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CLOSE-UP ON BELLOWS FALLS, VT.

The way it was

Though there is some new growth, Vermont mill town still has old-time charm

Among the Bellows Falls landmarks is the clock tower above Town Hall. Among the Bellows Falls landmarks is the clock tower above Town Hall. (Caleb Kenna for The Boston Globe)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sacha Pfeiffer
Globe Staff / April 16, 2008

Overlooking the Connecticut River on the Vermont-New Hampshire border, Bellows Falls feels like a step back in time. Once one of the largest papermaking centers in the world, the town is replete with grand homes built by titans of the pulp, paint, canal, and railroad companies that operated there more than a century ago. Most of its diminutive downtown - a cluster of red brick buildings, including a multistory clock tower above Town Hall - is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Water has been the most valuable amenity in Bellows Falls, first making the area a prized Native American fishing spot (ancient Abenaki petroglyphs are carved in rocks by the riverbed), and later spurring the construction of mills, a bridge, and a canal system that turned the town into a hub of transportation and manufacturing. But Bellows Falls had a familiar post-industrial trajectory: By the mid-1900s most local industry had collapsed and the town fell on hard times. In more recent years, economic redevelopment and historic preservation efforts have injected new life into the community. Many of those gorgeous old homes have been restored, and a smattering of art galleries, modest restaurants, cute shops, and cozy inns makes Bellows Falls a quaint destination.

Do

Your first stop in Bellows Falls, officially a village within the town of Rockingham, should be the Waypoint Visitors Center (next to the train station, 17 Depot St., 802-463-4280, gfrcc.org), home of the Great Falls Regional Chamber of Commerce. There, you can get maps and tourist materials, read up on local history, and grab a brochure for a self-guided walking tour of the historic neighborhood district. A block away, in the heart of downtown, stop by Exner Block (7 Canal St., 802-463-3252, ramp-vt .org/exner), a once-derelict building that has been converted into live-and-work space for artists and arts-focused retail storefronts, including several small galleries. Exner Block is part of the Rockingham Arts & Museum Project, whose goal is to integrate artists into business and cultural circles. From June through October, Bellows Falls is a stop on a scenic tourist railway line that runs through town: the Green Mountain Railroad's "Green Mountain Flyer" (rails-vt.com, 802-463-3069), whose restored 1930s passenger cars are pulled by a vintage diesel locomotive. History buffs may want to visit the circa 1831 Adams Grist Mill Museum, a former grain mill and feed store on Mill Street that houses original grain elevators, storage bins, and farming tools. Maintained by the Bellows Falls Historical Society, the museum has limited hours; it's typically open summer weekends or by appointment. At a hydroelectric generating station alongside the canal downtown, there's a fish ladder, built in the early 1980s to reintroduce salmon to the upper Connecticut River, with a small explanatory exhibit and viewing window.

Play

If you can't imagine a vacation without golf, head to the Bellows Falls Country Club (Route 103, Rockingham, 802-463-9809, bel lowsfallscountryclub.com), a nine-hole course with a clubhouse, bar, restaurant, and pro shop. Open from April through October, the course is open to the public and tee times are not required. For a rainy-day activity, you can take scrapbooking classes at the Scrapbook Nook (78 Atkinson St., 877-450-3700, scrapbooknookatgfp.com), which also boasts more than 3,000 square feet of merchandise. From May to October, take your kids to the Bellows Falls Farmers Market (802-387-6128, bffarmersmarket .com), held on Friday afternoons at the Waypoint Visitors Center (next to the train station at 17 Depot St.). To release your inner Picasso, visit the Great River Arts Institute (33 Bridge St., 802-463-3330, greatriverarts.org), which offers workshops in the visual and literary arts.

Spend

Bellows Falls has several gallery-like shops, including Maplewing Artisans (7 The Square, 802-460-4161) whose selection includes wood carvings, walking sticks, hand-thrown pottery, and paper cuttings; Rock and Hammer (26 The Square, 802-463-2289), which sells handcrafted jewelry and unique gifts like bird-shaped back scratchers; and Coyote Moon (22 Rockingham St., 802-463-9559) which specializes in sterling silver jewelry and folk art. Village Square Booksellers (32 The Square, 802-463-9404, villagesquarebooks.com) is an independently owned shop with a small cafe, while Arch Bridge Bookshop (14 The Square, 802-463-2098, abebooks.com/home/archbridge) buys and sells used books, including New England history and "Vermontiana." Promising "pop art, fads, and fashion with style," Hula Cat (5 Westminster St., 802-376-4548) is basically a funky thrift shop that has one of the largest collections of Hawaiian shirts around. La Bella Stella (18 The Square, 802-463-2228) sells what it calls "enchanting gifts for the body and spirit," such as tarot decks, fragrant oils, healing stones, peace banners, and sun catchers. Run on hydroelectric power supplied by the local dam, Sherwin Art Glass (33 Bridge St., 802-376-5744, sherwinartglass.com) is a studio where owner Chris Sherwin makes and sells blown-glass pieces. Bull's Eye Music (51 Village Square, 802-460-7544, bullseyemusicshop.com) offers new and used CDs and vinyl, as well as musical instruments and accessories. And at Sam's Outdoor Outfitters (35 Rockingham St., 802-463-3500, samsoutfitters.com), you can munch on free popcorn while you shop for outdoor clothing and accessories.

