Leaf people return: Creative cornstalk characters crop up

Photo by Madeline Hughes
Leaf people lining Shelburne streets come in a variety of shapes and styles.


Well-dressed cornstalks, otherwise known as “leaf people,” have come back to visit Shelburne this fall.

Susan Pinney, also known as Gracie, has been bringing the leaf people to life for the past 10 years. Last year she took a break, but now she is back.

“It’s fun and brings a lot of laughter to people from all over,” Pinney said. “I get calls from across the country asking how I do them.”

Last year Shelburne resident Betsey Dempsey noticed they were missing. She posted on Front Porch Forum asking where they went.

“Last year I was so bummed, I thought it was the end of an era,” Dempsy said. This year, “it’s been great, I’ve been so happy to see them. It brings a sense of community and a small-town feel.”

Dempsey moved to Shelburne two years ago, but has had family here for years and lived nearby. So she became accustomed to seeing the leaf people every fall.

Originally the Shelburne Business Association dressed and put out the leaf people years ago. Once they stopped, a few years went by. Missing them, Pinney asked where they had gone and offered to resume the tradition.

She adopted 32 of the association’s leaf people frames stored in a barn at Shelburne Farms and has added more over the years, for a total of 58 leaf people this year.

It takes Pinney about 80 hours each year to dress all 58.

She starts with fresh cornstalks from Fontaine Farm in Williston, Pinney said.

“There is no rhyme or reason” Pinney said, as to how she dresses the people. Her process starts with a big pile of clothes she buys from Goodwill. Green Mountain Florist Supply donates flowers and beads that Pinney uses to accessorize the Leaf People.

“Some clothes I will reuse, but the sun and weather get to some. Whatever I don’t use, I give back to Goodwill,” Pinney said.

Once dressed, the leaf people are ready to take their places around town. Volunteers from Automaster place the people up and down Shelburne’s main streets.

The people need to stand far enough from the curb and away from crosswalks or bus stops, Pinney said. Otherwise, Vermont Agency of Transportation workers might pick them up.

Pinney said the people stay up until late October and they generally are left alone. She said since she’s been their caretaker, an occasional accessory goes missing but in general, the leaf people have not been subject to much harassment.

Pinney said she looks forward to the annual display. The leaf people are an all-volunteer effort, Pinney said. “It’s just kind of a fun activity. And it brings smiles to everyone.”

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