West Pawlet hosts first annual Woodchuck Festival

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(Host) Monday is Groundhog Day. According to legend, it’s the time when the groundhog awakens from its winter sleep. If it sees its shadow, some people believe it means a lot of winter is still to come. But on Saturday in West Pawlet – where more winter weather is a good bet in any case – people are celebrating the holiday in their own way.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Sound of birds and work in a barn.)

(Keese) There aren’t many places left in Vermont like West Pawlet. It’s an unpretentious place, the scene of a once-busy slate industry. The air is still pungent with the smell of working farms.

There’s not much going on here in the winter, in between working the two or three jobs it takes many families to earn a living. Members of the local volunteer fire squad spend a fair amount of time talking about the new engine they wish they could afford.

Enter the West Pawlet Women’s Auxilliary and the first annual West Pawlet Woodchuck Festival.

(Dolores Luebke) “At this time of year everyone has cabin fever, and everybody needs something to do. We need some fun, we need to laugh. So we figured we’d bring out the woodchuck in everybody.”

(Keese) Dolores Luebke chairs the Woodchuck Festival. All week she and her fellow auxiliary members and firefighters have been setting things up at the Mettowee Elementary School.

For those who don’t know, the animal called a groundhog in Punxatawny, Pennsylvania is known as a woodchuck in Vermont. The name is also used, not always respectfully, to refer to a certain breed of rough and hearty Vermonter. The people of West Pawlet take it as a compliment.

(Taylor) “We’re all woodchucks. Over here in the sticks we’re all woodchucks. I’ve been called a lot worse!”

(Keese) Ron Taylor is West Pawlet’s volunteer fire chief. He says the purpose of the all-day party is not just to raise money, but to celebrate the local culture. The festival includes an indoor marketplace, featuring food, crafts, antiques, woolens and farm products. Outdoors, there’ll be games around a bonfire: the firefighters are planning a log toss and a tug of war.

There’s also going to be a Woodchuck Rescue Challenge. Doris Luebke:

(Luebke) “We sent out invitations to the local fire departments and rescue squads and invited them to put together four-man teams. It’s a timed course of some sort with all kinds of challenges in it.”

(Keese) A couple of nights before the big event, the crew was trying out the Woodchuck Shooting Gallery they’ve made. It’s a row of wooden woodchucks mounted on springs. Knocking the figures down with a softball is supposed to be a kids’ game. But the grownups seem to find it addictive.

In the evening there’s a woodchuck ball for the whole family, with a king and queen and a woodchuck look-alike contest. If you’re a party animal, it’s definitely the place to be.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese.

(Song, “Vermonters” by Woodchuck’s Revenge.)

The Woodchuck Festival & Ball will be at the Mettawee Community School (South of the intersection of Routes 30 & 153). Festival goes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. for Evening Ball goes from 7-11 pm. (flannel and plaid attire). For information, call (802) 645-0109.

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