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History looms large in Vermont’s smallest city

In Vergennes, moorings on Otter Creek, near where Thomas Macdonough built a fleet for a War of 1812 battle.

DIRK VAN SUSTEREN FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

In Vergennes, moorings on Otter Creek, near where Thomas Macdonough built a fleet for a War of 1812 battle.

VERGENNES, Vt. — Vermont’s smallest city loves its history. It was founded in 1788 and named after the Comte de Vergennes, Charles Gravier, possibly at the urging of Ethan Allen, who welcomed the count’s support for the colonists against the British.

With beautiful, restored 19th-century homes and other buildings, much of the city is on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Vergennes even has an adopted War of 1812 naval hero: Commodore Thomas Macdonough, who helped end the war by defeating the British in the Battle of Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain.

Macdonough, a Delaware native and veteran of the War Against the Barbary Pirates, had been ordered by President Madison to the area to build a fleet to keep the British out of the lake. On Otter Creek in Vergennes, seven miles upstream from Champlain, he and his men in just weeks built 16 war vessels, and on Sept. 11, 1814, in a roaring gun battle in which vessels were reduced to splinters, he forced a British surrender.

Another famous American had ties to Vergennes, though his visit was more transitory. After his execution in 1859 for his raid on Harper’s Ferry, John Brown’s body was brought north, and traveled through Vergennes in a wagon to Lake Champlain, where the coffin was put on a ferry to New York to be buried near Lake Placid.

Some Vergennes residents stood in honor of the fiery abolitionist, but others turned their backs in derision, says local historian Ann Sullivan. As the cart passed by, souvenir hunters “began chipping off pieces of the casket and the wagon” until they were chased away.

As it turned out, Brown got the song, but Macdonough got the monument, a big one. On Sept. 11, 1925, a 12-foot-high stone marker was presented on the Vergennes green honoring him as “a gallant officer [and] exemplary citizen.”

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Vergennes has four churches built in the 19th century; Federalist, Italianate, and French Second-Empire homes, built a century and a half ago; a brick, Romanesque opera house built in 1897; and the Bixby Memorial Library, a 100-year-old architectural gem, with a central rotunda and stained-glass dome.

On the second floor of the library, up the marble stairway, is, in museum parlance, a “cabinet of curiosities,” with disparate things, from arrowheads, to portraits, to Civil War cannon balls, to a stuffed owl. The door is usually locked, but the librarian will open it for visitors.

“The Bixby Library and the Opera House on Main Street are bookends to a welcoming downtown,” says Sullivan, a retired teacher and Vergennes native. “It was important for the people of Vergennes [a century ago] to present themselves as cultured, so they put a good face to the world with these two buildings.”

The Romanesque and Queen Anne-style Vergennes Opera House was built in 1897 and is a busy venue to this day.

Dirk Van Susteren for The Boston Globe

The Romanesque and Queen Anne-style Vergennes Opera House was built in 1897 and is a busy venue to this day.

Twenty miles south of Burlington, this city has only 2,800 residents, so its attraction is largely small-town ambience. It has an art gallery, Creative Space, a co-op involving 30 area artists; an antiques shop; several other boutiques; and lively restaurants.

There are options nearby for outdoor activity: Snake Mountain and Mount Philo, relatively easy climbs, both offering panoramic views of the Champlain Valley and the Adirondacks. Bicycling also is popular, especially along the flat back roads in nearby Panton and Ferrisburgh.

But it’s Otter Creek that’s central to the city, both geographically and recreationally. The river has a 40-foot falls in the downtown, but both above and below the falls are spots to canoe and kayak. On a summer day, maybe a dozen sailboats and other pleasure craft, up from Champlain, might be moored or afloat near Macdonough’s boat-building site.

The river is good for fishing — anything from walleye, to bass, to big catfish.

“Back in my day, kids on the way home from school would stop near the falls, throw in a line, and haul in a beautiful walleye to taken home for supper,” says Sullivan.

Whether going by bike or car, a good side trip from Vergennes would be the 6-mile route down Basin Harbor Road and along Otter Creek. This road takes one near Button Bay State Park on Lake Champlain, a gorgeous 253-acre park with nature trails, hiking and biking paths, and sites for tent camping. With playground and swimming facilities, it’s ideal for children.

Down the road is the historic Basin Harbor Club, an elegant and historic resort, with options for golf, tennis, swimming, and boating. Near the resort is the Lake Champlain Maritime Museum, where one can learn just about everything there is to know about the lake, including details of Macdonough’s smart maneuver against the British.

In one of its 16 buildings is a War of 1812 Room with artifacts found on the lake bottom that were swept off ships after the Battle of Plattsburgh. They include glassware, parts of rigging, bottles, buttons, and pieces of broken swords and muskets.

Vergennes has a low-key but rewarding night life, from band concerts on the Green, to lectures at Bixby Library, to movies, plays, and concerts at the Opera House. The Antidote, a pub, has live music, often jazz, plus a varied menu that relies largely on local ingredients. It has a veggie burger (wild rice, carrot, risotto, pumpkin seed, spinach, red pepper aioli, ramp pesto, plus fried tortilla chip topping) that would win over the most confirmed carnivore.

Though hardly a sports bar, the Antidote is a good place to have any kind of burger and beer and watch a Yankees-Red Sox game.

For those who like to dine outside on a warm night, there are tables on Main Street at 3 Squares Cafe (“Breakfast served ’till 3 p.m.”), and the Black Sheep Bistro. (On a busy night, the bistro had run out of its blackened salmon with tomato avocado salsa, but the coriander-crusted New York strip steak was a worthy substitute.)

For treats, two places to visit: The Vergennes Laundry, for pastries and espresso; and the Daily Chocolate, where all sweets are made on site. Owner Jen Roberts, a self-taught chocolatier, is often found in the open kitchen, behind the display case, where she cuts and dips her creations. She proudly reports, “We don’t use corn syrup.”

Sullivan calls the library and Opera House the little city’s “bookends,” but farther out on opposite ends of Main Street are two inns, both historic, the 1834 Strong House Inn and the 1850 Emerson House, that qualify as bookends to a community that likes to speak volumes about its past.

Dirk Van Susteren can be reached at dirkpatrick@aol
.com.

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