Home Arts ‘Coming Here to Come Here’: A Middlesex Revival is Gathering Steam

‘Coming Here to Come Here’: A Middlesex Revival is Gathering Steam

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Russ Bennett by the Community Creation Collaboration arch, Camp Meade, Middlesex, VT. Photo by John Lazenby.

In the days when Russell Bennett’s work took him to San Francisco, where he helped stage concerts and events in Golden Gate Park, he would sometimes arrive early just to absorb the park’s tranquility, and to observe how the city’s residents enjoyed their peaceful public reserve before the day’s hustle and bustle got fully underway. 

“It was quiet in the morning,” he recalls, “and sometimes there would be steam coming off the ponds. There were always early-morning tai chi classes, and it was such a beautiful thing, seeing people practicing these movements at a high level of self-discipline. It has a calming value to it.”

Those comforting images returned to Bennett’s mind last summer in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic. He and his partners, Alan Newman and Michael Pelchar, were contemplating how best to use — if they could use at all — the property they had bought three years earlier in Middlesex, Vermont. 

They had retained the name, Camp Meade, associated with the little compound of buildings and shaded lawns at least since the 1930s, when it housed a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps barracks. Since then, it served as a cabined motel and diner, and, with weapons pointed ominously toward Route 2, a sort of military museum.

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Bennett, Newman, and Pelchar had a vision starkly different from the latter when they purchased the property in 2017. The mission statement on their website read, “The Green at Camp Meade will become a gathering place for events and social congress of all kinds.”

And so it became in its first years. The site had already been attracting visitors because Red Hen Baking Company had relocated there from Duxbury in 2007, opening a wildly popular café that lured customers from Montpelier, Waterbury, and the Mad River Valley, plus travelers jumping off Interstate 89, at Exit 9, a few stone’s-throws away. (Bennett’s company, NorthLand Visual Design & Construction, in Waitsfield, had transformed and expanded the former diner 10 years before he became one of Red Hen’s landlords.) 

With the bakery, a crafts shop, and Nutty Steph’s — forerunner to Montpelier’s Rabble-Rouser Chocolate & Craft Co. — nestled together in the renovated building in Middlesex Village, the first required ingredient for “social congress” — people showing up — was starting to happen.

As was another form of congress: commerce. Not the Wal-Mart or the Williston Four Corners kind, but modest, locally owned businesses that shared a sense of community and interdependence, and might re-establish this settlement at the juncture of Routes 2 and 100B to what it had been a century ago, before the famous 1927 flood devastated it (for it’s also at the juncture of two major rivers, the Winooski and the Mad). If you scout the territory less visible from Route 2, Bennett says, you can find the remnants: an old roadway, a cemetery. Closer to Route 2, and more visible, are a few abandoned houses, and the forlorn, historic railroad station that Nicholas Hecht hopes to reopen as the new home of the Pyralisk Art Center.

That’s not to say that the community had perished. Some two dozen homes, the town clerk’s office, and a church are clustered close to these river and roadway intersections. But is there a “there” there? Says Bennett, “It always looked to me like people were just driving through here and not seeing the town that was and the town that could be.”

In recent years, he, his partners, and others have been addressing the “could be” part. Red Hen was first. The Mud Studio, a ceramics workshop with a gallery for selling potters’ wares, moved into a separate building in 2010. In 2019, organic farmers Jon Wagner and Karin Bellemare reconditioned the shuttered general store and opened the Roots Farm Market. And by the time this issue of The Bridge hits the street, the Filling Station — offering sushi, soups, burgers, and salads — should be in business in a former gas station across the road.

Very likely that will not be the end of the story. Bennett, Newman, and Pelchar also own the Why Art House, temporarily shuttered because of COVID, and a building that, in its day, contained another general store to serve the CCC workers. Bennett says a tenant in one of the apartments plans to open a business selling organic juices and antiques.

By the end of 2019, people were finding reasons to visit Middlesex. The Camp Meade owners had created a 60,000-square-foot playground and picnic area. In December 2018, they attempted to make the world’s largest s’more, tapping into the talents of the bakery, Nutty Steph’s, and others, a whacky event that attracted 1,000 visitors. In 2019, they did it again, and nabbed the Guinness world’s record.

Just three months later COVID hit, and Red Hen went dark. 

On the other end of the building, the crafts shop had already closed; Nutty Steph’s did the same, although by then it had largely relocated mainly to Montpelier. Bennett constructed a take-out window with an overhead roof for Red Hen, so it adapted, scaled back, and reopened with cautions in place, which tempered any notion of “social congress.”

