Many towns would enjoy the paradoxical distinction of being both quintessential and totally unique. Brattleboro, Vermont, may well have just about achieved such a description.
Nestled among the hills and rivers of southeast Vermont, the town of about 12,000 is a dream come true for people looking for classic New
England. As early as 1894, an area guidebook lauded the view and the valley in the picturesque place where “mountains and rivers seemed to meet.” The valley begins at the pond-like Retreat Meadows floodplain in Windham County, Vermont. The two rivers which “meet” the mountains are the Connecticut and the West Rivers, and there you can find the fulfillment of your presuppositions and anticipations about Vermont: maple syrup, skiing, scenic farms and Yankee ingenuity.
It’s the Yankee ingenuity that sets this town apart as well. The outworking of the proverbial “indomitable spirit” is still in progress. Begun by the English as a fort settlement (Fort Dummer) in 1724, the town, renamed Brattleboro, was chartered in 1753 and turned mildly industrial during the 1800s. In fact, however, Brattleboro has more of a year-round resort reputation, originally due to the pure springs discovered there. The region itself is considered agricultural, though only nine of 170 farms still function in Brattleboro sincethe agricultural collapse in the 1970s.
During its initial heyday, the town was known not only for its “water cure,” but for the Estey Organ factory which made reed organs and distributed them internationally. Its commercial reputation also encompasses the banking, printing and entertainment industries. Brattleboro’s first bookstore opened in 1795, and the printing industry soon followed. The first Bible printed in Vermont was issued there, as was the first U.S.-printed copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. But long before young Harry’s adventures were put on paper, Rudyard Kipling, whose wife hailed from the town, lived there for a time and wrote both Captains Courageous and The Jungle Book at Naulakha, his home in nearbyDummerston.
In the 1970s, many industries, including agriculture, which had made Brattleboro a destination earlier in its history, were struggling or became obsolete. But a recent issue of the New York Times notes that Brattleboro andsurrounding river towns are making a comeback “by again embracing idiosyncratic ideas, and drawing on the bedrock that once made these towns vibrant: the river, the railroad and a hardy independent streak.”
The Building a Better Brattleboro (BaBB) initiative seems to be trying to harness this streak. While brainstorming about a way to support and celebrate the town’s remaining agricultural heritage, Orly Munzing, a special education case manager, came up with the idea to parade heifers down Main Street. Working in part with the BaBB, she found sponsors for her event, which has occurred annually in June since 2002. The Strolling of the Heifers, a more peaceful, feminine and slightly ironic take on the Running of the Bulls event in Spain, is more than just a parade. It is a three-day event bringing thousands of people together for community and awareness and support. The theme for 2008’s event was “Live Green!” but this seems to be an ongoing theme for many of Brattleboro’s residents to begin with.
Nearby nuclear power plant, the Vermont Yankee, is considered by many to be a threat and an eyesore, but residents are not moaning with resignation. Brattleboro.COMmunity is a web-based resource which mobilizes people to lobby for clean, safe, renewable energy, as well as linking to eco-friendly or responsible organizations, among them the BaBB and Brattleboro Area Natural-building Group (BANG). BANG meets monthly and cites “Traditional & AlternativeBuilding Materials and Techniques and Related Topics; Grassroots Learning, Teaching, Sharing, Discussion, Participation” as its emphasis. Not surprisingly, the group employs a community approach, much like the rest of the town, and they use diversified materials and methods to create sustainable, environmentally-responsible dwellings for the people in Brattleboro and its surrounds. Even the local government has a climate protection branch working to reduce greenhouse emissions.
After 100 years of international organ sales, the Estey Organ Company closed in 1960. But like Orly Munzing with her cows, organ restorer Ned Phoenix embraced a mission. Not content to lose that part of Brattleboro’s heritage, Phoenix has converted the Estey factory into a museum and an “organ-bee” site, where members of the community can come together and restore the instruments themselves. The music doesn’t stop there. Local music venues abound; Brattleboro is particularly known for good classical, jazz and folk music, and the community is proud of beingnamed one of the top ten art towns with a population under 30,000 in John Villani’s book, 100 Best Art Towns in America.
