A collection of fine old buildings, pastures, ponds, trees, and gardens exhibits the essence of a rural community that has remained intact for over 170 years. Kents Corners in Calais—about 10 miles northeast of Vermont’s capital city, Montpelier—has survived virtually unchanged because it was never enhanced by outside influences such as industry or commerce, it never saw an influx of great wealth, nor did it ever fall into serious economic decline. The independence of the community was maintained through local means, and it did not need to introduce much more than it was capable of producing itself to sustain its quality of life. The integrity of the original setting remains unaffected today due to resolute residents, friends, and historians.
The 19th-century buildings in Kents Corners include a tavern, barns, outbuildings, a sawmill, a few houses, and, not far away, a meetinghouse. Now visibly distanced from signs of modern life, this pretty spot in the world is remarkable because it is untouched by the fashions that come with new generations.
The straightforward classic vernacular Greek revival architecture of the brick tavern contains no flourishes or embellishments; it is simple, solid, symmetrical, and direct. Most of the building materials for the tavern and the neighboring structures were made or produced within Kents Corners or close by: brick was made on site, wood was harvested from the woodlands and milled at the sawmill, granite came from a nearby quarry, and ironwork was forged in the local blacksmith shop.
Kents Corners was at one time a major stagecoach stop on the road from Montpelier to Montreal, but it was eventually bypassed with the introduction of the railroad, the invention of the automobile, and, finally, by the expansion of the interstate highway system. Having escaped the irreversible changes that affected many towns in the state, this particular hamlet displays a rare gift of natural and architectural beauty. The peaceful simplicity that it personifies reflects a pictorial impression that makes it—and Vermont—unique in the United States.
Many peaceful, picturesque villages can be easily found in many of Vermont’s 14 counties, each having an appeal all its own. To visit Kents Corners is to appreciate how an unspoiled place can remain virtually unchanged and yet continue to subsist, how desirable it is to maintain the simple beauty and structure of a place, and to consider how preservation can illuminate the past, inform the present, and enhance the future.
Abdiel Kent built his brick Greek revival home in 1837 at the crossroads of Calais known as Kents Corners. The house was used as an inn and stagecoach stop until 1846. The barn across the road from the tavern is the last of several outbuildings to survive on the property. Now owned by the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation, Kent Tavern will be restored and eventually be open seasonally to visitors as a state historic site that will include exhibitions of Vermont decorative arts.
The sawmill built by Joel Robinson in 1803—known locally as a “thunderstorm mill”—operated in times of heavy rain or runoff for 155 years. The sawmill is a rare and intact example of a northern New England mill powered solely by the force created by moving water. Most of the houses and barns that are visible from the mill, including Kent Tavern, were built from lumber milled there. Today, the mill continues to run and is used primarily for demonstrations.
Old West Church
Not quite a mile from Kents Corners is the well-preserved Old West Church. Built in 1823, it continues to serve the community for both religious and secular functions. Distinctly American in design, the building is one of a few excellent examples in Vermont of an 18th-century-style New England meetinghouse. Clean and orderly inside and sided in traditional white clapboards outside, the building—which always remains unlocked—invites interested visitors to simply reflect within its quiet magnificence.
CHARLES SHACKLETON AND MIRANDA THOMAS
Charles Shackleton and Miranda Thomas are individuals who possess their own distinguishing design sensibilities and creative processes, and they share these qualities in their life and work together. Shackleton makes wooden furniture, Thomas makes clay pots, and it is through their individual and combined work that one can discern their personal histories and passions for utilitarian objects made by hand.
Charles Shackleton was born and raised near Dublin, Ireland, where he was surrounded by classic Georgian furniture and architecture. He and his family would often spend summer vacations far from the city in County Kerry, where he and his siblings visited local farms to fetch milk and eggs. It was in the Irish countryside, where people lived in charming cottages and made their living off the land, and in Dublin, where he was steeped in the sophistication of fine old Georgian design, that Shackleton’s interest in making things began. He knew that he wanted to learn a skill and make things with his own hands. Later, as an adult, he left Ireland for Vermont—a place he knew very little about. Upon arriving, Shackleton was quickly reminded of his beloved County Kerry: “If Vermont were not so beautiful, I would not have stayed. People farmed the land and made things.”
Miranda Thomas grew up in New York, Milan, and Sydney and later moved to England to study pottery. Thomas loved the idea of making pots and making a career of it. She worked at the prestigious Wenford Bridge Pottery, and it was while living in the English countryside that she was introduced to lambing, fishing, and rabbit hunting. In England, she fell in love with country life, and the sensibilities that were formed by her experiences there were to remain with her in making a life in America. She had heard about Vermont from friends, and when she visited she fell in love with it right away: “It felt like Cornwall—clean, lots of land, and not hugely populated.” Thomas dreamed of starting a country pottery in Vermont.