Bennett and his partners, to whom that vision was foundational, were forced to contemplate: Now what?

It was then that he remembered Golden Gate Park, with its open, welcoming spaces, and tai chi in the morning.

Camp Meade at the Center

The graceful movements and the gentle, meditative exercise provided by tai chi were beneficial in themselves. But thinking back on the people he had watched, Bennett perceived deeper meaning: In tai chi, “people are physically distant but socially together.”

Communities and organizations all over the state began to realize, as spring turned to summer, that they could, in fact, open up and become active again — differently. Not only could they; they must. Collectively, our mental, physical, and economic health compelled it.

So at Camp Meade they began making plans. The formal and informal uses of their “village green” could resume, with a little more structure and a lot fewer people at a time. There could be tai chi. And yoga. There could be Zumba!

The state limited outdoor congregations to 150 people, but Camp Meade went smaller. An acre and a half, Bennett calculated, would allow ample space for 100 well-distanced people.

“You gotta wear a mask, obviously,’” he adds. “We started with the concept that we’re three old guys” — the three cluster, roughly, in their early 70s — “and we’re the target [of the virus]. We try not to be paranoid, but smart. We started making circles on the ground, spaced widely apart, so people could see them as a reference point. We own a bunch of heavy wooden picnic tables; they’re the natural things people cluster around, so we made sure they were at least 20 feet from each other. Kids could be using the slides,” he sighs, “one at a time.”

The word went out and all these groups — including tai chi — showed up. Bennett partnered with Red Hen owners Randy George and Eliza Cain to create perhaps the summer’s most-welcome innovation, pizza on Friday and Sunday evenings, baked outdoors in a special-made oven, with a stage for entertainment that provided COVID-idled musicians a chance — finally! — to perform. 

He hit upon the idea of recruiting “mature” women to control entrance to the green space (“no one (fools) with an older woman”), monitoring the numbers, policing social distancing, and taking contact information should a COVID patient be traced back to Camp Meade.

A few more-formal events, with tickets required and a 150-guest maximum, occurred. Burlington singer Kat Wright performed at a fundraiser for the Vermont Foodbank; the Bread and Puppet Theater ventured out of Glover for a rare performance. 

It all amounted to a modified summertime resurgence in a largely bleak 2020. And that, in turn, provides some hope for a village beginning to see exciting things in its future.

First Came the Hen

When Randy George and Eliza Cain moved Red Hen Baking Company from Duxbury to Camp Meade in 2007, Middlesex had almost no commercial activity, and George and Cain didn’t care. They were bakers; all they needed was a better place to turn out their bread seven days a week as the demand grew from stores, restaurants, and co-ops across northern and central Vermont. Plus, the site was right off the interstate, great for shipping and distribution. They knew about Camp Meade because the owners were friends. Russ Bennett was also a friend of the owners, and a contractor. He could — and in fact did — merge new construction with the old diner to create a facility that met their needs. 

Almost on a whim, they decided to spruce up the old diner space and make a walk-in café out of it, with a big indoor window enabling customers to watch the bread being made.

“We didn’t have any grand visions of doing a whole lot of business out of the retail space,” George explains. It took them, he says, just one day to realize they had miscalculated. Customers came pouring in. 

“It was obvious we needed to do more in the way of lunch and breakfast,” he says. “We said, ‘Okay, we make bread, we can make sandwiches.’ But it’s been a learning experience. My background definitely is not in running that kind of operation.”

Randy George, owner, Red Hen Bakery, Middlesex, VT. Photo by John Lazenby.

They adapted vigorously. Their pastries, cookies, and other treats were in demand, their shelves and coolers displayed micro-brewed beer, wine, and specialty drinks, and their tables were full — until COVID came. Now they do retail the COVID way, through a takeout window. But they’ve adjusted; customers can find their menus online, and despite George’s and Cain’s vow not to expand into a dinner place, they’re offering Friday night meals ready to be taken home and eaten.

“We’re trying to make up for reduced traffic in the café,” George explains. “It has forced us to think creatively.”

Summer will return, presumably with its twice-weekly pizza nights and monitored picnicking on the green at Camp Meade. Now that they’ve embraced the retail operation, George is enthusiastic about the village’s future. 

“I sometimes refer to Middlesex as Greater Montpelier,” he says. “And if there are more reasons to come, that’s great.”

