2021: We coped with COVID, and life went on
In 2021 we were all dealing with the same stuff we were dealing with in 2020 — face masks, social distancing, checking our temperature, watching the COVID-19 case count rise and fall and rise again. Once again the pandemic was a dominant feature of life in Addison County this year. But even on the public health front there was some good news, as COVID vaccines became widely available and businesses, schools and other public institutions found ways to offer more services than they had during the previous year.
And life beyond the mask continued as public and private sectors offered lots of stories that had nothing to do with microbiology. We present this look back to help you bring to mind the big stories and some of the smaller ones.
Have a Happy New Year in 2022. It’s a new year, folks!
In the opening days of 2021, a great deal of local attention was focused on the national stage.
COVID-19 vaccines had received emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and were on their way, which was welcome news in the middle of a post-holiday infection surge, including 100 cases at Victory Baptist Church in Waltham.
On Jan. 6, eyes turned toward Washington, D.C., where supporters of President Trump, who had been defeated at the polls in November by Joseph Biden, stormed the U.S. Capitol building seeking to prevent the vote from being certified. During the attempted coup, Trump supporters waged pitched battles with law enforcement, made threats against Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other elected officials, and vandalized federal property.
In the Green Mountain State, local police departments and the Vermont State Police were on high alert following the announcement that similar rallies were being planned for each of the U.S. state capitals. At least one local activist expressed support for the attempted insurrection.
Thankfully, similar violent events did not materialize in Vermont.
Closer to home, school closure had become a hot topic as districts continued to struggle with declining enrollment and rising costs.
In an effort to prevent their elementary school from being closed, voters in Ripton approved a plan to withdraw from the Addison Central School District. A similar measure in Weybridge was defeated on the same day.
Elsewhere in the county, residents of Lincoln, Starksboro and other towns in the Mount Abraham Unified School District were pressing Superintendent Patrick Reen for information related to the long-range facilities plan he had unveiled in December. The plan called for, among other things, consolidating five of the district elementary programs into two schools and merging with the Addison Northwest School District.
In Vergennes, a new city manager was hired. Ron Redmond would take over for interim Renny Perry, who had moved into the position after the resignation of Dan Hofman the previous November.
Meanwhile, COVID continued to bear down on local communities. During a statewide spike in the middle of the month, Vermont logged more positive cases over a five-day period than it had during the first six months of the pandemic combined.
By that point, health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities around the state had started to receive vaccines.
Vermont began administering vaccines to the general public on Jan. 25, starting with residents who were age 75 or older.
Hoping the state had rounded a corner on the pandemic, Gov. Phil Scott eased restrictions on school and recreational sports, including the resumption of outdoor ski team competitions. Practices that had previously been limited to contactless skills and conditioning drills could now be expanded to include limited contact drills and intra-squad scrimmages.
But the pandemic continued to wreak economic havoc on local communities. With that in mind, the Better Middlebury Partnership, along with other economic development organizations and Middlebury College, announced a new program called “Kick Start,” which they hoped would spur new businesses in downtown Middlebury by providing tens of thousands of dollars to entrepreneurs who wanted to start downtown businesses.
The future was looking far less bright for the 19th-century New Haven Junction Train Depot, near the intersection of Routes 7 and 17. Faster passenger trains would soon be traveling those tracks and the depot would block their sightline, state transportation officials said. It had to be moved or torn down. Local residents scrambled to find a new home for the depot — and the money to move it.
Confronted with the Ripton withdrawal vote, an ongoing pandemic and other complications in the middle of budget season, the ACSD board hit pause on a facilities master plan that had been expected to recommend closing one or more district elementary schools. The board hoped to revisit the plan in the summer.
As January turned into February more good news emerged for some of the businesses that were finding it hard to stay afloat during the pandemic. An anonymous “distant angel” donated $300,000 to the Congregational Church of Middlebury, which was to administer it for the relief of Middlebury-area restaurants and farms that had been hurt by the pandemic.
Just a few clicks down Main Street from the Congo Church, the Middlebury selectboard approved a plan to use $50,000 in unspent economic development funds to help the Better Middlebury Partnership with its Kick Start campaign for downtown businesses, which aimed to provide $10,000 grants and other supports to prospective businesses whose proposals won out in the coming competition.
The picture was less rosy for houseless local families and individuals who during the winter months had fewer shelter options to choose from. In Middlebury, for instance, Vermont Department of Health COVID restrictions had reduced the capacity of the Charter House Coalition’s warming shelter from 40 to 23. Statewide, more and more of those in need were being placed in motels and hotels.
Meanwhile, folks in Montpelier and just about every farming community in the state were looking toward the future with the release of the Vermont Agriculture and Food Systems Strategic Plan, 2021-2030. The plan laid out 15 strategic goals to increase sustainable economic development, improve the environment and working landscape, increase access to healthy food for all Vermonters, and improve racial equity.
Local athletes and sports fans got a boost mid-month after Gov. Phil Scott gave high school sports competitions the green light and the Vermont Principals’ Association extended the winter sports season until March 27, which would allow for eight-game seasons for hockey and basketball — though no spectators would be allowed at games.
February in Vermont isn’t the best time of year for local restaurants to begin with, but as with everything, the pandemic was making things worse. Thankfully, a number of state and federal grants began making their way into our food service communities. Restaurants would likely continue to struggle, but maybe now they could survive.
