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Visiting Vermont: heralding history and heritage.

Vermont may bring to mind Bernie Sanders, Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and an environmentally-friendly place with abundant, solar power arrays, but it is also a state imbued with a rich history. From covered bridges, historic taverns, and impressive estates, the history of Vermont comes to life walking in the footsteps of America's founding fathers. Discover early Revolutionary War history on an intriguing back roads tour, visit the stately Lincoln family home of Hildene, and stay at the well-preserved Arlington Inn, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Three centuries of the rich history and heritage in the Shires region (so named since it is has two county seats in two towns or shires of southwestern Vermont) may be explored in any season with a focus on painters, potters, and poets, or the independence of America.

The natural beauty of Vermont continues to lure visitors to a state where billboards have been banned since 1968. (It is not the only state to do so, since Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine also have laws prohibiting advertising on roads and highways.) This lack of visual clutter contributes to the scenic look and feel of Vermont, the Green Mountain state that was once its own country, known as the "Republic of Vermont." As a separate country in 1777, Vermont had its own coins, stamps, and militia before joining the other states as part of America in 1791. This independent spirit still lives on.


On one of the Backroad Discovery Tours, informative guide and author Dick Smith brings history alive in unlikely places such as graveyards, where I think about people from another era with unfamiliar names such as Charity, Hope, Humility, Invest, Resolved, Remember, Silence, and Submit. At the well-maintained Old Bennington Cemetery I view gravestones with both unlikely and famous names such as Robert Frost (Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who lived in Shaftsbury, where he penned "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening"), Reverend Jedidiah Dewey (the first Protestant minister in the first Vermont town), and Jonas Fay (author of the Declaration of Independence of the State of Vermont), along with various governors and Revolutionary War soldiers, some of whom were buried in a mass grave.

At the cemetery I am reminded women were second-class citizens and learn a woman who was pre-deceased by her husband was referred to as a "relic" and this term was chiseled into some of the headstones. The carvings on the tombstones are sometimes artfully done. Often made from indigenous marble and granite, they are adorned with angels, cherub heads with wings (a soul effigy thought to represent a spiritual side of death), floral (alluding to beauty and the brevity of life) and leaf motifs, as well as doves (connoting purity, devotion, and peace) incised along with inscriptions. It is not clear if these were death symbols, folk art imagery, or most likely, both.

The cemetery is beside the Old First Church of Bennington, which in 1762 was the first church in Vermont dedicated to the separation of church and state and those seeking religious freedom. Here Smith speaks of this wild northern frontier where Hessian soldiers were captured and the revolutionary patriots, led by Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys, were responsible for the victory over the British at both Fort Ticonderoga and in Bennington. Smith pulls out a map, indicating the path of the soldiers as they anticipated the British coming to replenish their supplies in Bennington. He recounts how the Green Mountain Boys and their friends from New Hampshire ambushed the Europeans. This military history is important since Vermont decisively won the first battle with the British in 1775 (when they marched to Fort Ticonderoga, capturing 100 canons), changing the course of the Revolutionary War and leading America on the path to becoming a free country.

Another stop on the guided tour is the stone, 306-foot tall Bennington Battle Monument. This tallest structure in Vermont commemorates the pivotal Bennington Battle in 1777 during which the Americans defeated the British and their Hessian recruits. The site also has distinguished statues honoring General John Stark, who came with his troops from New Hampshire to defend the newly established Vermont and Colonel Seth Warner, a prominent member of the Green Mountain Boys. The Bennington Battle monument on the site of the Bennington Revolutionary War arsenal is one of the state-owned historic sites interpreting heritage and history throughout Vermont. But not all of these sites or Backroad Discovery tours revolve around military history in this part of the state with streets named Benedict Crossing, Tory Lane, and Covered Bridge Road.


Today there are approximately one hundred covered bridges in Vermont, most of which date from the 1800s. An additional 600 have been washed away, collapsed, or burned. They were covered for practical reasons, to help preserve the wooden structure. There are five covered bridges in the Bennington/Arlington area, constructed with wooden lattice works. Particularly picturesque is the West Arlington Bridge, originally painted red with iron ochre, an inexpensive pigment made from a recipe requiring milk, lime, flaxseed, and turpentine. On the Chiselville Bridge, a sign cautions there is a one dollar fine for driving speeds exceeding a walking pace in this village named after the manufacturing of quality chisels and tools.

At the Bennington Center for the Arts, the Covered Bridge Museum provides a short film introduction along with exhibits about aspects of construction, models of these one-lane bridges, and associated art such as paintings by the prolific Eric Sloane, an authority on early American rural architecture, who created 15,000 paintings and wrote 38 books. After driving through these bridges of yesteryear, it is amusing to hear tolls were charged not only for people, but also for animals such as sheep, pigs, and cows. Other trivia references adding snow to the floor of the bridge to make it easier for sleighs to glide through during winter. A more romantic view of the covered bridge was its use as a secret meeting place for young lovers or from the 19th century author and poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He described a covered bridge as a "brief darkness leading from light to light."


