T(OWN): Alumni Entrepreneurship in Bennington
Alumni making a life and running a business in and around Bennington by Heather DiLeo
Bennington College alumni can be found throughout the area, working in schools and businesses, but some work outside of posted positions—opening some of the town’s most recognized businesses. We spoke with them about why they chose entrepreneurship in Bennington.
Bennington Potters began as Cooperative Design, the studio of the late David Gil and first wife Gloria Goldfarb ’52, and two others, in 1948. Goldfarb Gil and Gil, who took pottery classes in high school through the WPA and demoed working the wheel at 17 at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, started the business by buying an unheated barn in Bennington with savings from his wartime merchant marine service.
In the 50s and 60s, Gil won awards, exhibited internationally, and his tableware designs were distributed under the influential mid-century-modern Raymor mark.
Sheela Harden ’69 partnered with Gil in the late 70s, first by taking over the Potters Yard Brasserie. The two later married and today Harden is president and CEO of the company.
She explains that Gil was inspired both by the Bauhaus movement in Europe in the 1910s and 20s and by the idea that beautiful designs could be replicated by machine, “so they could be available to anybody and everybody at a price people could afford.” By having his own factory, Gil understood, “people could have really good design as part of their everyday life without needing to be rich.” Gil’s owner-operated pottery was unusual, Harden says. “The designer started it, ran it, and the design ethos runs through the whole company.”
Visitors to Bennington Potters, which relocated in the 1970s to a former grain mill Harden playfully calls the “grist mill,” can watch, for instance, how a trigger mug is made step by step. “You’ll see how we’re using the machines that we’ve tailored to do what we want them to do. Or alternatively, it’s a conversation between designer and machine, and how you optimize that.”
Because the Potters has been in operation for nearly 70 years, its pieces are not only collectible but part of people’s lives over generations. “I just was over at the hospital and the person who was signing me in said, ‘you know I have a creamer and a pitcher that I got for my wedding 38 years ago and I’m still using them and I still love them. And I was there last month buying plates,’” Harden says. “That’s a longtime customer.”
The Potters’ huge array of home furnishings, tabletop items, and gifts changes constantly, making it a place for design inspiration as well as resource for things for the home.
“Bennington has proven to be a wonderful location for the Potters,” Harden says, “partly because it’s close to New York City and Boston and because lots of people come through the town. But more than that, Bennington works well for entrepreneurs.”
“If I were speaking to somebody who wanted to start a business, especially somebody who wanted to be an owner-operated business as we are, Bennington is extraordinary in the way that it’s open and accessible,” Harden says, emphasizing her access to and support from members of state and local government and other business owners.
“Newcomers to Bennington can quickly become an integral part of the community because we really have skin in the game as independent business owners,” says Harden. “We’re alert to how our community is doing and committed to always making it better. We recognize that change and growth is life and it is really essential.”
Fiddlehead at Four Corners
Nina Hardt Lentzner ’91 and Joel Lentzner ’91 opened contemporary craft and fine art gallery Fiddlehead “the last day before Y2K” in the grand neoclassical marble building that housed their bank when they were Bennington students. Seventeen years later, Fiddlehead was named 2017’s Best Craft Gallery in Vermont by Yankee Magazine editors. Neither artist Nina nor Joel, then a teacher, had plans to open a gallery.
“It just evolved from the turns our lives had taken,” Joel says. “We happened to live next door to a well-known marble sculptor and he got us into doing craft shows.”
The two sold Nina’s hand-painted furniture at shows around the country. Over time, they decided that instead of traveling 25 weeks a year, they’d find a space where they could show not only Nina’s work but the work of the amazing artists they’d discovered on their travels.
“We met a whole crew of artists we wanted to invite back and represent in this area,” says Nina.
With artisanal glassware, ceramics, jewelry, sculpture, paintings, and fiber works, Fiddlehead is a tantalizing mashup of things handmade.
“We really like the blurring of the line between fine art and fine craft,” says Joel. “You’ll see a $3,000 marble sculpture displayed next to a $23 glass tumbler because they have an aesthetic relationship rather than a pricing relationship or a relationship of mediums.”
