CHESTER, Vt. - I first saw this tiny town when I came here to tile bathrooms in a bed-and-breakfast a friend was renovating during the real estate boom of the Reagan years. The song "Life in a Northern Town" by Dream Academy was popular then, and while wading through the snow-covered local cemetery one night I thought the tune could have been written for this community of 3,044.
On the street behind me fireplaces glowed from Victorian inns whose slate rooflines abutted those of bookstores and boutiques. Businesses in town seemed to walk a fine line, working to attract tourists while not neglecting the locals.
Restaurants took as much pride in their salad bars as their main dishes. In the diner at the end of town, regulars gossiped while college kids fueled up for a day of skiing. A half-dozen businesses were under renovation and people talked excitedly about the latest house in town to sell for six figures.
In 1985 Chester looked like it was on the verge of being discovered. On a recent trip, I discovered it still is.
"People come here thinking they are going to be as comfortable this year as they were last and they are, because nothing ever changes in Chester," said Benjamin Mehrling, owner of Hopewell's Books across from the cemetery.
A thick candle burned next to a copy of "The History of Sanskrit Literature" as Mehrling, a retired college professor from Cambridge, struggled to describe the town, his family's second home for 30 years.
"All I know is people like it here," he said finally. "It's quaint."
So is much of Vermont. But while other small communities across the state have capitalized on their quaintness, Chester has just gone about its business. There are still no condos,
Chester is about 20 minutes from Okemo, Ascutney, Bromley, Stratton, and Magic Mountain ski areas, yet there's not an equipment rental shop to be found. This is the heart of fall foliage country, yet we were able to book a room for Oct. 6 on Oct. 5.
Night life here isn't après-ski or dancing till dawn. It's turkey dinner at the Masonic Lodge or listening to L. Paul Bremer III, US administrator in Iraq in 2003-04 and the resident celebrity, field questions about the war at the Unitarian Universalist church.
When Boston newlywed Joseph Hufnagel started visiting his soon-to-be father-in-law's home here three years ago, he didn't know what to do with himself.
"At first I was just trying to figure the place out," Hufnagel said as he looked over the names at a war monument outside the cemetery well before the morning sun could melt the previous night's frost.
"But then you get accustomed to Chester," he said. "You get to the point where you just love sitting back and doing nothing."
That's not to say that there's nothing to do when you visit. You just tend to do it somewhere else. Later in the day Hufnagel was going leaf peeping. This winter he'll be back to ski. And he is lining up a trout fishing trip next spring. All outside of town.
There's horseback riding in nearby Plymouth and Cavendish. Snowmobiling is available in Ludlow, and there is cross-country skiing at Grafton Ponds.
The biggest attraction in Chester is the town itself. It's a sprawl of historic hubs that collectively are as much museum as they are bustling rural community.
On Route 103 on the eastern side of town is Stone Village. This handful of homes was built shortly before the Civil War from glistening green-gray granite still being mined in the area. There are about a dozen buildings in Stone Village, including the Unitarian church. All are on the National Registry of Historic Places and they are all occupied.
Up the road is Gassetts schist, a roadside outcropping of talc studded with garnets that attracts geology specialists and rock hounds who invariably dig out a few of the semiprecious stones as souvenirs.
Next stop is the Chester Depot, a meticulously maintained Victorian train station about a quarter mile to the west and which freight trains still pass through. The station is home to what is arguably the town's only true tourist attraction: the Green Mountain Flyer, a 1940s-vintage restored passenger train that takes a three-hour countryside excursion out to Bellows Falls and back. Otherwise, the depot is a utilitarian cluster of 19th-century shops conducting business much as they've done since they were built.
About a half mile farther to the west is Main Street. The village green there is more like a large lawn with a gazebo. Across the street is the cemetery, a roughly three-acre resting place for a large number of Revolutionary War soldiers and a little sanctuary for the living.
Bret and Nancy Rugg, owners of the Fullerton Inn, the largest in town, said this year has been their best yet. Could that mean Chester is finally getting discovered?
At last count the list of B&Bs in town was nearing 20. A 25-unit housing development on the southern edge of town awaits groundbreaking and others are in the planning stage. And there have been proposals to open a few more stone quarries.
Still, Chester will probably stay the same, for the near future at least, according to Scott Wunderle, chairman of the town's Development Review Board.
"There have been virtually no changes whatsoever in Chester," Wunderle said. "It might be lost in time to some degree and I think the people who live here like that. We're happy living here just the way it is."
Tim Wacker, a freelance writer in Newburyport, can be reached at email@example.com.