The Grassroots Project in Vermont

Dateline: 24 October 2005
Updated: 18 April 2013



Back in the mid 1970s, when I was in high school, I didn’t have a clear plan for what to do after graduation. I had a vague idea that I wanted to be a homesteader or farmer or something like that, but I lacked direction and focus. My high school guidance counselor, Gary LaRoech, tried to help me figure out what to do. He suggested I go to the same state university he attended. I remember him showing me the school’s catalog. He opened it to a picture of his dormitory. “My room was right here,” he said, pointing to the book. I wasn’t persuaded.

Then, in a quirk of Providence, Gary remembered something that he had recently received in the mail. “Maybe you'll be interested in this,” he said to me as I was about to leave his office. He handed me a small booklet titled The Grassroots Project in Vermont.

I took it with me and flipped through the pages. There were pictures of kids driving work horses, working on a farm, and participating in other outdoor activities. This was clearly not a conventional school. The classroom was the outdoors. The school’s motto was Working Hands. Working Minds. The place looked custom made for me.

Tuition for the one-year program was $4,000. That was a whole lot more money back then than it is nowadays (accounting for inflation, it's the equivalent of $16,000 dollars in 2013). My parents certainly could not afford it. But my grandmother could. What a blessing my grandmother was! My English teacher, Carm Pennella, wrote a recommendation for me and I was accepted. It was a good feeling to know I had a plan for after graduation and that I was going to be going to such a nifty school.

In September of 1976 my parents drove me to the quaint town of Craftsbury Common in Vermont’s beautiful Northeast Kingdom. Within an hour after arriving, mom and dad were on their way home and I was, figuratively speaking, in heaven.

The school I found myself at had once been a stodgy, traditional, New England prep school for boys, most of whom were, I imagine, uppercrust scions. Officially known as Sterling School, the institution had become an educational anachronism; prep schools just weren’t cool anymore. In a last-ditch effort to save the institution from closing, several faculty members came up with a new idea called The Grassroots Project. The idea worked. Although "Grassroots" is now history, it served its purpose. Today, Sterling has evolved into an accredited four-year college. And tuition is only $38,000 a year!

My class of 1977 started out with somewhere around 60 kids. We came from almost every state in the Union and from very diverse backgrounds. The small size of the school, its remote location, and the unusual curriculum made for a most unique educational experience.

We camped, we hiked, we worked together in teams to get ourselves through wilderness obstacle courses, we whitewater canoed, we learned to sharpen and use chainsaws and two-man crosscut saws. We cut pulp wood and hauled it out of the forest with horses. The school had a farm where we cared for animals. They even had a team of oxen. There was some classroom instruction, some guest speakers, and lots of field trips. I remember one field trip where we helped a farmer butcher a cow. On another we helped build a barn. I helped for a day in a sugarbush collecting sap and watching it boil down. Stuff like that.

We played volleyball, basketball, softball. We played broomball on the ice under lights on frigid winter nights. There were Ultimate Frisbee games on the common. And yes, of course, there was skiing. Backgammon was a popular board game in “The Barn”, which was actually the lounge (with a big fireplace) where we congregated before and after meals. There was also a good share of typical college partying, along with drunkenness, pot smoking, and other immoral activity. But, contrary to popular belief, “everybody” was not doing those things in the ‘70s.

As good as the curriculum was, the best part of that fleeting year from my past was the friendships I made and the spiritual growth I experienced. Although Sterling is not a Christian school in any way, I went there as a Christian with strong convictions about what was right and wrong, and I had predetermined how I would and would not act based on those beliefs. This became evident to a fellow classmate who, it turned out, was also a Christian. Joe Miller was an avid surfer who came from Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. He had a genuine zeal for his faith like I had never seen before. We were brothers in Christ and became great friends, and we shared some wonderful adventures that year.

But Joe was not the only Christian among the student body. There was also Robin, Mike, Randall, and Cindy. We got together for Bible studies and fellowship. As a result, we all grew in our faith that year.

My golden year of schooling in Vermont did not give me any college credits and it did not specifically prepare me for a particular career. It was, in many respects, an expensive year of vacation; a downright good time. But the year was not spent in vain. The experiences I went through gave me a fresh, new outlook; they helped to shape and refine my life in many positive ways. One of those ways is that I left Craftsbury Common with a clear understanding of what I wanted to do next, and I’ll tell you how that came about someday.

Another positive experience was that I made apple cider, which is what I actually intended to write about here today. Now that you have this background information, you’ll be able to better understand the context of my next Blog entry... When Me & Ed Made Apple Cider.

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It has been 30 years since I was a student at the Sterling School in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, but I think of it often. What I think of most is the common. Many an afternoon I would sit on a bench at the southeast corner of the common, by myself, and soak up the beauty of the scene before me.


That's the common at Craftsbury Common, exactly as I remember it. And there on the right is the bench where I would sit and drink in the beauty of the place.