Shackleton and Thomas first met as art students at the West Surrey College of Art and Design in England. Different paths took them to different places until, years later, they each moved to Vermont. Shackleton wanted to become a glassblower and took a job with glassblower Simon Pearce, who had recently left Ireland to establish a glassblowing mill in Quechee, Vermont. Pearce was looking for a potter to create a pottery at his mill and offered the job to Thomas. She took the job and used Miranda Thomas for the pottery name. Pearce, a European craftsman who established his own workshop to make things by hand in Vermont, became an important influence and guide to both Shackleton and Thomas. In 1986, Shackleton and Thomas were married.
After working as a glassblower during the day, Shackleton would return home and make furniture in the basement of his house. “One day,” he describes, “I took a deck off our house and reused the wood to make myself a tool cupboard. Someone saw it and asked to buy it. I sold it. I designed and built a simple bed and sold it. Then one day I cut down a tree, chopped out a section, and made a stool. This was an important step for me, to start making furniture from the source—the tree.” He established Charles Shackleton Furniture, expanded his workshop to the historic mill in Bridgewater, and sold his furniture for 15 years through Simon Pearce.
Thomas hired and trained a team of potters and had steadily increased pottery production at the Pearce mill when she decided to slow down, raise a family, and start a small pottery on her own. She first made pots in the basement of her house and then built a pottery shed and kiln in her garden. Here she could be at home, raise their two children, and make and sell pots. Thomas later expanded the pottery to a site adjacent to the Bridgewater Mill, where she now employs a team of potters.
In 2000, Shackleton and Thomas decided to sell their work together and formed ShackletonThomas. They opened a store at the Bridgewater Mill and established a catalogue of their work.
Charles Shackleton’s furniture designs are his interpretations of Irish Georgian and Irish country furniture. Ireland’s Georgian period (during the reigns of Georges I, II, III, and IV) was an age of enlightenment, and the disciplines of design—architecture, furniture, glass, silver—flourished to become standards of good taste and refinement. In contrast to the high design that was expressive of artistic and social energies in urban environments at the time, the vernacular furniture design of the people living in Ireland’s countryside evolved according to specific need, availability of materials, and the resourcefulness of the makers. It is the lasting quality and timeless appeal of the classic style of Ireland’s design renaissance and the rustic, simpler sensibilities of Ireland’s rural heritage that find their way into the furniture designed by Charles Shackleton.
Process and skill in making furniture are important to Shackleton. Early on, he wanted to learn how to make fine furniture like the excellent Georgian furniture he had grown up with. Vermont furniture maker Josh Metcalf, his friend and mentor, was an excellent teacher and inspired him to make handmade wooden furniture of the best possible quality and with exacting skill.
Shackleton’s furniture is often a result of a particular customer request, and the majority of Shackleton’s work is custom residential furniture. The process is perhaps indicative of another era: Shackleton personally visits the client’s home, makes a rough floor plan of the room, discusses the client’s needs, and finishes the meeting with a handshake—a process and response that modern technology such as the Internet and e-mail cannot offer. At his drafting table, he draws the client’s room to scale and designs furniture to fit the space according to the client’s desires. The designs are given to Shackleton’s furniture makers to follow, but this workshop is not an assembly line, in which each part is passed from one worker to another. Here, each piece is made by one craftsperson who is responsible for the entire process, from cutting the initial boards to applying the final finish.
Shackleton’s design process is personal and intuitive. Classic simplicity and symmetry are indicative of his interests, and his designs possess a look and scale that fit well with contemporary American sensibilities. Shackleton continues to design all his company’s furniture, and he employs about 10 woodworkers to make the furniture and a line of accessories. The process of design and building furniture by hand by an individual has remained consistent, and Shackleton has created a place and opportunity for like-minded individuals to learn woodworking skills and how to produce fine handmade furniture.
A pottery is a place where clay pots are made. There are few potteries in Vermont like the Miranda Thomas Pottery. As an individual, Thomas is a potter who bridges the gap between studio pottery (making one-of-a-kind pieces) and production pottery (making replications in a range of standard forms). Miranda Thomas’s intention is to offer clay pots that are made by an individual to a broad market that appreciates utilitarian objects made by hand.
For those who acquire and use her pots, Thomas’s artistic, scholarly, and historical interests can be seen and felt in the manifestations of her art. A passionate artisan whose knowledge of pots and pot making formed and continues to infuse her artistic sensibilities, Thomas also produces work outside her well-known production pottery. This ongoing work evolves from her broad interests, and the objects that result from her inquiries are often larger in scale and more complex in form, surface, and color. Usually destined for exhibit in an art gallery or as a commemoration for impressive persons such as former president Bill Clinton or U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan, this personal work is ultimately reflected in her utilitarian objects, which are designed for production at Miranda Thomas Pottery. Those objects, in forms such as vases, teapots, plates, and bowls, are imbued with similar and equally expressive qualities that are indicative of her oeuvre.
It is the form—the shape of an object—that the potter often deals with in making pottery. Thomas’s shapes stem from traditional forms of English and Chinese country pottery. Design is important to her, and she is clearly not a minimalist. “Decoration,” she believes, “enriches our lives.” Thomas’s pots are carefully composed of pattern, motif, and decoration, and they communicate ideas beyond their intended utility. There is symbolism in the animal motifs carved onto the surfaces before the pots are fired: a rabbit (providence), a bird (hope), a stag (strength), a fish (abundance), or plants, such as a peony (fertility) or a tree (growth).
