But who, exactly, was Gilfeather? And, how did he get a turnip named after him? It’s a story that starts long ago, high up on a hillside farm in the tiny, rural town of Wardsboro.
In the early 1900s, farmer John Gilfeather, either by some happy accident or with great patience, horticultural talent, and deep secrecy, grew a variety of one unusual turnip that had a particularly sweet flavor when harvested after the first hardy frost of autumn. Scientifically speaking, there are many who declare that Gilfeather’s tuber is really a rutabaga, but turnips and rutabagas are most certainly close cousins.
There are others who claim it is neither one, but that it’s a tuber in a botanical class of its own. You’d need the complete turnip genome to argue any of that intelligently, and the circumstances of how farmer Gilfeather came to “discover” this vegetable are, so far, lost to posterity. It could have been a backyard mongrel that, by some fluke of Mother Nature, hybridized itself, or it could have been a European import whose origins only he knew. Swedish? Finnish? Irish? In any event, old John Gilfeather never did say.
One thing for certain is that there is no shortage of stories, or perhaps it’s all just tall tales, that tell how farmer Gilfeather took special precautions to prevent anyone else from growing his turnip. He had so much success when he took cart loads of his delicious turnips to market every fall that he wanted to retain the exclusive rights to it. To do so, he carefully cut off the leafy tops of each turnip, one by one, as well as trimming away the roots and root hairs, so that it could not be propagated by anyone who bought it. The only way to grow his turnips was from seed, and he kept all the seeds.
Vermont’s Local Banquet magazine writer Tatiana Schreiber says, “I believe the tenaciousness of farmers and seed-savers who kept these varieties alive all these years says something important: These seeds were saved because they are good vegetables, well-adapted to our climate, and resilient to the vagaries of cold, wet springs, unexpected summer droughts, or early fall frosts. They were also saved because of their unique qualities – such as the sweet, mild taste of the Gilfeather even when it grows as big as a well-fed woodchuck.”
Farmer Gilfeather died in 1944 (and there are still folks around town who remember meeting him, and one local resident says she remembers when the bachelor farmer was courting her aunt). The Gilfeather Farm, located – where else – on Gilfeather Road, still exists, and the current owners, honoring tradition, always grow a big patch of knobby Gilfeather turnips from seed. It’s an easy crop to cultivate and matures in about 85 days. One gardener said, “They practically grow themselves.”
Now, about that seed – local folks grew Gilfeathers, but evidently none of them ever thought it worth the trouble to try to make history with it. That part of the story is pretty well known. In the early 1980s, Mary Lou and Bill Schmidt, of Dummerston, recognized the unique traits and possible value of the Gilfeather turnip, and it was they who trademarked the name and certified it as an heirloom botanical through the Vermont and US departments of agriculture. For a time, they were the only source of seeds. Now, seeds can be purchased locally at Dutton’s Farm stands in Newfane, Brattleboro, and Manchester, or (online) from the Fedco Seed Company. (Look for it on their rutabaga list.). The Gilfeather turnip has a place of honor in the “Slow Food USA” Ark of Taste, too. It’s hardly a secret that if plump Gilfeather turnip plants are wintered over in vermin-proof, cold storage with a lot of firm roots attached, they can be replanted in the garden the following spring and will eventually produce seeds for your own use.
The Gilfeather turnip does not develop a woody texture as some oversized root vegetables might, and when cooked, either steamed or roasted, it’s sweet and creamy, provided it’s harvested post-frost. Food blogger and famed NYC chef Rozanne Gold writes, “This turnip attracts attention because it does not behave like a turnip, nor look like a turnip. It looks like a big knob of celery root, whose mouth feel is similar to a rutabaga, but with notes of horseradish and sugar.”
The film version of this whole story, containing lots of footage of old-time Wardsboro residents sowing, harvesting, peeling, and eating Gilfeather turnips, even raw, is on a DVD called “The Gilfeather Turnip: Rooted in Wardsboro.” It was made and produced by Therese Maggio.
The theme song of the movie, the one and only official Gilfeather Turnip Song, is on the sound track. It’s an original composition played and sung by the composer, local musician Jimmy Knapp. Everyone sings along when Knapp gets to the twangy refrain: “You can eat’m boiled, you can eat’m mashed, you can even eat’m in your hash...”
The DVD is available for $10 plus shipping on the Friends of the Library website (seewww.friendsofthewardsborolibrary.org) or can be purchased directly at the Wardsboro Public Library during library hours (www.wardsboropibliclibrary.org).
It was the Friends of the Wardsboro Library, though, who made the Gilfeather world famous when they began an annual event that celebrates Gilfeather to raise money for the town’s library.
The 11th annual Gifeather Turnip Festival takes place this year on October 26, at the Wardsboro Town Hall and in a big tent on the lawn next door. The proceeds of the event benefit the Friends of the Wardsboro Library. Details at www.friendsofwardsborolibrary.org.
The highlight of the day is definitely the turnip contest. Anyone can enter. This year’s official judge for the annual Gilfeather Turnip Contest is Vermont’s favorite celebrity gardener, Charlie Nardozzi.
Turnip contest entries are accepted when the festival opens at 10 am until noon, and entering the contest is free.
The winners in each category are awarded nice ribbons and the honor of having grown a turnip that would have made old Gilfeather himself quite proud.
A word to turnip fans: Each year, the giant outdoor turnip cart at the festival is stocked with about one ton of newly harvested, locally grown, mostly organic Gilfeather turnips, and every year, the entire crop sells out in a matter of hours. Like candy, only turnips.
Wardsboro is located on Route 100, just north of Mount Snow Resort. Town Hall, the site of the festival, is on Main Street.
The festival takes place rain or shine; admission and parking are free.