A Better Brattleboro

The southern Vermont town has reinvented itself with artistic flair and a respect for its rural heritage.

By Stephanie Shapiro, Baltimore Sun (photos by William Hays)
August 7, 2005

Making my way through the Brattelboro-area farmers' market on a glossy Saturday morning, I found an international feast of offerings: slow-roasted Moroccan olives, farmstead cheeses, pear tarts, almond horns, sweet and hot garlic jelly, Malawian sweet potato stew and Thai rice cakes.

Then I spotted a beatific young pregnant woman with flowing hair and a long, loose dress moving through the crowd. It seemed as if the 1960s had returned in this southern Vermont town - but with much better food.

The Green River Bridge near Brattleboro

Later that day, another sight brought me abruptly back to the present - a new bridge named for Brattleboro's first soldier to die in Iraq. In 2002, Kyle Gilbert was killed in an ambush. The inscription on the bridge's granite monument reads: "As Kyle Said, 'Just Don't Forget Me.' "

During a four-day visit to Brattleboro in May, Such images formed a portrait of a community where counterculture beliefs coexist with patriotism, perhaps under the same roof.

Listening in on conversations about neighbors, new babies and friends of friends, the dense web of connections that bind the town of 12,000 together were as evident as its vitality and the apple trees and cows adorning the surrounding countryside.

With its tolerance for multiple world views, Brattleboro, perched on the Connecticut River in southeastern Vermont, has become a dynamic mix of natives and newcomers, family farms and alternative healers, artistic enclaves and outdoors enthusiasts, wood-fired maple sugar houses and upscale restaurants.

Although my friend's country home in neighboring Guilford is a favorite destination, previous trips "downtown" to Brattleboro were always brief. I hadn't paid attention to the town's steady investment in its own resources, both built and natural.

During my stay, I imagined myself as one of so many Vermont transplants, scrubbing garden dirt from my nails, then swerving around a moose on the drive into urbane Brattleboro for a gallery opening or dinner with friends.

The Brattleboro Museum and Fine Arts Center in the old Union Station

At the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, employee Margaret Shipman, a painter and a newcomer to the area, described the town's immediate allure for her and her husband: "We walked down the street [and saw] all these little galleries and bookstores.; You can throw a stone and hit an artist."

The town has "all the amenities of the city, but you don't get the hassle," added Shipman, 28, as she admitted visitors to the museum's show "Fun and Funky: Pop for a New Century." At one point, Shipman left her post to give Cynthia Houghton's mobile of water ballet Barbies a twirl, in accordance with the absent artist's instructions.

Seven Years ago, Brattleboro's air of natural prosperity was challenged by big-box stores and the possibility of suburban sprawl. In response, merchants and property owners, dismayed by 29 vacancies on Main Street and declining sales, formed a revitalization program called Building a Better Brattleboro.

Capitalizing on the town's mélange of architectural styles spanning from Greek Revival and Victorian to modern and Georgian Revival, downtown champions used government grants to polish Main Street facades. They also campaigned to strengthen the town's economy by cultivating its community of artists and other creative spirits.

The state's seventh largest town, Brattleboro "has always been artistic," said Tom Franks, director of Building a Better Brattleboro. "But there hasn't been a tremendous presence of it downtown." Now, a bounty of independent bookstores, galleries, theater companies, music venues and cafes have rekindled Brattleboro's street life.

On the first Friday of each month in particular, when Gallery Walk draws visitors to 45 exhibition spaces, Brattleboro's synergistic marketing strategy shows its mettle.

"It got to the point where people began opening galleries in what might be other types of businesses simply because Gallery Walk existed," said Joy Wallens-Penford, the event's coordinator and editor of a monthly guide to area galleries and exhibits. "They new it would bring people into [their] shops, hotels, cafes, jewelry and clothing stores."

Brattleboro's cultural riches have earned accolades from American Style and Yankee magazines as well as in author John Villani's, The 100 Best Art Towns in America.