Artists find a both a haven and an outlet in the area, as well as inspiration for their work. In-house cultural institutions include the Brattleboro Music Center, the Brattleboro Museumand the River Valley Performing Arts Center. A variety of galleries and studios dot the town, and the first Friday of each month the public can attend the Gallery Walk, an event of open galleries, new displays and performances. The town incorporates several other events which draw on its many resources—artistic, agricultural, and environmental.
Chiming in with the many writers praising Brattleboro these days, Dave Wann included the town as one of his “8 Great Places You’ve Never Heard Of” in a 2007 issue of Mother Earth News. He considers Brattleboro both a permanent residential and a tourist destination “because it’s vintage Vermont” and is artsy and intellectual to boot. Local Valley Advocate’s Reader’sPoll voted Brattleboro “Best of the Valley” in 2008. As if confirming these accolades, celebrities from Whoopi Goldberg to Johnny Depp have spent time in this town.
It is not just people who have been born and bred in Brattleboro who can contribute to its society, either. Locals and visitors alike have been involved in shaping the town. Wann enumerates certain qualities that define a “place worth staying,” including such attributes as a low crime rate, high community loyalty and involvement, affordable housing, places to walk, eat and play. “The goal,” he says, “should be to createa community culture that puts the pieces together, not only identifying what the community needs, but how best to meet those needs in resourceful, synergistic ways.”
Those pieces come together easily in Brattleboro, where newcomers seem to blend seamlessly into the community, avoiding the reserve so often associated with the New England persona. This facet, along with Brattleboro’s easy reach from both Boston and New York, makes it appealing for everyone from hippies to urbanites. Not only does Interstate 91 run directly through it, but Amtrak’s Vermonter train and Greyhound buses stop there. The BeeLine local bus serves the town itself, and pedestrian areas are available for those who prefer not to drive. Brattleboro has issued prepaid “Smart Cards” for use in parking meters all over town.
The layout of the town is more or less distinct according to the points of the compass. Houses closer to the center tend to be bunched together because of the hilly terrain, creating an urban feel within the rural surroundings. Northern Brattleboro is the least residential section of the town. It is primarily industrial and commercial, with approximately seven hotels occupying one stretch of road. It draws much of its business from I-91. In contrast, the southern and western sections of the town are much more residential. The south contains single or multi-family houses, while Vermont’s largest mobile home development, along with other planned developments, occupies the west. Most rental apartments in town are in remodeled Victorian buildings with unexpected delights, such as hardwood floors or skylights. Because US Route 5 (Canal Street) runs through the southern section, and any commercial influences in that part of town concentrate around this route. The public high school is also in the south.
Albert Jerard, the town assessor (or “lister”) says that there are 2,500 to 2,600 single-family units in town, including rental properties, as compared to 260 condominium units. There are only two condo developments of more than thirty units apiece, and those two are quite different from each other. Morningside boasts 164 larger units which include such features as basements. These properties cost over $200,000, while Brookside’s 32 units are smaller and range in price between $70,000 and $80,000. Jerard claims that, with the exception of some of the smaller units at Brookside, the sales for these dwellings are well above 2005-assessedvalues. The town is currently undergoing a tax reassessment.
Brattleboro is also friendly to business, and workers seem to find it an amenable place to work. Though it draws employees to its businesses from three counties (Cheshire, New Hampshire; Franklin County, Massa-chusetts, and Windham County itself), “81% of those who work downtown,” boasts the Chamber of Commerce, “enjoy an average commute of 11.8 minutes." Service industries make up something of a majority of the work in town, followed by retail, government and finance.
The BaBB, as Brattleboro’s designated Downtown Organization, is part of Vermont’s broader “Downtown Program,” which provides direction and assistance for business districts in Vermont. BaBB incorporates community volunteers in its efforts to restructure the town’s economy, promote the downtown district and enhance the physical image of the town. They see the stakeholders in this endeavor to be residents, workers and visitors, as well as property and business owners, and even the muniicipalityof the town itself.
The municipal website describes Brattleboro as a place “Where it can ALL happen!” With its own creativity, chutzpah and team spirit, it has proved abundantly that this is the case.
Jennifer Grosser is a children's book author and a freelance writer living in Charlton, Massachusetts.