(First appeared in the August 26th edition of the Vermont Standard)
By Gwen Stanley
SOUTH WOODSTOCK -Â To its alumni, Woodstock Country School was many things.
With a campus set in the idyllic landscape of South Woodstock, for twenty-five years the school was a second home for many young people who, for various reasons, either were not thriving in public school or needed a more creative outlet for their growing minds. Some students came from troubled backgrounds and found a safe place in the school.
Earlier this month, many of these former students, along with some teachers and staff, reunited to visit the place they remembered from their adolescence.
Laura Spittle, who along with her husband Matt owns and operates the Vermont Horse Country Store in South Woodstock, is both an alum of the school and owner of one of the local businesses that benefited from the influx of people that the school’s reunion brought to the South Woodstock and greater Woodstock area for the weekend. Her store sits on land once owned by the Woodstock Country School. Spittle, who was one of the key organizers of the event, estimates that the reunion brought $60,000 into the local community, and she estimates $20,000 was spent on lodging in local inns and hotels.
“From the day we started planning this,” Spittle said, “one of the things that we kept in mind was that we wanted the money to come back here. We agreed that whatever money was generated would stay in the
area.” With that in mind, alumni were encouraged to stay in local inns and hotels and to patronize local businesses. There was a small group that camped out, said Spittle, but for the most part, visitors for the reunion filled up local establishments. Catering was taken care of by a single local establishment. “Travelin’ Willie B’s really bent over backwards to make sure that we got what we needed,” said Spittle.
Last fall, Spittle joined forces with Ileen Schmidt and Catherine Fort -Â both of the class of ’76 -Â to put into motion what began as an idea when the latter two visited Spittle in South Woodstock. The details to be hammered out, Spittle said, were vast. Not the least important was the fact that some of the land was owned the Haans family of South Woodstock, who would need to -Â and did, to Spittle’s relief -Â grant permission for its use.
“These people were so respectful and so thrilled to be able to use the land,” Spittle said of the alumni who attended.
The property, like so much land in Vermont, has a storied past. In 1911 Owen Moon and his wife Margaret Scott, heiress of the Scott Paper company in Penn., purchased the land and several surrounding farms. Kept as a gentleman’s farm, Upwey, as it came to be named after a place in England, was one piece of the property and what became known as Moon Mansion was another. The Haans family now owns the mansion.
From the school’s inception in 1945 the founders held lofty ideals based on the teachings of John Dewey and others. “Mater, Cerebrum, Hospitalis” was the school’s motto, and work experience was a solid part of the curriculum. Founder Ken Webb and wife Susan founded, in addition to Woodstock Country School,
the camps that would eventually become Farm and Wilderness Camp in Plymouth.
The Country School would be not only progressive in curriculum but in organization; it was a coed school. Webb wrote in his original manifesto for the school, “To know members of the other sex not only as the glamorous partners of the dance floor but in everyday situations, working and playing together, striving together for common objectives, is not only a wholesome experience but the best preparation for a sympathetic understanding of the other sex on which so much of later happiness is based.”
The reunion itself began with a reception at Upwey Farm Friday evening. Alums spent Saturday catching up with each other while engaging in a variety of both preplanned and spontaneous activities. Sunday morning saw a remembrance ceremony held in the amphitheatre, a near-circle of stones and grass, which was once used for WCS graduations.
The ceremony was co-chaired by alums Bill Dwight and local Assistant Judge Bill Boardman. Boardman, who has written a book about the history of Woodstock Country School, read a statement of philosophy at the three-hour long ceremony.
“(The ceremony was) something of a remembrance of people who died, people who couldn’t be there,” Boardman said. “It was an emotionally powerful event, and it wasn’t even clear exactly what the emotion wasâ€¦there was nostalgia, joy, all sorts of feelings,” he said.
Boardman said that it was clear at the reunion that people’s love for the school was strong. “It was a strange and wonderful thing to see so many people still so devoted to a school thirty years after it closed,” he said. Â
Alumni spoke with thoughtfulness when approached about their emotional connection with the school.
Laurie Marechaux, Executive Director of Fletcher Farm School for the Arts and Crafts in Ludlow, remarked on the impact the school had on her life. “The one thing that the school really did for me -Â you see these commercials where people are thanking a teacher -Â the whole school made a difference in my life.”
Marechaux, who now focuses on the arts as part of her career, said that her grandmother attended the school and thought it would be a good choice for Marechaux.
“I worked with an old-school bench jeweler named Meg Griswold. She told me “You need this to become your career.”
In reflecting on her experience of the reunion, alum Nan Bourne said, “I went with three other ’50s grads, which means we were from the â€˜Old School,’ when it was situated on Church Hill here in town. We felt like grandparents, or even great-grandparents, as many at the reunion were 20 or 30 years younger than we. As well, we were in essence strangers, as the South Woodstock campus was not in our experience. But we were struck by how little the spirit of the school had changed; how much the later generations loved the school in the same way we had, and how vital and youthful of spirit so many graduates still were.”
Alumni may begin planning another reunion for ten years down the road.
For her part, Laura Spittle asserts that she’ll do all she can to preserve the part of the land on which her business resides.
“I’m not going to guarantee it’ll always be there, because forever is a long time, but my commitment to maintaining that portion of the property is pretty strong,” Spittle said as part of her comments at Sunday’s presentation.