Forever Autumn in the Town of Warner

A front porch gathering with family and friends for a fall harvest luncheon during Warner Fall Foliage Festival weekend

A stunning October weekend in New Hampshire is the yearly backdrop for the celebrated and classic Warner Fall Foliage Festival. Thanks to the abundance of sugar maple trees in New England, our local colors — from the dappled brushes of coral and ruby to the soothing presence of russet and sage — are the jewels in the crown of what many consider to be the best region for enjoying fall.

Since the 1940s, visitors from all over the country have made the annual pilgrimage to this tiny village in the heart of New Hampshire to enjoy the panoramas of fleeting splendor. Many return voyagers bring their children to introduce the next generation to the essence of rural life set against fall’s vibrant backdrop. The historic town of Warner, situated at the base of Mount Kearsarge and to the east of the Sunapee Region’s lakes, is a proud and fitting host for this classic small-town festival.

As if spring and summer aren’t generous enough with their profusion of soft-colored lilacs and elegant peonies, fall in New Hampshire adorns the front lawns of the classic saltbox houses of Warner with tumbling clusters of hydrangeas blushing with shades of rose and periwinkle. This little village swells to three times its normal size as families drive in from Boston, Canada and Vermont to spend a weekend reveling in the timeless bounty of a seasonal village festival, from apple crisp and steamed lobster to maple-flavored cotton candy, all eagerly presented by the hundreds of local volunteers who call the cozy hamlet of Warner their home.

Warner’s fall festival harkens back to our agrarian past when families gathered together in thanksgiving and celebration for a successful harvest. Today, traveling along the country roads, piles of produce are stacked neatly in tidy market stalls so passersby can stop and fill up with items grown by local farmers (often sold on the honor system, with only a Mason jar as a cash register).

In Warner, mounds of striped delicata squash, plump pumpkins and hefty pear-shaped gourds are stacked in front of Schoodacs, the local coffeehouse. Here children cluster in the early morning before school while their parents mingle over maple lattes and quick chats as the pattern of daily life resumes. Sure enough, there’s a little tin paybox next to the harvest offerings, and, if one is so inclined, a small payment can be given in thanks to the local farmers.

This is our second year of living the dreamy Warner village lifestyle surrounded by the Granite State’s abundance of natural beauty. Since my husband and I were married, we moved 10 times, all while homeschooling our two children. At long last, we settled on our ideal location — New Hampshire, which was a big, but welcome change from our former life in the South. Now, we’re settled into our 1828 farmhouse and continue to enjoy learning about our new home town and its traditions.

For weeks before the festival, the air is abuzz with energy. The anticipation of this classic New England celebration becomes the main topic of conversation. Locals understand that this weekend of revelry is the final hurrah of the season before everyone snuggles in to watch the snowflakes pile up for ski season. As the calendar rolls over into October, the lingering humid air is blown clean by gusts that ruffle the tops of the trees. Shop fronts refashion their window boxes with gatherings from the surrounding woodlands, tucking little baby pumpkins between forest branches that dangle with plump scarlet berries. The sidewalks in front of the Warner Pharmacy, The Local (our favorite burger joint) and Main Street Bookends are all swept clean, tidied up and looking their Sunday best for the impending celebrations.

It seems that most October conversations — whether at the hairdresser, The Foothills (our go-to breakfast spot with big-as-your-hand cinnamon rolls) or beyond center on the logistics of who will be volunteering where and doing what for the festival weekend. Everyone has a role. Everyone has a purpose. Everyone has hometown pride.

Our rambling farmhouse, perched on a hill overlooking the historic red-roofed Waterloo covered bridge over the Warner River, is just a stone’s throw from Warner’s downtown Main Street. Hailing from the South, imagine my surprise when my longtime dream of a home with a big, inviting front porch came true up here in the Northeast.

Once we swept up the cobwebs, changed out some crumbling windows and added a fresh coat of paint, we could envision many festive gatherings here and the Fall Foliage Festival weekend presented itself as the perfect time to host one. As our toast to the community festival, we would invite the friends who’ve welcomed us so warmly to their community to sit for a spell with a glass of spiced whiskey or an autumn-inspired sangria, and enjoy a fall harvest luncheon in between soaking in the festival activities in town. So as the townspeople were humming with preparations for the weekend’s festivities, I joined in by busying myself inviting, planning and prepping for our front porch gathering.

How fun it is to bring in the lovely colors of the season and use the fall harvest offerings as inspiration for the menu. Our friends thought so too, and offers to contribute to the menu poured in. Before long we had a robust meal planned for all of us to enjoy.

Left: The party started with drinks and conversation. Right: Guests enjoy the author’s clam chowder while dining on her front porch. See the recipe here.

Party Preparations

I first rolled out some nutty whole-wheat dough so that I could make two varieties of galettes. The first would be a seasonally inspired mushroom leek galette with rich gorgonzola cheese. Brussels sprouts and just-ripened apples are everywhere this time of year, so these plentiful ingredients would take center stage for the second variety, a Brussels sprout, bacon and apple galette. To make it, I roasted sprouts from the village farmers market and apple chunks from Gould Hill Farm up the road with bacon and yellow mustard seeds, then mixed in tangy Asiago cheese. To intensify the mustard flavor, I spread a little Dijon onto the raw dough before piling on the filling. I also added a little punch of dried sage into the crust to create layers of fall flavors.

