Easily accessible from lower New England, Southern Vermont is a rolling carpet of Green Mountain foothills and valleys that offer a extensive array of seasonal sports, yet maintain all of the state’s characteristics, including picture postcard villages, covered bridges, maple farms, and cheese producers.
Brattleboro, gateway to the area, is “home to an eclectic mix of native Vermonters and transplants from all over the country,” according to the “Greater Brattleboro” guide published by the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce. “This cosmopolitan town is southeastern Vermont’s undisputed economic, recreational, and cultural center.”
Accessed by Interstate 91, it is both the first major Vermont city north of the Massachusetts state line and the only one served by three exits-in this case, Exit 1 leads to Canal street, Exit 2 to Main Street and the historic downtown area, and Exit 3 to Route 5/Putney Road, which offers a commercial concentration of hotels and restaurants. The Comfort and Hampton Inns and the Holiday Inn Express, for example, are located here, while the art deco Latchis Hotel, complete with its own movie theater, is located downtown.
Situated at the confluence of the Connecticut and West rivers, Brattleboro was originally occupied by the Abenaki tribes, but protection against them took form as Fort Drummer, constructed by and named after, Governor William Drummer of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1724.
Siding with the French in the French and Indian War, they migrated to Quebec the following year, at which time the structure was transformed into a trading post for the friendly few who remained behind. Nevertheless, peace, often fleeting during this period, dissolved between 1744 and 1748, prompting its troop re-occupation.
Becoming a New Hampshire grant, the area surrounding it, designated Brattleborough after Colonel William Brattle, Jr. of Boston, was chartered as Vermont’s first town the day after Christmas in 1753.
From the fort sprouted a settlement, giving rise to the area’s first store in 1771, first post office in 1784, and first Connecticut-spanning bridge in 1804. Becoming increasingly industrialized for the period due to the power provided by the Whetstone Brook’s waterfalls, it soon boosted paper, flour, and woolen textile mills, paper making machinery and carriage manufacturers, two machine shops, and four printers. It has been home to the Estey Organ Company for more than a century. The Massachusetts and Vermont Valley railroads subsequently facilitated commerce, trade, and travel with and to the rest of New England.
The current “Brattleboro” spelling was adopted in 1888.
Today, more than anything, the city is synonymous with art. Aside from its numerous venues, it uniquely features its Gallery Walk program, in which exhibits are displayed at some 50 locations throughout town on the first Friday of every month, some accompanied by live music and others by the artists themselves. Numbered, each display corresponds to the description, location, and route of the guide published monthly.
Maintaining the town’s raison d’être is the more permanent Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, located downtown, across from the Marlboro College Graduate School in the former Union Station and offering views of the river paralleling tracks outside and retaining the original ticket windows inside, behind which is the appropriately designated “Ticket Gallery.”
“Founded in 1972,” according to its own description, “the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center presents rotating exhibits of contemporary art and a wide array of cultural events, including lectures, workshops, performances, film screenings, (and) family activities.”
“Close to Home: New Pastels by Ray Ruseckas,” one recent exhibit, offered, as its title suggests, an artistic perspective of the area.
“The hillsides, forests, and glades of the Connecticut River Valley,” said Mara Williams, museum curator, “are Ray Ruseckas’ stomping grounds and inspiration. Ruseckas renders the changing dynamics of land in seasons, deftly capturing fleeting atmospheric effects, as well as the rhythms and proportions of place… Through refined tonal shifts or contrast between light and dark, (he) produces an effect of psychological apprehension, a frission between what is seen and what is implied or felt.”
“Threaded Dances,” by Debra Bermingham, another recent exhibit, equally featured surreal effects.
“(Her) paintings are elusive and mysterious as a landscape enveloped in mist,” Williams wrote. “Images emerge slowly, sensually from delicately layered surfaces. Veils of blue-gray to pearl-white shroud empty or barely populated space. Glimpsing objects-a fragment of a vessel under full sail, a teapot, a moon-through the mist, we are unmoored from time and space.”
