People & Places

Home of the Gilfeather turnip, Wardsboro honors it roots

Gilfeather turnip, Wardsboro
Wardsboro fifth-grader Braiden Pearson displays the nearly 26 pounds Gilfeather turnip he grew to win the “Grand Champion” award at his hometown’s Gilfeather Turnip Festival this past weekend. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger
WARDSBORO — How do you put a tiny remote town with only one real street on the map? This southeastern Vermont outpost of 900 is drawing crowds by declaring itself the birthplace of — drumroll, please — the newly designated state vegetable.

When local farmer John Gilfeather grew his first uncommonly tender and sweet namesake turnip a century ago, he tried to prevent others from propagating it by slicing off the tops and bottoms before selling the middles. Even so, he didn’t foresee what his legacy would sprout.

The Gilfeather turnip — the hybrid is actually part rutabaga, but that’s another story — would become a trademarked variety now sold in seed and softball-sized fruition. His hometown, for its part, successfully lobbied the Legislature this spring to deem it the state vegetable — a fact celebrated Saturday during a communitywide Gilfeather Turnip Festival.

“America’s best turnip culinary event!” exclaims the town website that also includes a link to the official legislation (“An act relating to designating the Gilfeather turnip as the State Vegetable”) and related Facebook page (“LIKE the Gilfeather turnip”).

Wander down to the Main Street Town Hall and you could buy some of the 1,000 pounds of locally grown turnips piled outside the front door, then step in to sample the vegetable’s sweet white flesh and mild greens in Gilfeather turnip soup, Gilfeather turnip latkes and “Fluffy Gilfeather Turnip Soufflé.”

“The flavor is very particular — very smooth and gentle,” explains Gordon Hayward, a nationally recognized garden writer from nearby Westminster who has touted the vegetable coast to coast through the pages of Horticulture magazine.

Gilfeather turnip, Wardsboro
The Friends of the Wardsboro Library are selling $10 mugs that note the Gilfeather turnip’s recent naming as Vermont’s state vegetable. Photo by Kevin O’Connor/VTDigger

Locals aren’t the only ones talking up their roots. State lawmakers considered honoring kale (a transplant from ancient Greece, natives sniff) before honing in on what Slow Food USA deems “one of the state’s unique contributions to cold weather agriculture.”

“The Gilfeather is an egg-shaped, rough-skinned root, but unlike its cousins, it has a mild taste that becomes sweet after the first frost,” Slow Food USA says. “While the hardy Gilfeather turnip does well in nearly any climate, this touch of frost contributes to its unusual taste and texture.”

Adds New York Magazine: “The heirloom root (which is actually a rutabaga, Gilfeather’s nomenclature notwithstanding) has a sweet flavor with a mild radish-like bite, and it’s not too much to say it’s the best-tasting rutabaga around.”

As well as the most mysterious.

“Gilfeather never offered a biography of his creation but, of course, he was a Vermonter and thus taciturn by nature,” the blog opines. “It does make one think ‘What’s it all coming to?’ when someone names a rutabaga after himself and calls it a turnip.”

Tell that to the Friends of the Wardsboro Library, which harvested bushels of cash over the weekend selling $20 Gilfeather Turnip Cookbooks (“hand bound with twig and twine,” the group’s publicity promises) $10 Gilfeather Turnip ornaments (“the perfect festival souvenir”) and $8 Gilfeather Turnip tea towels that speak for themselves.

For his part, local 10-year-old Braiden Pearson went home with the festival’s “Grand Champion” award for growing the biggest Gilfeather turnip (nearly 26 pounds) for a second year in a row.

“I wanted to see if I could win again,” the fifth-grader said. “And I could.”

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Kevin O'Connor

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  • Lyman Orton

    And a shout out to Bill and Mary Lou Schmidt who revived the Gilfeather turnip in the 1970’s. Were it not for them the Gilfeather never would have survived and Wardsboro would not have its festival. Bill gave me a few turnips back then and I was hooked so started selling Gilfeather seeds in our catalogue.

    As much as the Gilfeather turnip was a great achievement for the Schmidt’s, Vermont owes Bill a debt of gratitude for his role in convincing Governor Dean Davis, in the late 1960’s, that second home development in the Wilmington and Dover area was out of control, without any regulations, and would result in environmental destruction and community upheaval on a scale never before seen in Vermont. That was the genesis of Governor Davis leading the creation and adoption of Act 250.

    We business people may grouse about Act 250 when we have to go through it for commercial development but Vermont without it would not be the great place it is to live and raise families.

  • Bruce S. Post

    Mr. Orton, here is part of what former Gov. Davis wrote when Bill Schmidt retired from the Windham Regional Commission in 1983:

    “Bill, you were the person who first gave me an understanding of what was happening in Vermont and to Vermont and the dangers that our lovely State faced if the unplanned, unbridled and dangerous rush to development then beginning in Southern Vermont should continue unabated. … your early perception of the nature of the problem, your determined and persistent efforts to make Vermonters understand and to act and your continued support of the implementation of these acts after the legislation itself was in place earn you a very special place in the history of this momentous crusade…. I shall remember it always with gratitude and so too will so many hundreds of Vermonters.”

    Bill is modest about these accomplishments, but I, for one, believe it is long past due that he be publicly and properly acknowledged as one of Vermont’s early environmental pioneers.