Lj Holland Leaves Guildhall, and Laura’s Heart Breaks

This week, my friend and neighbor Lj  begins her move out of Guildhall. On the advice of her doctor, she’s headed to the warmer climes of Florida to start a new life. She’ll be around sporadically over the winter, but by March, she will be officially and permanently moved. I know that she’s doing what’s best and I’m happy for her. But I am sad for myself. No, I am much more than sad–I am devastated. When she goes, she will take a big part of me with her and will leave a gaping hole in the community where I’ve lived and worked since 2004.

When we moved here, Lj and her husband Mike Holland had preceded us by four years or so. They came here from New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where Lj had been a police officer and Mike had begun a career as an accomplished chef. They bought the beautiful old Ridgewell Farm on Rt 102 and proceeded to farm, run a vegetable stand, raise pigs, sheep and chickens, brew their own beer and wine, and throw the best parties in the North Country.

Lj has had a huge impact on my life in the relatively short time I’ve known her. When I was appointed as Town Auditor back in 2006, Lj brought great snacks, showed me the ropes, and taught me how to read financial statements. As an auditor, she was knowledgeable and dedicated. Later, she provided support and encouragement when I ran for Town Treasurer. During that first difficult year, she and the other auditors slogged painstakingly through hours and reams of material as together, we cleaned up a recordkeeping mess from the previous administration.

She taught me about composting, advised me on pastry techniques, showed me how to host a great party and gave me counsel on other matters ranging from finding a good physical therapist to whether or not I should get my own chickens.

Lj was elected to the Guildhall Selectboard in 2010. To that position, she brought a wealth of hard-edged common sense, a no-nonsense attitude and a great sense of humor.

Lj's dog Maizey (the white lab on right) play with our dog Django, at Lj' house

Lj is also brave, courageous and outspoken. This summer and fall, she was one of the many Guildhall citizens who were appalled and outraged when our School Board vice-chair actually voted for the School District to pay tuition for his own 5th grade child to attend an out-of-district school. She passionately believes in good government and accountability. She hates the idea of someone getting special treatment just because of their name or the power they hold in town.

In a small town like ours, it isn’t easy to stand up publicly against something that you believe is wrong, unethical or illegal. But Lj knew it had to be done and she never blinked.

She attended School Board meetings despite her deteriorating health and spoke up bravely. She joined with others to petition the School Board for a hearing on the conflict of interest issue. She wrote a letter to the editor to the local newspaper. She proudly took the serious step, along with nine other citizens, of filing a lawsuit against a School Board and individuals that she believed had broken the law and betrayed the public trust. The woman has guts.

I wish there were more people like Lj in our town. As far as I’m concerned, her portrait should hang in the Town Office, in recognition of her exemplary service to Guildhall and of all the great friends she made here.

We miss you horribly, Lj. But we’ll stay in touch and we wish you great health and happiness in this next chapter of your life.

What’s Brewing in Essex County, Vermont?

The new beer and ale tap at the Hollands
On a recent Sunday morning in late February, I gathered with about a dozen home beer and ale brewers at my friends Mike and LJ Holland’s home. The Hollands live about a mile south of me, on Route 102 in Guildhall, Vermont. For those of you not familiar with the town, Guildhall—population 268—lies on the eastern edge of Essex County and the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, across the river just north of Lancaster, New Hampshire.

It’s a remote spot, without a single restaurant, bar, or even store in town; not a place you’d necessarily expect to find a vibrant brewing community. But vibrant it is; the brewers at Mike’s house that morning came from all over the North Country of Vermont and New Hampshire and they were an enthusiastic and knowledgeable crowd.

Mike and Lj themselves moved to Guildhall about 8 years ago, from a rural area of Pennsylvania. Mike rapidly built a reputation for himself as a superb chef and caterer. Before moving to Vermont, he’d worked as chef supervisor and sous chef at the Hilton Wood Cliff Lake in Bergen County, New Jersey, and the Main Course Restaurant at the Main Course Golf Course in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. Here in the North Country, he did a three year stint at the Clamshell Restaurant in Littleton, NH before becoming head chef at Weeks Memorial Hospital in nearby Lancaster. And he and Lj have become known for their informal but high-end local catering service. In an area where fine cuisine can be rare, they’ve staked out a small but growing reputation. (They’re both also involved in municipal politics: Lj has been a Town Auditor for years and was just elected to Guildhall’s Selectboard; Mike is a Guildhall Water Commissioner and member of the Town Office’s Kitchen Committee).

