Hidden sweetness
A scarecrow honors “Farmer John” Gilfeather, the creator of the famed Gilfeather Turnip.

Hidden sweetness

Wardsboro hosts its annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival, an homage to a bachelor farmer and a love song to community

WARDSBORO — What do turnips and libraries have in common?

In Wardsboro, the common ground seems to be community pride.

“The festival provides a great opportunity for the community to get together,” says volunteer Christy Foote-Smith as she collects raffle money outside one of the vendor tents.

The homegrown, heirloom turnip is the centerpiece of the Friends of the Wardsboro Library's biggest annual fundraiser: the Gilfeather Turnip Festival.

“It's blossomed into something pretty amazing,” said Linda Gifkins, the festival co-chair, as she watches visitors stroll between the vendors' tents as the late morning sun shines down.

Foote-Smith's favorite part of the festival is sampling the Gilfeather turnip soup created by Greg Parks, the former chef of the Four Columns Inn in Newfane.

On Thursday, volunteers made 50 gallons of the soup, Gifkins says, estimating that the creamy soup will be gone by early afternoon.

A core group of eight volunteers drives the festival, with another 30 volunteers making sure that everything from the music to the vendors to the raffles to the turnip contest to the turnip café all operate without a hitch.

She thinks the festival volunteers might add Gilfeather french fries to the menu next year.

“Doesn't that sound good?” She asks.

All the money raised at this year's festival will help maintain the library building, paying for insurance and other facility-related expenses such as heat and electricity, explains Linda Gifkins, festival co-chair.

These expenses average more than $20,000 a year, she adds.

Gifkins, who has volunteered for the festival for 12 years, says that different community groups pay for the library. The Friends maintain the building. The municipal government and taxpayers fund the librarian position. The library's trustees buy the books.

Last year, a surprise snowstorm acted as a proverbial wet blanket on the festival. Still, approximately 600 people attended, Gifkins recalls.

The festival attendance is free, she says, so volunteers don't formally track attendance. But this year she and co-chair Mike Cooney have printed 1,500 stickers to hand out, giving them a yardstick for a rough head count.

Gifkins enjoys watching neighbors and visitors alike enjoying the festival.

The event shows off Wardsboro and “our great little Main Street,” she says.

Ugly sweet

On the Town Hall's second floor, people gather to see the festival's contest entries.

The turnips are arranged on the hall stage, their greens reaching high into the air and, in some cases, obscuring the tubers as if shy about their less-than-flattering appearance.

Gilfeather turnips hide their unique sweet flavor under a thick skin, a bumpy exterior, and enough little roots shooting out of the turnip to make it look like a creature from a sci-fi movie.

Many turnip varieties can taste bitter, or even acidic, but Gilfeathers are sweet and creamy.

Volunteers at the festival who grow the turnip describe the vegetable as easy to grow. The seeds should be planted in the early spring.

Space the seeds far apart, the gardeners warn. The turnips grow big, so they'll need a lot of space - and, they add, wait for one or even two hard frosts before harvesting the turnip.

Contest organizer and volunteer Cherie Moran laughs as she describes trying to weigh the contest turnips using her bathroom scale.

This year's largest turnip, at 32.3 pounds, is more than 10 pounds heavier than last year's winner, Moran says. Charles Wandrei of Pittsfield, Mass., entered this year's contest for grand champion.

The largest Gilfeather grown in Wardsboro weighed 30.8 pounds. Winner Braiden Pearson has won several years in a row and carefully guards his growing secrets, according to volunteer Anita Rafael.

Awards are also given for the largest Gilfeather grown outside Wardsboro and for the best strange and funny turnip.

Altogether, the turnip entries weighed 158.2 pounds, Moran reports.

John Gilfeather's legacy

The Gilfeather turnip is a source of local pride - so much so that three years ago, students from Wardsboro successfully lobbied for the Legislature to name the turnip the state vegetable.

Who was John Gilfeather, who developed the sweet and ugly vegetable?

“He was way more than a hick farmer up on the hill,” Rafael says.

According to Rafael, Gilfeather is credited with developing his eponymous hybrid.

There are people in town who still remember the bachelor farmer, who died in 1944. According to Rafael, Gilfeather never married and cared for his youngest brother, William, for many years.

He also served in the State House for one term, in the seat now occupied by Rep. Laura Sibilia (I-Dover), says Rafael, noting that Gilfeather was “extremely involved” in the Legislature and signed on to “dozens of bills.”

She hopes to visit the state archives someday and see some of the laws he worked on.

“We're honored to honor him” with this festival, she says.

Rafael appreciates how many of Wardsboro's 840 residents commit to volunteering at the festival, which pulls in people from out of town as well.

Two couples, one from Connecticut and the other from New York, each make an annual trek to the festival, she says. They spend the weekend visiting with friends and volunteering in the kitchen.

Beyond Gilfeathers

Along with featuring the Gilfeather, the annual festival also hosts vendors. Most feature food products or home goods.

The festival organizers “semi-jury” the vendors, Gifkins says, noting that they must make their own wares.

The vendors pay a fee, which helps with the fundraising, she says, adding that she likes seeing people return year after year and to even see their businesses grow.

This is the first Gilfeather festival for Jeff Levine of Silk City Hot Sauce at Levinsky's.

Levine lives in Putney with his wife Enid and their newborn Lilah. His company features hot sauces with ingredients such as honey, cherry peppers, and peaches.

“I've been a hot-pepper-sauce fanatic for a good 25 years,” he says.

Silk City's name is an homage to Levine's fascination with the historical Silk Road and his family's roots in Patterson, N.J, where many of his ancestors worked on looms in the mills.

Levine enjoys chatting with customers. He says the Gilfeather festival is “incredibly well organized.”

“It doesn't get better than this,” he says, promising to return next year with a new flavor of hot sauce, one called “Turnip the Heat.”

With a smile, he credits his friend Pete with the idea.

In the next stall, Richie Tuttle and Erica Smith sell their jams, pickles, honey, apple sauce, and fresh eggs in front of a large banner that reads “Tuttle's Tastiest Creations.” This is the third year at the festival for the West Dummerston business.

Tuttle says that the dill pickles are his favorite item to make. Smith likes making the applesauce. Neither have attempted to make something with Gilfeather turnips.

“Not yet,” Tuttle says, smiling.

He says the festival comes after the rush of a summer at the Wilmington Flea Market and the Dummerston Pie Festival. Wardsboro is a nice way to slow down, he adds.

Erin Tkaczyk of Song Sparrow Studio stands by her display of watercolor prints, textiles, and home goods. Now based in Guilford, she grew up in Wardsboro.

Her favorite way to prepare Gilfeather turnips? Either roasting or mashing them.

“This is like coming home,” she says.

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