Coventry Residents Weigh Opportunity Against Tradition as Phish Weekend Approaches

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(Host) When the long-awaited Phish concert gets underway in Coventry this weekend, all eyes will be on the band and on the 70,000 fans who have tickets to the two-day festival. But for months, the host of the big event – a small, remote community in the Northeast Kingdom – has been grappling with what it will be like to become a Vermont metropolis for one weekend.

VPR’s Lynne McCrea reports:

(McCrea) Outside the village of Coventry, up into open stretches of cornfields and hayfields, Fred Webster’s old farmhouse looks out to rolling hills above the valley. This morning, Webster gets a visit from Scott Wheeler, a free-lance writer who publishes a monthly journal about the Northeast Kingdom.

(Webster) “Maybe you can give us a hand with this and then we can go up and sit on the porch…”

(McCrea) Fred Webster is a lean man with smiling eyes and leathery hands that betray a lifetime of milking cows. He’s in a barn filled with antique farm equipment, trying to move a heavy elevator once used for loading stove wood. As it turns out, this is part of a project that he’s working on for the Phish concert

(Wheeler) “What is that, Fred?”
(Webster) “They want to keep it kind of a secret – don’t say anything!”

(McCrea) Without giving too much away, some of this old gear will be used to create special production displays – part of the ‘agricultural’ theme of the band’s final show.

(Webster) “And they want to have things going up this elevator. And so we’re gonna mount this on this oxcart and we’ve got to figure that out. Have I intrigued you?”

(McCrea) While many residents fear the dramatic swell of crowds and cars that Phish will bring, Fred Webster sees the event as a great adventure.

(Webster) “There’s those traditional people – I’m not sure they have the vision of what a concert is. And so I think they have a fear of the unknown. We’re quite excited about it!”

(McCrea) Later, sitting on the old farmhouse porch, these two native Vermonters reflect on the Northeast Kingdom and recall a town meeting they once went to where state officials suggested the town needed ‘some culture.’

(Wheeler) “So at the end of the whole thing, Fred has one simple question: ‘Can anybody tell me what a dump rake is? That’s what I thought. Now who’s uncultured?'”
(Webster) “It isn’t whether you go to Fifth Avenue or whatever. We have our own culture and we’re proud of it. Pretty simple maybe, part of my culture is I like to sit here on my porch and run my mouth. But I do like to listen, too!”

(McCrea) Scott Wheeler also welcomes Phish coming to Coventry. But when officials recently announced plans to close certain back roads during the event, Wheeler says it brought out a stubborn streak.

(Wheeler) “Boy, I hate- this is MY road, I live here and I don’t really like being told what to do, no matter how good if it’s good for me or not. To be honest, the very act of living here is sometimes kind of tough – 40 degrees below zero, three feet of snow. It’s tough but I think it’s bred an independent group of people. My personal philosophy, right or wrong, is I’ll do virtually anything for anybody to help ’em out. Yet on the other hand is, still I dig my heels in when somebody doesn’t ask me to do something- they tell me.”

(McCrea) Others in town are seeing opportunity in the crowds that Phish will bring. In spite of concerns by police, Mike Rogers plans to rent out camp sites on his family farm, which is within earshot of the music. He admits there are real concerns about public safety. But Rogers says with farming, you have to diversify to make a living:

(Rogers) “I think you could say we’re typical Vermont farmers, or Vermonters, because we like to venue different things and we’re probably seekers of opportunity, you know. So, the opportunity came and we’re taking it.”

(McCrea) At the town offices, Assistant Town Clerk Mona Rounsevelle is just back from putting gallons of milk in the church freezer – a backup supply for people living in the village. She’s thinking about the needs of the elderly, who could become especially frustrated by impassable roads.

(Rounsevelle) “Nobody likes to be dependent, don’t want to feel dependent. Even if they are, they don’t want to feel it. That’s one of the things I like about Vermont as opposed to other places people go to retire. By george, here you keep your head up and keep moving and then you die! Don’t fool around about it!”

(McCrea) This rugged, no-nonsense attitude may help the people of Coventry in the days ahead as they live through the final Phish concert that will surely be talked about on front porches for years to come.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Lynne McCrea.

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