ROCKINGHAM — The Southern Vermont Flannel Festival - held in Rockingham on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 14 and 15 - not only promises to be just about the perfect foliage experience (if the weather holds). It also has the added bonus of drawing visitors to one of the best preserved, historic spots in New England.
A fundraiser for the civic and commercial projects of the Great Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce, the festival was started in 2019, just before the Covid pandemic. Intended to be a yearly event, the festival was canceled in 2020 and 2021.
Despite that rocky start, the festival has grown every year, with an estimated 3,500 to 4,000 people attending over the two days, more than double the 1,500 who attended the first year. Organizers said that they are optimistic that the numbers will continue to increase - not only attendees, but also vendors and activities.
The festival - 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Sunday - will include food trucks, craft beers, art and artisans, and a homemade pie sale.
Live music will be presented on both days from a permanent stage on the site.
Saturday's lineup includes A Company of Witches at noon and 1 p.m., a family-friendly performance troupe.
Saturday also includes performances by The Rough & Tumble and Cold Chocolate, while the Patrick Ross Band and the Stockwell Brothers play on Sunday.
"This is our fourth Southern Vermont Flannel Festival," said Debra Collier, executive director of the Great Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce.
"The Chamber needed some new sources of income since we could no longer offer group rate health insurance to our members because of the regulations associated with [the Affordable Care Act, the federal health insurance law]," Collier said. "We are not federally, state-, or town-funded, so we rely on our members for revenue."
She said that board members were tossing around ideas for a festival that would bring more tourists to the area, generating an economic flow.
"The idea of a flannel festival was mentioned," Collier said. "We all thought it was a unique and fun idea to work with."
The Southern Vermont Flannel Festival takes place at the Rockingham Hill Farm at 34 Meetinghouse Rd. Collier describes the site as "a stunning venue that allows us to showcase quintessential Vermont," especially at peak foliage when the festival occurs.
This is one of the oldest farms in the region, located in the historic center of Rockingham. The hillside farm was operated by six generations of the Divoll family, starting with the arrival of Manasseh Divoll in 1806.
"With the stage and the flow of the hillside slope, it creates a natural amphitheater with great acoustics to enjoy the live music," Collier said.
Charlie Jarras, the current owner, bought the farm from the Divoll family 17 years ago. It was an active farm well into the 1990s, for nearly two centuries, and the house and farm buildings are preserved. Originally a hillside sheep farm, it was last used as a farm for dairy operations and beef.
Jarras operates the farm now as a three-season venue for weddings, celebrations of life, corporate parties, and other functions, including the festival.
Within a very short distance of the farm are several other historic homes dating back to the incorporation of Rockingham, the vestiges of the town's original center. A canal built from 1790 to 1801 circumvented the Great Falls on the Connecticut River and allowed for boat travel upstream, and the municipal and commercial center shifted to the village of Bellows Falls.
That population shift gained even more momentum when the first railroads came to Bellows Falls in the late 1840s, and the canal was converted to provide water power for numerous mills and factories built there along the banks of the Connecticut River.
Discovering the Historic Meeting House
One of the side bonuses of the Flannel Festival is that many attendees use it as an opportunity to also visit the Rockingham Meeting House, just across the road.
One of the oldest and best-preserved meeting houses in New England, dating back to the late 1700s, the Meeting House - built between 1787 and 1801 - was used both for religious services and civic, community, and government gatherings. The first Town Meeting took place there in 1792, long before the building was completed.
Church services were held in the building until 1839, and Town Meetings were held there until 1869. Restoration and preservation of the building has been an ongoing project since 1906.
The Chamber says that part of its mission is to promote the businesses and area attractions at the festival. Collier noted that with the structure on the same road as the farm, "we can easily direct visitors to this historical gem. We've received numerous comments from enthusiastic tourists awed by the architecture of the Meeting House."
The building, which offers no electricity or heat, has been restored to its original condition, inside and out, thanks to a citizens group that has worked for decades to help preserve the building.
The Flannel Festival weekend now brings record numbers of visitors to the Meeting House - and record donations. The meetinghouse, a natural draw for visitors enjoying Vermont's fall foliage, sits on a knoll overlooking the Williams River valley, and adjoins a historic graveyard dating back to the earliest days of the town.
Annette Spaulding, who has served as a volunteer at the Meeting House, including on the Flannel Festival weekend, said that the festival has become a highlight of the year for the historic building, which was designated a national historic landmark in 2000.
"I've seen visitors come in and donate a lot of money that weekend," she said. "I've seen some people who have contributed up to $100 toward its preservation after visiting the meeting house."
The Meeting House was put on the National Register of Historic Places in 1979 and has been honored as an "exceptionally well preserved second period Colonial style meeting house." It is still used regularly for weddings, memorial services, acoustic concerts, and municipal meetings.
This year's festival
Collier said that this year's festival will offer more than 60 food and craft vendors, a pie contest, a raffle, six bands, craft beers and spirits, and pies sold whole or by the slice.
Admission is $8 per person per day, with 12 and younger entering for free. If you're wearing flannel you get a dollar off the admission price.
Organizers say that they are still looking for volunteers to help with the festival. For more information or to volunteer, call the Chamber at 802-463-4280 or email [email protected].
This Special section item by Robert F. Smith was written for The Commons.