The Litchfield County Times
by Jack Sheedy
June 23, 1995
Remember Getchell's? Yutzlers?
A Country Store Way of Life is Ending
Why would Connecticut residents care about an art exhibit centered around country stores of Vermont? Because unless someone pays attention, Vermont's famous country stores will soon be a vague bit of nostalgia - just like those of Connecticut.
Artist Carol Wallace of Barkhamsted and my wife, the writer Jean Sands of Harwinton, want to help preserve the Vermont stores and the way of life they represent. That's why they are featuring their works of art and writing at an exhibit at the Rose Gallery in Kent, titled, "Flatlanders in Vermont."
Anyone of Baby Boom age or older remembers Connecticut's independent general stores of the 40's , 50's and earlier. In New Hartford, where I grew up, there was Getchell's General Store, which doubled as a post office in Pine Meadow. On my walk home from school on warm spring days, I would push open the squeaky door and buy a Devil Dog and an Orange Crush, pay glinty-eyed Mr. Getchell 15 cents, and sit in the cool shade on the stone steps outside and enjoy my treat.
Today stores like Getchell's have all but vanished in Connecticut, except for a few. In West Cornwall, a century-old country store, Yutzler's, recently closed its doors. When such historic stores close, they are often replaced by convenience stores owned by a franchise and clerked by part-time low-wage help. Or they are replaced by large discount chains or mega-stores that blight the countryside. Worst of all, they are forced to close because giant warehouse stores pop up nearby.
Shoppers at these "outlets" often have to have membership cards for the "privilege" of peering into brown cardboard cases of bargain-priced toilet paper that are stacked on wooden pallets in the high-ceilinged cinder block building. Electric forklifts constantly prowl and restock the aisles -- the 21st century's replacement of the aproned proprietor and his extension tongs.
"Flatlanders in Vermont" is a two-part project dedicated to the preservation of Vermont's country stores. Part one is a full-color poster featuring illustrations of 30 Vermont country stores and a brief history of each. Part two is an exhibit at the Rose Gallery of watercolor paintings of those stores, accompanied by longer histories of many of them.
For Carol Wallace, it started two years ago while on a drive to Vermont. Mrs. Wallace is known for her finely detailed pen and ink illustrations that capture the flavor of rural Connecticut, which she markets as note cards. While in Vermont, she was inspired by the beauty of that state to attempt something similar. Last spring she and her husband, Richard, visited the Vermont Country Store in Weston. Her husband immediately suggested she should market paintings or drawings of this and similar stores.
"I walked around the store and I realized all my senses were involved," said Mrs. Wallace. "The smell of spices. A barking dog. A whole feeling. It does something to inspire you. I got the idea that I would do some note cards or a poster. It was just a concept."
For Jean Sands, it started about a year ago. It was springtime in Vermont, and she was driving up to see the campus of a small college our son Matthew would soon be attending. She walked into country stores in Marshfield and East Montpelier and was transported backward in time. The wide floorboards creaked, just like they did in old Mr. Rasmussan's store in Newtown where she grew up. A cork bulletin board advertising baby-sitting and lawn-mowing services and displayed a poster warning of the growing "sprawl-marts" radiating north into Vermont.
"In the fall." Jean said, "after dropping Matt off up there, I came back and talked to Carol about how beautiful Vermont is, and, God, how I'd hate to see Vermont get spoiled. Carol told me what she was doing, and we decided we could work together."
The first part of the project, the poster, is complete, and 500 have already been sold, mostly through the 30 stores that are represented. What makes this poster unique is that it was created by a passionate watercolorist who has created a full-color montage of items from each store. These include a potbelly stove, a penny candy sign, a wooden Indian, a checkerboard on a barrel, a shelf of homemade pies, and a tin of bag balm. Vermont Country Store (Weston), The Original Vermont Store (Poultney), Marshfield Village Store, Florence Cilley General Store (President Calvin Coolidge's birthplace, Plymouth Notch) and The Peacham Store, which was featured in the film, "Ethan Frome."
On the back are Jean's histories of each store, a 6,000-word document spanning seven columns of type on the 24-by-36 inch poster. Here you will learn that the Hartland General Store has had 16 proprietors since 1804; that the Vermont Only Village Store in Granville was once a tenement for mill workers; and that if you get to the 150-year-old Wayside Country Store in West Arlington at 5:30 a.m., you can join the "Knights of the Round Table" who gather to talk about anything and everything in an open forum.
While visiting or reading about these stores, it is hard to imagine that way of life is ending. "Those stores eventually will be gone," Jean says. "whether they're plowed down and strip malls are put on top of them, or they just decay and are never rebuilt. Someday they'll be gone. And in all of history, the only thing that ever lasts is art. Art is what makes it. And the same with writing. When everything else is gone, and there are no country stores left, somewhere there will a representation in writing, a story of the way it was."
The poster is already archived in the Vermont Historical Society, a guarantee that the artwork and the histories will not be lost. Later this summer, Vermont's Governor Howard Dean is to receive a signed artist's proof, framed in glass so both sides are visible, a gift to the state of Vermont.
The second part of the project is the art exhibit at the Rose Gallery, opening tomorrow. Carol and Jean are signing posters at an opening reception from 3 to 6 p.m.
The poster will be a part of the exhibit, which will also include the original pen and ink drawings, Now finished in watercolor. In addition, Carol's Vermont landscapes, covered bridges, barns, and other images will be punctuated by Jean's captions, designed to take the viewer deeper into the scenes. A separate room will be devoted to artifacts related to Vermont and its country stores.
"Flatlanders in Vermont" remains open at the Rose Gallery through August 6.