In Greensboro: After 114 years, Willey’s Store remains famously eclectic

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Robert Willey-Hurst, current president of Willey's Store, Inc., has worked tirelessly these past six years to see that the store remains a community center.  Photos by David Dudley

Robert Willey-Hurst, current president of Willey’s Store, Inc., has worked tirelessly these past six years to see that the store remains a community center. Photos by David Dudley

copyright the Chronicle December 3, 2014

by David Dudley

GREENSBORO — While stories about Black Friday’s frenzied shopping flooded the Internet, the day after Thanksgiving began like any other at Willey’s Store, which is now in its one hundred and fourteenth year of operation.

Robert Willey-Hurst, president of the Willey’s Store, Inc., opened the store at 7 a.m. as usual. The only thing he did differently was stretch the annual winter sale, which usually runs for a single weekend, into a two-week event this year.

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Hair salons are bright spot in local business

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Marie Turmel Kroeger sits inside her new 300-square foot salon.  Visible in the mirror is a portrait of women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, painted by Ms. Kroeger.  Photo by Natalie Hormilla

Marie Turmel Kroeger sits inside her new 300-square foot salon. Visible in the mirror is a portrait of women’s rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali, painted by Ms. Kroeger. Photo by Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle April 30, 2014 

by Natalie Hormilla

Marie Turmel Kroeger opened a hair salon in a refurbished milk house in Craftsbury last month with confidence and enthusiasm.

“It’s called faith in oneself,” she said, just a couple of weeks into officially opening The Milk House Hair Studio on King Farm Road.

Ms. Kroeger’s business offers a range of services, including hair cutting, coloring, highlighting, and styling, and other treatments like relaxed permanent waves and facial waxing. She also does makeup for, and consults on, events like weddings or professional makeovers.

Everything happens in a 300-square-foot space, restored and relocated from across the street by her husband, Ben. The space is decorated with artwork mostly painted by Ms. Kroeger herself.

“It’s really, really quaint, and very personalized,” she said.

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Weather problems drive up beef prices sharply

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Bob Butterfield’s son, Ethan, is pictured with his seven-month-old heifer, Chloe, on one of the Spring Hill Angus farms, in Barton.  Chloe was an embryo transplant calf, or “E.T.” for short.  Her egg was taken from a top-ranking heifer.  Chloe is off to Randolph, New York, soon, to be auctioned at the New York State Angus Association sale.  Her genetics make her a desirable purchase, Mr. Butterfield said.  Someone from Montana has already expressed interest.  Photos by Natalie Hormilla

Bob Butterfield’s son, Ethan, is pictured with his seven-month-old heifer, Chloe, on one of the Spring Hill Angus farms, in Barton. Chloe was an embryo transplant calf, or “E.T.” for short. Her egg was taken from a top-ranking heifer. Chloe is off to Randolph, New York, soon, to be auctioned at the New York State Angus Association sale. Her genetics make her a desirable purchase, Mr. Butterfield said. Someone from Montana has already expressed interest. Photos by Natalie Hormilla

copyright the Chronicle May 7, 2014

by Natalie Hormilla

BARTON — The price of beef in most stores is at a record high, and the price of locally raised beef is getting higher, too.

The average price of a pound of ground beef in most U.S. states hit almost $3.70 for the month of March, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index (CPI).

That average price was up from $3.55 in February and $3.47 in January. In March of 2013, it was $3.33; four years ago, it was $2.24.

Just like in the rest of the country, shoppers at the C&C Supermarket in Barton have been wondering why the prices have been so high lately.

“We had a sign over the meat department for three months, stating why we had higher beef prices,” said Ray Sweeney, who works in the meat department at the C&C. “Just to kind of explain ourselves.”

“People were asking a lot,” he said.

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Hill Farmstead’s expansion is open to the public

Shaun Hill takes a break to enjoy a beer while looking around at his new space.  The retail part of the business is in this space for now.  Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

Shaun Hill takes a break to enjoy a beer while looking around at his new space. The retail part of the business is in this space for now. Photos by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle January 8, 2014

by Bethany M. Dunbar

GREENSBORO — Hill Farmstead Brewery’s expanded space is open to the public for retail sales.

The expansion is not completed, but the space allows customers to wait inside for tastes of beer, to buy bottled beer, and to buy or fill up growlers, which are big, reusable beer bottles.  Waiting lines will probably be just as long as before because the new space has the same number of taps as before, six.

An ell off the new space is so far just a foundation, but eventually it will hold a new brewery with a mezzanine area and windows so people can see production.  Once the expansion is finished, which is expected to be in October, retail space will exist in the end of the ell.  It will include a rest room for the public.

“The plan is to serve bread and cheese,” Mr. Hill said.

Meanwhile, a portable toilet is available outside. Continue reading

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Circus Smirkus zoning permit is appealed

Brin Schoellkopf hovers above the tight wire.

