It’s a Monday evening and the sun is casting long shadows across Legion Field in the center of Johnson, Vermont. Small children are giving each other wagon rides and scampering back and forth from the playground to the picnic tables to grab warm slices of pizza as they emerge from the stone oven on the edge of the field.
About two dozen neighbors young and old are hovering cheerfully around the wooden shelter that houses the community oven, conversing and pitching in to the flurry of pizza making activity. A long table has been laid out for pizza assembly and is scattered with jars of pizza sauce and a variety of different cheeses. Another table is piled with a wild array of toppings: chopped tomatoes, slices of onion, some kind of crumbled sausage, shredded kale, a bowl of late summer raspberries. The custom at these Monday evening pizza parties is to donate some type of toppings, so I add to the collection a container of sliced mushrooms and a fistful of sage I’d plucked from my garden on our way out the door.
In front of the oven Sophia Berard and Jasmine Yuris are stretching rounds of dough from Elmore Mountain Bread onto peels for assembly while Liam Murphy slides pizzas into the glowing embers of the stone oven. I queue up behind a friend who’s helping her three year old son sprinkle cheese onto a pizza bound for the oven, and she explains that as pizzas come out of the oven it’s kind of a free for all. “So you know, don’t get too attached to your pizza,” she smiles and says. The finished pizzas come out of the oven, bubbly and deliciously blackened in just the right spots from the wood fire. They’re quickly sliced and put out for grabs on cutting boards designated for meat or veggie slices.
The Johnson Community Wood Fired Oven is, of course, the centerpiece of tonight’s casual dinner party, and has become a gathering place for these weekly pizza nights as well as other community events since it was built in 2017. Jasmine has been volunteering at the weekly pizza night since its inception and tells me the first year was a bit slow with just a few folks turning up to dabble with the oven. But this year they worked out an arrangement to supply the pizza dough, and now that it’s just BYO toppings, participation has really picked up.
The project was the brainchild of friends Jen Burton and Mark Woodward who bravely navigated the hurdles of grant writing and selectboard approvals and rustling up volunteer support to bring the community oven into being. They lobbied to get the oven built there in Legion Field in the center of town, versus another potential site in a park on the outskirts of the village, because they really wanted the oven to be a hearth of local activity and something to connect Johnson’s diverse townspeople. It needed to be where everyone would see it and could access it. Johnson, tucked into the Green Mountains in the center of Lamoille County, is a unique Vermont town in that in addition to its year-round residents, it’s also home to the student population of Northern Vermont University-Johnson and to the visiting artist residents of the Vermont Studio Center. The wood fired oven is meant for everyone, and indeed you can see folks of all ages turning up for pizza night.
The communal spirit of the oven is right in tune with another Johnson community movement that sprung up in the wake of Trump’s election. Every week, in sun and snow, you may find a small but dedicated gathering of residents who station themselves on Rt 15, the main street through downtown Johnson, holding protest signs denouncing hate and bigotry and signs in support of progressive measures like Medicare for All.
The grassroots movement also inspired Johnson’s adoption of an inclusivity statement earlier this year. After what was reportedly a lengthy debate during Town Meeting over the exact verbiage, the resulting statement is simple and lovely, so I’ll share it in its entirety:
“The people of Johnson embrace inclusiveness and together we will build bridges to understanding, ensuring that all who live, work and visit our town feel welcome and safe. We reject racism, bigotry, discrimination, violence, and hatred in all its forms. The things we embrace are kindness, gentleness, understanding, neighborliness, peace, tolerance and respect for and toward all. Together we can have a cooperative, sustainable and thriving community where everyone is honored and valued.”
The community oven is the spirit of the inclusivity statement brought to life one stone and one pizza at a time. So it’s fitting that the statement is now on display, illustrated on a large, painted wooden sign that leans against the stone oven facing the road. It’s a constant reminder that we must show up every day and work to cultivate understanding, kindness and — most of all — cooperation.
Because even in Johnson, these attitudes are not universal. Only a few months after the adoption of the statement one of Johnson’s oldest businesses, and an anchor of the village’s downtown, the 173-year-old Johnson Woolen Mills, rattled the community’s sense of neighborliness. The company’s owner made comments to Business Insider in support of Trump’s racist tweets and against U.S. immigrants. Her remarks stood in stark contrast to every bit of the town’s inclusivity statement.
But this Monday evening, even with the frenzy of pizzas moving to and fro, the vibe at the Community Oven is decidedly relaxed and harmonious, and the battle against our social ills feels miles away. Friends are catching up about travel and projects and sharing wistful feelings about fall’s arrival. Most of the kids have congregated on the gazebo on the far end of the field for a rare moment of somewhat unsupervised revelry. Dogs weave between the picnic tables and legs of neighbors sniffing for misplaced bits of pepperoni. And as dinner time winds down, Sophia walks around offering warm squares of apple walnut dessert bars to guests.
While ideologies may at times divide us, shared food and shared experience tend to keep us working together. We decide to take the long way home to just to let the vibes linger a bit longer, watching the orange glow of the sun setting behind the mountain ridge.
This story originally appeared on State 14.