WINDSOR, Vt. - A travel mythology has built up around the Green Mountain State, part history (think Ethan Allen and Calvin Coolidge), part salesmanship (think the Vermont Country Store or Ben & Jerry's) and part popular culture (think Moonlight in Vermont or Newhart). With so much to live up to, some destinations would understandably disappoint. But not Vermont, especially not the east-central region along the meandering Connecticut River where the state was born.
WINDSOR, Vt. — A travel mythology has built up around the Green Mountain State, part history (think Ethan Allen and Calvin Coolidge), part salesmanship (think the Vermont Country Store or Ben & Jerry’s) and part popular culture (think Moonlight in Vermont or Newhart).
With so much to live up to, some destinations would understandably disappoint. But not Vermont, especially not the east-central region along the meandering Connecticut River where the state was born.
On my visit earlier this summer I found exactly what I expected: small historic inns in quaint towns; gravel back roads wandering through verdant hills and across picturesque covered bridges; dairy and maple products sold from dusty country stores and friendly farm stands; and historic sites that helped shape the country with a unique Vermont twist.
In a word, the Vermont I found was a cliche — a lovely, friendly, delicious, delightful cliche, comfortable as an old pair of slippers, albeit one that, for some odd reason, smells vaguely of cheese and maple syrup.
The river town of Windsor is considered the birthplace of Vermont. The first constitution of the Republic of Vermont was signed in 1777 at the Windsor Tavern, now a state historic site.
The constitution was the first in America to prohibit slavery and grant universal male suffrage. And by declaring itself an independent nation, Vermont could break with England without tying itself to the mounting war debts of the infant United States. Now that’s Yankee ingenuity.
Nearby is the American Precision Museum, located in a historic 1846 armory. The unusual museum tells the story of the machine tools that helped spur the industrial revolution. Antique lathes and milling and rifling machines illustrate how machine tools developed, allowing the production of more and more sophisticated products and weapons.
Visitors who lose track of time might find themselves spending an entire day at Artisan’s Park, a commercial development that is home to several tourist-friendly businesses including a craft distillery, an artisan cheese and foods shop (with wine-tastings), an art glass outlet store, a craft brewery, and an outdoor outfitter offering kayak and other Connecticut River tours.
The park is also home to the hauntingly lovely Path of Life Garden, built along the banks of the Connecticut River. The garden follows a “path of life” theme interpreted, quite literally, with a tunnel into the garden signifying birth, and trails passing through hope and sorrow, and eventually death and rebirth.
Yes, it all sounds a bit weird and new age-y, and I suppose it is. But as the path winds through lovely meadows, past thought-provoking sculptures and installations, along the quiet river and through a small woodland, a visitor just might be moved to a bit of introspection and meditation (especially if he has already visited the distillery or brewery). It also has the best and most challenging hedge maze I’ve ever encountered.
My lodgings for the stay were the lovely old 20-room Fullerton Inn in the town of Chester. Innkeepers Bret and Nancy Rugg hail from Fort Wayne, Ind., but have mastered Vermont hospitality.
In Chester, I also met several officers from the historical society as they were setting up an annual yard sale to benefit the Chester museum, housed in an old church across the Chester Common from my inn.
I was treated to several good stories, one involving a century-old obelisk in the church cemetery marked only “Suzie.” Apparently Suzie was paramour to a local banker, a widower who, for whatever reason, couldn’t acknowledge the relationship but made sure his lady love had a grave plot and a marker, at least.
A map helped me plot the course to several scenic covered bridges, but I needed no map to find the biggest: the 1866 Windsor-Cornish Bridge. The bridge spans the Connecticut River between Vermont and New Hampshire just south of Windsor. The 449-foot, two-span covered bridge was the nation’s longest — until surpassed by one opened in 2008 in Ohio’s Ashtabula County.
Before I departed Vermont, I knew I had to stop at the original Vermont Country Store in Weston, made famous through the store’s mail-order catalogs written by founder Vrest Orton beginning in 1946.
Orton was a writer, editor and publicist before buying a general store like one his father had once run. His store catalogs were (and still are) stuffed with old-fashioned goods and Vermont folksiness and nostalgia. One might even give Orton some credit for “inventing” Vermont, at least the Vermont we think we know today. He certainly publicized and perhaps romanticized a rugged, self-sufficient, practical — and beautiful — version of the state.
It’s easy to understand Orton’s passion. I immediately fell in love with tiny, picturesque Weston even before I entered the store. And once inside, all questions of how Vermont became Vermont were set aside as I tasted cheeses, fruit spreads, candies, cookies and other trifles until stuffed. I bought some cheese for later, of course, so the visit wasn’t entirely one-sided.
Oh — I also bought a jaunty hat, because men’s hats really should come back in style. Or perhaps I was overcome with quirky Vermont-ness.
And maybe that is due, in part, to Vrest Orton or Bob Newhart or Calvin Coolidge or Ben or even Jerry. But whoever gets credit, I felt as if I were in a familiar story — one of my favorites, one with a happy ending.