Brin Schoellkopf hovers above the tight wire, in a Circus Smirkus show.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle November 20, 2013

GREENSBORO — Circus Smirkus’ local zoning permit, which allows it to move its camp to Greensboro Village, has been appealed to Vermont Environmental Court.

No trial or hearing dates were set after a telephone conference Monday because the project will also need an Act 250 permit.

Once that permit application is filed, the Act 250 case and the local zoning case will most likely move forward in a bundle, according to Mark Hall, the lawyer representing the circus.

Meanwhile, the show must go on — and so must the camp.  It will, in Burke. Continue reading

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Five area schools have new principals

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by Richard Creaser

Five area schools will have new principals to start the 2013-2014 school year.  Brighton Elementary has perhaps the most radical change in store as Denise Russell not only takes over as principal but is joined by ten other new hires.

In interviews over the past few weeks, the newly hired principals each touched on part of a recurring theme — community.  The small size of the towns creates not only the school’s biggest weakness but also its greatest strength.  Small towns sometimes have fewer resources, but they also often have a greater sense of community and often enjoy more involvement by parents and townspeople than larger towns and cities do.

Two of these administrators will be familiar to some of the students.  Robert Midi returns to Newport City Elementary to serve as interim principal for the coming school year.  Mr. Midi had previously spent 18 years as the school’s chief administrator.  In Albany Todd Rivver, a former teacher there, returns to provide leadership following the retirement of Jill Chaffee.

In Brighton, Deborah Ahrens returns after a one-year absence to teach grades one and two, Chris Lawson arrives to teach middle school math, Tammy Wise to teach middle school language arts, Beth Rodondi to teach middle school science, Carolyn Mader will teach music, and Kevin Smith joins the team as a special educator.  Linda Beaumier, Brittany Gonyaw and Dana Jacobs arrive as paraeducators and O. Ray Willey is the school’s newest bus driver.

Eric Erwin, former assistant principal at Newport City Elementary, takes the helm at Lakeview Union School in Greensboro.  Kelli Dean, former assistant principal at Barton Academy and Graded School, takes leadership of Holland Elementary.

Despite the many changes in store for the coming school year, what remains the same is that all five principals are fully committed to the task of providing a quality education for the region’s children.

“Creating the best possible learning environment is always the bottom line,” Mr. Midi said.  “That’s always the goal.”

Creating that perfect environment starts with a school’s administration, Mr. Erwin said.  Not only must the principal oversee the educational needs of his students but also address the development of his staff and serve to educate the public as well, he said.

“To a large extent the principal is a public servant,” Mr. Erwin said.  “I need to be able to educate the public about the operation of the school, the needs of the school and explain how gaining the resources necessary to meet those needs will affect the education we can provide.  I feel that if I give people the information they need to make well-informed decisions they are better positioned to make the best choices for their children.”

Determining what is best for a community’s children is not an easy task.  Opening lines of communication is the first step to assessing and understanding the kind of school a community wants to have.  In many rural communities, the school occupies a critical place in the fabric of that town.

“It’s about creating an environment that invites involvement,” Ms. Russell said.  “I want people to be able to come to me and let me know what they think is important.”

Getting people involved in their school involves demonstrating an understanding of the nature of a community.  To that end, Ms. Dean feels she can relate to the people of Holland, having grown up in the Northeast Kingdom and lived in many similar communities.

“I can understand the role the school has in small communities because I’ve lived in it, I’ve worked in it myself,” Ms. Dean said.  “I’m sensitive to the needs of our small schools.”

That basic understanding will be important as Ms. Dean leads Holland Elementary in the next year.  Voters defeated the school budget at Town Meeting primarily out of a frustration over a lack of connection to the school.  Ms. Dean has vowed to build and repair those bridges that divide the school community from the rest of the town.

“I can’t do it alone,” she said.  “Luckily I have a school board that is also working to make those connections.  Holland School is the center of this community, and people certainly want to know that their tax dollars are being used well.”

Making those connections is part of the joy of being the administrator in a small school.  Those connections inevitably begin with the students in your care, Mr. Midi said.

“Even in a community the size of Newport you can make connections to the wider community through the students,” he said.  “The children have aunts, uncles, grandparents, a whole host of people they are related to.  You can reach those people providing the kind of educational environment that gets the kids excited and talking about what happened in school today.  The word gets out pretty quickly.”

Mr. Erwin is particularly grateful for the amount of support he has already received from the community.  Greensboro and Stannard, the two communities served by Lakeview Union, have proven particularly interested in their school community, he said.

“But I can’t take their interest for granted.  If I want to maintain that relationship, I need to get out there, meet people and keep them interested in what’s happening here.”

The close knit nature of small towns is conducive to building relationships, Mr. Rivver agreed.  Daily interactions both at and outside of the school provide an opportunity to keep community members engaged.

“Part of it is enthusiasm,” Mr. Rivver said.  “People can tell when you are passionate about something and they respond to that.  We’re not building iPods or engines, we’re educating children, and what can be more important than that?”

