Jimmy Knapp, acoustic guitar, and Bruce Avery play music at the 10th Annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro on Saturday. (Domenic Poli/Reformer)
Jimmy Knapp, acoustic guitar, and Bruce Avery play music at the 10th Annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival in Wardsboro on Saturday. (Domenic Poli/Reformer)
Monday October 29, 2012

WARDSBORO -- With a roomful of eyes on him, Bill Hoos walked across the stage to accept his second prize.

He wasn't expecting to hear his name called at all, never mind twice in a few minutes. It had been nearly four years since he and his family moved from New Jersey, but with an entire town as his witness he was finally able to say something he hadn't had a chance to before: His family had grown the grown the biggest turnip this year.

Hoos and his clan were at the 10th Annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival at Wardsboro Town Hall on Saturday and were walking away with two first-place ribbons -- one for the largest overall and one for the largest grown from seed -- from perhaps the biggest part of the event.

He said he planted the turnips with his wife, Agathe, and daughters Olivia and Emma, as soon as the ground thawed in late April or early May. It was all with the intention of entering them in the festival's turnip competition.

"I was hoping we had some big enough," he said after receiving his second ribbon on the second floor of the town hall.

Last year, his family took second place for the ugliest turnip.

"It looked like a roasted chicken," he recalled with a smile.

The winners of all the categories -- which also included largest grown from seedling, largest grown in Wardsboro and largest grown outside of Wardsboro -- were announced by guest judge Willem Lange. He said he was asked to fill the role by State Rep. John Moran (D), who is his neighbor in the wintertime.

"I couldn't think of a nice way to refuse, so here I am," he said jokingly.

The contest is just one part of the festival that brought hundreds of people to Main Street on Saturday. Moran said many people come from all around to the celebration of a special type of turnip grown in Wardsboro.

"It's not just (people from) town -- we get visitors from all over the state and from out of state," he said. "We're so unique. The Gilfeather Turnip is unique to Gilfeather Road, which is down the way to Gilfeather Farm. It was a turnip developed by John Gilfeather (in the early 1900s)."

The festival is one of the biggest fundraisers held by the Friends of the Wardsboro Library, Inc., of which Nancy Santilli is a member. Money was generated for the support of the Gloria Danforth Memorial Building, the home of the Wardsboro Public Library.

Santilli moved away for a little while before coming back to the town and she said she has been involved with the festival for about six years now.

"For a small community like this to have a vegetable registered -- and it is a registered vegetable -- it's really special. A lot of people's families knew the Gilfeathers. That farm is still being lived in by Dr. (Robert) Backus (of Grace Cottage Hospital)," she said.

The current owners carry on the tradition of Farmer John by planting a large crop of the heirloom turnip that originated on their farm at the turn of the previous century.

"I just think it's a very big deal -- what other identity does Wardsboro have? It's such a small town," Santilli said. "It's a big deal that we're the only ones that have the seeds."

The seeds needed to grow Gilfeather Turnips are on sale at every festival and can be purchased at Dutton Berry Farm on Route 30.

Musical entertainment was provided by Jimmy Knapp, who serenaded visitors with his original Gilfeather turnip ballad and debuted a second original Gilfeather song at the event. Also present were Bruce Avery, Chuck Hamby as well as the Tuesday Night Town Hall Boys and Bad To Be Good.

The festival featured four tents outside with crafts for sale and a wagon with countless fresh turnips. Inside town hall, more crafts like jewelry, shirts and aprons were for sale for the benefit of the Friends of the Wardsboro Library. The main room served as The Turnip Café, with a buffet-style meal ready for purchase. Guests could choose from various turnip products such as soup, cake, coleslaw, mashed potatoes and doughnut holes.

Tony and Esta Sobey have a house in Wilmington and have been attending the festival for five years.

"We never miss it," Tony said, adding that they love its small-town Vermont feel.

His wife said she especially looks forward to the hot turnip soup.

"It's fabulous," she said.

More than one hundred pounds of Gilfeathers were cooked for the event's signature soup.

Jim Boyhen and his wife live in Bridgeport, Conn., and own a home in Whitingham. He said they have been coming up to Vermont every Thursday night and leaving each Monday morning for the past 16 years. This is their second Gilfeather Turnip Festival and they plan to attend plenty more.

"My wife is from Maine -- the Bangor area -- and this is just like that, she says," he said. "It's got a real New England look."

When asked if he enjoys eating turnip foods, he replied, "Once a year."

Domenic Poli can be reached at dpoli@reformer.com, or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.