Brattleboro, Vermont

Iconic Communities, On the Road
on September 10, 2000

A town is much like a family.

It doesnt grow in layers, as a tree or building might, though there is some of that. It grows, instead, of experience and time. It grows by pieces added to a braided rugand with the braids a town emerges, and continues to emerge, as braids are added over time from the many-colored coats of those who came to stay.

They first came in 1724, building Fort Dummer to overlook the Connecticut River as a scouting post and trading center in an area frequently raided by American Indians. A year later the town was chartered as Brattleboro by King George II; named for Col. William Brattle Jr. of the Kings Militia. Col. Brattle died in Nova Scotia in 1776 at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, and never saw the town named after him.

But the braiding had begun.

Settlers built a gristmill and sawmill. A post office opened in 1784 at the Arms Tavern. Brattleboro became a farm-and-market village, a stagecoach town, a river town, a railroad town, then a manufacturing center. Pure springs were discovered by Whetstone Brook in 1846, and wealthy patrons soon came from around the United States and abroad for the local water cure. Brattleboro became a spa town.

The strongest threads in all these braids survived as the nation grew, roads were paved, and visitors arrived. Interstate 91 wove deeply into the towns fabric in the 1960s, making Vermont an easy drive from New York City. The first Vermont exit off Interstate 91 North is Brattleboro.

Many who saw the rolling green beauty that is Vermont decided to stayamong them musicians, artists, writers, professionals, and back-to-the-land exurbanites who gave the town a counter-culture image that quaintly lingers still.

The mosaic of Brattleboros fabric deepened, lending it a blend of rural life and cosmopolitan arts. Its since become a mecca for musicclassical concerts and choral repertory in particularwith its New England Bach Festival, the Blanche Moyse Chorale, several chamber music groups, and the internationally known Marlboro Music Festival, whose participants have included Van Cliburn, Pablo Casals, and Rudolph Serkin.

I enjoy living in a town where economic, political, ethnic, and social diversity is a fact of life, says Nancy Braus, co-owner of Everyones Books, one of four independently owned bookstores in town. Brattleboro is small enough to see friends and neighbors throughout the day, and yet lucky enough to have a constant stream of visitors from all over the world.

The town has three dairy farms, a nationally known whitewater rafting river (the West River), and a weekend farmers market of crafts and fresh produce. Its restaurant culture resembles an international trade fair: at one place or another you can dine on the cookery of Shanghai, Seoul, Bangkok, New Delhi, Rome, Paris, Mexico City, and Omaha, Neb.

Main Street is the heart of town, with 19th century three- and four-story buildings housing professional offices, stores, shops, galleries, and restaurants. The local daily newspaper, Brattleboro Reformer, is here. Nearby is a large village common with its bandstand and war memorials, the library, a movie house, a theater, and four churches.

This diversity in its people, history, and styles leaves Brattleboro both deeply rooted and open to change; never out of balance for long. One force of change today is Leo Berman, an architect and preservationist whos been restoring old brick mill buildings and warehouses up and down Main Street, installing windows and opening Main Street views to the river below. He converts aging structures to new usesturning lemons into lemonade, as one resident puts it.

The basic fabric of the 19th century downtown is intact, says Berman. Its very well preserved. We have a mixture of the styles and materials of two centuries. Architecturally, thats the best thing about Brattleboro: its variety.

The town, in all that variety and the braiding of nearly 300 years, was recently ranked fifth in the book, The 100 Best Small Towns in America, by Norman Crampton, (2nd edition, 1996).

Col. Brattle would be pleased.