Because Nina and Joel want the gallery to provide experiences that aren’t about shopping, they covered the walls of the bank’s main vault with chalkboards where visitors express themselves with drawings and in writing, and installed a vintage pinball machine and a 1932 Story & Clark baby grand piano. They host openings, as well as listening parties, and offer children’s and adult art classes.
“We try to involve people in different ways so it’s not just about buying and selling of merchandise but about the whole experience.”
Pangaea & Carbon Zero
Originally from Whittier, California, “the birthplace of lowrider trucks and Richard Nixon,” Bill Scully ’94 knew as a freshman he wanted to settle in Bennington. “The town is well suited for a Bennington College mindset,” he says. “You have to have vision and you have to be a self-starter here because most things aren’t obvious.”
In 2002, Bill and his wife Maria opened their first restaurant, Pangaea. They also took over Powers Market in the village of North Bennington (later selling it) and later opened Allegro restaurant in Bennington, before also selling that establishment to focus on a new business.
The original idea for Pangaea was novel—bring the world (and international cuisine) to North Bennington in a restaurant where people could have great conversations.
“We were told we couldn’t do international cuisine, that fine dining would never work,” Scully says. “But what everybody else thought was impossible we saw as an opportunity.”
Pangaea’s formal, contemporary American-leaning French menu was successful from the start, attracting loyal patrons and dedicated staff. Scully opened The Lounge, Pangaea’s casual next-door neighbor, one year later and has expanded it several times to meet demand.
He plans for co-owners Nick Disorda and Lani DePonte-Disorda ’11 to take things over at some point, wanting the restaurants to “remain in the Bennington [College] family.”
In a move that would be very unexpected for any other restaurateur and chef, over the last decade Scully has turned his attention to hydroelectric power. He and his wife Maria bought and cleaned up the abandoned Vermont Tissue Mill on the Walloomsac River in Bennington, rebuilding and refitting the paper mill dam constructed in 1784.
“Hydro is the oldest technology: the state was founded on it,” he says. “Still, by the time we got the plan going only one other plant (six months prior) had come back on-line in 35 years. Although it seemed obvious, it wasn’t to everyone, so it took eight years to get it done.”
The new hydroelectric station produces 1.45 gigawatt hours per year, the equivalent of powering roughly 114 homes. It is enough to supply power to CAPA, Pangaea, and the surrounding area. This has helped to avoid the release of 658 tons of carbon dioxide a year into the atmosphere. Scully began another hydroelectric site in Pownal with several more opening throughout Vermont. With his range of interests, from food to sustainable fuel sources, Scully’s future is one to watch.
Brown Cow Cafe
What Amy Blomquist Buckley ’83 started as a “niche” place to go for great coffee and homemade food in 2012 quickly blossomed into what many locals—and tourists—consider an essential Bennington hangout spot.At a smattering of outdoor tables or in the cozy leather chairs of its large main room, Café-goers can enjoy maple walnut oat toast with almond butter and banana slices drizzled with local organic honey for breakfast. Or roasted farmstand veggies on a baguette with pesto goat cheese and balsamic reduction for lunch. Thanks to Buckley’s relationship with the Vermont Arts Exchange, the Café offers a “kind of gallery space.”
Buckley, who worked as an artist and for an architect before opening Brown Cow, wanted “fresh, healthy, yummy food—nothing complicated and nothing fried” and knew others did, too. “I always had a garden. I baked from scratch with my kids. There was no place to go and eat in town so I decided I would fill that niche.”
A friend warned Buckley that it would be a lot easier to hang out in cafes than run one, which proved to be all too true. “The first year I was working sixteen hours a day and people would ask if I was having fun. I had a hard time answering yes,” she says.
Although she claims to be taking a step back, Buckley shops daily, getting produce and products from local purveyors whenever possible. “People come to us,” she says, “when they have excess. Right now Clear Brook [Farms, an organic grower in Shaftsbury] is dropping off tomatoes.”
Five years on, Buckley appreciates what she’s accomplished. “It wasn’t my intention to become a wildly popular hotspot that we can barely keep up with but that’s kind of what happened,” she says.
On top of having a successful business, she says, “I’m so much more connected to the community and have made good friends and good contacts.”