Surrounded by the quiet cold of its 177th New England autumn, the white clapboard former inn unerringly beckons us with a promise of a family Thanksgiving in a place of abiding tradition.
Farming, logging and maple sugaring drew the first settlers to the flinty hills here 200 years ago, and these pursuits endure today, even though thin, rock-ribbed soils and tractor-tipping inclines make wealth elusive. Modern life has brought trailer homes, cinder-block industrial parks, shopping centers, tract houses, gentrified weekend places and acid rain, but the vibrant life still survives from another age.
It is a world of paper ballots, one-room schoolhouses, white-steepled churches and frame meeting halls where the whole town can turn out to debate and vote on the local budget. There are early frosts and late thaws, immense woodpiles, cozy kitchens superheated by cast-iron wood stoves, dogs at the hearth and coyotes in the woods.
Generations of ancestors lie nearby in stone-walled cemeteries, where the worn white headstones somehow have tilted just enough to catch the distant slant of autumn's sunset. The markers grow faint red in the long, flat rays.
The two-story house where we will sit down to feast today is straight from that earlier world. It was built by Samuel Rich in 1805, some 15 years after the independent Republic of Vermont abandoned its precarious position as a tiny buffer nation between the two powers in North America at the time and joined the Union, becoming the 14th state.
Rich started the inn so he could sell his homemade whiskey, and the large house reflects a certain entrepreneurial grandeur. There are eight fireplaces, handcarved wainscoting and a 40-foot-long ballroom across the second floor where travelers could dance away their cares.
An intinerant artist brightened the unpainted plaster walls. His stencilings border the rooms in soft pinks, greens and umbers.
The hearth in the long dining room is big enough to roast a suckling pig, and two Dutch ovens beside it are still used to keep fresh bread warm. Local chronicles say the innkeeper and his wife "dispensed the liberal hospitality and no man, woman or child went from their door hungry."
Parts of seven families related by marriage will gather before that fireplace today. Most are people from clans so populous that the 21 intending to dine seems a minimum number. Even so, all of Shakespeare's seven ages are to be drawn up around the 15-foot trestle table: the oldest, an 85-year-old matriarch, weighted by remorseless age; the youngest, a 9-month-old babe in arms.
The moment is right for a stuffed and steaming turkey, endless side dishes, homemade pies and sparkling cider, wine and beer--a welcome contrast to the bare, brown land outside the broad front door. Pilgrim father William Bradford described the scene first and has not been bettered: "For summer being done, all things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and a whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue . . . ."
Suitable to this setting, the core family is Yankee: Kelloggs and Robbinses. There are three Celinas, two Elizas, two Edmunds, a Roger, a Thomas, a Cornelia. There is a Bradford, after ancestor William, who was 31 when chosen governor of Plymouth Plantation, when he decreed that first Thanksgiving 361 years ago.
But this gathering also joins families that came here much later than the Pilgrims and on vessels rather less celebrated. In fact, no one remembers the names of these possibly worthy, tardy ships.
These families have Irish, German, French, Swedish and even some Russian antecedents. Over the years, they spread across America, and since they like to keep in touch, Ma Bell is going to enjoy today every bit as much as the rest of us. There are kinfolk in Virginia, the District of Columbia, Missouri, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, Texas and California, among other places.
Like many Americans in their travels, these families sometimes have lived far beyond the lands their ancestors came from. For example, pediatrician Tom Moore, who owns the house and is our host today, grew up in Lebanon, grandson of American missionaries and son of an American physician there. He has lived in Germany and Africa and speaks French, German and some Arabic.
His wife, Celina Kellogg Moore, lived in Germany where her parents, Edmund and Celina Robbins Kellogg, were posted in the foreign service. So, she speaks German, as do her brothers and parents.
Some have lived for lengthy periods in England, Russia and Cambodia and have found ways to celebrate Thanksgiving in all those places. But this year, in the waning quarter of America's troubled century, Rich's Inn brings us here.
The past, with its illusion of tranquility, is brought very close. Leafing through the inn's old ledger books, one encounters earlier wayfarers with wonderfully purposeful names -- Preserved Wright, Welcome Ainsworth and Remember Kent Jr. -- who stopped by for a meal or to whet their corky Vermont whistles with a shot of Sam Rich's likker.
Bradford's benediction on reaching the New World in 1620 seems perfectly appropriate in this company:
Being thus arrived in a good harbor, and brought safe to land, they fell upon their knees and blessed the God of heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all the perils and miseries thereof, again to set their feet on the firm and stable earth, their proper element . . . .
This will be read a little later today before anyone hazards blade against breast of native American bird.