As Town Meeting Day approached, Starksboro residents were not only discussing the important issues of the day but also saying goodbye to a longtime public servant. Town Clerk Cheryl Estey was retiring after serving the community for nearly 40 years. When Estey started working for Starksboro in 1983, smoking was still allowed in the town office, she recalled.
More good news on the economic front came out of Montpelier later in the month. As school districts began holding their annual meetings and explaining their forthcoming spending plans, state officials announced that the Vermont Education Fund turned out to be healthier than anticipated, the result of additional federal funding and higher than expected sales tax revenues.
The new numbers meant that some school districts would need to quickly revise the information they shared with voters, but it was good news nonetheless.
The COVID-19 pandemic made annual Town Meeting Day more complicated than usual — and for the first time in Vermont history “you’re muted” found its way into the lexicon of annual informational meetings, many of which were conducted via Zoom. But the forces of democracy won out as local residents voted by mail or in person to approve town and school budgets (all of them), elect local officials and decide various ballot measures.
A special item appeared on the ballots of six Addison Central School District towns: Should the district allow Ripton to withdraw? All six towns answered yes, and Ripton’s plan advanced to the State Board of Education for consideration.
Also on Town Meeting Day, four area communities — Middlebury, Salisbury, Vergennes and Brandon — voted to “opt in” to the possibility of retail sales of recreational cannabis, which had been made possible by the state legislature the previous October. The reality of retail recreational cannabis was still a ways off, however — with the first non-medical-dispensary licenses slated for 2022.
With COVID still making inroads into our communities and threatening the more vulnerable among us, Addison County Home Health and Hospice took to the road, traveling around the county administering COVID vaccines to homebound folks and other at-risk populations.
At the same time, Helen Porter Rehabilitation & Nursing and the Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center were collaborating to offer aspiring Licensed Nursing Assistants (LNAs) free tuition and a paycheck during the period of their studies. Porter noted that it could use at least eight additional LNAs, and a healthcare workforce report indicated that LNA licenses and applications in Vermont had declined significantly in recent years.
Up in Lincoln, a spectacular part of the Vermont landscape was made available to the whole community when Will Jackson donated 130 acres to the town. Stewardship of the land was to be taken over by the Middlebury Area Land Trust.
On March 13, Vermont passed a grim milestone: one year since Gov. Phil Scott had declared a state of emergency to slow the spread, or “flatten the curve,” of COVID-19.
More than 18,000 Addison County residents — almost half the population — were tested for COVID-19 in the first year of the pandemic. The county recorded 867 confirmed cases of the disease, many of them in the larger communities of Middlebury, Vergennes, Ferrisburgh and Bristol. Sadly, the county also recorded 10 deaths associated with the disease.
At the one-year mark, people in their 20s had contracted the disease at higher rates than any other age group.
More hopeful: By mid-March 2021, 26% of county residents had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.
In their continuing effort to address looming fiscal issues, the Addison Northwest School District board gave a thumbs-up to the idea of forming a study committee to evaluate a future merger with the Mount Abraham Unified School District, which had formally pitched the idea in January.
Out in the woods, sugarmakers were somewhat surprised by a late start to the 2021 season, brought on by an extended — or what in the old days might have been regarded as a “normal” or “proper” — winter. Sugaring otherwise turned out to be fairly unremarkable this year, especially when compared with 2020, when Vermont produced 2.22 million gallons of syrup — more than half of all U.S. output.
As March came to an end, several local high school sports teams took part in end-of-season playoffs, and one of them came home with a big prize. The Middlebury Union High School girls’ hockey team defeated South Burlington, 2-1, to win the Division II state title.
Looking ahead to spring, state officials gave the go-ahead for high school sports practices and competitions, starting in April. Masking would continue to be required for everyone at competitions (except for long-distance runners and athletes engaged in similar activities), and competition would in most cases be limited to schools within Vermont.
April saw a steady rise in COVID vaccination rates, to the extent that local businesses and institutions were considering a return to “normal” activities. For example, Middlebury College announced it would bring back graduating seniors and family members for May commencement exercises, with the proviso that attendees observe safety protocols — including masking and social distancing. The college had been operating virtually, and it was finally on a path to more in-person activities.
The coronavirus vaccination push was in full force in April. The Vermont Department of Health made the Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines available to the oldest and most vulnerable Vermonters first, then brought in more age groups, in descending order. Addison County Home Health & Hospice and the Open Door Clinic brought the vaccine to homebound seniors, farm workers and others who couldn’t travel to clinics.
Area summer camps — including Keewaydin, Songadeewin and Counterpoint — announced they would reopen to children after a one-year COVID hiatus. Camp directors set up stringent safety protocols, including masking, regular testing and grouping campers in “pods” to reduce the chances for widespread contagion.
While COVID had put the clamps on a lot of business activities, the pandemic was fueling the local (and indeed regional) real estate markets. Area Realtors reported homes selling for well above asking prices as urban families sought a pied-a-terre in the beautiful, rural Green Mountain State. Home prices were rising, inventory was scarce and buyers were scrambling to find what they wanted.
While COVID-19 led to a lot of suffering, it also brought out the best in many people — including a “guardian angel” who made a $350,000 donation to help Middlebury-area businesses that had taken a hit during the pandemic. The donor — who requested anonymity — gave a total of $650,000 to help those in need. A new nonprofit called “Table 21” was created to funnel the money to grantees.