Creative, Cosmopolitan

On my first morning in Brattleboro, I stopped at the recently restored Latchis, an enchanting 1938 art deco hotel and movie palace with Greek Revival murals. A cornerstone of Brattleboro's recast identity, the Latchis is a popular stage for movies and concerts.

The complex also houses two smaller screens, a hotel, pub and restaurant. Erected by the family of Demetrius P. Latchis in honor of the Greek immigrant's New England theater empire, the Latchis is included in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's list of great American movie theaters.

In 2003, the Brattleboro Arts Initiative acquired the Latchis in partnership with the Preservation Trust of Vermont. Gail Nunziata, the arts initiative's managing director, took me through the building, pointing to its ornate, zodiac-themed interior and terrazzo floors. She told the story of Arlo Monroe, the late local artist who as a young apprentice painted some of the theater's paradisical murals.

Nunziata showed off a hotel room that was redecorated after it was destroyed by a fire in the building next door. "We did it in purple," she proudly said. The room comes with a splendid view across the Connecticut River to Mount Wantastiquet, an imposing, 1,100-food peak that provides hikers with a grand view of Brattleboro.

The town arrives by its creative reputation honestly. Windham College (now closed) attracted flocks of hippies who stayed, she said. "Different things sprung up because of that: the Vermont Theater Company, the Actors Theater [Playhouse] and different artsy things, and one think led to another."

Brattleboro is home as well to World Learning Inc., which runs the Experiment in International Living and other programs that have enriched the town's cosmopolitan sensibilities.

The Brooks House on Main Street in Brattleboro

I would have needed an extra day or two to do justice all of Brattleboro's galleries. At Vermont Artisan Designs, a contemporary American crafts shop on Main Street, I admired Sabra Field's print, "In Big Cypress Reserve," readily at home in either a children's book or a museum.

The tactile clay "architectural sculptures" of Vermont artist John Brickels caught my eye as well, particularly one that resembled a barn on the verge of being blown apart by a tornado.

A herd of fanciful miniature cows that would be at home in Bridkel's barns were also on display in anticipation of the Strolling of the Heifers, an annual festival and parade. Held the first weekend in June, the event celebrates the state's dairy industry, represented by folks such as Mary Ellen and David Franklin and their three sons.

On their farm on Weatherhead Hollow Raod in nearby Guilford, the Franklins produce certified organic milk and wood-fired maple syrup from 2,000 taps. At a farm store decorated with a vase of pussy willows, regular customers stop by and pay for their purchases on the honor system.

Festivals Fill Summer

Beyond the heifer fest, Brattleboro's dance card is perpetually full with festivals, fairs and community celebrations. In summer, the Yellow Barn and the Marlboro Music festivals, both short hops from Brattleboro, lure music lovers from near and far.

In early October, authors such as John Irving will appear at the fourth annual Brattleboro Literary Festival. Brattleboro's literary credentials stretch back at least as far as Rudyard Kipling's years at Naulakha, the home where he wrote Captains Courageous and The Jungle Books and was visited by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. (Rescued by the Landmark Trust USA, Naulakha is available for group vacation rentals.)

Morris Dancers on Elliot Street celebrating Memorial Day

A staging area for frequent concerts, the Vermont Jazz Center, Also in Brattleboro, is participating as well in a National Endowment for the Arts program that will bring jazz masters to its stage throughout 2006.

The Women's Film Festival, the partially complete Estey Organ Museum, National Marionette Theatre, Brattleboro Music Center, Nimble Arts circus and trapeze school, and the Vermont Theatre Company - which has a Shakespeare In The Park summer series - are a sampling of the town's other cultural offerings.

Brattleboro is also a gold mine for lovers of vintage goods. At Twice Upon A Time, an antiques emporium occupying a former department store established in 1906, objects such as a cobalt blue Mount Pleasant lunch plate, a set of travel luggage made from African ostrich skin and a pink cotton from conjured up the affluent Brattleboro of old when it was the site of a mineral springs resort and the Estey Organ Company, the world's largest reed organ manufacturer in the 1880.

