Surrounded by farmlands and mountains, Grafton, Vermont, is the kind of place movie directors choose when they want the most idyllic location in America: restored colonial houses on country roads, a white-steepled church, red barns, covered bridges, cottage gardens. It’s a place to go for biking, hiking, cross-country skiing, or just relaxing on the porch of The Old Tavern, the 45-room historic country inn in the center of town that hosted the North American Frame Drum Festival, which I attended last weekend. After two days of workshops and a concert with some of the finest percussionists in America, it was time to explore the town and environs.
Outside of Grafton proper you see, here and there, houses with peeling paint, weeds, laundry hanging in backyards that might also be home to a junk car or two: evidence of the recession and of real life.
What makes the difference? It wasn’t long before I learned about the Windham Foundation.
According to its current annual report, “The Windham Foundation was established in 1963 for the purposes of preserving the charm, history, and community of Grafton, Vermont, and revitalizing a declining rural community… [we own] land, several houses, and business properties such as the Grafton Forge Blacksmith, village store and garage. We also operate our own businesses: The Old Tavern at Grafton and the Grafton Village Cheese Company. All our business are longstanding contributors to our mission and employ more than 100 people.”
The Windham Foundation’s website provides insight into the programs it sponsors: a summer music festival (and Saturday night’s extraordinary percussion concert in the church), scholarships, conferences on public policy issues, a community garden (above) and plant nursery, grants that support more than 25 other nonprofits, and historic preservation and land conservation work that’s preserving the Vermont landscape and its historic structures.
This is not Disneyland. It’s real and it’s creating real products and bringing about real benefits. Profits from The Old Tavern and the Grafton Cheese Company support the work of the foundation. Grafton’s handmade, artisanal cheeses have won awards and been the subject of articles in national magazines including Gourmet. We bought four kinds of cheddar at the shop and served the mellow Grafton Duet, aged cheddar with blue cheese, with local Vermont plums to happy guests last night.
In addition to making horseshoes, the craftsmen at the Blacksmith shop are busy every day filling commissions for weather vanes and art pieces. All the rooms at The Old Tavern, below, are booked, and new managers have revitalized its restaurant and event business.
I loved swimming The Old Tavern’s clear, pond-like pool, with sandy bottom, surrounded by borders of daylilies and a huge lawn—also funded and maintained by the foundation.
With funding cuts looming just about everywhere, private philanthropy and foundations will be playing a larger and more essential role in revitalizing communities all over America. Windham and Grafton can be the models.