A legendary family created two magnificent spaces in Shelburne, Vermont, that locals consider the best backyards in the country.
All photos/art by Julie Bidwell
The summer storm comes out of nowhere.
Scientifically speaking, of course, it comes out of somewhere, possibly skidding through downtown Shelburne, Vermont, from nearby Lake Champlain, a stout body of water that bears watching. Its 435 watery square miles are dotted with islands, strewn with sunken ships, and possibly harbor a shadowy figure known locally as “Champ,” New England’s version of the Loch Ness creature.
The Lake–it deserves a capital letter–brushes up against Shelburne, just 15 minutes south of Burlington, and can be glimpsed here and there around town, like Waldo, where you least expect it. Or where money bought it. Seeded and watered with Vanderbilt money, 1,400-acre fairytale Shelburne Farms overlooks the Lake from a classic turn-of-the-19th-century country house turned inn, with views of sparkling water spreading beyond like a vast blue field.
Here in the downtown, however, there are no lake views, although there’s plenty of compensation. The pleasing jumble of clapboard buildings and brick facades feels like a hamlet. There’s the Shelburne Country Store, with jars of old-fashioned candy sticks lined up like colorful bundles of dynamite. Just a few doors down is the Flying Pig Bookstore, the kind of kids’ retreat that bookworm parents dream of. Across the street, ruddy brick encases Village Wine and Coffee, the local gathering nook that no self-respecting hamlet would be without.
But the rain is seriously pelting now. A biblical wall of water is falling from the sky, with only a small blue chip of promise in the distance. We need an ark, fast. Handily, the 220-foot steamboat Ticonderoga rises up ahead, from a sea of soaking grass. The Shelburne Museum’s broad, beamy showpiece blasts its mighty horn, or so I imagine. We dash for cover–everyone within sight of the huge boat has the same idea. Chased by a torrent, we flee across the gangplank like bedraggled rats regaining the ship.
It’s surreal, this museum right in the center of town–it’s literally like having your own personal museum on call. If you live here, you can buy a year’s family pass for $75 and come anytime the place is open: to explore the lighthouse, ride the vintage carousel, look at the Monets, explore the gardens, or just picnic in broad view of the Ticonderoga.
Thank you, Electra Havemeyer Webb, for your one-of-a kind museum, the most eccentric collection imaginable. For gathering buildings the way some people gather teapots, for collecting mechanical toys and quilts and circus posters. For organizing willing townsfolk to drag this behemoth boat two miles across land, from Lake Champlain, in 1955. It’s been a great port in the storm.
The sky cracks open, spilling blue. We’re ready to push on, deeper into this weird and wonderful landscape.
Busy U.S. Route 7 flows down from Burlington, seven miles away, past shopping centers and mom-and-pop shops that back onto fertile Vermont fields. The commercial congestion thins out closer to Shelburne, and then the road swings into town past a dense concentration of appealing cafes and shops, skimming along the border of the Shelburne Museum, with tantalizing glimpses inside–like a drive-by museum. You can’t see Lake Champlain from the village, but the town hugs Shelburne Bay, and there are wide water views from nearby Shelburne Farms (tucked away, off the beaten path, with a sign so discreet you can easily miss the turnoff). Shelburne Bay Park conceals a pretty one-mile path along the lake, with more trails to be found in town at La Platte Nature Park.
“There’s a strong sense of community here,” says Elizabeth Bluemle, a children’s author who’s been the welcoming face behind the Flying Pig Bookstore for 17 years. She points across the street to Village Wine and Coffee, noting, “That’s a real community gathering place, and they have incredible scones and muffins.”
There are some intriguing options for meeting locals, including becoming a regular at the Shelburne Farmers’ Market from mid-May to mid-October, where you can pick up everything from pickles to Pakistani treats. Or volunteer in the gardens at the Shelburne Museum, or take a class at Shelburne Farms, which also runs family programs and a summer camp for ages 4 to 17. The Field House–a full-blown athletic complex–teems with parents and kids playing soccer, baseball, and ultimate Frisbee. Aspiring artists can gather at the Shelburne Craft School, one of Vermont’s oldest craft schools, to work with metal, glass, wood, and clay.
Right next door to the Flying Pig, the Bearded Frog keeps the whimsy quotient high with chevre crostini and venison cigar rolls. The Inn at Shelburne Farms has the best view on any menu–Lake Champlain and the misty Adirondacks–and uses ingredients fresh from the farm. Fiddlehead Brewing Company is on a quest to brew the perfect pint; regulars often pair it with wood-fired pizza next door at Folino’s. Rustic Roots serves coffee-maple sausage and seasonal soups, and Cafe Shelburne is an award-winning little French restaurant whose owners have been julienning stuff for years.
There’s kid-friendly, and then there’s Shelburne: Shops here have the potential to ignite your inner as well as your actual child. Jamie Two-Coats’ Toy Shop, on the town’s central grassy wedge, looks like the inside of a 5-year-old’s imagination–unbridled, unhinged, with loads of lovely Waldorf paraphernalia and European playthings. It’s beautifully offset by the reading selection at the Flying Pig. “We started out as a children’s bookstore,” says Elizabeth Bluemle, and it’s still kid-centric there, with 80 percent of its 30,000 books for kids. The Vermont Teddy Bear Factory is just a mile south of the village.
Shipwrecks lie strewn across the bottom of Lake Champlain, so if your heart is set on waterfront, you may want to start diving for doubloons. “The market has always been good in Shelburne, but it’s definitely picking up,” according to Leanne Siffermann, an agent at Keller Williams Realty. “Inventory is low so far this year.”
That said, “there are always bargains to be had, but you have to be diligent. If something in a desirable area hits the market at a ‘bargain’ price, it can be scooped up within hours.” Homes sold last year (2013) ranged from $133,000 into the millions, with “plenty that sold in the $200s.” Truth is, you’re never very far from the water (and $20 buys a season’s pass to Shelburne Town Beach).
Quirkiest Museum. Thanks to founder Electra Havemeyer Webb’s obsession with Americana, the Shelburne Museum collection includes 38 buildings, a carousel, more than 400 quilts, Impressionist masterpieces, 22 gardens, and its Ticonderoga centerpiece. “Lots of young families with kids come,” says Leslie Wright, the museum’s former marketing manager. “It’s a place to let our kids run around so they don’t keep us up at night,” grins a tall man with a small boy.
Most Elegant Farm. Shelburne Farms is a Frederick Law Olmsted masterpiece, working farm, National Historic Landmark, and model of sustainability (count 530 solar panels), but it takes top prize for best barnyard. Kids can meet and milk Delaware, “the most patient cow on earth,” who’s just one of countless critters hoping to be admired. Stewardship is imparted gently; cheese and bread are made on site; educational programs run all year; and garden-fresh meals are served at the inn overlooking Lake Champlain. The grounds are open year-round for walking or snowshoeing.
Getting Your Bearings
Between May and October, the Inn at Shelburne Farms offers guests a taste of the landed-gentry lifestyle. In town, Heart of the Village Inn rolls out nine rooms of Victorian comfort, practically inside the museum grounds.
More information at: shelburnevt.org, sbpavt.org, vermont.org. For a slideshow of additional photos, go to: YankeeMagazine.com/more