The ghost of Paul Stockwell, one of the founders of the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (BEEC), is one of the characters in this year’s Forest of Mystery.
Courtesy photo
The ghost of Paul Stockwell, one of the founders of the Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (BEEC), is one of the characters in this year’s Forest of Mystery.

Ghosts — but not scary ghosts

‘Ghosts of Bonnyvale’ conjures up the people and animals of bygone eras — including the ghost of founder Paul Stockwell — in this year’s Forest of Mystery at BEEC

WEST BRATTLEBORO — For over 30 years, Bonnyvale Environmental Education Center (BEEC) has been producing the Forest of Mystery as a major fundraiser for the nonprofit that connects area people to the natural world.

"But it has become so much more than that," says Belle Coles, BEEC's board president.

"To be out in the woods on an October night on a torchlit trail is magic enough, and then when you add the high-quality community theater and storytelling, the work of a community of cast, designers, [and other volunteers], it really is just a wonderful experience," adds Environmental Educator Patti Smith, who has worked at BEEC since it was founded in 1991.

"The Forest of Mystery makes the night forest an enchanted place for everyone," she said, adding that "the golden light of candles and torches and the company of fellow travelers creates a singular blend of cozy and exciting."

The bulk of the BEEC income comes from grants, program fees, and memberships. Coles refers to FoM as a "fun-raiser," while Smith calls the FoM more of a "friend-raiser and community builder."

This year, the performance invites participants to "travel through the eons past and meet the former denizens of this land."

Each year the Forest of Mystery takes a different tack, say Jess and Jay Gelter, who've co-created, written, and directed the event for over 10 years. They took that role from Guilford writer Michael Nethercott, who had created the FoM events since BEEC's inception.

"We love to explore new themes and think about how we can communicate environmental messages that are accessible and fun and that celebrate the mystery of the forest," says Jess Gelter.

"If it's comic one year, it may be scary the next. Each year is a new script," Jay Gelter says. "We always want it to be an experience such that, even if you've come in previous years, you still have no idea what to expect."

"For us as writers and artists we like to push ourselves in different directions," he adds.

Gelter recalls being at the well-loved Bonnyvale tradition as a teenager.

"I couldn't tell you what it was about," he says. "I just remember the magic of walking through the woods by torchlight [...] The lighting does a lot of the work for us. [It] is such a magical experience - everything else is icing on the cake."

This year, the theme of FoM is "Ghosts of Bonnyvale." According to Jess Gelter, "the original inspiration was that we wanted to celebrate the history [of BEEC] by looking at what else had [happened] on this land before this time; we wanted to explore hidden ghosts to tell the story."

Not "scary ghosts," Jay Gelter adds.

"I was really interested in the concept of ghosts as memories," he explains. "Whenever we think about what the new season will be - the new style of the show - we do a lot of researching and exploring, so I read some of my favorite ghost stories and realized a lot of them had to do with memories."

So the couple "started to think about what memories does this particular parcel of land hold" - with a focus on the time spanning 1790 to 1990 - "and what can we do to bring those stories to the fore."

Coles adds that "the story will take on particular significance, as our Environmental Center has just completed the renovation of the Stockwell Farmhouse, constructed in the 1790s, which will become our Center's new offices, meeting space, and classrooms."

Ghosts galore

BEEC was the vision of Paul Stockwell, who retired in Brattleboro after a long career teaching science at the high school and college level, including at Brattleboro High School and at Lyndon State College, and whose life culminated in the founding of the nonprofit with his wife, Dorothea.

Coles describes Stockwell, who died in 2001 at age 96, as "a forward-thinking, somewhat eccentric man."

"When he retired, he and his wife Dorothea, bought the farm on Bonnyvale, and experimented with ways of sharing this beautiful land with others. It had been a potters' commune, then an environmental school, and later evolved into the environmental center that we have today," she says.

In "Ghosts of Bonnyvale," Coles continues, "Stockwell's ghost will summon the other historical spirits as the story unfolds, along the lamp-lit trails of Heifer Hill."

Among other characters featured in the performance: David Wood, an early New England abolitionist, who'd lived on the property with his father; and Mrs. Sarah Dunklee, one of West Brattleboro's earliest settlers, who had a reputation for going out into the woods and being chased by wild animals.

"Wolves, catamounts, bear, elk - incredible animals that have disappeared," Jess Gelter says: their ghosts are featured, too, as are those of trees and prehistoric mammoths that had lived on the land.

Bringing the ghosts to life

Thousands of volunteer hours pour into one of the area's most cherished seasonal events.

"Ghosts of Bonnyvale" involves some 60 performers, designers, and makers who bring the concept to life on the creative side and dozens of volunteers who "keep the torches lit, who clear the trails in advance, and who bring treats to the actors in the woods," Jess Gelter explains. The abundant company features those working on publicity and management as well.

Coles assists Jess Gelter in producing the many costumes required and functions as a producer, taking care of sponsorships, publicity, volunteers for each night, bake sale stocking, and jack-o'-lantern production.

"In addition, I manage the food," she says, preparing a meal for the actors before they go out into the woods each night.

The Gelters both have called Brattleboro their home since their teen years, when both worked with Bob Kramsky, retired theater director at Brattleboro Union High School. Jess Gelter studied theater at Boston University and currently works in arts administration; Jay Gelter had acted professionally in theater in Florida and then discovered "I didn't like acting as a job - clock in, clock out."

Instead, he says, "I fell in love with community theater. I loved the concept of creating our own opportunities."

He returned to Vermont and connected with his future wife, who shares his passion for the positive power of community theater, "when I didn't cast him in my play," she interjects with a wink.

"Within a year, we were putting a show together to tour to schools. I knew then that I wanted to professionally work in amateur theater," adds Jay Gelter whose credits include productions with Sandglass, NEYT, and groups in nearby Massachusetts.

BEEC, 1223 Bonnyvale Road, West Brattleboro, The Forest of Mystery is offered Thursday, Oct. 19, with journeys beginning every 20 minutes, from 6:15 to 7:35 p.m.; and Friday and Saturday, Oct. 20 and 21, with journeys that begin every 15 minutes, from 6:15 to 8:30 p.m. Journeys last an hour and follow a trail through meadow and forest that is about 1/4 mile long. (Rain date is Sunday, Oct. 22). Admission is $20 for adults, $12 for children; reservations are available on Questions should be communicated to [email protected] or 802-257-5785. For more information on BEEC, visit

This The Arts item by Annie Landenberger was written for The Commons.

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