BELLOWS FALLS — The southern Vermont village of Bellows Falls first thrived as a transit hub, a place where people and goods passed through on their way to somewhere else. It was where the first bridge was built over the Connecticut River in 1785, the first canal company in the country was chartered, and it became one of the most important railroad junctions in northern New England. Those days are long gone, as is the hustle and bustle of a significant paper mill industry. Bellows Falls, like many mill towns, has seen a lot of changes.
What remains from its boom time is an architecturally unique destination with a compact, walkable, and remarkably intact downtown that has earned recognition from the National Register of Historic Places. The village centers on a broad central street known as “the square,” anchored by a Town Hall building that boasts both a recently renovated, 550-seat opera house and an elegantly soaring clock tower. It is the heart of what nationally recognized, homegrown artist Charlie Hunter fondly calls his “charmingly cranky village,” around which a diverse community of locals and transplants has built a diverse array of destinations and experiences, including top-notch farm-to-table dining and noteworthy music events.
Thanks to its energy and creativity, Bellows Falls now offers rich rewards to those who choose to stop and stay a while.
SHOP & LEARN
Both collectors and casual antiques-lovers will find a treasure trove in Michael Bruno’s 8,000-square-foot Windham Antique Center (5 Village Square, 802-732-8081, windhamantiquecenter.com), where the young transplanted New Yorker and graduate gemologist offers unusual jewelry finds, home furnishings and decor, tableware, and paintings bought mostly from estates along the Connecticut River Valley. Bruno also hosts a free lecture series on the third Friday evening of each month with guest speakers on architecture, decorative arts, and archeology. The first of the season takes place May 15 at 6 p.m. with a local archeologist.
At Village Square Booksellers (32 Village Square, 802-463-9404, villagesquarebooks.com), knowledgeable staff will customize reading recommendations for you and share pointers on local sights like the self-guided Bellows Falls Neighborhood Historic District walking tour photographed by bookstore co-owner Alan Fowler. (Go to villagesquarebooks.com/files/villagesquare/bf_walkingtour.pdf to print this before your trip.)
Find contemporary one-of-a-kind handcrafted jewelry at The Rock & Hammer jewelry store (26 Village Square, 802-463-2289, therockandhammer.com). Halladay’s Flowers and Harvest Barn (59 Village Square, 802-463-3331, halladays.com) is a full-service florist that also offers a variety of small gifts and its own line of very good natural seasoning mixes like barbecue rubs, dip blends and pasta sauce bases. Experience a classic small-town store with big range at family-owned J&H Hardware and Sporting Goods, where shelves hold everything from baseball hats to fishing gear (20 Village Square, 802-463-4140, jandhhardware.doitbest.com).
EAT & DRINK
Downtown food and drink options have expanded over the last few years led by the establishment of Popolo (36 Village Square, 802-460-7676, popolomeanspeople.com) in a long-empty section of the once-grand Windham Hotel. Restaurant co-founder Gary Smith, previously an influential Cambridge, Mass.-based music producer and manager, recruited co-founding chef John-Michael Maciejewski from a Burdick group restaurant across the river in Walpole, N.H. With a communal table down the center of the dining room and an Italian-inspired, farm-to-table menu offering everything from well-crafted pizzas to wine-steamed mussels with chorizo and smoked paprika, the team’s goal is to create a community hub with food and drink for all the people (the meaning of popolo).
Across the square, area native Drew Pelletier and his wife, Krissie, run the bright daytime destination, Valley Cafe (7 Village Square, 802-732-80247, thevalleycafevt.wix.com/valleycafevt) where they make everything from scratch — bagels to mayonnaise — and serve up fresh fruit and yogurt smoothies, “black and beet” veggie burgers, and Vietnamese-style meat loaf sandwiches made with local pork, cilantro, spicy mayo, and pickled vegetables. The couple worked previously on a local farm, and Drew also helps organize the Bellows Falls Farmers’ Market (bffarmersmarket.com), which starts its summer season Friday, May 15, 4-7 p.m. at a new downtown location in front of 7 Canal St. with a dozen-plus farmers and other food vendors.
At the southern end of the square, The Flat Iron Exchange coffeehouse (51 Village Square, 802-460-0357, flatironexchangevt.com) has been percolating busily for the last year with a froth of espresso drinks paired with pastries supplied by home bakers. Local art and photography rotates through on the walls and the space hums regularly with knitting groups, poetry readings, and community music gatherings such as a weekly Friday-night hootenanny, as well as booked performances, such as Clara Berry & Wool Dog scheduled for May 23.
Another casual spot with guaranteed good eats within view of the Square is Shona Grill (92 Rockingham St., 802-460-1200, shonagrill.com), a BYOB joint where hand-cut fries, loaded hot dogs, and creative specialty burgers topped with house chili or honey-maple barbecue sauce rule the day.
Bellows Falls is also known for its energetic, community-run radio station, WOOL-FM. Spin your dial to 91.5 FM for locally produced shows and handpicked imports from around the country.
Downtown Bellows Falls has no big, or even medium hotels, though you can find the usual suspects not too far away. For local flavor and charm, try the cozy Halladay’s Harvest Barn Inn (16 Webb Terrace, 802-732-8254, harvestbarninn.com) with its wide front porch and view of the Connecticut River, or the beautifully restored Colonial Revival home that is now the Readmore Inn (1 Hapgood St., 802-463-9415, readmoreinn.com).
EVENTS TO PLAN AROUND
The 16th annual Roots on the River Festival takes place this year on June 4-7 at venues in Bellows Falls and Rockingham with performances by Mary Gauthier, John Fullbright, The Black Lillies, and Sam Baker, among others. In 2014, Acoustic Guitar magazine picked this “little gem of a festival” as one of its 50 must-attend events around the country. More information at www.vermontfestivalsllc.com/roots-on-the-river-2015.
The following concerts and events are masterminded by Gary Smith, co-founder of Popolo restaurant and former Cambridge, Mass.-based music producer who co-owned Fort Apache Studio with Billy Bragg, and has worked with The Pixies and Natalie Merchant among others. They take place either in the restaurant or its next-door concert venue, the Windham Ballroom, or elsewhere as noted. Details for each event can be found at popolomeanspeople.com.
May 1: Suitcase Junket, a solo project of Matt Lorenz of Rusty Belle, at the Windham Ballroom. (Paired with a special Popolo menu to celebrate International Workers’ Day.)
May 15: Folk icon Cheryl Wheeler at the Windham Ballroom.
May 27: Dinner and a Movie with “Stop Making Sense,” the Talking Heads concert film, shown at the renovated Bellows Falls Opera House. Movie free with special menu dinner at Popolo.
June 9: Dinner and a Movie on the big screen behind the bar at Popolo with “Dirty Dancing” and a special menu.
If arts and crafts is your thing, check out the Vermont Craft Council’s 25th anniversary Open Studio Weekend on May 23 and 24. Participating Bellows Falls-area craftspeople include glass artist Chris Sherwin (sherwinartglass.com) and painter Jeanette Staley (flyingcanvasstudio.com). Nationally recognized artist Charlie Hunter (hunter-studio.com), known for his gently gritty Vermont landscapes, both rural and urban, also has a downtown studio open by appointment and will host a plein air painting workshop Sept. 23-27 in Bellows Falls.Melissa Pasanen can be reached at email@example.com.