While a small community can facilitate engagement, small communities also have a small tax base which creates a challenge for administrators.  The budgeting process is one area where community involvement is particularly important.

“When you have limited resources you want to make sure that you make the best possible use of those resources,” Ms. Russell said.  “We need to make education relevant to the present and future needs of our children and our community.  Sometimes we are trying to teach them skills we don’t even know exist yet.  It’s about preparing them to be effective learners.”

Technology is one of those ways to expand learning opportunities and, if done well, can do so with limited effect on the bottom line.

“Island Pond is somewhat isolated because of its geography, but it doesn’t have to be,” Ms. Russell said.  “If we use technology well, we can provide our students with the same kinds of opportunities afforded students in New York City.”

How to implement that technology is one area where understanding a community’s values is particularly important, Mr. Erwin said.  To some people schools are seen as a protective force against outside influences.

“Technology has exposed our children to a lot of influences, a lot of information that can be both good and bad,” Mr. Erwin said.  “Our job is to help them make the distinction between the two.  It’s the duty of schools to help students use and understand the technology.”

Ms. Dean is in a unique position among all of the new principals.  Her position is defined as 80 percent principal and 20 percent fifth- and sixth-grade social studies teacher.  While that distinction may be reflected in the division of her salary, it becomes less obvious in practice.

“I am going to devote the time necessary to make sure that I accomplish both roles 100 percent,” Ms. Dean said.  “I think it will be a good combination, allowing me to keep fingers in all of the pies.  I love teaching and I think that it will actually be re-energizing to get the opportunity to interact with the kids in the classroom.”

Ms. Dean also hopes that by creating a bond with students outside of the principal’s office, it will help her better understand the needs of students and staff.  Building relationships outside of the office is also something that Ms. Russell hopes to accomplish in Brighton.

“Maybe I’ll be more approachable with a violin in hand,” Ms. Russell, a classically trained violinist, said.  “Sometimes you can’t always be the principal.  Sometimes you need to step outside that role and show a different side.”

Showing that other side can be rewarding on many levels, Mr. Rivver said.  Sometimes building those relationships can be as easy as getting to know the students by name or greeting them as they come off the school bus in the morning.

“Principals are perceived as the disciplinarian,” Mr. Rivver said.  “When you build those relationships, establish those connections early on, discipline becomes less of an issue.”

Addressing disciplinary issues is invariably founded on establishing respect, Mr. Erwin said.  Schools are perfectly positioned to encourage respectful actions and dialogue, he said.

“We’re working very hard to teach rules for acceptable behavior,” Mr. Erwin said.  “But it is a challenge because when you look at adult role models, politicians in particular, you don’t see that.  You don’t see them talking it out in a respectful way.”

Mr. Midi offered some words of wisdom to his new administrative colleagues.  In order to earn the trust and the respect of their community, they must be willing to clearly establish what they stand for and exhibit a willingness to follow it through.

“People trust you for your word and that’s very important in a small community,” Mr. Midi said.  “If people know what to expect, know what you stand for, even if people don’t always agree with it, trust is formed.  Don’t just say it, live it.”

Mr. Midi also encourages members of the community to remain involved and engaged with their local school.  While the principal is there to listen to your concerns, the school board is also able to voice those concerns on your behalf.

“We need to hear those voices, especially during the planning and budgeting process,” Ms. Dean agreed.  “It’s hard to know what everyone values.  It can’t just be my vision, it has to be a vision based on what we all agree is best for the kids.”

Lakeview Union School will have a special meet and greet with Mr. Erwin at the school on August 23 at 3 p.m.  Brighton Elementary will have a back-to-school picnic for students and parents at the school on August 26 at 5:30 p.m.

contact Richard Creaser at nek_scribbler@hotmail.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Greensboro Arts Alliance — a well kept secret

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Greensboro Arts Alliance Director Sabra Jones.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Greensboro Arts Alliance Director Sabra Jones. Photo by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — Secrets are notoriously hard to keep in small towns.  But Greensboro has managed to keep a thriving arts organization quiet for eight years.

With its tent theater set up on the green in front of the Town Hall in the middle of town, the Greensboro Arts Alliance’s days of flying under the radar have likely come to an end though.

That suits director Sabra Jones just fine.  The New York actor and acting teacher said in one of her increasingly rare free moments Sunday that her organization has been so busy trying to get its shows together that it’s had little time left for publicity.

Ms. Jones said she hopes this year is different.

She has been putting on staged readings and fully staged shows in Greensboro over the past eight years, she said.  In previous years the company performed in a barn near Caspian Lake and in a tent behind the Lakeview Inn on Breezy Avenue.

By moving to the lawn in front of the Town Hall the group is nearing its ultimate goal — renovating the building’s existing stage so it can be a permanent home for the company.  Greensboro selectmen have appointed a committee to study the idea.

With a new space and a pair of shows running the last two weeks of July into the first week of August, the arts alliance is looking to build its audience, she said.