Other recent exhibits included “People, Places, and Things” by Jim Dine, “Art + Computer/Time” from the Anne and Michael Spater Digital Art Collection, and the three-dimensional, inflated sculpture “Expanded Forms” by Rodrigo Nava.
Art, at least in literary form, may be interpretable through architecture-in this case, of Rudyard Kipling’s Naulakha home-Hindi for “jewel beyond price”-in nearby Dummerston. One of Vermont’s 17 National Historic Landmarks, it served as his home in 1892, because his bride was native to the area, and he wrote his famous “Captain’s Courageous” and “Jungle Book” novels here.
As a living house that can be rented for varying stays from the UK’s Landmark Trust, it features its original furniture, while the carriage house, which had once been Kipling’s barn, sports a living room fireplace and accommodates four.
Although it is not open for museum visits, one recent patron who had partaken of its “hotel” status, found that a decided advantage, writing in Naulakha’s guest book, “It is fascinating to visit the house of writers and artists, but all you usually get is an hour’s tour with an absolute prohibition ‘not to touch.’ How wonderful then to sit at his desk and soak up Mr. Kipling’s bath.”
Aside from art, Southern Vermont is often equated with its covered bridges and Brattleboro is no exception. Constructed in 1879 and located on Guilford Street off of Route 9, the 80-foot-long by 19-foot-wide Creamery Covered Bridge, for instance, spans the Whetstone Brook. Made of spruce lumber, with timber lattice trusses and either-end stone slab supporting abutments, it features a 5.5-foot wide, equally covered sidewalk that was added in the 1920s. It is the only such structure visible from Route 9 and the only one of Brattleboro’s symbolic structures to survive.
As a preserved village, Grafton, located north of Brattleboro, could serve as the quintessential image of Vermont and grace any postcard, with its church, crafts shops, galleries, museums, and historic inns lining Main Street (Route 121) and maple syrup taping and cheese making venues located just up the road.
With four general stores and a half dozen mills and schoolhouses during the mid-1800s, it was a hub for farmers, tradesmen, and travelers, producing shoes, sleighs, and butter churns. Retaining, a century and a half later, its blacksmith and cabinet making shops, it offers the visitor an opportunity to step back in time and sample true New England ambiance.
“Grafton’s uniqueness,” according to its own description, “comes from being a real town, not a museum-like recreation, with its citizens being its most valuable resource. It is a vibrant community still holding the traditional town meeting with participation from a wonderfully diverse population of 600 people.”
Surrounded by a kaleidoscope of color in the fall and covered with a blanket of white in the winter, it offers numerous recreational opportunities, but the latter season, particularly, “is a magic time in Vermont, making you believe that you are living in a holiday card. Cross-country ski, snowshoe, (or) stroll through the village. Then relax with a cup of hot chocolate,” it concludes about itself.
Cornerstone of the town is the Grafton Inn. Tracing its origins to the two-floor private home of Enos Lowell, who converted it to an inn to serve travelers seeking good food and lodging in 1801, it grew in size and prosperity with that of the village and counted several owners-from Hyman Burgess to the Phelps Brothers, who added a third floor after purchasing the property for $1,700 in 1865. That overall appearance remains to the present day.
Although it fulfilled its originally intended purpose of serving commercial travelers, several notable people have stayed there over the years, including Rudyard Kipling, Daniel Webster, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
After Depression era stagnation, disrepair, and competition from emerging modernized motels, it was acquired by the Windham Foundation in 1965 and elevated to more expected standards with plumbing, heating, hot-and-cold running water, and private bathrooms. Yet its 45 guest rooms retain their country character.
Its dining venues include the Old Tavern Restaurant and the Phelps Barn Pub.
Aside from the inn, there are several attractions in Grafton, including the Native Museum, the Grafton History Museum, and the Vermont Museum of Mining and Minerals.
Behind the inn is the Grafton Village Retail Store, which offers a wide selection of cheese, maple products, wine, and Vermont indicative souvenirs, but cheese is handmade a half mile up the road at the Grafton Village Cheese Company.
