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Small town, big picture

Email|Print| Text size + By Peter Mandel
Globe Correspondent / December 25, 2005

MONTPELIER -- People are always saying that a place is ''nestled" in hills. Montpelier, the nation's tiniest state capital, isn't nestled. It's wedged. There's nearly always a bump between where you are at a given moment and where you'd like to be.

Montpelierites like to tell you that it cost a million dollars to blast the highway from Burlington through town. This is easy to believe. Granite-packed high ground guards it on all sides.

Walking or cross-country skiing around town can be spectacular, thanks to Swiss-steep drops on streets like Nelson or East State, and to views of the Green Mountains and of the flashing sun-kissed golden dome of the capitol downtown.

Flatter Vermont towns like Middlebury and Rutland are rimmed with mountain views, sort of like Denver. You can see alpine shapes along the horizon, but you know you have a drive ahead of you before you can climb into them.

Montpelier is already there. Tourists trudge up the stone tower in Hubbard Park, which rises behind the State House. From here you can see for miles: pastures, clumps of trees, the occasional clapboard house, and the slightly hazy silhouette of the horn-shaped mountain called Camel's Hump.

Even the dots that connect up into Montpelier itself are neatly arranged. Here's the easily walkable 19th-century downtown, and over here, a couple of toy-sized colleges: the New England Culinary Institute and Vermont College.

For me, this area is about small lawns, geraniums in pots (my grandparents were the town's florists -- we knew of no other), and maybe best of all, the chance to poke around in a village that is a rare central-Vermont blend.

Going about their errands all around you are the locals -- not the pink-and-green-clad people from the resorts, but old-time hunters with T-shirts and caps, and their polar opposites, never-say-die North Country vegans in sandals and billowy cottons.

The town is worth a taste.

Montpelier's early history -- what you can find of it -- is vague. A man named Colonel Davis built its first house, a log cabin on the Winooski River. That was in 1787, when Vermont was still an independent republic with its own postal service and coins.

By the early 1800s, the republic had become a state, and the pocket-sized town of Montpelier, which now has 8,035 residents, somehow beat out bigger Burlington to become the capital. Vermont is now on its third State House, a compact, perfectly proportioned stone building that, because of its reflective hat (the dome's shiny leaf contains gold) looks as imposing as more important monuments in more cosmopolitan towns.

The capitol stands its ground nicely against the looming hills. You get a glimpse of Montpelier's particular brand of Yankee stubbornness -- as if stubbornness itself could have been built of stone. It's a stubbornness you can see in more than a few storefronts downtown.

You notice minor landmarks that long ago should have waved the white flag to the influx of granola bins and coffee out of high-pressure machines. F.I. Somers & Sons hardware store on Main Street has plenty you can plug into an outlet, but also Baby Ben wind-up alarm clocks in several styles, quarts of lamp oil, and ''Super Bib Aprons for Workmen and Carpenters."

Somers's hand tools are displayed, sky-high, on battered pegboards set up in cramped woody-smelling aisles. Customers and sales clerks blend easily in the Vermont way, talking about fishing, everyone equal in the realm of low-powered do-it-yourself.

On the other side of the street is Coffee Corner, an 80-year-old not-so-greasy spoon with a long, low counter and hand-lettered messages that customers have tacked up.

''I especially enjoyed the Tuna Melt," says one note. ''Please fix the waffle iron," urges another. When I ask the waitress if it was ever done, she says no.

''And it makes me mad, too," she adds. ''We should have one in a place like this."

A similar New England-style diner is the Wayside Restaurant and Bakery on the Barre-Montpelier Road heading out of town. You'll know you're almost there when you see the sign for the Twin City Motel with its prominent Coke machine and chairs on the deck in front of every room.

At the Wayside, which opened in 1918, platters are still accompanied by authentic Parker House rolls, with the little slits on top intended for pats of butter. Other house specialties (not all of which I can vouch for) include salt pork with milk gravy, pork liver and bacon, and ''fried tripe -- pickled."

A breakfast special called The Vermonter brings you sausage gravy on toast. That's it. Last time I was there, this was the pick of two elderly women who arrived at the restaurant in a taxi, and were picked up by the same cabbie about a half-hour later.

On the northern edge of Montpelier is the family-owned Morse Farm and its Sugar Shack, which does its own maple sap tapping, boiling, and candy making. Vermonters from these parts have been known to cook their eggs and hot dogs in kettles of bubbling maple syrup, or even just the sap, and the rough-hewn Morse Farm store alongside County Road carries on this tradition by mixing syrup into household condiments and selling them.

Balanced on top of one of the rafters inside is a homemade display pitting ''Pure Vermont Maple Syrup" against supermarket syrups such as Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth's. A study of the labels reveals that most of the big-name brands contain no maple syrup at all or, at best, just a drop for flavoring.

In the store, you can buy maple cream for spreading on bread, maple mustard (dark, sharp, and grainy, much tastier than it sounds), and four distinct grades of maple syrup itself. There are maple ''creemies," made with a not-too-sweet vanilla-based soft ice cream, and according to a sign that seems to have cropped up since the last time I was here, ''Maple Creemie Filled Whoopie Pies."

As good as most of these things are, I say go easy. Maple is best in small doses, and leaving some central Vermont delicacies for later on is not a bad thing.

Contact Peter Mandel, a freelance writer in Providence who also writes children's books, including ''Boats on the River" (Scholastic, 2004) at pmandel@worldnet.att.net.

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