Whales Tails: Remembering Randolph’s Unlikely Totem

September 04, 2014

A circle of kids run around the famous "whales tails" during a Bethany Church tag sale in this 1991 photo. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

A circle of kids run around the famous "whales tails" during a Bethany Church tag sale in this 1991 photo. (Herald File / Bob Eddy)

 

In the late 1980s, Jim Sardonis sculpted a pair of whale flukes and placed them on the hillside just below I-89’s Exit 4. Fashioned from fiberglass, they would have been a joke. However, at more than twelve feet in height, they were sculpted from black African granite. Caught in mid-dive, two great whales are about to disappear below the Green Mountains that were rolling like waves out to the distant horizon.

The sculpture is remarkable on several levels. The two flukes in the midst of a graceful “pas de deux” are breathtaking. Approaching on foot, you are enthralled by their mass and weight, soaring above like plinths at Stonehenge. At the same time, you also sense the great leviathans’ bodies below you, sliding into the darkness. We are powerfully reminded of the inland sea that covered Vermont before the last ice age.

Sardonis entitled the work, “Reverence,” though it quickly assumed the popular name, “Whales’ Tails” and caught people’s less-than-reverent imaginations.

A Herald cartoonist playfully lampooned the piece with an imagined sculpture of two cow’s haunches raised into the air on the coast of Maine. On another occasion, a group calling itself, ‘The Holstein Liberation Front,’ erected on the roadside near the sculpture a caution sign with two flukes and the words, “Whale Crossing.”

A Decisive Moment

On a Saturday in 1991, Randolph’s Bethany Church hosted a tag sale in the field next to the Whales’ Tails where the golf range is now located. The atmosphere was festive. It was bedlam, with volunteers, shoppers, and young people everywhere!

As the afternoon lengthened, a clutch of children climbed over the wall and began playing tag in and around the Whales’ Tails. The sky was clouded, the light wonderful. I sensed a possible photograph.

Kids were running this way and that. But then, as if responding to some unseen cue, they formed a circle, dancing around the sculpture, becoming a singular twisting, turning, spinning wheel of celebration. I felt a rush of energy in the air, and took this photograph.

A year or so after we published this image in The Herald, I received a call from developers of the McDonald’s restaurant across the road from the sculpture. Could I provide them with a large color photograph of the Whales Tails for their dining room wall?

Diners’ Treat

I proposed not one photograph, but many. Their McDonald’s could be a gateway to the people and places of central Vermont. I longed for folks stopping here to catch a glimpse of the magical aspect of life in that valley below and over those hills in the distance. We selected more than twenty images.

Here they saw the Larkin dancers at the Tunbridge World’s Fair, Randolph children arriving for the first day of school, young people waiting backstage for a dance recital at Chandler, a snow-frosted sled on a porch in Brookfield, a young boy proudly sitting next to a catfish as big as himself, that he’d just landed. And in the middle of those images and others was a large print of these young people dancing around the Whales’ Tails.

The restaurant has been there more than 20 years now, remodeled twice. Many of the photographs still remain. I wish I could say as much for Jim Sardonis’s sculpture.

The work was originally financed by David Threlkeld, an investor with homes in Brookfield and Manhattan. He owned the land, liked Jim Sardonis’s work and decided “Reverence” would be a wonderful addition to the region. He was right. In just a few years it became a much celebrated part of our local life and lore.

Things change, however, and with a turn in the markets and other circumstances, Threlkeld divested himself of local properties and moved away.

Buyers of the acreage at Exit 4 weren’t interested in Sardonis’ work. The Whales’ Tails were sold and moved to a sculpture park next to the Interstate 60 miles north in Chittenden County. Moved! I was as dumbfounded as everyone else.

The new location pales by comparison to their site in Randolph. Here, they dove into miles of mountain waves. They soared against the sky on the crest of the hill. Now they’re corralled by Interstate fencing in a small field with corporate offices a few hundred yards behind. Most glimpse them as they speed by. Walking to them is possible, but the view is all highway to the north and south.

Reverence

Have you ever seen great whales breach the cold waters of the North Atlantic?

It is awe-inspiring.

The title, “Reverence” was indeed appropriate; it’s just what one felt when approaching Sardonis’s work in Randolph.

Passing by in Burlington is more like watching the 2 o’clock show at Sea World. It might be fun, “Reverence” it is not.

With this photograph, we remember and celebrate a few splendid years when those leviathans breathtakingly dove into the heart of the Green Mountains.

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