The Hollands farmhouse, on Rt 102 in Guildhall

Mike and Lj came to Essex County, Vermont well before I did; by the time I arrived, they had already started experimenting with multiple homesteading projects, such as small animal and vegetable farming. After moving to the area from Boston, I had a lot to learn about gardening in the cooler climes of the Northeast Kingdom’s Zone 3. Mike and Lj were generous with advice about types of compost, the appropriate depth for raised beds, the best squashes and pumpkin varieties for these climes, and portable greenhouse strategies. The Hollands’ garden to this day is an impressive and inspiring one, and if that weren’t enough, they also began keeping chickens, pigs and sheep. Step by step, this couple have expanded their homestead and developed some serious skills.

It was about three years ago that Mike became fascinated by home beer and ale brewing (and later, wine-making). “Back in Pennsylvania, an aunt of mine gave me a home brewing kit as a gift one year,” he explained, as he peered into some extract fermenting in a giant container in his kitchen. He soon discovered that even in remote Essex County and neighboring Coos County of New Hampshire, he wasn’t alone.

In fact, there’s a fairly active and well-organized group of home brewers in these parts. White Mountain Fermenters has a website and meets once a month, rotating those meetings between members’ homes or at the Granite Cask brewing store in Whitefield, NH. Typically, the members use their monthly meetings to observe and learn about the host brewer’s methods, sample the results, and eat a hearty potluck spread.

Mike Holland, with his brew measure
But while there are lots of home brewers around, it soon became clear that Mike Holland stands out. Several of the Fermenters at Mike’s house that afternoon told me that Mike was something of a groundbreaker. “He’s really the only one of us who has actually moved to the next level of making his own extract for his brews,” one of the Fermenters explained. Some of the guys smiled a little sheepishly, noting that they’d love to also make their own extract, but that it was a time-consuming endeavor. A couple of them agreed with my comparison to making sourdough bread. To make a good sourdough, you need starter. Most people buy their starter commercially. But some hard-core bread makers make their own at home, by using flour, warm water, a bit of salt and waiting for the concoction to capture natural yeasts in the air.
John Allin (center, with blue vest), supervising the fly sparging

Most of the Fermenters purchase commercially prepared extract—and most of the time, they buy it from the Granite Cask, a home brewing retail outfit in nearby Whitefield, NH. John Alllin, who founded and manages Granite Cask, was there on this Sunday, in the garage overseeing fly sparging, a process that rinses the grains, extracting the remaining malt. (It involves slowly adding water above the grain bed while simultaneously draining an equal amount from the bottom).

Allin once worked at the Mt Washington Hotel and Resort in Bretton Woods, in a variety of capacities, including food and beverage, before a serious work-related injury slowed him down. At that point, always intrigued by brewing and wine-making, he founded Granite Cask. And according to him and the other fellows at the Hollands on this day, Granite Cask does surprisingly well as a business endeavor; it provides Allin with a decent living and is a crucial resource for the North Country brewing community. Mike and others clearly consider Allin to be the “grandfather” of brewing in these parts and a mentor to all of them.

While none of the home brewers at the Hollands that day have ventured into commercial sales, almost all of them have entered their brews into local and national competitions. One must qualify for the nationals, and that can be done locally by entering into the competitions at the Lancaster Fair and Littleton NH Home Brew Competitions. Mike himself has racked up local, regional and national awards for his Doppelbok, Scottish 90 Schilling and Oatmeal Stout, among others.

The Belgian Wit

The February meeting of the Fermenters was—in part– planned to celebrate and show off Mike’s new tap system: six beer and ale taps mounted handsomely on the kitchen wall, labeled carefully with the name of each brew. (I was particularly enamored of the Pumpkin Spice Ale.) And in one corner of the kitchen, Mike proudly pulled aside a towel to reveal yet another of his latest pending brews: a gorgeous-looking Belgian Wit with chamomile, coriander and fresh orange peel. Later, I took my camera down to inspect the inner workings of the tap system; Mike had run an elaborate set of tubes down to a large refrigerator in the basement, which contained the vats of the various brews.