One need only look to the maple-tree-studded woods surrounding our farmhouse to find inspiration for fall table décor. Like little jewels waiting to be found on the forest floor, fall leaves up here burst with lovely hues of burnt orange, golden yellow, and crimson red. Gathering these brightly colored gifts in a big woven basket is like collecting little pieces of art. I arranged clusters of branches into pewter jugs and tucked the prettiest leaves from my haul into the table’s linen napkins.

The morning of the festival begins with a 5K race that starts in town and passes right by our house. Just as I was just coming out of our patch of woods, carrying a large basket of clippings, the first group of brightly clad runners quietly padded by. Their breath left wispy trails of white steam floating into the morning air and their cheeks were pink in the frosty chill. The air was crisp and fresh and the sky bright and promising. It had that lovely morning hush and stillness that I didn’t want to disturb. Soon, more runners glided by, rounding the curve and heading towards the covered bridge. I offered a hopeful smile and a wave as competitors passed by. Some had babies bundled deep into strollers; others had pets happily trotting at their sides, thrilled to be included in the early morning fun.

The festival had begun. The October weekend was dressed up for the affair in its most splendid attire. As it has since 1947, the event offered the perfect canvas for the townspeople to showcase their crafts, share their fall bounty and delight all visitors with the talents of this artistically endowed community.

Local goods such as squash, onions, garlic and flowers for sale at the Warner Fall Foliage Festival farmers market.

At the Festival and At Home

In between preparations for our front porch gathering, we hopped over into town to see the spectacles on display. Jim, our talented electrician, has a second career training his herd of oxen for the celebrated ox-pulling competition. Settled in just behind the coffee shop in a broad dirt clearing, the pull was well underway when we arrived. This age-old celebration stems from the days when oxen pulled the heavy plows that made it possible to farm the land and provide crops for the villagers. We hooted and hollered our support for Jim’s handsome oxen team, and he waved a big hello to us before returning his concentration to the task at hand. 

The crowd, many just leaving the big country pancake breakfast provided by the United Church of Warner, was making its way down Main Street. We joined in and followed them to the open-air stadium built by local craftspeople and situated just behind the bookstore. As concerts and theatre productions provided entertainment, children with colorful butterflies or superhero masks painted on their faces relaxed on blankets and snuggled with parents to watch the performances and listen to the music as it washed over the town.

Since moving to New Hampshire, we’ve learned that it doesn’t take long to make friends here. Perhaps the daunting winter compels people to squeeze more friendship-forming activities in the other three seasons of the year. In the fall, as the summer spent boating and fly-fishing winds down, and gardeners share vegetables tend perennials and dry out herbs to add into future winter soups, there is a special sense of coming together. Throughout the year, people here have much to talk about, much to do, and great enthusiasm to get outdoors and make use of each season with renewed vigor.

At the festival, our town’s characters are on display at their chosen perches. It’s hard to miss Dean, who transforms into the delightfully authentic 1900s-style peanut vendor. Visitors and locals both enjoy marveling at his antique peanut-steaming contraption and sampling his roasted peanuts. His steam pipe blows piercing whistles and jets of vapor shoot into the air and, before long, piping hot fresh peanuts come swirling out of his steamer and through a multitude of twisting pipes to fill little brown paper bags. The scent of warm peanuts mixes with the mouthwatering aromas of sweet, sticky, BBQ-sauce-coated chicken and briny steamed lobster dipped in hot delicious butter creating a delightful problem for anyone deciding what to try first.

All of this sumptuousness reminded me that I had my own menu on hold at home and that guests would soon be ambling up the road. Thanks to our proximity to the Atlantic Ocean — one of the many perks of living in New England — I had a bag of fresh clams as well as a good supply of shrimp waiting for me at home to be made into what has become my favorite recipe for New England clam chowder.

Since moving north, I’ve tasted many clam chowders. As I hear and read the multitude of recipes for the dish, I am beginning to form some opinions about what I think makes for a most delicious bowl of this seafood goodness. My rules for success include not overcooking the potatoes, not over-thickening the broth, and always adding a bonus of fresh clams right before serving. I also emulsify the milky broth with a bit of cream before finishing off the chowder to give it a nice smooth texture. Where I might get in trouble with the locals is that I can’t help adding some big, briny shrimp into the bowl just before serving. It looks so pretty!

The author's take on New England clam chowder

A Time to Reflect

As friends gathered together at our old wooden table on the porch to toast glasses of spiced whiskey and tuck into pumpkin-spiced cake, I sat back and surveyed the world with a smile full of reflection. October in Warner is nothing short of a postcard picture come to life. During the festival weekend, one cannot help imagining these same scenes from bygone eras and realizing that we are but one more link in the generational chain. Back in the day, the style of dress and modes of transportation were different, to be sure, but I’ll wager the mission to gather together, celebrate the lives within a small community and marvel together at the change of seasons hasn’t changed a bit.

So, perhaps we are adding yet another tradition to the festival. After all, the porch is big, beautiful and meant for entertaining. Most likely it has seen dozens of gatherings like this one in the century and a half since it was built. Perhaps next year more tables can be added to our first one, more friends can walk up the lane bearing delicious autumn dishes, and more merrymaking can be recorded for the history books.

Antique chairs have been left in our barn over the centuries, and with a little dusting off more locals and out-of-towners alike can stop by, sit for a spell and visit. I’ll ladle out steaming bowls of clam chowder flavored with crispy morsels of salt pork, slice generous triangles of seasonal savory galettes studded with mushrooms and apples and dripping with cheese, and offer up plates of my pumpkin orange poppy seed cake drizzled with rich cream cheese topping.

The beauty of the fall promises the same pleasures today that people have sought throughout the years — pleasures as timeless, classic and simple as good food, good times, and good people.

Categories: Features