In the North, Vermont Country Stores symbolize era of penny candy and overalls

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

STEPPING inside either of the two Vermont Country Stores - establishments of Yankee practicality - you're in another era. Here are all the things that make up that old-fashioned, nostalgic, country appeal - pickle- and cracker-barrels, scrubbed wood floors, rows of penny candy, Flexible Flyer sleds, red flannel nightshirts, and a whole bunch of gadgets you can't seem to ever find anywhere else.

But don't get the impression this is just a quaint place or just cute in the ``touristy'' sense. The goods sold here are genuine and useful - but they and the ambiance also make for a fun trip down memory lane.

``We search out things that were good 50 to 100 years ago and are still good today, but hard to find,'' says Lyman Orton, owner, whose father, Vrest Orton, started the store.

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``We're constantly chasing memories and nostalgia. When a customer asks for something we don't have, we consider it. If it's something good, we go looking for it.''

Today the Vermont Country Store here is chockablock full of all kinds of fascinating things. And plunk in the middle is a potbellied stove - symbol of the folksy, rural philosophy of 19th-century New England and of country folk all over the United States.

It's the place where legends are created, and much of the region's folklore originated when people sat around these comfortable heaters during long cold winter evenings.

Behind the Weston store's stove - which originally warmed travelers at the Rutland, Vt., railroad station - there's a place to play checkers. Although the board often gets covered with miscellaneous merchandise, it's always available for active use.

``If a few checkers get lost, we find a substitute from the penny-candy counter,'' Mr. Orton says. `` We can choose either black or red candy that fills the bill.''

The 200 or more varieties of penny candy fill one of the most popular spots in the store. Here you can stock up on old-fashioned Necco wafers, licorice candies, chocolate babies, rock candy, lemon drops, half a dozen kinds of block fudge - and 15 colors of peppermint-striped stick candy.

There's Beeman's chewing gum and clove gum, root beer barrels, red raspberry candies - hard and soft, from mints to caramels.

``We had so many people ask for old-fashioned chocolate cream drops, the ones in a cone-shape, that we found someone to make them for us,'' says Orton.

There are lots of counters around the rambling building, which makes it easy for clerks to talk to the customers, answer questions - even give a little demonstration of how a toy works or how a fireplace glove fits or how to wind up the seven-foot Polyphon music box, with tunes played from two-foot metal disks. It's all part of the relaxed, country-store atmosphere.

Vermont foods are well represented by nostalgic favorites. There are the famous Vermont common crackers, homemade whole-grain breads, Indian pudding, baked beans in bean pots, brown bread - and all kinds of dried beans from Jacob cattle beans to yellow-eyes and soldier beans.

Of course, there are maple syrup products as well as the pure, unadulterated nectar of the sugar maple. There are tins of dandelion and fiddlehead greens, dried apples, cereal, and specially ground flours.

You can buy smoked herring, honey mustard, a new kind of cookie that looks like a fat golden walnut with a delicious filling, watermelon pickle, and red pepper relish.

``My grandfather had a country store in North Calais, Vt., back around the turn of the century in 1897,'' Orton mentions.

``It was the place where locals waited around the potbellied stove for the arrival of the mail stage.

``Later the family had a department store in Athol, Mass., but they moved back to Vermont, and my father started this store in 1946.''

And he put it all together.

Kitchen gadgets - ``necessities,'' like pizza scissors and a round, thin pizza pan to crisp the pizza after you've brought it home from the bakery.

There are gold blazer buttons with the Vermont seal - thistleware from Scotland, the Kennedy rocking chair, a classic Columbia 1952 bicycle, a long railway bench, dozens of butter churns, spinning wheels, and letter boxes from old post offices.

An antique cast-iron peep show is shaped like a big black iron barrel on a podium. You put in a penny, turn the handle, and a wheel of photo cards flip past your view. The show hasn't changed in 40 years, yet customers who first saw it as children still enjoy it years later when they come back to Vermont.

Many people know the Vermont Country Stores through the mail order catalog only. It has attracted a devoted following from coast to coast.

``Voice of the Mountains'' says the top of the winter issue. It's filled with small pictures and descriptions along with a bit of homespun philosophy - a country road taking us ``home'' again.

The Vermont Country Stores are on Route 100, Weston, Vt., and Route 103, Rockingham, Vt. They are both open year-round, every day of the week (except that the Weston store is closed Sundays, and the Rockingham store is open Sunday 10 to 5). The catalog can be ordered by mail or by calling 802-362-2400.

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