THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

In Chester, song remains the same

The cemetery in Chester is the resting place for several of Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys of the Revolutionary War.
The cemetery in Chester is the resting place for several of Ethan Allen's Green Mountain Boys of the Revolutionary War. (Mark Wilson / Globe Staff Photo)
Email|Print| Text size + By Tim Wacker
Globe Correspondent / November 18, 2007

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, Starbucks, McDonald's, or even supermarkets here. Pickup trucks park alongside Volvos and BMWs as naturally as tourists shop for bread and milk in the aisles of Ray Gould's Market, circa 1850.

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 tiwack@comcast.net.

Related

How to get there

Chester is 103 miles northwest of Boston. Take Interstate 93 north to I-495 west to exit 35B Route 3 north to exit 8 Route 101A west to merge with Route 101 west (either go through Milford or look for 101 bypass before you get to town). Follow 101 west to merge with Route 9 at Keene. Continue on 101/9 to I-91 north to Route 103, exit 6 west into Chester.

What to do

The Green Mountain Flyer
54 Depot St., Bellows Falls
800-707-3530
rails-vt.com/gmf_fall.html

Springfield Community Players
165 South St., Springfield
springfieldcommunityplayers.org

Chester Historical Society
Main Street
chesterhistoricalsociety.org

Where to stay

The Chester House Inn
266 Main St.
802-875-2205, 888-875-2205
chesterhouseinn.com
Circa 1780 B&B.
Full breakfast, rooms start at $109.

The Quail Hollow Inn
225 Pleasant St., Route 11 off Route 103
802-875-2794, 888-829-9874
quailhollowinn.com
Rooms start at $109.

Fullerton Inn on The Green
40 The Common
802-875-2444
fullertoninn.com
Rooms start at $89.

Where to eat

The Fullerton Inn
Entrees $15-$24.

The Country Girl Diner
Routes 103 and 11 Breakfast around $7.

If You Go

How to get there Chester is 103 miles northwest of Boston. Take Interstate 93 north to I-495 west to exit 35B Route 3 north to exit 8 Route 101A west to merge with Route 101 west (either go through Milford or look for 101 bypass before you get to town). Follow 101 west to merge with Route 9 at Keene. Continue on 101/9 to I-91 north to Route 103, exit 6 west into Chester. What to do The Green Mountain Flyer 54 Depot St., Bellows Falls 800-707-3530 rails-vt.com/gmf_fall.html Springfield Community Players 165 South St., Springfield springfieldcommunityplayers.org Chester Historical Society Main Street chesterhistoricalsociety.org Where to stay The Chester House Inn 266 Main St. 802-875-2205, 888-875-2205 chesterhouseinn.com Circa 1780 B&B. Full breakfast, rooms start at $109. The Quail Hollow Inn 225 Pleasant St., Route 11 off Route 103 802-875-2794, 888-829-9874 quailhollowinn.com Rooms start at $109. Fullerton Inn on The Green 40 The Common 802-875-2444 fullertoninn.com Rooms start at $89. Where to eat The Fullerton Inn Entrees $15-$24. The Country Girl Diner Routes 103 and 11 Breakfast around $7.

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
 
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Del.icio.us Save this article
  • powered by Del.icio.us
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: Boston.com does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.