One of the beneficiaries was Middlebury’s “Kick Start” program, which raised $110,000 to help a handful of entrepreneurs launch businesses in some of the downtown’s vacant storefronts. Among the Kick Start winners: The Middlebury Studio School, which had been seeking to regain a downtown foothold after having left the Frog Hollow area a dozen years prior.
New and old businesses found a common problem: A major shortage of available workers. Restaurants in particular found few takers for job openings — in spite of promised wage increases. This forced some businesses to delay reopening for in-person activities, or to open at reduced hours. It was clear that some folks were reluctant to return to the workforce because COVID subsidies were equal to — or more than — the prevailing wage scale for many blue-collar jobs. But that wasn’t the only reason for job vacancies. Also, some young parents stayed at home with their kids to avoid either the cost or the health risks of daycare, or while others simply couldn’t find available daycare for their young kids.
The federal government in April announced some financial help for communities ravaged by the impacts of COVID-19. Middlebury learned it would receive $2.57 million in American Rescue Plan Act money, with another $3.14 million earmarked for its schools. The five Bristol-area towns — and the school district that serves them — learned they would share in roughly $7.5 million in federal COVID relief funds.
Faced with declining enrollment and rising education expenses, the Addison Northwest and Mount Abraham Unified School Districts in April formally began exploring a possible merger. Organizers set a tentative goal of bringing a merger question to Bristol- and Vergennes-area voters by March of 2022.
It was a big month for Vermont Coffee Co. founder and CEO Paul Ralston. He announced the sale of the company to Maine specialty food producer Stonewall Kitchen. The deal would keep Vermont Coffee in Middlebury and poised for more growth.
Sadly, the nonprofit End of Life Services organization announced in April that it would close its doors. Daphne Diego, president of the EOLS board, explained the imminent departure of senior staffers, dwindling resources and social distancing protocols — essential in preventing the spread of COVID, but which run counter to the in-person support so critical to hospice care — conspired to end EOLS’s run.
April saw the farewell tour of longtime Middlebury Union High School music teacher Anne Severy, who elected to retire after a 40-year career inspiring students to march to their own tunes.
Bristol in May got some welcome news on the housing and economic development front. After a nearly 20-year wait, Stoney Hill Properties, a partnership between local entrepreneur Kevin Harper and renewable energy entrepreneur David Blittersdorf, announced plans to break ground on a 9.6-acre business park on land just outside of Bristol village. At the same time, Bristol officials were reviewing plans for the Firehouse Apartments project, a 20-unit residential development (including so-called workforce housing) that would be located beside the Bristol Fire Station.
Speaking of housing, a June groundbreaking was announced for a $19 million downtown Vergennes eldercare project. Vergennes Grand Senior Living would result in a major expansion and renovation of Vergennes Residential Care on the city green, transforming the existing 18-bed, 1820 property at 34 North St. into an interconnected 53-room, four-building care home capable of accommodating up to 82 seniors.
May saw Ripton leaders gear up for an important meeting with the Vermont State Board of Education. At stake: The town’s effort to withdraw from the Addison Central School District, a route Ripton decided to take in order to safeguard its tiny elementary school. Ripton voters — and a majority of those casting ballots in the six other ACSD towns — had already approved Ripton’s exit. Now it would be up to the state board to decide whether Ripton should be granted independence, setting up a scenario whereby Ripton would continue to educate its kindergarten to fifth-grade students at its local elementary school, and tuition its older students to area middle and high schools.
Ripton’s independence effort began to hit home in May with the scheduling of elections for a new town school board. The town’s public education interests have, since 2016, been represented by one voice on the 13-member ACSD board. Three residents — Molly Witters, Steve Cash and Joanna Doria — would step forward to run unopposed on June 30 for the new Ripton board.
Also in Ripton, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, took a walk along the newly refurbished Robert Frost Interpretative Trail in Ripton. Leahy — who is the longest-serving member of the U.S. Senate — was instrumental in finding $650,000 in federal support for a three-year reconstruction of the popular trail.
The Turning Point Center of Addison County in April confirmed interest in the long-term use of the former St. Mary’s School building at 86 Shannon St. in Middlebury as a center for people recovering from substance use disorder and other addictions. The St. Mary’s Catholic Church parish has taken an interest in the Turning Point proposal, which could see the former school used for peer coaching, yoga, meetings, family support, childcare and perhaps “sober living” housing for those leaving residential treatment facilities and who need a drug-free place to stay for several months.
April saw more baby steps to normalcy amid COVID-19 with the announcement the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival would return to an in-person, five-day event in August. Conditions included face coverings and mandatory proof of vaccination for anyone attending a film screening or panel discussion. Area public libraries also confirmed plans to open their doors to limited in-person browsing. Local high schools agreed to give their respective seniors in-person commencement ceremonies and proms (with proper safety protocols).
Two years after announcing its Energy2028 strategy, Middlebury College in May announced significant progress toward reaching the plan’s ambitious sustainability goals, which include transitioning to 100% renewable energy sources at its core campus, cutting energy consumption by 25%, divesting the college’s endowment of fossil fuel investments, and integrating Energy2028 within the college’s educational mission.