Looking stately and grand, yet feeling intimate, the Arlington Inn is a Greek revival mansion (neoclassical architecture incorporating features of Greek temples from the 5th century BC) transporting you to another era. Innkeepers Elizabeth and Eric along with their friendly, well-behaved dog Marley, are particularly welcoming. We also meet their chickens with names like Clover and Ginger. Each bedroom has a unique look with a splattering of antiques ranging from a hand-painted wall clock, wooden tinderbox (or coal scuttle with a sloping, hinged lid) and clothes wringer (with cast iron decorative tightening screws) to a hand-cranked spinning wheel, eagle weathervane, and duck decoys. Handcrafted maple ceilings and in-room fireplaces (mostly gas, some of which are two-sided) add warmth to the charming decor along with a brass pineapple (a traditional sign of New England hospitality) ornamenting the staircase.

The well-situated, historic inn in Arlington, between Manchester and Bennington was built in 1847, as the home of railroad magnate Martin Chester Deming. Today the four-acre country estate has four buildings listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In addition to the overnight accommodations at the restored inn with heaps of Vermont hospitality, there is an excellent, full-service restaurant with wood-burning fireplace. The adjoining cozy tavern with intimate seating (high back oak stools and upholstered loveseats) is graced with inviting forest green walls, hunting horns, and a carved wooden sideboard. The dining experience (open to all) is highly recommended, with attention to detail, even when operating at full capacity during holidays. Particularly delicious is the melt-in-your-mouth butternut squash soup drizzled with sage cream at dinner and the moist, house-made pumpkin muffins served in a cheerful breakfast room with Green Mountain country blend coffee in mugs warmed on the hearth of the fireplace.

The Arlington Inn is a four-season property particularly popular for special events in the spring and summer, attracting leaf peepers in the autumn, and winter sports enthusiasts when snow blankets the area with a magical white cloak. Regardless of when you stay or dine at the Arlington Inn, it is a chance to slow down and breathe in the history of place in a town where artist Norman Rockwell thrived.


"Vermont is inspiration to my work." ---Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell (1894-1978) captured visual stories of everyday American life in a narrative tradition, painting with a quasi-photographic realism. When Rockwell lived in Arlington from 1939-1953, many of the locals served as models for his iconic illustrations garnering covers of magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post, Boys Life, and Look. Rockwell was a prolific painter but he was more interested in creating magazine covers which would reach the masses, with real people in real settings imparting his uncanny and sometimes humorous observations, as seen in April Fool's Day illustrations embedded with "mistakes." He commented: "I don't want to paint for a few who can see a canvas in a museum, for I believe that in a democracy art belongs to the people. I want my pictures to be published."

Rockwell was not drawn to Vermont for the usual reasons: to farm, garden, experience outdoor adventure, and commune with nature. Using models who were part of the community, doing everyday things, like gossiping--as portrayed in his piece, "The Gossips"--became central to his work at a most active time in his career. He wrote that his "fundamental purpose is to interpret the typical American." He explained: "Arlington affords the ideal residence. From this calm vantage point, far from the cities with their crowds and clamor, I view things with detachment and serenity; also I can go about my task with a minimum of interruption and with the knowledge that right here are exactly the models needed for my purpose--the sincere, honest, homespun types that I love to paint."

Rockwell was also interested in more than scenes of authentic people and places like the local swimming hole. He captured "Four Freedoms," in artworks about civic principles with his iconic, "Freedom From Want" (which helped the US sell war bonds estimated at 132 million dollars). Other works of Rockwell documented the US space program, the Kennedy years, and his multi-cultural painting, "The Golden Rule," reminding readers to: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." Many examples of his art can be seen in an exhibition at the Battenkill Gallery and Sugar Shack in Arlington (where you can stock up on maple syrup, Vermont cheeses, and local crafts). In a short film shown there upon request, you can see some of the models from the area as they comment on their early experiences with Norman Rockwell in times past.

HILDENE--The Lincoln Family Estate

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness..."

President Abraham Lincoln is associated with the ideals of perseverance, integrity, and civil duty as well as the state of Illinois. But his son Robert Todd Lincoln (the only child of Lincoln to live to adulthood) built the Lincoln family retreat on 530 acres in Manchester, Vermont. The 24-room Georgian Revival style estate, known as Hildene, was constructed from 1902-1905 and the Lincoln family lived in it for 70 years. It began as a seasonal sanctuary and eventually became the year-round family home. Robert--after a series of illustrious careers including Secretary of War, Ambassador to Great Britain, General Counsel for and eventually Chairman of the Pullman Cars--was quite taken with Vermont after his initial visit in 1864 and eventually settled in the state.