At a recent rehearsal of Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, Ms. Jones told her cast that even for professional actors repertory theater is challenging.  (The company will perform Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man on alternating nights.)  Her group has an advantage, Ms. Jones told them in that “our company is the whole town of Greensboro.”

Andrew King gestures in the direction he hopes his voice will go as he works with music director Justin Jacobs in a song from The Sound of Music.  Like all of the professionals who worked with Greensboro residents, Mr. Jacobs exhibited a genuine spirit of respect and collegiality in working with performers with less experience than those he has previously performed with in his native Australia.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Andrew King gestures in the direction he hopes his voice will go as he works with music director Justin Jacobs in a song from The Sound of Music. Like all of the professionals who worked with Greensboro residents, Mr. Jacobs exhibited a genuine spirit of respect and collegiality in working with performers with less experience than those he has previously performed with in his native Australia. Photo by Joseph Gresser

If that’s an exaggeration, it’s not much of one.  While one group of actors worked on their lines at the Fellowship Hall of the Greensboro United Church of Christ, crews were working on turning an ordinary tent into a space for theater in the round.

The designer of the ingenious stage, Richard Alexander, is also a leading actor in The Music Man, playing an anvil salesman with a grudge against the hero, Harold Hill.  His son Elye, who was also a force in the construction of the temporary theater, performs in Our Town.

Wardrobe mistress Sonia Dunbar is also in the musical’s chorus.  On the Friday before the show’s opening, she received a delivery of band uniforms for the show’s final scene.

The man who brought them cautioned her that they were not to be altered.  Ms. Dunbar smiled serenely.

“No problem.  The stage directions describes them as ‘ill fitting.’” she said.

Ms. Jones has gotten some serious help in running the enterprise.  She is sharing directing chores with her son Charles McAteer, who is at the helm of Our Town, and local theater eminence Rosann Hickey Cook, who earlier in the season directed a reading of Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology.

In addition, the casts of the two fully staged shows include professional actors.  Marla Schaffel, who plays Marion the town librarian in Music Man, created the role of Jane Eyre in the Broadway musical of the same name and was rewarded for her performance with a Tony nomination.  Harold Hill is played by Anthony Wills Jr., whose long list of credits includes serving as artistic director of Artistic Pride Productions and an award-winning production of Master Harold… and the boys.

David Beck plays George Gibbs in Our Town.  He starred with Ms. Schaffel last year in the arts alliance’s production of The Sound Of Music.  In New York his credits include The More Loving One, a New York Fringe Festival award winning play, and The Long Ride Home, performed at the Cherry Lane Theater.

Amaryllis (Abigail Demers) rehearses a scene from The Music Man with Marion the librarian (Marla Schaffel).  The Tony-nominated Broadway actress is performing with the Greensboro Arts Alliance for the second summer in a row.  Last year she played Maria in The Sound of Music.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Amaryllis (Abigail Demers) rehearses a scene from The Music Man with Marion the librarian (Marla Schaffel). The Tony-nominated Broadway actress is performing with the Greensboro Arts Alliance for the second summer in a row. Last year she played Maria in The Sound of Music. Photo by Joseph Gresser

Ms. Jones considered more than just acting ability in choosing her guest performers.  In rehearsals she stresses the need for performers to “love each other.”  Watching the professionals work with the local performers, one can see that ethos in action.

One afternoon music director Justin Jacobs worked with Andrew King, one of two actors who will play the role of Winthrop Paroo, the lisping brother of Marion in Music Man.  The ten-year-old performer was having trouble with a difficult song, which was at the top of his singing range.

Mr. Jacobs explained what needed to be done and encouraged Andrew as he struggled to figure out how to hit the notes in the passage.  Mr. Jacobs’ patience brought forth a super human effort from the young singer, and the two shared an evident sense of triumph when Andrew mastered the song.

Similarly, Ms. Schaffel showed real tenderness while rehearsing a scene with Abigail Demers, who plays Amaryllis and yearns to be Winthrop’s love interest.

Ms. Jones said she believes that “everybody is famous, everybody has talent.”  She laughed delightedly when Krissie Ohlrogge, whose talent has hitherto been largely confined to her vast literary output, improvised a pratfall in Music Man.

Sporting a snappy boater hat, Professor Harold Hill (Anthony Wills Jr.) encounters an old friend in an unexpected place.  The part of Marcellus Washburn, the con man’s local contact, is played by Ed Donlan.  Photo by Joseph Gresser

Sporting a snappy boater hat, Professor Harold Hill (Anthony Wills Jr.) encounters an old friend in an unexpected place. The part of Marcellus Washburn, the con man’s local contact, is played by Ed Donlan. Photo by Joseph Gresser

After making sure she hadn’t hurt herself, Ms. Jones whooped with laughter.

“This is so brilliant, we’ve got to keep it.  We have to practice it, but we’re certainly going to keep it,” Ms. Jones said.