The Middlebury area’s limited daycare options for young kids dwindled in May, with the announcement that owners of Sunshine Children’s Center were selling their Victorian headquarters at 13 Washington St. Sunshine was licensed for 24 slots for kids ages 3 to 5. Sunshine owner Deedee Fleming said she and one of her current employees transitioned to a new, 12-slot service created in Fleming’s home off Jersey Street South in the town of Addison.
It was the end of a culinary era in Bristol. After a 38-year run, Mary’s at Baldwin Creek — a very popular restaurant-inn at the intersection of Routes 116 and 17, served its last meal. Mary’s was once located on Bristol’s Main Street. Its owners, Linda Harmon and Doug Mack, put the property up for sale and transitioned into a well-earned retirement.
The Mount Abraham Union High School Community Council received a request that each school day or week begin with the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The proposal came from Al Zaccor, a U.S. Government teacher at the Bristol school, and 13 other faculty members.
June was a month during which Gov. Phil Scott lifted all state restrictions previously imposed to fight COVID-19. Vermont had been under a State of Emergency since March 13, 2020, a situation that limited business and individuals’ activities in order to curb the spread of the virus. But Scott lifted the restrictions after Vermont became the first state to vaccinate more than 80% of eligible residents — making it the global leader in COVID-19 vaccinations.
Still, June brought an additional level of anxiety for the state’s homeless population, who were facing forced departures from hotels and motels that had been housing them through the pandemic, at state expense. Among them were an estimated 60 homeless hotel-motel guests in the Middlebury area who looked on with trepidation as state officials devised new eligibility criteria for people seeking an extension of their pandemic-related hotel-motel subsidies.
Addison County native and award-winning musician/composer Anais Mitchell delivered the commencement address at the 219th graduation ceremony at Middlebury College — albeit in a more subdued fashion than usual, due to COVID-19. The 481 members of the Class of 2021 and their guests assembled at six separate outdoor venues to comply with pandemic health and safety regulations, each with a stage and a large video screen. Attendance was strictly limited, preceded by rigorous testing. Even faculty weren’t allowed to attend in person. At an event that was hard to imagine just a few months earlier — and one that required careful planning without the benefit of a rehearsal — joyful bursts of applause and cheering could be heard all over campus.
Danielle Morse, 22, of Whiting was enjoying her first weeks as Miss Vermont 2021. She earned the title just days after earning her bachelor’s degree from Castleton University’s nursing program. Morse readied herself for a busy year that would include working as a surgical nurse at Porter Medical Center and traveling around the state raising money for University of Vermont Children’s Hospital, inspiring young women as the ambassador for the Miss Vermont Scholarship Program, and posing for photographs at civic functions and other special events. And of course also representing Vermont in the Miss America Pageant.
Those meandering through forests in Addison County and beyond saw ample evidence of an unwelcome visitor: The gypsy moth, otherwise known as Lymantria dispar dispar. The pesky insects munched on leaves of a variety of trees, making some sections of wooded areas look like it was late autumn. Experts said the trees would recover, but it was an unusual and unsavory look for the usually lush forests.
The Middlebury Area Land Trust received a $100,000 donation from a local couple that would ensure perpetual maintenance of the nonprofit’s popular Trail Around Middlebury.
June saw the birth of a women-led collective dedicated to introducing the food and culture of Mexico and Central America to Vermont, and promoting community and economic justice for its members. The collective, Viva El Sabor, was launched by 14 Central American women — many of them the trailing spouses of migrant farmworkers now living in Addison County. The collective’s coming out party occurred at Middlebury’s Marble Works on June 26. People waited in long lines for a taste of their authentic cuisine.
It was an important month for transitions. For 40 years, Ferrisburgh Central School Administrative Assistant Loretta Lawrence had greeted students upon their arrival each academic day. At age 70, she chose to retire after providing care, comfort and peace of mind to three generations of students and their families.
Fran Bearor closed out 50 years of hard work at Agway Farm & Garden store in Middlebury, where she’d served as bookkeeper, manager and jack-of-all-trades. She’d always had a mind for math, a yen for the business world, and a desire to be with other people, and found her niche at Agway.
Middlebury Police Department Sgt. Mike Christopher turned in his badge following a 35-year career that made him the longest-serving officer in the department’s history. Christopher planned to spend more time with family, including a young grandson. A motorcycle enthusiast and World War II buff, he looked forward to traveling to Europe to see battlefields and museums.
Cindy Atkins was ready to “slow her roll” after 34 years as a science educator at Middlebury Union High School and as one of the most successful basketball coaches in the school’s history. While she stepped down as chemistry teacher, she kept a foot in the door at MUHS to serve as a part-time International Baccalaureate Diploma Program coordinator for grades 11 and 12.
The Independent’s top headlines on July 1 were full of good news.
Bristol’s Bill James turned 110 with a big gift. Sure, he got presents, but more notably the former longtime Bristol Rescue Squad volunteer gave a gift by donating $25,000 to the nonprofit. The rescue squad planned to use it to help fund a new training room and make other improvements to its HQ.
Someone more than 90 years younger than James also made our front page. Iranian emigré Nima Mehregan, who had just graduated from Vergennes Union High School and Hannaford Career Center, won the high school division of the Skills USA Culinary Competition, and with it a major scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America. He became the first Vermonter to take first place in the prestigious national event.