Established in 1892 as the Grafton Cooperative Cheese Company, it continues to produce handcrafted aged cheddar, a process visible through a glass window, although its production plant and a significantly sized retail store is located in Brattleboro. Behind the Grafton facility is a short covered bridge.
Another Vermont associated experience can be enjoyed at Plummer’s Sugar House. Owned by third generation syrup producers, it sports 4,000 maple trees, which are tapped between February and April. Informal tours are conducted and syrup can be purchased in its barn-like gift shop.
5. Molly Stark Trail:
Designated the Molly Stark Trail by the Vermont Legislature in 1936, the 48-mile, officially numbered Route 9 zigzags through the Southern Green Mountains, lowland valleys, lakes, streams, waterfalls, and historic villages from Brattleboro in the east to Bennington in the west. It was named after the wife of Brigadier General John Stark, who led the Colonial militia of Vermont and New Hampshire troops to victory in the 1777 Battle of Bennington, during which he proclaimed, “There they are boys! We beat them today or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight.”
In the event, she had no need to, but also never stepped foot on the scenic byway that bears her name and is associated with several others of Vermont fame, such as Ethan Allen, Grandma Moses, and Robert Frost.
It serves as the threshold to the Green Mountain National Forest. Established itself in 1932 to control rampant logging, flooding, and fires, its 399,151-acre New England and Acadian forest ecoregion is located in Bennington, Addison, Rutland, Windham, Windsor, and Washington counties.
Three nationally designated trails-Long Trail, Robert Moses National Recreation Trail, and portions of the Appalachian Trail-along with 900 miles of lesser-known paths afford a wide range of related sports activities, from hiking to bicycling, horseback riding, cross country skiing, and snowmobiling, in three Alpine and seven Nordic ski areas.
Abundant wildlife includes bears, moose, coyotes, white tailed deer, black bears, wild turkeys, and numerous bird species.
The town of Wilmington marks both the Molly Stark Trail’s halfway point between Brattleboro and Bennington and the crossroads with northbound Route 100.
Chartered on April 29, 1751 by Benning Wentworth, Colonial Governor of New Hampshire, and named after Spencer Compton, First Earl of Wilmington, the town itself was virtually fed by what its surrounding land provided, including grass, oats, corn, vegetables, potatoes, and the spruce, hemlock, birch, beech, and maple trees that were transformed into lumber. Haystack Mountain offered skiing.
Town and population growth were sparked by a series of precipitating events, such as the introduction of river-located sawmills in the 1830s, the establishment of a rail link at the end of that century, and the dedication of the Molly Stark Trail in the 1930s.
Threading through town, Main Street (Route 9 and the trail itself) offers views of another quintessential Vermont village, with quilt, craft, and antique shops, restaurants, and church steeples.
“Wilmington,” according to the “Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Visitors’ Guide” published by the Chamber of Commerce in Wilmington itself, “contains superb examples of 18th and 19th century architecture in as many as eight distinct styles. From Late Colonial (1750-1788) to Colonial Revival (1880-1900), the architecture is so well-preserved, that the major part of the village has been placed on the Vermont Register of Historic Places.”
A right turn at the traffic light (coming from Brattleboro) on to Route 100 leads to the Old Red Mill Inn, “a wayside tavern, inn, and restaurant at the river’s edge,” as it bills itself.
Rustic in character, the inn, a converted sawmill dating back to 1828, retains much of its original construction and is itself listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Its dining venues include Jerry’s Deck Bar and Grill, with outdoor seating overlooking the Deerfield River, and the Old Red Mill Restaurant, whose “hearty food and drink are specialties of the house,” it proclaims.
“Prime steaks and rib roasts, along with fresh New England seafood, are menu favorites, all preceded by crisp garden salads and warm, fresh-baked breads.”
6. Route 100:
A short drive on Route 100 leads to West Dover, gateway to the Mount Snow ski resort, as evidenced by the Alpine-themed Austrian Haus Lodge, one of the first buildings encountered.
