As autumn colors spread across Vermont's high, rolling northeast corner, six small towns around St. Johnsbury take turns holding open house. One after another, they invite outsiders in to share their cooking and crafts, their history and way of life, as well as their splendid scenery. St. Johnsbury hosts the final day.
Although it's been happening for 50 years and draws a loyal following from around the country, the Northeast Kingdom Fall Foliage Festival (Sept. 29-Oct. 3 this year) remains little known within New England, perhaps because it's the region's first fall event. Leaves turn a week or so earlier up in ''The Kingdom" than down around tourist towns like Woodstock, Manchester, and even Stowe, all of which stage their own weekend events later in October.
Of course, many of this festival's most colorful events also occur midweek. Five of the towns open for just one weekday, and for most of these communities, it's their one visitor-geared event of the year. They go all out.
''The idea is to acquaint travelers with Vermonters," said Betty Hatch, festival coordinator since 1965, ''and capture some of the dollars going through town."
You have to know both Hatch and these towns to catch the Vermont humor in that. Most of the festival's villages lack the requisite stores and restaurants -- some even the gas pumps -- to profit from the annual influx. Proceeds from the church suppers and concerts and back-road school bus tours benefit local causes. Quilts and knitted items, wooden toys and puzzles are sold by the people who make them.
This year, the Fall Foliage Festival opens Monday, Sept. 29, in Walden, moves Tuesday to Cabot, Wednesday to Plainfield, Thursday to Peacham, Friday to Barnet, and Saturday to Groton, where the big parade shuts down Route 302 from 1:30 until 3 p.m. The Sunday windup is in St. Johnsbury, best known for its Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium and for a wide choice of places to eat.
Color was just beginning to streak the hills as I drove north on Interstate 93 the first Thursday of last October. Not until I headed uphill into Peacham Corner were the leaves red and gold enough to contrast with the handsome white clapboard buildings. One of New England's most photographed towns, Peacham was the setting for the film version of Edith Wharton's ''Ethan Frome" and for the movie ''Spitfire Grill."
''All these buildings were built by people who aren't here, so we thought it would be nice for you to meet some of them," a woman in a long skirt announced as I entered Peacham Congregational Church. Introducing herself as Anna Renfrew, Peacham's first town clerk went on to tell us about life during her stint as postmistress from 1898 until 1925.
Several more long-deceased Peacham residents followed, delivering their narrations on the stage by the church pulpit, in front of the pipe organ. They included Azel Wild, the Congregational minister from 1874 until 1881, and Oliver Johnson, the local editor who accused Wild of plagiarism in one of his sermons. These stories were meant to be related during a ''Ghost Walk" through Peacham's cemetery. But it had been raining that morning and thus the move indoors.
I asked the way to the cemetery anyway and was guided uphill to one of this world's splendid burial sites. Shaded by avenues of stately maples and banked in hydrangeas, it has a view that sweeps from the White to the Green mountains and down the valleys in between.
I strolled back downhill to the Peacham Historical House, a former 1820s school that later served as a coffin shop and now houses changing displays. Peacham's current population of 635 is less than half what it was in 1840.
It was getting chilly, and warmth from the forge in the neighboring Ashbel Goodenough Blacksmith House drew me in. Joseph Miller was making ''Peacham hooks" ($5 apiece). A local smithy and woodworker, Miller said he looks forward to greeting some of the same faces from all over the country every Peacham Fall Foliage Day.
''Some come in their RVs and others find a place to stay for the whole week, year after year," he said.
Passing the Congregational Church, I was lured inside by music. From a back pew, I watched the late afternoon sun stream through the church's long, clear, 12-over-12 pane windows as a young male harpist played ''Amazing Grace." Then the sun disappeared, and it began to snow.
Friday dawned brilliant blue, and Route 15 through Walden was dry, but just a mile off its hardtop the Hatch homestead was banked in snow, another clue to how dramatic a few hundred feet in altitude can make this time of the year.
''We try to get visitors off Route 15 and help them catch the best color," Hatch said, referring to the back-road tours that form the core of each festival day. She acknowledged that it's possible to miss Walden entirely if you keep to Route 15.
The festival's kickoff is always in Walden and always begins with coffee, doughnuts, and registration in Walden Church. That's in Noyesville Village, just off Route 15, if you know where to look. Here, local crafts are displayed and craftspeople demonstrate skills, which always include wreath-making, the Walden specialty.
Hatch remembered the out-of-state couple who came one year for coffee, took one look around the church, and said ''no thank you" to the tour.
''They hadn't seen anything!" she recalled. ''Some people are just afraid to strike off up a dirt road."
Dirt roads are where the Northeast Kingdom's beauty lies, as visitors to Walden this fall will find. They receive a map and also will be guided to hot spots such as an alpaca farm, a home bakery, and a collection of antique engines and tools. Later in the day, there's a hymn sing at South Walden Church (a seasonal congregation) out on the Bayley-Hazen Road. The ham dinner is back at Walden Church.
Each town has its specialty. In Cabot, visitors tour the town's famous cheese factory, and local musicians perform at the turkey supper in the United Church and Masonic Hall. In Plainfield, activities include a hike up Owls Head, a back-road ride to a granite quarry, and a winery tour. In Barnet, this is the one day of the year The Goodwillie House is open to the public. Built in 1790 for the town's first Scots Presbyterian minister, it houses an extensive historical collection in Barnet Center, beside the vestry in which the ham dinner is served, surrounded by high meadows where craftspeople and maple syrup producers set up. Barnet's big news this year is the restoration of Ben Thresher's woodworking mill and the fact that its forge, to be demonstrated by Bill Miller, is working.
Groton inevitably draws the biggest crowd of the festival because it's Saturday and because it's also this old lumber town's Homecoming Day. The parade is the high point, but the 800 tickets for the Famous Chicken Pie Supper also usually sell out.
According to Hatch, some 5,000 people attend the festival one way or another. Roughly half come on the weekend, but many come midweek, and some stay the entire week. During the week, the small towns usually average about 100 visitors -- who are outnumbered by locals.
''We've made a wide circle of friends over the years," she said.
Many of us have only weekends to spare for foliage viewing, but the final days (Oct. 4 and 5) are also well worth the trip. The hordes of leaf peepers have not yet arrived, but the Northeast Kingdom's maple-coated hills already are streaked orange and gold.
Christina Tree is coauthor with Sally West Johnson of ''Vermont: An Explorer's Guide" (Countryman Press, 2004).