For more than twenty years I have cherished an annual connection with the remote Vermont mountain town of Shrewsbury, situated high above the more populace countryside of the Rutland region.
For many of those years, I was leading a tour of Utahans with whom my wife and I shared a one-week stay at a two-hundred-year-old converted farmhouse “hostelry” known as Maple Crest Farm, operated by the seventh generation of the Smith family. Everything about Shrewsbury is beautiful and historic, and nowhere in all my travels have I found a more happy combination of geography, unspoiled landscape and living history.
One of the photographic “touchstones” over those years has been a rusting 1950s-era gas pump standing sad and forlorn, almost like a cemetery marker, in front of what used to be the town’s General Store, the sign “W.E. PIERCE Groceries” still hanging overhead, and a plug for SALADA TEA still inscribed invitingly across a long-opaque and otherwise empty front window. In a state where the “General Store” is still a hallmark revered and preserved in so many small towns, this “monument” to the past has always left a sad and empty place in my heart as I make the U-turn to leave the northern end of my beloved Shrewsbury.
I learned that until 90-year-old Marjorie Pierce – the last of her family – was forced to turn off the lights and close her doors in 1993, the little store had been the center of town life, Post Office and meeting place for citizens for more than 100 years.
As if peering into a hopeful future, Marjorie performed a final act of generosity, placing the century-old store in the hands of The Preservation Trust of Vermont, an organization devoted to keeping the past alive and honored. If she were alive, Marjorie would be pleased to know that the “seed” that act had sown came to life when 20 years later, the citizens of Shrewsbury, with the additional help of another agency – The Vermont Community Foundation – formed a community cooperative committed to bringing the “sleeping” village store back to life.
On a warm summer day in August, 2009, the lights came on again under the sign W.E. PIERCE Groceries, and a proud Vermont town of 1100 residents came alive as well. For the operation to succeed, it was vital that the combined effort of a lot of people would be needed. Today, 20 people work as unpaid staff, and as if to underline the town’s support, community members donate home-prepared meals for sale in the store every Friday night.
Dimmed and shuttered for 20 years, Shrewsbury once again has a General Store.
As Manager Donna Marzilli told us on our visit to PIERCE’S on our October, 2013 Shrewsbury visit, the fruit and vegetables filling the display cases came mostly from local organic gardens, the eggs from neighborhood chickens and the beef cuts from nearby farms. And wonderful smells led us to the backroom bakery where Rob McKain bakes the breads, rolls, and an array of sweet things that keep the shelves around the classic old wood stove filled and the entire premises wrapped in the yeasty aromas only a hands-on bakery can put out.
If Pierce’s pot-belly stove could speak, there would be 100 years of stories to tell.
Rob McKain prepares his back room for a day of Artisan bread baking
There is something restorative and refreshing to know there are places where the town and the local church have occupied space on the same piece of ground and shared the costs of taxes and upkeep since 1805, and where the local citizens happily give of themselves to bring back to life an old store and a piece of history.