Settled by Captain Abner Perry, of Holliston, Massachusetts, in 1779, and granted a charter signed by Governor Thomas Chittenden, head of the newly formed Vermont Republic, the following year, West Dover and its easterly Dover counterpart began as the township of Wardsborough. After a successful petition to divide it, however, it evolved into Wardsborough itself and Dover after the passage of an 1810 Legislative Assembly act.
Although the summer initially served as the season of attraction for vacationers drawn to area farms during the early-1900s, its winter opposite took center stage mid-century when Walter Schoenknecht, of East Haddam, Connecticut, acquired the Ruben Snow farm, transforming it into the present and popular Mount Snow Ski Resort.
Demand soon turned the handful of lodges into the many of today, along with the coincident shops, restaurants, and motels necessary to support the influx of sports enthusiasts.
Literally paving the way to it all, Route 100 replaced the original dirt artery, which was plied by sleighs in its early days. Aside from automobiles, even the small Deerfield Valley Airport brings in winter tourists.
As a base town, West Dover’s purpose becomes increasingly apparent as you approach the Mount Snow entrance, revealing buildings such as the Inn at Sawmill Farm, the West Dover Inn, the Snow Mountain Market, and the Lodge.
“West Dover (itself),” according to the “Southern Vermont Deerfield Valley Visitors’ Guide,” “stands as one of Vermont’s most splendid examples of a homogenous historic district. Consisting of just 20 buildings dating from 1805 to 1885, the entire district is part of the National Register of Historic Places.
“The village showcases a number of well-preserved buildings. The West Dover Congregational Church, (for instance), was built as a meeting house ‘in the modern style’ of 1858 with money raised by selling pews at auctions. The adjacent Dover Town Office was originally the District #6 schoolhouse, erected in 1857. Across the street, the Harris House, one of the oldest in the village, is now home to the Dover Historical Society.”
Tantamount to any Vermont village is an historic inn-in this case, it takes West Dover Inn form.
“Nestled within the serene Deerfield Valley of Vermont’s Green Mountain National Forest,” according to its own description, “and only two miles from the base of Mount Snow, our home continues an important American tradition of friendly hospitality begun over 150 years ago.
“Originally built in 1846 as a stage coach stop and tavern, the West Dover inn has been lovingly restored and now provides 12 quiet, luxury accommodations, as well as modern and memorable dining in the 1846 Tavern and Restaurant.”
Its menu features pub fare and house specialties, such as rib eye steak, salmon, roasted duck, and pasta.
Mount Snow, the area’s major attraction, is reached by its Northern and Southern Access roads off of Route 100. Considered the most accessible Green Mountain ski resort and located only nine miles from Wilmington, it encompasses 588 acres subdivided into the four mountain areas of Main Mountain, North Face, Sunbrook, and Carinthia, rising from a 1,900-foot base elevation to a 3,600-foot summit one. Its vertical drop is 1,700 feet.
Twenty lifts provide a 30,370-person hourly capacity.
During the summer and fall, the Bluebird Express offers scenic, six-person bubble lift rides to the summit, where views from the Bullwheel Restaurant encompass Little Equinox, Equinox, Mother Myriak, Dorset, Little Stratton, Stratton, and Glebe mountains, which collectively appear as if they were undulating, green-carpeted waves interspersed with icy blue, mirror-resembling lakes. Cloud obstructions stamp the expanse with black patches.
“Mount Snow,” according to its self-description, “offers long cruisers, black diamonds, and technical tree terrain. The ski area is home to eight free-style terrain parks and a super-pipe. (It) offers 12 lifts to access the varying terrain… Advanced skiers and riders will enjoy the 12 trails and two lifts on the North Face. On sunny days, the South Face of the mountain called Sunbrook features ten trails serviced by two lifts with great open-trail skiing and riding.”
Accommodations include the slopeside Grand Summit Resort Hotel and Snow Lake Lodge, a less expensive alternative on its namesaked lake. Complimentary shuttles take skiers to the mountain in season.
Bennington, on the western end of the Molly Stark Trail, is particularly rich in sights.
