The man who captured the miracle of snowflakes

Email|Print| Text size + By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / February 12, 2006

JERICHO, Vt. -- When former Midwesterners John and Dianne Shullenberger arrived here in 1978, they were unaware of the historic significance of the old farmhouse they bought. Built around the 1840s, it had been home and workplace to Wilson ''Snowflake" Bentley (1865-1931), the farmer and self-taught naturalist who photographed thousands of individual snowflakes. It was Bentley who proved the adage that no two snowflakes are alike.

The Shullenbergers had a brutal first winter in New England -- there was that memorable blizzard -- and they struggled to keep their drafty old home warm. To conserve heat, they loaded up the dining room with storage furniture and sealed it off. They used a humidifier to protect the hardwood. On one particularly frosty day, John Shullenberger recalls, they discovered that the moisture in the air had created a microclimate: It snowed indoors.

Only later did the couple realize the cosmic implication of such an occurrence in the lifelong house of the Snowflake Man.

''We figured his ghost was still here," said John Shullenberger.

Bentley's ghost blesses just about everything in this agricultural region about a half-hour from Burlington, from snowflake-shaped chocolates and pewter crafts to the steaming mugs of Mr. Bentley's (Snow White) Mocha on the menu at the Village Cup. Over winter break, my boys and I went in search of the true meaning of snow in the land of the Snowflake Man.

Our first stop was the Bentley exhibit at the Old Red Mill, the picturesque centerpiece of the community. The former grain mill, a National Historic Site since 1972 and the home of the Jericho Historical Society, houses a tidy sample of photomicrographs and personal effects, including Bentley's microscope and huge bellows camera, his beautifully patterned quilt, and his striped mittens. The boys, who are 7 and 5, particularly enjoyed the snowflake matching game, part of the self-guided computer tour through Bentley's life and work.

Now that we were sufficiently educated about the Snowflake Man -- beyond, that is, what we had already learned from Jacqueline Briggs Martin's children's biography ''Snowflake Bentley," which won the Caldecott Medal for illustrations by Vermonter Mary Azarian -- we were ready to get out in the snow.

So our next order of business was to find Casey's Hill in nearby Underhill, a popular local sledding spot recently purchased for public use by the joint Jericho-Underhill Land Trust. The woman behind the counter at the Old Red Mill gift shop patiently gave us directions.

Then she offered her opinion of racing downhill in the snow on slabs of wood and plastic. ''It's a bunch of foolishness," she said.

That's what many townspeople said about Bentley's obsession. During his lifetime, his enthusiasm for photographing not only ice crystals but also morning dew, cloud formations, and other weather-related phenomena earned him a reputation as an eccentric. Bentley has, however, come to be recognized as a pioneering specialist on snow and a poet-philosopher unfailingly devoted to its natural beauty.

''Every crystal was a masterpiece of design," he once said. ''When a snowflake melted, that design was forever lost. Just that much beauty was gone, without leaving any record behind." Until, that is, Bentley began photographing them.

Casey's Hill proved to be the most inspired kind of foolishness, as my sons and I joined a throng of kids and kids-at-heart hurtling down the steep incline on toboggans, saucers, and inner tubes, whooping and grinning like, well, fools.

Snow-caked and soggy, we peeled off several layers, turned up the heat in the car and headed for the Village Cup, a surpassingly cozy sandwich and coffee shop in Jericho Corners. We scarfed hot cocoa and peanut butter cookies. Tissue paper snowflakes hung in the windows.

We were staying at Homeplace, a veritable winter wonderland that proprietor Mariot Huessy likes to describe as ''a quiet spot in a hundred-acre wood." Huessy is considerably more accommodating toward children than the typical bed-and-breakfast host; in a ''yours, mine, and ours" arrangement with her late husband, she brought up 11 youngsters in this unique sanctuary in the forest.

The main house features two wings of living quarters connected through the center by a magnificent, book-filled, Old World-style great room. The adjacent barn shelters a horse, a donkey, eight sheep, and plenty of chickens. Combined with the H-shape of the house, the barn's circular design spells out ''Ho," Huessy noted.

Our attic room featured twin beds for the boys and a curtained alcove for Dad. Before bedtime, we all piled into the alcove, reading from the vast bedside collection of children's books and peering into the moonlit snow below for signs of wildlife.

In the morning, after a homemade breakfast of fresh eggs, bacon, juice, and applesauce, we went out in the snow to help Huessy feed the animals. The sheep are all named for characters from children's books -- Beatrix Potter's Tabitha Twitchett, Hermione, and Ginny from the ''Harry Potter" series.

Our first stop of the morning was Snowflake Chocolates, a sweet-tooth paradise where the staff toil like elves in an open workspace adjacent to the shop. The rich smell of fudge, truffles, and other confections was intoxicating; we dipped into the samples and bought chocolate snowflakes for Mom, who had stayed home with the rambunctious baby.

Bentley's old farmhouse stands on a country road out past Jericho Center, several miles from the modest commercial district of Vermont Route 15. The Shullenbergers were there to greet us. Dianne, an accomplished artist who specializes in stunning landscapes painstakingly created from bits of collaged fabric, has a gallery and studio at the back end of the L-shaped house. In the gallery, she shows not only her own work but that of some of northern Vermont's most talented artists.

John brought out his boxes of Bentley memorabilia, mostly discovered during renovations -- some of it, like an old recording cylinder, salvaged from their resting places inside the old walls. He carefully held up a series of worn glass slides, a small selection of Bentley's life's work.

The best of Bentley's photomicrographs were published in ''Snow Crystals" (Dover Publications, 1962, with 2,453 illustrations) in 1931, just weeks before he died of pneumonia, which he contracted after a long walk home from the train station in a snowstorm. The images remain a wonderful convergence of science and art, said Shullenberger. ''The idea is so cool."

Sam and Will, who carried their own reporter's notepads during the trip, were in complete agreement. And for their good behavior, we made one last stop before hitting the highway. It involved another of Vermont's frozen obsessions: Ben & Jerry's ice cream.

Contact James Sullivan, a freelance writer in Amesbury, at

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