More than 1,800 local residents gathered in Middlebury’s Marble Works complex to sample the Central American cuisine of about two-dozen female Latinx chefs, most of them family members of local migrant workers. Many locals happily waited in line an hour or more for authentic meals at the Viva El Sabor Fiesta. The group planned more culinary offerings in the coming months.
Looking back, those early summer days seem so carefree now. The first case of COVID-19’s delta variant had just hit American shores, and omicron was unknown outside of those who teach and study ancient Greek or do crossword puzzles. People enjoyed fireworks and maskless barbecues and other gatherings around Independence Day.
Sure, the big Bristol 4th of July parade was called off, but at least a few folks kept the Great Bristol Outhouse Race going. The team of Ethan Goldsmith and sisters Charlotte and Emma Crum surprised a squad led by two-time champion Cam Perta to win the title. Their secret? Probably that Emma Crum was a state champion runner at 3,000 meters. Perta vowed to be back next year to regain his crown.
The struggle by small towns to preserve their community schools kept percolating. Addison, with support from its selectboard, held a vote on July 13 on whether the town should withdraw from the Addison Northwest District.
Possibly because withdrawal would be complicated by the fact the district, not the town, owns the town’s elementary school, and the commute to Vergennes is more reasonable than for some other rural communities, the measure failed, 122-106. Almost inevitably with such a close result, a petition for a revote was eventually filed.
Lincoln in July scheduled its own vote on whether to withdraw from the Mount Abe district, picking Aug. 24 as the date. Starksboro began to talk about doing the same.
And Ripton, which had so far cleared all its hurdles to become independent from the Addison Central School District, elected its own school board. That panel began seeking a district to help provide its school with administrative and special education services. They may not have anticipated how challenging that task would be.
Meanwhile, the joint committee charged with studying whether and how the Mount Abe Unified School District and ANWSD districts should merge began its work in earnest in July.
Middlebury’s “Kick Start” program, coordinated by the Better Middlebury Partnership and backed by cash from the town and several donors, announced the six winners of seed money and technical support for businesses looking to fill downtown vacancies. They included an expansion of the Middlebury Studio School and a rebirth of former downtown soda fountain Calvi’s. Also winning grants were efforts to enable the Bristol store Your Home to open a Middlebury store, to start an art supply store, to open a rock climbing and fitness gym, and to move the Addison West store into a more permanent space. By the end of the year the new ventures had made varying amounts of progress.
The end of July brought the end of our brief respite from COVID anxiety. The lead from our top story in the last edition of the month:
“State and local health officials urged unvaccinated Vermonters to consider the emergence of the delta variant of the coronavirus as a wake-up call to finally get a COVID-19 vaccination. Delta is a highly contagious SARS-CoV-2 virus strain, first identified in India back in December.”
July also saw one county romance surpass an amazing milestone. Thelma and Dick Buxton of Orwell returned to the altar at St. Paul’s Church for a blessing of their marriage, which began there 75 years earlier.
Despite concerns about the more contagious delta variant of COVID-19, plans were announced in early August for Vermont schools to go back to fulltime, in-person learning, with masking strongly recommended. By the end of the month, local districts had their strategies in place.
August was festival time in the shire town. The Festival on the Green returned after a year’s hiatus with a slightly reduced slate of shows. The event proved to be popular, as was the Middlebury New Filmmakers Festival, which honored actor Karen Allen, a star in such films as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Animal House.” The film fest also returned to live screenings.
Addison County Fair and Field Days also was back and as popular as ever, although some wondered whether its board should have insisted on masks. Regardless, it was well-attended, and it didn’t even rain much.
Middlebury College said it was working on plans for a new dormitory. It filed papers with the town describing a four-story building with a 20,000-square-foot footprint slated for the northern end of “Battell Beach,” a 12-acre lawn bordered to the south by Forest Hall. Once the new dorm is built (construction could begin this year), the college will tear down the 66-year-old Battell Hall dormitory to make way for a new art museum.
The pandemic had prompted the Vermont Brew professional arena football team to put on hold its plans to play games at the Middlebury’s Memorial Sports Center. In August, team reps said they still wanted to play here and would begin doing so as soon as the ice was melted at the sports center in March 2022.
Restaurants continued to be short-staffed, a problem that worsened as the month wore on and some of their younger summer workers headed back to college. Eateries chose different tactics to deal with the issues: opening fewer days, operating shorter hours or cutting back on menus. 3Squares Café in Vergennes tried a different angle: It rolled out its catering truck and served lunches to folks on the Vergennes City Green rather than trying to open and staff its brick-and-mortar base down the street.
On the sports scene, the Vergennes Champs earned the team’s second-ever undefeated Champlain Valley Swim League season and claimed the Vermont championship, winning 19 events in the title meet in White River Junction. The Middlebury Marlins swim team also won the Division IV title.
The Addison petition to revote whether to leave ANWSD — the question was defeated in July — arrived at the town clerk’s office in August, and the selectboard warned the revote for Oct. 5.
Addison’s decision whether to stay in or leave its district had been decided with fewer than two dozen votes. Lincoln’s was not. On Aug. 24, Lincoln residents opted, 525-172, to strike out on its own amid turnout of more than 60%. The vote triggered a lengthy process that required votes in the other Mount Abraham Unified School District towns and Vermont State Board of Education approval. Difficulties Ripton would soon encounter in its process of leaving the ACSD clouded matters.