Awarded a town grant after it was chartered by New Hampshire Governor Benning Wentworth in 1749, it experienced initial growth when soil and hands, of the original 20 settlers, transformed the area from ground to town, by means of hand-hewn logs and hand-ground corn, while mechanization took form as grain mills on the east side of the Walloomsac River and sawmills on the west, facilitating the population swell, to 1,500, only four years after the settlement was established.
Nail cutting forges, foundries, blast furnaces, blacksmiths, and tanneries augmented this expansion.
Today, a drive past the town on Route 9/Molly Stark Trail leads to several important attractions. The Bennington Museum is the first of them.
Incorporated in 1852 as the Bennington Historical Association, which itself was founded to commemorate the pivotal battle that raged a few miles across the New York state line, it is one of Vermont’s few accredited museums, whose missions is to “showcase and model the creativity of Vermont in all its forms and throughout its history, as well as serve as a venue for visual and performing arts that enrich our community and our world.”
Even the building that houses it is of historical importance. Constructed of native stone and originally serving as the first St. Francis De Salas catholic church between 1855 and 1892, it was acquired by the Bennington Historical Museum in 1928. Subsequent expansions and intermittent name changes resulted in the present Bennington Museum, the largest art and history repository in Southern Vermont with diverse collections from the early-18th century period to modern times. It features the most extensive public collection of paintings by American folk artist Grandma Moses.
Thirteen continuous and changing exhibitions have included “Gilded Age Vermont Reflects the Industrial Boom,” “Bennington Modernism,” “Works on Paper,” and “Regional Artist Gallery.”
The town, in many ways, was defined by the brief Bennington Battle that can be interpreted at the next attraction, the Bennington Battlefield State Historic Site, only a short drive away on Route 9.
Numerous, diverse reasons and circumstances have lit the spark of war throughout history. Supplies, or at least the pressing need for them, precipitated this one.
By the end of July 1777, the British invasion of New York, intended for the purpose of regaining control and led by General John Burgoyne, had reached Fort Edward, east of Glens Falls. But the flow of necessary staples from Canada that would ensure the movement’s advance through the Mohawk Valley and down to New York City, including draft animals, wagons, and beef, had been reduced to a trickle.
Because intelligence advised Lieutenant Colonel Friedrich Baum that Bennington-located storehouses were ill-protected, he elected to redirect his garrison to Vermont and New Hampshire instead. But Vermont’s Council of Safety, receiving word of his pending onslaught, solicited aid from Vermont troops under Seth Warner and some 1,500 New Hampshire men under John Stark.
Threshold to the confrontation was a hill overlooking the Walloomsac River, five miles from Bennington and not in Vermont, to which Stark sent defensive forces on August 16, 1777, two days after the British had reached it.
Although initial musket fire prompted the immediate surrender of Indians, Canadians, and Tories, the British themselves held their ground and a two-hour clash with the Americans, which Stark later described as “one continuous clap of thunder,” resulted in the capture of the hill and the death of Baum. When the last puff of gun power dissipated, 200 British had perished and 700 had been captured, as opposed to the 40 Americans killed and the 30 wounded.
The Bennington Battle monument, located at the supply storage site and the state’s tallest structure, had its origins in 1873, when the Vermont General Assembly established the Bennington Battle Monument Association, itself an extension of the Bennington Historical Society, with $112,000 for land and the actual structure raised by private citizens, the three states of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts, and Congress.
Designed by Boston architect John Phillipp Rinn and dedicated in 1891, the resulting monolith, constructed of blue-gray magnesian limestone quarried from Hudson Falls, New York, rises 306 feet, 4.5 inches from a 37-square-foot base and is elevator accessible to an observation level, whose 20 11-foot slotted openings afford views of three states. Guided tours up the 421 steps are also periodically offered.
Tickets are purchasable from the gift shop, which occupies the precise site of the original storehouse, goal and catalyst of the battle, while a smaller monument honors Seth Warner, commander of the Green Mountain Boys who helped defeat the British during the second engagement.
Another important Bennington sight is the nearby Old First Church.
