Seven Days reporter
Mekiah Smith and two college friends hung out on the Cabot Common in Smith's hometown on a recent single-digit Saturday. If it seemed too cold to be chitchatting outside, it probably was. But Smith and her friends had an advantage. The students at Craftsbury's Sterling College were moving while they talked, skating in arcs and circles on a DIY rink that, every winter, transforms a corner of the common into a slick space for recreation and camaraderie.
Smith, 18, grew up skating on the common rink, she said, so it felt natural to bring her friends there on a visit home. For 10 years, she's joined family and friends on the crew that constructs it. The rink is across the road from the United Church of Cabot and Cabot School, which serves about 165 pre-K to 12th-grade students.
"I love having a skating rink in the middle of Cabot," Smith said. "It's always a great place for people to come together."
Her friend Luisa Marion-Rouleau, who grew up in Amherst, Mass., was an instant fan. "I think it's awesome," she said. "I wish I had this in my town. I've always liked small-town vibes."
Though not always an annual tradition, creating a skating rink on the Cabot Common dates back many decades. Dairy farmer Walter "Skip" Bothfeld Jr., 69, recalled noontime skating on school days after he and his classmates ate lunch.
Back then, members of the volunteer Cabot Fire Department took charge of making the rink, Bothfeld said. They'd plow up a piece of the common and spray a little water into it every night for about a week. The first coating would freeze up the sides to hold the banks in place.
"You would think you could dump a load of water in it," said Bothfeld, who has served on the volunteer fire department since 1984. "But you're better off with a light spraying half a dozen times before you get ice of any value."
Constructing the rink has become more elaborate in recent years; Susan Socks has organized the volunteer effort for the last decade. Socks, 47, moved to Cabot with her husband and two kids in 2007. A former competitive figure skater and skating coach, she runs Socks Family Farm, raising fruit, lambs and chickens, and is a gardening consultant.
Each year, volunteers haul out of storage the wooden frame that borders the 76-by-53-foot rink. They line it with a 150-pound sheet of agricultural-grade plastic; the town buys a new one every year.
"If it has even the slightest pinhole in it, it'll slowly leak while you put water in," Socks explained.
It takes about four hours to fill the rink with water, using a nearby hydrant and hose. Throughout the season, folks patch cracked ice with slush and occasionally resurface the rink using a controlled drip method.
Socks keeps a shed at the edge of the rink stocked with donated skates in a range of sizes, which are free for anyone to use. There are milk crates for beginners to use for balance, as well as hockey sticks and nets. A collection of shovels stands at the ready for clearing the ice.
Three middle school students handle this task on weekday mornings. Sam Churchill, 14, an eighth grader, heads up the crew through a project called Cabot Leads, in which students are responsible for a school or community job.
Churchill is on the gardens and grounds crew — a good fit for him because he starts his day with early morning chores at Wonder Why Farm, his family's 250-cow organic dairy.
"I have a sister who's a fifth grader," Churchill said. "We go to the barn. She feeds the calves. I scrape 'em, bed 'em, hay 'em, make sure they're happy."
At school, rink maintenance is Churchill's first activity during a flexible block of time called "learning lab." If it's zero degrees out, he shrugs it off. "We'll just dress properly," Churchill said. He values being outside "with a purpose" and said it's "a good feeling to know that you're playing a part in the community."
The work includes organizing the skate shed, clearing ice with a big shovel, going over the edges with a smaller shovel, and sweeping up ice chips and powder. If evening skaters have littered or left skates strewn about, Churchill and his schoolmates clean up.
"You get into a groove, and you get the work done," Churchill said. "And you get back into class, and you're more calm and ready to start class."
Aedan Scribner, 30, who attended Cabot School, is an avid and delighted rink user. Scribner often goes skating with her first grader, Zelda, when she picks her up from school. She calls the rink in the center of her hometown "an incredible fixture" and thinks it's beautiful that middle schoolers help take care of it.
A farmer who raises vegetables and Nigerian dwarf goats, Scribner has been skating with Zelda since her daughter was 2.
"I like the fact that it doesn't matter who you are and what you have," Scribner said. "Regardless of economic stature, you can skate there. It's such an accessible resource."
She's on the ice when adults play hockey, and she sees middle schoolers skating with first graders. "Anyone can go, and everyone does seem to go," Scribner said.
Scribner sometimes skates at night, by herself. "It's so peaceful," she said. "And it glows."