The story of the Gilfeather turnip is one filled with history, mystery, and plenty of Vermont folklore, but the effort to turn the white tuber into a state symbol is recent and fairly simple. Gregory Carpenter, a schoolteacher from Fairfax, and author of “What Makes Vermont Special — An In-depth Look at Vermont State Symbols,” contacted his local representative, Barbara Murphy, of Fairfax, and made the case for the Gilfeather to be added to the list of state symbols.
Murphy connected with Wardsboro’s representative, Laura Sibilia, looking to include the town, as well as an educational element to the bill. Sibilia said she was intrigued by the educational aspect, and joined with five other representatives to co-sponsor H.65, which was introduced on the Statehouse floor on January 27.
“There are some pretty significant issues facing this state, but getting our kids interested in understanding the legislative process and how it engages them in voting and their futures, I’m good with that.”
Sibilia found out on Tuesday that students at Wardsboro School will be taking part in the legislative process of H.65 by not only studying its local history in school, but also giving testimony at the Statehouse as the bill makes its way through the agricultural committee. “The Gilfeather is original to Vermont and we hope that will be a selling point, otherwise it would just be a novelty,” said Sibilia.
“Allowing the Wardsboro kids to take part and give testimony was the selling point for me because we want them to understand the process and not feel like things don’t matter. Even turnips matter, and if you’re willing to fight for a turnip who knows what can happen.”
The Gilfeather turnip has inspired two cookbooks, a 20-minute documentary film, and an original song, sung each year at the town’s annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival, held at the end of October after the first hard frost of the year. It is unknown exactly how the Gilfeather came to be, but when it first arrived on the local scene it was noted for its surprisingly sweet taste and stubborn way of staying rooted in the ground. Now, the Gilfeather turnip remains one of only two heirloom vegetables native to Vermont.
The turnip was named for John Gilfeather, a Wardsboro farmer, selectman, state representative, and the first man to produce the white tuber on his farm, located on what is now called Gilfeather Road. While he would make the 60-mile round trip to Brattleboro to sell his turnips, Gilfeather kept all of the seeds to himself, and never divulged whether his secret was born in careful horticulture, or a stroke of good fortune.
The special turnip seeds were hard to come by after Gilfeather died of pneumonia in 1944, but some survived, and were passed around over local fences. One fence that changed the turnip’s destiny was that of Mary Lou and Bill Schmidt, of Dummerston, owners of a 200-acre farm. The Schmidts planted the seeds in their garden in 1978, and after realizing the turnips tasted much sweeter than others they had had, they began to harvest the tuber’s seeds and sell them in packets at the local Agway store.
According to Bill Schmidt, they had the plant tested at the University of Vermont to see whether it was a turnip or a rutabaga, and upon confirmation as a turnip, they registered the Gilfeather with the US Department of Agriculture’s Plant Variety and Protection Division. The USDA registered the plant as an original specimen, and sent its seeds to the vaults of the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, CO.
A 1981 article in Horticulture magazine detailed the journey of the Gilfeather, and immediately the Schmidts were inundated with 2,000 orders from all over the country. “Someone ordered seeds from every state except South Dakota,” said Schmidt. “Thereafter, I always carried some seeds with me. I remember in 1982, walking on Main Street in Brattleboro, I saw a car with a South Dakota license plate, so I whipped out some seeds and said ‘Take them, free of charge’ so we can say every state has the Gilfeather turnip.”
While the Schmidts helped the Gilfeather expand to gardens across the country, Bill Schmidt said that there is no mistaking the turnip is uniquely rooted in Vermont.
“We don’t know absolutely how John Gilfeather came up with the seed,” said Schmidt. “The plant may have come from Ireland or Germany originally, but he grew and sold it and it’s unique to Vermont. Another plant they sought to be the state vegetable was kale, but kale is from someplace else. It’s the story, it’s the name, it’s the festival, and it contributes to what makes Vermont, Vermont.”
There are many others who concur with Schmidt’s reasoning, especially the Friends of the Wardsboro Library fundraising group, which began the annual Gilfeather Turnip Festival in 2003. The festival features cook-offs, turnip tasting, T-shirts, and of course, plenty of Gilfeathers to buy. The festival was started to celebrate something the town saw as their signature product, one that literally has its roots in their farms.
“It’s different from other turnips,” said Amy Kleppner, a member of the library friends group and a local historian. “It started its life here in Vermont and was grown on a typical Vermont farm that we can still visit. It has an interesting history because it was almost lost, but the Schmidts saw something special and if they didn’t get them registered, the Gilfeather would have ended up in total obscurity.” Anita Rafael, a Wardsboro-based writer and historian and a fellow organizer of the festival who has written about the significance of the Gilfeather turnip, said that the state recognition is overdue. “We already celebrate it here, and all it needs is the governor’s signature, that’s the missing part,” said Rafael. “My argument is it’s already famous, it just needs to be made official. Vermont has a history of recognizing, through state symbols, what makes this state unique, so what harm does it do? I realize there are bigger issues to take care of, but if 15 minutes of a legislator’s day is dedicated to teaching a few schoolchildren how to make a bill into law, where’s the harm in that?”