Power to the little people

Delightfully different ... the State House is Montpelier's third ? the first was whittled away by early legislators.
Delightfully different ... the State House is Montpelier's third ? the first was whittled away by early legislators.

The smallest capital in America holds a big surprise for Greg Lenthen.

A coffee-table book at our bed-and-breakfast has an intriguing photo of a golden dome on top of what might be a Greek temple sitting all alone among the autumnal reds and golds of some wooded corner of the US's New England countryside.

The imposing building proves to be Vermont's State House, home of the state legislature. And it's not out in the bush, but on the verdant edge of the US's smallest state capital, Montpelier (population: 8000ish, depending on who's counting).

Montpelier is so small that it doesn't rate a mention in the more recent of our two borrowed New England guide books, while the other - an ancient copy of Frommer's- dismisses Montpelier as "a small town that happens to house the state government". It makes it sound as though the 150-year-old State House was delivered by mistake to this neat little city in the foothills of the Green Mountains.

But the book does say that the State House is worth a visit, so we make a short easterly detour from Route 100 north to Canada.

Under the State House's columned portico, volunteer guide Joanna announces with undisguised satisfaction that we are in "the only state capital without a McDonald's".

First stop in the meticulously restored building is the small but busily ornate senate chamber where the 30 senators have decided to ban all electronic communication. Instead, they rely on pages. No, that's not a typo - there's no missing "r". Flesh-and-blood people hand-deliver messages and documents.

The imposing building is Vermont's third State House. The second burnt down - but it's the fate of the first that is truly surprising: it was literally whittled away. In certain parts of the US, whittlin' can be a lot like doodlin', except that whittlin' is done with a knife on wood. And the first State House was timber. When the early legislators got bored with the debate, they'd take out their knives and start whittlin' whatever was close at hand. And that was the State House. The official history notes, "many of the desks and much of the building were whittled out of use".

Not that all whittlin' is destructive. On the top of the golden dome is the statue of a woman, representing agriculture. In the late 1930s, the original statue was discovered to have deteriorated beyond repair, so the State House's sergeant-at-arms, good ole Dwight Dwinnell, gathered a team of the building's janitors - yes, indeedy, the janitors - and set to whittlin' a 4.2-metre replacement from ponderosa pine.

Back outside, we look up to find that she's still there, arm extended as though reaching beyond the Montpelier that is, towards another, grander Montpelier that might have been.

It would be wrong to leave the impression that there's little happening in this fine old building but occasional bouts of whittlin'. The Senate and the much larger House of Representatives have to confront serious issues, such as grading maple syrup. While we were in Vermont, the legislators had the sticky business of deciding whether to bring Vermont's grades into line with the rest of the nation - should it be goodbye "Vermont Fancy" and hello "Golden Delicate"? We couldn't hang around to find out.

The tour wraps up, we say goodbye to Joanna and stroll through bright sunlight down a flower-lined path to our car. Just as we reach the street, a glossy black Ford pick-up draws away from the kerb revealing a green bumper sticker: Keep Vermont Weird. That should not be a problem. No problem at all.

Of course, there is more to do in Montpelier than tour the State House. You could take a quick spin through 400 years of Vermont's past at the Historical Society Museum - an imposing wedding cake of a building - or you could head just a short distance south and tour the world's largest granite quarry, "The Rock of Ages", on Graniteville Road, Graniteville.

But Canada beckons, so we head north, confident that our view of New England in the autumn will not be blighted by so much as a single billboard. Like Big Macs in Montpelier, billboards are banned throughout Vermont.

We're lovin' it.


Getting there

Montpelier is just off one of the principal highways through Vermont, Interstate 89, which runs from the state's south-east to its north-east corner. The nearest major cities are Boston, about 300 kilometres to the south-east of Montpelier, and Montreal, 200 kilometres to the north-west.

When to go

The State House offers free guided tours from July through to mid-October on weekdays, on the half-hour from 10am to 3.30pm, and on Saturdays from 11am to 2.30pm.

More information

This story Power to the little people first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.