The Tale of the Magic Oven

The Tale of The Magic Oven

About Anita Rafael (Anita Rafael lives and works in Wardsboro. She is a frequent contributor to Stratton Magazine.)


People country store 300x296 The Tale of The Magic OvenHere is an improbable, but true, local tale: Once upon a time, not long ago in a small country village in Vermont, a huge, wood-fired oven was built to bring people together on Friday nights so they all could share handmade pizza, outdoors, under the stars. Because the pizzas from this oven were so outrageously delicious, and because the stars in Vermont are so bright and very beautiful, more and more people rallied ’round. With a little creative nonprofit funding and a good amount of sweat equity, the residents of the town used the money they earned selling pizza, added to grants and gifts, to save an old country store, the last historic commercial building in the center of their community. To this day, the fortunate townsfolk are enjoying their Country Store-Pizza Party (and all-in-one Cafe-Art Gallery-Post Office- Thrift Shop-Farmer’s Market) and living happily ever after.” The end.

Hopefully, this magic oven in West Townshend will forever cast its warmth and goodly spell on the residents and the travelers who come from far and wide to this slow bend in the road on VT Route 30.

Here’s how it all happened: Back in 1848, two brothers, Francis and Edwin Sawyer, put up a building for a storefront on the busy “stage road” that ran through West Townshend. Francis quit the business within a few years, and after Edwin was bought out in 1864, a string of subsequent shopkeepers sold various goods and hardware there. A century and a half after the store first opened, the twostory structure, with its tall windows and wide porches still intact, stood alone as the last commercial building in the village center. Several years ago, the store closed for good, save for the small post office in the otherwise vacant building, and that, too, was threatened because it could not support the costs of the property. Besides, the structure itself was far from being up to current building codes for any occupant. Things got worse: People broke in when the space was dark and empty. And in 2000, a fire destroyed parts of the building. For a while, it looked as if all was lost.

People grass fed 300x240 The Tale of The Magic OvenThen, something of a miracle happened, but the miracle came hitched to a wagonload of work, a huge promise, and no guarantee of success. In 2012, the West River Community Project, a nonprofit organization that had formed three years prior, took over management of the old store building and land with an optimistic 20-year lease–enough time to make a profitable venture of it. The suggestion to form a community nonprofit came from the staffers of the Preservation Trust of Vermont in Burlington when they came to evaluate the historic value of storefront and make recommendations.

“The real impetus around renovating that building,” says WRCP member Claire Adams, “was to make sure we kept our local post office.” The group–a posse of friends, neighbors and many volunteers, all of whom cared deeply about the future of their village–began renovating the building. The first glint of good things happening there was the much-needed coat of paint on the exterior, and then, the interior, too. Wearing her Benjamin Moore, and with all her windowpanes washed and sparkling, the town’s old gray lady was indeed glamorous once again. The WRCP, however, needed a great deal more than the profits of a little country store and a pocket-sized post office to help the site pay for its own upkeep. But what? One idea: Build an enormous oven for making artisan pizza.

Volunteers built the “cob” oven over the summer of 2012. “It was the brainstorm of one of a bunch of farming interns who were working in the community that summer,” according to Adams. “It is made from local mud and hay that the workers mashed together with their feet. It has a brick arch at the opening, and the raised base is made out of flat rocks that people hauled over from their own yards and fields.” On its first Friday in operation, volunteer bakers stood in the blasting heat at the oven door and cooked up 46 pies in about 2 hours. “We’ve also baked bread in the oven, and roasted whole chickens in there, too,” says Adams. “All the cordwood burned in the oven is donated to our nonprofit.”

People eat pizza 300x246 The Tale of The Magic Oven
Soon after the Friday night pizza party took off and the picnic tables were full of patrons, the popular Townshend Farmer’s Market brought its caravan of muddy Ford pick-ups and colorful pop-up tents to the lawns behind the country store, setting up from 4 to 7 p.m. on Fridays also. On the second floor, the WRCP opened a thrift shop to generate a little more revenue to pay the bills, and it’s now thriving, thanks to cheerful workers and ongoing donations of good, clean clothing and essential household items. The U.S.P.O. is looking more chipper than ever before and is running efficiently in its new spot just off the side porch. The new cafe up front is as cute as can be. It is part art gallery, too, hosting changing exhibitions of works by local artists. Open every day, the cafe has become a favorite hangout because the coffee is brewed hot, the food is farmfresh and therefore delicious, and because you cannot help but chat and chew with everyone you meet.

And all the live entertainment? You might wander by or happen in during any number of toe-tapping performances, indoors and out. There might be a bluegrass banjopicker or traveling minstrels and itinerant folksingers. People used to fly down Route 30 past the old West Townshend store, but not anymore. Now, passersby slow down and lean over to see who’s there and, if they hear a fiddler, they’ll roll down their car windows to listen in a bit.

People pizza oven 300x261 The Tale of The Magic OvenIt’s not that easy to applaud with ink, but we’d like to give it a try: Bravo, citizens of West Townshend! Take a bow. Thanks for keeping Vermont real and keep up the good work. More than anything, keep up the great pizza.

• Find out what’s happening, who’s playing, and what’s for sale by visiting the country store’s website at Join their online mailing list, too. Stop by the West Townshend Country Store, open daily, at 6573 Route 30, or call (802) 874-4800.

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