by Helen Breen
“Purveyors of the Practical and Hard-to-Find since 1946” reads the masthead on the Vermont Country Store catalog mailed to thousands of American homes regularly.
In 1897 Gardner Orton (of the 8th generation in America) opened a general store with his father-in-law Melvin Teachout in Calais, Vermont. Gardner and his wife Leila’s first son Vrest was born soon after. The Teachout-Orton General Store was “the focal point of Vrest’s early years and served as the original inspiration for The Vermont Country Store.”
After his service in WWI, Vrest graduated in the class of 1923 at Harvard. He then enjoyed a successful publishing career in New York City becoming recognized as an expert “on typography and book collecting.” In 1930 Vrest Orton settled in Weston, Vermont where he founded The Countryman Press. He married Mildred Wilcox there in 1936.
During WWII Vrest utilized his talents as a speech writer and publicist at the Pentagon in Washington, DC. Returning home, he and Mildred officially entered the mail order business. Their first catalogue of 12 pages and 36 items was produced on a printing press in their garage and sent to family and friends on their Christmas card list.
The family’s undertaking prospered attracting the attention of writer Edward Shenton. In 1952 he published “The Happy Shopkeeper of the Green Mountains” in the Saturday Evening Post. The feature gave the Vermont Country Store “unprecedented exposure to a national audience.” Thousands of folks were eager to visit the store. Vrest soon capitalized on the publicity by expanding the business. The Ortons then opened a restaurant on the property.
In 1968 they built a second emporium on Route 103 in Rockingham, Vermont that featured “an authentic gristmill with a water wheel, and a restored covered bridge.” The family business continued to flourish. In 2010 Vrest’s grandsons introduced Mildred’s Dairy Bar serving “classic New England roadside food.” In keeping with tradition, the restaurant serves “Wilcox’s ice cream, delivered from the Wilcox farm in Manchester, Vermont where Mildred was raised.”
Indeed, both Vermont County Stores provide a “destination experience” for thousands of families and tourists every year. But it is through their nostalgic, colorful catalogue that the business is known to a wider audience.
Let’s check out some items from their Christmas 2017 offerings:
CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS – Classic caroler candles, magic-filled bubble lights from the 1950s, Nativity snow globe that plays Silent Night, pine log incense burner with the flagrance of balsam, a choir of Noel Christmas candle holders, and a variety of plug-in ceramic Christmas trees in white or green.
NOSTALGIC TOYS – Raggedy Ann or Andy dolls, hardcover 12 set of Dick and Jane books, tin kaleidoscope with bright rainbow patterns, the original steel wire Slinky, a real working accordion, and a wooden Chinese checker set.
TOASTY WINTER TOGS – luxurious deerskin moccasins, 100% cotton men’s Munsingwear long undies, dreamy Lanz sleepwear for ladies and girls, Ragg Wool socks for no-frills warmth, and Australian shearling lined leather slippers for the whole family.
CANDIES – brandy filled chocolate covered cherries, Guittards chocolate nonpareils, original Boston fruit slices, premium Belgium chocolate coins, and assorted candy bars from childhood including Clark, Sky Bars, and Charleston Chews.
BAKED GOODS – German rum Marzipan Stolen, Jolly Old England Figgy Pudding, Sugar ‘n Spice Grandmother’s Gingerbread, three layer white cake with coconut & buttercream icing, and Pennsylvania Dutch moist apple cake.
PREPARED FOODS – Lobster Newburg sauce straight from Maine, all-natural New England preserves made from scratch, patiently aged Vermont Cheddar Cheese, 100% pure Vermont maple syrup in a variety of sizes, and Applewood Smoked Ham “just like Mildred baked for her famous sandwiches at our Weston store.”
Merry Christmas to all from the Vermont Country Store! Images for this story come from the following sources:
- The U.S. Postal Museum
- The Bennington Museum
- The Vermont Country Store
- Business Wire
- Partridge Brook Reflections