The choice of plays was also clearly well thought out.  All three of the alliance’s main offerings are examinations of small town life.  Even though the smallest of the fictional communities depicted in the shows — Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire — is quite a bit bigger than Greensboro, aspects of the town’s life still ring true.

Ms. Jones has helped to bind the townspeople together in a common effort as much as Harold Hill in Music Man does with his boy’s band.

And the arts alliance makes much sweeter music.

Our Town opens on July 23 with performances on July 26, 28, and 30, and August 2 and 4.

The Music Man premieres on July 24 with shows on July 25, 27, and 31, and August 1 and 3.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Circus Smirkus opens season with Oz theme

Jenny Ritchie, the Circus Smirkus rope coach, looks up at a pair of aerial performers.  At this rehearsal, her main focus was on the three troupers lying on their backs.  They had the job of spinning the ropes to which the acrobats clung.  Performers in the show often assist their fellows in this tightly knit company.  Photos by Joseph Gresser

Jenny Ritchie, the Circus Smirkus rope coach, looks up at a pair of aerial performers. At this rehearsal, her main focus was on the three troupers lying on their backs. They had the job of spinning the ropes to which the acrobats clung. Performers in the show often assist their fellows in this tightly knit company. Photos by Joseph Gresser

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — A crowd of Circus Smirkus troupers moved around the ring here at choreographer Matt Williams’ instruction early Friday morning.  Dressed in rehearsal clothes, the performers looked much younger than they do in their flashy show outfits.  That is, they look their age, which is, for the vast majority of the 27 youngsters, between 15 and 17.

It was toward the end of the second of three weeks, and they and a crew of directors, coaches and technicians had to put together a show they will perform 69 times during a seven-week tour.

Two thirds of the way into the rehearsal period, there was no show.

There was no lack of skilled performers and carefully honed routines, but Circus Smirkus is more than a collection of acts.  The company has, over the course of 25 seasons, earned a reputation for presenting ensemble shows built around a central theme.

This year the theme is Oz Incorporated, a slightly jaundiced take on the world created by L. Frank Baum in a series of children’s books.  Ringmaster Troy Wunderle plays a cross between a bumbling wizard and a spaced-out tycoon.

Right now, though, Jesse Dryden, the company’s creative director, is working with Mr. Williams to get troupers properly arranged in the ring for the charivari.  That’s the opening act of the circus, in which the entire cast parades through the ring, performing feats of balance or acrobatics in rapid succession.

In this year’s circus the charivari also sets the stage for the story of Oz, the string on which all the separate acts are strung like beads.

Dorothy, the little girl from Kansas is to make her appearance from above, circling on a rope swing.

The choreography is complicated and needs to be performed energetically to sweep the audience into the show.  At this stage the main issue is getting performers to their assigned places in the available time.

In actual performance there will be music, but now the performers are moving to counts shouted out by Mr. Williams.

Mr. Dryden watches closely as the performers walk around the ring.  Some aren’t hitting their marks in time.  The question is whether they aren’t moving fast enough or if the distance is too much for them to travel.

Speed is the answer, and the portion of the dance is redone until everyone is getting to his or her place.

Mr. Dryden, who was in the same class at the Ringling Clown College as Mr. Wunderle, has the overall responsibility for getting the show ready to go on the road.  Once it’s finished he will hand the keys to Mr. Wunderle, who will be responsible for the show during the tour.

This year Mr. Dryden is struggling a bit.  The show isn’t jelling as he might expect it to.  The problem, he says during a break, is that a lot of the most experienced troupers graduated from the company last year — the company’s age limit is 18 — and the group of leaders isn’t as big as it usually is.

In fact, he says, the two youngest troupers are the most experienced.  These are Emily and Ariana Wunderle, the ringmaster’s daughters.  Despite years of performing, Ariana, nine, is technically a “trouper in training,” but 12-year-old Emily is a full member of the company.

For some years, Ariana mostly worked in acts with her father, but this year she is all over the show.

Mr. Wunderle says the fact that his children work with him in the ring and his wife, Sara, is part of the front office crew is one of the delights of his job.

In the ring, the troupers repeat the dance and get the feel of the space.

Acrobats just mark their stunts, running into the ring and wriggling slightly to indicate the place where a flip would start and dash off to the side to make way for the next performer’s move.

Cuban coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales instructs 13 Circus Smirkus troupers as they form a giant, spinning pyramid.

Cuban coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales instructs 13 Circus Smirkus troupers as they form a giant, spinning pyramid.

Similarly, the balancing acts, including a human pyramid, are indicated by the performers moving from the starting to the concluding position.  After an hour of this work the group divides.

A trio of flyers rehearse on the ropes in the circus tent, while a gaggle of troupers head over to another tent to practice spacing for their trapeze act.  An upstairs room in the circus barn is the destination for some clowns who need to polish their routines.