As the month neared its end, Middlebury gathered to celebrate the near-completion of its big dig, the costly, multi-year project to replace two downtown rail bridges with a concrete tunnel. Experts said the tunnel would be big enough to accommodate modern freight trains. Gov. Scott and other dignitaries helped paint a happy picture after all the construction disruption.
The county’s nonprofit internet provider, Maple Broadband, which plans to provide robust broadband service to underserved and unserved rural areas, hit two milestones. A 20th county town signed on, and it reached a deal with Waitsfield Champlain Valley Telecom to run its internet network once it’s build. The state plans to use $254 million of federal funds to support rural broadband expansion, sharing it among nine Communications Union Districts, including Maple Broadband.
Ripton got good news and bad news in its ongoing quest for educational independence. Addison Central School District voters backed a deal that cleared up financial housekeeping loose ends of the divorce, but the town failed to find a partner school district to provide special education, transportation, central office and other crucial services for its elementary school students. The State Board of Education recommended Ripton sit back down with the ACSD board and work something out.
Meanwhile, travel back and forth from Ripton to the valley was complicated in September by a $2.5 million streambed stabilization project for the Middlebury River, which runs along Route 125. Work, designed to stop overflows after heavy rain, ran for a couple months along almost 1,700 feet in six areas of the riverbank, spread out along a mile on either side of Ripton village.
Hopes for a truly normal school year went out the window quickly in September. All local districts agreed with Gov. Scott’s September recommendation that masks should remain on in their schools for another month, and with subsequent similar advice that kept them on through the end of the year — and with subsequent developments beyond.
Another project near a restless riverside began along Otter Creek in Weybridge. The town’s old Stow Cemetery sits at the river’s Gooseneck bend, where the creek, especially during storms, is eroding its land and unsettling graves. Volunteers are working to relocate those buried there — including an American Revolutionary War veteran — to less threatened and more peaceful resting place in the Old Weybridge Cemetery off Route 23.
As the civilian government in Afghanistan imploded when American armed forces left the country, many in Addison County kept an eye out for what would happen to loved ones and acquaintances in the South Asia country. Middlebury College graduate Shabana Basij-Rasikh was fortunate enough to flee the country with 100 of the girls who attended the school she ran in Kabul. Separately, Bridport resident Jill Vickers was working with a young Afghan woman who had lived on and off with her for several years. They were trying to get the young woman’s family out of Afghanistan.
Middlebury Police Chief Tom Hanley was named the state’s top Emergency Management Director by the Vermont Emergency Management Agency, largely because his regular Emergency Management Bulletins are not only highly informative, but as we reported, “the chief marries sobering news with unflinching honesty, light humor, sports metaphors and pop culture” to make them “must reading.”
A planned $20 million renovation and expansion of Vergennes Eldercare on the city’s central green was postponed by its Shelburne owners after delays contributed to rising costs, in turn contributing to their decision to rework the finances. City officials and businesses back the plan for its potential to bring jobs and more affordable living units for seniors in need of residential care to the city. The owners are now aiming for a 2022 groundbreaking.
After what its officials called “a careful and deliberative process,” Middlebury College removed the “Mead” from Mead Memorial Chapel. College officials said the man whose gift established the chapel, Gov. John A. Mead, class of 1864, advocated and promoted racist eugenics policies in Vermont in the early 1900s.
A familiar face in Middlebury’s town offices, Beth Dow, announced 2021 would be the last of her roughly 50 years performing several jobs there, the most one being the administrative assistant to Town Manager Kathleen Ramsey.
Vermont opened COVID-19 Pfizer booster registration to all eligible people on Oct. 1. “At risk” seemed to encompass almost everyone age 18 or older.
After voters in the town of Addison voted against withdrawing from the Addison Northwest School District in July, supporters of the idea brought it back with a revote in October. They would need 66.7% of voters to back the measure in a revote, but only 39% of townspeople backed withdrawal this time — a smaller percentage than in the original July vote.
While local school boards were dealing with budget preparations, COVID cases at school, and a shortage of available teachers, substitutes and school bus drivers, two local boards found they would have to replace outgoing administrators. In Brandon, long-time Otter Valley Principal James Avery, 63, submitted his letter of resignation effective this June 2022. And north on Route 7, Vergennes Union High School Principal Stephanie Taylor announced she would step down after eight-plus years on the job due to a family issue that required her to travel out of state. That same month, though, Addison Northwest School District Superintendent Sheila Soule signed a three-year contract, so the board knows she will be around for a little while.
On the municipal front, Bristol town Treasurer and Delinquent Tax Collector Jen Myers served her last day Oct. 8 after a decade on the job. Bristol’s new treasurer and tax collector, Anthony Delmonaco, started in November.
In Vergennes, engineers told city councilors that it wasn’t going to be enough to build a new sewer collection and treatment system, but sump pumps, which were adding to the problem, would have to at least be curtailed because they were contributing to some of the overflow of storm water pipes.
After county students came back to in-person learning full time this fall, a first sign of trouble came at an Oct. 11 Mount Abe School Board meeting where a Bristol Elementary School teacher broke down in tears as she tried to describe an incident she and her students had experienced. They had to evacuate the classroom as a student entered the classroom in an aggressive manner and threw objects at adults and wrecked school property. It turned out that Bristol Elementary wasn’t the only school that was having difficulty dealing with dysregulated students.
