ARLINGTON, Vt. — Bebe Bullock was driving me around town to tour the highlights of Arlington when she slowed to point out a house that is haunted, at least according to local legend.
I didn’t ask if it was haunted by the ghost of Norman Rockwell because I secretly hoped the specter of a famous pipe-smoking painter was actually there. I heard a lot about Rockwell and fly fishing in Arlington, primarily because the town of 2,500 near the New York border is pinning its hopes of a tourism comeback on the painter who lived here for more than a decade, along with a river full of trout.
Not only is the town haunted by Rockwell (at least in my overactive imagination) but it’s also haunted by the economic hardships that plague many small rural New England towns. There was a time when Arlington was flush with tourists and their discretionary income. All of which has since disappeared. But there is now an active group of volunteers in town whose aim is to bring those tourists back. They’re displaying a level of enthusiasm not seen since the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders of 1979.
“We have so much here,” said Carol Farley, another resident who has been spearheading volunteer efforts alongside Bullock. “The problem is that people just don’t know it.”
After WWII, Arlington blossomed into a bustling hamlet where busloads of tourists would come to see the foliage, shop, or stroll through the massive candle store. Fly fishermen would cast their lines in the Battenkill River. At the same time, Arlington-area artists Rockwell, Grandma Moses, illustrator Mead Schaeffer, illustrator and painter John Atherton, and “Henry” cartoonist Don Trachte were busy creating iconic work. Town residents were often used as models in some of Rockwell’s most revered paintings.
“You didn’t know that Rockwell lived here?” a shocked Bullock asked shortly after I arrived in Arlington. Like most residents of Massachusetts, I believed that Stockbridge had sole custody of Rockwell and his legacy. But he lived in Arlington from 1939 until he moved to Stockbridge in 1953. “His studio was here. This is where he painted the Four Freedoms.”
I was also unaware that Arlington was once one of the premiere fly-fishing destinations in the Northeast. I think I was forgiven for not knowing that.
At its peak, 100,000 tourists came to Arlington annually. But by the 1970s and 1980s, the luster started to fade. A new highway was built in the 1960s that circumvented the town. The trout population started dwindling in the Battenkill during the 1990s. Without the tourists and fly fishermen, shops began to close. By the end of the 1990s, the toy store, kitchen store, cafe, and grocery store were gone. When the Catholic Church consolidated a decade ago, it left its Arlington church empty. Meanwhile, 8 miles north, the town of Manchester became an outlet-saturation version of Freeport, Maine.
“I wouldn’t say it was just the outlets that hurt tourism here. There were a lot of things over the years,” said Nancy Tshorn, who has owned the Wayside Country Store for 38 years. Their slogan is “If we don’t have it, you don’t need it!“ “I think it was when the candle store closed. Candle Mill Village. It had three floors of every kind of candle and gift you can think of. It made Arlington a destination.”
Bullock, Farley, and fellow booster and conspirator Don Trachte Jr., are trying to make Arlington a destination again and they’re starting to make progress.
They have doggedly pursued and received an impressive amount of grant money from the state in addition to raising funds of their own. They bought the empty Catholic church and the accompanying rectory after a $60,000 grant allowed them to commission a feasibility study. The church will become a performance space, and the rectory has become a community gathering space called the Watkins House. It now hosts art exhibitions, cocktail parties, concerts, dances, and, of course, fly tying classes. Another building houses a fitness center that’s also open to the community. Collectively, the three buildings are called the Arlington Common.
But the biggest thing to come out of the Arlington Common and its volunteers is the Battenkill Fly Fishing Festival. In December 2021, they applied for a $30,000 grant from Vermont’s tourism bureau. But before they submitted the grant, they needed to come up with an event. Brainstorming with the residents and businesses, they opted for a fly fishing festival during the traditionally slow mud season. It’s also when the river is active with trout.
The 2023 edition of the festival takes place April 27 to April 30.
After receiving the grant, they had just four months to put the festival together. They tracked down speakers, planned an opening night gala, found bands to perform, and organized a community barbecue. It was entirely staffed by volunteers. Orvis, the fly fishing and sporting goods company headquartered in nearby Manchester, signed on as a sponsor. They sold 300 tickets to the event. It wasn’t 100,000 tourists, but it was a start.
Buzz Kanter and Tabetha Hammer, who live in Arlington, attended the 2022 festival and were surprised by the energy. Kanter has lived in Arlington for eight years. He bought a house after retiring from publishing. They never thought much of investing in the community, but after meeting neighbors at the festival, many for the first time, and then talking with volunteers at the Arlington Common, they were inspired. They bought the Arlington Inn and are now renovating it.
“When we heard what the board was doing at the Common, and to hear their vision and see the energy, it got us excited,” Hammer said. “We had looked at this place before the festival, but after the festival we could start to see the vision for the town.”
Bullock insists the couple bought the inn because of the festival; they say that isn’t exactly accurate. But I’m a fan of Bullock’s version of the story, so that’s the one I’m going to believe. Much the way that I believe that Rockwell’s ghost is somewhere in town.
There are other things happening in Arlington. Tim and Bronwyn Wiechmann, owners of the Bronwyn in Somerville, have opened Bronwyn-on-Battenkill, which has a similar menu to the Somerville location.
Kevin and Sue Harter purchased Rockwell’s home in 2019 and after extensive renovations, opened Rockwell’s Retreat. It’s an eight-room inn with views of the town’s covered bridge and the river. Guests can congregate in Rockwell’s studio, which the couple re-created from period photographs.
“When I was a kid in the ‘50s and ‘60s, we called traffic through town the conga line,” Trachte said. “It was 25 miles an hour because people were coming to the antique stores, inns, cheese houses, all that. They were unique stores, and I think that’s one of the things that we’re capitalizing on now, people want things that are unique and different, and I think we fit the bill.”