In the sunshine of what will turn out to be the last sunny day in June, tractors are thrumming in a nearby field as farmers work to get their hay in.  In a tent with its sides rolled up for ventilation, performers are running elaborate patterns on a gym mat.

They are putting together a chase scene in which the Wicked Witch of the West and her minions pursue Dorothy and the Scarecrow on a trampoline.  The equipment can’t be used until the rope rehearsal is done, so the trampoline crew is reduced to marking the act.

Over in the circus barn Sarah Tiffin, a third-year trouper with a strong clown personality, is working on her part of a duo act.  As Glinda the Good, she is to battle Sam Gurwitt, who plays the evil witch.

Ms. Tiffin goes through her paces under the watchful eye of clown coach Jay Stewart, while both wait for Mr. Gurwitt, who is off with the trampolinists.

Brin Schoellkopf hovers above the tight wire.

Brin Schoellkopf hovers above the tight wire.

When he shows up the pair mug as they fire bolts of magic power at each other.  The idea of the sketch involves a magic reversal that reveals itself when Mr. Gurwitt cracks his knuckles and hurts Ms. Tiffin’s hands.

This causes a comic escalation as Ms. Tiffin stamps on her foot and Mr. Gurwitt hops in agony; he holds his breath until she passes out.

Another exchange of magic causes the situation to return to normal without Mr. Gurwitt realizing it.  There the act has come to a standstill.

Something has to happen to Mr. Gurwitt to knock him out, but the clowns and Mr. Stewart are having a hard time figuring out what it should be.

The idea of something big and heavy falling from the sky on his noggin is proposed, but there is no way to hide anything of size from the audience.  Ms. Tiffin suggests that Mr. Gurwitt ask another clown, Chase Culp, who is known in the troupe as Mongo, to hit him on the head with a club.  Rather than hurting Glinda, the result would be a knockout of the Wicked Witch.

There is no resolution of the problem when the rehearsal breaks up.

Six days later, on Wednesday, June 26, the troupers are back in the ring working on the charivari.  It’s damp and cool, so Mr. Dryden warns the acrobats to hold off their tumbling to avoid injury.

The troupers go into the opening dance, but for the first time they are working to the music that will be in the show, not just Mr. Williams’ counts.

At one point in the routine, the dancers make sharp typewriting gestures, then swivel into the movement of pulling a lever.  The music includes mechanical sound effects that mimic the movements.

“I saw you smiling,” Mr. Dryden says, “now you know how the music fits.”

He is bubbling with energy, despite almost three weeks of sleep deprivation.  The energy will be needed, because the rehearsal is going to be slow with frequent stops for lighting designer Anthony Powers to create cues.

Mr. Dryden grabs a microphone and does the Smirkus version of stand-up comedy.

“That was very wonderful,” he says after a portion of the charivari has gone well. “I’m sure that somewhere, someone loves you.”

Today, the pyramids are tried out, including one three-level extravaganza made up of 13 troupers in a formation that stretches from one side of the ring to the other.

Slowly, the pyramid rotates around the ring as coach Emilio D. Sobrino Sensiales watches.

Mr. Sensiales is one of three Cuban coaches who are with Circus Smirkus this year.  Mr. Wunderle said he and Mr. Dryden traveled to Cuba during the off season and worked with performers at a national circus school there.

The exchange is one result of that trip.

Two days later, Mr. Dryden is still working on the charivari.  A dress rehearsal has been put off, despite the fact that the show’s first performance is only a day away.

“If this is what it’s going to look like, we need another week of rehearsal,” Mr. Dryden tells the cast.  “Don’t think the audience is going to give us all this energy.  You give the energy, so the audience is blown away.”

The wear and tear on the troupers is showing a bit.  Mr. Sensiales is running a kind of ringside clinic, bandaging one performer, showing another a strengthening exercise.  Surrounding him is the pungent scent of Tiger Balm, a strong Chinese liniment.

Dorothy (Alyson Mattei), looks sympathetic as the Cowardly Lion (Chase Culp) showers a delighted crowd of children with tears.

Dorothy (Alyson Mattei), looks sympathetic as the Cowardly Lion (Chase Culp) showers a delighted crowd of children with tears.

Mr. Wunderle has a crew working on carrying him in and out of the ring.  He is up on stilts with a large animated face strapped to his back, but he can’t enter the tent standing upright.

He is borne into the tent on the backs of six or seven cast members and set up on his feet with his back facing the audience.  The huge face is that of Oz, the Great and Powerful, but the audience will be let in on the trick when Mr. Wunderle turns around.

Mr. Wunderle has crafted the mask himself, a reminder of his days as an art student.  In conversation, the ringmaster explains that he found the circus while in art school in Baltimore.

As an example of an advertising brochure, one of his classes was shown a flyer from the Ringling Clown College.

The year he attended, Smirkus founder Rob Mermin was co-directing the college and Mr. Wunderle discovered he could pursue his passion in Vermont, his native state.

