Wardsboro celebrates heirloom turnip

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(Keese) The town of Wardsboro will honor its roots, on Saturday at the first Gilfeather Turnip Festival. The locally grown turnip, said to be sweetest after a couple of hard frosts, is a source of pride in this southeastern Vermont town, as VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) Wardsboro’s a quiet place in the late fall. Most of the leaf peepers have gone home by now. The only bustle is in the town hall on Main Street, where the Friends of the Library are making mincemeat of Wardsboro’s main claim to fame.

(Janet LeBlond) “I’m peeling turnips, getting reading for the Gilfeather Turnip Festival. And this is going to be turnip soup.”

(Keese) Janet LeBlond is one of the festival’s organizers. She says the luncheon menu will include a variety of turnip delicacies. The festival will also feature turnip seeds, recipes, tee-shirts and postcards. There’s even turnip art made by kids from the local school.

(LeBlond) “They’re hoping to get some of the older residents in town telling maybe some stories they knew about John Gilfeather or maybe harvesting the turnip.”

(Keese) John Gilfeather was the son of an Irish family that immigrated to Wardsboro in the 1830s. People speculate that the family brought the seeds of an unusually sweet turnip from Germany. Gilfeather grew his turnips on the farm that still bears his name.

After Gilfeather’s death in 1944 people in the West River Valley continued to keep the turnips going. Until the 1980s, the only way to get the seeds was if somebody gave them to you. They have since been registered as a Vermont heirloom variety.

Paul Dutton, a commercial produce farmer with stands in Newfane and Manchester, owns the right to sell the seeds now.

(Dutton) “But I think there’s probably lots of home gardeners that collect a few seeds. I guess that’s probably okay. Why not?”

(Keese) Dutton has several thousand bushels growing in his field near Route 30. He leads the way through the leafy tops, the roots practically bursting out of the soil.

(Dutton) “There’s a big one, see here? Then I just whack off the roots….”

(Keese) The knobby whitish globe is about the size of a cantaloupe, with twisted little rootlets at the bottom. Nobody would call it a pretty vegetable.

But Dutton says it can’t be beat when it’s mixed with mashed potatoes or served on its own with salt and butter.

(Dutton) “It’s a hell of a lot better tasting than those raunchy flavored rutabagas, in my opinion, anyways. And I guess people in the Valley have sort of fallen in love with it, you know.”

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Wardsboro.

(Host) The Gilfeather Turnip Festival will be held in the Wardsboro Town Hall Saturday from 10 a.m. till 4:00 p.m.

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