Craftsbury Common is a handsome patch of grass surrounded by pretty white buildings. Depending on the season, this 2.2 acre parcel of land might be the site of a soccer game, a farmer’s market, a concert, a Hitchcock movie* (*see caption on last photo), or the finishing line of cross county ski race. According to one account, in the spring of 1797, the town’s inhabitants cleared the common to plant potatoes, thereby ensuring every family in town would have something to eat to survive the winter. More than 200 years later this neighbors- helping- neighbors ethic still permeates this northern Vermont town, the home of so many civic minded folk, yet perhaps none has invested more time and elbow grease in and around the green heart of the community as a man named Harry Miller. In addition to mending the common fence and constructing the town’s showpiece library, he’s also worked on just about every pretty white building, including the United Church and the Academy. Recently, I reached out to this husband, father, school board member and master carpenter to learn a few things about how to build community.
All photos/art by Julia Shipley
Lesson one: Have a party
Harry joined Craftbury’s Village Improvement Society in 1979 and proposed mending the rotting post and rail fence around the Common, the Society’s senior members balked at potential costs. Harry figured out how it could be done “in house” and started mortising out pieces of the fence. When he finished three weeks later, he called up some neighbors to join him. Not only did the work posse replace the whole south end by noon, but this effort gave him a prototype for how to structure and mobilize other community projects: “Have everything laid out ready to go,” he says, “and then call in your labor, give everybody a job…it can be done.”
Lesson two: Finish what you start
For 13 years Harry taught a course called, “A Reverence for Wood” to Sterling College students, many with no prior carpentry experience. They had to pick a project and build it. Harry didn’t care what the project was, so long as they were invested in it: a banjo, a worm bin, a wagon, a rocking chair, a throne. A throne? “Yeah, the student built it out of pine and stained it black.” Things didn’t always go smoothly—he watched one student saw off the faulty joints she’d spent four hours chiseling, and start over. But at the course’s end, they held “The Wood Show,” where the whole community visited to oogle the finished projects. And as student’s stood proudly by the things they’d mitred and hewed, basking in the applause, he reminded them, “This is what it feels like to finish something.”
Lesson three: Every little bit counts
Now, every March, he offers lessons in fractions at the Academy where his wife, Jean teaches fourth grade. Using raw materials, each student learns to build his/her own ruler, notching out 16ths, 8ths, 4ths– s/he begins to establish tangible connections between the abstract numbers and the measurable bits and parts that make up their world.
Lesson four: If you can’t find common ground, build it
When town spirits splintered over the cost of replacing the Academy’s dilapidated gym, Harry spotted a place in the budget where he could trim off an inch. During a school board meeting he saw the line item for the gym floor was $150,000. “I thought that would be a place where we could save and participate—and we went from there,” he said. What followed was miraculous: the town’s 184-year old K-12 public school now has a new gym with a floor sourced and installed entirely by the community. All the lumber –sugar maple and yellow birch– was donated by 38 local landowners. Skilled volunteers facilitated the harvesting, skidding and log loading. Lathrop’s in Bristol milled the lumber for a discounted price, and the flooring was nailed together by dozens of community members. Volunteers cooked and served sumptuous lunches throughout the three- day weekend, and last, money raised from auctioning off portions of the old gym floor covered the costs of sanding and painting court lines on the new one. And the one who facilitated building this beautiful common ground? Yep. Him again.
Lesson five: Communicate (preferably with dignity)
“Okay, this is my last community project for a while,” Harry says, somewhat unconvincingly. It’s still in his shop this morning, but by Sunday, when folks arrive for church services, and on Monday, when the buses let off their students, they’ll all be greeted by a handsome structure that blends in with architecture of the Academy and the common it stands by: The new school sign and message board.
Sometimes, when I’m overwhelmed and frustrated by things beyond my control, I think about the fence on the common, and all the helpful, mended things surrounding it. One time Harry explained (without maybe without really intending to) what it feels like to be a creative agent in community, and how much one person can really accomplish with their hands, measuring skills, determination to finish and a positive spirit. He was telling me about the day they installed the gym floor, he said, “I watched grandparents, parents and children work together building this floor—it’s more than just fitting together the pieces of a floor—it’s investment in community. These kids are going to remember this, and show their kids, saying, ‘I built this.’”