Today, in addition to running the Circus Smirkus show, Mr. Wunderle is director of clowning for Ringling Brothers.

The Greensboro circus lot is soggy on Friday and a small bucket loader is spreading woodchips to keep patrons’ feet dry.

By Saturday afternoon, the time for the first show, the weather hasn’t improved and cars pulling in to park in a nearby field squeegee torrents of water from the earth with their tires.

It isn’t raining, though, and the crowds are lined up waiting to get into the tent for the first show of this year’s tour.  The aroma of popcorn wafts out of the concession tent and the candy butchers are doing good business.

Many of those waiting wear a plastic card with their name on it hanging from a lanyard around their neck.  These are troupers’ parents.

One, whose card says Greg, announces that he is from the Upper Valley.  Rumor has it that his son has been cast as the Scarecrow, he says.

When the tent is packed full, the crowd begins to clap slowly as if to bring forth the show.  Sure enough, Mr. Wunderle strides into the ring in his wizard regalia and they’re off.

The charivari goes smoothly and the audience oohs and aahs, especially at the spinning pyramid.  Dorothy comes down from the sky, dons her ruby slippers and sets out.

The audience is with the players, but the performance isn’t pinning them to their seats, yet.

A few acts draw strong reaction, including the duel between Glinda and the Wicked Witch.  They’ve added a bit of business in which Ms. Tiffin does a split and Mr. Gurwitt reacts by clutching his groin, bending in his knees and letting forth a long, high screech.  This brings down the house.

Mongo isn’t available to slug Mr. Gurwitt — he’s engaged playing the Cowardly Lion — but Alyssa Kim, as the head flying monkey arrives at the end of the battle.

She punches Mr. Gurwitt and flings his unconscious form over her shoulder and carries him out of the ring.

The trampoline act is properly frenetic, but at intermission the show still has the feel of a collection of disparate acts.

Something has happened when the show starts back up.  Maybe, Mr. Dryden has given a half-time pep talk, or maybe the troupers have realized the show’s possibilities for the first time.

At any rate, the energy level is much higher when they return for the second half of the show.

The acts race by and the audience reacts to the story more strongly.  By the time the Wicked Witch has been dispatched with a bucket of water and Dorothy has flown back to Kansas, swinging high above the ring, the audience is fully with the performers.

The final dance finds the crowd applauding and cheering from beginning to end.

Asked afterward when he knew he had a show, Mr. Dryden replies, “By the middle of the second half.”  He is, perhaps, a little ungenerous.

From here, Mr. Dryden turns over the vehicle he has created to Mr. Wunderle.

He will have the entire tour to polish the show, rearranging acts, if need be, or even cutting those that don’t work.

Mr. Wunderle says it’s important for the show to breathe.  While in the ring, he says, he can tell how things are going by listening to the crowd.

While out of the audience’s view, he watches from one of the three entrances.

By the time the troupe returns to Greensboro for its final performances on August 17, Oz Incorporated will be a finely tuned machine roaring through the ring.

And then the company will be gone, its performers scattered to high schools around the country, while Mr. Dryden and Mr. Wunderle dream up ways to top themselves in next year’s show.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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In Greensboro: Cow power produced from a medium-size herd

Peter Gebbie checks the readings on his new methane generator. Although he admits to being slow with computers, his wife, Sandra, said Mr. Gebbie turns out to be very good with the high-tech system. Photos by Joseph Gresser

copyright the Chronicle July 25, 2012

by Joseph Gresser

GREENSBORO — On Sunday morning Peter Gebbie had finished milking.  The truck from the St. Albans co-op was loading and his hands were moving out to get the second cut of hay in.

But there was more for him to do.  He and his wife, Sandra, headed toward a new building behind one of his barns.  A sign on the door wisely warned against entering without hearing protection.  Inside an engine roared.

Mr. Gebbie grabbed a clipboard and walked around the room checking readouts at various points along a complicated series of pipes.

He looked pleased at the results.  “Eighty kilowatts,” he said.  When they first started the generator about two weeks ago, it produced only 20 kilowatts.

When it is running at full speed the methane generator will produce 150 kilowatts of power.

Switching the generator on was the culmination of a process that began in Newport a little more than five years ago at a meeting sponsored by the state Agency of Agriculture.  That meeting at the East Side Restaurant brought together dairy farmers who were interested in the process of turning manure and other organic matter into methane and eventually electricity.

At the time the Gebbies were milking 200 cows at Maplehurst Farm.  The farmers who were getting into the electricity business had herds ten times the size of his.

On Sunday, Mr. Gebbie recalled that when he first started calling firms that design and install methane digesters he was turned away.

“The guys who sold digesters laughed at you,” he said, “unless you were at least a 1,000-cow farm.”

Mr. Gebbie persisted and eventually his calls started getting returned.  He said that it seemed to him that the digester builders had worked their way through the big farmers and were ready to deal with someone his size.