Thomas has created a traditional pottery where she designs and produces her own work and, with a team of potters, produces an extensive line of utilitarian pots available to consumers. Thomas and her team strive for consistency in their products, and it is the slight variations, subtle differences, and gentle nuances that can only come from making pots by hand that ultimately imbue the pots with an integral vitality. Thomas’s early mentor, Michael Cardew of Wenford Bridge Pottery, said, “Pots are never absolutely identical, any more than the leaves on a tree are identical.”
Thomas creates a rich, dynamic sensibility through her process of making pots. Her pots tell stories that are personal and symbolic, and they convey histories that are artistic and erudite.
SUSAN JANE WALP
In the early 1980s, Susan Jane Walp and her husband left their urban life in New York City for a peaceful rural life in Vermont. Walp was unaccustomed to the quiet solitude of the long Vermont winters, but the changing seasons soon revealed the fuller pleasures of living closer to nature: swimming in a nearby brook, hunting for mushrooms in the woods, hiking in the mountains, and watching the stars and moon at night.
Walp structures her painting process to correspond to the cycles of living in the country and defines a daily schedule by setting aside morning hours for painting—when the light is right and her energy is fresh—and afternoons for other pursuits, such as tending her flower and vegetable gardens. The rhythm of the days, months, and seasons have eloquently translated to her paintings: “Within the demands of painting, if one can be quiet and listen, the painting takes on a life of its own.”
Walp explores the representation of seemingly unrelated objects with inventiveness and penetrating aptitude. The depiction of ordinary objects in her work is perhaps a search for the essence or core of something taken for granted—things we might see every day but not necessarily regard. Here, beauty lies in the ordinary.
In planning a painting, Walp may have an idea of a certain color, or she may think about things that belong together in the natural realm of an association of objects, such as a vignette of objects that occurs naturally in a house. She tries not to think about a specific theme or narrative but rather about the abstract shapes, colors, and tones that an assemblage of objects can provide. It is the relationships she creates between the objects that are critical to her work. “When setting up a still life, it is the arrangement that corresponds to a particular feeling that I cannot describe but know when I find it.”
Walp causes us to engage with the objects in her compositions, to consider them in a way that transforms our singular understanding of what is actually depicted and increases our meditation on how the particular can become whole.
Pamela Root seeks the abundance of what many good things in life can offer. “With all of the choices we have in the world, why not choose to create something beautiful? Why not make good food?” As a cook and provider, Root wishes her family, friends, and customers of her restaurant a good, nourishing, and beautiful meal.
Pamela Root came from a family of good cooks and grew up to appreciate good food, so it was natural that she would be inspired to cook well herself. As a mother working a full-time job, she wanted to serve a simple, nutritious meal each day for her own growing family. She could not find good soups that she liked in any of the nearby markets, so she started to make her own. Every Sunday, she made a huge pot of soup for her family, with the hope that it might last the week. Her son would often come into the kitchen with a group of friends, and they would end up eating all her irresistible soup. She continued to make soup for her family and began to give it away to friends.
Making soup was the impetus for Root’s opening her own restaurant. In 2006, she found an old building in Montpelier and beautifully renovated the space to become That’s Life Soup, where she seeks to nourish people by offering them healthy food. Most of the ingredients she uses are organically grown, and she buys local produce as often as she can. Because she serves many ethnic and Asian soups that require ingredients that are not grown in Vermont or in the United States, she keeps a realistic and open attitude toward cooking in a region where the products are fairly defined and the growing season is relatively short.
Good soup begins with great stock. Stock—or broth—is a vital culinary element common to many cultures. Made from slowly boiled-down vegetables and the bones of chicken, beef, or fish, stock is the fundamental ingredient for most soups. While it imparts delicious flavor, stock also provides essential nutrients. Pamela Root makes great stock, and she is happiest when making soup—beautiful soup—from natural ingredients.
Arriving at the restaurant at 4:30 in the morning to begin cooking, Root has several soups to serve by noon. She makes two or three new soups each day, offers at least one vegetarian soup, and many of her soups are gluten-free or lactose-free. She now has hundreds of soups as part of her extensive repertoire.
Root’s generosity extends beyond the portions she serves to her customers: she gives soup away to local charities, provides a free bowl of soup to any woman who is pregnant, gives a free bowl of soup to the customer who is served a bowl of soup on the only green plate in the restaurant, and offers sample tastes to customers who have a hard time deciding before ordering.
That’s Life Soup is a familiar gathering spot to many, and Root’s patrons are a dependable group of “soupies” (a term she uses to describe loyal locals), artists, and—as Montpelier is the state’s capital—lawyers, judges, and legislators. Open for lunch and dinner Monday through Friday, many customers also buy soup to go or to take back home with them for a later meal.
Economically, Pamela Root’s soup is a great value. Delicious and nutritious, it would be difficult to find a better meal with better ingredients so beautifully presented at a better price.
—Glenn Suokko, 2007