Vermont 251 Club Encourages Tourism

Hometown Heroes, On the Road, People, Travel Destinations
on December 11, 2005

Vermont has 251 cities and towns, and Bill Rockford, 71, has a photo and memory of every one of them. As director of the Vermont 251 Club—an organization dedicated to the pursuit of visiting all 251 locations—he leads by example, having traveled to every town and city in the Green Mountain State; some more than a dozen times.

“I’ve never met a town I didn’t like,” says Rockford, who’s often referred to as “Mr. 251.” The club is headquartered in the dining room of his Montpelier, Vt. (pop. 8,035), home, where shelves are lined with statuettes and trinkets collected from his many travels.

The club can trace its origins to a 1954 article in Vermont Life magazine that encouraged travelers to “adventure through Vermont” and visit each of its towns. The travel club grew purely as a grassroots movement, and by 1956, it had 400 members.

Rockford, originally from Schenectady, N.Y. (pop. 61,821), moved to Vermont in 1971 with his wife, Fran, and son William III. Someone suggested that since he worked as a home appraiser and traveled around the central part of the state, he would be an ideal 251 member. So around 1975, he joined the club, and, in addition to traveling during the workweek, he would pack his family in the car for weekend trips as well. “It was just a great way to be together,” he says.

In each town, he would take a photo, most often with his son posed in front of a post office, a country store or an area park. Even today, Rockford still makes a point to meet people in each town, and if they haven’t heard of the club, he tells them about it. “We got to meet people and see areas of the state that we would not normally experience,” he says.

And Rockford has had his share of experiences, such as being charged by a 200-pound pig near the northern Vermont town of Stowe (“The closer it got, the bigger it got”), and driving his wife’s new car through a beaver pond into the remote town of Lewis (“She wasn’t too happy with me when I did that”).

While he won’t name a favorite town, his true pleasure is in meeting people, and he disputes the popular view of Vermonters as reserved and standoffish. “They keep to themselves, but if you ask for help, they’ll bend over backward to help you,” he says.

Rockford has been helping 251 Club members since 1985, when he took over as the club’s director. At the time, membership stood at 2,300, whereas today it boasts more than 4,200 members in 39 states and 5 countries. A modest enrollment fee of $3.50 and annual dues of $5 keep members in touch through a monthly newsletter, which he writes.

According to Rockford, the club gives people a direction and a purpose to visit areas they wouldn’t ordinarily visit. “We are all promoting Vermont in our own unique way,” he says. “It is a chance to give something back.”

Rockford proudly recalls that he and his family became “Plus” members—those who reach the 251 goal—on Aug. 18, 1982, in Somerset (pop. 5). No proof of completion is required, as members are taken at their word. Currently, 10 percent of the club can boast the distinction.

One “Plus” member did all of his travels on a moped, another on a motorcycle, and still another snow-shoed into Lewis in the dead of winter. In 2000, lifelong canoeists David and Lynn Perrin of Charlotte (pop. 3,569) began their quest. They spent 120 days over four years, putting their 16-foot canoe down in water in every town. Rockford, of course, encouraged them every step of the way, as he does with all members. “He is a very good supporter,” Lynn says, “certainly encouraging to everybody, and the club is expanding largely because of him.”

“I always encourage people to just pack a picnic lunch, go to an area and then just see where the road takes you,” Rockford says, and following the advice he was given long ago, “Just keep turning left, and you’re going to wind up somewhere.”