Small Towns: Chester, Vermont

Have you ever spent time in a big city where absolutely nothing makes you wish to linger? Chester, Vermont is its opposite–a wee place where you drive in, begin to wander, and before you know it you've wiled away most of the day. That's fancy sleight of hand for a place with just a tick over 3,100 people that are pretty well dispersed.

It helps that this Windsor County village lies in a valley in the shadow of Okemo and Mount Snow, to which skiers flock when the white stuff is on the ground. In the winter Chester is a popular apr├Ęs-ski destination, which helps explain why it has an outsized number of inns and motels. The village's small shop row spreads like wings from the Fullerton Inn, which dates to 1885 and replaced an even older building. The nearby Inn Victoria serves high tea for those who want elegance with their crumpets. It's easy to imagine after hours thick-sweatered mogul hoppers stretched out before a fire and recapping adventures. But this doesn’t explain how Chester manages to be both quiet and vibrant during the Dog Days of August when we visited.

Architecture lovers tend to drive toward Chester Depot to see the Stone Village Historic District. As advertised, it's a collection of homes constructed of local granite. This was something of an "ooookay" ho-hum experience for me. (Would anyone break out the camera if they were made of brick?) I much preferred the old railway station. During what Vermonters call Leaf-Peeping Season, the ironically named Green Mountain Flyer crawls between Chester and Rockingham, but in the summer only the odd freight train rolls past. There's a time machine feel to standing by the station and looking across to a well-worn 1849 market. That's about all the commercial activity there is in Chester Depot, but it's more authentic than the Vermont Country Store in nearby Rockingham.

We made our way back to the village proper and admired the graceful historic homes along Route 103, many of which have been lovingly restored. There are several stunning Victorians with fancy woodwork and frills and there's even what some claim to be Vermont's oldest Georgian home. The vest pocket downtown has galleries, gift shops, eateries, and one-of-a-kind specialty stores that make you understand why locals fought so hard to keep the Dollar General Store out of the village limits. Don't forget to cross the street and saunter among the old stones in the cemetery. You'll be amazed by the longevity of Colonial and Early American residents. I always like to search for unusual gravestone carvings.  

Chester enjoys a reputation for being a pretty good food town. We gather that The Free Range is superb for dinner, but we weren't there in the evening. Instead, we treated ourselves to a hearty lunch at MacLaomainn's Scottish Pub. How often do you get a chance to quench your thirst with Scottish beers on tap? The pub grub is good and, yes, I did order haggis, neeps, and tatties. I enjoyed every bite. The owner is indeed Scottish and there's a modest Clan Hall for functions in the rear of the pub.   

If you wish to take an excursion to nearby Ludlow, a very easy stroll to Buttermilk Falls takes you to a popular summer swimming hole and a photogenic cascade. We then made our way back to Chester and headed for I-91 via the village of Rockingham. Its biggest draw is the aforementioned Vermont Country Store, where we had decent-but-not-transcendent soft serve ice cream. In the store you'll find all manner of candy, foodstuff, clothing, and toys–much of it things you've not seen in decades. That's deservedly so in some cases, but it's nonetheless a hoot. There's also an old mill on the property with a working waterwheel. Do detour to the 18th century Rockingham Meetinghouse, a former Congregational Church and town hall that's a National Historic Landmark. It's a tranquil and picturesque spot.

We were amazed by how much we absorbed in such a small area. Back in Northampton we learned that two friends whom we assumed married in California where they used to live actually tied the knot at the Fullerton Inn. Small town. Small world.

Rob Weir

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