A longtime substitute teacher told the Addison Central School District Board that she would not return to Middlebury Union Middle School because of undisciplined children and stressed teachers were hard-pressed to maintain classroom presence and decorum while fulfilling added responsibilities associated with the new International Baccalaureate program. Administrators acknowledged that they were short staffed as the school brought in sixth-grade students for the first time.
Some of the state’s brightest political, academic and entrepreneurial stars converged on a picturesque pasture in Middlebury in October to dedicate the groundbreaking for a 5-megawatt solar farm to be sited on 30 acres of Middlebury College-owned land off South Street Extension. Once completed next year, the farm’s 29,000 panels will provide the college with about 30% of its total electricity use. That will help the college reach its Energy2028 initiative goal of receiving 100% of its energy through renewable sources by 2028. On hand were U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, Vermont Lt. Gov. Molly Gray, and, of course, Middlebury College President Laurie Patton.
Locals found out that a proposed realignment of Vermont House districts based on new census numbers would have a substantial impact on Addison County, with the latest map showing the current two-seat Middlebury district fractured into three one-person seats. The two-seat state Senate district could be cut into two one-seat districts. “It’s astonishing the way they divided up Middlebury,” said Rep. Robin Scheu, D-Middlebury. “I can’t see in any way how this is good for the Middlebury community.” The Vermont Legislative Apportionment Board endorsed a plan that would result in the creation of 10 single-member districts serving Addison County, compared with the current six. The Legislature will have the final say in 2022.
Seventeen faithful attendees of a senior kettlebell workout class at Vintage Fitness Center in Vergennes were much chagrined when the gym decided to close operations after COVID-19 struck. They organized their own self-directed classes — some in Janet Seaburg’s Panton property, and then at the Comfort Hill Kennels in Vergennes. In October, the women shared with the Independent their story of commitment to exercise and to each other.
Almost two years after floating their original request to fly the Black Lives Matter flag at Middlebury Union High School, students there finally raised that banner in October. More than 80 MUHS students stood shoulder-to-shoulder during a picture-perfect Oct. 29 afternoon to witness the raising of the BLM banner on the MUHS flagpole.
There was some good news on the COVID-19 front in November: After 20 months of the pandemic, the largest remaining group of those at risk — our kids — were finally OK’d to get the vaccine. Signups for children age 5 and older started Nov. 3. We’re still waiting for an approved vaccine for younger people.
Another good news story: It was a good year for apples across Addison County. Trees in Bridport, Middlebury, Monkton, New Haven and Shoreham produced a bumper crop in 2021, and in some cases those trees were still giving into November.
Unfortunately, the student unrest in the Mount Abe district continued. A seventh-grader at Mount Abe was physically attacked by another student during school and went to the hospital to be treated for his injuries. While he was shaking off the attack, police opened a criminal investigation and school leaders tried to figure out how to handle the unprecedented outburst.
A group restarted its work on a plan that will help the Addison Central School District prioritize which of its buildings it should keep and upgrade and which it shouldn’t, in light of declining enrollment and rising education costs. The ACSD board’s Facilities Committee said its plan wouldn’t include any recommendations for specific school closures.
After eight terms and nearly five decades in office, U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy announced he would retire after his current term ends in January 2023. It will mark the first change in Vermont’s Congressional delegation in more than a decade.
After nearly a year of debate over the issue of whether “repurposing” schools is tantamount to “closing” them, the Mount Abraham School Board tried to clarify the issue by stipulating that the word “closure” will be defined to include any decision that would take all K-6 students from one town school and reassign them to another. As a result Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro will have more local control over the fate of their elementary schools.
The long-absent refrain of “all aboard!” is expected to ring out once again at new passenger train stations in Middlebury and Vergennes next year, Vermont’s top rail official said in November. But shortages of materials and labor means service won’t start until late June or July of 2022.
The Eagle field hockey team went to Burlington in November in search of their fourth state title in a row, and they would not be denied. For three quarters of the title game top-seeded Mount Abraham and No. 2 Hartford battled on even terms. But the Eagles proved they were the better team when it mattered — dominating in the decisive fourth quarter and winning 2-1.
And Mount Abe wasn’t the only local field hockey team to claim a fourth consecutive title. The Middlebury College Panthers dominated the competition in the NCAA Division III tournament and brought home yet another trophy.
Local high school students with a dramatic flair were on stage in November performing wonderful musicals — in person! They were all wearing masks but their sincerity shined through. The shows included Mount Abraham’s “Beauty and the Beast,” “Bye Bye Birdie” at Vergennes Union High School, MUHS staging “The Sound of Music” and Otter Valley performing “The Addams Family.”
Of the local businesses given $20,000 Kick Start grants earlier this year, the Middlebury Studio School was among the first to open operations in its new space. The school, which will retain its pottery studio on Route 7 South, in November brought arts education back to the downtown with the opening of a new branch in the Marble Works.
Following the announcement last month that the Otter Valley principal will resign, in November Rutland Northeast Superintendent Jeanné Collins announced her resignation at the end of the school year.
