EAST FAIRFIELD — Most days, cars winding along Route 36 may not even notice East Fairfield except for the gas station on the side of the road.
This past weekend, however, no one could miss the porch parties, large white tent, lively music and people pouring out of the old white Meeting House and onto the town green.
In anticipation of the Jig in the Valley celebration Sunday, Saturday night was full of life with one end of town hosting folk music and a potluck as part of the Pre-Jig Jam while, on the other end of town, the White family threw a community-wide party to thank all who helped in the aftermath of a house fire.
Both events were part of village residents’ efforts to maintain a sense of community. Like many other small Vermont towns, old businesses, farms and traditions have been lost in East Fairfield, though elements of village life – and their bucolic nature – remain. The Meeting House, the location of the Jig in the Valley and its Pre-Jig Jam (and the cause for which funds are raised), is one place still standing which residents feel is important to preserve with its rich history of town gatherings.
According to Nance Shaw, one of the building’s preservation team members, the old church used to be the center of it all. “From the beginning, this little church was the anchor that brought people together,” she said.
With hope, hard work and the funds for renovations, she added, it could be once again.
The Jig in the Valley has become a popular community event that has attracted people from within East Fairfield and without for the past 23 years. Begun as an annual fundraiser for the Fairfield Community Center – bought by the Town of Fairfield in 1990 and located in the old town elementary school just behind the Meeting House – the music festival has become an established tradition.
“We knew we needed to have a way to bring a good chunk of money in every year,” said Shaw. “So we began the Jig in the Valley.”
She explained that the area has been big on music ever since the 60’s and 70’s. Though Jig musicians don’t necessarily live in town anymore, they always come back.
This year, six bands with local ties played for eight hours on Sunday while Jig-goers enjoyed their music, food, a flea market, kids activities and seeing their neighbors.
“It’s something everyone looks forward to every year,” said Shaw. She estimated about 350 people show up annually.
“It’s really a day of people sitting and visiting – you see people you wouldn’t otherwise see all year,” she said. “It’s really turned into a tradition.”
Several dozen people began the traditional weekend early at the Saturday night Pre-Jig Jam. After feasting on a potluck underneath the village green’s trees and at its picnic tables, Jam-goers entered the Meeting House. There, sitting in old pews and standing in the doorway, everyone listened to the West Virginia-based band, Rush Run Philharmonics.
Their acoustic folk music gently filled the evening air as it floated from the church auditorium to the open windows, their multi-colored stained glass panes letting in the last bit of light from overcast skies.
“It’s just a really casual kind of party,” Shaw said of the Jam. “It’s getting to be quite popular – partly because the food is so damn good.”
Among the crowd were people from East Fairfield, Bakersfield, Enosburgh, Sheldon and even as far away as Framingham, Mass. According to 44-year-old Brian Steele, of Bakersfield, East Fairfield is geographically located to bridge some of the more rural Franklin County towns.
“This town really connects the towns of Bakersfield and Fairfield together,” Steele said.
At this time of year, it also brings together a larger New England community. Sitting on the porches of homes along East Fairfield’s main road were visitors from nearby towns as well as other states. Matt Porter – along with his sister, Marisa, and his two-year-old twin nephews, Andrew and Blake – came up from Newtown, Conn. to visit with relatives and enjoy the weekend festivities.
“It’s great – we love it,” said Porter. He estimated he and his family traveled north for five Jig events over the years.
The Whites’ party
Just down the road from where the Porters sat was a massive white tent sitting on the lawn of Whiteland Dairies. The farm owners, Cedric and Dawn White, were in the midst of throwing a community-wide thank-you party.
“We had a house fire on January 26,” Dawn explained Saturday. It started around 4 a.m., she added, and was believed to have been caused by a malfunctioning woodstove or chimney.
Though their 120-cow barn was spared, cold conditions and the advanced stage of the fire kept firefighters from saving the home, which was a total loss.
“It went fast – we had nothing,” explained Dawn.
Their next-door neighbors, Jim and Margi Cameron, and a number of other community members came to the White family’s aid. With two kids, no home, no clothes, no food and 120 cows to still take care of, the Whites took all the help they could get.
The night of the fire, the Camerons took the White family in out of the cold. “We’re neighbors,” said Jim. “It made sense for us to take them home.”
Though the Camerons offered a space in their building – they bought the old general store about nine years ago – the Whites found a temporary living arrangement.
“We lived at the community center for a couple of weeks,” said Dawn. Her family received cooked meals, clothes and money donations and offers for places to stay – local band Nightrain even played a benefit concert for them in March.
After several months of living in a trailer and making do, the family has just moved into their newly built home.
“We’ve been in it for a week and a half now,” said Dawn. As a celebration of that move and an expression of gratitude for everything community members did, the Whites threw a big party with food, drink and Nightrain playing into the night. Dawn was constantly hugging newcomers as they walked towards the tent.
In between greeting guests, Dawn said she and her family were just overwhelmed by the help they received. “For them to pull together really fast – it was incredible,” she said.
According to Jim Cameron, East Fairfield has a track record of coming together to help people. “When something goes on, they find a way – very easily – to put stuff together.”
This tendency of the village to come together for good is what Nance Shaw and her fellow preservation team members would like to see more of for the old Meeting House.
Historically a church since the late 1800s, the deteriorating building was acquired by the Community Center in 2012, where Shaw was director until last year. The goal for the past three years has been to raise money – through the Jig and other events – to preserve the Meeting House.
Among the tasks completed so far are electrical rewiring, lighting replacements, rebuilding the roof and redoing the bell tower. Shaw said the next big project is replacing the eight massive, stained-glass windows.
“It’s going to be a really expensive project,” said Shaw.
While she, her husband, Tyrone, and six others have dedicated time and effort towards the Meeting House, Shaw would like to see more involvement from people across the East Fairfield village and from all generations.
“I hope it will grow,” she said.
Michele Bessett, who also works on the Meeting House preservation project, voiced her dismay at the loss of the town’s two grocery stores, full post office, other businesses and traditional gatherings at the church over the years. She said she sees the building restoration project as an opportunity to liven the village with activities and gatherings.
“It’s still really a quiet farming community,” she said. “[But] the village core – I think it’s threatened. We’re committed to bringing arts and a community gathering place for people.”
Bessett added, speaking from the steps of the old building, “It’s really nice – you look around tonight and these are folks who haven’t seen each other for awhile.”
Shaw shared Bessett’s wish to try and keep the old space available for community events.
“From my point of view, one thing that bothers me greatly is the kind of dissolution of downtowns and community or county centers as a strong kind of bonding hub,” she said. “When your old buildings go… I think they’re symbols of that kind of community. And when they’re gone, they’re gone forever.”
To learn more about the East Fairfield Meeting House or Community Center, visit http://www.meetinghouseonthegreen.org.