The Roots of the Gilfeather Turnip Run Deep in Tiny Wardsboro
October 18, 2021
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Along a rugged dirt road in the southern Vermont town of Wardsboro is the old Gilfeather farm, where the famous Gilfeather turnip first sprouted in the early 1900s.
The turnip, cultivated by farmer John Gilfeather, became the official Vermont State Vegetable in 2016. It’s celebrated every fall at the Gilfeather Turnip Festival in October. The festival, which started in 2002, draws visitors from around the region.
-The turnip festival in Wardsboro started in 2002. Courtesy of Friends of the Wardsboro Library.
After spending months putting together the 2021 event, organizers briefly pulled the plug on this year’s festival because of rising COVID-19 cases. They reconsidered and decided to move forward with a smaller event instead.
“We just couldn’t face not doing something to celebrate our funky turnip,” says Linda Gifkins, a member of the Friends of the Wardsboro Library and an organizer of the event.
The 2021 festival will feature Gilfeather turnip soup, bread and donut holes, as well as turnips by the pound, turnip-themed merchandise, a book sale, and kids’ activities.
-Farmer John Gilfeather of Wardsboro. Courtesy of Friends of the Wardsboro Library.
The Early Days of the Gilfeather Turnip
The Backus family now owns the former Gilfeather farm. Honoring tradition, the family still grows a patch of turnips from seed on their land on Gilfeather Road, located off Vermont’s Route 100.
Wardsboro resident Anita Rafael, a writer—and Gilfeather turnip enthusiast—describes the vegetable as part rutabaga and part turnip.
“It’s sweet, and it’s creamy, and it’s not like that turnip that gives you that little choke in the back of your throat,” she told me as we toured the old Gilfeather farm in August. “What made the turnip famous in John Gilfeather’s day was that he hybridized it. We don’t know if it was a happy accident of nature or if he was truly some little hybridizing genius and figured out how to come up with a turnip that wasn’t a turnip.”
-Anita Rafael at the old Gilfeather farm in Wardsboro.
As the story goes, John Gilfeather wasn’t quite the sharing kind with his turnip technique.
“One of the things we know about John Gilfeather is that he really was possessive of not just the seeds, but the plant itself,” Rafael says. “If you have a turnip, you can actually grow another turnip because of the hairy roots and all that. To protect his turnip, John Gilfeather used to cut the tops off and shave off all the root hairs.”
Fortunately, the turnip didn’t disappear after his death in the 1940s. A few local farmers continued to grow the turnips, and in the 1970s, Bill and Mary Lou Schmidt of Dummerston trademarked the Gilfeather name and had the turnip government-certified as an “heirloom botanical.”
All these years later, Rafael says the turnip continues to serve Wardsboro well.
“We are the official town of the official Vermont state vegetable. There’s a tremendous amount of community pride, and it puts Wardsboro on the map,” Rafael says. “It makes us famous for something.”
Learn more about the Gilfeather Turnip Festival
-A turnip that’s not exactly a turnip. Courtesy of Friends of the Wardsboro Library.
Happy Vermont Podcast
Learn about the history of the Gilfeather turnip and the local festival on this Happy Vermont podcast episode with guests Anita Rafael and Linda Gifkins. Happy Vermont’s podcast is available on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Pandora, Google Podcasts, iHeartRadio, Amazon, and Stitcher.