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Balloon pilot Brian Boland was a major figure in Post Mills

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    Brian Boland stands under the "brontosaurus" he built on his property in Post Mills, Vt., on June 21, 2010. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file — Jennifer Hauck

  • Brian Boland, right, of Post Mills, Vt., shows his friend Gary Barrett, of Fairlee, Vt. how to steer a home-made boat with an electric motor Boland built on Lake Fairlee in West Fairlee, Vt., on April 14, 2016. (Valley News- Sarah Priestap) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Sarah Priestap

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/16/2021 9:45:39 PM
Modified: 7/16/2021 9:45:46 PM

POST MILLS — Late Thursday afternoon Varina Southworth and Toby Huggett and their two children were at Lake Morey in Fairlee when they saw Brian Boland’s balloon floating high overhead.

It was a familiar sight. The Southworth-Huggett family lives next to the grass airfield from Boland’s sprawling, barn-like residence in Post Mills, and they often awakened at dawn to the roar of the propane burner of Boland inflating one of his balloons.

“Oh, look, there’s our neighbor,” Southworth exclaimed to her children, ages 3 and 1, as everyone waved to the balloon passing high in the sky.

Huggett said he saw Boland’s balloon drift “toward Bradford (Vt.)” and didn’t learn until Friday morning that a harrowing balloon crash and later, a fall from the basket, had claimed the life of their friend and neighbor a few minutes later.

“I still can’t believe it,” Huggett said. “Brian was an integral part of our neighborhood.”

Called by friends and neighbors “a genius,” “creative,” “a collector of curious things,” “generous” and “eccentric in a playful and a gentle way,” Boland, 72, leaves a legacy in his Vermont hamlet as giant as the balloons he flew.

“His absence leaves our whole community in deep grief,” said Pippa Drew, a Post Mills artist who, like many of her neighbors, recalled how “Brian’s balloons would sail over us or occasionally land in our field,” describing it as “utterly magical.”

Summer or winter, spring or fall, Boland could be seen piloting one of his balloons, frequently accompanied by passengers, either paying tourists or friends he was treating to a free ride as winds pushed it across either side of the Connecticut River.

He sewed the balloons himself on one of the dozens of sewing machines he kept in his home, which he had turned into a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang-like “museum” stuffed with antique “airships,” Model T autos, fire trucks, motorcycles, wicker baskets, Polaroid cameras, plastic lawn flamingos and a pint-sized Nazi submarine.

“Brian’s passion was everything historic. He loved old things,” said Brent Southworth, owner of Jay’s Septic Tank Cleaning in Thetford Center whose family, including daughter Varina Southworth, has lived in Post Mills for four generations and once owned the land and airfield that Boland later acquired. “A lot of times he expressed to me how important it was to keep Post Mills like it was for the future.”

A world-renowned balloon pilot who began in the 1970s, Boland soared over the Alps and Andes and accumulated more than 10,000 hours of flight time, built more than 200 balloons, and in 1995 broke a world record for the BX-3 class “hot air airship” when he ascended to 20,496 feet and flew 75 miles, according to the Balloon Federation of America.

“He knew about the air currents in South America,” said Tom Blinkhorn, a former Hanover resident who now lives in Alexandria, Va., and recruited Boland to give lectures on ballooning at Dartmouth’s continuing education program.

He said Boland once showed him a photograph of taking a calf aloft in a balloon.

“He was always horsing around with stuff like that,” Blinkhorn said.

Boland was relocating from Connecticut, where he had been a high school teacher, when he purchased the 54-acre property that included an airfield originally cleared by the Southworth family in the 1930s.

“He was always generous with balloon rides with neighbors,” said Richard Sheppe, a retired engineer who lives across the airfield and is a flight instructor with the Post Mills Soaring Club and served on a “chase crew” — people who follow a balloon in flight to retrieve it when it lands. He said Boland was intent on keeping Post Mills Airport small for a handful of flying and ballooning enthusiasts.

Although he was beloved by many in Post Mills and Thetford, Boland was not without small-town, only-in-Vermont controversy.

In 2010, he and volunteers built a 122-foot-long, 25-foot-tall structure, dubbed “Vermontasaurus” out of scrap wood at the airfield. Some in Thetford contended that the structure required a building permit, but eventually the town came around to agreeing it was “art” — and the District Environmental Commission No. 3 likewise granted an Act 250 permit because the wooden dinosaur model did not imperil wildlife.

Balloons are often thought of as silent orbs floating in the sky, but in fact they make their presence known. Now Post Mills residents say the absence of Boland and his balloons overhead will only leave a vacuum.

“The best part of the day is hearing the propane tanks firing up, and you know that Brian is overhead,” said Alissa Southworth, another of Brent Southworth’s daughters, who grew up in Post Mills.

“At night, families sit and watch gliders and small planes and usually a sunset balloon flying, always Brian at the helm, waving down. He was a wildly interesting, talented, caring, passionate and unique person,” she said. “It’s rare nowadays that one person can impact a whole community so deeply.”

Contact John Lippman at jlippman@vnews.com.




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