The tap, behind the scenes

As for Mike and Lj’s goals? For now, it’s just informal, entirely non-commercial home brewing, for family and friends. But they’re slowing building toward the day when they’ll operate their beautiful 19th century farmhouse as a bed and breakfast with fresh home-grown produce, grass-fed meat, homemade wine, and a small, distinctive home brewery.

Mike Holland, demonstrating process

To reach Mike and Lj Holland in Guildhall:
5985 Route 102
Guildhall, VT. 05905

Guildhall, Vermont Annual Town Report, 2009

2009 Town Report, Cover Page Image
During January and February, auditors, town clerks and treasurers all over Vermont have been busy preparing their town’s annual town report. In the mid-19th century, towns began publishing single sheets, and then gradually moving to modest booklets. The Town Report is mailed, physically distributed, and often available on municipal websites. It typically contains budget and tax information and reports of all the Town and School officers. Read Guildhall’s! Guildhall Vermont Twn Rept 2009

Guildhall, Vermont Annual Town Warning 2010

Controversies at this year’s Town Meeting?

Taxpayer funding for the Guildhall Public Library. The Library has gone a long way this year toward better serving town residents. But will they keep it up?

A proposal to subsidize swimming pool memberships at Colonel Town Recreation Center, in Lancaster, for Guildhall residents. Hmmm. Despite my liberal tendencies, I’m against taxpayer financing of personal recreational interests. What’s next, the Town pays for my yoga classes? Click here to read the warning Guildhall Town Warning 2010

Town Meeting Approaches, and Things Heat Up.

In less than three weeks, the chairs will be set up in rows. Tables will grace the front of the stage. The Town Clerk will place Robert’s Rules of Order, Title 17 of the Vermont Statutes Annotated, the 2009 Town Warning, a gavel and a glass of water on the Moderator’s podium.

Allen Hodgdon, our beloved moderator, will open the meeting with his usual inspiring instructions to voters–he’ll explain that participants in the meeting must speak and listen in good faith, and while they may disagree vigorously, they may not question one another’s motives.

Most debate this year will center on financial support for the Guildhall Public Library. Our beloved, beautiful Library has been languishing badly in recent years: one Article on the warrant, crafted and recommended by the Selectboard, increases the funding but makes it contingent upon the Library being open for more hours and providing more services. A competing Article, put on the Warning by petition, just asks the voters to give the old sum of money with no conditions. Myself, I vote yes on Article 13, financial support, but only under certain conditions! Barack Obama-style, I want change. A real library for our town!

Prior to the meeting, we in Guildhall will vote by Australian ballot for our Town Officers. This year, there are four hotly contested races at Town Meeting, for Selectboard Member (incumbent Susan McVetty v. Thomas Dubreiul), Constable (incumbent Bob MacIlvane v. Daniel Mowery), Delinquent Tax Collector (incumbent Alfred McVetty, Sr v. Phil Nelson), and School Board Member (with an incumbent and last I heard on the grapevine, multiple challengers!) (School Board is actually voted from the floor in the evening!) Campaign letters are already flying fast and furious and soon I expect the barrage of personal phone calling and visiting to commence. Politics in my little rural town, in its own way, is so much more relevant and up-close than it ever was living in Boston!

Many, if not most Vermont towns, have sadly eliminated the discussion and debate part of Town Meeting. In those towns, although it’s still called Town Meeting, there is no actual meeting for debate and moderated discussion–all questions, including warned articles and the budget, are voted in private booths, over the course of the day, on paper ballots. While this makes it slightly more convenient for some people to vote, at what cost? When voters decide ballot questions and budgets in a voting booth, they lose the opportunity and the responsibility of hearing the debate and engaging with fellow citizens on the issues. More concretely, they cannot amend an Article from the floor! I hope our Town never goes down that “easy way out” path. As a matter of fact, this year, we have an article on the warning in which the voters are asked to decide whether they want to return the election of Town Officers to open voice or floor vote in the evening meeting! Let’s have the courage of our convictions!
I get a shiver down my spine at the opening of every Town Meeting, as I ponder the generations of people who have sat in this very room since 1764, voting on the things that matter to them!