The common is green and surrounded by a white fence. At the north end is an old gazebo. The houses around the common are, like the school’s buildings, traditional in style and sided with white clapboard. A tall-steepled white church is on the northwest corner. In the background are the Lowell mountains (I loved living among the mountains). On a clear day, when the sun sets in the west, the golden rays flood the common. It is a spectacular picture. It is this picture in my mind that I usually focus on when, for whatever reason, I need to reflect on something beautiful, when I want to be somewhere other than where I am. I stop what I’m doing, stare blankly into the distance, and return to Craftsbury Common. It is a sweet memory

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14 comments:

KSmilkmaid said...

What! No credit! Now that is my idea of higher education. You are very lucky to have such an experience. Those photos are stunning. I must admit we are a bit drab here.

The Settler said...

It is interesting that in reading your reminiscences, my own memory is stirred. As a young man, unemployed and without direction, I answered an ad for summer work at the Grand Canyon. It is too long to go into the whole story here, but I am looking at a print of the Canyon right now, one of three that hang in our living room. Nothing in my life can be entirely disconnected from the years I spent in that place and the people that I met there.

TNfarmgirl said...

Herrick,
What beautiful pictures - I have never been to Vermont. I was surprised at how much it looks like NE Tennessee!

Herrick Kimball said...

James,

I'm glad to know that my recollection & reflection here have prompted your own recollection & reflection.

TNfarmgirl,

And I've never been to NE Tennessee. But if it looks like Vermont, perhaps I should! I'll bet the snow and cold isn't quite as bad where you are.

Anonymous said...

You'd be surprised! I attended Sterling School in 1965-1966, and the percentage of "scions of the rich & famous" wasn't that high. Lots of students who you'd label "underachievers", etc. Basically you'd get extra attention if your academics were subpar, and endless study halls too. But the main thing is: we did all those Farm and Outward Bound type things as well, and church attendance was required. If you didn't play ice hockey or ski, Farm was your winter athletic!

Anonymous said...

Grassroots Project
rocked
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

reine said...

↑WHAT ANONOMOUS SAYS, AND THEN SOME!!!!!!

Dear Herrick! So glad to hear from you! Sterling was such a great time -- that single year enhanced my entire life and continues to impress me after all this time!

I wouldn't be half the person I am today had I missed out! I've led a fearless life and thank much of it to those fundamental, often forgotten, skills of independence, survival, endurance, and a deep appreciation for this beautiful and challenging planet! -- (would've even given up a pinky-toe to frostbite for a full four years!)

So all the best to you & those other lucky saps from Sterling.

Sincerely,
Ruth aka Reine

Anonymous said...

BIG DIDDO TO HERRICKS STORY. I too attended GrassRoots in 80-81. Like him, the memories and experiecnces , friendships spawned that one short year live on with me today. I rarely speak with friends I grew up with, although they're still friends, but my Streling brothers and sister I still communicate with often today even though we're worlds apart and the ethos and knowledge gained have greatly formed my outlook and attitude towards life and pursuit of happiness. I did get SOME college credit but skills learned there were invaluable towards the achievement in landing the most awesome job anyone could ever want. The funny thing is I never knew the job existed, even when I first left Sterling. But through a volunteer job in the west,arranged by Sterling guidance office, my feet were on the road and (as we say here at work) I've been "livin the dream" ever since. Sterling does frickin rock!! I'm glad they're still continuing on with much of the same ethos they had when I was there and they are fully accredited now. I f you're looking for an education in resouce management/outdoor rec/animal husbandry/agriculture, etc. you probably wont find a better place but...the one year GrassRoots Project isno longer, and that is truly sad because kids today, more than ever need the knowledge,education, giudance, challenges that GrassRoots offered. Thanks Ross,DB, Ned, Sb, Tom, Dave andanyone else I cant think of right now. Hope to see you all again sometime.

Sincerely,
Brett B
McCall,Idaho

Thomas Hodgetts said...

Herrick! Do Alder trees have fuzzy buds?
-Hodge

Herrick Kimball said...

Hodge! Yes, alder trees have fuzzy buds. It's good of you to post a comment here. Do you have fond recollections of your Grassroots experience? How have you been?

Anonymous said...

First time I read this. It was posted on the Sterling fb page today. Better late than never. That was the year I was there. Thanks for the memory.
Kevin Cubbage

Herrick Kimball said...

Hello Kevin,

I remember you. Thanks for posting here, and for letting me know this blog post is on the Sterling Facebook page. Best wishes!

Herrick Kimball said...

For those who might be interested in reading more of my Grassroots Project experiences, here are some links….

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 6) (a story of how I almost died on the Lamoille River)

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 7) (about how I stayed in Craftsbury Common after school and helped to restore what is now "South House" at Sterling)

The First Time The New York Times Wrote About Me (scroll down when you get to that link. It has a b&w picture of Dawn, Tilda and Beth with a NY Times reporter, and it was Hodge who showed me how to use the darkroom)

What John Flemming Said (a recollection from breakfast at Sterling. Scroll down the page aways to see the story)

Herrick Kimball said...

Actually, it's the following two essays that tell the story of my helping to restore "South House" in the summer of '77

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 11)

Getting Started & Finding My Way (Part 12)