While they were investigating the possibility of building a methane digester, the Gebbies doubled the size of their herd to 400 cows.

They were fortunate in having long before set up their barns with slatted floors through which the cows tread their manure and bedding.  Gravity was enough to move this fuel into the digester, a round tank with a flexible cover.

Manure will produce methane with or without special equipment, but left to nature the volatile hydrocarbon will go into the atmosphere where it is a potent greenhouse gas.

Mr. Gebbie said he has heard it has a 24 to 25 times greater effect than carbon dioxide.

The Gebbies knew that things were going well when they saw the cover on the digester begin to balloon upwards.  That indicated that gas was beginning to build up a head of pressure.

From the digester the gas goes into a scrubber which removes impurities to protect the engine of the generator.  Mr. Gebbie said he is lucky because the gas produced by his manure is low in sulfur.

From the scrubber the gas goes to the generator or, if for some reason the generator is down for a while, through an upright pipe which is set up to burn extra gas to keep it from going into the atmosphere.

Once the manure is run through the digester, it could be spread on fields.  The Gebbies have chosen to separate the liquids from the solids, spread the former and use the latter as bedding.

Levels need to be checked throughout the system. Peter Gebbie stands in front of the tank that cleans the methane before it is fed into the generator.

Sawmills used to give away sawdust, Mr. Gebbie noted.  Today they use everything, and the price of bedding is a major cost of doing business.  By producing his own bedding, Mr. Gebbie said, he can save as much as $20,000 a year.

Studies show the bedding produced by digesters reduces the incidence of mastitis and results in a lower somatic cell count, an indicator of a healthy cow, Mr. Gebbie said.

Of course, electricity is the main product of the system.  The Gebbies have a contract to supply 150 kilowatts of power to the Hardwick Electric Company through the state’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development (SPEED) program.

They are guaranteed a price of 14 cents a kilowatt-hour, well above the current market price of four cents.  In addition they can sell Renewable Energy Credits (REC) through the Cow Power program started by Central Vermont Public Service and now under the auspices of Green Mountain Power.

Mr. Gebbie said the REC credits bring in an additional three to four cents a kilowatt-hour, less a small brokerage fee.

The system cannot operate at full capacity with only the manure produced on his farm, Mr. Gebbie said.  To get to the full 150 kilowatts, he will need to find an outside source of carbon.

Typically that means a liquid such as whey, he said.

The 150-kilowatt limit is convenient in one regard.  Power from the system can be moved on a simple single-phase line, the sort that typically serves a home.

Large scale generators on the farms in Franklin and Addison counties may generate more than a megawatt of power and require a very expensive three-phase service to move electricity off the farm.

In addition to power and bedding, the generator can also provide heat for the Gebbies’ home and milking parlor, and hot water, Mr. Gebbie said.  The potential savings could be as great as those from the bedding, but they will require substantial investment in underground pipes, he added.

The digester cost “$1.5-million and climbing,” Mr. Gebbie said.  Grants from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, Department of Energy and the state Department of Public Service’s Clean Energy Development Fund helped pay between half and three-quarters of the cost, he added.

“Most people would like to see things paid in five years,” Mr. Gebbie said.

contact Joseph Gresser at joseph@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Featuring page.  For all the Chronicle‘s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital.  

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Circus Smirkus season opens July 1

Circus Smirkus opens its season at the headquarters in Greensboro on July 1, with two shows, at 1 p.m. and 6 p.m.

This year’s theme is “Topsy Turvy Time Travel:  A Blast from the Past & Fun from the Future.”  The troop is taking a trip though the ages, as performers — ages 11 to 18 — work intensely with coaches to bring the theme to life on trapeze, wire, fabric, trampoline and cradle, and with clowning, acrobatics, juggling, unicycling and more. Circus Smirkus has two directors (creative and artistic), a costume designer, a choreographer, a composer, counselors, tent crew, cooks, sound and lighting technicians, equipment riggers, concessionaires and more.

Circus Smirkus is celebrating its silver anniversary with a new book, “Circus Smirkus:  25 Years of Running Home to the Circus,” by founder Rob Mermin and journalist Rob Gurwitt.  Solar panels have been added at the Greensboro headquarters, along with improvements to lighting, concessions and recycling. The circus is launching a Capital CAMPaign to match a $1-million donation for us to build its ownb Smirkus Camp facility (details soon).

After the first shows in Greensboro, the circus packs it all up and takes it on the road.  It takes eight hours to set up the 750-seat big top, backstage and concession tents, and organize 200 costume pieces, 100 props, 70 spotlights and a mile of electrical cable.  Then the troop is ready to welcome its summer audience of 50,000 fans!

Over on the campus of Lyndon Institute in Lyndon Center, Circus Smirkus Camp already welcomed its first campers last week, with a new, one-day Intro to Smirkus session.  Smirkling Camp is starting as six-to-nine year-olds arrive for their first overnight circus adventure.

For more information or to order tickets, see: http://www.smirkus.org/

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