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New England in a Word: Woodstock : Central Vermont's lovingly preserved village is at its peak in the shoulder seasons of late summer and fall.

August 15, 1993|DAVID VEASEY | Veasey is a New Jersey-based free-lance writer. and

WOODSTOCK, Vt. — Even for outlanders (those of us not born in Vermont), images of the state--New England villages, churches around greens with tree-covered mountains in the distance--are part of our consciousness, fed by calendar pictures, elementary school textbooks and Hollywood films.

The town of Woodstock, in east-central Vermont, could have been built on the back lot of Universal Studios, it so closely matches the nostalgic pattern--from the village's church spires, to its central green ringed with red-brick and white-frame Federal and Greek Revival homes, to the covered bridge spanning Ottauquechee River a block from the commons, all set amid the foothills of the Green Mountains.

I first came upon Woodstock about 25 years ago, in the mud season, that in-between time when the snow is mostly melted but the ground isn't firm enough for farming or hiking. Even in these conditions, Woodstock had a charm that lured me back. I've been back six or seven times since then, including three visits in the last two years.

Unlike many northern New England destinations that come alive only in winter, Woodstock peaks in summer and fall. There are special charms to a late summer or autumn visit, with warm, low-humidity days and cool evenings, seemingly designed for hiking in the nearby Mt. Tom cross-country ski area, with its nearly 18 miles of former carriage roads, or simply strolling in the village.

Centerpiece of the green is the nationally known Woodstock Inn and Resort, owned by Laurance Rockefeller, grandson of John D. Rockefeller, who founded the Standard Oil companies. The Rockefeller connection to Woodstock is based on Laurance's marriage in 1934 to Mary Billings French, granddaughter of Frederick Billings, a Woodstock native who was lured west by the Gold Rush.

But there has been an inn on this site since 1793, when Capt. Israel Richardson first offered travelers "bait and board" at his tavern. The current inn was built in 1969, replacing an 1892, Victorian-style Woodstock Inn that was torn down. Although I remember the old inn, the new one has more of a New England country feel, actually fitting into the scene better than the old one did. My last visit to the inn was last year, when I stayed in one of the less expensive rooms in the main part of the building, a good deal considering that all of the rooms have a certain charm and even the cheapest (about $125 a night) provides access to the Colonial-style hotel, with its large fieldstone fireplaces, library, lounge and two dining rooms. Impressionistic paintings of Woodstock by Arthur Wilder are displayed in public areas; Wilder studied under American realist painter Thomas Eakins, and also served for 38 years as manager of the old Woodstock Inn.

The 146-room Inn also has a par-69 golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones, and a $5-million sports center with outdoor clay and composition tennis courts and indoor pool, racquetball and squash courts. (Bikers can rent bicycles at the sports center, and equestrians will find miles of trails, accessible from the stables of the Green Mountain Horse Assn. in nearby South Woodstock.)

Although the town of 3,500 is well known for its numerous bed and breakfasts, the focal point of resort life is the Inn. But the primary attraction in the area has to be the village itself, where it is almost impossible to resist a stroll. Counting both public buildings and private dwellings, there is more distinguished architecture here than in towns many times its size. Shoppers can browse through boutiques and galleries offering Vermont crafts, artworks, antiques, gifts and clothing--without a discount or national chain store in sight. There are four churches with bells from the early 1800s cast by the Paul Revere family foundry.

The best way to experience the small-town New England atmosphere is to get a map at the concierge desk at the Inn, or at the Chamber of Commerce booth on the green, and then walk leisurely around the green to the business district, then detour through side streets, taking time to visit the Woodstock Historical Society Museum, the Billings Farm and Museum, and the Raptor Center.

A recent self-designed walk I particularly liked took about two hours and covered about two miles: I began at the Woodstock Inn, heading east past the red brick and white trim of the Georgian-style Windsor County Courthouse, built in 1855. Next to it, the stone building in French Romanesque style is the Norman Williams public library. From the library, I crossed over U.S. 4, the main street (known here as Route 4), to Elm Street, also known as Vermont Route 12.

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