Mud!

Like the Red Henners, Mike Sullivan wasn’t looking for a retail Mecca when he brought his business to Camp Meade in 2010. Sullivan owned River Street Potters, in Montpelier, and his lease was up. He had a brief window of time to find a better space, and none of his inquiries around town worked out. An employee who lived in Waterbury suggested he check out the funny little camp in Middlesex.

“She said, ‘There’s a bunch of random buildings around. You might find something.’”

And he did. The Mud Studio, as his business is now called, occupies a small structure separated by a gravel parking lot from the larger one that houses Red Hen. There’s a workshop in the back and a gallery in front in case a curious shopper should happen in. 

Mike Sullivan, owner, The Mud Studio, Middlesex, VT. Photo by John Lazenby.

“In normal times our main focus is on pottery clay education, and we have 10 to 12 classes that meet each week,” says Sullivan. “A lot of my employees are teachers of those classes. I also rent studio space to more experienced craftspeople, which makes kilns and pottery wheels available to them, because that’s expensive equipment for artists to try to own themselves.

“With all the dirt and dust from the clay and all the equipment,” he admits, “rooms take a beating. This is a good location, and it’s not in great shape so we’re not wrecking anything.”

They’re wrecking even less than usual now, because of COVID. Sullivan reduced his classes in 2020, dwindling to nothing. He’s open, artists rent workspace by the month, and his employees work on a limited basis. But do people even know he’s there? The ones who matter do.

“If you’re looking for pottery classes, people know about us. As for sales from the gallery? Less so. But our focus is on running a working pottery studio.”

Sullivan hopes to restart instruction in March, with eight students instead of 12 for the foreseeable future. He’s certainly noticed a change since Russ Bennett and his partners became his landlord. 

“I think people thought of Middlesex as a place you’re driving through on the way to other places you actually want to be,” he says. “Now you might come here to come here.”

Middlesex Finds its Roots

The renewed energy in Middlesex village feels familiar to Jon Wagner.

“It’s like a farmers market,” he says, “with all these vendors and different options. People care about supporting community, supporting small businesses; they care about what they put in their bodies. Now there’s going to be a new restaurant [the Filling Station].” The more diverse the offerings, he says, “the more appealing it becomes.”

Certainly the farmers market ambience, and diversity, too, increased when Wagner and his wife and partner, Karin Bellemare, opened the Roots Farm Market where the general store used to be. They are their own principal supplier, trucking an impressive variety of produce year-round from their 250-acre Williamstown organic vegetable farm (bearrootsfarm.com/the-roots-farm-market).

Karin Bellemare, owner, The Roots Market, Middlesex, VT. Photo by John Lazenby.

“We buy vegetables we don’t grow, or things we can’t get in season,” says Wagner, whose base is the farm, while Bellemare runs the store. 

The emphasis is always on local and organic, whether it’s meat, grains, dairy, herbs, or other groceries. Even in winter, Roots can buy hydroponic lettuce in Warren and Barre.

Wagner and Bellemare purchased their farm seven years ago through the Vermont Land Trust’s Farm Access Program. Early on, they began considering direct-retail options — perhaps a self-serve farm stand; perhaps a store; Wagner mentions a wagon. “But things had to fall into place for us to be able to do it.”

He noticed when the Middlesex Country Store closed down. But it was too soon after their farm purchase, and the reconstruction challenge was daunting. Then suddenly, in early 2019, the time was right. As for renovations, the couple had a talented resource in Mike Betit, whom Jon describes as “an old farm hack, who can do anything.” They visited the shuttered store, which had been on the market for three years, and decided the project was feasible and the location made it affordable.

“We had this vision, we were scrappy, and we had Mike,” Wagner explains.

They were in by May.

“Truthfully, we didn’t know what would become of it,” he admits. “But it’s going great! We’re super blown away. When I walk in, half the people don’t know who I am, and I overhear them say they love the place and just feel healthy when they’re in there.”

Especially during the pandemic, he says, people savor being in a store whose mission, essentially, is health.

The next big thing for Roots will be to open the commercial kitchen they have completed. “We’re hiring a chef,” says Wagner. “We’ll start with a juice bar, juicing all our veggies. We’re going to make preserves, like pickled cucumbers, radishes, beets, and onions, so we can supply our store with a value-added line of products.”

True, it’s a far cry from a traditional Vermont country store. But one thing’s for certain: Little Middlesex is no longer a food desert.