There are both permanent and temporary exhibits in the house for a mostly self-guided tour with docents adding information in some areas, pointing out the most impressive 1,000-pipe organ in working condition. Fresh floral displays provide colorful accents to many of the rooms. In the kitchen are dried herbs hanging from a rack and baked goods on the cast iron stove in a home with 8 fireplaces. In the curated exhibits, one of Abe Lincoln's three stovepipe hats is always on view. Other artifacts include Abraham Lincoln's White House dressing room mirror, golf shoes of Robert Lincoln, a silver coffee and tea service, Densmore typewriter, letterpress (for copying correspondence during Robert's stint as Secretary of War), and a bust of President Lincoln overlooking reproductions of historic documents. Special events at the estate highlight the relevance of President Abe Lincoln's speeches and importance of his civil civic discourses within the framework of American ideals.

The property, placed on the National Register of Historic Places, offers dramatic views of the Green Mountains to the east, the Taconic Mountains to the west, Mt. Equinox in the valley below, and the Battenkill River, which flows into the Hudson River. This former ancestral estate--which today is filled with 13 miles of walking trails accompanied by interpretive signs--also encompasses formal gardens, a Nubian goat farm for cheese-making, an observatory for stargazing, and a restored 1903 Pullman Palace Sunbeam car, once used for luxury travel by rail. This beautifully renovated, impressive wooden car was part of a train used by both President McKinley and President Theodore Roosevelt.

Beyond historic preservation, Hildene has an eye on sustainability and conservation, practicing composting and rotational grazing on its 21st-century farm, powered mostly by solar energy. It produces a limited supply of honey and maple syrup as well as artisanal soap, and delicious havarti and chevre cheeses, available for purchase in their gift shop. The spacious property is open to visitors who may ride a trolley car to view the expansive acreage including an education center and pollination area where no pesticides are used. There is an educational component for high school students working in the greenhouse, learning first-hand about soil science and renewable energy, as well as for the public regarding bees, the environment, and sustainable agricultural practices.

BENNINGTON MUSEUM--Art, History, Innovation

The goal of this museum is to make it a center for "invention and imagination, where the creativity of the past connects to the present, and inspires the future." This is evident in exhibits such as "Reimagining Grandma Moses," an inspiring artist whose real name was Anna Mary Robertson. Reinterpreting the work of Grandma Moses (who was a friend of Norman Rockwell) takes many forms, some with recognizable landscapes such as Linda Finch's skillful painting, "The Burning of America," from 2016, making a social comment on gas line breaks creating fires in small villages across rural America or Stella Ehrich's "McCart Road," a meditation on the spirit of landscape, while other pieces are more conceptual, working with unlikely materials such as trash bags (not my cup of tea). Instead, I linger over an iconic, vibrant landscape of Mt. Equinox painted by Rockwell Kent, titled simply "Vermont Study."

The town of Bennington was industrial in the mid-19th century with an active mill for textiles and its own luxury automobile company, the Martin Wasp. And the Bennington Museum displays functional and decorative objects made in Vermont. They range from a parlor organ built in Brattleboro in 1882 and Green Mountain cast iron parlor stove (1850) adorned with fanciful leaves and vines, crafted in Poultney, Vermont to utilitarian Norton Pottery (for food storage and salt-glazed stoneware water jugs, incised and painted with decorations) in Bennington.

There are also surprises at the Bennington Museum such as the sanza, an African musical instrument, which was used at the dedication of the Old First Church in 1806 displayed along with foot warming stoves for the first pastor there. An adjoining case shows the silver trowel used to lay the cornerstone of the Bennington Battle Monument. The art and artifacts at the Bennington Museum connect the past and present without losing sight of what lies ahead in Vermont, a state embedded with the history of the founding fathers of America and filled with friendly folks exhibiting an independent spirit.



Arlington Inn

Arlington Vermont

href="" Arlington Inn Website


Hildene, The Lincoln Family Home

Manchester, Vermont

href="" Hildene Website

Bennington Battle Monument State Historic Site

Bennington, Vermont

href="" Bennington Battle Website


Bennington Museum

Bennington, Vermont

href="" Bennington Museum Website

Covered Bridge Museum

In The Bennington Center for the Arts

Bennington, Vermont

href="" Covered Bridge Museum Webpage

Rockwell Exhibit at the Battenkill Gallery

Arlington, Vermont

href="" Rockwell Exhibit Webpage


Backroad Discovery Tours

Manchester, Vermont

href="" Backroad Discovery Tours Webpage


The Revolutionary War in Bennington County

A History & Guide by Richard B. Smith

href="">Link to Guide


Vermont Welcome Center

Bennington, Vermont

href="" Link to Information Center Website

Iris Brooks has been fortunate to travel to, write about, photograph, and play music on all seven continents, but still retains a fondness for New England where she studied at Bowdoin College and Wesleyan University. Follow her work with photographer Jon H. Davis at their NORTHERN LIGHTS STUDIO website,
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Author:Brooks, Iris
Publication:World and I
Geographic Code:1U1VT
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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