Party

The party scene in Bellows Falls is quite mellow. Barhopping is basically limited to Nick's Cafe & Grill (65 Rockingham St., 802-463-4940), which serves bar food like chicken fingers and beer-battered onion rings, and PK's Public House (113 Rockingham St., 802-463-9007), an Irish pub with open mike nights on Tuesdays. Located in Rockingham Town Hall, the Bellows Falls Opera House (7 The Square, 802-463-3964), which recently underwent a $3.7 million restoration, is a refurbished theater that shows movies and live performances. For a night of culture, Stone Church Arts (20 Church St., 802-463-3100, immanuelepiscopal .org/StoneChurchArts.html), housed in Immanuel Episcopal Church, plays host to musical performances. Upcoming concerts include a classical pianist on April 26 and a flutist on May 16. At the Hraefnwood Cafe (23 Canal St., 802-299-7429, hraefnwoodcafe.com), there is live music or poetry readings the third Friday of each month, as well as a small selection of microbrews and wines.

Rest

Readmore Bed, Breakfast, & Books (1 Hapgood St., 802-463-9415, readmoreinn .com, $150-$270), an expansive, elegant B&B near the center of town, was named one of the 10 prettiest country homes in the nation by Ladies Home Journal in 1899 - and with five guest rooms remains one of the loveliest houses in Bellows Falls. Country-cozy River Mist Bed & Breakfast (7 Burt St., 802-463-9023, river-mist.com, $100-$150) has five guest rooms in an 1895 Queen Anne Victorian. The Everyday Inn (593 Rockingham Road, 802-463-4536, everydayinn.net), formerly the Rockingham Motor Inn, is a motel-like 30-room place with a seasonal outdoor swimming pool. Bellows Falls also has two bed-and-breakfasts that offer a uniquely private experience: They each have only one guest room. One is the Witch Mountain House, formerly the Village Guest Suite (6 Hapgood St., 802-428-2018, witchmountainhouse.com, $189-$229), whose private suite includes a bedroom with queen-sized canopy bed, dining/sitting area, kitchenette, and full bathroom. The other is the Weeping Cherry (16 South St., 802-463-9521, $120), whose first-floor guest room comes with a full breakfast. Both homes are Victorians built in the late 1800s.

Fuel

There's not a lot of fancy eating in Bellows Falls; for that, you'll have to head to nearby Rockingham (try Leslie's Tavern), Walpole, N.H. (try the Walpole Inn), or Saxtons River (try the Inn at Saxtons River). But without leaving town you can have a lovely meal at Boccelli's on the Canal (46 Canal St., 802-460-1190, boccellisonthecanal.com, $6.50-$17.50), a casual cafe that doubles as a specialty grocery store selling fresh produce, deli meats and cheeses, and Vermont-made items. It's mostly a coffee spot, but the Hraefnwood Cafe (23 Canal St., 802-299-7429, hraefnwoodcafe.com, $1.50-$6) - Hraefnwood is pronounced "Ravenwood" in Old English - also serves soups, sandwiches, and pastries, and its snug, fireplaced eating area has a nice view of the canal. Housed in a narrow boxcar built around the 1930s, the old-fashioned Miss Bellows Falls Diner (90 Rockingham St., 802-463-3700, missbellowsfallsdiner .com, $1.50-$14) serves cheap-eats breakfasts and lunches, including classics like liver and onions. Fat Franks (92 Rockingham St., 802-463-4388, $1.25-$7.50), whose motto is "the wurst place in Bellows Falls," is a tiny place specializing in hot dogs of seemingly every kind (chili dogs, kraut dogs, cheese dogs, tofu dogs), sausages, burgers, French fries, and more. Vermont Pretzel & Cookie (24 Rockingham St., 802-460-2424, $3-$6) serves sandwiches, salads, pastries, and, of course, pretzels. Joy Wah (Route 5, 802-463-9761, joywah.com, $6-$17) is a Chinese joint in town.

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