured Starksboro on Thursday. A group of townspeople will choose one of the three for their commission next month.
Then, next fall, Starksboro residents will be charged with translating the conversation that arose during these storytelling and artistic endeavors into policies and choices that shape the community’s future and its land use.
“I really hope that we can figure out how to keep the people who were here tonight engaged in this project,” said Turner.
As the evening wound down — slowly, residents lingering in the cafeteria over conversations with neighbors — the Friends of the Jerusalem Schoolhouse bustled around in the elementary school’s kitchen.
Linda Orvis-Barnard — whose interview with Elder’s students was featured earlier in the evening — leaned over the stainless steel counter. Kathy Farr Bushey joined her at the counter. Both proud members of the Friends of the Jerusalem Schoolhouse, the two women grew up “up south” in Jerusalem (what signs along Route 116 now dub South Starksboro).
“Kathy and I grew up on the mountain — ” said Orvis-Barnard.
“We never went off it!” Farr Bushey laughed.
“— and my feeling is that it’s changed,” Orvis-Barnard continued. “We don’t know a lot of people anymore, because it’s grown pretty rapidly up there.”
The Jerusalem Schoolhouse, which Orvis-Barnard, Farr Bushey and the other Friends of the Schoolhouse are working to restore, was the center of town during their childhoods. It later fell out of use — but they’re working on changing that. More recently, the building has been host to classes and community potlucks, church congregations and hunters’ breakfasts.
“We’re sort of trying to revive that sense of community in that part of Starksboro,” said Farr Bushey, “partly because we know how important that was to us, and we think that new folks to the community could benefit from that.”
In Starksboro, at least, they’re not alone on that mission.
The digital stories, photographs and essays by Middlebury College students will be available soon on Starksboro’s town Web site, www.starksboro.org.