Soft layers of clouds cover the hillside and the Ottauque-chee River flows serenely under a covered bridge in town. Look closely, however, and you notice that the road leading to the bridge has collapsed. A large dumpster behind a closed real estate office is filled with debris, remnants of the devastating blow Tropical Storm Irene dealt this town last Aug. 28.
“It felt like a tsunami, not a flood,” says Adam Adler, who owns the Parker House Inn with his wife, Alexandra. “I knew something ominous was going to happen when frogs started jumping all over the back parking lot.”
Several hours later, he watched in horror as the Ottauque-chee reached record heights carrying large propane tanks, dumpsters, and other random items it had swept up in nearby Woodstock. Told to leave the premises by the fire marshal, Adler saw a massive wave sweep over the real estate office as he drove through neighbors’ yards to reach higher ground. The next day he returned to his inn to find that the water had subsided and left in its wake thick muddy silt up to his waist. It would be another six weeks before the Adlers could reopen— after the lucrative fall foliage season.
Next door at the 300-year-old former woolen mill that has been the flagship location of Simon Pearce since 1981, Bill Browne, production manager at the facility, received a call around 10:30 that morning that water was seeping into the building. Located directly below the retail space and restaurant, the glassblowing space was susceptible to any flooding.
“Not long after I arrived, I remember standing knee-deep with Simon in water,” says Browne. The duo quickly ascended to the first-floor terrace of the restaurant overlooking the river and the bridge. On a normal day, the vista is a treasured view. Now the men were staring in astonishment at a river that had risen more than 30 feet.
“When we saw the last bit of light go out and the waters had seamlessly reached the bottom of the bridge, Simon turned to me and said, ‘We’re going to lose that bridge,’ ’’ Browne recalls.
Next door to the glassblowing workshop is the control room for the hydroelectric power that runs the furnaces and all the other electricity on site. When Andrew Pearce, Simon’s son and director of special projects, arrived the next morning, the turbine was under 50 feet of water. The river had swept up finished glassware from a storage room and sent it across the mill to the control room under all the silt.
“I was picking up glasses, still intact,” Andrew says with amazement. Cleanup came next. Glassblowers had one day off before they were sent to a neighboring plant in Windsor to get ready for the upcoming holiday surge of business. Everyone else in retail and the restaurant, including line cooks and servers, gathered around the Pearce family and started shoveling out the sludge. Before all was said and done, they had filled nine 30-yard dumpsters and two logging trucks, notes Andrew.
The turbine is still off line. The hope is that it will be operable in December when work on the bridge is expected to be complete. In the meantime, the glassblowing workshop on the lower level reopened in May and is much more accessible to the public. A new main stairwell is front and center, immediately apparent upon entering the retail space, especially when you hear the sounds of the glassblowers working downstairs.
“Before it was like going down to a members-only speakeasy. We always wanted the glassblowing to be a central part of the experience here, and tragic as Irene was, she did deliver this one opportunity,” says James Murray, executive director of product design.
The former stairwell is now a handicap-accessible lift. Once downstairs, folks can lean on the new wraparound wooden rail and watch four or five glassblowers instead of the one or two artisans who could be viewed in the past. Working in two shifts, the glassblowers create more than 20 percent of the handcrafted clear glass products found at Simon Pearce’s eight retail stores. The glassblowers are eager to engage in conversation and also seem to relish the new space.
“It’s only been a week, but it’s been fabulous,” says Nathan Cloud, an 18-year veteran at the mill. At work on a delicate champagne flute, he says the walk between his workbench and furnace has been reduced, making his work far more efficient.
Displays of old glass molds are on the back wall. Continue past the workshop and you reach a new viewing area offering that scene of rolling river and covered bridge.
Or get a better view upstairs at the restaurant, where you can put the glassware to use, feeling the solidity and craftsmanship that are parts of each object.
Next door at the Parker House, Adler has renamed his bar “Irene.”
“It’s a tribute to all my neighbors who helped us through the worst of it and deserve a much-needed Scotch,” says Adler.