Influenced by the “great awakening” in Connecticut and Western Massachusetts, local separatists first gathered on its site on December 3, 1762 in a rudimentary pine structure on what is today the green in front of the church and the village’s center.
Constructed in 1805 by architect Lavius Filmore, cousin of the nation’s 13th president, the church itself, of Colonial architecture, features full pine tree trunks hand-planned into columns, wooden block exterior corner decorations that resemble the stone ones used by their European counterparts, and both lower and upper pews, the latter for visitors and young parishioners.
After a 1937 renovation, which restored the box pews and the high pulpit, poet Robert Frost read “The Black Cottage” during the rededication ceremony, although a second, more extensive project, undertaken between 1994 and 1999, added the exterior’s present white and gray coat of paint. The interior was also replastered and attention was given to the marble steps, the basement beams, the roof, and the bell tower.
Although Frost was not himself a member, he purchased two family burial plots in the adjacent cemetery, where he is interred, along with 75 Revolutionary War patriots.
Art can be appreciated in Bennington in the Bennington Center for the Arts, located a short distance from the Old First Church and built by local philanthropist Bruce Laumeister and his wife, Elizabeth Small, in 1994, initially to display pieces from their own collection. Since, it otherwise achieves its goal of bringing world-class art to residents and visitors of New England.
Paintings and bronzes of and by Native Americans, along with Navajo rugs, pots, and kachina dolls, have yielded, from its earliest days, to an increasing number of notable exhibits in the expanding, multiple-gallery venue, including those from the Society of Animal Artists, the Plein Air Painters of America, the American Watercolor Society, the New England Watercolor Society, the Allied Artists of America, the American Academy of Women Artists, the Pastel Society of America, and Arts for the Parks. It is the only East Coast museum to have hosted the California Art Club.
Connected to the center is the brightly red painted Covered Bridges Museum, which was completed in 2003 and is the world’s first such venue dedicated to their preservation, understanding, and interpretation. They are, in essence, Vermont itself.
Exhibits focus on their design, engineering, construction, and history, and are augmented by films, computer work stations that enable the visitor to explore their building techniques, and a working model railroad layout depicting area covered bridges.
Connecting riverbanks and offering suspended passage for pedestrians, bicycles, horses, carriages, and motorized vehicles, they provide, according to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, a “brief darkness leading from the light to light.”
The real thing, as everywhere in Vermont, is not far from the museum. A northerly drive on Route 7, followed by left turns on to Northside Drive (which itself becomes 67A West) and Silk Road, leads to the 88-foot-long Silk Bridge, which spans the Walloomsac River.
After another left turn on to Murphy Road and a two-mile drive, the Paper Mill Village Bridge appears, a town lattice truss design, although it is a 2000 replacement for the original built by Charles F. Sears in 1889.
Finally, the Henry Bridge, located 1.3 miles further ahead of the intersection of Murphy and River roads, is another reconstruction, built in 1989 to replace the original hailing from 1840.
A glimpse into a poet’s life can be experienced in the Robert Frost Stone House Museum, built in 1769 of stone and timer and located on a seven-acre parcel of land in South Shraftsbury (Route 7’s Exit 2).
A literary landmark, it was the home Frost lived in from 1920 to 1929 and in which he penned poems for his first Pulitzer Prize winning book, “New Hampshire,” including “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” ironically written at his dining room table on a hot June 1922 morning after he had been awake all night, working on a different project. An entire room is devoted to this effort.
“The ‘Stopping by Woods’ room,” according to the museum’s guide, “is (entirely) devoted to this poem-the story of how it was written, a facsimile of the handwritten manuscript, a controversial comma, presentation of meter and rhyme, what the critics said about the poem, and what Frost said about it. An example of extreme poetic craftsmanship, this beloved poem is one of the central poetic achievements of American literature.”
Because the surroundings remain virtually unchanged since Frost lived there-from the birch and apple trees, fields, woods, stone walls, and the timbered barn to the red pine trees he himself planted-the visitor can absorb his inspiration.