Shoppers accustomed to big city markups will be pleased by the moderately priced merchandise in Twice Upon a Time and in Brattleboro's various thrift shops, where there is plenty of 197s and 1980s shimmer. Shoppers may also be surprised to discover that with the exception of a Bruegger's Bagel Bakery and a Subway shop, Brattleboro's streetscape is devoid of food franchises.

Mocha Joe's, a Main Street coffee roaster and café, proves that Brattleboro fares quite nicely without a Starbucks: "Any cup of coffee you buy, you buy from a local person who is banking here," Nunziata said of the local economy.

Lunch that first day in Brattleboro was at another locally owned business, where I had a hummus sandwich and turkey soup on the deck of the Riverview Café, overlooking the Connecticut River. Around the bend, the waterway merges with the West River, where migratory waterfowl gather in a cove called the Retreat Meadows.

Tucked into a nondescript mall across from the café, the Brattleboro Food Co-op is worth a stop, if only to see how little it resembles its counterculture forebears. As large as a conventional grocery store, the Co-op even sells organic hair conditioning.

Another place deserving of a visit is Brown and Roberts Ace hardware store on Main Street. With its phenomenal stock of tools and gadgets, the store could almost double as a museum of rural life.

Creations In Stone

En route to the Living Memorial Park, home to the town's ski lift and a cluster of athletic fields, it was necessary to cross the Creamery Bridge, a covered span that can accommodate only one lane of traffic. Drivers from one direction weren't yielding as they should to drivers from the other. A traffic jam for Brattleboro, but nothing compared with the Saturday morning commute to the Farmers' Market, which demands an official traffic director.

A craggy amphitheater made from Vermont stone rises above one of the park's softball diamonds, rendering the expanse into something timeless and epic. Since he built it decades ago, local dry-stone wall maker Dan Snow has created dozens of remarkable works of art on private properties throughout Brattleboro and its environs. The amphitheater is an opportunity to see Snow's work in a public space.

In the form of old stone fences and retaining walls, the creations of Snow's predecessors and contemporaries are found as well in woods, meadows and trimmed yards. Intrepid visitors to the Brattleboro region may additionally discover the stone arch bridges and culverts built in the 19th century by self-taught mason James Otis Follett.

Kayakers on the West River in Brattleboro

They may also have, as I did, a sudden encounter with wildlife. On a Guilford dirt road one afternoon, a hawk swooped in front of our car, snatched a furry rodent from a ditch, then swiftly retraced its path.

In the Brattleboro area, though, birders don't have to limit their searches in the woods. One evening we drove into town for dinner at the Top of the Hill Grill, a seasonal barbecue restaurant on the West River. While I perused the menu, colorfully posted on paper plates, my friend pulled out her binoculars. As we dined outdoors, she found wood ducks and an indigo bunting.

On morning, I walked along a Guilford dirt road to the Green River Bridge, said to be the most photographed covered bridge in Vermont. An old sign warns: "Two dollars fine to drive on this bridge faster than a walk." Here the Green River spills over a dam and eddies in pools deeply enough for a bracing summer swim.

Just above the dam, Joan Seymour has turned a once-decrepit farmhouse into the Green River Bridge House. A stone's throw from the Guilford Methodist Church, the bed and breakfast is a brash addition to the neighborhood.

With 13 antique chandeliers, gourmet food served on Limoges china and a beauty spa, Seymour, a California transplant, has brought a little glitz into the woods, attracting clients such as high-profile nutritionist Andrew Weil and his family.

"It's a divine piece of property," said Seymour of the lush lawn and Japanese-style garden that terraces down to the river. As she spoke, a ruby-throated hummingbird hovered nearby at a feeder filled with nectar.

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