The organization tasked with keeping mosquitoes in check in the Lake Dunmore and Brandon area is undergoing some changes. At its annual meeting, the Brandon, Leicester, Salisbury, Goshen, Pittsford Mosquito Control District changed its name to the Otter Creek Watershed Mosquito Control District, elected new leadership, and made a plan for keeping Salisbury in the association.
Eight Addison County schools hosted state snowplows on Nov. 17 as the Vermont Agency of Transportation recognized them as winners in VTrans’s Name A Plow program. Schools submitted names — creative and clever, cute and silly — for the plows that will serve their communities this winter. Among the winners were students at the Bridge School in Middlebury, who named their plow “Plowy McPlowFace”; Robinson Elementary School in Starksboro, “Snowy Chicken”; Bristol Elementary, “Captain Snowpants”; Cornwall Elementary, “The Snow Eagle”; Bridport Central, “Spooky the Square Pumpkin”; Ferrisburgh Central, “Midnight”; Bristol’s Red Cedar School, “Snow Blade”, and Vergennes Union Elementary, “Glacier.”
If sales data from Stonewood Farm were any indication, more people were planning to host Thanksgiving meals this year, compared with 2020 during the first year of the pandemic. And they were expecting larger parties at their tables. Peter Stone, owner of the 800-acre family farm in Orwell, said Stonewood was selling bigger turkeys this year.
The beginning of December brought some sad news. Lucien Paquette, an icon of the agricultural community who was widely known as the Father of Addison County Fair and Field Days, had died at age 105. Those who knew him — and it seems like most people around here did — will remember Paquette as a smart man with a calm and reassuring manner, who liked to help out because he simply loved people.
A new law authorized Vermont municipalities to establish their own masking requirements to fight COVID-19. But by December, the communities of Vergennes, Bristol, Brandon and Middlebury had all decided not to take advantage of a new law giving communities the option of imposing COVID- related facemask mandates for public places
A long fall of student behavior issues came to a head in Bristol on Dec. 3 when 90% of the students stayed away from Mount Abraham Union High School after someone made unfounded internet threats to bring a gun to school. Students, educators and community members were trying to make sense of an outburst of unrest at the Bristol school. Mount Abe instituted a ban on flag-related attire on Dec. 2 in response to a recent trend of a small number of students wearing politically themed flags or banners as capes. The school had initially permitted this activity as a form of self-expression, but banned it because it had led to inappropriate, disrespectful, hurtful, hateful dialogue between students and adults. As events unfolded at Mount Abe, school communities around the country were already on edge after a Nov. 30 school shooting in Oxford, Mich., left four students dead and seven others wounded.
Before Mount Abe instituted its ban, Middlebury Union Middle School implemented a ban on all flag-related attire, one of several new strategies aimed at addressing student behavior issues that have made for turbulent times at MUMS since the beginning of this academic year.
Plans for relocating the historic New Haven Junction Train Depot took an adventurous turn as 2021 neared an end. The project had called for transporting the depot a mile and a half east along Route 17, from New Haven Junction to a town-owned parcel on North Street. But complications — including higher than expected costs for temporarily moving powerlines out of the way — have forced town officials to consider alternative routes. New Haven now intends to plow its own road across private property in order to bypass a number of powerlines. Look for the move in January, or maybe February, when the ground is frozen.
The county’s rifle deer season fell short of setting a third straight record for number of bucks taken to local reporting stations, but plenty of venison was served or packed into freezers between Nov. 13 and 28. In all, hunters brought 590 bucks to be weighed at Addison County’s seven wildlife reporting stations. And December’s deer muzzleloader and archery seasons were not great. Still, overall 2021 remains the fifth most productive year for deer hunting in Addison County since 2005. Hunters weighed 1,133 deer in Addison County in 2021.
Addison County’s two emergency homeless shelters in December were already full and carrying waiting lists as bone- chilling temperatures, sleet and snow once again took center stage in the Champlain Valley. The Charter House Coalition Emergency Shelter in Middlebury had already reached its max of 24 guests, and the eight shelter units at John Graham Housing & Services in Vergennes were also full, serving 22 adults and children.
Panton lakefront residents were in court this month alleging in a civil lawsuit that changes made by one of the biggest dairy farms in Addison County — Vorsteveld Farms LLC — had polluted their property and Lake Champlain for years. The case won’t be wrapped up until 2022.
Patricia A. Hannaford Career Center directors are reviewing an $8.1 million plan to renovate the Middlebury school’s 50-year-old Charles Avenue building and some of its North Campus buildings. But, as they considered, Career Center Superintendent Dana Peterson came under fire from several former career center employees who allege they were mistreated and verbally abused, to the extent they resigned — in the case of one employee, after only two weeks on the job. Peterson’s contract is up for renewal next summer. They also faulted the school board for not taking any action regarding Peterson after receiving multiple complaints over several years.
A surge in COVID-19 cases at Middlebury College this month prompted an abrupt shift to remote instruction, and the college encouraged students to leave early for winter break, if they could. Officials made the decision on Dec. 9 after receiving 44 positive test results over two days — 10 on Wednesday and 34 on Thursday. Middlebury was handling 70 active cases — 68 students and two employees — by that Tuesday. By month’s end, Middlebury said it would delay the start of its January term.
It was not a big surprise when state officials forecast a Christmas COVID-19 surge in Vermont
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