Fill ‘er Up

It’s unkind, but true: The old, empty gas station across from Camp Meade was an eyesore. There was an antiques and second-hand store there for a while, which helped, but a better solution was needed. Suddenly it has arrived, with the aptly named Filling Station. So now, along with a coffee shop, a bakery, an organic grocery store, a couple artistic ventures, and an outdoor gathering space for recreation and entertainment, Middlesex has a full-service restaurant.

What most people probably saw as a sorry vestige of the fossil-fuel age, owner Brian Lewis saw as architecturally perfect for a modern restaurant. Modern, among other reasons, because he has rehabilitated it with COVID in mind. 

Brian Lewis at the window of his soon-to-be-opened restaurant, the Filling Station. Middlesex, VT.
Photo by John Lazenby.

“I always had a dream of opening a restaurant in an old garage,” says Lewis, a restaurateur with 20 years’ experience, and the proprietor of Toast & Eggs in Waitsfield.  “The old receiving area” — one might think of it as the office — “is ideal for a kitchen, and the bays with the overhead doors are perfect for seating.” With the doors open, the space becomes more inviting, and seating can expand naturally to the outside. 

When they’re closed, however, patrons, held at allowable limits, will benefit from a heat-recovery ventilation (HRV) air-exchange system, which continually introduces fresh air while retaining the heat from the stale air that’s expelled. It’s a way of staying warm in February while breathing safer outdoor air.

“This place is COVID-ready,” says Lewis.

For those still leery, the Filling Station has online ordering and takeout windows.

Lewis intends to appeal to a variety of customers, serving burgers, soups, and salads, but also craft cocktails, both alcoholic and non. He’s also betting on sushi, and has experience with it.

“There’s no sushi anywhere from here to Warren,” he says. “No sushi in Montpelier or Waterbury. You have to go to Stowe or South Burlington.”

But not anymore. Little Middlesex, so recently forlorn, is becoming continental.

Finally, to the Arts…

… which are intrinsic to the Camp Meade community-resuscitation concept.

“We want to do things with food and art,” Russ Bennett has said. “Those are the binders of society.”

Food, clearly, has taken hold. Art, somewhat less, so far. The Mud Studio is a place of creation, and the concerts, formal and informal last summer, were a good start. But arts are awaiting a larger footprint in Middlesex.

Give it a little more time. The Why Art House, situated next door to Camp Meade, is a conventional one-story ranch, distinguished by a wide, colorful painting above the porch depicting mostly women’s faces of various ethnicities. At the front of the lawn, right under the town’s “Welcome to Middlesex — Chartered 1763” marker, is an urgent sign, painted by artist Dennis French, that reads #ICAN’TBREATHE.

Bennett’s vision is for the house to become a gathering spot and gallery for artists, where they can sell their creations, with only a minimal percentage held for their landlord to cover costs. For a year, though, COVID has stalled any progress.

On the other end — the Montpelier end — of the village, on a little hill across from Roots, stands the historic train depot, closed since the 1927 flood, with a sign beside it that reads “Pyralisk.” Artist and builder Nick Hecht created and ran a very popular art and music venue called the Pyralisk Arts Center in Montpelier in the 1990s, and has wanted to rekindle the idea since the original was forced to close. The empty 19th-century depot attracted his attention about four years ago, and he freely admits he became a squatter, not really living there but trying to create a studio. 

As has been documented elsewhere (including The Bridge), this led to a prolonged dispute with the neighboring lumber company, eventually resulting in Hecht forming a nonprofit that is close to owning the property outright. He was assisted by the Diversity Preservation Society, a charitable foundation associated with the Rabble-Rouser Company in Montpelier. 

Now comes the fun part. Hecht has mounted another sign, soliciting volunteers to help “Fix the Roof of the Middlesex Train Station by Donation, Work, Money, Materials.” He hopes to begin work when winter breaks. Yet his vision for the new Pyralisk focuses as much on the landscape as on the interior of the building.

“I’ve got the neighbors involved in gardening and construction,” he says. “It’s going to be a beautiful place, with an outdoor sculpture garden and flowering trees.” He foresees a cooperative artists’ gallery indoors, and perhaps a space given over to the Middlesex Historical Society, which has participated in the town’s applications for state grants addressing both historic preservation and transportation infrastructure, such as roads and sidewalks, in the village.

The specifics for the Pyralisk will evolve over time, as the purchase is finalized, the weather turns warm, and COVID begins to recede. 

It will happen. It will happen.